Portland II: The Hell Cows house

Winter 1991

Eddie and Annie’s House of Flying Toasters had been a slice, and I had learned valuable lessons about humanity there. But I needed to regroup after the zaniness, and also I looked forward to living with people closer to my own age. Fortunately, there was attic space available at The Hell Cows house.

The Hell Cows house was one of the last vestiges of a neighborhood that had long ago decayed and been displaced as Portland became a city, and then that area of downtown had decayed in turn as the city center shifted and evolved, leaving behind this little pocket of historically insignificant crappiness.

The Hell Cows house was what savvy realtors might advertise as “a cozy fixer-upper”, but among themselves call “a shitbox”. There was another shitbox next door, and then dilapidated buildings, a U-Haul place, and the freeways. The art school was within walking distance, which was really The Hell Cows house’s main selling point, other than that I was staying there practically for free. It was understood that I would cough up some beer money on a semi-regular basis.

The Hell Cows house got its name from the band that used to live and practice there. They were long gone by the time I showed up, replaced by a rotation of tenants and their friends dedicated to keeping The Hell Cows spirit alive.

That spirit imbued the place in the broken and duct taped furniture and fixtures, the matted carpet, the cracked and curling kitchen linoleum with game trails worn in the dark scum covering most of its surface. Toppled stacks of pizza boxes and other detritus. Bottles. Everywhere, brown and green bottles. Ashtrays that never got emptied. Cigarette burns polka-dotting the countertops, the coffee table, the armchair, the windowsills. And the smell! The stale effluvium of a party that never stops, but only slows down for a few daylight hours.

None of that bothered me though, for two reasons. One, I was a college freshman, and I took to the nonstop party lifestyle like a dog to rancid fish guts.

Two, when I wanted a break, I’d go hide out in the attic. It was bigger and more cave-like than the previous attic I’d lived in. I shared it with an art school classmate, a hip and very deep cat named Qirk (like the starship captain). He and I would hang out exchanging observations on life, or drawing in silence. It was like a stoner Fortress of Solitude, high above the raging party below.

All the activity in the house helped me get over Wendy. I realized it had only been a fling, not the love connection I’d tried to force it to be. She was a wild child, and I was a nifty notch on her totem pole. That was all, and it was fine.

Inveterate romantic that I was though, I quickly developed a new crush, this time on a pert cutie from school named Ciera. She had long, perfectly straight hair dyed bright red, a gorgeous face with a bold Roman nose. And she wore makeup — something I was a total sucker for. She was dreamy and aloof, but also had a weird sense of humor that made her approachable, and amazing, gravity-defying breasts that made me want to approach her even more. When she asked me if I was going to Seattle for the demo, I made a choking noise that she correctly translated as Yes.

Cool, she cooed. I’ll see you on the bus.

The demo she had referred to was an antiwar demonstration to be held in Seattle that weekend. The first Iraq invasion was imminent, and lots of people felt it was total bullshit. Tens of thousands had already taken to the streets in Portland, myself among them. Demonstrators from Portland would be busing up to Seattle to join the cause in a super-demo that Saturday, and if lovely Ciera was going, you bet your ass I’d be right there at her side. No way was I missing that opportunity. No way.

So I stayed up half the night Friday night getting ferociously drunk, and missed the bus the next morning.

At just after nine I peeled myself up from the nasty floor in a stupor-slash-panic. The buses would be pulling out right now. I would never make it in time. Ciera! I must get to Ciera!

Never one to do the sensible thing in a dubious situation, I decided to hitchhike to Seattle. I’d snag a ride, make it up there in time, and locate Ciera among the surging throngs of protesters. Ah, the irrepressible optimism of youth.

Still half drunk, half hung over, I swerved around the house in search of my jacket and a serviceable water bottle, and with these my only provisions for the journey, I charged out the door of The Hell Cows house towards the Interstate, which as I’ve mentioned was not far off. Everything truly does happen for a reason.

I noticed right away that the freeway experience is vastly different when you’re trudging alongside it hung over, versus zipping down it in a comfy car. The righthand shoulder is a lot wider than it seems from a car, making it seem like you’re moving much slower than you actually are. Demoralizing.

It’s also much less smooth and hospitable, strewn with all sizes of gravel, mangled paperbacks, drink containers, flattened raccoon parts, boots and other random articles of clothing, hundred-yard paint smears, smashed-up pieces of car, huge ruptured bags of packing foam with their contents blowing along with you for miles, splintered chunks of wood, fallen road signs, and the occasional abandoned vehicle. It’s a disconsolate wasteland. The cars and trucks relentlessly hurtling past are terrifying machines, with no indication of the life inside them. The unexpectedly violent desolation of it all added a harsh new dimension to my hangover.

