I stood in his bathroom with a bucket, a sponge, and a can of Ajax bleach. He was in the doorway. A strange and angular-looking middle-aged man staring at me through wire-rimmed glasses with a lascivious grin.
My skinny body was nervous, but I was broke and I needed the money. I was 18 years old and arrived in Track Town weeks before. Fresh off the boat from the Midwest with a Campbell Soup Kid’s round face and a long mane of wavy, brown hair running down the center of my back.
“Maybe you should take off your clothes,” he said and paused. Then, he sputtered, “So you don’t get wet when you clean the shower.”
I looked at him and replied, “I’ll take off my shirt.”
I took everything off except my worn jeans and spent two hours cleaning his bathroom while he watched. Scrubbing every corner and tile while he hovered over me drooling like a wolf. Gathering as much of me into his imagination as he could.
Afterward, he asked, “How much money do you want?” He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and grinned. “Is $15.00 enough?”
It wasn’t enough, but I took the money, got on my bicycle, and rode home. I’d be able to afford dinner at Albertsons that night.
That was the moment I knew I needed to leave Track Town. It was September, and I would last there until May.
I was an awkward immigrant in Oregon. It was never planned. I stumbled into the state because I was luckily accepted to the university late that summer. It gave me the chance to escape Minnesota after spending the previous year being a hoodlum and a debauched criminal.
After my final, adolescent summer, I made the trip across the U.S. I was accompanied by a friend on his crotch rocket motorcycle, a vial of rocket fuel, and a four-foot-long iguana who shared a station wagon with me. After leaving the lizard and my friend in Olympia, Washington, I made my way to the state below.
It was 1990. I was a greasy Midwest fugitive who hadn’t figured out how to say “soda” instead of “pop” yet. Oregon was a bizarre place to me. It was illegal to pump your own gas and people spoke with long West Coast drawls. Oregonians resented the Californians moving northward and the Seattleites moving southward. But no one seemed to care much about Midwesterners like me.
Track Town was in the center of the state and an hour from the Pacific coast. It was a college town with a graveyard just off the center of campus. Phil Knight from Nike had made a recent donation to the university, and I learned quickly that athletics and the ghost of Steve Prefontaine running on their track was more valuable than learning to the academic administration.
Next to Track Town was Springfield. Both towns smelled like a mixture of bong water and flatulence, but Springfield also had a paper mill that produced toxic smoke, which gave everyone a headache. I lived between the two towns in a suburban wasteland.
It was there that I learned what loneliness is.
I found my home on a bulletin board at the student union, which is where I found my skeevy bathroom cleaning gig and numerous other jobs I worked to survive. I moved into a modest home with a Sikh woman named Navleen who dealt weed and did closed-door massages in her bedroom for men only.
I lived just off the living room in a bedroom upstairs. My ceiling was only five feet high so I could never stand completely upright. I moved around my room like an ape, crouching to move from my futon mattress to my Korg keyboard to my wooden desk.
A 33-year-old amateur boxer lived in the bedroom just below me and he had a punching bag attached to his ceiling. Because his ceiling was my floor, each afternoon when he practiced throwing punches, my entire bedroom became an earthquake.
To escape the shaking, I visited my housemate, Shaefer, whose room was directly across from our shady landlady. Shaefer would get me high on Navleen’s hallucinogenic Oregonian weed, then play one of his many bootlegged cassettes of Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa concerts. With my long hair, I looked like a hippie but I wasn’t. My musical tastes were more punk rock, Prince, and Peter Gabriel. I didn’t enjoy Shaefer’s music.
I had come to Oregon with visions of West Coast wonder. Where I expected people to throw their arms open and embrace me. Where music and art would be diverse and widespread. Instead, I was trapped in the ‘burbs listening to space country jams in the palace of alone. Solitude and loneliness became my best friends in Track Town.
During my first months, I went to class, drank beer, and tried to meet romantic hookups like most of my college classmates. I was a lustful, young man who craved the many pretty, young women around me. However, none of them wanted to give me the time of day.
Most of my time was taken up studying or looking for work. I was not very good at studying but I was good at finding weird jobs to pay the rent.
I sold weed for my landlady for a few weeks, but I got too paranoid that I’d be busted. Following that, I did security for Oregon Ducks football games and the university’s reggae and rock shows. Preventing underage students from drinking booze didn’t improve my chances of making friends, so I took a job as a vendor selling samosas on street corners.
I eventually got a job at a laundromat that tripled as a dry cleaner and post office. During those months, I mailed packages, took shirts in to be pressed, and made change for laundry machines while I made sure no one shot up in the bathroom.
My existence was awkward.
I didn’t have a car and I rode my bicycle to all of my jobs and classes. That was fine in the beginning, but by November, perpetual gray rain clouds hung low, a thick mist was constantly in the air, and I caught walking pneumonia.
When Alan the Rasta, who did security with me, heard my cough, he said, “You’re going to lose a lung, man.”
I sniveled, “I know. I can’t stop coughing.” Hack, hack. “It sucks.”
“You should go to the YMCA, man. Sit in the steam room. Breathe in the steam.”
I could barely inhale through my mucus, so I decided to take Alan’s advice.
I bicycled to the YMCA, stripped off my wet clothes in the locker room, put on my swimsuit, and maneuvered into the steam room. Everything felt like a mirage. There were two naked men inside the hot, windowless room. I sat in a free corner and sweat poured out of my sick body immediately.
I was only there for five minutes when the bearded man sitting against the wall across from me began staring. Then, he started stroking himself. I was in a strange state caused by my illness, so I wasn’t sure what was happening at first. He was suddenly very erect, and I was suddenly very uncomfortable.
Turning to my right, I looked across the room thick with steam. The other naked man was clean-shaven and sitting on the steam room bench with his hands on his knees looking my way with a smile. He was also very erect and his erection pointed directly at me.
I got up, left the steam room, and went into the showers to consider what was happening. I was young and naive, but I wasn’t dumb. It became evident that Alan the Rasta had sent me to a YMCA frequented by men as a hook-up spot with other men. I figured that out as I stood in the shower while a man in the shower next to me got himself off with his right hand.
That sexually-charged, all-male environment was new to my young self, and having pneumonia didn’t make the situation a time for experimentation. I went home, slunk over monkey-style into my room, and made my way to my futon where I stayed for several days until I was well.
When I could walk without coughing, I decided it was time to cut off my long hair. I intended to reinvent myself by getting rid of the locks I’d had since I was 14 years old, and I made an appointment to be shorn that Saturday afternoon.
That weekend, I also planned to go out and find friends to end my loneliness. I decided to look for them at a fraternity party. Track Town was where the movie Animal House was filmed. In the same fraternity houses where John Belushi and his gang partied on the screen, real frat boys had real frat parties.
On Friday night, I went to the area where white columns adorned the outside of frat houses. I heard music and whooping inside one house from the street where I stood. Behind those columns, there was a party, and in my mind, there was no reason I needed an invite to go.
I walked inside the house, found a keg and a stack of plastic glasses, and poured myself a beer. Then, I looked around. Young, drunk men in sweatshirts were swilling and football-playing and posing for their sorority girlfriends. Not my usual crowd, but I made conversation with a few of them and it seemed like I was being included.
I went out onto a veranda overlooking the backyard and sipped my beer feeling good about my decision to be at the party. Then, I felt liquid on my head slipping down into my long hair. I looked above me and a pack of frat boys were on the patio above me coughing up as much green, gooey saliva as they could. They had been letting their chunky spit slide onto my head from above.
One of them yelled down at me, “Hey, hippie! What do ya think yer doin’ here? Why don’t you go take some acid and get outta here, dirthead!”
The crowd above me laughed as I felt the spit sink deeper, through my hair onto my scalp, and down my back. I slunk out of the party and went home.
The next day, I had all of my long hair cut off. I was a new person who would be embraced by the town and I would prove it when I went to a party at a collective that night.
The collectives were the Deadhead equivalent of a fraternity house in Track Town. Inside, groups of young hippies lived together. Some had to work to go to school like me, but many were Trustafarians who lived off their family’s money. Despite some of the economic gaps between us, I assumed this group would be open-minded and allow me into their community.
On Saturday night with my short hair styled, I went to one of the larger collectives and saw a handful of men and women in tie-dyed clothes dancing behind the windows. Some I recognized from class. Most of them looked like they were at a party in 1969. Like the frat party, these weren’t normally my people, but I was longing for connection. I was open to becoming friends with anyone who could end my solitude.
I walked up a few stairs and reached the front door where two door people were collecting money and letting partygoers in. The doorman was a long-haired guy with a thin, patchy beard and the doorwoman wore a bright orange dress with the logo of a Grateful Dead bear dancing on the front.
I said jovially to the guy, “Hi…looks like a fun night. What’s the cover?”
He glanced at his female companion and she nodded at him. Then, he turned and looked at me with a sneer.
“Nothing for you, man. We don’t let GQ in here.”
“What?” I asked. “GQ magazine?”
“You, man. We’re not letting you in. You’re clean-cut, man. You’re probably a narc. Get outta here!”
“Yeah….you’re probably a narc, man,” the woman said with a stoned, snobbish air. “Go find a frat house. Or a police academy! Ha, ha, ha!”
With my new short hair, the hippies at the collective wouldn’t let me into their party. At least they hadn’t spit on me.
I walked away, through the graveyard, and made my way home in the dark.
During the spring semester, I made one friend in a poetry class. Jeff the drugstore cowboy. He was the same age as me and had just spent four months in jail after being arrested for writing his own prescriptions.
Jeff and I carved out our own tiny niche. We hung out in cafes, acted like pretentious young men, smoked cigarettes, listened to Brian Eno, and wrote. Neither of us wanted to be in that soul-crushing town, so we left that May for Alaska.
After working on the fishing docks in Kenai for the summer, I returned south to the “Lower 48” and moved to Seattle. I found my people by getting lost in the Emerald City’s dark and wondrous early 90s music scene.
A piece of me still lives in the places I’ve called home. But there is no remnant of me left in Track Town.