Oregon Tavern Age: Empire Firsts

Sunday afternoon. The Empire District of Coos Bay. Urban renewal money spruced up the area not too long ago, including a gleaming new sewage treatment plant, but Empire still had the required grit to support an OTA joint. I decided that after driving through the district dozens of times the past two decades, it was time for a stop and search.

I parked my car off the main drag. No one was around. Coos Bay winds whipped through the streets. Scents of brine, fish processing, cannabis, conifers and exhaust fumes combined to create a titillating coastal perfume.

A minute later, I walked into O’ Brady’s and instantly recognized a quality OTA joint. There was a long wooden bar with five OTAs in conversation, worn plank flooring, one pool table, a stuffed bobcat straddling a piece of driftwood high on a wall, and an impressive display of Jim Beam commemorative bottles, once a decorative staple in OTA country, but disappearing, as are Jim Beam drinkers.

The day’s lunch specials were written on a fancy board:

Homemade chili

Chili con carne

Chili and chips


Chili cheese fries

Chili to go

Chili corn dog

That was it—nothing but chili on the menu—another first in my OTA adventures.

I went up to the bar and met the bartender. She was wearing a short, black, macrame skirt—first time for that in OTA country. She greeted me like an old boyfriend and said her name was Jody. She had the sweetest-sounding bartender voice I’d ever heard in OTA country. It was a late-night, FM radio voice from the 1970s. I could listen to her talk about Led Zeppelin’s deep cuts for hours.

Jody set me up with an ale and then I repaired to the far wall, where several small and circular cushioned chair/stools, wooden on top, wrought iron at the base, were bolted to the floor. They were unlike any furniture I’d ever seen in OTA country and intrigued me. I sat down on one. It tilted and half spun, almost like an amusement park ride in hick county fair. I found myself smiling as a result.

A large OTA man in gray sweatpants commanded my attention. He was drinking beer from what appeared to be a hand-crafted, wooden and metallic goblet—something I’d never previously witnessed. I eavesdropped and learned he made the goblets, and, in fact, a young man at the bar was asking about them and admiring one, holding it aloft. I wanted one.

I got up to investigate the joint’s décor more closely. In short order, I encountered a framed poem adorned with a beautiful line illustration of a shrimp boat.

The poet’s name was Dale Cody and the poem was titled “Storms.”

I read it and fixated on a line: Will I bend or break?

That about sums up the eternal question facing every American in these times that try our souls. Will you break under the onslaught of fascism? Will you bend to help pick up your fellow American, or better yet, fellow non-Americans?

I encountered another framed Dale Cody poem, an elegy for an O’ Brady’s OTA regular, Sandy, who had passed away.

Dale was O’ Brady’s house bard. He was an OTA poet and undoubtedly dead. I wished I could have met Dale because I had some of my writing framed in OTA joints as well. We might have been the only writers to claim that distinction and I considered it a unique Oregon literary award that I alone had won—until now. I took great comfort in knowing there was a co-winner.

I went up to the bar and sat down. Jody materialized within seconds. She reminded me of my old girlfriend, Janet, who had died from cancer 25 years ago. I’d blown it with Janet, like I’d blown it with so many wonderful women over the years. And here I was alone.

Jody glanced at my notebook and I detected curiosity in her eyeliner eyes. I let slip I was working on book about places like O’ Brady’s, but didn’t have an Empire joint story in the book.

She wouldn’t stand for that oversight. She glided around from behind the bar and offered me a tour. Another first. I agreed. It was also my first tour narrated by a tour guide sashaying in a black macrame skirt.

Jody led the way to the row of mysterious chair/stools and explained they were salvaged from a shipwreck. She pointed to a framed newspaper article on the wall. I read it. In 1962, MS Alaska Cedar struck the North Jetty of Coos Bay and died on the rocks. Decades later, the owners of O’ Brady’s hauled the chair/stools into the joint and they were now bolted to the floor. Jody sat down on one of them and spun right, then spun left. She was smiling. Black macrame was blowin’ in the wind.

“Can you image what went on in these chairs at sea?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. That was all I could get out.

Jody played on the chair/stool a little longer and then continued the tour. She kept telling stories and introducing me to the regulars and a couple of long-time bartenders, including a 75-year-old woman who was still trucking on the day shift. The regulars started riffing more stories and told me about another OTA joint down the block that I simply had to visit. In fact, the veteran bartender got on the phone and called the joint, the Silver Dollar, and told them to expect me. Yet another first.

I asked about Dave. Jody told me he was alive! He came in every morning for a beer and left without saying much. My kind of poet.

The young man at the bar chimed in that Dave had written an unpublished manuscript about the illustrious McCullough Bridge in North Bend, an Art Deco masterpiece built in the New Deal with New Deal socialist ideals. Dave had given him a copy to read but he’d never got around to it.

I wrote and published a book about another Art Deco bridge masterpiece on the Oregon Coast, the Yaquina Bay Bridge, in Newport, designed by Oregon’s master bridge builder, Conde McCullough.

This was no accident, like meeting Jody was no accident. I knew then and there I had to meet Dave. I had to shake his hand and get a copy of his manuscript. I had to drink a beer with him and talk all things poetry and Conde McCullough. I might even abandon my vegetarianism for the homemade chili. It was probably made from elk.

It was time to leave but I needed some additional information before I departed.

I asked Jody what time O’ Brady’s opened. “Ten in the morning.”

I asked her what time it closed. “Whenever we feel like it.”

I almost asked her another question.