The Old Crow Book Club Final

What follows is the complete story of the Old Crow Book Club that I started on the blog but finished on my New American Diaspora newsletter on the Substack platform. I hope you can support this new project by subscribing at


Some months ago, I walked to the post office to mail three copies of my book about dogs. It was a fine weekday morning and the last of the cherry blossoms fell like so many poems about falling cherry blossoms.

Across the street, a man with the appearance of homelessness captured my attention. He was sitting on the sidewalk surrounded by his possessions. He was drinking malt liquor from a can and smoking a cigarette. Cherry blossoms fell on him as well. Didn’t Jesus say something about that? Or was it about rain or mercy or justice? No, that was Portia in Merchant of Venice, who gave the greatest soliloquy in the history of literature. Are there any Portias left in contemporary America?

The man was reading a very large hardback book, a real door stopper. I said to myself: if he’s still reading when I return from the post office, I will engage and ask him what he’s reading. I just can’t be that person who always walks by this kind of human being and says nothing if something distinctly human is going on with that person, such as reading a fat book while sitting on a sidewalk as cherry blossoms fall on him. Something like this is a human poem in motion and cries out to be observed.

I’d seen the man before. He was a regular on this sidewalk with two other homeless men. From time to time, I’d eavesdropped on their conversations as I passed them and chuckled at the outrageous profanity that accompanied their stories and insults. They were more like a comedy troupe than a trio of vagrants.

I mailed my books and walked home. There he was.

“What are you reading?” I said.

He looked up at me with an expression of joy. He pushed the book toward me.

“It’s by Jean Auel, who wrote the The Clan and the Cave Bear. This is the sixth in the series. I’ve checked them out of the library.”

I didn’t catch the title but knew the series and that each volume ran to almost 1000 pages!

“I know the books,” I said. “I’ve read The Clan and the Cave Bear and loved it.”

This was true. I’d found a paperback edition in a dive bar library six months ago and read it over a three-day stretch trapped inside an RV while it rained 10 inches.

I said goodbye and wished him a good day. As I walked away, I overheard him explain the series to another homeless man who had been standing nearby and edged closer after I left. The last thing I heard was excitement in a man’s voice. About a novel!

A few days later, I saw the same man on the same sidewalk, near the convenience store. He was reading another book. I stopped.

It was a hardback, big and blue. Old. Very old. No title. It was frayed around the edges. It had spots. I asked him what he was reading.

Ivanhoe,” he said, “Sir Walter Scott.”

I said I’d never read it.

“It’s a little slow,” he said, “but great.”

“Writing was so different then,” I said. “More ornate. There was nothing else to do. Why not describe everything?”

He ran me through the list of characters: Ivanhoe, King Richard, Robert of Locksley, Prince John and others.

I asked him where he found such an old book. He told me he dug it out of the recycle barrel of a nearby bookstore. He’d saved it from death. In his hands, Ivanhoe still lived. He said when he was finished, it was going into a street library.

A few weeks later, I was pulling my car around the front of a grocery store, where the line of homeless people waiting to deposit cans and bottles into the machines was seven or eight deep. I noticed the book-reading homeless man sitting on the sidewalk waiting his turn. He was leaning against the store and reading a book. My book! The Great Birthright! Earlier that morning, I’d stocked it in a half dozen nearby street libraries. And there he was reading my novel about Oregon’s socialist ocean beaches and the evil California developer trying to privatize them.

I smiled. I laughed. I said, “Hell yeah!”

Then it hit me. We’d have to chat up the book on our next book chat. It very well could be this afternoon! What if the reader who loved Ivanhoe hated my book? What if he gave me a bad review right there on the sidewalk while he was drinking malt liquor or smoking a cigarette?

I relished that negative possibility, almost more than I relished the possibility he would love the novel.

A week passed. I told the universe it was going down this very day. Reading Man would be there sitting on his usual sidewalk reading a book while drinking malt liquor or smoking or both. This certitude meant the $20 gift certificate I procured from the local bookstore was stuffed in my pocket, ready for presentation to him.

The idea was to award the gift certificate in appreciation for his reading my novel and delivering a review of it to my face without me first revealing I was its author. It was kind of like a parlor game!

