Chapter II from Henry: A Novel of Beer and Love in the West
Portland, Oregon 1856-1900
The water is awful, and it makes men so sick they can’t work. And if they can’t work, no one makes any money. Better they drink beer. It keeps them healthy and healthy men are good workers. Everybody makes a living.
The woods come right to the edge of town like the Schwarzwald in the old country—dark, and heavy with moisture and dead branches. The only difference is that here the woods don’t have any stories. In Germany there were tales of woodsmen and their families, of witches and evil spirits and things that lived in live oak branches and lived in dead oak branches. The stories were of familiars and monsters that filled the woods, and you only had to spend a night there to get in touch with both. These Oregon woods, on the other hand, are waiting for their stories although some tell me that the Indians have their share already; they are always reluctant tell us what they are.
So we’ll fill the woods eventually, I suppose. But right now it’s just sweat and cursing. The men are glad for the wages, come into town each night thirsty and can’t drink the foul water without the risk of losing three days’ wages bent over shooting yellow water out the top end and black out the bottom. The Indians laugh at them and have a word they tell me means something like “bad camper.” The beer is a good answer to the whole situation. The men come in thirsty, they drink my beer until they’re not thirsty anymore, and then they look up from the beer and want women. Lately, I’ve been able to supply them with both.
It started when one bar run by a drunken Englishman, Bartholomew Cummings, who had no self-discipline and who couldn’t keep his employees from stealing from him, couldn’t pay his beer bill two months in a row. He was relieved to find I would take a percentage of his business and forgive the bill. Within six months I had a quarter of his business, within a year, half. I put in the girls upstairs then, and that boosted both of our takes. He proved to be quick learner at first and saw the possibilities of the added revenue. The girls were tractable, easier to work with than the men in the bar. But he kept up his drinking and bad management. And then he couldn’t keep his hands off the girls. And that was the end of that. I owned most of his bar by then, so I fired him. He hung around cursing me to the workers, drunk and sober. Maligning me to my own workers in front of my own brewery. Most of my workers didn’t speak much English so it didn’t really matter, but still, the principle of the thing was at stake. His antics drunk and sober continually aggrieved me, though no one in the Portland German community gave him any credence. He began to allege among strangers that I had stolen his business and was running a house of vice against community standards, that I paid off police. My reputation as a sound businessman held its ground for all who knew of me. But so many strangers were coming into Portland in 1868**, and Cummings was spending all his waking hours on his defamation project, that finally I knew I had to do something.
I had two new workers, Thomas and Johann, young men straight from my home region of Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany. Neither spoke English or had any friends outside the German community in town. I explained to them what this Englisher was about each day, his unrelenting project to shame me in my new hometown. How I had even offered him a modest stake to leave town and go try his luck elsewhere in the West. How he spit at my offer. Shook his fist at me. Called me the vile names that his English language is so efficient at. They both understood my chagrin, of course. And almost at the same time, they asked me what they could do to help. The one was an apprentice cooper, Johann, with forearms like the oak he worked, like the iron hoops he hammered into place. The other, Thomas, rolled barrels all day up the ramps and into the wagons. Both strong young men. I said I thought that Cummings might forget his bile if he were convinced that I truly felt he should no longer pursue his public vilification. They nodded and looked at each other.
I heard later that Cummings was taken to the edge of town hog-tied in a wagon and there the two young men decided that the way they could convince him of their seriousness, of my displeasure, was to beat him severely. I never saw the results of the beating, but I heard that Cummings was missing most of his front teeth, had one eye drooping and sightless, and walked with a marked limp before he was well enough to leave town. I have to say that I would not have prescribed such harsh medicine for so small a malady as Cummings. But the young men being young men decided on their own both the medicine and the dosage. I recognized quickly that their punishment was in keeping with the Old World version of civility. That a breach of etiquette against a man of my stature in the community called for stern measures and that the whole fabric of propriety itself was implicated in the effectiveness of the message they conveyed to Cummings. I raised both their wages as soon as possible but not so high as to fracture the wage structure all workers expect. I watched them both for signs of the high seriousness that precedes promotion to more responsible positions.
