Dear John, please come to our after-birth brunch. The invitation was scrawled in a loose cursive hand on what looked like the corner of a paper bag. I turned it over: sure enough, someone had taken the time to stamp and mail the scrap. In my hometown in central Pennsylvania it would have been thrown out with the trash, but the mail service in Eugene, Oregon works a little differently, so it was dutifully brought to my door by a man wearing a blue postal cap and a skirt. The return address was somewhere on Monroe Street, deep in the Whiteaker.
In the 1940s, the Whiteaker—along with the rest of Eugene, a town just south of Portland in the Willamette Valley—was settled by working class folk. But a decade later, the counterculture movement began, and the Whiteaker, fondly called “the Whit,” became the epicenter of West Coast anarcho-hippie life. “Epicenter” makes it sound more solidified than it was or is. Many people in the Whiteaker don’t really live there in the conventional sense of the word. They pass through or by or out. Those who do settle down in the neighborhood refuse, out of principle, to make it civilized. This is the home of the anarchist and primitivist philosopher, John Zerzan, who has spent most of his life in Eugene arguing against civilization in all its forms—against industrialized agriculture, domestication, and higher modes of symbolic thought (think language-use, mathematics, the arts, and the concept of time). His criticisms have traction in the Whiteaker, a small corner of Eugene that Esquire Magazine dubbed the “weirdest neighborhood in America.”
For more than a year, I’d watched the Whiteaker from a safe distance. I’d spent most of my life before moving to Oregon in the Northeast, where all things are parallel and equilateral, where spaghetti is considered “ethnic food,” and blue Oxfords are regarded as daring shirts. So Eugene’s beatnik-meets-Woodstock persona seized me with equal parts fascination and horror. In my first week in Eugene, as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Oregon, I rode my bike to the end of Franklin Street and watched a half-dozen unshaven men hop down from a moving train and set off in the direction of the Whiteaker. In August, hobos, hippies, and hard-core anarchists come out for the Block Party, a tie-dyed extravaganza of organic food trucks, music, beer, pot, coke and heroin.
Early in my acquaintance with Eugene, I drove out to Pleasant Hill, on its outskirts, to a farm that Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, had once called home. Through the 1960s, the farm was a commune for the Merry Pranksters, a handful of artists and intellectuals including Neal Cassady (the driver in Kerouac’s On the Road), the Warlocks (now known as the Grateful Dead), Tom Wolfe, and Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia (Jerry’s wife). In 1964, before LSD was made illegal, the group piled into “Further”—a psychedelic school bus that had been repurposed as a motor home—and “turned on” all the way to New York. I’d learned about this hippie lore much the way that I learned about Eugene on the whole, that is to say, in the abstract. Philosophers are very, very good at digesting things abstractly.
I set the rumpled piece of paper on the kitchen counter. This was my invitation to learn about the Whiteaker in concreto. How scary could it actually be? I knew all about brunches—we have those in the Northeast in spades. Coffee would be drunk. Pleasantries would be exchanged. Pastries would be eaten. It was just a baby shower. I should get over my fear and take in some local culture. I’d get a little present, drop by in the late morning, have a bite to eat. I went to my closet to make sure that I had one my cool blue Oxfords to wear.
The mother was a friend from grad school, a beautiful Janis Joplin-esque woman who made pregnancy and mothering look easy. She had two charming toddlers, twins, Sunshine and Cedar, who spent the summer running around in sneakers and nothing else. Their father was a farmer of sorts but spent much of his time flying a small Cesna from Mexico to California to his fields in Oregon. The newest addition to the family was Sky, and like the rest of her family, like the rest of the town, she was impossibly placid.
When I met Sky for the first time, she was only eight hours old, and I thought to myself that this really was an after-birth party. She was happily affixed to her mother’s breast, where she remained for the better part of three years. She was the first child I’d met who had not been born in a hospital. In fact, her mother had pushed her out on the woven mat where I was now sitting, surrounded by a group of Whiteaker neighbors: a teenage girl in overalls, three men in sarongs, and a black man in body paint. And me in my blue Oxford.
It was, indeed, a brunch. Coffee was drunk. Pleasantries were exchanged. But there were no pastries to be eaten. Instead, Sky’s father was hard at work over the stove on the other side of the yurt. He was making a tofu scramble with bell peppers and mushrooms. At the last minute, he diced up some fake-looking meat and stirred it through.
It was, by any measure, a delicious meal. Vegan food, in my previous experience, usually came in two varieties: tasteless and disgusting. But this was something else entirely. The faux meat actually tasted like meat, and was filled with the same reddish juices of a steak or brisket. In fact, it tasted a bit like brisket. I asked for more, but it was all gone. Each of the guests only got a little. At the end of the meal, right before I left, I had to ask—what was in that amazing scramble? My hosts blinked. They’d already told me, they said. It was an afterbirth party.