Regulars: A Journey through Oregon's Dive Bars
A conversation about community in a six-city ramble through local dives.
July 1 2012By Kevin Max
From the parking lot next to the laudromat, well, she ain’t much. A wooden rectangle of a building and a painting of a man with a mug in one hand, the other pulling a wagon with a keg, an American flag and a duck. The sign above the door claims, “Through this portal passes the finest people in the world.”
Inside the Tee Pee Tavern in Roseburg, a long narrow counter stretches the length of the bar and padded stools are bolted in for posterity. Legacy comes with rips and tears from generations of posteriors. Clever pub humor and idle threats are framed on its wood paneled walls. Photos and letters from drinkers present and past curl and yellow in the places where they age.
All the way in back, a few old guys hold their empties on top of their heads. The bartender hustles in a new round of Bud and Busch Lights.
“We were just beginning to think you’d forgotten about us, Gwennie—Jeez,” quips Doug, a 70-yearold with a sly smile curling up the side of his face.
“You know I wouldn’t forget you,” Gwen says, clearing the empty head-cans just as she has for decades. It’s another Thursday afternoon and the only thing happening is the round table at the back of the bar at Tee Pee Tavern.
“You know, Pierce went to the doctor, and the doctor took out a piece of his bone core and did some testing on it,” Arla excitedly tells the group, the attention swinging in her direction. A plastic patio chair with letter stickers that spell PIERCE sits empty next to her. (“Where the hell is Pierce today? He should be here any time.”) Around the table, four old men are digging Arla’s story and waiting for the rest to unfurl. With Pierce, they know, anything is possible. Arla bumps up her volume to get through to the hearing aided. “Well, the doc came back and told Pierce, after all the tests, his bones are actually older than Pierce!”
Over the course of six days in six cities, photographer Joni Kabana and I set out on a gritty road trip in search of some of Oregon’s best dives—longnecks, ripped swivels, pool tables and Johnny Cash singing sadly from the box.
We started with Renner’s Bar & Grill in Multnomah Village, rambled into the Cruise Inn in Lincoln City, and shot up to Labor Temple in Astoria. We de-pickled for a couple of weeks and then pushed on to the second half of our sojourn starting at Max’s Tavern in Eugene, dropping down to Roseburg for the Tee Pee Tavern and then finishing with steak and eggs and bloody marys at the D&D in Bend.
What we found along the way, however, was much different than we expected. Among the local watering holes, we encountered a church sense of community with built-in switchboards, health care, camaraderie and a culture of conversation preserved in solid and liquid states.
Genesis of a Regular
Becoming a “regular” at anything takes time, patience, dedication— practice even. This status isn’t immediately conferred; it’s earned through stories, jokes, shared triumphs and failures, hirings and firings. Immortaliy is its antidote to death—a photo behind the bar, a trophy on a shelf, a chair with your name.
The moneyed etch their names into buildings. The middle class settles for a stone on a hill. The spiritual give their ashes to rivers. Atheists hastily tick through bucket lists. It’s the regulars, though, who earn a resting place on the wall behind the bar.
Being a regular bears the tremendous responsibility of holy matrimony: keeping up your end of the bargain by showing up in sickness and in health, looking out for the others, toasting their triumphs, ginning up for their losses, checking up on them from time to time.
Though becoming a regular takes time, it doesn’t take a lot to get started. Sit down, order your drink and start talking.
Renner’s Bar & Grill goes back to 1939. It's a long J-shaped bar with stationary swivels, padded for the long haul. There are booths on the opposite wall. At this time of day on a Thursday, there are only a handful of people around. There’s Marcus, the resident bohemian with a beret and a goatee. He’s taking sabbatical from his un-bohemian agrarian hometown for the moment. Oui, the ennui.
There’s Dave, the manager. He remembers his first days at Renner’s, when he started coming in at age 6 with his grandpa. There was a café in the front and, through swinging doors in the back under the claim, "Suburban Room," was a bar. “My grandpa would always head for the back,” he recalls, smiling.
