We are taking a break from our “Long Road to Oregon” series to provide you breaking coverage of life in Portland. Which, as it turns out, is heavily weighted towards the insane.
Saturday had been one of those days when things don’t go quite like you planned them to. My plan to be at the farmer’s market at 8:30 when it opened and then Skype with Kate was supplanted by me laying around the house until 11 and then finding that there were no golden beets, nor purple cauliflower, nor elderly opera singers selling poems, at the market. (Though I did at least try a Pine State Biscuit, which the other researchers insisted I try. I had one called “The Chetfield”, with cheese, bacon, fried chicken, and apple butter. While it was tasty, next time, I’ll probably just get the apple butter.)
Zack and I spent the afternoon doing shopping for things that we realized we needed, after our second week of living in our apartment. Things like an extra recycling bin, a hamper for clothes, and an assortment of interesting beer. (We have discovered, that while the grocery stores do sell cold beer, they do not typically have a good selection, and so a reliable supplier had to be located.)
It was also one of those afternoons where, post-cup-of-tea, I couldn’t shut up and really wanted Zack to talk with me. For him, it was an afternoon where he had hit his weekly maximum word limit, and wanted to say nothing at all.
By the end of the evening we were both a little frazzled.
So I insisted that we go out. At the very least, the people watching would give us something to talk about. Instead of heading towards the cafe one block over that has live jazz, we struck out for Kelly’s Olympian, a bar that I only knew about because we drive past it when coming home from the east side of town. The first time I noticed it, they were advertising an upcoming burlesque show, which singled it out in my mind as a place worth of investigation.
This evening, they were hosting, among other bands, a group called Wizard Boots.
The bar itself was long, tall, and narrow, though I imagined the adjoining venue to be more expansive. Various vintage motorcycles hung from the high ceilings; vintage motorcycle helmets lined the wall above the bar. The bar was crawling with hipsters, including, but not exclusive to: a curly-headed boy (old enough to pass the ID check at the door) decked out in full Boy Scout regalia, a tall man in a silvery jacket and an honest-to-goodness tinfoil hat, and then the usual assortment of vests, mustaches, tweed, and ridiculousness. One man was wearing a red skirtsuit, but he did not give off the impression that he was wearing it ironically. Clumps of hipsters formed precisely in front of the bar where we were supposed to order, and I had to fight through them to get to the bartender.
I was pretty sure this was not our crowd before the music even started. As the sound crashed through the door to the venue every time a hipster came through to by a drink, I became increasingly convinced that the was not our scene. So, after a couple of Coronas, a mediocre cheeseburger (that had mayonnaise on it in spite of the bartender’s swear that condiments were served on the side), and some pretty-decent nachos, Zack and I tucked the last Corona in the pocket of his jacket and set off for home, with our only regret being that we did not have an opportunity to buy a drink for the guy in the tinfoil hat before he disappeared into the concert.
We were about a block from home, engaged in an animated discussion about why it is that I assume all girls who look like Zooey Deschanel hate me, when a white bus pulls up at an intersection in front of us. In big black letters, the bus is labeled “Interstellar Transmissions”.
Perhaps because we were near the place where earlier in the week, I had found an index card scribbled with web addresses for cultish conspiracy theory sites, or perhaps because we were near a church and the bus reminded me of church vans, or perhaps because I recently saw Prometheus, I thought it was a bus full of people trying to contact aliens. Maybe they were going around proselytizing. This assumption was validated when a girl got out of the bus and gestured for us to join her.
I hesitated a split second, and then went over. The decision was not entirely conscious, though retroactively I would say that it was a decision out of the “Good Time or Good Story” paradigm.
When we got closer, the girl explained that they were traveling artists, and that we could get on the bus for a donation.
I fumbled for my wallet, which was fortunately flush with cash that I hadn’t spent at the farmer’s market, and we stepped onto the bus.
I don’t know what I expected. I’m not sure I even had expectations. But I know that I didn’t expect what we found. The seats had all been removed, replaced with a collection of sofas and cushions that lined the aisle for the first two thirds of the bus. The back of the bus was filled with a band, who appeared to be in the middle of a gig, complete with light psychedelic light show.
The band looked more or less exactly like the kind of band one would find in a mysterious white bus at 11 pm on a Saturday night on a deserted street in Portland. The guitarist, decked in a top hat, reflective sunglasses colored like an oil slick, and sporting a beard, was playing a bright red double guitar. The drummer’s face was painted white, with a blue hand print splayed across it, the palm resting on his chin and the fingers brushing his forehead. The keyboardist had long, raven hair, wore white-rimmed black sunglasses, and had an utterly devastating smile. A black twist of a gauged earring, like an overgrown animal claw, hooked through his left ear.
The whole thing was so surreal that it took me a moment to notice the other passenger on the bus. At first, I assumed he was a member of the band, so calm and unconcerned he appeared as he lounged across the aisle from us. Then I noticed that he was holding a skateboard. I introduced myself, and so did he, shouting his name over the music.
The band took a break after the song we entered on, and I had a chance to ask our fellow passenger a few questions. Did he travel with this bus frequently? No, John replied. He had just been on the bus home, reading a book by Deepak Chopra. He had just concluded a chapter on coincidence and gotten off at his stop when this white bus had pulled up. Serendipity, he said. He did not travel frequently on magic buses, but that was primarily for lack of magic buses on which to travel.
We rode around Portland, the captain of the bus enticing people off the street to enter. We picked up a birthday party; the birthday girl borrowed a sparkly feather boa, which had been hanging from the guitar stand, and her friends photographed her in front of the band.
People entered and exited seemingly at random. I asked John, “How do we know when to leave?”
“When it’s time to leave the magic bus, you know.” He replied knowingly.
Some of the passengers joined only briefly. A stout young queer man, dressed in tight white clothing and wearing, among other decorations, a windsock, got on while it was still just John and Zack and I. He looked delighted with his good fortune for a few minutes, and then asked if we knew if it was okay for him to smoke weed on the magic bus. We shrugged, none of us having the authority to say one way or the other. (I assumed no. Medical marijuana may be legal here, but I feel like the average police officer would not be pleased to have marijuana smoke floating out of a moving vehicle.) We deferred his question to the driver, but he was reluctant to ask, and beat a hasty retreat (presumably to find someplace he knew he could smoke out).
Apparently, however, you could smoke on the bus. Or, at least, the next group of partygoers that joined the motley crew in the back of the magic bus assumed you could and then did so. Among this group was a whip of a young man, tall and slim and full of crackling energy. His straight hair, a sandy blonde, fell to his shoulders when he wasn’t in motion, a state that he moved in an out of with no warning. He reminded me strongly of Joris. He was wearing, inexplicably, only jeans, a tan trench coat, and aviator sunglasses with one red lens and one blue lens. He was less Spider Jerusalem and more the Flash. He was so tall his head was inches away from the ceiling of the bus. He danced in the aisle, steadying himself with a hand on the ceiling as we accelerated. He was kittenish, one minute dancing and the next minute curled up on one of the cushioned benches, exclaiming wide eyed, “GUYS. THIS IS SO COMFY.” He was still fist-pumping to the music from his reclined position. He might have been 16.
John pointed out that fist bumping was incongruous with laying down. The boy, whose name was either Bobby or Robby, fist-pumped on.
At some point, John recognized Bobby, primarily by his di-colored aviators. “Hey, man, I saw you get EMTed out of a <somewhere I can’t remember>.”
“Oh yeah,” Bobby nodded. “I guess my brain just gave out. It must have been all the abstract art I was looking at.”
We bantered between songs as we drove around Portland, adopting strays.I tried to keep tabs on where we were, so that Zack and I could exit the bus somewhere near our destination. We drove by a billboard that Zack and I find kind of alarming. It’s a picture of an anthropomorphic duck mascot, with giant eyes that bore into your soul. He is staring directly at you and holding a big bouquet of red roses. The only text on the ad reads, “WE ARE OREGON.” Zack and I do not understand this ad. Are Oregonians ducks? Is the duck from Oregon introducing himself and trying to date you? WHY IS HE STARING?!?! We jumped at the chance for the natives to explain this. Their explanations were unsatisfactory, but it launched the most impressive series of duck-related puns I have ever heard. Bobby and one of his friends traded puns back and forth for ten minutes, before exhausting every facet of a duck anatomy and behavior they could think of.
The bus continued in a bumping, swaying haze of cigarette smoke, great music, and puns until finally, the captain of the bus decided it was time for this group of passengers to exit the bus. As John said, “When it’s time to leave the magic bus, you know.” we knew because she told us that we were getting off. The bus dropped us at a “lovely pork stand” deep in a part of town I had never been to where I recognized nothing, and drove out of our lives, as mysteriously as it had arrived.