SWIMMING IN THE BARMUDA TRIANGLE
A week (and change) in the downtown bar scene
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
Downtown Eugene, contrary to many reports, isn’t actually dead. It just might be, to borrow a timeless phrase, mostly dead — and that’s if you use a generous definition of “mostly.” To too many people, downtown is defined not by what is there, but by what isn’t: by the gaping pits and dark storefronts where more shops, more housing, more offices and more restaurants ought to be. But the people who see only those things are missing out. Just a block away from those pits, more cafés and restaurants are cropping up; there are plenty of places to buy a book, among other things. But what the center of downtown really has in abundance are bars. People underestimate bars, especially those that are hard to see into. Lord only knows what goes on in them, right? Well, after a week (give or take a few days) spent hopping from one bar to the next, I’m here to tell you: Downtown Eugene’s nightlife is vibrant, varied, essential, welcoming and, in the just the right amounts, strange, charming and a far cry from dead. Downtown’s bars are full of students, artists, musicians, writers, service industry folk, ordinary guys who just want a beer, barely-legal drinkers celebrating birthdays and, as Chuck Adams’ sidebar explains, a generous handful of booty-shakers. Don’t be afraid. Just stroll past the kids on the sidewalk — the ones playing beaten-up guitars and putting cigarettes in the mouth of that cute little bear sculpture — and head on in.*
This particular evening, the magic hour seems to hit Davis’ just as 11 pm rolls in. Before then, the place is more full than not, but slightly mellow; the music is fit for a quiet scene in a James Bond flick: a little sultry, a little mellow, priming for a seduction. We sit at the bar talking about food and watching the bartenders, licking our fingers to remove the dripping remnants of sugared rims. But as the hour changes over, the music shifts; aggressive beats and vocals drag the melodies into hip hop territory as the clientele thickens and the number of girls in black strappy tops is equaled by the number of young men in hoodies. Davis’ does one of the best jobs of segueing into nighttime; at lunch, you’ll see city employees, tattooed rollergirls and, er, a pair of EW writers postponing deadlines with a bottle of wine, all sharing a space that feels, with the sun pouring in, like one spacious room. At night, the pockets of space — the corner with two cozy booths; the long, welcoming bar; the simple tables beneath hanging metal light fixtures — divide themselves more definitely, and a few people slip off to the relative quiet of the side room. You make a space for yourself here, and how you fill it is up to you.
|Playing Big Buck Hunter Pro at Horsehead
At the Horsehead, everything makes us laugh. In a good way. We order fried pickles, of course, and find they’ve changed the way they’re made: slices instead of wedges. “Less pickle, more fry,” my companion observes. Three girls with fashion-victim purses (gold straps, quilted sides) walk in and out of the pool room. Eventually, they stop nearby, and whenever I look at them, I see one laughing in mock shock, her hand over her mouth. I point this out to my fellow drinker, who tells me, “They’re talking about discharge. That could account for that face.” Later, a wall of middle-aged men stands between us and the pool table. We dub the group “Jonathan Wall-Ass” and wish fervently that they’d move.
The Horsehead boasts what might be Eugene’s best indoor people watching. Girls in various gauges of fishnet tights teeter between the bar and the back smoking patio, which is newly enclosed by green shrubs rather than the old, weather-beaten fence. Men in tie-dye shoot pool with a girl a foot taller than any of them; she’s got the kind of warm friendliness that makes her easy to joke around with even though we’ve never seen her before and probably never will again. A thirtysomething guy with long brown hair meanders slowly from one room to the next, and we rack our brains trying to figure out why he looks familiar. “He looks like Dan from Deadwood!” I finally say. My companion shakes his head. He does look like Deadwood Dan, but he also works at a local guitar shop.
When Deadwood Dan adds his name to the pool list, we watch silently, then stare at each other as he chalks each letter. D — A — N.
Sunday is a day of rest. Also basketball. It’s like religion. But different.
|Sophie Navarro drawing at the bar at John Henry’s
We are terrible concertgoers. We make careful plans to arrive just on time to see whoever we want to see, and we always mess up. We walk into John Henry’s to find Ingrid Michaelson already on stage — and the place packed. Last May, there were just enough people here for Michaelson’s show to line the bar and the tables set up on the dance floor. We estimate there are at least four times as many people in the dark bar tonight. Up front, there are fans who know every word. At the bar, we discuss the importance of catchiness and watch artist Sophie Navarro draw in her sketchbook. In the back, there are people playing pool. There are always people playing pool in the back of John Henry’s, enjoying the way the music mutes itself as it hits the fans by the bar and the tiered rows of booths. Once upon a time, John Henry’s was open even when they didn’t have events, the pinball table and frequently free pool creating a siren song in combination with the strong drinks and the perfect dive-bar atmosphere. Now, I’m only at John Henry’s for a show now and then. I look at the angled ceiling, plastered with posters above the bar, and imagine I’m in the top of a giant warehouse in a city somewhere. I like this idea.
Michaelson finishes, and the headliner hasn’t half her personality. We make an early exit and find, at home, that our clothes smell of smoke. It’s that kind of bar. I like that kind of bar.
At 8-ish on a Tuesday, Jameson’s is more empty than not, but they’re playing the stereo to a fuller bar. It seems to be metal night: Metallica, songs I faintly remember from years past … and Ugly Kid Joe? I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard this song in public before. My colleague Chuck has never heard it before, period. We’re here after a Tuesday evening fencing class, desperate for sustenance. Around the perfectly-lit space, small groups stand and chatter in between turns at darts, hover outside on the patio for a smoke or lounge on the small group of couches by the door. Jameson’s is dominated by its bar and, like most of the bars downtown, decorated heavily with red. It’s hard to pay attention, though I know I ought to. I’m starving, and then, when a third colleague arrives, I’m distracted by talking about work. I’m at a bar for work, and I’m talking about work. I need to get out more.
|Bingo at Eugene City Brewery
G48 is my nemesis. I’ve made a total amateur bingo player’s move: I’ve cleared my card before the potential winner has had her card checked. When she’s off by a square, the first number the bingo calls is G48, which, naturally, is the number I needed to win. I curse mightily and rue the bingo gods.
Bingo Night at Eugene City Brewery — which I invariably refer to just as Rogue — is very different from Bingo Night at Sam Bond’s. For one thing, I’ve never heard someone at Sam Bond’s yell, “Holla!” every time she gets a square. For another, they don’t give away vintage stand mixers and mounted antlers at Rogue, just gift certificates you may use for beer. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The crowd in Rogue’s cafeteria-like space is highly, highly collegiate. A row of tables pushed together is home to a 21st birthday party. Oregon sweatshirts, knee-high boots pulled on over jeans and flowy shirts dominate. When it comes time for two tied players to face off for a prize, twentysomething guys tell jokes that are not only horribly unfunny but astonishingly sexist. I want to tell a bad Michael Jackson joke just to break up the cracks about stupid blondes and noisy wives. Note to bingo players: Write down your jokes ahead of time. And make them good ones. Please.
Before the UO men beat Arizona State:
“If you promise we can go to two bars tomorrow, we don’t have to go out after the game tonight.”
” … “
“OK, OK. I promise.”
Just two bars? Let’s try three. But we go to the wrong bars, to places we’ve already been this week. We start out in the right place, though: at Starlight Lounge, just after work. Starlight is not always this quiet. We’ve been here later on a Friday when it was busy enough that we counted ourselves lucky to find a chair or two against a wall somewhere. Tonight, we have our run of the place and plop ourselves into two heavy chairs in the bar. My companion says that the Starlight’s wood-paneled bar, classy and classic, is ideal, and I agree. Our accommodating bartender mixes our off-the-list (the list is nice, but I want tart and he wants to feel like Ernest Hemingway) cocktails and insists that we taste them to make sure they’re good. They are.
The days of $1 Ninkasi at all times are long gone, but there are still deals at the Starlight, which is a funny mix of old-fashioned bar and the couch-strewn lounge area near the front. Sometimes, the clientele feels like it’s partially made up of people scared off by the number of tattoos across the street at Horsehead. Tonight, pairs of friends and couples trickle in, ordering Tic-Tacs and pints. We don’t know what the music is, but we like it. We like everything. And then we get hungry. Nachos at the Horsehead are followed by a couple of games of pool, which I lose horribly, and then a jaunt across the street to trivia at Rogue. It’s less packed than I’d expect for a First Friday, but it is raining. We sit at the bar and can barely hear Mr. Bill. It doesn’t matter. We never win anyway.
More basketball. The Oregon men hold fast against Arizona, and my NCAA tournament hopes are raised ever so slightly.
|Couple at SNAFU
We venture downtown as 10 pm approaches. I’m feeling bad that I forgot to tell Chuck to go to SNAFU and then, when we figured out that it’s only open certain nights, he couldn’t go those nights. So we walk past. But I’m tired and it’s loud and I guess I’m really old. I also don’t really dance. At least not in public. Sorry, SNAFU. We owe you a beer.
At Luckey’s, the doorman says “There’s a $5 cover.” This always confuses us. The bar’s calendars say $3-$5. My companion points this out, and the doorman semi-grudgingly allows that we might pay $3. Then he tells us about the drink specials.
Luckey’s, we decide later, is a great place frequented by people who seem unaware of what kind of place it is. It’s a live music venue and a bar, but more often than not, at least half the patrons seem unconcerned about the band onstage. The pool players are not here for the music. The nervous looking girls working the dresses-over-jeans look don’t appear to be here for the music. It’s cool, I guess. The band will play anyway. We stand by the unused snooker table and wonder aloud why the fantastic old booths — which made the place feel delightfully pubby — were replaced with black couches. The black couches are breeding. Their offspring lurk at Starlight, ready to swallow denim-clad asses whole. We keep standing and feel thankful for the coathooks on the wall. Luckey’s is a first cousin to my favorite city dive bars, just twice as big and half as expensive. Which, come to think of it, is true of most of the bars I’ve been to in the last week. One more reason to love them.
*This paragraph has been changed to more accurately reflect the writer’s intent