My last vacation occurred two weeks after 9/11, when I flew to Chicago to bury my mother. The time was right to spend a few days in another town kicking the crummy dust of San Diego off my shoes. Destination: Eugene, OR.
Uncle Jerry had a coffee route that took him across the country. Growing up, it wasn’t unusual for my parents to schedule our annual road trip getaways around one of the many cities transient Jerry and my aunt Sarah, affectionately known as “Tubby,” briefly called home. From Cleveland to New Orleans, from Washington, D.C. to Houston, every summer found us following the spoor of Jerry Glickman’s Superior Coffee truck.
Travel has always been something associated with people, not destinations or points of interest. When my old pals David Elliott and Valerie Scher pulled up stakes and left Chicago in 1982 to make weatherless San Diego their home, it wasn’t long before this sleepy burgh became my sole vacation destination, always with a planned side trip 120 miles north to visit friends and family and bask in the reflective glow of still-operational single-screen picture palaces.
A little over a year ago, the former Union-Tribune power couple — Dave spent 25 years covering the local movie scene while the equally seasoned Valerie divided her time keeping readers abreast of opera, classical music, and dance — traded in a piece of University City for a peaceful home and garden in a college town Eugene, Oregon.
The trip commenced on a malodorous note. While in a remote LAX terminal waiting to hop the puddle jumper to Eugene, a whiff of a funky-aired passerby set my eyes to tearing. No sooner did I think, “Sure hope this walking city dump isn’t my cabin mate” than the guy's wedged into the aisle seat on my left. For two hours I sat pressed against the window doing an impersonation of Bazooka Joe’s pal, Mort, my shirt collar pulled over my nose (I failed to pack my red turtleneck) to filter the fumes.
Highlights of the brief vacation include a few thrift- and video-store finds. Most treasured: a four-disc set of Jack Benny TV shows, several new to me, Raoul Walsh’s In Old Arizona, and Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto. Topping the list, Milton Berle’s Low Impact/High Comedy Workout, a DVD designed to help laugh the pounds away. Five minutes in I felt myself gaining weight.
An excursion 20 minutes south to Cottage Grove brought me a little closer to another beloved figure. According to Eugene Cascades & Coasts, “a film industry favorite, Cottage Grove has been a backdrop in scenes from Emperor of the North, Animal House, and Stand by Me.” It’s also where Buster Keaton shot the breathtaking train derailment for his faultless Civil War comedy, The General. Nothing from the actual production itself remains extant. The bridge was built expressly for the feature, the engine exhumed from its watery grave and sold for scrap after the war.
What still stands is the historic Cottage Grove Hotel that housed the cast and crew during the 1925 location shoot, and in it, Buster’s Main Street Cafe. Pictures of Keaton perched on the cow-catcher of the titular locomotive adorn the restaurant walls. A bronze commemorative plaque was set in the entry way on August 3, 1991. With apologies to Ed Bedford, the bacon-cheddar burger arrived sizzling on a golden brown, fresh-baked bun. The well-done fries were done exceptionally well, each bite yielding a crunch. Cost: $11. They deliver.
As sure as People’s Court architect Judge Joseph A. Wapner would spend his family vacations touring various penal institutions across this great land of ours, you can rest assured this reporter intended to take in at least one or two picture shows. Major chain cinemas peddled the same line of comic book wallpaper on sale at our local multiplexes. Valerie begged to see Blended (I told her it was a documentary about the history of organic smoothies), but Dave smelled a Sandler in the woodpile.
Other than Adam & Drew, the only film worthy of a second viewing was Words and Pictures. An intelligent rom-com about writers and musicians was a shoo-in for this crowd, and a good time was had by all. The Bijou Classic Art Cinemas on 13th is a two-plex built in a converted church. Flipping from one house of worship to another struck an instant chord. Add comfortable seating and a DCP with a decent-sized screen, and the evening went off like a religious experience. The same can’t be said of the chain’s sister-theater, the new Bijou Metro located in the heart of downtown.
No sooner had I entered box #1 than my nose hit the screen. 22 seats? Are you kidding me? No wonder they opted for Blu-ray over DCP. In a space that small a brighter light would melt eyeballs. (Mercifully, none of the patrons smelled like the guy on the airplane.) Did I mention there were only 22 seats? I once rubbed elbows with a MoPA board member whose home theater housed 25!
We caught Night Moves, the latest from Kelly Reichardt, a handsomely shot and mounted but implausible thriller about a guilt-racked band of eco terrorists whose demolition of a bridge is responsible for the accidental death of a hiker caught up in the “friendly fire.” Jesse Eisenberg expands his range of facial expressions from pained to more pained.
Every town has its share of mental patients, one of which invariably finds me. He appeared in the cramped aisles of Hirons, a variation with slight modifications on the old Woolworth’s 5 & 10. I was looking for a souvenir baseball cap — one that held no affiliation whatsoever with any local sports team. He was looking for a new friend to hate on. I felt something slip past but paid it no mind. Seconds later a voice cried out, “God damn aisle hog!” I turn to find what looks to be Mickey Rooney’s corpse being dragged away by a frantic spouse, obviously no stranger to her ancient hubby’s fits.