Once upon the Oregon coast there was a weathered little village that abided beside a stunning stretch of beach. The location was ripe for tourism, yet seasonal storms and cultural norms kept carpetbaggers at bay. Rent was low. Locals could live in scruffy bliss without much money.
Cannon Beach became a haven for artists and nature-lovers. Locals knew the surroundings held big magic, and they understood how schemes to monetize all that mojo could erode the source of inspiration. So standards were set to protect the place from unplanned development.
A local sense of balance can shift with the tides, especially when big money rolls in. The little village struggled to manage swelling crowds as summers became more and more frenetic. Traffic backed up. Trash overflowed. Sewage spilled onto the beach.
For long-term visitors the memory of coastal magic began to recede into the past. For residents, it took more stamina to endure the summer slam that paid the rising costs of living. So goes a familiar tale of progress in paradise. What usually happens next is that this summer occupation spreads to consume the other seasons. That’s how business-as-usual has unfolded elsewhere.
But the north coast of Oregon is not a business-as-usual place. Embedded in the local scene are creative seeds of resistance. One of the perks of living here is befriending the unusual folks who’ve cultivated those seeds.
A prime example is my neighbor, John Fraser. Many people know John as the guy who used to affix weird objects to colorful clunkers he drove around Cannon Beach. He’d park his crazy cars at the shop he owns next door — the oldest kite store on the Oregon coast, Once Upon a Breeze. Sometimes I’d step outside to speak with John as he decorated one of his vehicles, finding the perfect spot for a rubber iguana, plastic nun, or bobbing baby-doll head.
John stopped driving over a year ago, but for a while he still caught rides to work. Some days I’d hear him in the courtyard behind his shop, composing music on one of his many handmade instruments. John was always tinkering with a jumble of gadgets, inventing some new way to play. Enthralled with the creative process, he rarely seemed to give much heed to the pain growing inside him.
When John stopped coming to work altogether, friends knew he was embarking on his final journey. He began staying close to home, immersed in the company of his closest conspirators. Early last spring he invited me to his house for a chat. I tape-recorded the bedside conversation, intending to write something for the Upper Left Edge. But then the summer throng descended, and time went missing.
For many years John drove around, just after Labor Day, tossing hundreds of plastic frogs out of his car windows. He’d scatter them all over the village — on the sidewalks and courtyards and in the planters. He said it was the ritual re-enactment of a biblical plague, heralding our exodus from the bonds of peak tourism.
This year, when the crowds dispersed, I finally found the creative space to cut and paste my conversation with John into a broader context. He began by telling me how he arrived here in the mid 70s, a time when young bohemians were re-creating the seaside village as a salty arts colony.
“There is truth to the rumor that I moved here directly from Dammasch State Mental Hospital,” said John. “I got out on a day shift, and they released me from Ward G to the Greyhound bus station in Portland. I got on the bus and then just came directly to Cannon Beach.”
I did not inquire further about John’s prior abode. Many north coast residents have been detained at one point or another by the gatekeepers of modern sanity. We tend to find our way here.
Old-timers remember John’s arrival because he brought a musical act along he called the Juan Man Band. Sometimes he performed outdoors, as a sort of music-box mime with a portable set-up on his back. Other times he played solo at taverns, restaurants, and concerts, switching between twenty-seven different instruments during each gig. He invented ways to do this seamlessly with a repertoire that was broad and ranging. He had a Bob Dylan style harmonica holder, and after a bluesy rock’n’roll tune he’d pick up his flute and play Peter and the Wolf.
John’s wife of 22 years, Lisa Fraser, recalls the first time she witnessed his act.
“It was not only jaw dropping to hear the different styles of songs,” said Lisa, “but to watch was mesmerizing. I remember sneaking into a bar at the age of 18 to hear this amazing musician, having no idea we would end up married. Didn’t meet him, but was just blown away by his act. I’ve heard recordings where if people weren’t listening, he’d give out recipes between songs.”
And if John was low on money, he came up with other tricks.
“At that time, Cannon Beach was a place you could just go out and do something,” he said. “My favorite gig, the purest one, was selling big zip-lock bags of sand. I’d get a bunch of these and go around to all the bars and sell them to people. I’d tell them they no longer had to go down to the beach. They could just order another drink and get a bag of sand for a buck. And there were instructions for what to do when you got home with the sand. It worked well.”
John was quite a hand at improvisational theater. Occasionally he’d ply his craft by selling dog feces. Nowadays cities put baggie dispensers near trash cans in hopes of educating people about laws requiring them to clean up after their pets. Back in the day, John collected the material and made some pocket change selling it to visitors.
Other times he’d do stuff just for fun.
