9/6 – 9/9
I stood over the toilet, staring at the urine tinted water in the bowl. “If it’s yellow let it mellow,” I said to myself. I let out a sigh as I reached for the handle but then stopped myself.
Steve was the kind of guy that seemed about as welcoming and understanding as they come. He had hosted hundreds of warm showers travelers, as evidenced by his guest book, and was from California. I was certain that despite having a few years on us he was well familiar with millennial water conservation methods.
Along with us, he was hosting a young French Canadian couple. Ben and Jo. They had spent the summer picking cherries in BC and were now heading south until the money ran out. We’d arrived in the early afternoon and the plan was to have a potluck that night so we hit the town.
Astoria smells like beer and salt water and the steep hill up from the mouth of the Columbia River make it easy to hear the seals from every corner. The original downtown was built on a dock system over the water although it has since been moved to solid land. Fluorescent moss covered tree trunks that used to hold the main drag stick out of the water in some areas. Their foundations gone at this point, they sway back and forth with the currents.
Beers at glass bottom brewery and seals below. Steve’s roast beef and our kale salad with fruit for desert. Next morning breakfast at the Columbian. Rainbow chard crepe and salmon hash with carrots and sweet potatoes. Post-apocalyptic hip hop concept album 3030 by Deltron on the radio. Place looked like a 50’s diner built in your grandparent’s basement. Wood paneling everywhere. Mismatched mugs. Bearded chef. Pink liquid bathroom soap in clear condiment bottle matching the tile around the sink.
As far as I can tell, Astoria is what happens when the working middle class refuses to go down. Fishing and logging. Like old towns in movies and books. Depending on which side of isms you fall on, it is the debris that has yet to be consumed by capitalism or socialism. “Old pirates never die!” A sign in front of somebody’s house reads. Every bar has a pay it forward chalkboard where you can pick up the tab for a vet that may amble in one day.
People talk about the tide report instead of football or politics. It reminds me of Nicaragua a few years back. Soph and I were in a small seaside town called Leon. We walked out to a massive rock to read and have lunch. At some point we noticed that the tide had come in and our walk to shore had now become a swim. I put everything into my little backpack, held it over my head with my left hand, and swam with my right toward shore. I heard a scream behind me. Soph had been caught in a rip current and was quickly getting swept away. Her kindle and her wine were in the bag and throwing these away could spell almost certain disaster for me if she lived.
“I can get you if I dump the bag,” I screamed. I started to paddle with my one arm toward her. As I turned around a wave pushed me over a sharp volcanic boulder and it tore a gash on the underside of my foot. The tide was pulling her into a small channel and straight toward downtown. It spit her out in front of a bar and we had a beer.
Deer walk along city streets as we make our way to the column; a 20 foot wide tower on top of a hill. 168 stairs to the top. Sea to the west, Washington and Mount Baker to the north, All of Oregon below us. $1 wooden planes for sale. “The little bastards are going to throw something off the top,” I hear a woman say, “it might as well be biodegradable.” The tops of the pine trees below are filled with them.
9 breweries for 9000 people. Classic boyhood coming of age tale “The Goonies” filmed here and I can feel Corey Feldman’s presence. “There are bottles of wine laying all over this house for some reason,” Steve tells us, “Drink them.” We comply. “Also, there is a beautiful rainbow outside.”
We went to a geriatric anarchist meeting with Steve on Saturday morning where local old women strategize about how to connect with “the younger generation.” My comments on purchasing ads in Google Search rather than the local newspaper fall on what may have literally been deaf ears. We walk out with Steve and he asks what time we are leaving.
“Honestly, I don’t think we’ve had enough of Astoria yet.”
“The art walk is tonight. You’ll love it. Stay some more.”
I wander town, and meet some Canadian punks riding to Mexico. It seems like the kind of town where you can bump into people and I hope to bump into a woman named Joan from the anarchist meeting. She cycled all over the California coast when she was younger, but now has MS and is in a wheelchair. My search was fruitless, although I did find some old postcards, a $3 pair of sunglasses, and a great pen.
