In memory of Don Younger

horsebrass 021

Last night Portland lost one of its legendary figures, Don Younger, owner of the Horse Brass Pub. If you enjoy Oregon beer, you should raise a pint to him tonight. As a relative newcomer here the story’s not mine to tell, but suffice to say that he and his bar did a great deal to nurture the brewing community that’s made Portland justifiably famous for beer. Imbibe wrote about that history in one of their first issues. John Foyston has more in the Oregonian, and Ezra is collecting memories of Don at the New School. Many more tributes will be rolling in.

I’d read about Don and the Horse Brass before I’d moved to Portland and made a point to visit the bar on my first trip out here several years ago. When I finally did move here the Horse Brass became one of the first local bars where I felt at home. I loved beer, but it was also one of the best places to enjoy a cigar. Knowing few people in the city, it was a place I could visit anytime and strike up a conversation with whomever else was there at the end of the bar where the cigar smokers gathered. On one of these early visits Don was holding court at his usual spot, and though I didn’t meet him then I still remember the night. There was a young guy a few spots down from me nursing a beer and reading a book alone. Don called him over: “What are you doing, you don’t come to a bar to read a book!” Just like that the guy was introduced to the group and welcomed into the pub community.

A few weeks later I tried to meet Don myself. The statewide smoking ban was about to go into effect and I wanted to talk to Don for some articles I was working on. Many bar owners privately opposed the ban, but he was one of the few who actively fought against it. I had no luck getting an interview though: The bartenders informed me that Don was sick of talking to people about it. I ended up writing about the ban in the Oregonian anyway, not expecting to hear from Don. Then I saw him at the Horse Brass a few days later and introduced myself. Amazingly, he knew exactly who I was, said he loved my article, and that if he’d known who was asking for him he would have gladly talked to me. I’ve never been more flattered to find out that someone had read something I wrote. As intimidating as he was by reputation, in person he was as friendly as could be, the perfect publican.

A few months later I noticed something that cracked me up: He’d posted a clipping of the article in the hallway of the Horse Brass, right by the bathrooms, with some patron adding a graffitied mustache to my headshot. It stayed there for about a year. I may never win a Pulitzer, but how many Pulitzer winners can say they’ve had their writing displayed outside the men’s room of the Horse Brass? I’ll take it.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to know Don well after that. I spent less time at the Horse Brass after the ban, and reportedly so did he. But I do have one more story. The final night of smoking at the Horse Brass was not, in fact, the last night one could do it legally. A few days after the ban took effect Don allowed his regulars one more chance to light up in defiance of the law. Though I hadn’t arrived for this part, I’m told by others that Don called for patrons’ attention a half hour before we lit up to let everyone know what was going on. He said he knew that smoking is illegal now, but that he’d promised his friends they’d have one last session together. Anyone could leave if they wanted to, and he gave them the phone number they could call to report him, but this was going to happen. The bar burst into applause. And, of course, nobody called the number.

What a man. What a bar. Long live the Horse Brass.


Ode to the Horse Brass

horsebrass 021

I have an article at Doublethink today about the last days of smoking at the legendary Horse Brass Pub, one of the first places I felt at home when moving to Portland a few months ago. Debates over smoking bans tend to focus on the impacts on business, public health, and property rights. The culture that’s wiped out when smoking is banned gets much less attention. In this piece I try to convey what that culture means to those of us who love it.

Incidentally, I finally got to meet Don Younger, the pub’s owner, a few days after I submitted this. He’s not at all worried that his bar won’t survive the ban. The beer, the atmosphere, and the food are all too good for that to happen (and the Scotch eggs, incidentally, are probably far more dangerous to people’s hearts than all the cigarette smoke in Oregon — but totally worth it). When we ban opponents talk about the rights of business owners, we’re not just talking about them making money; as Don says, he didn’t get into the tavern business to get rich. We’re talking about not having a community that they’ve nurtured for more than 30 years wiped out at the whim of some busybodies in the state legislature.


The last smoker

This is a fantastic photo: regulars at the Horse Brass Pub recreate “The Last Supper” with long-haired publican Don Younger filling in for Jesus. There’s no Judas here, just a gathering of loyal friends. Judas would be the Oregonians not pictured because they wouldn’t enter the pub while people smoked there, selling out one of their city’s legendary bar owners so they can drink Don’s beer under their own rules.

[Photo by Aaron Barnard, Vanished Twin Photography, via Willamette Week.]