Why would I presume he finished reading the novel? Because he told me he always finishes books!

It was a pleasant overcast morning. I rounded a corner on my bicycle and there he was! I pulled over and got off my bike. He recognized me and said hello. I said hello.

He was reading The Sea Wolf by Jack London. He was drinking a can of Smirnoff Ice Smash malt liquor and smoking a Lucky Strike.

I asked him about a book I saw him reading in front of the grocery store. It had a bluish gray cover with a dog on it.

The Great Birthright!” said Reading Man with so much fervor it braced me.

“What did you think of it?” I said.

“I loved it! What a read! I finished it earlier this morning and gave it to a barista at Starbucks.”

I revealed myself as the author of the book.

“Oh wow! I can’t believe it! I loved that picture of you as a kid on Cannon Beach.”

We discussed a few particulars of the novel. Clearly he had read it all. I can’t say that about most people I know.

“I found it in a book nook,” he said.

“I put it in there,” I said.

I presented the gift certificate and told him the reason for the award. Reading Man’s face lit up. He thanked me. He told me he appreciated me. I hadn’t heard that in a long time. I gave him copies of my two recent clandestine publications, got on my bike, and rode away.

His name is Mark and it occurred to me as I bicycled home that I have had the most interesting and unique literary conversations of my life with a homeless man while he either drinks malt liquor or smokes or both.

A week or so later, I took a walk and Mark was sitting on his usual sidewalk. Three other homeless men gathered around him. One sat, the other two stood. The sitting man was drinking a fifth of Old Crow, a rotgut whiskey if there ever was one. Presumably, he was sharing the bottle with the two standing men because it was half gone. Or maybe he was drinking the whole damn thing by himself.

Mark greeted me warmly. I asked him if he’d spent the gift certificate. He had not. He was saving it and going to give his female friend first crack at it. She had her eye on a special Bible at the store.

He introduced me to his friends as The Author and they reacted like I was famous. He obviously had told them about me and finding my book in a street library and then me seeing him reading it while he waited to redeem cans and bottles.

The five of us then embarked on a very spirited conversation about the merits of finding random books in street libraries. Mark said he just knew that in the very near future he was going to find one that was going to change his life. I told him I feel like that all the time.

At some point, I was tempted to ask Mark and the men about their journeys to this sidewalk, but the timing didn’t seem right. Perhaps another time. Perhaps never. I still feel strange broaching this subject in the context of being a writer interested in their journeys. Mark seems like a born storyteller so I may need to get over it. Maybe pay or barter for his time.

I had to go. The men said goodbye and called me brother.

Oh really? Then why wasn’t I offered a belt off the Old Crow? We’re all literary men, right?

A few days went by. I took a walk. Mark was stationed at his sidewalk. But today he wasn’t reading or drinking or smoking or going to stop reading, drinking or smoking to discuss books with me. He had a woman with him sitting on the sidewalk! They were holding hands! She was younger, vaguely Asian, a little squirrelly. She appeared drunk or high.

I crossed the street to say hello to Mark. He saw me and waved me over. I asked what he was reading and he dipped into his backpack and pulled out a book.

“It’s called The Sheltering Sky,” he said.

I told him I’d read it, probably 30 years ago. It was written by Paul Bowles and the novel is a modern classic and cult book.

His girlfriend said something unintelligible. He didn’t introduce me but mentioned to her that I was The Author. I told him when he’d finished reading The Sheltering Sky that I’d love to discuss the novel with him. He said it might take him a while, but he’d be game.

I knew I was. Mark was probably the only homeless man in America reading The Sheltering Sky on a sidewalk or in a tent or RV or plywood shanty or official shelter, and I also knew that his reading this esoteric novel was a partially cosmic intersection with my writing and thinking about the homeless issue. How did I know that? I just did.

As I walked, I raked through my mind to recall the novel. I did remember Debra Winger was in the movie. Or was she? Didn’t Bertolucci direct it?

The novel takes place in Morocco or somewhere else in North Africa, post WW I or II and a married American couple goes on some kind of trip, with a caravan, and they get kidnapped or something, the man gets castrated and left behind and joins a circus, and the woman becomes a piece of property to a nomadic tribal chieftain. Or was that one of Bowles’ short stories, which I also read and marveled at because of their shattering bleakness and bizarre settings?