The art walk is Astoria’s monthly version of burning man. California expats wander the streets and cast strange videos of white people dancing awkwardly on the sides of buildings while blasting old black R&B. Bubble machines, disco balls, colored lights, and tours of abandoned tunnels below city streets.
I think of the equivalent in St. George and how when we moved to town it was a big deal that they had recently acquired permits for alcohol as well as dancing, although the stage had to be kept a block away from the designated drinking area. We once volunteered for recycling duty.
“Wait, think about it…..” I would say as people were about to put their paper plates in the garbage, “you have a choice.”
“There’s food on my plate.”
“Check this out.” I grab her plate and dump the food into the garbage can then place the paper plate in the recycling. College girls walk up and as I try to explain this complex procedure to them they say, “We’re from California.” A man screams at me and calls me liberal scum. The ace up his sleeve before walking away is “You probably believe in climate change too dickhead.” I remember sitting at a breakfast joint the Monday after and two older men were talking about how they were going to talk to city council about all of the “original sin” that was taking place at these festivals.
The art walk, in contrast, would be considered a cesspool of sin within the deepest bowels of Hell by St. Geezy standards. Teenagers reeking of weed sit in the middle of the sidewalk drawing butterflies and discussing the similarities between the fabric of space time and a mycelial network while semi-retired Silicon Valley burners compare flashbacks and give free rides in futuristic solar powered tricycles. The homeless smile and the bars don’t mind if you just want to drop in to hear the music and not buy a drink.
Soph goes to bed and I walk into a place called the voodoo room and there is a two piece called “Hapy Foam Roller” playing. Young girl who couldn’t be old enough to be in the club strumming a cherry red Les Paul. Classical finger picking melodic math rock with driving percussion, angelic voice
On my way home I meet Daniel the tramp. Used to run quality control at a potato chip factory. Works odd jobs every now and then. Homeless, but by choice he says.
When I first walked past him he was blasting morose death rock from a small speaker into the streets and had a sign in front of him that said, “This is why you should go to college.” He offered me a candy bar for a dollar. I gave him a handful of change, declined the candy, and kept walking. Half a block away I realized that I wanted a picture of his sign if I could get it in a way that did not infringe upon his dignity. I went back and gave him another dollar.
“You live here?”
“Nope, just passing through.”
“Me too. Came up from Cali…. Santa Cruz. You?”
“Rode a bike from Alaska. Heading to Argentina.”
“Yeah, that’s right, you’ve got IT!”
“The rooooooad.” It sounded dark the way he said it. Like a cancer. “It calls to me too. Used to sit at work and just day dream my life away. Walked out six years ago and never looked back.”
When I first said hello he spoke to me in that skittish homeless paranoid mouse kind of way. His hands were shaking, he was hunched over, and he didn’t look me in the eyes. The more we talked the more normal he got and I realized that all of that was just part of his show.
Doesn’t like Portland because the homeless there have no respect. “Too many drugs and they make a mess of the place.”
Story about getting high with the Indians. Picked him up on the side of the road and took him to their camp.
“Two women are going to come out and talk to you. If they go back in and nobody comes out for several minutes then you have to leave. If somebody comes out, then you can stay.” They took him into a little room. A shaman was throwing salvia on the fire.
“I was tripping my ass off. Everyone was naked. I couldn’t stop smiling, but I don’t think I would do that again.”
I decided not to ask to take a picture of his sign, and walked on.
Sunday morning Steve slept in so we had to leave before his promised waffle feast. We had the best pancakes and burrito at the Labor Temple before getting back on the road.
I never wanted to become a bum.
A 24 hour a day job never appealed to me.
I love the way in which after only a short time in any particular place, you defty and vividly “describe the vibe”. Sounds like you’re meeting some colorful folks…
Loved your commentary on Astoria. It’s a great little place. It’s interesting who you end up having conversation with when a bicycle is your vehicle.