Hell on Wheels: John Callahan

Saturday, July 22, 1972, started out like any other for John Callahan. He woke up drunk and sweaty in the Southern California heat and proceeded to spend the morning getting plastered. Frittered away the afternoon in a blur of booze and smokes. Swung by a pool party, hit on a couple girls, struck out, wound up at a strip club, passing out in his beer.

All in all, a typical day for an Irish knucklehead from The Dalles, adrift on the streets of Los Angeles-until he clambered into the passenger seat of the VW his buddy was driving. The car slammed into a Con Edison pole at 90 miles an hour, severing Callahan's spine and making him a C5-6 quadriplegic. He was 21 years old.

What happens when a blue-collar kid wakes up and finds out he'll never walk again? That he'll never be able to put on his own pants, wiggle his toes or feel an erection?

Callahan spent six months in the hospital before being trundled into the institutional purgatory America maintains for the disabled: an endless corridor of nursing homes, caseworkers, attendants and Medicare paperwork.

He responded with rage and alcohol-a lot of alcohol. He went on a six-year bender and ultimately managed to get himself kicked out of a Catholic nursing home in Mount Angel for drinking. By 1978, he was insisting that the windows of his apartment be covered with blankets, and routinely consumed a fifth of tequila every morning, plus whatever else he could get his hands on.

One June morning, Callahan was alone in his Portland apartment. His attendant, Alex, had thoughtfully left him a bottle of valium, but had forgotten to open it. Callahan spent an hour trying to uncork the bottle with his teeth. Finally, his fingers trembling and slick with sweat, he accidentally let the bottle slip to the floor-and watched it roll out of reach.

"When I dropped the bottle, watching it roll away across the rug, something snapped," Callahan would later write. "Alex would be gone all day. There was nothing I could do. For what must have been hours I stared at the bottle on the floor, rage building inside me."

"I began to scream. I screamed at God. 'You son of a bitch! You got me into this! You're responsible for my life! You put me in this situation! Bastard! Shithead!' And on and on until my voice was gone and my energy completely drained."

That was the tipping point for Callahan. He entered treatment and slowly pieced his life together, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous. He enrolled at Portland State University, majoring in English. One day, after a butch TriMet driver roundly cursed him in front of a packed bus for screwing up her schedule, he went home and drew a cartoon-a construction site surrounded by a security fence, with a sign: WARNING! THIS AREA PATROLLED BY LESBIANS.

Callahan had always loved to draw, but his accident had severely limited his ability to wield a pencil. Nonetheless, he started publishing cartoons in the PSU Vanguard. And despite their wavy lines, their childish script and their utter political incorrectness, they were funny-wickedly funny. Despite his misfortunes, or perhaps because of them, Callahan possessed a powerful sense of humor that could be warped, black, sick, even cruel-but was also so honest that it could leave you gasping for air. He couldn't use his legs, but he could still use his wits.

WW published its first Callahan cartoon-a wordless gag of a nun walking a penguin on a leash-in 1983. It wasn't long before he managed to offend virtually every conceivable identity group in Portland. In fact, Callahan has probably generated more hate mail than all other WW contributors combined.

Meanwhile, Callahan's cartoons were appearing in national publications, from Hustler to The New Yorker. But what really kicked his career into top gear was the 1989 publication of his autobiography, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot, an unflinchingly honest account of his accident, his alcoholism and his search for his birth mother.

"I wrote the book to be helpful," Callahan says now. "That's why it was so honest. If I did it again today, I wouldn't be so forthcoming. It's a nightmare. People come up to you and they feel like they know you-and they want to sell you an extension cord or something."

Suddenly, Callahan was no longer a quirky quad turning out twisted cartoons and living hand-to-mouth on a disability check. He was a bona fide local celebrity. There was talk of a Hollywood movie of his life. Robin Williams even took out an option on the script.

The film is still in limbo-"By the time Robin Williams makes that movie, we'll all be in wheelchairs," Callahan quips-but he hasn't sat around. He has published a dozen books and dreamed up two TV series: Pelswick, about a boy in a wheelchair, and Quads, which he describes as "balls-out cripple humor."

These days Callahan lives in an old house in Northwest Portland with a deaf pug named Annie and an orange tabby named Stanley. He's a familiar sight around the neighborhood, the orange-haired guy roving the streets with his wheelchair and his Walkman.

Callahan's cartoons still appear every week in WW, although he got tired of drawing cartoons about quads years ago. "I prefer to draw metrosexuals and dogs," he says.

He also writes songs, even though his "crippled little fingers can barely hammer out notes on the piano." Like some of his cartoons, his songs have a whimsical, bittersweet flavor, like butterscotch drenched in turpentine. His favorite: "Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel."


1974 | 1975 | 1976 | 1977 | 1978 | 1979 | 1980 | 1981 | 1982 | 1983 | 1984 | 1985 | 1986 | 1987 | 1988 | 1989 | 1990 | 1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1994 | 1995 | 1996 | 1997 | 1998 | 1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004

FEATURES: Hell on Wheels: John Callahan | Neil Goldschmidt's Web of Power | Gus Van Zant: The Camera Man | Homer's Odyssey: Matt Groening | Quadruple Expresso: MAX Makes Tracks | Nike's Achilles' Heel | Biting Our Time: Restaurants Revisited | Highway to Hell

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.