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Eugene, Oregon!

September 2, 2013

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We’re on the move again.

This time we are driving north on I-5 through Oregon. The freeway cuts through beautiful mountainous landscapes that are diabolically hard on cruise control. We spent the night in Eugene, on our way to Portland. I’m typing away, right now, on my trusty iPad at our hotel’s cafe.

As I take sips of my particularly delicious cup of coffee, I grin as I remember what the words “Eugene, Oregon” always bring to mind…

(Cue the strumming-harp-music signaling flashback here.)

A very long time ago, I worked for a newspaper. The office of the publication was housed in what used to be a theatre building in old town. I worked on the stage. Really. It was. No remodeling took place when the newspaper took over the building. They simply stuck the paste-up bays wherever there was room, and mine was located on what used to be the stage.

At the same time I began working as a production artist, a cute, college grad started working on classified advertising. The paste-up bay for classified ads was located directly behind me. We slowly got to know each other, engaging in chitchat when time permitted, and took breaks together. She was shy, intelligent and we found we had similar tastes in books and movies. We worked back-to-back at our paste-up bays, up on the gray-painted wooden structure. And that’s why, through the years, my wife and I enjoy telling people that we “met on the stage.”

Directly below the newspaper offices, and right off the street, sat Zell’s Café. I took a lot of breaks and ate many lunches in that little run-down restaurant. The seats were lumpy and the tables never really looked clean. A row of tables ran down the right side of the establishment and a long counter and stools, anchored to the floor, ran down the left side, allowing just enough room on the other side for the waitresses to move about their business. The coffee was always comparable to a good comic book super villain— strong, bitter and full of vitriol.

Zell’s was a hangout for the most eclectic group of characters I’ve ever seen. Let me paint (so-to-speak) a picture of who you might find in there on any given day: Reporters and editors could be sitting at one table, discussing stories, work-related gripes or personal details about the last or upcoming weekend. A transient, with all his worldly belongings stuffed into a worn duffle bag at his feet, could be at the counter stirring his coffee endlessly, killing time until the next train car he jumped would take him out of old town and toward an uncertain, but certainly dismal future. An artist and drug addict, with a studio across the street, could be sitting two stools down grinning and un-grinning incessantly, pulling his young lips tightly over yellowing teeth, his right leg pistoning up and down like a windmill pump’s inner workings during a wind storm. Local men, with greasy ball caps tipped back on their heads, could be at another table talking about politics, local gossip or how exceptionally fine the waitress’ ass looked that day. At another table could have sat a young man, freshly graduated from a state university with dreams of becoming a syndicated cartoonist, thinking the world owed him something, and frustrated as hell that no one recognized his talent…

Oh, wait, that was me there at the end. I got carried away. Sorry. But you get the idea.

It was eclectic.

It was during a break at Zell’s, that my anecdote took place. I was sitting with my boss, Beulah Thackenberry, and fellow production teammate Hortense Wainwright. (Okay, I’m going to tell you right now, if you haven’t already guessed—I’m not going to use real names.) Beaula was enjoying her favorite break-time snack, which consisted of a black cup of coffee and a Marlboro cigarette. This delightful combination of chemicals fueled her every morning, all morning long. It was always a delight when she walked up on stage, came over to to me, and got in really close to give me an important directive of some kind. Her exhalations, as she talked in hushed tones, could have been classified as military-grade weaponry. I still think that some of my hair turned prematurely gray back then from exposure to her toxic breath.

As for my colleague, well, those were the days before the Berlin wall came down, so it’s fitting to say that Hortense, was built like an East German hammer thrower. She had long, beautiful blonde hair and lovely blue yes, but other than that you could easily see her driving a semi over the summit, grinding gears and spitting chaw juice out the window. While friendly enough, sitting across from her at the restaurant table, upstairs she treated me with the same respect a nazi would have given a Jewish/Roman Catholic raised by Gypsies. As the only male on the team, and possessor of a university degree, she may have felt threatened by me, but to this day, I have no idea what her problem was.

Anyways, there we were sitting at Zell’s on a break when a large man stood up behind me and began to ramble loudly about Eugene, Oregon. I turned in my seat to see that the man was tall and husky. He had a round, puffy red face that matched the red cowboy shirt he wore. His thinning, dyed-black hair was cut short and slicked back.

“Eugene, Oregon!” he shouted. “Eugene!” he looked wild-eyed at the rest of us. “Eugene! I’ve been to Eugene.” again he looked about. “Anybody else?”

I assumed then, and still do, that the big man was drunk.

Someone gestured with a raised hand, “I been to Eugene.”

This sent the big man into an excited rapture. “Eugene!” he roared and he went over and stood next to the man who had raised his hand. “Eugene, Oregon! I been there too.” His movements were quick and darting, as if his booze of choice had been laced with speed.

“Yeah, yeah,” said the other man. “Go sit down, will ya?”

I said to my boss and co-worker, “This is kind of like that old vaudeville routine called ‘Slowly I turned.’”

They looked at me with blank faces.

“Come on,” I said. “The Three Stooges did it. So did Abbott and Costello. A unsuspecting guy mentions ‘Niagara Falls,’ and that sends the second guy into a frenzy. ‘Niagara Falls!’ the crazy guy shouts, ‘Slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch…’ And then he goes over and beats up on the unsuspecting guy. It’s hilarious.”

Once again, blank expressions looked back at me.

I couldn’t’ help myself. Without turning around, I shouted, “Eugene!”

The big guy responded instantly. “EUGENE! EUGENE, OREGON!…EUGENE!!!”

Hortense lowered her head and hissed, “Oh, shit! Why’d you do that? Now he’s gonna come over here.”

I, on the other hand, was completely amused. “Man, this is so much like that old skit.”

“Eugene! Eugene, Oregon!” He must have been trying to spy who said the trigger word, but I didn’t look back, so he had no idea who to walk toward. He finally sat back down.

Madge, the long-suffering waitress, who had to deal with all the wacky characters who wandered into her restaurant, walked over to his table and said sternly, “Mister, if you want to stay in here, you’re going to have to shut up. By God, I swear I’ll call the police.” she punctuated her words by stabbing her index finger at the air above his head.

If the big man replied, I didn’t hear it.

And then, break time was over. We left a tip, filed out of Zell’s and walked back upstairs to meet the next in, what we thought at the time would be, an endless supply of deadlines.

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5 Comments
  1. Rob permalink

    What a great way to meet (on stage). You’re one of the few couples I know who didn’t meet at a bar or on eHarmony!

    Additionally, I love the names Beulah Thackenberry and Hortense Wainwright. Fictional character names are generally so predictable and overly contrived. You’ve got a gift my friend.

  2. You are too kind, my friend. Thank you so much for not only stopping by, but leaving your comments as well!

  3. P.S. One of the greatest actual names I have ever come across belonged to a guy who once worked for my dad. His name was Archibald Quackenbush. Now that’s a moniker, baby.

  4. Jim permalink

    You know, Ernie. I think I remember Hortense. She was a piece of work, I tell ya.

  5. Jim, you made my day. Glad you remember. As for Hortense…I got stories (shudder!).

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