Road trips should be about adventure, the road taken more important than the getting there. The seductive detour a jealous siren not to be refused. So it was on a simple week day jaunt from Eugene to the coast with our palates eager for the world's best crab cakes, chowder and a little savory coleslaw that our story begins.
I drove. Randy navigated. Our goal was to sample the menu of the Saffron Salmon a restaurant located on Newport's old town waterfront of which I had consistently bragged had the world's best everything. We enjoyed the usual high spirited banter common to our wine club. No matter which way the road turned our conversation came back to the strange event at the wine shop and the weird fellow who called himself Mr. Nibbs.
"I'm not buying for one minute," Randy said. "that this Mr. Nibbs, or whatever he calls himself, is some sort of fairy. Weird? That I'll give him but he is no . . . "
"Claurichaun," I finished the thought for him.
If you have not yet met Mr. Nibbs it is truly your misfortune for Nibbs is a Chaurichaun, second cousin to the Leprechaun. He has no pot of gold but he has magic and is a protector of fine wines and as long as you treat him with respect your wine will never spoil and will always be perfect with any chosen meal.
"You've got to admit" I said to Randy, "that he looks the part with his flaming red hair, weird cloths, and he's about the same size as a leprechaun."
"How would you know?' Randy jested.
"All I'm saying is that just maybe - maybe - there's something to it."
It was February and the rain did fall. When the dark winter clouds, exhausted, paused, we enjoyed a much deserved stroll on a favorite beach where an agate or two were found before the roiling clouds gave us notice not to push our luck.
The Saffron Salmon showed true to its reputation, the world's best cuisine et al. We leisured over a bottle of 1997 Sineann Cabernet as we watched the rain blew sideways across the bay. Deep sea fishing boats bobbed and plowed through the surf preparing for a night's hard work and it occurred to us the boats going out had an aura of worth and expectation and those returning showed either boastful gentility or gray weariness shaped by too many empty promises. The gulls screamed their cries of praise to the victors while the sea lion's bark mocked those who returned empty handed.
All-in-all a road trip worth while.
The road back was not nearly as enticing as the road traveled. The car's wipers squeaked as they repetitiously plowed the rain and the dark chocolate road spray from the windshield. The lights from passing cars bright, yellow, and blinding should you catch one head on. I was content in the knowledge that it had been a day well spent and it was time to go home.
Randy had other ideas. "Italian, Fusion Asian, Spanish Tapas, or French," he suggested.
After a large lunch, I wasn't exactly hungry, however this was a road trip and an opportunity to savor food you could not get in Eugene. "What do you recommend?" I asked.
"There all good." He said as we pulled into a parking space in downtown Corvallis. We looked at several menus that hung in the restaurants entryways. The Asian Fusion or Confusion Asian appeared to be mostly Chinese. Pass. The Italian featured a Duck Ragu. In Corvallis, home of the Oregon State beavers - give me a break. Across the street was Le Bistro a French Restaurant which had some appeal. "Let's try this one," I said. "One thing we don't have in Eugene is a good French restaurant."
"Marche?" Randy said.
"I said a good French Restaurant."
For starters we ordered Escargot and French Onion soup.
At first glance the wine list was disappointing. A full page of Pinot Noir suggested a limited chance for pairing wine with food. The other domestic selections were on the dull side; however, the French wines were more intriguing - mostly because we hadn't a clue as to the grape and whether we would like it at all. "Sigh Why can't we find a 2005 Chateauneaf Du Pap, Domaine Du Banneret when you want one." We settled on a 1998 Chateau Beausejour Du Bonalgue which when decanted clogged the decanter funnel with its rich red dregs. On first taste it had a deep concentration of red berry, leather, black cherry, smooth tannins. It was a medium bodied Merlot with a reasonable amount of Cabernet Franc. Randy ordered the Duck Breast Confit with a cherry demi glaze. Randy, where is your loyalty? I ordered a Filet Mignon with a port wine sauce and exotic mushrooms. That done I excused myself to the restroom. The waitress explained that it was down a long hall through a door at the rear of the restaurant.
It is here my friends that this humble if not boring tale takes a turn towards the unexpected.
Having done what one does in a public restroom I left refreshed with anticipation of the escargot we had ordered. I couldn't remember the last time I had enjoyed the slimy little critters and wondered if my new found distaste for strong garlic would over shadow pleasant memories.
The door leading back into the restaurant was locked.
I tried it again.
The door was locked from the inside. No doubt, no trick handle, I was locked out. I peered through a small window which gave the distant tables an Alice In Wonderland setting - distant, in need of a Mad Hatter, who could open doors in mysterious ways. How on earth would anyone see me? I knocked, softly at first, than harder. Nothing. A waitress passed by without giving the narrow hallway a tiny glance. I gave the door a solid thump. Nothing.
The aroma of garlic butter hung in the air. The escargot beckoned.
