Eugene is probably the grooviest city in the Northwest, if, for no other reason, because of the Ken Kesey statue on town square. The Chief was dead when the statue was cast, a security guard tells me on a cloudy Oregon afternoon. Kesey is sitting, which means he was dead. It’s a sculptor thing. A trade joke.
Across the plaza, a college kid blasts laptop breakbeats through distorted subwoofers in an impromptu dance party. The music is audible from blocks away. A definite noise violation elsewhere, the overdriven bass and blips serve as little more than a backdrop over which the didactic rent-a-cop can tell a tourist about what he calls “the greatest effigy in the country.”
“You know someone died in war if they are on a horse with the front legs bucking,” the guard continues. “Oh hey, that was a cool beat.”
Sitting at the confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers, Eugene’s byline is “The World's Greatest City of the Arts and Outdoors.” Bagby, Cougar, Umpqua and a handful of “secret” hot springs are within an hour’s drive. Accentuating Eugene’s undeniably counter-culture ethic, the Oregon Country Fair (which has roots in early Kesey and Grateful Dead hijinks) takes place 15 miles west of the city annually.
In 2000, Mayor Jim Torrey dubbed Eugene the “anarchist capitol of the United States,” a proclamation which inspires confidence in my sojourn as I approach a co-op house near the University of Oregon in search of shelter for the night. The Campbell Club is thrilled to host a sanguine hitchhiker, as it turns out, so we share some PBRs on the porch before making our way to the vegan co-op next door. A pungent crowd of college kids and social drop-outs of every ilk dance with abandon to a chic punk bluegrass band upstairs.
Washtub bass and tangled hair, singing whiskey, heartbreak, done deals with the Devil.
Later, I end up at Joggers Sports Bar [editor's note: now closed] downtown with fellow Campbell Club guest Sam. We meet an old man named Mike by the billiard table. He's a little drunk and looks like a tugboat captain. His pal Les is a small man with the cantankerous grin of an eight-year-old in thin white beard and overalls. He's mute from chewing tobacco; his throat collapsed years ago. Now he breathes through a hole in his neck, cigarette stains crusting where the collar meets.
Les conveys to us on a pad of paper that if we want to play pool, we will have to beat him first. Sam steps up and is stomped badly. Quadruple combos, behind-the-backs, one-handers. Les sinks the 8 and sets his glare on me.
I don’t sink a single ball. Les’ tracheotomy chuckles a little. I sit down and chat with Mike.
"Boy, if I was twenty years younger I'd be nailing every girl in this bar," Mike says.
"What do you mean?” I protest. “These girls are trollops. Look at all that makeup. And the karaoke! I mean, Avril Lavigne? Give yourself some credit, man!"
He looks at me like I must be gay or at least asexual, but then has a different thought.
"When I was your age I thought I'd never be old,” he says, forlorn. “I thought I'd die young, and if I didn't, I'd kill myself."
"Ah man, you're not so..."
I become quiet, then, because somehow I know that one day I'll utter those exact same words and get all fumbled up like Ole Tugboat Mike has by the mere presence of fertile young women at the bar.
But Mike chooses Life, tonight, so I buy him a drink to remind him that it's not all bad. Sweet mercy, we still have friends. And beer!
I lose a few more games to Les, who is getting drunk rapidly. His game remains solid, but his handwriting becomes loose and erratic. He takes on a new air. He wants badly to insult me for sport, but the message fails to carry. His handwriting has become entirely illegible.
We step out onto the street, Mike’s spirits suddenly lifted as we shamble down Willamette. Les makes alien guttural monk sounds and Tugboat Mike lights up his pipe, shouting bits of Rolling Stones lyrics deep into the mysterious, rain-soaked night.