Portland, Straight Up

by Cliff Gallant
by Cliff Gallant

Happiness Pursued 

A lot of you likely read the front-page news story last month about the woman who was at the wading pool in Deering Oaks with her two children when a young man with a needle sticking out of his neck staggered onto the scene and collapsed on the grass next to them. That story really got to me. I’ve got this idyllic view of Portland, I guess. I know we’ve got our problems — such is life — but, like most people, I’ve become pretty good at looking the other way.

We’ve always had what I would call a very progressive attitude in Portland regarding drug use. We were the first city on this coast to legalize pot, and Portland’s relationship with marijuana goes back a long way. I’ve got cherished memories of long afternooons spent in Deering Oaks in the 1960s, tossing a Frisbee across the little stream that ran through there before they put in the wading pool, gloriously stoned on good ol’ Scarborough Green, which probably had less THC per bulging baggie than there is in one roach today. We were happy with the high, though. When I was in the Army later and stationed in Korea, we called the weed we got there “happy smoke.” I may have been responsible for introducing that slang term to Portland. Hey, my mother always said I’d be noted for something.

“Happy smoke” is one thing, heroin quite another. I’ve always been too chicken to even try the evil stuff. I know I’d like it, sure as hell. Same for coke, speed and whatever else. So I’ve just chuckled and declared myself a “confirmed pothead” whenever hard drugs were offered. As if “confirmed pothead” were a good thing. I probably would have gotten much further in life if I’d had the nerve to “just say no” to the pernicious weed, as well. Burning little black holes in your brain on a fairly regular basis for years has got to have its effects, after all.

Isn’t that special? After all this time sneaking around scoring joints, I start to have second thoughts just as smoking weed is becoming pretty much legal. Maybe it’s the image of that guy collapsing with a needle stuck in his neck, in front of a bunch of little kids, that’s gotten to me. It’s colored the way I’m feeling about the whole drug culture.

Yeah, I guess getting drunk is the only way to go. Maybe it’s time to return to our roots. Get back to basics: get real, get drunk. Drugs are for slugs.

But wait. Alcohol has ruined more lives than any other substance known to man. The vast numbers of people who have been saved by AA are just the tip of the iceberg. They’re the survivors, and their struggle goes on. They have to renew their resolve day after day or their demons will rear up and make their lives a living hell.

OK, what then?

Well, humankind’s quest for an answer to that question is unlikely to end here, but let me share something with you that a very wise man once said to me on the subject of excessive drinking and drugging. His words didn’t quite get through to me at the time, but they’ve taken on meaning with the passing years.

Nate Cohen was the man’s name, and many longtime Portlanders will remember him well. He was a fixture up and down Congress Street until he passed away about 25 years ago. He was very tall, well over six feet, but that wasn’t what made him tower over the rest of us. That had to do with his character.

To those who didn’t know him, Nate appeared to be one of those who today are called “street people.” Somewhat haphazardly dressed, with a slow and shuffling gait, he had a kindly look about him, but there was a strange, faraway look in his eyes, as well, as if he had experienced things that people would be better off not knowing about.

Nate was a world-class checkers player, listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as having won 172 straight games in sanctioned competition. Very impressive, I remember thinking, but there has to be more to him than that. That knowing, soulful look in his eyes didn’t come from being a checkers champion. And yes, there indeed was much more to the story of Nate Cohen.

Nate had been held as a prisoner of war at a German internment camp during World War II, and had suffered unspeakable hardships and degradations inflicted more severely on him than on his fellow prisoners because of his Jewish faith.

When his captors learned of his skill at checkers, Nate was forced to play the game with German soldiers. The meager food rations he and his fellow POWs received were increased when he won. The Nazis apparently figured this would sufficiently motivate him to win, thus leaving no doubt that a German could beat an American Jew fair and square. But they couldn’t. Nate never lost, even though the Germans brought accomplished checkers players from other camps to play him. One of those players was the Russian national champion, whom Nate beat for a prize of three potatoes.

Therefore the man’s faraway look as he shuffled up and down Congress Street.

Wow. You never know about people. After I heard Nate’s story I hung on his every word, and can still quote him very accurately, even though I haven’t managed to live up to his standards all that often.

One day it was in the news that there had been a particularly violent bar fight in Portland, and there was talk of closing the bar down. I asked Nate what he thought of such goings-on. “They’re pleasure seekers,” he said, “all in a mad rush to find pleasure in this and that, when the only real satisfaction in life comes from caring about other people and working at something you love.”

Shaking his head and sighing deeply, he continued: “Regardless of what the Constitution of our great country says, happiness is not something to be pursued. It’s a natural result of the meaning you bring to your life. Meaning comes before happiness. Excessive drinking and drugging are desperate attempts to find happiness, and they never work. They can’t work. In moderation, like once in a while, they can be OK, something to have a little fun at, but when you go at it relentlessly, forget it. Makes things worse. Don’t chase a good time. The chase itself will bite you in the end.”

Moderation. Maybe that’s the answer we’re looking for here.

Oh, the long, slow road to wisdom that Nate used to talk about, chuckling to himself all the while, as if he were about to execute an exquisitely planned triple-jump and land on your last piece.

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