The girls upstairs at the bar were rarely a problem. There were squabbles, of course. But a strong leader among the girls often stopped problems before they manifested themselves. At first the managers tried to make one of the white girls the leader who settled matters of dissention. The Negroes and Italians would listen to her, defer to her, he figured. But it quickly became obvious that the girls would sort out their own leader based on something besides skin color. It was never clear just what. But the managers reported they let the girls do their own politics, and that worked unless there were two very strong girls at the same time with neither willing to take second place to the other. It turned out that stalemate was very rare for some reasons that were not entirely clear to any of us males.
After two years I had three bars with busy upstairs just like the first. What seemed like the accident of not paying the beer bill just continued to happen with the second and third. I didn’t want any more bars or I could have had more. Germans owned almost half the bars in Portland. The improvident English and Irish just didn’t seem to have the knack for running bars in the West, while Germans usually made a go of it—girls or no girls. But the girls provided a steady income, almost monotonous in its certainty. Through rainy, dark winter, sap rising in the spring, exhausting heat of late summer, the men treated themselves with perfect predictability to delights of the flesh.
The world of Portland was divided into two distinct camps—the family men and their families and then the men alone who worked the river and woods. And it was the men alone who drank more beer and used the girls to compensate for the lack of family and hearth. It was a poor alternative, but it seemed that the one might substitute perfectly for the absence of the other. At least it became clear that it was an economic certainty in a world of uncertain finances. Banks might fail from bad management, unlucky investments or the vicissitudes of international funding, but the girls gave good value and steady income.
The damn Scottish kept to themselves and hoarded their money and waited for certainties in a place of uncertainties. The men of Dundee, the Earl of Airlie, the Scots’ Mercantile Guild—they hem and haw and feel their pockets as if they were missing the crooked farthing given them by a grandfather. They drink to excess only at home. They turn their heads away from an honest German money question as if I had asked them intimate details of their marriage beds. Reid the other day, fatuous greasy skinflint that he is, proposed a mercantile plan for the waterfront that would have shoveled dollars into his pockets out of the public coffers. Not that any of us wouldn’t have loved the deal ourselves, but Reid had the bad taste to make the theft so obvious that it would have stood as an insult to every other businessman’s acuity.
The young English males, on the other hand, seem to have a patent world view--they came into the Portland country well dressed, broke and waving around manners and then looking to see if they could find one of Captain Couch’s daughters to marry. It happened enough times that it became a local joke. But the other English have been here from the beginning, the shrewd hard workers. Corbett, Failing, Couch and their henchmen are not as tight as the Scots but every one of them has some kind of sweetheart deal with an eastern supplier. You never see the tip of their money much less the base. Corbett ran deals around the San Francisco wholesalers for the first time years ago and never looked back. He and Failing now are so tight you couldn’t slip a skinny Scot between them. They sit at meetings looking off into space as if they had no need to talk it over; they share a brain, some say.
But down at the river docks is where the machine that drives all of this commences its chugging. The day workers, whoever was the last to arrive with the least skills, walk the planks from the boats and wheel the warehouses full. Wheat for Spaulding’s mill upstream, bolts of cloth headed for Corbett’s storage, china and soap and wax and salt beef and plowshares and the tinker’s solder—they all came in by boat until the railroad. The same men invested in the railroad who had the steamboat monopoly because they saw the changeover coming. It wasn’t hard to see the handwriting on the wall, really. And the two—water and land—together just about tied up all the loose ends. Transport had to just sit back and watch the land fill up and create demand for their services. It’s never that simple, of course. Some people need to die, some need to be cheated while the cheaters look over their shoulders waiting for the public anger. There needs to be veniality and civic conniving and self-serving. There needs to be great ideas, and beer has always been one of them.
Beer stands for the transformation itself, from woods to stump field to house to mansion. Beer is magic. You start with some raw things and end up with a cooked thing far superior to any of the raw parts. The same relationship exists between a tree and a house, a boy and a man. There needs to be the transformation and it needs to be managed carefully or you end up building a falling down shack, making a criminal, concocting awful beer. It always surprises me how few men can do the managing of the magic.