An Orbit Obit: Dark Island Exotica


Hang around long enough and everything will change, practically in front of your eyes. Businesses will close and others will open. Houses will get demolished while new ones or condos will spring up like stringy fungi. I held on to a quiet comfort whenever I passed by the intersection of North Argyle Street and Columbia Blvd. I made a point to look at the pipe sticking out of a cement pad. At the base of the pipe I would spot the Dark Island sign. There was a certain satisfaction about being clued into a secret world. The mysterious origins of the sign and function of the pipe sparked my imagination. There’s subversion in these parts I always thought. The who, what, when, where, why and how didn’t really matter. Somebody put up a goofy sign and it managed to stick around. This freed me to wallow in the ecstasy of suspended speculations. In a previous blog post I vowed to place a call or, my guess, a series of calls to the Portland Water Bureau in an attempt to solve this Dark Island mystery. Procrastination to make such a call was made easier by the fear of getting tangled in buearcratic channels of our local government’s water department risking ridicule, ignorance and incompetence (my own more likely) in figuring out a way to ask about or explain the Dark Island sign.

It is no longer an issue. The pipe including the sign has been painted over. Looking cleaned up and refreshed, this piece of sewer equipment has been spruced up with beige paint. What other color than the most inoffensive one could be considered to paint a pipe connected to the nearby sewage building and in the meantime obliterate that Dark Island sign? It’s somehow more than perfect.

The mysterious sign in gone. It’s more likely that it was peeled off unceremoniously in the refurbishing process rather than painted over. It’s the end of Dark Island. I’ll always remember the unsolved mystery and think about the legend. Whether there’s a sign or not there will always be a Dark Island in my mind. I queried the Facebook group Hidden Portland for the Curious and received responses that gave me more of a sense of the function of the pipe but no one offered information about the sign. There’s no need to speculate anymore. The storm cloud that seemed to be perpetually hanging over my little island, the one that kept me in the dark, has been brushed away with beige paint. I feel like that mysterious reminder and my need to contemplate it have been taken away.

Dark Island, I will miss you as you have passed from this world and into your current role of a subtle, yet sad landmark to not much of anything.


I’ve already written the obituary for Exotica. It seemed obvious at that time that the place would be closing for good. I’m mourning my inability to take a satisfactory photo of the establishment that I thought it deserved. Back then my assumption that the place was kaput was proven wrong by a sign on the cracked glass door stating the place was closed for repairs. A reprieve! Thank you, Governor! I wasn’t even embarrassed that I had written an obituary for a place that wasn’t dead yet.

The promised repairs never occurred. Months later there was no evidence of visits from interior painting crews or teams working to replace the carpet. There was no sense of anything was getting fixed. I would have been curious to know if any exterior renovations had been planned. The death knell for me was when the bird bath on the side lawn went missing. This, even more than the smashed door window, the missing “L” on the Lounge sign and the graffiti bombing to the building’s facade, seemed to be an indication that the efforts to bring the club back weren’t going to happen. It felt like defeat. When I read about the tribulations of the Exotica owner in an article in the Willamette Week which described a minority business owner being hassled by the City of Portland it made sense.

To me Exotica was a mythic place in a strange location sandwiched between a fast food restaurant and a cookie factory. Not one to frequent strip clubs, I was never sure what went on there besides what was probably the usual barrage to the senses of late night ladies gyrating to loud music (in this scenario it’s Middle Eastern disco) while lights swirl around the club’s interior. Billed as an international establishment, I’d like to think it was a place where people of all nationalities could appreciate this environment together.

Late one afternoon, I discovered it unceremoniously being bulldozed. I didn’t get back for photos until it was mostly demolished. Portland has plenty of strip clubs but it has lost its international club. Regardless of whether I partake in this kind of business it’s important that these places exist to provide an outlet for the subcultures that need them.

Update: It looks like a Carl’s Jr. will be built on the site of Exotica. It will next to a Jack in the Box and across from a McDonald’s. I see a “hot corner” of fast food happening at this intersection of MLK and Columbia Boulevard.

Who Cares? Portland’s Ubiquitous Owls

Owls are everywhere. They’re on buildings, schools, signs, kid’s t-shirts and their lunch boxes. I can’t go anywhere in my own home without seeing an owl. I’d like to say I’m owl indifferent but that’s only when I’m not seeing them everywhere. I prefer real owls with big yellow eyes and rotating heads to the cartoon variety.