There’s Wendy, an aspiring singer, falling out of an equally aspiring top, who immediately suggests, “You should write about me.” Someone should, just not me.
Publicans John and Karen know Renner’s history—they’ve lived a good part of it. John’s mother worked behind the bar for twenty-five years. (“When anyone needs a motor fixed, they call the bar asking for John,” Jessica, the bartender offers.) Karen curates the history of Renner’s through its wall of photos of old-timers behind the bar. “That’s Pete. Well, Pete’s not his first name, but that’s what everyone calls him.” She ticks off a half dozen more names, their connection with Renner’s and whether they’ve passed on. Then she stops on a black and white photo of a woman and grins. “That’s Jerry. If she doesn’t like the bartender, they don’t last very long.”
Jerry is a Renner’s retiree. She put in twenty-five years behind the bar. These days, she joins the 4 O’clockers, a larger court of Renner’s royalty, who occupy one end of the old deli counter at precisely 4 every day, after staff has set out the complimentary 4 O’clocker feed.
John, a 4 O’clocker from England, first entered Renner’s in 1957. Renner’s could make a tolerable highball and its customers had enough facets to keep him interested. In the '70s, he moved away but later came back to find the same bar and the same people. “It’s kind of a second home,” he says. “There are some real characters here.” Today, John drinks brandy with a water back and no ice, mixing his own.
The recent history of Renner’s gets more interesting. In the ’90s, it was a rundown redneck bar. “They didn’t bother to exterminate the rats, they just gave them names,” says Renner’s new owner, Marshall Meadows. Meadows, a 6’2”, 220 pound gay ex-bull rider, embodied a sea change for the redneck Renner’s.
“This was a place that a woman couldn’t even go to the bathroom without being harassed—it was out of control,” Meadows says. “We ran out all of the assholes, and now everybody else is welcome. That’s my contribution to Renner’s. I see myself more as a steward, restoring it to the way it was.”
For the imposing ex-bull rider with a refreshing talent for profanity, more work lay ahead. He restored the bar to its former glory, had it meticulously cleaned and then looked around. Renner’s regulars thought he was going to turn Renner’s into a gay bar. “I hate gay bars—I’m a rodeo guy,” Meadows says. “It took a while, but I think we changed a lot of people’s perceptions about being gay. I can safely say that after ten or eleven years everybody accepts me as family and, really, they’re family to me.”
The honorific, dive bar, happens over years, even generations, not weeks or months. It forms around the permanence of bartenders and patrons, over pool tables in play since Willie Mosconi won his fifteenth pool championship, and under towering trophies of the bar’s softball or shuffleboard teams.
At Lincoln City’s Cruise Inn (“Where every hour is happy hour”), Gary can’t pull himself away from the bar. He now works behind the bar for its new owners, but he has bought and sold the Cruise Inn five times himself. At the end of his shift, he doesn’t have far to go, taking up a stool on the other side of the counter.
“I love this place,” he says. “If anything goes wrong, or you need something, there’s always someone over here who can do it or knows someone who can. If your car gets stuck in the sand on the beach, you can call a tow truck for $200 or come in here and get pulled out for $50. There’s always someone.”
The new owners, Sue and Bob Connor from Boise, loved vacationing in the area and decided to make the Cruise Inn their retirement project. Their son, John, found his path as the cook. He has committed earnest effort to learning how to cook and keeping the kitchen clean. The dinner special today is ham with mashed potatoes, veggies and a roll. All that for $4.75. “Learning the grilling alone, will get me far in life,” he affirms.
It may get him far in life, but the deep fried mac 'n' cheese triangles, as good as they are, will soon end mine. The bacon cheeseburger is $6 and shows John’s progress along his new path.
Back at the Tee Pee Tavern, empties atop heads have been replaced a couple of times now. “Pierce’ll do anything for anybody,” says Charlie, Arla’s husband. “He’s just got a really good heart.”
“A big heart,” everyone agrees. It’s been a few hours and still no Pierce. I’m beginning to think Pierce is more an abstract state of benevolence than a real person and that I’m the joke. If you don’t know who the fool in the room is, it’s probably you. I read his name backwards, to see if it miraculously spells jackass. I play word jumble and try not to read too much into, 'I crêpe.'
In Pierce’s absence, conversation hasn’t waned. “See all of these trophies up there? He and his shuffleboard team were the ones who won them,” says Gwen. “We had a big league in the ’80s that went clear over to the coast and up to Portland. Drunk driving laws later that decade pretty much shut it down. Now we have a local league that plays here on Thursdays.
“Was that Pierce's truck that just drove by?”
Any contributing regular knows that conversation is the tool of the trade. Conversation is a gift and a curse. The ability to raise and discuss a wide range of topics is the creative process wrapped in bullshit—repeatedly making something from nothing, ex nihilo, conversatum.
Conversation fills the void, states the obvious, leads to discovery, flatters, offends and enriches, but mostly blathers on endlessly. It’s the national pastime that is now being swallowed by desktop computers, mobile phones and Google searches. Who needs a grandpa, when we have grandpa.com? At local watering holes, however, conversation is still the currency, phones are much larger and still hang on walls.
After a few drinks, of course, conversation can turn on itself, shirk responsibility, skirt social mores and bite its own tongue. We move from the specific (“Ted is a dolt.”) to the general (“All Teds are dolts.”) Woohoo! Now we’ve got a fight on our hands.
The Labor Temple Bar in Astoria takes in all kinds of people twenty-four hours a day and rarely sees their brinkmanship become fights. There’s a classic 1930s diner in the front and a bar in the back. One of the people the bar took in is Lea, a woman who had driven into town one day with a car filled with all of her stuff. After her mom died, she pulled together a garage sale and decided that if she made enough money that day, she would move from Salt Lake City to Astoria on a whim. Sales were good and Lea took in $1,700. The next day she headed north. Two days later, she had a job tending bar at Labor Temple. That was twenty-two years ago.
“Everybody calls me mom,” says Lea, now 64. It’s Monday night and the 9-ball pool leaguers are running the table. There are the regulars: Erik, a retired Coast Guard officer; Thomas the 23-yearold cook; Katie, a nursing student who often comes in from Hillsboro an hour and a half away; and Billy, whose liquor has left him tongue tied.
“We all take care of each other,” says Lea. “We’re a big family.” It’s Thomas’ birthday, and Lea brings out a danish with a candle. Everyone joins in singing happy birthday.
Labor Temple has seen many birthdays of its own, the oldest union hall in the Pacific Northwest. Since the Labor Club opened in the Labor Temple building in 1939, the resulting Labor Temple Café and Bar has operated continuously to present day. Its patrons were union members of fishermen, chauffeurs, cigar makers, cannery workers, sawmill and timber workers.
Timber is still king in Douglas County, where Roseburg Forest Products is the largest employer and where old timber chokers and lumber millers can flap away about the golden days at the back of Tee Pee Tavern.
Suddenly there's a break in the babble and a partial eclipse in front of the finest-people-in-the-world door. The chair’s namesake, Pierce, appears. His eyes a fiery lake of blue as his pupils adjust to a small world he helped create with his own hands. (The Tee Pee Tavern sign out front he skillfully carved with a hammer and screwdriver. He’s made other refinements, too, out of the goodness of his heart.)
Hoots of joy and relief rumble from the back-table congregation. The shuffleboard trophies, tall as the Stanley Cup, seem taller on their shelves at the arrival of their captain. Despite medical testimony to the contrary, his bones seem no older than the spry body covering them. But who knows?
Pierce adjusts his brimmed camouflage hat with fingers that are engine block black. His clean pressed plaid shirt suggests that his day’s work is behind him—another motor fixed for another friend.
Gwen brings him a tall Busch Light. “Once I bet a man that I could knock his puck off the shuffleboard table when I was blind just after my cataract surgery ... ” Pierce, the abstract helper-of-all whose bones pre-date his birth, has taken human form as another story begins at Tee Pee Tavern—just as it has for decades and will be for decades to come in local watering holes across Oregon.