Discover more from It's Good to Be Here
I'm Sorry But There Are No Tunnels
An illustrated letter about old saloons and 80s tribute bands, plus an art lesson
I’ve Been Thinking About the Lost Art of Illustrated Letters, and Newspaper Columns
Lately I’ve been thinking about the small things that interest me—ideas that are too small to be a book, and too un-timely and un-topical to bother turning into a publishable essay. For many years I wrote a newspaper column, and I could shoehorn a million tiny ideas into those columns. Then I had a blog. Now I have a Substack.
There’s a particular kind of creative muscle you have to call upon to notice what’s happening around you, discover what it means to you, and package it up for other people to contemplate.
People used to do that when they wrote letters. My husband’s a rare book dealer, and he’ll bring home a remarkably entertaining old letter, occasionally illustrated, that tells a complete story in a droll and charming way. It amazes me to think of the effort people would put into a single letter, trying to turn ordinary events into something enthralling, for an audience of one.
So I’ve been thinking that I’d like to be a bit more intentional about telling the kind of small stories that rattle around in my brain but often have nowhere to go. I’m going to start doing more of that, with illustrations, right here, if you people would be willing to have such a thing land in your inbox every week or two.
As I was mulling this over, I also wondered if this newsletter could use a better title. On a walk around my neighborhood I saw this:
And that seemed like the perfect title. Because it is good to be here. I mean, not always, but I’m not interested in writing about all the reasons why it isn’t good to be here, which is why you don’t see me writing about politics or polemics or the miseries of the world, which I do feel deeply but I just don’t want to dive into. I’m much more interested in writing about all the reasons why it is good to be here, from the curiosities of the natural world (coming soon) to the oddities of local history (see below.)
So here’s what’s coming this fall:
The same hodgepodge of good things I’ve always sent out, plus a revival of my “ask me anything” for writers and readers (coming soon!)
A couple more editions each month, mostly illustrated stories like the one below, although they won’t all be about ghosts and 80s tribute bands.
Art lessons (to the tune of $5/month) for those of you who want to partake
Yes! There Are Bonus Treats for Artists!
Some of you are here because you’re artists and you’ve taken my classes or you follow me on Instagram. Many of you send me interesting art questions, or ask when I’m going to teach another class. To that end, I’d like to do something for you that’s quick, digestible, and flexible, and, most of all, tailored what you want to know.
This will include some mixture of pre-recorded videos, step-by-step tutorials, live Zooms, “ask me anythings,” reviews of art supplies, giveaways, maybe some IRL meet-ups, and…well, you’ll probably let me know what you’d like. Please do.
These are the kinds of extras that take time, equipment, and supplies to produce, so for that reason, I’m going to create a $5/mo paid subscriber option. You can subscribe here, either to enjoy these bonus offerings or to just generally support this enterprise. And you can cancel anytime! I won’t be offended!
These bonus features will always be at the bottom of this newsletter, so if you’re a paid subscriber, you’ll just scroll down to see your stuff. The first one’s going to be free, so you can see what you’re in for. You’ll see it at the end.
Here’s an illustrated story from my weekend.
As I wrote and drew this, it reminded me of the very entertaining challenge a newspaper column poses: You start with one little moment (in this case, a text exchange with my brother) and you try to figure out what else can unspool from that. You can go in a lot of different directions, and the direction you choose is what makes it yours. I went (unsurprisingly, for those who know me) in the direction of weird history and murky myths. Thanks for reading.
I’m Sorry But There Are No Tunnels
Last Saturday we went over to the White Eagle Saloon, which stands off by itself in a seedy old industrial neighborhood in the shadow of the Fremont bridge. It’s one of those places that served dockworkers and sailors from the ships coming up the Willamette a hundred years ago.
It’s still pretty seedy over there. When we showed up, a car was on fire, giving off black smoke and loud bangs, like gas tanks were exploding. Was the whole neighborhood about to blow? The guy at the tamale place across the street held up his phone to signal to us that he’d already called the fire department. Everybody was standing around watching, as if shit blowing up was to be expected. Might as well get a beer, then. The White Eagle was waiting, just down the street.