The restroom was shared with a neighboring boutique hotel. No problem, I thought. I'll just walk around. That was wishful thinking. That door was locked too. "HELLLLO!" I screamed. I knocked, thumped, and gave out another loud, useless "HELLLLLLO!" Nothing. I might as well have been on the moon. I returned to the Bistro's door "HELLLLO! This door is locked!" I cried in vain. The people enjoying their wine and escargot on the other side did not respond. Not willing to surrender to my imprisonment I went to a second door clearly marked ‘EMPLOYEES ONLY.' Signs be damned I would storm the kitchen. It too was locked. No meager knocking this time. After pounding uselessly I raised the anti and at the top of my voice screamed: "FIRE!" No smoke. No flames. Only the tantalizing aroma of the food being prepared on the other side. The cement walls closed in on me as I whispered my false charge. "Fire. " One last shot. There was a stairwell, ill-lit, musty, and disquieting. I looked down into the shadows and with little internal argument determined that I wouldn't go there. No way, no how. Best to wait by the door to Le Bistro until someone else heeds the call of nature.
It was at that moment that I heard a door creak slowly open just beyond the shadows at the base of the stairs. Then footsteps, quick, light, and rhythmic followed by laughter. Laughter that I had heard somewhere before. "Nibbs?" I called out in surprise. It can't be? Nonetheless, no one laughs like Mr. Nibbs. The restaurant must have a wine cellar, I thought, with a delivery door on the outside and a service door into the restaurant. Thank you Nibbs.
I descended the stairs without hesitation. At the base of the steps I hurried down a long corridor towards the sound of Nibbs's laughter. He was nowhere to be seen. At the end of the corridor I stopped to catch my breath. Another door? My path was blocked by a large rusty door which from the looks of it had not been opened in many a year. Instead of a knob it had a large metal wheel same as you might find on a ship's hatch. The rust, damp, came off on my hand as I touched it. No wine cellar is going to be this far away. I thought as I turned to retrace my steps back to the stairs. "Nibbs," I called. No answer. "Nibbs?"
The lights went out.
Not all at once. It was as if a breeze were snuffing out candles one by one until the last flicker of light had vanished into the pitch darkness of a subterranean cave. I reached back for the support of the door. "Nibbs . . . if this is some kind of joke . . . you're not funny. Nibbs?"
The round wheel turned with ease at my slightest touch and I was drawn forward by a glint of yellow flickering light, the sound of flowing water, but mostly by my fear of the dark. Hear no evil . . . see no evil. I thought as I stepped past the metal door. The air suddenly tasted and smelled foul. As the door closed behind me as my eyes adjusted to the light of flaming torches that lit a long narrow paved path that ran a few feet above a dark murky river of . . . of shit . . . poop. No lying to the nose here. I was in a huge sewer. The walls made of ancient brick curved up into a rounded ceiling twenty feet above my head. The sewage canal below wide enough to carry a row boat or a craft even larger. What floated and bobbed on top enough to cause the ferryman on the River Styx to flee. Pipes of every size ran this way and that into a maze of side tunnels. The only light came from the torches which lit a raised path above the disgusting flow. The path was dry but there was no rail to protect me should I slip and fall into the ugly sewage below.
"Come on, we haven't got all day." I heard Nibbs say. I quickened my step to just short of a run as the torches I passed went out one by one and new ones lighting a limited path ahead. As I passed one dark side tunnel after another I saw brass placards with street names in French.
Rod Sterling . . . hello . . . if this is the Twilight Zone I want to change the channel. Right now! The path ahead lay in utter gloom. The torches gone. I stood momentarily frozen at a fork in the road. It was pitch black in front, black to my rear, and deep shit to my left. A side tunnel, full of dark shadows, dead-ended twenty feet to my right, was lit my a single dim beam of light that lit from somewhere above a metal ladder that led up to an open manhole. This was the most inviting invitation I had all day.
Startled, an alley cat hissed at me as I emerged into an alley. I smelled garlic and a dozen other aromas far more pleasing than what I had endured below. It was night, the alley poorly lit except for a single bulb hung above an open door. The light that had guided me up the ladder gone. I heard Voices. Laughter. Cigarette smoke. A car honking. A second. A woman singing.
Paris chéri, mon beau Paris,
C'est toujours toi que j'aime
Ton chic naturel est resté le même.
This was not Corvallis.
In the distance I could see the Eiffel Tower. The cars passing at the nearest street were something out of an Al Capone movie. A poster pasted onto a brick wall near the door advertised a 1926 Bugatti roadster. The poster was new and so was a Bugatti that cruised through the intersection.
This was not 2010?
I looked back towards the gapping man hole. The darkened sewer below my only connection to the present - past - the real world and I was seriously tempted to climb back down and hope for the best.
A smiling man dressed in dark pants and a dress white shirt stepped out of the doorway and beckoned me. "Monsieur, votre est en attende."
"Excuse me?" I said, perplexed to say the least.
"Monsieur Nibbs is waiting for you inside." The man said in heavily accented English. "This way please," he gestured. "Madame Baker has started."
"Paris a l'air de me dire . . .
J'étais à toi à chaque seconde.