“I used to get a hard hat and an orange jacket and stand out on the sidewalk with a sign,” he said. “As people came up to the stop sign I’d flag ‘em and tell them we were conducting a study. I’d say ‘here’s a card, and what I want you to do is go down to the corner and stop and there’ll be a person there to take the card.’ It was suppose to be some sort of traffic assessment. And they all fell for it.”
“Then there was a day we had some fun with these plastic bird things. We could wind them up and they would actually fly along flapping very loudly. And we went over to the Bistro and were throwing them through the window for all the bar patrons to enjoy.”
John made quite a splash at parties. One Halloween he came to a soiree wearing a dioramic stage around his waist with the words “Binky at the Beach” emblazoned over the venue. In the middle of the stage was a flesh-toned wormlike puppet tied to strings he could work with his fingers. John went around introducing everyone to Binky, encouraging folks to interact with the critter. Etched into many a local brain is that moment when certain synapses relayed the fact that John had cut a hole in the diorama, and that his fingers weren’t the only parts of his body that were connected to strings.
Exhibitionist, prankster, sure. But John has also contributed to the local arts scene and collaborated on many cultural events. For three years he was music director for the Cannon Beach Coaster Theatre. A devoted fan of the Dada arts movement, he helped to insert elements of the absurd into various productions.
“We did some things that blew me away,” said John. “In particular, I really enjoyed the avant-garde production of a Sherlock Holmes play in which we arranged for 20 rubber chickens to be dropped on the stage at random places in the script, which was otherwise followed by the book.”
For a while he also worked at the Cannon Beach Children’s Center, back when it was located in the same building that now hosts his kite shop on Spruce Street.
“One of my hobbies for years has been cooking. When I worked at the Children’s Center I worked out the budget for the kitchen, and I would make these really elaborate meals. Basically I did the chef-of-the-week out of Gourmet Magazine, which I got for free at the library. And a lot of that stuff, when you stop and count it all up, it’s not that expensive. It’s just in the prep time, which didn’t matter to me. We would serve things like crab crepes with béarnaise sauce. I was willing to prepare it, just hang around the kitchen and flirt with all the cute day care workers. Then go fly kites.”
The children’s center had relocated south of town by the time I entered the picture. John was the owner of the former building that had housed the kite shop for forty years. He had worked his way up from beach flier to clerk to manager. Finally the original owner — DK Smith — sold it to him.
“Kites were just something that I got into, bought them and then learned how to make them, learned how to sew. We used to fly really big kites — 16 feet by 24 feet — and we’d rope them to these giant logs on the beach. Soon we learned that the logs were being dragged across the beach. Once a worried motel owner asked ‘when that log comes over the seawall there, what do you have planned?’”
Later John started using sand-bags as anchors, which are less dangerous. A sensitive businessman, he understands the importance of civility. The kite store staffers say he expects good work and has provided a free relaxed environment in which to accomplish it.
Yet John certainly has challenged the status quo, as public servant as well. When an important issue arose, he’d go down to city hall and speak up, often about some topic that relates to overcrowding. He’s been a member of the City Council, the Planning Commission, and the Community Policing Team. Having served with him on the latter, I can say he knew when to balance humor with measured reasoning.
There is more than method to John’s madness, I believe. Call it natural design. Something deep in the human psyche resists conventional thinking when we know down deep that social norms are at odds with our wellbeing.
That day I stopped by his house, I noticed a Balinese mask hanging above John’s bed. He talked about how much he liked Balinese music, how it’s off the charts and doesn’t make any sense. He said the mask was supposed to scare away bad demons when they come and see it and realize what kind of foe they’re up against.
I suggested that maybe those cultural elements might be linked in some strange way with the Dadaist urge to purge oppression with nonsense. Maybe absurdity is an ancient tool for fending off the banality of empire.
“Hey,” he responded, eyes widening with enthusiasm. “Maybe halfway between your shop and my shop on Spruce Street, where all that bamboo is growing up between the buildings, we could go and put like a secret door in there where we can go back and forth.”
Forever playful, John Fraser. In communities where people approach life with a bit of whimsy, his kind of disposition becomes part of our civic identity. If neglected, we are easily overrun by tedium. I asked John if the arts-and-nature spirit of the coast can be re-seeded.
“It can,” he said, “that’s my big thing. Some people say the old Cannon Beach is gone, but it’s whatever you bring to the table. If you want to relax and have a good time, you’ll have a good time.”
And what does John suggest we do to nurture that spirit?
“It takes a little effort on everyone’s part,” he said. “Keep a diary or journal, or listen to different music. There’s so much available now in so many different venues. You can really expand your personal horizons, whatever you’re trying to get done. I would really like to think that in the end the big players in the tourist industry have a little bit of foresight, that they know people come to Cannon Beach for a number of reasons, and we should celebrate our diversity.”