A few years ago, heavy snow came to the Willamette Valley and shot my Christmas plans straight to hell — I couldn't drive in to see my family. So, I remained at the Oregon Coast, in Newport, improvised, and decided to see what unfolded. I laid out possible options for Christmas Eve. They were:
1. Write a blistering editorial for the Newport newspaper rebutting a county commissioner's recent piece calling for killing seals and sea lions as part of the marine reserves program. Sometimes it's difficult for us who live in rural America to convey to the average urban/suburban resident how dangerously bumpkin and bogusly aggrieved many rural county commissioners are in America. Well, perhaps not. One was just President of the United States, and another was Governor of Alaska.
2. Watch DVDS of Jeremy Brett's addled portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
3. Read Virginia Woolf's The Waves.
4. Attend a secular midnight mass at the Sandbar Tavern in Nye Beach.
5. Attend a service at some random church in Newport. Make sure to find one with the word fish in the name.
6. Head to local Laundromat and share good cheer with the homeless people. Give money and wine away.
7. Walk on beach — again.
8. Make a real mix tape — not a goddamn playlist!
9. Investigate the American Legion Hall's Christmas Eve party. A jazz band is playing.
10. Write a love letter with Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney Christmas music playing in the background.
11. Watch the Ziggy's Gift Christmas special on VHS. This is the best Christmas show of all time, easily topping the Partridge Family and Charlie Brown specials. Who would have thought a mute, two-foot, sexless creature could make me cry every December? But it does.
12. Perform some concentrated act of kindness that advances the Newport human condition. I chose numbers 10, 11, and 12.
An hour before the Oregon Coast Bank closed, a rookie teller cashed some of my checks from bookstores and magazines. He asked me if I was some kind of writer and I said yes.
"What do you write about?"
"Mostly Oregon history. I have my own press too."
I went on to explain briefly about the Beaver State Trilogy, beaches, naked hippies, the Trail Blazers, Oregon's pending Sesquicentennial, and then he asked me what I was working on now.
He looked baffled. He was probably 19 and I doubt he knew who Paul Newman was — certainly not Ken Kesey. I started filling him on the details when a female teller in her mid 30s counting out currency to a customer exclaimed, "How do you get a copy of that movie? It's the only thing my dad said he wanted for Christmas. I can't seem to find it anywhere."
"It's never been officially released on DVD," I said, "but I have one and burned about a hundred copies and give them away as presents at my literary events. Don't ask me how I got it."
She hesitated for a moment. "Wow, I'd really love to get this for my dad. It's his favorite movie but he hasn't seen it decades. I'll pay you for one."
By this time, several bank employees and customers had stopped conducting business and were listening. Lights twinkled everywhere. Three colors of tinsel hung from above and I heard some of that awful new cornpone country Christmas music that infects every public space in America.
"No, you're not going pay for one. How long until the bank closes?" I asked.
"About an hour," she said. "Where do you live? It's probably too far."
"Just over the bridge. Don't worry, I'll be back."
A half an hour later I walked into the bank with the DVD in hand. The rookie saw me and smiled. The woman was helping a customer and had her back turned. I slid in line behind the customer and waited for a few seconds then popped out and presented the DVD and a bookmark from Nestucca Spit Press.
"Merry Christmas to you too," she said smiling. "And thank you."
The next morning, I arose and took a rainy walk on the beach with the dogs. For only the second time in my life I would miss a Christmas Day with my family. The other time was in 1993 when I was teaching English in Istanbul. That turned out all right since I was dating the former point guard of the Turkish national basketball team, she loved whiskey, dribbling between her legs, wearing gold, and aggressively participating in infidel traditions.
I came home from the walk and began to read a novel. Then I wrote for an hour or two. Soon, cabin fever struck and I had to escape. I wanted to find a story and knew that a Newport area tavern or bar would provide one. They always did.
First I stopped for gas at the Shell station/convenience mart. Inside, paying my bill, I noticed a man in his 20s badly herding his three small children wearing pajamas around the store. They were going nuts and grabbing this terrible treat here and that cheap toy there, dropping some on the floor, knocking into people, laughing, squealing, snorting, and generally being tiny little tots with their eyes all aglow. From what I gathered, the dad had given them 10 minutes and approximately 10 dollars each to pick out their Christmas presents. I think his truck was even idling in the parking lot.
I knew exactly what was going on, and all I could do was blame the Republican Party for their wholesale destruction of the middle class in this country by using the fears and votes of a deluded army of poor working class people to make a man who buys his children Christmas gifts in a gas station believe he has more in common with a millionaire or the charlatan pastor of a mega church than the man pumping his gas.
The rain fell harder as I drove out looking for a story. Sonny rode shotgun with me and Ray snoozed in the back. I played Sinatra Christmas carols on the cassette player as I headed to the Mad Dog Tavern in Sawyer's Landing. Gravel sprayed when I pulled sharply into the parking lot — closed. I hit the Bayfront. Port Dock One, Barge Inn and Bayhaven — closed! Hoover's? Closed! I sensed a Puritan conspiracy at work.
Then it hit me. The Sandbar of course! Nye Beach was nearly deserted but the Sandbar wasn't. Was there any doubt?
I walked in and could not believe the joint's transformation from drinking dive to family drinking restaurant. A fire glowed from the pellet stove. Each table was decorated with red and green place mats and had real candles burning. Silverware was wrapped in white napkins and laid neatly next to red ashtrays. Lights, tinsel, and garland hung from the wood beams with care, as did, I think, a red lace bra. Real cedar swags, wreaths and fake poinsettias festooned the room so thick in some places I couldn't see the bar and thankfully covered the advertisements for corporate Midwestern lagers and all their associated crass sporting events.
At the bar, three men and woman, all OTA (meaning Oregon Tavern Aged, 40-70 years old), sipped cocktails and watched Perry Mason on TV. Not far from their reach stood a large snowman who dispensed tidings of horny joy, meaning Jagermeister shots for the kids. Farther down the bar, candy canes overflowed from a super sized martini glass.
"What's going on here," I asked the bartender.
"It's our traditional ham dinner," she said.
I ordered a Spanish coffee, my first one in years. She went to concoct it and then returned.
"We ran out of 151. Sorry."
"That's fine. I'm sure you can rig something up."
"Do you want it with whipping cream?"
"Well it is Christmas."
So the bartender improvised and about the time I had the magnificent steaming drink in my hand, Perry Mason had solved the case.
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Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.
Books mentioned in this post
Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain