In 2002 I was flying into Portland, Oregon, for a show.
For me the Great Northwest was an alternate universe populated by pale indigenous forest children. Their knit caps pulled low even though it was May. Clothed in surplus army khaki, faded denim, worn plaid flannel, hooded sweatshirts and hemp, they roam the urban tract goateed, pierced, tattooed and hunched against the wet springtime cold. They huddle in small groups smoking cigarettes. They're wall-to-wall in the city's coffee shops slurping down Latte after Cappuccino for the life-giving warmth of it (Therms are a valuable commodity sayeth Starbucks.). And for the drug of it -- to propel them re-energized up Burnside into record shops, used bookstores, organic produce markets, vegan cafes, thrift stores or the next coffee shop. Unconsciously maintaining the cycle, insentient to the cadence of it all.
The gallery is around 14th on Burnside NE, a neighborhood where whores troll their trade. By Portland's standards this would be a risky locale. But calibrated by the measure of metropolitan funk I'm familiar with this is urban-lite.
Between the gallery and my motel is a funeral home. In the alcove of the mortuary's drive-way a couple of homeless men are billeted, their worldly goods squirreled away in shopping carts, their demeanor surprisingly upbeat considering the rotten hand they've been dealt. One is a big man, a dirty blond with the uncut matted mane and long tangled beard of a mountain man. The other is a scrawny rat, pallid and malnourished. The brick alcove of the mortuary is their sanctuary from Portland's icy soak, and their berth for this raw night. As I pass by them on the way to the gallery they give me a warm and friendly reception, and make me welcome to their modest milieu. I'm particularly impressed that they don't panhandle me.
Jamie Calhoun is the proprietor of Gallery Bink ("Lowbrow straight up" is the slogan he's attached to the gallery.). Wearing a yellow "Love that Satan" t-shirt, jeans and a red baseball cap, his arms are covered with tattoos of classic movie monsters -- Lugosi as Dracula, Karloff as the Frankenstein monster, Chaney as the Wolfman.
He's a quiet young man, though he opens up a bit when the conversation turns to the cultural niche he mines and the art he displays in his salon.
The gallery is a small place horse-shoed between either side side of a high-end collectables and toy store. It's a dark space, Gallery Bink, and because it's diminutive and with the walls painted brown-approaching maroon, it gives the impression of being more an anti-gallery than a gallery. That, of course, appeals to me.
I was showing with three other artists. Jamie had titled the show "Funny Side Up", a title he'd extracted from a press release and bio information I'd sent him earlier. He'd used an image of mine --one of the pieces in the show -- on a poster he'd produced to promote the showing. The Portland Mercury, the local alternative paper, had written a blurb about the event in that week's edition.
After a little chat with Jamie I ask him if he knew where I might purchase nipple rings as a gift for a friend back home. He directed me to Spartacus, an outlet for love's darker provisions. So I set out in search of Portland's underbelly.
Driving through downtown I come to a disheveled young girl standing at an intersection. She's holding a sign scrawled on brown corrugated cardboard. She's wearing the uniform of the region -- though tattered and grimy -- a floor-length hippie dress. Despite a dirty shawl across her shoulders she shivers in the hypothermic sunshine. Dolefully she displays her forlorn message to unimpressed motorists unmoved by her plight. "Pregnant and homeless. Please help."
I wonder to myself where the black people are. Is this a place so sequestered that even poverty is out of reach of those of color? The doorways where the hopeless slump in shelter, and the streets where the inconsolable beg for mercy seem to be for whites only.
I pass Spartacus at 10th Avenue and Burnside, so I swing around to Oak Avenue and park short of the store. Walking toward my destination I pass a bookstore. A bolt of recognition zaps my peripheral vision and worms familiar into my receptive brain.
The bookstore's window logo reads "CounterMedia. Smut! Comix! Weirdness!" It triggers a cozy recollection.
Counter Media was a short-lived but comprehensively erudite magazine that targeted the Underground Comix Movement as no other publication had or has since. I detoured my search for nipple rings and crossed the threshold of Counter Media into a world that I'd helped conjure.