If owls  ever got a bad rap it would be because too many people have turned them into cutesy, cartoonish images and not portrayed them as the gallant woodland creatures they are. Caricature may be an expression of owl love and appreciation, a way to create joy from fun images, but I say it’s overkill and too much joy. By spotlighting this out of hand owl phenomenon, I’m hoping to stop these cartoony depictions of owls and get them the respect they deserve.

This pair of owls intrigued me when I saw them at the Kellogg Middle School in the Foster-Powell neighborhood of SE Portland. Owls have that reputation for being wise. I’m not sure if these birds represent the school’s mascot but they embody what learning will get you if you stick with it. It’s funny, owls are wise without ever attending school.


The owl on the State Farm building on West Burnside St. downtown is an ornamental part of a downspout. Maybe it’s subtle and hard to see, and in my case, hard to photograph, but an owl with bulky, arm-like wings that’s part of an old brick building is a cool thing indeed.

GreenSky Collective cannabis dispensary, now called Jeffery’s, used a squat Owl Jolsen looking caricature as a symbol for their business. It’s hard to say if it was good for business. It’s possible that if you sampled their product you might experience owls in that vivid technicolor visual pattern used in their logo design.

If your business is called the Hoot Owl Market on SW Capitol Hwy, it’s a given what image will be on your sign. This owl is a hoot. He’s friendly. He wants a hug. His red coloring is attention grabbing. It’s a less offensive portrayal of owls in my view. A realistic looking owl sitting on a roof as if he’s ready to swoop down on shoppers would not be good for business. This owl looks like he’d be your goofy best friend for a few minutes encouraging you to buy Pringles.

owl the perch (1)

Hey you’re The Perch in St. Johns so why isn’t there a fish on your sign? Okay, I get it, owls hang around in the forest on a perch. The owl on the sign has been perched on a bar stool so long drinking beer and eating jo jo fries that he’s gotten round. What does this owl add to the sign design? Ah hell, of course, that owl makes the whole world smile. I, myself, can’t even go back to Frownland after seeing him.

hooters owl

“Delightfully tacky yet unrefined,” is the Hooters motto as seen on the clock face on the other side of this sign. The tackiness come from hooters being a nickname for a part of their waitresses’ anatomy and having little to do with owls but owls hoot and have big round eyes that in a logo design can be made to look like the aforementioned anatomy. I’m not trying to be crude as much as I just really enjoy circular logic especially when it alIows me to break out words like aforementioned. The owl is portrayed in as authentic way as possible except for the orange eyes which are the restaurant’s colors but unnatural for owl eyes. The beauty of it all, for the owl’s sake, is that being Hooter’s mascot means it’s unlikely that owl’s wings will ever be on the menu.

Skin wise takes the cake using a literal owl reference and image with their business name. It’s simple, artsy, abstract and sophisticated and a different take on the usual breed of owls. It’s all the things you want owl images to be. It occurred to me that owls have smarts but not skin. Do they represent the product that well? Who cares? Consider that a business name like Feather Wise would never bring in enough customers.

While trying to put this story to bed I felt surrounded. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean owls are lurking everywhere, with those over sized eyes staring away. On the way to the Alberta Street Fair I saw a sign for Vernon Elementary School,  another school with an owl mascot. While this sign expresses love for its neighborhood school, I’ll try to find love for owls or be less annoyed by them.

Hiding out in the trees near the Pittman Addition Hydro Park in the Overlook neighborhood of North Portland, this decorative pair seems a bit kitschy, retro and out of place. Since when does nature need to be decorated with imposter owls? Then again if it’s this tasteful and fun, I say decorate away.

I was interested in painted benches on Alberta Street. I didn’t realize until later that this was a brightly decorated, psychedelic, owl possibly of Aztec descent. The look in his eyes makes me think he might be angry about  people sitting on his beak. I can’t imagine how many more owls I’ll see since I’ve opened this can of owls. Perhaps, by now, you’re as sick of them as I am.

Special thanks for the art direction offered by Will Simmons on a couple of the photos that appear in this post.  “Come on! Get closer!”

Because you haven’t seen or read about enough owls:

Dash Needs a Brake: A PDX Adult Soapbox Derby Report

After almost ten years living in Portland, I still hadn’t trekked up Mt. Tabor for the PDX Adult Soapbox Derby that happens every August. When I found myself surrounded by homemade, hill-powered vehicles, decorated with handcrafted flair, I wondered what had taken me so long. Distractions aside, my mission was to find Dash. For the sake of his reputation as an educator, we decided on identifying him with one name only. I found him adding the number 18 to various places on his car. Later as he applied duct tape to his towing bolt he pointed out, “I don’t want to annihilate myself should I get launched forward.” This was my introduction to the rough and tumble world of Adult Soapbox Derby.

