Keep Eugene Weird

Nobody has started a full-fledged “Keep Eugene Weird” movement, because it hasn’t been necessary. Yet. Complacency about nonconformism can have grave consequences, recent Pacific Northwest history attests.

“Keep Portland Weird” took hold in 2003, copying a successful campaign to “Keep Austin Weird” that started in the 1970s. There is no “Keep Seattle Weird” campaign, because it’s too late for that now. If you google “Keep Seattle …,” the first six pages return “Keep Seattle Livable.” Seattle is stuck playing defense now.

In fact, the best homage to the slogan has emerged in a Seattle neighborhood that fears gentrification will dilute its reputation as a safe haven for the city’s substantial gay population: “Keep Capitol Hill Queered.” Seattle still does irony pretty well.

Eugene has seen no need to protect its eccentricities. For the last half century, we’ve had almost nothing else. “Weird Eugene” was considered redundant. Promoting Eugene’s weirdness made as much sense as renting a pillow factory for your pre-teen’s slumber party. You know it’ll be a mess in the morning, no matter what. If you don’t make it too easy, then at least they’ll be resourceful about it.

In any other place, a gray-haired guy who sells hand-written joke books on city sidewalks would stand out like a year-round Santa Claus — especially when almost no one knows his real name and no one can remember him ever doing anything else. And yet, here in Eugene, David “Frog” Miller fades into our woodwork of weirdness.

Last weekend’s Whiteaker Block Party showed plenty of weirdness, from a decidedly eclectic musical lineup to revelers regaled in back-of-the-closet outfits. But something weird has happened to even that reliable weirdness. Marijuana dispensaries are fighting for market share, so they rent booths at local festivals to build their brand awareness.

OLCC won’t allow dispensaries to sell or distribute a regulated product at all-ages street fairs. Instead, they give away swag. At various festivals, I’ve seen coupons for edibles, brand-emblazoned Frisbees and yo-yos, and a lemonade booth offering to add a micro-dose of CBD to their drink for an extra two dollars.

These are the sorts of things we used to see in the Oregon Country Fair parking lot, in Scobert Park after dark, or in particular downtown alleys (by appointment only.) Now there are billboards, sign wavers on street corners, and a flood of advertising in Eugene Weekly.

Weirdness has gone mainstream across the Northwest. At the same time, Eugene is developing a reputation as a place where you can succeed in business and raise a family in relative safety, while staying active and healthy. As other coastal cities lose livability, Eugene has begun to look like an attractive alternative.

We have a major university, a well-used library, and a vibrant nightlife without high crime rates. If you don’t have to live on the area’s median wage, our housing costs are affordable and taxes aren’t as high as they are in other places known for their quirkiness.

Can you see the encroaching peril for Eugene? Commercial and mainstream influences are effectively narrowing the channel of weirdness that we have always accepted as charm. That charm could fade to invisibility. Seattle’s lesson is this: once it’s gone, you cannot rebuild it.

Now more than ever, we must preserve and protect those things about us that make absolutely no sense. We have to support outdoor tuba concerts, mausoleum tours, nude beaches for middle-aged bathers, and our S.L.U.G. Queen pageant.

The Society for the Legitimization of the Ubiquitous Gastropod has been crowning a queen (of any gender) every summer since 1983. Royal rambunctiousness is more important now than ever — now, as in tonight!

It was 20 years ago when a S.L.U.G. Queen contestant proclaimed, “Normal is a setting on my washing machine. It has nothing to do with me.” She didn’t live inside her washing machine and we shouldn’t either. So grab a lawn chair and cheer for this year’s contestants. The coronation will take place on the Park Blocks tonight at 6 PM. Keep Eugene Weird.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.