I found myself heading towards the Hawthorne area – hipster central. There was a Powell’s bookstore in there, and that was the perfect place to browse, wander and forget the real world.
I spent nearly two hours browsing in the book store, and managed to come away with only two books. When I emerged, it was almost noon, and I was starting to get hungry. There was a place on the corner that sold New York-style pizza by the slice. I wandered down past the Bagdad Theatre and towards the pizza joint. On my way there, I met Johnny Benigni, who was sitting on the curb reading a newspaper.
This actually wasn’t much of a surprise. The corner of Hawthorne and 37th had been dubbed “Karma Corner” by local author Chuck Palahniuk. After Fight Club got made into a movie, Palahniuk had written a book called Fugitives and Refugees, which was his guidebook to Portland. One of the places he mentioned was the “Karma Corner” at 37th and Hawthorne, where you tended to run into people from your past. I scoffed at this at first, but then I ran into three ex-girlfriends on three consecutive trips there. Of course, it’s a busy intersection in a popular neighborhood, but after that, I started think that Chuck might be on to something.
“Johnny B!” I exclaimed. “What’s the haps, my man?”
“Carlos, hi!” he responded. He stood up, zippers and rings on his black leather jacket jingling. He was dark-haired and dark complected, with B-movie star good looks. He worked the rockabilly look, favoring black leather, jeans and a modified DA haircut. He waved the paper he been reading. “Just reading about the shit going on downtown.”
It had been a rough couple of years for Portland – especially downtown. The pandemic had subsided, and only about half of the people you saw on the streets or in the stores were wearing masks now. However, the protests in the city were back in full force, and they usually devolved into spasms of violence and vandalism. Also, there was concern about a possible serial killer stalking the seamier neighborhoods downtown. The cops were being tightlipped about the situation, and a lot of people thought that is was just sensationalism on behalf of the local press.
“Fuck that noise,” I said. “I’m trying to avoid bumming myself out today. I was just gonna grab a slice,” I said, nodding to the Plisskin’s Pizza storefront. “Wanna join me?”
“Well, I’m not hungry,” he said. “But I’ll grab a soda and hang out.”
I got a couple of big, oily slices of pepperoni and Johnny got a waxed paper tub of Pepsi, and we settled into the corner booth by the window. We exchanged the usual pleasantries: what’s going on, enjoying the day off, weather could be better, but waddaya expect for winter in Oregon? At least it’s not snowing and it’s barely even raining.
There was a lull in the conversation, and we both spent a few minutes watching people hurrying by in the misting rain. Along with the coffee shop cattycorner across the intersection, Plisskin’s was one of the best people-watching spots in the city. True to Palahniuk’s observation, I spotted three people I knew – including my ex, Céline.
“Hey, didn’t you go out with that chick?” asked Johnny, jerking his chin at her form receding into the gray afternoon.
“Yeah, that’s right. I haven’t seen much of her since we broke up.”
“When was that?”
“I dunno,” I said. “About a year ago, I guess. Why’re you so interested?”
He shrugged elaborately, making his zippers jingle. “I see her around sometimes,” he said. “She seems pretty cool. Certainly easy on the eyes.”
“Well, she does have that going for her,” I admitted. “But she could be mean if she didn’t get what she wanted. I’m talkin’ really mean.” I recalled a particularly ugly incident one night when I’d had a little too much booze and had some trouble getting it up. She was especially sharp-tongued – she’d had plenty of booze, too, but didn’t have to worry about whiskey droop. I shook my head, remembering.
“Yeah, I broke up with her right after Janet showed up at that PE get-together in the park,” I said. “Remember that?”
“Oh, yeah!” said Johnny. “I was half in the bag that afternoon. I think I was the first to get to the park that day, and was really pounding the Weinhard’s Private Reserves. I couldn’t believe it when this hot-looking chick showed up. I mean, she’d IMed me on FB, and told me she was coming, but I didn’t believe she’d show up. Or that she was such a looker.”
“I remember that you were kind of a dick to her,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I guess I kinda was,” Said Johnny. “Like I said, I was pretty wasted, and I kinda got it in my head that she was a spy that those PDXO dorks sent to scope us out.
The PDX Occult group was the “rival” of our Portland Esoterica. Nobody in our group actually took this rivalry seriously. We had bumped into them at an “Alternative Healing” expo at Portland State. Johnny had bagged us a display table for twenty bucks. He had cobbled together a “Wheel of Wisdom” game from a bicycle wheel and a camera tripod and gotten a big bag of knickknacks from the dollar store. It was a great way to meet people (mostly women). We’d spent the afternoon running the wheel, secretly drinking vodka and talking utter bullshit to passersby.
The PDX Occult group had a table at the same event, and they kept cruising by our table and giving us the stink-eye. Johnny sent out a group text, and pretty soon our whole crew was on the scene; we were sending folks around to the PDXO table to give them the stink-eye or ask them ridiculous questions.
We discovered later that the PDXO people were genuinely upset by the encounter. We found out that they had actually sent people to our gatherings to “collect information.” If so, they didn’t learn much more than the fact that we liked to get loaded in the park and talk about geek stuff. Still, the notion that someone had been spying on our group really irked Johnny, and it had taken him a while to get over it.
“So, yeah, I guess I was kind of a jerk when she first showed up,” admitted Johnny. “Still, she didn’t seem too pissed about. I ended up taking her out a time or two.”
“Really?” I asked, amazed.
“Yeah, sure, why not? She’s cool. I could tell right off the bat that there wasn’t any chemistry, but she was still, y’know, fun to hang out with.” He took a long gurgling slurp of his Pepsi. “Y’know, now that I think about it, you and Malcolm are the only ones I know of who haven’t asked her out.”
This floored me. I took a huge chomp from my slice and spent some time masticating it. I was tempted to tell Johnny about my encounter with Janet at Malcolm’s earlier that day, but I decided against it. I had known Malcolm longer than anyone else in the PE group, and talking out of school seemed like a betrayal of trust. Also, Johnny was an inveterate gossip, and he would have told half the city by sundown, given the chance. Seeing as how Malcolm was already acting pissy towards me, something like that might cause even bigger problems.
On the other hand, Johnny might have some useful information. “Shit, maybe I should ask her out,” I said finally. “Do you know if she’s, like, seeing anyone right now?”
He shrugged, and again the zippers on his jacket jingled. “Ain’t my turn to watch her, bro,” he said. “Couldn’t hurt to ask, though. She doesn’t seem to be too, y’know, exclusive. Not saying she’s a slut or anything like that – not at all. Just that she’s friendly and willing to give people a chance. I’ve got her number if you want it.” He pulled out his phone and waved it enticingly.
“Yeah, sure, why not?” I entered the number into my own phone as he read out the digits. When he finished, I said, “So things didn’t work out between you two, huh?”
“I never thought it would, to be honest. She’s an uptown girl, y’know what I mean? I think she’s lookin’ for someone with more than a community college degree and job working road crew for the city. Still, it was fun to hang out with her. Especially if you got a couple of margaritas in her.”
He leered, and I decided to let the subject drop. Maybe I did have a chance with Janet, though: I had a journalism degree from the University of Oregon, and a decent-paying job for a big athletic wear maker out in the ‘burbs. I paused, realizing that I was now thinking of Janet as a potential girlfriend. I shook my head, trying to clear the thought out. I could mull over the implications of this later.
I polished off my slice of pizza as Johnny shlurped up the rest of his Pepsi. We rose to leave. “Well, good luck with Céline,” I said.
“Yeah, it was just a passing thought,” he said. “I’ve actually been seeing a woman I met at work. Another community service victim, so you know she’s a bad girl.” He gave another leer.
“Good deal, King Leer,” I said. “You’ll have to bring her out to the next PE meeting.”
“Yeah, whenever that happens to be,” he said, waving at the sky, which was beginning to cloud up. “Still. We could have it somewhere indoors, I guess. The Rotten Retriever’s got space, and their pretty tolerant of strange behavior.”
“As long as someone’s buying beer, what’s the problem?”
“None whatsofucking ever,” said Johnny. “I’ll set something up. Gotta bounce, Carlos. See ya around.” He stood up and jingle-jangled his way to the door. I spent a few minutes just relaxing, not really wanting to get on with my day. Then I noticed the darkening sky and decided to get on home before things got ugly.