“This is the best book,” your friend tells you.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fugitives and Refugees was published on July 8, 2003—10 years ago this Monday. It’s a travel guide to a Portland that no longer exists, a calico mutt of misfit humanity that was dispersing even as its pages were written.
But transience is the book’s essential virtue: It does not describe a Portland you are expected to visit. It’s instead a lens by which to see the Portland before you today, a compendium of the oddball and fringe and by-the-wayside that has become central to how our city understands itself.
Unlike the Portlandia television series—or myriad proper guidebooks—Fugitives treats its subjects not with shallow bemusement but with humane generosity, plus a touch of sadness that it will all pass unnoticed.
Palahniuk may always be best known as the author of Fight Club, but in this city, Fugitives has touched the broadest range of people. I carried it around for a month while researching this article, prompting a succession of strangers to meekly approach.
“That is the best book,” they say.
He almost didn’t write it. Originally, Palahniuk declined Crown Publishing’s offer to write a hometown travel guide. “I was on deadline for another book,” Palahniuk tells WW from his home in the Columbia Gorge, where he moved for solitude in 2005 after the death of his mother. “I said, ‘If you pay me what you paid Michael Cunningham [for Land’s End, a guide to Provincetown, Mass.], I’ll do it.’ Michael had a book called The Hours out, and it was the biggest thing in the world for that year.”
Guides generally become obsolete the moment they are written. Cunningham’s book is now out of print, alongside every other guide in the series except one: Fugitives and Refugees.
In part this is because Fugitives and Refugees is the closest Palahniuk, whose fans are known for their cultish devotion, has come to autobiography; he chronicles his life of muggings and fleeting ecstasies in a series of “postcards.” Yet most who read it are not part of the cult of Chuck. The book endures because it is more than a curio cabinet of “secret Portland.” In its loving attention to quixotic toy museums, sex clubs and feral cat colonies, Fugitives grants our city the dignity of a shared mythology.
“Over the 10 years it’s lived on our shelves,” says Michal Drannen of Powell’s City of Books, “its sales velocity doesn’t appear to be diminishing.” The book has been translated into Italian, Polish and Turkish, and still makes regular appearances on Powell’s weekly bestseller list. Sales figures were not disclosed, but it’s now in its 14th printing.
Portland is rightly celebrated for its food and cultural boom, its mecca status for the aimless college graduates who arrive here with scripts already written in their heads. But that comes at the expense of the improvisational, down-and-out Portland of the recent past.
“Monica [Drake] and I get together and mourn that city and that sense of possibility,” says Palahniuk, “Satyricon and Fellini and those great old abandoned Portland warehouses where people could create art and have a space.”
“On one level,” says Palahniuk of Portland now, “it seems completely obliterated. We don’t have these great old spaces and underused properties people could camp out in and make their art in. On the other hand, it seems like a fantastically young city, and I don’t just say this because of my age now. These neighborhoods that used to be all aging hippies are now full of young people.
“Back then if you saw a young person, they would be an exception. You had to go to Beaverton to see young people.”
But, of course, it’s not all gone. Ten years later, WW checks in with the people and places in Fugitives and Refugees, to see if they’ve fled, passed or joined New Portland. Below, we bring you some of the more interesting bits. Here, we revisit each and every one, if only to tell you that, yes, the Grotto is still the Grotto.
The phrase “fugitives and refugees” comes from another Portland writer, Katherine Dunn, the author of Geek Love (and former longtime WW staffer). Fugitives begins in her Northwest Portland living room, as she rolls cigarettes. Portland, she tells Palahniuk, is the cheapest city available to those who fled west from civilization, the “misfits of the misfits.” The fugitives and refugees.
“I still feel kind of a remorse over Katherine Dunn,” Palahniuk says. “I kind of insinuated myself into her apartment one afternoon. Basically I turned that conversation into fodder for a book, and she is such a private person. I’ve never really apologized to her for it.”