While walking through the pre-race area, I overheard, “At some point, it would be nice to have a cute little car that’s easy to unload.” This didn’t seem likely as the cars I saw were large and complex, some with multiple riders and they all had to be hauled up Mt. Tabor. Walking through this area was a blast. People milled around chatting and taking photos while teams were getting their cars ready. I enjoyed the outlandish car designs and costumes that fit the car’s themes. One participant, who had one of two New York City subway inspired cars, described his vehicle as a tribute to the world’s greatest living museum, the NYC subway trains of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, when they were covered with graffiti. People’s enthusiasm for the PDX Adult Soapbox Derby was infectious.

Dash was waiting to have his car inspected. A check-in person had already come by to let him know he had dropped his Tupperware and a stick when he was bringing his car up the hill. The inspection process proved how organized the event was. There were volunteers in all kinds of capacities, one even had me sign a waiver when Dash drafted me to help push his car at the starting line.

The inspector stopped by and expressed concern about the condition of the cords Dash used in his brake system. He suggested replacing the cord. Dash worked on his brakes while telling his Derby history. He started as a pusher, pushing for eight years. One of the teams he worked with was called Toe Cutters. “Someone gave us half a car and that’s how it hatched,” Dash said explaining how he went on to build his own car and race for the last four years.

Dash’s current car is named Kon-Tiki. The name was inspired from the Norwegian explorer and writer, Thor Heyerdahl, who built a raft of the same name in the 40’s to research whether people from South America may have been able to travel to Polynesia by sea and settle there. “This one is an entire new rig,” Dash pointed out.  Logs were incorporated into his craft to “raft it up.” Papier-mache formed the basis of the toothless dragon motif. “It’s all part of the mystique. You gotta keep it a little weird,” Dash explained. The chassis of Dash’s car included two 2 x 4’s, assorted lumber and vintage moped wheels in the back where the cord was pulling drum brakes.

The Derby is a social event as much as a race. Cars ride three to a heat until the fastest Soapbox Derby car is crowned. Participants fill out a ballot sheets voting on various categories for more accolades. There’s plenty of opportunity for people from racing teams with long histories to hang out at an event ending party.

The inspector wasn’t accepting Dash’s cord brake system. My scatter shot notes revealed his comment, “you’re trying to die this year.” The inspector remembered the front wheel disc brakes Dash had used for his car the year before which had been decorated with a cow theme. “What’s all this?” The inspector asked. Dash explained his steering which employed raft-like push sticks for each wheel. Dash’s last minute brake inspiration involved rigging up a bar attached to a steel rod in an attempt to stop the back wheel. Dash drilled a hole into one of the boards of his car. “Hey Phil want to see if this thing comes through when I whack it,” he asked one of his helpers.

The inspector had one more look at Dash’s brake addition seeing if the wheel would stop as people pushed the car. I was amazed by Dash’s dedication and willingness to drive his car without foolproof brakes. “I can’t give you a go,” the inspector said. They shook hands. Dash accepted the disqualification. “It’s gonna be a good day regardless of whether you’re racing or not,” he said. Later he offered his services as a driver to a neighboring car, hunted down some screws to help another team and loaned out his bike pump.

As for race watching, the trick seems to be finding the right spot. Cars at the starting line begin slow and then scurry past. A man was telling his kids about “blood alley,” a name that could only be derived from frequent wrecks. I didn’t stay for much of the race vowing to return next year. I left appreciating the flamboyance of the car exteriors more than their racing ability.

Dash shared what it’s like to ride the mile long track that twists and turns down Mt. Tabor. While cars approach speeds of 50 miles an hour, Dash warned of the dangers of the “speed wobbles” that eat many cars and joked about having an “aim for the haystack” racing philosophy. He’s experienced first hand the hazards of dodging disintegrating cars. The importance of brakes in Adult Soapbox Derby car design cannot be overstated.

See 19 seconds of Dash crashing from a previous race:

To see a Portland Orbit slide show with a fantastic metal electronica score click here:

The Unstoppable Heart of Allen Callaci: A Heart Like a Starfish Reading Recap

On Thursday, August 17, Allen Callaci began his late afternoon reading from his memoir “Heart Like a Starfish” as the undying summer sun engulfed the performance space of Turn, Turn, Turn. He was very much alive. His book details his heart transplant surgery, an event that brought him to death’s door. I can’t help giving the story away. When I approached Allen before the event he joked, “Spoiler alert, it turns out good at the end,” a relief, because if it hadn’t turned out good there would have been no one to write the book.

Heart Like a Starfish reading review 5

Allen Callaci reads.

