When I lived in San Jose, I rarely met anyone I knew outside of the expected places: work, church, groups I belonged to. When I visit now, I occasionally see people who look like I might know them from somewhere, but I’m not sure. Even if I did know them, it’s unlikely that either of us will acknowledge the other’s existence. That’s life in a big city. With so many people, the odds are good that everyone you meet will be a stranger.
Here in Newport, Oregon, however, it’s a completely different story. It didn’t take long after I started attending Sacred Heart to build a new church family. I soon acquired new writing, music, and yoga friends, too, and I got to know the neighbors right away. When you share a pocket of the forest with just a handful of other families, you talk to each other.
The cool thing about living here or in any small town is that you constantly run into people you know. Yesterday, for example, I went to Rite Aid after Mass to fill a prescription. I met another member of the church choir there, stocking up on bargains for his grandkids. The lady in front of me in line works at the library, and sitting at the blood pressure machine was my neighbor, Bob. Each person had time to stop and talk.
It’s always that way. If I go to lunch, the person seating me knows that I need a large iced tea, stat, and someone I know will be seated at one or more of the tables. At the grocery store, Deb the checker always asks about my dog. If I don’t know somebody, that’s okay, because strangers actually talk to each other here. It’s not for nothing that Newport’s slogan is “The friendliest.”
I like this. It makes me feel that wherever I go, I’m not alone. Of course, it also means everyone knows what I’m up to, but that’s okay. For me, it’s worth losing a little privacy.
I’m a stealth fireworks watcher. Just about every year, I watch at least one display, but I rarely pay admission and I don’t join the crowds in the official seating area, even when it’s free. What usually happens is this: I decide that this year I don’t need to see fireworks in person. Heck, they’re on every other channel on TV. However, as I start hearing popping noises outside, I start itching to go outside. As predictable as “Stars and Stripes Forever,” I’m heading out the door at the last minute, thinking, I’ve got to see some fireworks.
I have watched fireworks from bridges, parking lots, decks, porches, and my parents’ front lawn. It’s not that I’m not willing to pay for a show. It’s that I hate crowds, and every year I really do think that I don’t mind staying home.
Last night, I really tried. I turned out all the lights, cranked up the volume on the John Philip Sousa songs and told myself I was getting a free show in the comfort of my home. But it wasn’t the same, and Newport’s fireworks extravaganza was about to begin. Pretty soon, I was putting on my shoes. That got the dog all excited. Unlike my previous dogs, Annie is bold when it comes to gunshots, lightning and firework, so I leashed her up. As we headed out, she sat bravely next to me on the passenger seat, her head scanning from side to side with every passing car.
A few years ago, when I was driving toward Yaquina bay, where they shoot off the fireworks here, I saw flashes above the trees and realized that if I parked at the Post Office, I could get a pretty good view. So we parked there again, merging into a row of government vehicles. I slid down in my seat lest a passing police officer grow curious about why one of the cars was occupied. But the dog wouldn’t get down. After all this time screaming “Sit!” at her, that’s all she wanted to do.
At exactly 10:00, the show started. “Look, Annie!” I said. And she looked. From my scooched-down position, I couldn’t see over her head. Dang tall dog. But it didn’t matter anyway. Over the years, some of those trees have grown so high that they blocked most of the fireworks.
It was time to find another location. Quickly. As I drove north, my eyes were more on the fireworks than on the road. I tried a pull-off beside the road. Not bad, but too likely to get me arrested. Then I had an inspiration. Since last year, a new community college was built up the hill a few blocks south of the bridge. The road to the campus was steep. I turned there. Oooh, ooh, good view. A family was parked off to the side, sitting in folding chairs beside their van. But there wasn’t enough room for us, so I kept going. If I went even higher . . . Nuts. The road turned and I lost visual contact. Quick. Turn around. Drive back down the hill. I turned into a driveway that didn’t go anywhere. Nope, electrical towers in the way. A little farther. Another driveway. No, nothing. I turned into a graveled road behind some kind of industrial building. Yes!
