Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Trip to Eugene

My first real contact with Eugene was in 1972 when I visited a friend who lived at a co-ed cooperative called Campbell Club. The whole thing seemed like such an arty oasis that U of O became the only school I wanted to go to and CC was where I wanted to be. I fell in love at first site in their kitchen. He was already taken – by an older, wiser college girl. Of course I was a dork of a high school sophomore at the time but this did not stop me. When I moved to Eugene in January 1974, it was in with him.

It has literally been decades since I have been back. I decided to use my time off from KBOO this past Tuesday for a visit.

When I lived there it still had the old, classic touches in its structure of a frat house – brownish, clean and full of alcoves. Some of the alcoves still held old phones, the only phones we had back then. Most of those formal remnants are almost demolished now under coats of paint and graffiti, I mean wall to wall to ceiling. I never could find the room, recognize it, where I had lost my virginity. I tried to imagine myself cooking for 40 kids as I had done on Sundays in that kitchen.

A young woman gave me a tour and I was able to meet residents along the way. Actually, most of them claimed to not be residents – they were just passing through. I think that must be the nature of Eugene in general during the summer. There was never a lot of permanency back in the day and that doesn’t seem to have changed. In fact one young man observed that Eugene was the place to maybe drop out of school and I realized that for many of us, he was right.

But the biggest change for me at Campbell Club was the mindset, not the external factors. Sure, we had weed and a vegetarian chef back then. We were way ahead the curve in many ways. But we also had a crew of students who were our accountants, who already had a certain path of success scripted into their brains, who probably went on to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980. And I don’t think that kind of diversity in a group was a bad thing at all. Could you have that kind of mix now? I don't think so.

Back then CC was across from a big expanse of tennis courts. I remember how they were lit every night throughout the summer. It felt so luxurious and it’s the only time in my life that I played tennis. As to expanse, it was all over the campus and I was saddened to see how much of it was cut up and into.

The museum did not let me down though. Now known as the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, it held a great Asian art collection. It still does but you can also see cool contemporary art exhibitions. I loved the Warhol/Van Sant show that’s up right now, giving us great pics of celebrity close and far, local and global. There in the grid of Van Sant was the fabulous Jeffrey Kyle and Tom Cramer, right in the mix with the movie stars.

The only thing left for me was lunch and I had but one destination. A café which still called itself The Excelsior, but it was not the same as it is Italian. Back then, it was called “The Chez Panisse of the Northwest.” Strong words, completely accurate. I had no idea back in 1972 what Chez Panisse was, I only knew I had never eaten like that before. French but now we know, not quite. The movement for local ingredients had begun. But it was probably my first espresso, my first Vouvray, my first many things.

In 1977 I decided I would live in Paris for awhile and became an au pair. My bon voyage party was at The Excelsior. In a special room, we carried on into the night. By the time we were closing all the waiters were smoking joints with us. When I told this to my new friends at Campbell Club, they said things like that happen all the time in Eugene. Maybe so, but this was a French restaurant. Waiters were all in black and white. It was West Coast but it still had a certain formality. By ’77 I had really put in my time at that café – to smoke with me must have been a sign that I had truly arrived.

1 comment:

Hilary Pfeifer said...

Oh yeah....lots of cocaine too at the Ex. My best friend worked there when we were teens. Thanks for this snapshot of my hometown!