Dunn declined to talk about Fugitives and Refugees, but she still lives in Northwest Portland. Palahniuk says the two of them are still in touch. In North Carolina, he came across a warehouse staffed by robots that do nothing but sort books. “I saw a whole semitrailer full of Geek Love that had never been touched by human hands,” Palahniuk says. “She loved that.”
Ten years after Palahniuk’s visit to the shop, pieces of Portland history still wash up at the Hippo Hardware antique and oddity shop on East Burnside Street: the original doorstop for The Oregonian offices, a kerosene-heated bathtub from a covered wagon, an ancient baby bath from the Albertina Kerr Nursery and a shower assembly from Pittock Mansion. There’s also a straight-out-of-the-box 1963 combination salad shredder, cheese grater, dough hooker, juicer and kitchen sink like the one used on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The same owners, Steven Miller and Stephen Oppenheim, still preside gleefully over the menagerie. In 2007, when the cast of MTV’s Jackass came to defecate loudly in one of the disconnected toilets on the shop floor, Miller was in on the joke. He was the only one. He used the chance to punk his plumbing-section manager, who was publicly unamused. The Jackass producers bought the toilet, but Miller had to run across the street to stop the film crew from heaving the biohazard-filled porcelain into the dumpster of Michael’s Italian Beef and Sausage Co. “What would I have told Michael?” Miller says. “That it didn’t come from me?”
Ghosts got a lot of space in Palahniuk’s book, but most of the ones he wrote about have seemingly moved on. The ghost at the North Portland Library hasn’t been sighted since the old chapel across the street became the McMenamins Chapel Pub. Jay Lucas, night auditor of the Heathman Hotel, says he hasn’t seen anything peculiar. Neither have the people we contacted at the Kmart on Northeast 122nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard, at the Maryhill Museum of Art or around Cathedral Park. Meanwhile, the former Rose and Raindrop’s restrooms are tucked within a closed branch of Northwest Bank, haunting only themselves.
Lydia, the Pied Cow Coffeehouse’s ghost, is still around. But she’s boring, says employee Zachary Schauer. He saw her, he says, “at the end of a really long shift. I just didn’t give a shit and went upstairs.
“Several different people have seen her, and nothing really crazy has happened. It’s a pretty typical young Catholic girl in a white dress kind of deal.”
Former U.S. Air Force Capt. Frank Kidd, now 82 years old, still presides over a massive collection of antique toys and banks, railroad locks and beautiful die-cast models emblazoned with his name at the nigh-unmarked Kidd’s Toy Museum at 1301 SE Grand Ave. He’s also the landlord for Coava Coffee, right across the street.
But the museum’s borders have receded, and much of Kidd’s collection is stored in countless unseen tubs. And although Kidd still continues to buy whatever catches his eye, he remembers most vividly what he’s lost. “I can’t tell you what I’ve picked up in the past 10 years,” he says, “but I can tell you every single thing I’ve compacted.”
He was robbed twice in the past three years, once of $350,000 worth of toys stored at his daughter’s home, and once of several gold coins in a smash-and-grab robbery at the museum, whose display cases Kidd has since fortified. The first thieves were caught. “The state sends me a check for $50 every now and then,” he says, describing the meager restitution he receives. But the toys are gone. “Sometimes I see something that I know is mine, but why would they believe me?”
Still, he doesn’t plan to move the toys to a new neighborhood: “Everything stays, that’s the plan. They stay. I go.”
Palahniuk visited the fiercely independent Frances Gabe, now age 98 and owner of more than 60 patents, including one for a home that could clean itself. Inside her self-cleaning concrete house in Newberg, everything was waterproofed, from plasticened paintings to watertight boxes storing books and valuables. The place was, essentially, a giant floor-to-ceiling dishwasher, with rotating water jets on the ceiling and floors gently sloped to drains.
At the time, there were free tours. No more. Gabe sold her home in 2008 and lives in a managed-care facility. Sterling Parker, the self-cleaning house’s current owner, says most of the plumbing had been removed when he bought the property—although he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of reinstalling it from memory if he thought there might be interest. He plans to use the property as a wintering habitat for honeybee colonies, and as a campground for long-distance cyclists.