I met Allen over twenty years ago, when I had the freedom and time to drive around the country and took a trip with two friends, playing music, seeing the United States and meeting people. We had a connection with the gang associated with the Shrimper cassette label. One travel companion, Will Simmons, had recordings on compilations released by Shrimper. In planning the visit, Will remembered the idea of performing in a Laundromat being discussed with Shrimper founder Dennis Callaci, Allen’s older brother and bandmate. We found ourselves in Claremont, California, a bunch of guys with acoustic guitars, playing an impromptu show to an unsuspecting audience preoccupied with getting their clothes clean. Allen and Dennis, a stripped down version of their band Refrigerator, were playing “State Trooper,” a Bruce Springsteen song. Allen was belting it out. When Dennis joined in on the chorus it seemed to get more intense. With each cry of “Mr. State Trooper,” their volume made me more anxious thinking the Laundromat concert would erupt into an incident of disturbing the peace. It turned into a memory and an example DIY ingenuity. When faced with no concert venue, you create one.

Heart Like a Starfish reading review 2

After getting in touch with Allen through Facebook, there were inklings of the book he’d been working on. The story had me squeamish. It was tough to imagine Allen’s health struggle. He told me how insane his experience had been. At first no one could figure it out. Allen felt sick, left work and then blacked out at home. At urgent care he was diagnosed with a bad appendix, sent to a hospital where a new diagnosis of a blood sugar issue was made. As he was being released he blacked out again. Allen admitted he picked the right time and place to pass out. He ended up in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles or as he called it, ER to the stars. He praised the hospital as the only one in the world that could help his condition and figure out what was wrong.

Allen reads some more.

It was discovered that Allen’s heart was operating at less than twenty percent efficiency and he had been born with an artery to his heart that never fully formed. The doctor was surprised he could be active at all. It was Allen’s brother Dennis who explained that Allen had been able to lead a normal life despite his heart’s condition, working as a Librarian, College Professor while also being a Rock and Roll Singer. Allen got a kick out of imagining his doctor’s befuddlement concerning his patient’s unlikely rock singer stature. In the book he created a humorous chart comparing himself to, perhaps the most representative of all rock singers, Mick Jagger.

Allen compared to Mick.

Allen spent six weeks in the hospital getting his new heart. This turned out to be a quick turn around as the procedure can take six months or more. His convolesence included a “bubble boy” experience where he couldn’t leave the house and had to be especially germ conscious due to his loss of an immune system.

“Music is where I’ve always gone to heal,” he explained as he read a section from his book about a fisher-price cd player on loan from his nephew that he had in his hospital room. He also read descriptions from the book of his performances of the song “Lonesome Surprise” with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats calling him from a concert stage in San Francisco so he could phone his part in while recovering from surgery. This was a reprise of a performance Allen had done of the same song years before during an international radio broadcast in the Netherlands when he had just started working as a Junior Librarian at the Upland Library. Allen proved his versatility being able to perform in a Laundromat, international radio broadcasts by phone and even after a heart transplant operation.

Allen sings.

After reading from the book, Allen sang an a cappella version of “Heart Like a Starfish,” the song he had written twenty years before about a past relationship gone wrong that became the memoir’s title. He explained that the song had come from reading Harlan Ellison who had written about how the heart could be like the body of a starfish with damaged parts growing back. There he was, that kid as I remembered him from the Laundromat, singing, pardon the pun, his new heart out, with passion, conviction and the authority of a rock singer. I no longer had to worry about him getting too loud. This was his gig.

Post script: After the reading Allen sat down with old friends and discussions about medical tribulations ensued. A woman talked about her bone marrow transfusion and similar immune system challenges and Jake and I compared left elbow, bike crash scars. I didn’t want to make a low ball offer to Allen to buy the book. I didn’t have enough cash but I figured I’d get it at the library. When I looked through the online system it wasn’t there. I discovered a book suggestion form and filled it out. A week later, I received an email telling me the library purchased the book for their collection and that I could be the first person to put a hold on it. I’m guessing that’s the kind of thing that might fill a librarian/author’s heart with pride.

Public Service Announcement:
One of the first things Allen mentioned was the importance of getting an echocardiogram, a sonogram of the heart, instead of an EKG or ECG, electrocardiogram test that measures the electrical activity of the heart. This starts to feel like a medical conspiracy that I’ll have to revisit in a later post but it may be worth discussing this with your Doctor. This may have been the type of information that might have helped Joe Strummer, another rock singer, who died from a heart attack caused by an undetected heart defect.

See the book trailer here:

Info on Allen’s next reading: