student special

06 June 00 5:26pm
Boise, Idaho

I found a motel in Eugene that seemed to be a reasonable meeting of price and safety. Some kind friends of friends and a few helpful websites had helped me find the theoretical good places to live, but so far they were just highlighter marks on a map. (By the way, it’s a pain in the ass to get a map of a small town if you’re not in that town. This of course would you require you to know the town well enough to find a place to get a map, which is fine and dandy since there’s a gas station or ten near every freeway exit. However, if you want a map in advance to, say, do a little planning and selective highlighting, it’s not that easy. Eventually I had to call the AAA office in Eugene and have them mail me one. “I’m thinking of moving up there,” I said. “You wouldn’t mind one more Californian, would you?” Over the phone I could feel the cold glare. “I don’t know, it’s getting pretty crowded and expensive.” I thought about saying I was from Maryland and not California, but I suspect the damage had been done. I did indeed get the map, but I wondered if the missing apartment number and incorrectly spelled town were my bad diction or her attempt at misdirection.) Sun Tzu said the map is not the territory. I went out to check the territory.

Eugene is nice, but not perfect. I think I’m comparing it to Boise, which has my friend and a bit of a skyline and a better historic downtown; these are likely not fair comparisons. But the first impressions were strong enough that I figured this was worth a shot at the very least. It had been a while since I’d seen any wildlife in a city, but Saturday afternoon a deer wandered across a street in front of me (and I was not in a rural area, either) and that night a raccoon ran from a dorm across the street into the U of O campus. I was half expecting to find in front of me at a pizza joint a bear getting a slice with extra salmon. LA and its roaches, this certainly is not.

I spent Saturday figuring out that the highlighter marks did indeed mark the highlights; Sunday I drove up and down nearly every street in those areas, looking for places and jotting down numbers. The process quickly turned frustrating, as nearly everything was run by a large management company that didn’t answer its phones on Sundays. Plus, the U of O lets out June 9 and so a lot of places would be available in three weeks, but not yet. I did manage to look at a few privately owned places, but nothing was quite right, or quite cheap enough. It also didn’t help that I keep dreaming of rain, and hearing about how rainy it is in Eugene, and yet today it was sunny and about 85. The weather I’m trying to escape, only more humid.

I did go back to a place I’d looked at four hours earlier, and a long haired bearded shirtless guy was still sitting in front of the next unit playing the bongos. I reached for the unlocked door of the place I wanted to see and he called out to me. “There’s a naked Indian in there; you might want to hang a minute.”

I plopped down in an easy chair near him. “Have you been playing the bongos the whole four hours since I was here last?”

“Nah, I was downstairs in the yard for a while too.” He may well have taken the bongos with him but I didn’t ask. Bongo man was from New York City, but got sick of it and headed west for something different. A friend of a friend had told him something about Eugene, but he landed here without really knowing where he was going. He was a drummer, but was just getting going with that out here and worked in a tofu factory to pay the rent. He gave me a PETA flyer about how evil factory farming is, and I assured him I’d think about that the next time I was chomping on a pound of medium rare Porterhouse. He laughed and said he wasn’t militant about it but thought people should know, and offered me a bowl which I politely declined. I wondered if I looked like a pothead or was this just a common Eugene greeting. I’ve heard the latter, although of all the times I’ve been offered pot and said no, the one time I’d not quite said no wasn’t too long before this time. It didn’t really do too much for me that I care to go into now, but it sure as hell made me hungry later; that munchies thing is really true. By the way, an informal survey to see if I’m the last person to have tried it said no, I’m not the last, but darn close. Outside my mom and brother — don’t ask, don’t tell — I only found three people out of SIXTY I asked that hadn’t tried it. I even heard of three accidentally stoned cats and one deliberately stoned dog. I think the DEA’s statistics are a crock.

A tall, thin but muscular freshly showered American Indian of a tribe I was told but can’t remember (was it the pot? No, my memory is always weird) came out of the empty apartment and sat down with us. He fit the visual stereotype so well he might have stepped out of a painting, were there paintings of American Indians wearing Nikes and t-shirts. A friend of Bongoman who has been sleeping outside for a while, he figured why not use the empty place since it was open. I checked out the apartment once more and then sat again.

The Indian approved of my reasons for this journey, and thought Los Angeles doesn’t have much of a spirit. It’s there, I said, but it takes years and years to find it, and it’s harder when you’re looking. Many things are harder to see when you’re looking, was the reply.

The Indian had some sort of Plan, a design for something big. I suspected it was a product of some sort, as he said a sports gear company had offered him a fraction of what it’s worth and he was holding out for a bidding war he saw coming. I knew he’d been sleeping outside, but I know of screenwriters who were living in their car when the big break came. (Some of these people got Oscars out of the deal, even.) I decided I believed him and wished him luck with his plan. He smiled.

“Most people do not wish me luck, because they do not understand having a plan. In seven years I want to have an income in the millions. I want to be able to do whatever I want to do.”

“What do you want to do?”

He just smiled again. “I see for you it’s not about the money.”

“No. But I’d also like to be able to do whatever I want to do.”

“I see you have a creative aura. You will find the answers you’re looking for.”

“I don’t think there are answers, only more perfect questions.”

He smiled yet again, a smile that for a moment showed me seven generations, that showed me he knew much of his tribe as he said: “Then you have found what you’re looking for already.”

I turned to talk to Bongoman for a second, and when I looked back, the Indian was gone. A neat trick as he must have moved past me. I said goodbye to Bongoman and asked where the Indian went so I could say goodbye to him also. Bongoman shrugged. “I don’t know where he went. He just does that.”


Late in the afternoon my car made known its displeasure at starting and stopping every block or so, and my sunburnt arm started to whine a bit too. I decided I was equally fed up and snapped, done for the day. I found an ice cream parlor open since the 1920’s and had a sundae made with ice cream from a local dairy and my my my was it good. Score a point for local business, or at least local cows. I wandered past the University of Oregon campus and on impulse I decided to follow the path the raccoon had taken the night before.

It’s a pretty campus, full of big old trees and big old brick buildings; I love brick but it’s hard to earthquake-proof it so there’s not a lot of it in California. I stumbled across the main library, and carved in the stone above the door was: AND THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE.

I’ve got the Dewey Decimal system down cold (I used to shelve library books for a living: sign 147 I’m a geek at heart) but I’ve never learned the system university libraries use, so I couldn’t find anything particular by just wandering. I watched the students instead. Finals were two weeks away, and there was quite a bit of intensity and concentration in the building. I used to have that, I recall from somewhere in my past, and while I’m not sure I have it in me to go back to school, perhaps there was a storehouse of focus tucked away in these books. I might need to learn the university numbering system after all.

I wandered back out and sat near a dog that probably had an unlikely set of parents; he looked vaguely bulldog-ish but had really short little legs. He looked at me as he looked at everyone exiting the library: are you… no, you’re not. And then he would set his head back down on the steps and wait some more for his person. I noticed his leash wasn’t tied to anything, which I guess fit the letter if not the spirit of leash laws. We kept each other company for a bit, with a number of young women asking if it was my dog and saying how cute he was. I suspect the owner has a REALLY good time at college. Wandering on I noticed that the library has two main doors and carved over the other one: YE SHALL SEEK THE TRUTH. Where, exactly? For me, I’m not sure it was inside the library.

I heard music in the distance and I came across the 30th Annual Willamette Valley Folk Festival, which was having a blues day. A stage was set up on campus near the student union and some thousands of people made for quite a festive atmosphere. This seemed like My Thing and I listened to a good band I didn’t know and ate festival food from little carts. I wonder sometimes if the photography and the writing are just distractions from the truth I’m seeking, and really, it’s in music; music is my heartbeat, my guide and guidance, the key to my soul. I can’t play anything and I’m sorry if you’ve ever heard me sing, but the music of others keeps me going. I think the voice of God or the gods or the universe or whatever you wish to call it can be heard in many things: the babble of a brook, a breeze through a tree, the happy chortle of a baby, the purr of a kitten. But when it comes to manmade things, I think it can be heard from an electric guitar. Note to self: the truth may be hanging on a wall of a pawn shop in Memphis or New Orleans or Chicago. Plan accordingly.

Monday got some phones answered but it was more of the same, really, with not much seeming quite right. I was running out of time and money and I needed to go back to LA and take care of my shit. Answers were not coming. I called Ms. Boise.

“You want to see me in June, don’t you?”

Absolutely, was the answer.

“How much of June?”

It seemed to be a matter of how much I could afford. If I wasn’t paying rent in LA, and I didn’t get a place here quite yet, I could afford all of June in Boise. This sounded like an excellent idea to Ms. Boise and thus, it was decided: for a month, at least, I would be officially homeless. Or at least, fixed address-less.

I went to look at one more apartment; I knew I couldn’t afford it yet but I had to look: an old elementary school, built in the early 1920’s, had been converted into apartments, essentially each classroom a unit. I fell in love with the place instantly. The hallways had a lot of the original wood and trim, and the units had the high ceilings and wall to wall windows you expect from a school building. The upstairs units had skylights, and the central gym had been turned into an atrium. The conversion was less than ten years old and was nicely done, with modern plumbing and wiring and good new appliances. Elementary school is the last place I remember feeling really creative and inspired, before crap curriculums and dud teachers and mean children took their toll on my view of the education system. I was transported back to that place, and I could live there. I wanted to get some paper and sit on the floor in an empty apartment in front of the full wall of windows and just start writing.

The manager wanted me there too; she wanted more artsy types around. I feel about as artsy as someone who designs cereal boxes but shared her love of the building. There was no way my erratic income would qualify me with the big company that owns the place, but she said that if I signed up for even one class at Lane Community College she could accept a co-signer. This is not an option now, but I suspect one or more schools are in my future.

I decided a break from LA was going to happen no matter what, and I went looking for a storage space for all my stuff. I picked out a nice one that felt really secure, even though it was a bit more money than some of the others I looked at. (Selling point: everyone’s got resident managers and some have cameras, but these folks also have a Rottweiler [how do you spell that?] that wanders the grounds at night. A few years back, three people cut through the fence to go burglaring and dog ate ’em. Well, maybe didn’t eat them really, but still, it’s a warm and happy story isn’t it?) I did mention to the nice older lady behind the counter that money was sort of an issue.

“Well, if you were a student, I could give you a ten percent discount.”

Although nearly every movie theater in Los Angeles has seen my old student ID over the last eight years, I’m not gonna scam the nice old lady and her big mean dog. “I’m not a student; not now.”

She looked at me closely for a moment, thinking. “Well, I can give it to you anyway. You look like a student.”


I put a reservation on a storage place, called around and put a reservation on a truck. In eight days I had to have eight years of my life packed up; in ten, I had to fit it all in a ten by ten unit with a roll-up door and a Rottweiler in a city I barely knew.

Checking out with a clerk I hadn’t seen in my four days at the Pacific 9 Motor Inn.

“So you just up here visiting?”

“Thinking of moving here, actually.”

“Good lord, why?” I expected the rain thing but got: “Nobody here makes any money.”

Tell it to the Indian, I thought. “Is that all there is?”

“Well, that’s my plan, anyway.”


This was published on 06 Jun 2000.
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