We had a perfect view. Annie and I leaned toward the front window, soaking up the colors in the sky. Ooh. Wow. Cool. Starbursts, flowers, weeping willows, rings, spiders. Between blasts of fireworks, I glanced around nervously, rehearsing my speech. “Uh, officer . . .” But maybe they were all on the Bayfront supervising the crowds. One hoped.
Bam, bam, bam-bam-bam-bam-bam. An orgasmic burst of color marked the end of the show. We scooted down the hill and into the line of cars heading south, pitying all those folks who walked a mile and sat for hours waiting to see fireworks. Annie’s eyes, sparkling in the headlights, scanned the sky for more.
On my long drives to and from Salem last month, I saw some amazing things. One of the wildest was a guy dressed up like the Statue of Liberty. He was advertising a tax preparation service. I had stopped at a light on Lancaster, and there he was. By the time I got my camera out, he had almost moved out of frame, but if you look closely, you’ll see him all in green.
Another guy nearly caused an accident. I was just driving onto the Yaquina Bridge here in Newport on my way to church, when I saw a group coming out of the Seafood and Wine Festival. One of them, a young man, had his pants down so low his entire butt cheeks were showing. He was clutching his pants in front. I don’t understand what was going on. Were his jeans severely damaged? Did he do it on a dare? Was he that drunk?
Sometimes I just see beautiful things, like a great sunset. As I came up over the hill and down into Newport, there it was. I changed course and drove straight to Yaquina Bay State Park where I snapped this shot.
Keep your eyes open, folks. There’s always something to see.
The other day I took my dog Annie to the beach. Who should be unloading his dog from the van next to my car but my vet, Dr. Hurty with his wife and daughter. I immediately glanced at Annie’s midsection and realized she was still a little chubby. Oh, I wanted her to obey me perfectly, but what dog is calm when she arrives at the B-E-A-C-H? She flew out in an explosion of legs and tan fur, scratched up the back of Honda Element and pulled so hard I almost fell down.
“She’s solid, isn’t she?” the vet said.
“Yes,” I gasped, struggling to hold on. Bellowing “Heel!” right now would do no good.
We hurried up the dune and down onto the beach, where the wind had whipped the sand into peaks and valleys. The tide was way out, but we followed the water until Annie was knee deep and clearly wanted to go farther. My shoes and socks were already soaked, so we walked and ran and jumped waves and then sat for a while in the sand. Coming in for a face lick, she covered me with the stuff. And then we walked up the trail back to the parking lot. By then, Annie was behaving perfectly. Heel, sit, stand, down, wait, no problem. I really wanted the vet to see it, but as we approached our car, he was driving away.
She can be good. Really she can.
In a small town like Newport, you run into someone you know every time you leave the house. Back in San Jose, your dog might poop on someone’s lawn and you might ignore it, knowing no one would ever trace it back to you. But here, I have learned the value of carrying plastic bags. I don’t dare leave the poo, not when the person coming up behind me is probably somebody who knows me from church or a writing class or some story I did years ago. We leave nothing but footprints. And maybe a little drool from the dog’s long, dripping tongue.
When we got home, Annie ran out to meet her brother Chico. He immediately sniffed her legs and feet, as if to say, “Hey, where did you go?” Panting, tongue still out, she just grinned.
With my father and brother coming to visit this week, I was able to buy my father a birthday present that would never survive a trip through the mail. Due to water rationing in San Jose, Dad’s planning to tear up his back lawn and put in gravel with some flowers and something in the middle. I thought, why not a statue?
Pottery World is an oddity between the smoke shop and the pet grooming place near NE 9th Street and 101 in Newport. They have all these statues in various states of disarray. Pieces of broken pottery litter the ground. I found a great Jesus with a missing foot. A sign in one area proclaimed: “Distressed, let’s make a deal.” Actually, everything’s a little distressed, having been out in the weather for God knows how long. There’s no logic to the prices. I paid $30 for a two-foot-tall St. Francis or St. Something, who weighs about 50 pounds. Other less impressive pieces cost nearly $200.