Was I totally wrong on the summary of the novel? There was always Google, but I wanted to reread the novel before Googling it. I knew somehow it would connect to the New American Diaspora I’ve been writing about. Just exactly how, was a mystery.

We said our goodbyes and I walked away to purchase The Sheltering Sky from the local bookstore.

Shattering bleakness and bizarre settings. That sounded a lot like the homeless encampments, although both occurred in America, not far from my front door, not North Africa or Central America.

I bought the novel at the store and started reading it right away. A few days later, I saw Mark sitting on his usual sidewalk, drinking a can of malt liquor and smoking a cigarette. Near him rested a backpack and a bag of bottles and cans ready for sweet Oregon Bottle Bill redemption. His buddy was standing near him with his backpack on the sidewalk. I’d met the buddy several times in book chat moments but hadn’t learned his name.

Crows called out as I crossed the street to say hello and talk The Sheltering Sky. I had almost finished rereading the novel and was eager to talk with Mark about it.

He pulled the novel from his backpack when I asked about it. Mark told me he had four chapters to go, that he didn’t want to finish it, but would. He always finished a book when he started it, except that one time, many years ago—The Hobbit.

He didn’t care for The Sheltering Sky at all and he dissected its flaws better than a New York Times reviewer might have. I disagreed with him on the merits of the novel and felt it held up well.

We discussed its naive and rich American characters and exotic North African settings. Everything terrible was happening to these people because they could not comprehend where they were nor why they were there. Their basic lack of comprehension about their surroundings was either killing them or driving them insane. That sounds a lot like many Americans in their own country during the Pandemic with their various associated outcomes of conspiracy theories, insanity and death.

At one point during our conversation, Mark’s buddy reached into his backpack and produced a fifth of Old Crow. Two weeks ago, in a similar book chat, he brandished a bottle of Old Crow but failed to offer me a belt.

This time he did, but I declined. The idea of Old Crow frying my gizzard at three in the afternoon made me wince.

After concluding our conversation about The Sheltering Sky, we moved onto One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which Mark said he’d read three times. We took that novel and the film apart. He knew the book almost as well as I did, and I’ve read it ten times, and taught it to hundreds of high school students. We both wanted to see The Dalles Dam blown to smithereens and uncover Celilo Falls before we died.

As I stood there talking about books, a definitely great notion occurred to me. Let’s really do the Old Crow Book Club, right here, on the sidewalk, drinking Old Crow, and talking about a great book.

I pitched the idea. Mark and his buddy loved it. I would provide the novel for us to read. I’d also provide the Old Crow. They even knew a woman who might want to join the group. She’d just started reading and Mark often read to her night to lessen her psychotic behavior. It was the only remedy that worked.

Even before pitching the idea, I knew the book I wanted us to read. I’d taught it at Newport and Astoria High Schools and the students ate it up better than any novel I’d ever assigned. It was Motel Life by Willy Vlautin. I had a class set in storage! Why I’d hung onto the box all these years after being excommunicated from the teaching profession, I didn’t know. I did now.

They’d never heard of Motel Life. I summarized the contents and they were intrigued. They agreed to form the book club and I told them I’d hand out copies in the coming weeks.

I asked Mark about his Oregon roots and he told me he’d been born in Hood River. How he ended up on this sidewalk was something I wanted to know but Hood River was enough for now.

Then we moved onto Tom McCall and how he might have handled the Pandemic. We both agreed he would have hit the road to rural and reactionary Oregon and delivered fiery speeches demanding his fellow Oregonian get vaccinated. It might have worked, but we’ll never know now. Too late for that.

From there, we went on to discuss crows and Mark’s habit of sometimes cursing the ornery ones perched in the trees shading his sidewalk. He’ll put up with five or six caws, he said, but not 26 and once the count reaches that high, he’s going to call them a motherfucker and demand they shut the hell up.

It was time to go. I bounded away with a smile on my face. Not too long from now, I might actually be teaching a kind of class again. There was still teaching blood in me yet. How it might mix with Old Crow and obnoxious crows on a sidewalk in Portland was to be determined. But I was relishing the idea of that moment.

