Saturday, February 03, 2007

My Favorite Virginia Cafe Stories

{For you out-of-towners, the Virginia Cafe is a legendary bar in Portland that's going to close so they can build a new high-rise.}

I quit drinking in 1984, but for 9 years after my band left college and came to Portland, I participated in one of the most wild, reckless, and fun stretches ever. The year it started, 1975, was also the year my family left Saudi Arabia, so this was a crossroads event and I was extremely homesick. Back in Arabia, I used to swim out in this bay at night and just float, looking up at the stars. I was an excellent swimmer and even worked a couple of summers as a lifeguard. You'll see below the problem I had transitioning out of that.

Yes, Arabia was quite an amazing adventure, plus I was just coming off the craziness of the hitchhiking years, so when I first got to the Rose City, I was having trouble toning down. I was having trouble just living in one spot. In fact, I think I partied so hard here as a substitute for the amazing times I had just gone through. Of course, it became a different kind of adventure - and it was every bit as dramatic. I now see those years from 1975 to 1984, as a continuous near-death experience, but I also miss them a ton. Ironic, no?

This is all an attempt to explain the one summer where I would go out drinking, have one last drink at the Veritable Quandary, and then swim home across the Willamette. I think I did that 5 times, once even sober to see how it felt. I would return the next day and get my shoes which I had left near the water. Do not try this. You have to remember I was a great swimmer and I could rest in the water - something I had to do one night while I waited for a tugboat and barge to go by.

By the way, that is usually the little story when people say, "Okay, I get it. This was not your average partying." No, it wasn't. The city of Portland was throbbing with out-of-control behavior from the Mayor on down to the packed houses at the Virginia Cafe. I worked at a downtown hotel so it was common to see 10 or 15 of my coworkers in the VC, getting our buzz on. Overall, it was hundreds of good times, when nothing happened but fun, drinking, and companionship. My many trips to the VC were marked by joyous and civil behavior....except for a couple of times.

One time we were going to meet there, but only a couple of us showed. We drank through the available funds, then returned to the Spot Tavern where I could cash a check. In those days the Spot was almost like the employee lounge.

When we got back, all our friends had finally showed up. They were inside laughing and waving at us, and there was now a line to get in. This was mildly annoying as they were the ones who had been late, so this was the night I mooned the Virginia Cafe.

The night we were thrown out of the Virginia Cafe began innocently enough. We had ten or so of my colleagues in attendance, including one woman who I was madly in love with for years. The place was packed. This woman had a ton of charisma and could get quite wild. At a certain point some evenings she would begin to dance. This was a problem in the VC as it wasn't that kind of bar. I was around 10 feet away, but I saw the bouncer/doorman wading through the bodies in her direction. He looked mad when he arrived and yelled at her to stop dancing.

As he returned to the door I thought I was seeing things. It didn't look right, for there were now ice cubes bouncing off the top of his head. I looked back towards the wild woman. She had resumed dancing and was now lobbing ice at the bouncer. I could see him lose his temper and whirl around. He headed for her and this time he looked furious.

I thought I had better jump in as something bad was going to happen, so I waded towards them and we all sort of met up at once. I was definitely siding with her, and I wanted to be protective. For some reason the first thing I said to the bouncer - and this was in a normal voice - was, "Your mother sucks cocks in hell", which I believe was a line from the Exorcist, a movie that came out in the 70s. I don't know why I said it, and I'm not proud of it, but I just wanted to be a part of the conversation. I just wanted to help. My fear was the guy had truly lost it, and I wanted to give him something else to think about. And it worked.

We were ejected from the premises, and this was only fair. In fact, it turned into a "romantic" night back at her place. What we found out the next day at the hotel - which was New Year's Eve by the way - was that the bouncer had gone around to everyone in that part of the bar, and if they even knew us, they were also thrown out. This made it sort of awkward at work. First, we had serious hangovers, but then we had to deal with getting most of the crew 86'd from one of our favorite establishments.

As luck would have it, there was quite a turnover in those years at the VC. We waited several weeks till there was a new crew working there, and then we returned and the party continued.

If you've made it this far, you deserve a sweet ending. One that could perhaps put me in a better light.