Fortunately – or maybe not – Portland was in the middle of its annual stretch of freakishly nice winter weather. It was a perfectly balmy February morning. I was overheating by the time I’d gotten to the on-ramp, and the glare from the sun was giving me a category 5 headache. Half my water was gone before I even left downtown, and I had nothing in my stomach but cramps. I was weak and cotton-mouthed, and even though I was only carrying two things, they quickly became a major pain in the ass.

I’d sling the jacket over one shoulder, and hold the bottle in the other hand. But the jacket was Gore-Tex and kept slipping off, and the sloshing of the water back and forth with each step got to be very tiring on my hand. I’d switch sides, and carry the jacket in the crook of my forearm, and swing the bottle by my side with the neck hooked between my first two fingers. Soon though, my jacket arm would be sore and sweaty, and I’d be half insane from the water bottle rhythmically hitting me in the thigh, so I’d switch again.

I needed to have my thumb out if I wanted any chance of a ride, so then it was jacket and bottle in the right hand, with the left hitchhiking thumb extended for as long as I could bear it. To give my left arm a break, I tried walking backwards for a while, but that was not easy in my dizzy, famished, quasi-heatstroked state. When I tripped on a big shred of tire rubber I gave that up, and just spun around intermittently to force-smile at the cars, letting them know I was not the axe-murdering type.

I marched. The sun moved across the sky. The ride I’d envisioned failed to materialize. So many cars, none of them stopping. I pushed ahead, my spirit ebbing with each passing hour. This was so dumb. What was I thinking? What was I hoping for? Even if I got to the demo before it was over, even if I located Ciera, I had about as much chance with her as I did stopping the war. It was ridiculous, futile. I was in despair and a physical wreck.

But I had come this far. Going back at this point could be just as bad as going forward. Doggedly, I pressed on into late afternoon.

I made it just a little ways into Washington when exhaustion overtook me, and I decided to turn back. I waited for a break in traffic and staggered to the other side. There was a grassy meridian where I could get to the southbound lanes. I took one last look back, and as I did, a beat up little hatchback skidded onto the shoulder a couple dozen yards ahead of me and started to back up. Dumbstruck, I limped toward it as fast as I could.

Never seen that before, said the guy as I collapsed into the passenger seat. Genius!

What? I asked.

Hitchhiking in the fast lane. Ha ha ha ha ha!

I didn’t know a thing about freeways or fast lanes or hitchhiking. I’d simply gotten lucky at literally the last possible moment. I just nodded and said Yeah.

The guy’s name was Rick, and he said he could only take me as far as Seattle. I said that’d be perfect, as we sped north into the dusk.

Did I have a plan? No, I did not. I hoped (with my last speck of naïve optimism) that the demo might still be going on, but even if it was, I was pretty sure the Portland contingent would be headed back south by then; it was well after dark. Anyway, I didn’t even know where it would be, and even if I had, I didn’t know Seattle hardly at all. The whole thing was a humiliating bust, and it was about to get worse, because the only place I knew of to go was Volga P’s. A surprise pop-in from me was sure to make her night. In retrospect, roughing it on the street might have been less scary than facing Volga P.

I didn’t know her address, or even the name of her building, so I had Rick drop me off at the Safeway in Capitol Hill. I was pretty sure I could find her apartment on foot from there. I thanked Rick profusely and offered him a couple bucks for gas, which he would not take. He wished me luck and then motored on.

I found the building without much trouble and yanked on the front door. Locked. I yanked a few more times just to make sure. Still locked. I did not know about building security. I stood there a bit to let the stupid fully sink in before noticing the buzzers. Saved! I rang “Volga P” and waited. No answer. I buzzed again. Nothing. I hammered out a long string of Morse code. Nothing.


I sat down on the stoop to wait.

At length, a couple approached and unlocked the door, eyeballing me. Hey do you think— I began. Sorry, tenants only, the guy barked. Harsh. I tried this strategy a couple more times, with identical results.

It must have been eight or nine o’clock by then, and my stomach was starting to digest itself. I was really hurting. I knew this coffee shop we’d gone to way back before the break-up, the Harvard Café, so I set out to find it. As long as I was waiting, I might as well have a muffin.

This place was about the size of a phone booth, but I got my muffin and a coffee and found a nook for the wait. The muffin helped my tummy, but the coffee turned out to be a big mistake. The caffeine did nothing to perk up my energy. Instead it perked up a super-volcano in my lower bowel. Suddenly I was fighting to avoid erupting all over the café. I sat doubled over the tiny table and nibbled my muffin between wheezing groans.