I introduced myself to Charlie, the owner (And former editor of Counter Media, the magazine), and set about examining the goods for sale in this amazing place.
Of course there were anthologies of art by underground cartoonists -- the usual suspects like Robert Crumb, Charles Burns and Robert Williams and posters by Gilbert Shelton-- as well as reproductions of sculptures by HR Giger. There were boxes of vintage pornography arranged by year, books about tattoos and piercing, anime, circus freaks, rubber fetish, gay, hetro and voyeur porn. There were high-end and expensive collections of German and Japanese pornography artfully packaged.
I ended up buying a book of drawings by Japanese artist, Namio Harukawa. It was art that was doubly pornographic to the Nipponese mind-set, a kind of blending of A.) smut with B.) images of large dominate women casually humiliating weak, subservient men. When I returned home Harukawa's book inspired a painting I titled "The Dominatrix Precision Drill Team".
After shopping at CounterMedia I continued up the street to Spartacus. There, in a boutique supplied with whips, hand-cuffs and cock-rings, I was in a quandary. Should I purchase nipple rings featuring heart motifs, or ones featuring spiders? Always the hopeless romantic I decided on the hearts. In retrospect -- considering who I was gifting -- I should have chosen spiders.
While in Portland I'd connected with Patrick Rosenkranz. I'd known Patrick since the early days of the comix. He was starting work on what would be a comprehensive history of the underground comix movement titled "Rebel Visions" for Fantagraphics Books.
We visited his son, Crispin. At Crispin's apartment we smoked weed and Crispin and I swung, hung and gabbled like deranged monkeys on overhead utility pipes.
On one of the evenings Patrick and I went to Dante's, an entertainment venue. Performing that night was a satirical troupe from San Francisco. It featured a huge machine that, between acts, would belch and roar flames across the stage, violating fire ordinances and disregarding human safety. And there was a naked woman who would allow members of the audience to staple-gun money to her body. The larger the denomination, the more intimate place one was allowed to staple.
Patrick and I ended up in a strip club that night. The stripper was a very dark-skinned black woman (At last! An ethnic presence.). Patrick and I sat at the bar and he said to me "I'm pretty sure she was one of my students when I was teaching high school." He gave me the name of who he thought she was, and the name of the high school. I went over to the small stage where she was shaking her naked ass, stuffed a couple of singles in her garter and asked her if she was in fact who Patrick thought she was. And did she recognize her professor? Surprised, she said yes to both. Always gratifying for an educator to personally witness the trajectory that he helped create for one of his young charges.
The night of the opening Gallery Bink was overflowing with twisted young Portland art mavens. The crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of the gallery. I met and conversed with the other artists showing that night. J.R. Williams, Dennis Wordon and Kevin Scalzo. I went through the usual art opening ritual of schmoozing with the crowd, drinking beer and signing books.
I was approached by a fairly conservative-looking gentleman who introduced himself as Dale Ashmun.
I said "Oh yeah, you're a friend of S. Clay Wilson's. You're from New Orleans, right?"
He answered yes on both counts, and told me that there was a woman he knew who was institutionalized in a mental health facility. She was allowed out for an occasional evening for a conjugal visit, but she had to return to the booby-hatch immediately afterward. Dale told me the night before he'd had a fuck-date with her.
"She's quite a handful," he said. "I was looking for someone to make it a threesome."
"I called several artists and bohemian types I know in Portland," Ashmun continued. "I thought they'd be an enlightened lot, but they were all appalled at the suggestion that they join me in fucking my emotionally disturbed friend. In fact, every one of them seemed to think I was depraved and immoral for even having sex with an emotionally disturbed woman. Add to it the idea of making it a three-way, they became very judgmental. Like I was some sort of villainous and unprincipled lecher."
"You should have called me," I said. "I would have been glad to help. I have no qualms. Practically every woman I've ever fucked is mad as a hatter."
"I didn't know you were in town," Dale said.
"Story of my life," I said.