Oregon Tavern Age: Cowbell

An OTA man dressed in tan Carhartts and a blue flannel shirt drank white wine at a table, somewhere in remote OTA country, nearly off the grid, so off the grid that the precise location no longer registers with me. The room was dark and an OTA man played guitar in a corner and crooned a decent version of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

I sat a table away and drank an ale. There were five other people in the room.

The wine vanished. The bartender appeared and the man ordered a bloody mary. She placed a menu on the table. He picked up the menu and looked at it in the most curious way. I couldn’t fathom the reason.

Bowie drifted into Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” The bloody mary materialized and he downed most of it with a single gulp. He went back to the menu and I still couldn’t comprehend his reading method and I used to be a reading comprehension teacher.

It hit me: he couldn’t read. He was sort of pretending to read the menu. I’d never seen an illiterate adult trying to read, or faking it, let alone in a bar, but I was sure he couldn’t read. It was the way his eyes moved and his fingers traced the menu. I’d seen it before.

The bartender came over. The man handed her the menu.

“Why don’t you order me something you like?” he said.

“Oh sure, no problem. How about the club sandwich?” she said.

“Fine. I’d like fries with that and another glass of wine and another bloody mary.”

The singer launched into Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’”

A few minutes later, another OTA man joined the man at the table. He was carrying a small black pouch. He ordered a beer from the bartender and then extracted a cowbell from the pouch.

I did a double take. I’ve seen a lot in OTA country over the years but the illiterate man drinking white wine had thrown me a bit. Now, I had someone who was going to sit in with a cowbell. How many classic rock songs would lend themselves to that treatment? Perhaps there was a whole set with cowbell as the featured instrument! Perhaps a 30-minute version of “Don’t Fear the Reaper!”

My beer was gone. I got up to leave and then immediately sat down. I was suddenly giddy to hear the cowbell and I also felt incredible empathy for the man who couldn’t read. It was a weird contrast of feelings, but contrasts create friction and friction fires interesting stories. I sat five feet away from one that was about to ratchet up, way up.

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