There was a bathroom right next to me, but I’d had an ironclad phobia of going number two anywhere but at home since kindergarten. I would rather risk internal rupture than the withering embarrassment of spackling their vintage commode with my explosive hangover diarrhea. I clenched every available muscle in an effort to beat back the impending catastrophe.

In the midst of this sorry state I began to worry about catching Volga P. She could already be home and climbing into bed right now. What then? On the other hand, I didn’t like the idea of going back to wait on the cement stoop for who knows how long, either. I wrestled with that while wrestling with my angry colon for a good while. Finally there was a break in the turmoil down below, and I made a move.

As I neared Volga P’s building, I saw this guy inside fling the door open and skip out into the night. I couldn’t believe this bit of luck. I rushed and caught the door just before it latched. I was in. There was no one home at Apt. C, but I was in the building. I sat down next to her door, put my head on my knees, and heaved a big sigh. A calm had come over me, and I momentarily forgot about what an extremely stupid thing I was doing. I rested like that for some time until the noise of the front door opening reminded me. There she was in the entryway, frozen in place, staring. Suddenly I felt lower than a piece of shit on the Puritan’s boot heel.

Hi, I offered wanly. Don’t call the cops?

What. The hell. Are you doing here.

Her stare was now a searing glare, the one I’d seen before and prayed would never be directed at me. Now it was hitting me full force and making my rectal area lurch and quiver. I didn’t try to get up.

I am so sorry, I began, and proceeded to give an unadorned account of my foolishly misguided plan, and the unfortunate events that had led me to her door. I left the part about Ciera out, assuming it would not help my case any. I also did not mention I was about to shit my pants.

As I spoke, her facial expression and body language evolved from “Kill him” to “Fucking prick” to “Fucking dumbass” to “Pathetic dumbass” to just “Pathetic”. So that was progress. She agreed to let me sleep on her floor. Reluctantly, to be sure, but with much less disgust in her voice than she’d started with. She unlocked her apartment and I followed her in, squirming like Dobby the house elf.

What’s a stronger word for “awkward”? Neither of us wanted me there, but at least I had had some time to prepare mentally, and besides, I did sort of need her help. She was getting nothing from the deal.

Her studio was tiny, and mostly occupied by a queen-sized bed, which I obviously would be staying as far as possible from, which was about a foot and a half. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so small that she had a shared bathroom in the hallway outside that I could go take a giant dump in. That would’ve been nice. As it was, I’d just have to keep holding it. At this point I didn’t need a phobia to stop me from fouling up her whole apartment, and adding to the whole foul situation.

Volga P was acting civil, I was acting wormlike, and conversation was minimal. She gave me some bedding for my spot by the fridge, and we turned in. I went into a coma sleep immediately, despite the dull agony in my gut and in my soul.

Next morning I treated her to breakfast back at the Harvard. It was the least I could do. And the most, since I had no more money. I had another muffin and some water.

We discussed how I would get back to Portland. Her suggestion of taking the bus sounded reasonable (and vaguely ironic), so she gave me a lift to the Greyhound station. I needed cash, so we hit the Safeway ATM on the way. Card not accepted. After several failed tries, Volga P was kind enough to spare me making the obvious request, and loaned me bus fare. That old Puritan shit-heel feeling was back, stronger than ever after a good night’s sleep and this new material.

We said stiff goodbyes and I got on the bus. Who was more relieved? Hard to say, but probably her. I still had several hours to go before I could poop.

Greyhound! The preferred mode of travel among semi-vagrants, slack-jawed Army kids, belligerent immigrants, drug-addled runaways, and apparently me. The two-hour trip took four hours. There were stops along the way, the regular ones, and pit stops to caffeinate, smoke, and score meth.

I sat in front of two thirteen-year-old tweaker chicks and two ex-cons who reeeally liked to party. They jabbered in gruesome detail about that the whole way back, and made definite plans to party so hard together. It was heartwarming horrifying how they bonded so tightly on this, and I was sad overjoyed when the four of them didn’t come back to the bus after our stop at Jubitz Truck Stop, just outside of Portland.

Seeing the Hell Cows house again was like seeing an old friend. An old friend who you never realized was such a scumbag. Going inside and taking the nastiest shit of all time was like realizing that that old friend hasn’t changed a bit, but you have moved on.

Out front someone was loading up a stolen shopping cart with empty bottles, raising funds for the evening’s festivities. I didn’t contribute. I had just given all I had to the Hell Cows toilet.

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