Two weeks later, I had retrieved three copies of my class set of The Motel Life from storage. For several days, I carried them around on my walks and bike rides with the intent of distributing them to Mark. Once in his possession, he would distribute them to select street readers and kick off my idea of the Old Crow Book Club on Mark’s sidewalk, or salon as we had taken to calling it.

At last, there he was on an overcast Tuesday afternoon with two of his buddies in attendance. One of them held a full bottle of Old Crow. The other man, elderly, black, wore a trench coat and ball cap. He walked with a cane in in his right hand. In his left, he clutched a brown paper bag that bore the unmistakable shape of booze. Old Crow Man was introduced to me as Sean. Paper Bag Man was introduced to me as Red. Red was on his way to a bus stop to a ride to somewhere.

I produced copies of The Motel Life for Mark and he eagerly accepted them. I told him in roughly a month we would convene on the sidewalk and discuss the book.

Sean offered me a hit off the Old Crow. Last time he offered, I’d declined. A man can’t pass up that offer twice in a lifetime and still consider himself a follower of John Steinbeck’s editorial ethos because John Steinbeck once wrote: “An American writer has to know his land and the people if he is going to write about America.”

Right now, the Americans that most interest me as a writer are those homeless moving or not moving among their land. I don’t know what their land is, or what stake they have in any American land. I won’t pretend I know anything about them or the professionals and advocates trying to assist them, but I am seeing and swimming upstream and downstream in this story. I might even be fishing for something from the bank. Writing as fishhooks, a great German nihilist philosopher once wrote.

I took the bottle of Old Crow, unscrewed the cap, and glugged a belt. Sweet Jesus! It all brought back my Old Crow hi jinks in the cheap lazy gray days of Portland in the late 80s when Bud Clark was doing his quirky thing. I remarked to the gang that I tippled Old Crow back in the day because it was Blutarsky’s preferred liquor in Animal House.

Oh that set them off! We then launched into a lively conversation about the movie and I told them that years ago in a Newport dive bar, I’d actually met the woman who flew in through an open window and landed in the horny kid’s bed.

Oh, they loved that!

It was time to leave and do whatever I was supposed to be doing, but the Old Crow burned like Hades in my belly and I completely forgot about my destination and didn’t give a country lick. Old Crow is like that.

A week or so later, I scored a rare gem at the bookstore and was cruising happily on foot toward Mark’s office. I was wishing he’d be holding court with his usual crew so he might share the joy of my literary find. I also wanted an update when we might convene the inaugural meeting of the Old Crow Book Club.

Hot damn! There Mark was on the sidewalk with three other men and a little tan dog. They were in a giddy mood, laughing, yukking it up, and Mark greeted me warmly. I didn’t recognize two of the men or the dog.

Mark’s consistent happiness often makes me reflect on my own state of happiness or unhappiness. He appears happy with his life on the streets and is certainly not a member of the obviously deranged type of homeless person I sometimes encounter. Is Mark an anomaly? How would I know? How would anyone ever know? Do homeless outreach workers conduct contentment surveys of this kind? Would there be any value in such a survey?

Here’s an interesting question: what would the garden variety therapist say to Mark? Would he or she focus the so-called therapy on Mark’s drinking? Would there be any discussion on his apparent unconventional state of happiness? Would the therapist bother to meet him where he’s at and throw away the jargon and agendas? What is the larger issue of his homelessness? Would there be any discussion about the trauma imposed by capitalism? Do therapists ever consider such a root cause for so many problems of the mind and body that afflict American life? Maybe they should.

A vast majority of Americans feel strongly that people like Mark should work, work, work. Get a job! A life on the streets is a disgrace. You’re a loser. I don’t feel that way at all. I never have. Mark isn’t contributing to society, so the old saw goes, but neither is he doing anything to ruin the planet or other human beings, like so many others. Consider his carbon footprint over yours. Consider his non contributions. He’s not flying to Paris for a weekend or speculating in Bitcoin or clearcutting forests or developing phone apps to further pollute our mind. He lives entirely on what he earns collecting cans and bottles. I doubt Tom McCall ever had that in mind with Oregon’s visionary Bottle Bill back in 1971, but so be it.

