You know you’re in Oregon when you walk into a dockside pancake shack and the sign on the wall says, “Gluten-free pancakes with organic chai tea.”

I’m down in Coos Bay this weekend, about five hours south of Portland but more like eight the way I came. I’m working through a casting problem* with Hugh McKay of Cast Glass Forms.¬†Hugh’s in Port Orford; Gigi the iPhone led me a merry GPS dance through cow pastures and abandoned farmland to get here.

“Geeeez, you went hours out of the way,” said Hugh, “Don’t you computer nerds ever look at a map?”

Uhm, well…anyway, by the time I found Hugh’s place it was nearly dark and I was exhausted. We finished up our business, then I found a cheap motel room in Coos Bay. Asleep by 10, on the road by 6.

I’d brought the big guns, i.e., Darius the Nikon and his family of lenses and tripods–just in case–so I decided to grab some breakfast and head up the coastline toward home, shooting anything that caught my fancy.

Apparently I’m the only one in Coos Bay who thinks getting up before the crack of dawn for pancakes and photos is a good idea; I had the restaurant to myself. The waitress cheerfully took my order and left me to watch the sun pinking up the docks.

I probably should have been outside, shooting the rising sun. But this being the WEST coast I wasn’t gonna get the shot I wanted anyway, it was cold as hell out there, and I was in no hurry to leave.

Those flapjacks were pretty good.

A second customer walked in, shrugging off a huge dufflebag by the counter. He had long greying hair pulled back under a greasy fisherman’s cap, and a scraggly beard covering a pinched, hollow face. He was layered to the nines with maybe every tattered garment he owned, and shivering.

I made him for quietly desperate, probably a tweaker, and warily went on point. I quietly moved my purse under the table, looped the strap around my ankle.

The air sizzled with pork fat and pancakes and coffee; I watched the guy lift his head and sniff, deep. He dug down into his pocket, pulled out a handful and examined the contents.

“I think I’ve got enough change for a cup of coffee,” he told the waitress, thrusting his hand under her nose.

She shook her head. “Coffee’s pretty spendy, $1.95.”

His face fell. “Then maybe could I just stay in here for a minute, get warm?”

Frost edged the docks; 32 degrees outside and windy as hell. The waitress examined him for a long quiet minute, saying nothing, so he picked up his duffle, defeated.

‘Tell you what,” she said, “If you’ll clean up that case and stock those Baby Ruths, I’ll give you a cup in exchange.” She gestured at a box of candy and some scattered brochures on the battered showcase.

He nodded eagerly, and set to work, carefully stacking the brochures.

He dusted off the case with a grimy, work-hardened hand, scrubbed at a cloudy spot with his shirttail. Then, almost reverently, he opened the box of candy bars and placed them, one by one, onto the rack.

At the dozenth and last bar he stopped, holding that Baby Ruth delicately and…just looking at it. He glanced at the waitress, looked back at the bar, and then set the candy in place, patting it softly. He stood back, still staring at that bar.

The waitress bustled up, startling him. “All done?” she asked, “Come have a seat.”

“I didn’t take none of them candy bars…,” he began. She stopped him with a raised hand.

“I know,” she said kindly. She led him to a table, set him up with coffee and sugar and a big plate of creamers.

He emptied every last creamer into that cup, and she brought him more. At the first sip, he slid all the way back into the seat, closed his eyes, and smiled.

“Thank you,” he told her, “California’s hiring day labor just over the state line. I got enough to get me there, but I gotta wait ’cause the guy at the bus station don’t like me.”

“Bus ticket to Eureka is $18 but that guy, he like to charge me $80. I gotta wait for the next guy when he goes off shift. Sure cold out there, waiting.”

The waitress nodded, and his eyes narrowed, speculatively, “Mebbe you need a dishwasher or something? I work hard, I’m not a slacker…”

She shook her head, “No, we’re overstaffed as it is, but thanks.”

My table was on the other side of the register, so I could see her surreptitiously slip a couple of bills out of her apron. She rang up the sale of one cup of coffee then turned, to see me watching. For a moment, she looked vaguely annoyed, and then she shrugged. “Get you anything else?”

I held up a twenty. “I think this will cover the bill and your tip,” I whispered, “with enough left over to buy that gentleman a breakfast special. Can you tell him it’s free but not from me?”

She looked at me, startled. “I just bought him a cup of coffee,” she said softly, “I can’t give him a meal on the house; every homeless guy for a hundred miles will be in here. I appreciate it, but…” and she stopped, thinking.

“OK, here’s what we do,” she said, “I’ll ring you up, then you leave. I’ll tell him that a customer bought his breakfast.” She took my money, and I rose. I heard the cash register ring open as I headed for the door, and then her voice.

“That customer just paid for your breakfast. Here’s the menu; order anything you want from this page…”

I got into the car, started the engine. Through the window, I saw him, studying that menu. Hard.

*The problem is, basically, that I need to finish ten sculptures by the end of March, I’m behind and Hugh has graciously agreed to fire the biggest for me. But more about that later.