“This,” Bob McDowell begins, hunkering his shoulders slightly, like a magician about to spring a trick, “is a very strange story ….”
Most of McDowell’s stories could be sold with such a flirtatious prologue, but frankly, the hard sell is unnecessary. Regardless of whether they’re strange or odd or merely downright unbelievable, his stories are always good. They’re also usually epic, delivered in a wide-eyed, excitable barrage of run-on sentences. When he gets going on one of his intricate yarns, it’s best to get out of the way.
“I’m in the Oakland airport,” he says, hands folded neatly at the bald eagle crest on the chest of his navy blue polo, “and I’m sitting next to a gentleman who was probably in his 90s. Very dignified. And we started talking and suddenly I realized I had been with this fellow in Anawetok for the atomic hydrogen [test] series in 1955. He was in the Naval security there. He said he was living in a retirement facility north of Oakland: a Quaker facility. So we started talking about it because I was at the point of retirement, too. He said, ‘Come down and take a look at it … but are you a political activist? Because they only take political activists.’ I told him I was, but when I visited the place—a really incredible place—they told me that because so many people wanted in, there was a 10-year waiting list. They said to me, ‘But you’re from Portland. You have a really great facility already. We recommend it to people who don’t want to wait 10 years.’”
In essence, Terwilliger Plaza—a high-end retirement complex on the fir-lined lower porch of the West Hills—was McDowell’s Plan B. And although volunteering for peace movements and conscientious objecting are both worthy pursuits, it’s hard to imagine, as the second of four courses lands on our table in this private dining room, that the 73-year-old might be skipping town anytime soon for a simple life with the Quakers. Seared scallops the size of tea saucers float on lobster bouillon; leaflets of chanterelle-mushroom toast bookend the plate. Before either of us can even lift a fork, waiters in crisp white shirts appear over our shoulders, deft with pours from a 2006 Sancerre for us and the 15 other guests at this monthly limited-seating meal. Our chef, Klaus Monberg, a jovial bearded fellow with a Scandinavian accent who’s run restaurants in San Francisco and Manzanita, explains that “because of the chalky soil in the [Sancerre] region, you might get tastes of citrus and apple. You also might taste grass.” It’s a charming sentiment, but considering that this is our third flight of wine so far this evening, most of the assembled grandmothers and great-grandfathers have long passed the point of swishing for flourishes of tobacco and leather. We’re not sipping anymore.
Seared scallops float on lobster bouillon; leaflets of Chanterelle-mushroom toast bookend the plate.
And because of the chugging, things are getting a little boisterous. I met the three people sitting next to me only 45 minutes ago, but with unapologetically flushed faces we’re already bonding. Across the table, 93-year-old Art Balinger is three-piece-suit dapper, his white hair still full and slicked back, pretty much what you’d expect from a pre-TV radio announcer who worked on classics like The Roy Rogers Show. “Lots of Philip Morris commercials,” he says, his golden throat dulled but still commanding. Sitting next to him, Anne Kronenberg, who looks at least 15 years younger than the 85 she claims, speaks in birdlike tones about her time spent visiting the cavernous sawmills of Weyerhaeuser, where her husband worked. Leaning in from my right, McDowell continues in conspiratorial near-whispers with his dishy gossip about one of the residents, said to be the grandson of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed designer of New York’s Central Park. McDowell once managed the Kaiser Permanente art collection, the largest corporate stockpile in the Pacific Northwest; a piece from his personal collection—a mixed-media abstract painting—looms over tonight’s meal.
Both in mood and, in tonight’s case, sheer alcohol content, Terwilliger feels nothing like a retirement home. Before dessert even arrives, plans are being hatched to slip back up to Balinger’s place for some wine from his personal stash, which he keeps replenished with monthly shipments from a small vineyard in California. Tucked away as we are in a private, wood-paneled dining room, it’s easy to forget that beyond these soundproofed walls, in any one of the 248 rooms that make up Terwilliger, someone might be taking his last breath or struggling to remember her child’s name.
A reminder jerks his walker through the door midway through the cheese plate. His eyes are wide with what can only be dementia. The seat of his pants bulges from the adult diaper he wears out of necessity. “Where can I sit?” he asks in a hollow, childlike voice. The mood of the room is eclipsed by an awkward pall, a kind of ignore-it-and-it’s-not-happening uneasiness usually reserved for panhandlers. A waitress steps in and politely steers the gentleman toward the general dining area. “But I want to sit here,” the man pleads, continuing to protest as he’s led away.
The rest of us just keep chewing. And drinking. The next flight of wine arrives, a salve with a delicate bouquet of peach and honeysuckle. It’s a lovely Moscato d’Asti from Italy, and it tastes like distraction.