I don’t know where I am going with this digression, but every time I see and talk to Mark and his crew, it makes me see and think hard about American life in ways I have never seen or thought before. In other words, I am seeing and thinking anew. If I were ever to have a headstone, I would want something like, “He was a man who always seeing and thinking anew,” as my epitaph.

Back to the sidewalk.

Typically this crew drinks malt liquor and Old Crow and smokes cigarettes and vapes weed, but today they were exclusively passing around a bottle of Beam’s Eight Star.

Many moons ago, I swigged Eight Star while playing touch football on a rainy Sunday morning. It was sheer gutter swill, but it did make me a better quarterback on that muddy gridiron.

One of the men offered me a belt, but I declined. Another man, younger, sitting on the sidewalk near Mark, reached into his backpack and pulled out a copy of The Motel Life. He then launched into a rhapsodic review of the novel’s opening chapters, Mark seconded him, and I joined the chorus of approval. Vlautin really gets it going fast in this book. That’s how you get people to read books! Get it going! Be direct!

The younger man was ready to start the Old Crow Book Club right then and there! He was positively jacked and tipsy. I had to cut him off and said we all had to finish the book first. Moreover, we didn’t have a bottle of Old Crow for the occasion. He agreed and returned the book to his backpack.

I asked the crew what they were doing today.

Mark practically screamed: “THINKING! TALKING ABOUT THE WORLD!”

“And why not,” I said, “at least you guys have original thoughts and discuss things.”

In all my time around these men, I had never heard them utter phrases like “dumpster fire,” or “a lot on my plate,” or “the optics are bad” or any bullshit parroted from FOX News.

Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise me. I need to stop registering surprise when I encounter homeless people and discover many of them are totally original human beings, as is every human being until something undermines or obliterates their originality and they end up fools or factotums or clods or cliches or inane or insane.

I might also add that Mark’s crew employs the word “ motherfucker” with delicious hilarity and certainly better than anything heard on the fake cop movies about the inner cities.

Yes, I must smote my surprise and get on with seeing and thinking anew, cultivate a deeper understanding. It’s the only way to proceed with this story, whatever this story is.

Mark and I set the time for the inaugural meeting of the Old Crow Book Club for a Sunday at one in the afternoon. We both agreed that if it was raining we would go on as scheduled. Rain would never deter us Oregonians! Besides, we’d have Old Crow to warm our gullets.

The appointed time arrived and I walked toward Mark’s sidewalk with a pint of Old Crow in the pocket of my corduroy coat. I kind of felt like a literary gunslinger packing it.

Rain threatened. I wanted it.

There was Mark, reading of course. He saw me and said hello. He told me that other club members couldn’t make it. I felt a momentary pang of disappointment at their absence, but Mark was here, I had bourbon, and I was curious to hear his thoughts about The Motel Life, a novel somewhat about the struggle of homelessness. But first he launched into an enthusiastic review of his latest read: a novel that was apparently the source material of HBO’s lusty vampire show, True Blood. He said his next book after this one was the Odyssey. He had it on hold at the library.

I asked Mark if he’d ever read Cannery Row. I’d just finished the short novel and marveled at its humor and relevance to contemporary affairs, namely homelessness.

He had not read it. He would be soon. In fact, I decided at that moment that Cannery Row was the next pick for the Old Club Book Club. Why did I get to decide? Because I was a teacher and supplied the Old Crow, that’s why!

I extricated the pint, broke the seal, and took a belt. Hellfire! No wonder this shit almost killed William Faulkner! I handed Mark the bottle and told him the rest was his. He glugged a shot and thanked me.

Then we got down to the proper intellectual business at hand—a discussion of The Motel Life. It lasted 20 minutes and what especially struck Mark about the novel was its devastating and unrelenting bleakness. True enough, I thought. But Mark added that the the bleakness didn’t ruin the loyalty between two young brothers living out of a cheap motel and hiding from bad luck and bad decisions. They had almost no hope of ever making it in America but they had each other and they were holding on the best they could. I suggested the novel’s ending offered the surviving brother a ray of hope, that he could get it together and make something worthwhile (to him) of his life.

Mark agreed.

You know, reader, where I wanted to go next with Mark on this line, but I didn’t. Maybe after we read Cannery Row. Maybe never.

And thus concluded the inaugural meeting of the Old Crow Book Club.