Lorsque l'on dit :
Loin des yeux, loin du cœur. . . "
Mr. Nibbs raised his glass as I approached. His diminutive size and flamboyant red beard drew little attention in the crowd. "Paris,' he said softly so as not to disturb the performance. "Paris has another Paris under herself; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form." (1) "I knew that you were a literary fellow so I arranged for a brief tour of the Paris underground. I hope you didn't mind?"
A full glass of red wine appeared before me. The bottle an 1896 Mouton Rothchild Pavillac, Premier Cru First Growth. My God, this exists, I thought as I raised the glass to my nose. Yes, it did. A stellar vintage. Over the top of the glass I could see that as in Alice in Wonderland I had indeed stepped into another reality. "Paris, sometime in the late 1920's? Ahhhh, Nibs, please tell me that I'll be able to get back to the real world?"
Nibs smiled. His red mane aglow in the candle light. A little man as big as life. "This is the real world and the year is 1927 to be exact." He put his fingers to his lips and whispered. "Josephine Baker, isn't she marvelous."
"The Josephine Baker?" I listened intently as she sang. She was tall with coffee skin and ebony eyes. She moved like a cat, a snake, a wild exotic animal that had driven Paris to it's knees. Her long legs followed a slight curve upwards, her thigh muscles powered her, as her arms rotated through the air as if the air was slightly buoyant like water. She danced the Charleston and the Black Bottom with improvisation and composition. She cat walked in pointed shoes and plumbed tail fathers, her black bottom her signature - and legend.
Josephine Baker finished her first set and began to move from table to table.
A waiter brought a menu labeled Chez Josephine. The menu, written in French and English was extraordinary. "You've got to be kidding me," I gasped at the prices. "This is 1927, at least that is what I am suppose to believe, and Escargots Bourguignon is listed at twelve dollars. A steak thirty bucks?"
"God made the food, the devil the cook." Nibbs said. "Josephine is her own pot of gold"
I jumped, knocking over the bottle of wine, as a pig, smelling heavily of perfume, nudged my leg. The pig squealed as I delivered a gentle kick.
"Albert, ne pas ennuye nos cliente. Venir ici." A distinguished man appeared at the table. "Ahhh, it is you Monsieur Nibbs. It has been too long. I shall tell Josephine that you are here." He eyed red stain on the table cloth. "I am so sorry. I will have a second bottle sent to your table." Without waiting for an introduction the man scurried off to great another regular customer.
"That," Nibbs said, "is Count Pepito de Albertino, Josephine's husband and business manager. The pig, Albert, is one of her pet's."
Josephine Baker, three tables away, looked in our direction as the Count whispered in her ear. She would be hear in moments. I looked at my cloths, Oregon beach cloths which were out of style and out of date. In the candle light my hands appeared dirty. I had been in the sewer after all. I thought it best to wash up before being introduced to a legend. I asked Nibbs directions. He pointed towards a door near the stage. "Down the hall, second door on the right," he said with a broad smile. Nibbs was a trickster and his smile made me nervous.
There were pictures hung in the hallway of Josephine in various costumes and state of undress. She was beautiful and provocative. I came to the second door on the left. Unmarked, I opened it. A goat bleated at my intrusion, lowered its head to charge at the intrusion of a stranger.
I slammed the door.
"No . . . no Monsieur, that is Josephine's dressing room." The Prince said with a laugh as he appeared from another door with our bottle of wine. "I hope Toutoute did not startle you. She is quite gentle. The door you want is on the right."
I washed quickly not wanting to miss meeting the legendary Josephine Baker in her prime. I stepped out into the hall way to find to my great disappointment . . . and relief
. . . I was back in Corvallis. The back door to the Bistro open.
"Where have you been?" Randy asked.
"It's a long story," I said. The escargots steamed in a hot dish on the table.
Randy looked at his hands. "While she is bringing more bread I had better wash off a little surf and turf. "Down the hall and to the left?"
"Right," I said, and watch the door. It sticks."
I sat back and marveled. To think that it had all started with a pee in Corvallis? Weird? I was beginning to believe that with Mr. Nibbs anything was possible. No, it had been too weird, only a dream. Nibbs could not be real? The bread came and I dipped a small piece in the butterine. I thought that I should wait for Randy to return before trying one of the escargots. What was with the goat? I thought as I sipped the wine and almost choked. It was the 1898 Mouton Rothchild. Through the corner of my eye I thought for a moment that I saw Mr. Nibb's flamboyant red hair pass by the restaurant's front window.
"How's the wine? "Randy asked upon his return.
"Surprisingly good," I said as I speared an escargot.
He raised his glass to toast. "Here's too a good day."
As Sarah Palin would say: ‘You bet'cha!'
(1) The sewer system is quoted in Les Misérables (Part 5, Jean Valjean; Book II, The Intestine of the Leviathan, ch.1, The Land Impoverished by the Sea):
* Legend has it that the Clurichaun originated in Ireland, but similar fairies can be found in Italy by the name of Monceillo. It is also known as His Nibs in some parts of Ireland. His element is earth and he is found in wine cellars.