The sales staff is one blond boy about 11 years old, who comes up to people with the standard line: “If you’ve got any questions, just ask.” I think his mom works in the smoke shop across the street. When we bought “Stoney,” the dog I purchased as a memorial when our real dog Sadie died, he ran over there to get change. This time, I gave him $30 cash. “Do you want your dollar?” the kid asked. Of course I said no.
I saw a bench with a monkey head, cherubs and cats, bird baths, Chinese icons, squirrels and saints, Virgin Marys, sun faces, vases, chairs, everything made out of clay or formed concrete. My shoes crunched on broken pieces and cobwebs grabbed at my arms. I don’t know where this stuff comes from, but it seems to sit there until it gets sold or disintegrates.
I don’t have a receipt or anything. St. Whoever spent two days wrapped in a plaid blanket in the back of my car, looking like a dead guy. Now he’s hiding behind a box in the garage until Dad’s birthday comes—and until I figure out how to get the price off his head.
Sea Towne, a maze of bleached-board ramps and stairways, with a lifelike wooden sailor sitting in the courtyard, and soft music playing from hidden speakers, is Newport’s only so-called mall, but like the wood it’s made out of it, this charming sea of shops on Highway 101 between Subway and Sears has been fading for a long time.
Before my twice-monthly meetings in one of the offices there, I often stop at the Sea Towne bookstore. Owner Bill Terry has been a great supporter of local authors, hosting book-signings, displaying our works prominently, welcoming us like old friends. Since he first heard about Stories Grandma Never Told, my book about Portuguese women, he always says the same thing: Did I tell you my ex-wife was Portuguese? Yes, I say, you did.
In November, I did a signing there to promote A Cup of Comfort for Families Touched by Alzheimer’s. The handful of sales I made that day were the only sales, he said. As I sat at my little table with my books spread before me, I noticed some of the shelves were bare. The faltering economy, plus the growing trend to buy books from the big online outlets, has hit independent bookstores hard. Why drive all the way to Sea Towne, where you probably won’t find the book you’re looking for, when you can order it from Amazon with a few keystrokes?
So yesterday, I was sad but not surprised to find Bill’s old store empty. A sign on the window noted that the future occupants had applied for a liquor license. Another sign, handwritten in black felt pen, noted that the bookstore had moved “around the corner.”
I followed the signs until I discovered Bill’s new store. It’s much smaller, the walls inside a startling shade of yellow. There was Bill, leaning on the counter. He had planned to go out of business at the end of last year, he said. Nobody was buying, and with the snow that smacked Oregon during the holidays, the Christmas rush never happened. He’s still trying to figure out how to fit his books into the reduced space. Four banks of magazines have been reduced to one, and the children’s section, once a sizable nook, is just one wall now. Right away Bill started apologizing for not having my books in a prominent display. No, no, no, I said. It’s still here; that’s all that matters.
I’ll be honest. I buy most of my books from Amazon.com. It’s just easier, but I ordered three from Bill in December and another one yesterday. If nobody shops at the bookstores, they’ll disappear.
The bookstore isn’t the only Sea Towne shop experiencing a sea change. The dog boutique is gone. Charisma Gifts has moved out. Several offices upstairs are vacant. As usual, I saw no one at the restaurant where the owners valiantly put up mouth-watering menus every day, serving a handful of customers at most.
Sea Towne still has a clothing shop, a home decorating business, a dance studio and numerous psychiatrists’ and counselors’ offices. I believe the key shop, a tiny cubbyhole opposite the elevator, is still going but it’s only open sporadically.
Sea Towne is becoming a ghost town, haunted by that wooden sailor who looks so real I always feel as if I need to say hello. My footsteps echo on the wooden planks. It feels as if everyone else has jumped ship.