I used to run on the track at 12th and SE Stark, something I did for decades till I had to quit jogging. One day, back in the crazy years, I was running and there was one other person on the track - a young, cute woman. As I came around I saw a young man there who seemed to turn like he didn't want me to see his face. I continued on and the next thing I saw was the woman running across the field directly at me. She was hysterical - beyond freaked out - and said the young guy had pulled a gun on her and told her to come with him. She had made the scary decision to turn and run for it, running right towards me.

When I saw her I couldn't imagine what had happened. I even felt she thought I had done something wrong. I didn't know what was going on. She told me what had occurred, and I said, "If he's over there, then we're going to go this way and climb this fence." We were right by 12th street. We started climbing the fence, when just like that, a police car came by. She told the officer what happened, so within minutes the police had swept the immediate area, and this young man had several squad cars after him. They told us to wait at the track.

I had hugged the woman or she had hugged me, but she couldn't settle down. She was freaked - breathing heavily, etc.... I didn't know what to do so I suggested to her that she run some laps. She took off and really ran fast. It was the old, "Run it off."

One reason this incident made the papers was that two squad cars spotted the kid at the same time down one street and they collided. The officers got out and nabbed the kid and then everyone came back to the track. In the newspaper it said, "she ran for assistance to an unidentified jogger", but when they returned the officers were much more interested in talking with her, in her cute little running shorts, and I sat on the side.

Incidentally, by now the most upset person there was one of the officers. When he told the kid to drop the gun and lie down the kid turned around as if he was going to aim the gun at the cop. The officer kept saying how he almost shot him and the officer's hand and whole arm was shaking. Thankfully, the officer had risked it for that extra second or two and the kid laid down.

They told me I could go, but the woman said, "No, this guy saved me." It was totally not true, but that was her mindset. I was just there. In fact, my mindset - what I had thought of immediately - was that it was somehow my fault. I said that I was leaving but that I wanted to get a look at this kid. I snuck up the side of the patrol car and glanced at his face in the back seat. What a disaster. The crime was so sad and stupid. To think of how many charges he had racked up in such a short pointless time: Attempted kidnapping, and on and on.

I ran into the woman again at Poretta's Pizza Parlor one time on Hawthorne. My friends worked there so I said this was the woman from the situation I had told them about. I didn't know how she would act but she came over, but her arm around me and said, "This man saved my soul." Somehow in her stress she had bonded with me to an unrealistic extent. It was an ego-trip but I couldn't help wondering what the hell she was talking about.

Okay, here's where it gets good. One happy hour we were in the Virginia Cafe - around 4 of us in the booth. The cocktail waitress approached and it was the woman from the track! She immediately said the drinks were on her. Now, she would only work there a short while, but what a turnaround for me. From being thrown out of the bar that one night, and 86'd for a short time, I now had a cocktail waitress who believed with all her heart that I had saved her life. Drinking at the Virginia Cafe never got any better than that.


At 1:17 PM, Anonymous Carol said...

Having been a patron of VC in those days, I can only say that I love your stories!

At 2:22 PM, Anonymous matt clark said...

Bill, your blog is a daily source of joy - thank you for writing it.

At 8:52 PM, Anonymous Tenskwatawa said...

You might be able to rest in the water so the barges don't get you, but now the e coliform will.

This is a great post because: It got me word-drunk and I couldn't stop reading.

At 9:03 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

Thanks, Tenskwatawa.

At 10:47 PM, Anonymous Travis said...

Great Story Bill,

I told my brother, who is studying in California, about the plans for the VC. He said something, "If they replace the VC with a GAP and a Applebees, I will never forgive Portland!"

It is hard to believe that we are losing this landmark for another non-descript tower.

Don't you think, though, that the Gulf has an odd smell, almost like brine shrimp?


At 10:59 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

I know there was a lot of regular shrimp in it. We'd have fresh shrimp salad sandwiches the way they have chicken salad here. The fishermen would drive around in a truck and sit down and shell them right in your yard.
The Persian Gulf was amazing as was the Red Sea. That little bay I swam in at night was named Half Moon Bay by the California oil men in honor of the bay in northern California.
It was sandy on the bottom and it wasn't like the explosion of life around the islands out in the Gulf. I don't think I'd chance swimming at night out there.

At 8:44 AM, Blogger kw said...

I haven't been to the VC in years, but I think we all better go at least one more time before it's gone in the name of "progress"
Thanks for your great blog!


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