Like every old dockside saloon with a few rooms to rent upstairs, the White Eagle’s history is populated by a familiar cast of characters: secret tunnels, prostitutes, rum-runners, and ghosts.
So what exactly is real over here in this strange landscape, this half-abandoned post-industrial neighborhood with its historic artifacts hanging on into the next century? Is this bar really haunted? Do these guys really just sit around and watch things explode all day?
I don’t know about the explosions, but I can tell you about the many tall tales surrounding the White Eagle, starting with the secret tunnels.
The story (I’m sure you’ve heard something similar, about some old building or another you’ve visited) is that secret tunnels, once used to smuggle people and goods and Prohibition-era booze, run from the basement of this building, and others like it, to the docks.
I’m not saying this is never true, but it’s not often true. No such network of old tunnels has been found around here. You can take a tour of old tunnels in Portland, but you’re really just walking around in a couple of interconnected basements. (Sorry to ruin that for you.)
Then there’s Rose the Murdered Prostitute — a work of fiction, of course, which persists because we inexplicably love to be told, as we tour an historic building, that it was once occupied by prostitutes who met horrible ends and now haunt the halls. Sex trafficking! What fun! Ladies plying their wares for the men coming home from the sea! Wink wink! Until they were murdered! How quaint!
There’s also a ghostly bartender, Sam Warrick. The story is that he was born to a prostitute (of course) in that very building and spent his entire life working as a bartender in exchange for room and board. Except there’s no evidence he ever existed. He is nonetheless another ghost wandering the halls! Hi Sam!
One story that is true: back in the day, the White Eagle, like all such establishments, put out a free lunch for patrons—generally rolls and cold cuts and boiled eggs and pickles. Except it wasn’t really free. You had to buy beer if you wanted to eat.
So even that’s been debunked: There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Today the White Eagle is a perfectly respectable McMenamins pub and hotel. They make you pay for the food now. We ordered our completely real fake Impossible burgers and some real fake non-alcoholic beer, and then the band started.
They’re called the Wanna B-52s. They were singing a song you’ve undoubtedly heard, the one about fake-sounding but nonetheless real fish, like a sea robin and a catfish chasing a dogfish and a rock lobster. The band sounded good and they looked great.
I texted my brother. “I’m at a brewpub with other members of our generation watching a B-52s tribute band. They’re surprisingly convincing.”
He wrote back: “How do you know it’s not really them?”
Bonus for subscribers, but free this time!
Normally this last section will only be visible to subscribers, but this week I’m giving it to you for free. If you want more of this, or if you just generally want to support this enterprise, subscribe here:
How I Drew Those Little Portraits
I just spent a year drawing people for my next book, The Tree Collectors, due out in summer 2024. This was a big challenge for me. People are pretty tricky to draw—and in this case, the people I drew will actually see their portraits, and have feelings about them. Also, these portraits will be published in a book and judged by anybody with an opinion and access to the internet. I’m ever so slightly nervous about how this is going to go.
For the book, I developed some tricks for drawing portraits in a way that feels loose and spontaneous and very handmade. I used a simplified version of this technique for the people I drew in this newsletter. So let’s walk through it:
First, these are the supplies I’ll be using. Feel free to use whatever you have.
Second, let’s actually draw some faces! I have a method for this. It’s not the only method. Try it and see if it works for you.
Third, let’s draw with colored pencil and erase the regular pencil lines. This is not totally necessary, really. I find that when I come in on top of a pencil sketch with colored pencil, my lines are a lot more confident because I’ve already figured out what I’m doing. But you could also just erase back your pencil drawing so you can barely see it, and move right on to watercolor.
Fourth, watercolor! There’s so much more I could say about mixing skin tones. For now, the short version.
And last—a bit more colored pencil to finish it off. Here you could also use markers or ink or whatever you like.
That’s it! These are pretty goofy, I know. But if you follow this little formula, and practice a lot, soon you too will be drawing goofy portraits of band members at your local pub.
Good luck, thanks for reading, and please do ask questions, post comments, and let me know what you’d like to see next time!
The Bit at the End
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