In the late nineties, I had the good fortune to be the director of Überhaus, the last bandit loft in southwest Portland. We had an anti-art event called Last Thursday that started as a protest against Portland’s famous First Thursday gallery walk and soon became its own thing. We would feature a show of work curated by Sugar from the Bone, an east side gallery representing artists who didn’t have a prayer of getting hung anywhere trendy. We would feature a different artist every month.
There was live jazz provided by the superlative guitarist Jason Seed and his trio/quartet (depending on who showed up.) Jason, who is now a noted composer and performer in Chicago, worked at the bookstore below the Überhaus and moonlighted as a gigging musician. He was and is an astonishing player who would range from Wes Montgomery to Jimmy Page without moving his hands all that much. His combo was always top-notch and played their asses off for tips and free drinks. Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Monk and other standards, but also cool arrangements of other artists. Nirvana, the Beatles. Sometimes we also had a Tom Waits cover band called Freight Train Casanova. Once we had a bunch of hip hop DJs haul up turntables and the party went on for two days.
The drinks were on me…or rather, on my employer. I was a liquor salesman in a state that forbid anyone but an officially licensed agent to sell liquor. Oregon is a “control state,” so all the booze is state-owned and sold directly to the consumer through state-owned stores. I guess compared to prohibition it seems pretty liberal, but stacked against a wide-open market like California the rules were draconian, the entire multi-million dollar market tightly regulated by a twelve-member commission made up of geriatric conservative men and women from rural Oregon.e The giant liquor companies needed representation with these geezers in order to promote their brands, so Oregon employed brokers who would arrange for the sale of, say, several thousand cases of Jack Daniel’s at such-and-such a price. They knew the commissioners by first name and would wheedle and deal until they had an agreement. Then they’d bring in the brand manager. This guy would walk in wearing a three-thousand dollar suit to make his case to the panel of sour old people that Watermelon Rum was a product Oregon consumers demanded to drink. If the commission said yes, it was a huge victory with thousands of cases sold in an instant. The broker would lop off his cut and they’d go away smiling.
But if the commission said no, it was egg on the face time. The broker and the brand manager would scheme and plan about how to get their stupid swill into the state stores. Whether any money changed hands between the liquor companies and the commissioners I never knew, but products like CC Citrus, which looked like a bum’s urine and tasted like whiskey sprayed with Lemon Pledge, made it onto the shelf.
I was the low man on the totem pole of this organization, a peon sales rep who was forbidden to sell anything. That left promotion, but it was almost impossible to do promote booze because there were so many rules (no Jäger girls, no shot machines, no big displays in liquor stores, etc). What I mostly did was set up case displays in stores and take polaroids of them. It was boring, but it took me out into the glorious Oregon countryside with no supervision whatsoever. I became familiar with Tualitin, Wilsonville, Hillsdale, Forest Grove, Yamhill and a hundred other whistle stops
My real job was to take Barcardi or Jack Daniel’s or Remy Martin regional brand managers around to the bars to “check on accounts.” That meant showing them the town and staying drink for drink with them. It was a dangerous job for a nascent alcoholic, all the more because of distillery claims.
Distillery claims were what happened when a bottle was damaged in some way as to make it unsalable. Cracked caps, peeling labels, breakage. All these were ways the state could claim a refund for defective material. The liquor companies were happy to comply because it bought them goodwill the flannel-clad Greatest Generation who could, with a few stroke of a pen. affect their bonus by a few grand.
So I would collect these claims, mostly half-gallons of bottom shelf gin, rum and vodka. Occasionally there would be a bottle or two of something good like Maker’s Mark, and we could always create a claim by twisting a cap, if necessary.
It was almost never necessary. Each week left me with one or two cases of shitty booze with bad labels or caps. I didn’t even need to write them up. The agents just wanted me to take them away. I was happy to oblige, because it fueled the best party in town.
The booze was wretched, so I would make it into cocktails. Mojitos (a new thing then), Gimlets, even rusty nails. I’d mix the cocktails in three-gallon infusion jars and dye them strange colors to confuse people. No food was served, nor was beer or wine. Hard liquor only. People got drunk. It was a pretty amazing time, although the debauchery occasionally got out of hand.
In order to promote it, I wrote a faux review I put on the Überhaus website. I wrote it from the point of view of a girl I talked to at a one of the parties. She was with a guy I think was named Seth. However, she was so drunk that it came out “Siff” so that’s the name I used in the story.
Without further ado, Überhaus Diary from May 10th, 1998, a couple months before we called the whole thing quits.
Siff called to let me know about this party on the last Thursday of the month. “Party?” I said, which is for me an action verb. I am a party maniac, known to hit multiple parties on any given night, especially drinkin’ holidays. I’ve been to all kinds: Bar Mitzvahs (lame usually, but sometimes with gorgeous men), Greek Orthodox weddings (fun, but too long and way too much bizarre alcohol…Ouzo, Metaxa and plum wine make a girl very pale in the morning) and good ol’ fashioned keggers (a lot of guys in ball caps standing around the keg as though it might go away), so I know a lame party by the way the door looks on the way in. Not looks so much as feels…you get a good vibe from some parties.
It takes experience, but that’s easy to come by.
I figured what the hell, I’ll go. Thursday is practically Friday where I work, and the last Friday of the month is a dead loss anyway because usually it’s payday and you’re mentally in a bar by noon. Siff told me to doll up because these were real people and this was a real party. I took heed and was glad I did.
First off, we couldn’t find the place.
Siff had an invitation with the address, so I’m clanking around behind him in my Ferragamos and tight skirt trying to read numbers off the sidewalk. Turns out we were on the wrong street because when we hit 13th there was this icky spray-painted door with “Uber Haus” scrawled across it. Music was blaring from upstairs, so we made our way up. The place was packed and the band was blasting out a Monk tune. Then I noticed the building.
I’m not easily impressed because I was raised in a big city, but this place was cool…a real Soho-style art loft right in the heart of downtown’s glamour district (you might call it “boys’ town,” if you get me). High ceilings, fans and pillars. On the walls were giant disturbing paintings.
Best of all, on a table in the middle of the room were jars of colored liquid and a stack of cocktail glasses (which you hardly ever see at parties these days). I went over. The drinks were unnaturally colored and nobody seemed to know what they were. I tried one which was a hideous red color. It tasted like a gimlet. Delicious. I tried the blue next. It was a kamikaze and went down so smoothly I had another. Then onto the green, which turned out to be a mojito, a sort of a rum julep. That was great.
I was feeling good by this point. Siff was nowhere to be seen, so I started talking to some of the beautiful people. Amazingly enough, they were interesting. I talked about why Faulkner was a drunk with a young guy who asserted, “Faulkner is a piece of shit and I’ll take that to my grave.” I talked with this absolute babe of a chick about girls who have ugly tits. I met the director of Uberhaus and complimented him on the cocktails. I listened to the band and looked at the art. I stayed and stayed.
The dynamic of the party would surge like a tide as people would come, leave and come again. The band played on…
At this party there was an element of the grotesque that made it all the more memorable. All of our tongues and lips were stained with the dye from the cocktails. Everyone there had a black tongue as though suffering from some hideous affliction. Death, maybe.
I hear that this party goes on every month. If that’s true you can bet your sweet ass I’ll be there.