Let me say this first: I didn’t know Yancy Noll very well. We were both in the same business – selling wine and beer – and our paths crossed occasionally. But we all have those people in our lives who seem to be on the periphery but whose face, when fleeting by in a stray thought or on a web page, somewhere, cause us to smile and think, “Oh, yeah. I really ought to call him/her.” And, in the back of our minds, we make that note; that tiny mental post-it that says, “Call Yancy.” We do it with the best of intentions and we rarely attach urgency to it because, at heart, we are all only remotely attached to the idea that God, the Universe, whatever consciousness it is Out There that calls the cosmic shots on our fate and destiny might just have other ideas about our futures than we have. I was convinced that my affection for Yancy and my good intentions would one day result in picking up the phone and calling to suggest beers or a lunch somewhere.
I’ve had my lesson about that often enough, now, to know better. And yet I cling to that naivete, that optimism because, I’m convinced, that sense that the End is not impending is what makes us capable of living day to day.
It is now too late for calling up Yancy and suggesting beers. On August 31st, 2012, at 7:25 p.m., on an unthreatening corner in North Seattle, a person in a silver BMW convertible – later identified as 29-year-old Thomasdinh “Dinh” Bowman, a young engineer whom Seattle detectives first considered an unlikely suspect – shot and killed my friend Yancy. After having enrolled in college at 12 and then establishing a boutique robotics engineering firm called Vague Industries in his early 20s, Bowman was considered a prodigy of sorts. He was arrested, charged, and ultimately convicted of murder and is serving 29 years + a month and Washington’s Clallam Bay Correctional Facility. Motivated by God Knows What, Bowman whipped out a handgun and shot Yancy Noll five times through his car window, killing him and sending a monumental shock wave through the normally placid Seattle wine community. Later, his lawyers tried to cast Yancy as the villain, claiming that he threw a wine bottle at Bowman after a road rage altercation. It was an absurd allegation, obviously a lie intended to seem credible because Yancy sold wine. No one saw any sort of road rage incident. No shattered glass was found on any nearby Seattle street. There was no evidence of anything, any projectile striking Bowman’s car. No one who knew Yancy believed it for a second and, finally, neither did the jury. Bowman tried to commit suicide shortly after the verdict but failed. His wife, Jennifer, who had evidently known and encouraged his actions – calling him “the baddest bad-ass shooter in the West” and aiding him in covering up the killing – escaped prosecution and later left the state, divorcing Bowman and changing her name and giving up a quarter-million a year practice as a dentist in an effort to evade responsibility.
Imagine my surprise…
If it had been me shot by a total stranger, the more honest of all the people who know me would probably say, “Well, I can see it, I guess. He was a pretty cranky old bastard, sometimes.”
Nobody was saying that about Yancy. Nobody ever would have.
I don’t want to fall into the trap of deifying those we know who have passed on, of erasing their human foibles and casting them as virtual saints. The Yancy I knew could be a little sarcastic but, really, that may have just been in talking with me. More than most people I’ve met, Yancy had a real gift for finding the common vibe; the most direct connection.
I never knew where he was born or grew up but, if someone had asked me to guess, I would have said Maryland or New Jersey or Delaware; one of those upper Mid-Atlantic states where black humor and jaded attitude is raised to a fine and funny art. In our conversations, he reminded me a lot of my best friend back in Maryland. Turns out, Yancy was born and raised in Alaska – about as far as you can get from my old DC Metro. That was Yancy. Wickedly intelligent, sharp as a stiletto, as acute as anybody I’ve met since moving to the Northwest.
We didn’t run into each other all that much. We had maybe six long conversations, total, in the thirteen years I knew him, but it was as easy spending an hour with him as anyone I’ve ever met. He could do small talk but preferred not to. I can’t do it and wish I could. With him, there was no need. We talked about wine, work, employers we had in common. He once remarked that a shop owner in Seattle for whom each of us worked, at different times, wouldn’t have a good word to say about either of us because we both quit and the guy “had a scorched-Earth policy that makes Hitler’s Winter Campaign look like a group hug.” There’s always plenty to talk about in the wine biz and we sometimes picked up conversations after a three-year hiatus as though we’d spoken the previous day.
I first met him under very odd circumstances. I used to drop into the Bellevue QFC next to Belle Square whenever I was in town. After a few visits, I began to notice something. Then I started to count. I visited that store thirty times over six years and not once, not ever, did any of the wine stewards ask if they could help me. On occasion, I even stood next to them and cleared my throat. Nothing. Finally, one cold November day in 1998, I walked in and browsed the racks and was standing looking at Champagnes, when a voice from behind said, “Hey, you finding everything okay?” It was Yancy. I smiled and shook his hand and told him about all those visits. He laughed and shook his head. “Yeah,” he chuckled, “I used to come in here too. Some of these guys really had their heads up their asses.”
This area, which I have come to dearly love in my twenty years in the Mildew Corner, has lost a bit of its edge for me. Because some over-privileged, self-absorbed jackass like Dihn Bowman – who really did sorta have the world by the ass – lost his grip on reality, grabbed the easy, spleen-venting option of a nearby pistol, and had his Charles Bronson moment, finally satisfying his long-held and admitted urge to “see what it’s like to shoot somebody”. I presume, at some point, he had time to reflect on his actions and probably concocted – as those ego-ridden wastes of skin usually do – rationales that allowed him to feel it was totally justified. He was wrong. In one weak, irrational moment, he shattered an entire community of people for whom the name Yancy Noll meant something; something good and positive and worthwhile. In the weeks (now nine years) since, I’ve talked about Yancy with at least a couple of dozen wine sales reps and writers. Everybody knew him. We all liked him. He was one of the good guys; the people who make the Washington wine community the fundamentally decent, sometimes even fun, place that it is.
I had to write this and while I can’t apologize for doing it, I do promise to use my best judgment about when it’s appropriate and when it isn’t. This time, it is. As I write this, Dihn Bowman, a young genius with all the potential in the world, rots in prison at the far corner of this state, now (if there is such a thing as “justice”) the jailhouse bitch of some huge guy named Bubba or Mad Dog or Maggot. The car hidden in his garage matched the one seen fleeing the scene. He lived barely a mile from where the shooting happened. He went down to Portland to have body work done on the car, to hide physical evidence…Was he disturbed or irrational or over-entitled or simply perverse? We may never know. It’s barely possible, I suppose, that even he doesn’t know.
But I do know one thing: whatever and whomever he is, two hundred thousand, nine hundred and fifty of him would not be worth one Yancy Noll.
DO NOT do as I did, even nine years removed, sitting in our sweet home in Tacoma, otherwise doin’ okay, misting up out of the blue about one of those painful shards of memory that lurk behind the mental sofa. If there’s someone you have been telling yourself you need to see, talk with, know better, but have been telling yourself you’ll contact later…”later” is NOW. Do it. Pick up the phone. Do not let yourself sit as I’m sitting now, mired in regret and staring at a future without even the possibility of realizing a friendship. Trust me, it sucks.