You know you’re in Oregon when you walk into a dockside pancake shack and the sign on the wall says, “Gluten-free pancakes with organic chai tea.”

I’m down in Coos Bay this weekend, about five hours south of Portland, working through a casting problem* with Hugh McKay of Cast Glass Forms. Hugh’s in Port Orford; Gigi the iPhone led me a merry GPS dance through cow pastures and abandoned farmland to get here.

“Geeeez, that’s hours out of the way,” said Hugh, “Don’t you computer people ever look at a map?”

Uhm, well…anyway, by the time I got to Hugh’s place it was nearly dark and I was exhausted. We finished up our business, then I found a cheap motel room in Coos Bay and was asleep by 10, on the road by 6 AM.

I’d brought the big guns, i.e., Darius the Nikon and his family of lenses and tripods–just in case–so I decided to grab some breakfast and head up the coastline toward home, shooting anything that caught my fancy.

Apparently I’m the only one in Coos Bay who thinks getting up before the crack of dawn for pancakes and photos is a good idea; I have the restaurant to myself. The waitress cheerfully took my order and left me to watch the sunrise over the docks. I probably should be out there, shooting, but the sunrise won’t happen over the water anyway–this being the WEST coast–and I’m absolutely not going to hurry.

A man walks in and shrugs off a huge dufflebag by the counter. He’s dressed in holey khaki sweats and an army jacket, his long grey hair pulled back under a greasy fisherman’s cap. He’s bearded and layered to the nines with a pinched, hollow face.

I make him for quietly desperate and warily go on point. My purse is on the table; I move it to the floor. The air sizzles with pork fat and pancakes and coffee; he lifts his head and sniffs. Then he reaches deep into a pocket and examines the contents.

“I think I’ve got enough change for a cup of coffee,” he tells the waitress, and holds out the coins.

“It’s pretty spendy,” she says doubtfully, “$1.95,” and his face falls.

“Oh,” he says, “Well, can I just stay in here for a minute and get warm?” It’s 32 degrees outside and frost edges the docks. She looks at him for a long quiet minute, saying nothing, and he picks up his duffle, defeated.

‘I tell you what,” she says, “If you’ll clean up the case and stock those Baby Ruths, I’ll give you a cup in exchange.” She gestures at a box of candy and some scattered brochures and he sets to work.

He neatly stacks the brochures and dusts off the case with a work-hardened hand, scrubbing at a cloudy spot with his shirttail. He opens the box of candy bars and places them carefully, one by one, into the rack. At the last bar he stops, stroking it gently. He looks back to the waitress and sets the Baby Ruth in the rack, patting it softly into place, and stares at it.

Then she bustles up and he starts. “All done?” she says, “Come and sit down.”

“I didn’t take none of them candy bars,” he begins, and she holds up a hand. “I know,” she says briskly, and leads him to his table, sets him up with coffee and sugar and a big plate of creamers.

He loads his coffee with all the creamers, and she brings him more. “Thank you,” he says, “I got enough for the bus to California–they’re hiring day laborers just over the state line. The guy at the bus station don’t like me; I know the ticket is $18 but he says for me it’s $80, so I gotta wait until he goes off shift.”

“Unless…” and his eyes narrow speculatively, “You need a dishwasher or something? I work hard, I’m not a slacker…”

She shakes her head, “No, we’re overstaffed as it is, but thanks,” and leaves him.

I’m sitting by the register, so I see her surreptitiously slip a couple of bills from her apron and ring up the sale of a cup of coffee. She turns, sees me watching, and shrugs.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asks, and I hold up some money. “I think this will cover my special and your tip,” I whisper, “with enough left over to buy that gentleman one of the breakfast specials. Can you tell him it’s free?”

She pulls back, alarmed. “I just bought him a cup of coffee,” she says softly, “I can’t give him free food or every homeless guy for a hundred miles will be in here. But I can’t have him bugging you, either…” and she thinks a minute.

“I know,” she says, “I’ll wait until you leave and then tell him that a customer bought his breakfast.” She takes the money, and I rise. As I head for the door I hear her voice, behind me.

“One of our customers just paid for your breakfast. Here’s the menu; you can have anything on this page…” As I get into my car, I see him through the window, studying the menu hard.


*The problem is, basically, that I need to finish 10 sculptures by the end of March, I’m behind and Hugh has graciously agreed to do the biggest for me. But more about that later.