The great American novelist Jim Harrison
once wrote, "How can you experience the rich fabric of life in a locale without visiting the bars? The answer is, you can't."
Amen to that. I can't think of a truer declaration ever written by a writer.
So, in other words, you want to know Astoria, Oregon, on the North Oregon Coast? You really want to know this incredible, history-rich town that gathers its life force from the mighty Columbia River and an even mightier ocean? You want the real story of real life in what could have ended up the biggest city in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps even bigger than San Francisco, if not for the vicissitudes of international politics, a catastrophic fire, and a little bad (good?) luck?
Hit the bars.
In the course of my relentless literary gigging around Oregon ? some 400 events during the last decade ? I've had the unique opportunity to visit a lot of locales and never miss the chance to investigate their gritty bars. In fact, I consider myself an expert on them. Thus, I claim with complete surety that Astoria earns the title of "Best Drinking Town in Oregon." It's not even close.
How many joints? 30? Too many to count. Thankfully, most are cloistered downtown within a short, convenient, auto-free stagger of each other. Bar decor? Well, a line from a Nabokov short story titled "The Fight" offers a pretty good idea of what you can expect: "The tavern was of the usual type, a couple of posters advertising drinks, some deer antlers, and a low, dark ceiling festooned with paper flaglets, remnants of some festival or other." Customers? Try martini-less characters from John Steinbeck meets Raymond Carver meets Charles Bukowski meets Ken Kesey meets Ted Nugent (minus the loincloth). Conversation? Sprinkled with the most prolific use of double negatives imaginable intertwined with fusillades of profanity. Politics? Sometimes Tea Party. Sometimes Wobbly. Moderation has no place. Neither does repression. Stories? Sheer literary gold. I may have earned multiple degrees from serious bastions of higher learning, but I got my real writer's education by hanging out in joints like the bastions of dive drinking that earned Astoria the title.
One important question to consider: How do you know if an establishment is an authentic Harrison-sort of place that accurately captures the indigenous essence of a locale? Easy. If you think the patrons will most likely talk about the nuances of beer or their children's fraternity or sorority associations, avoid it. Flower pots outside are also a dead giveaway.
Limited editorial space here prevents me from providing a full description of all Astoria's great watering holes, such as the The Labor Temple, Workers Tavern, Voodoo Room, Desdemona Club, etc. And I would need 10,000 words to share all the utterly far out things that have happened to me in them.
So, I'll just tell you the story of the last place I patronized, back in July.
I was on a little road trip with no particular place to go, and stopped in the Triangle Tavern in the Uniontown district for a beer and some writing time. I absolutely love this joint, for its total lack of pretension, the bartender who calls me "kid" even though I'm 47 years old, the outstanding collection of historical photographs, fascinating regulars, and stunning view of the underbelly of the Megler Bridge from a tiny corner in back that no one ever seems to frequent. On several occasions, I've written some hot sentences there. How could any writer not? What aesthetic and existential stimulation that corner offers! You can practically smell it!
Shortly after taking up residence in the corner, a man, presumably a regular, approached me. He was OTA, or Oregon Tavern Age, meaning he appeared anywhere from 40 to 70 years old.
He asked if I was a tourist, and I said, "Yes." Somehow we got onto the subject of our respective lines of employment. He regaled me with a commentary of working in a mill in Toledo and then a tale of how he fishes in Astoria during the summer and runs pack horses at a Montana hunting lodge in the winter. Who knows if he was telling the truth? Who cares? He told a story and told it well. He even managed to insult Newport, where I live.
You don't meet characters like that in chain brewpubs. No writer will ever write about characters in chain brewpubs.
At some point, our conversation ended, and we both stared at the bridge. A half dozen species of birds flew by. A few moments later he drifted away to collect taxes for the state (playing video poker). I sipped my beer and went back to work on an essay. The writing turned out good.