Back in the 70s when people ate nonsensical foods that tasted like lumpy dust and oily crabgrass, I worked in a health food store in Eugene, Oregon. This was when whole foods referred to a type of grain and not a supermarket chain, and the word "foodie" had not yet been invented. It was a dream job for a hippie co-ed and the best theater in town, as workers and customers alike brought endless goofy entertainment.
Perhaps the most entertaining of all was the scraggly old man behind the cash register, Don Russell. Don had a handful of teeth inside a smelly mouth, a long greasy pony tail that resembled something he'd pulled out of the drain, and long yellow fingernails as curved as an eagle's talons. He wore wire rimmed glasses on the end of his nose and cackled like a wicked witch. He was one of those old guys you either loved like a tattered teddy bear, or feared like Freddy Krueger. I didn't fear him at all; he bore a remarkable resemblance to my invisible friend, Mr. Nose Cone and, on the rare occasions when he wasn't utterly sloshed, he could pass for a Shakespearean actor, if not for Shakespeare himself.
There are a lot of stories to be told about Don, from how he ended up behind the cash register in the first place, to how he ended up dead in his friend's freezer in the last place, and the trophy wife he married in between. But for me the quintessential Don Russell story will always be his dinner of frozen penguins.
It all started when he suggested I and a friend join him at his home for dinner. Now you must understand, Don wasn't the type of person one usually associated with the word "home" unless it was followed by "less." He rarely bathed, he drank like an Irish poet, and he appeared to be more delusional than a politician promising real change. So when he invited us to dinner, I thought the only kind thing to do was play along.
"I'm going to serve frozen penguin!" he declared, followed by a cackle. "Have you ever cooked a penguin?"
It had never even occurred to me to do so.
"Penguin?" I asked with a barely perceptible smile, "No, I never have. Where do you buy penguin?"
"You can't buy it!" he declared, "But I happen to have a penguin in my freezer. Why don't you come by Saturday night and we'll cook it!"
"How did you end up with a penguin in your freezer?" I asked, sensing a story coming on.
"I was sitting at home, reading Goethe," he explained, as I imagined him propped up in some dark alley reading the label off a three dollar Riesling, "When suddenly there was this loud honking outside. I went outside and there was a friend of mine from the university, sitting in a truck." He paused, melodramatically, while I tried to imagine Don having a friend from the university, much less a friend who owned a truck. "And the back of the truck was piled high with penguins!" A long cackle followed.
"Penguins?" I asked soberly, the way psychiatrists say, "And then what did the light sockets tell you?"
"My friend got a call from the zoo in Portland," he continued, "and a bunch of their penguins had frozen to death. Now how in the word does a penguin freeze to death?"
"I don't know," I answered, like it was some riddle to test how clever I really was.
"That's just it," he responded, "they were baffled! Penguins can't freeze. So they called my friend to bring the penguins to the university and find out why they died."
"Then what happened?" I asked.
"My friend said to me, 'Don, why don't you take one of these penguins and cook it!' So we pulled a small penguin off the back of the truck and put it in my freezer."
"But of course," I said. And Don cackled to high heaven.
Well, the story didn't end there. All week long he talked about his frozen penguins and the dinner we would have on Saturday night as we mused on how to cook it. Should it be roasted and stuffed, like a turkey, or filleted and pounded thin, dredged in seasoned flour and served with a Port-wine sauce? We swapped recipes and jokes about penguins all week long.
But when I told my friend we'd been invited to Don Russell's for a frozen penguin supper, I'd might as well have told him we'd been invited to join Fred and Wilma Flintstone for roast mastodon. He looked at me like I was in need of anti-psychotics.
"I think it could be fun to show up," I said, "Of course Don is going to be living in some shack with a hot plate, but he's such a sweet and funny guy. Let's go; I'd love to see how he lives, and we can eat before we go. Let's just play along."
My friend reluctantly agreed, and when Don gave me his address, written in an elaborate hand-scrawled calligraphy as if it were a royal invitation, I promised him we'd be there, while fairly certain he'd forget all about it and we'd find him passed out at Max's Tavern.
But when Saturday night came, we followed the cryptic map Don had drawn to our destination. As we drove, expecting to end up in some sleazy trailer park, we found ourselves driving instead into one of the priciest neighborhoods in town, right by the university.
"Oh great," I said, "Don has probably given us the address of some philosophy professor, and we're going to show up and ask about the penguin dinner!"
"Let's just turn back now," my disgruntled friend advised, "this entire night is being wasted." He'd always been a buzz kill.
"No, no, let's see where he's sent us, at least. Maybe he has an apartment above a garage."
So we drove into the dark and tree-lined street, with huge old mansions set back like some gothic backdrop, as we peered through the darkness for any legible addresses. Then we found it. The street number was etched in a bronze plaque on a stone pillar, immense hedges obscuring the house it marked. We parked on the street, as I scolded my friend to bite his tongue and play along no matter what we encountered.
Then we stepped through the hedges and we couldn't have been more stunned than if a flock of dancing penguins had met us to escort us to the door. The yard was flooded with lights. Not normal yard lights, mind you, but huge movie lights, as big as planets. The house itself, set way back from the street, was something straight out Snow White. It was a charming little stone house that looked like it had been made by the Seven Dwarves. As we walked up to the porch, the door opened and there stood Don, freshly bathed and dressed like Lord Byron in a nineteenth century long-tailed tux, holding a glass of blood red wine.
"Welcome, welcome," he said, as he escorted us inside. Dozens of colorful people swarmed through the house while a large movie camera scanned the room. It turns out they were Pranksters. Merry Pransksters. I should have known. A dinner party in Eugene, Oregon in the 70s wasn't complete without a few Merry Pranksters and one or two cameras to film the event. Soon we were brought into the kitchen. It was a kitchen the size of a space capsule with two huge woks bigger than flying saucers. I'd never seen such huge woks before, and Don quickly explained he'd picked them up in China, as a guest of Chairman Mao.
"And this is the penguin!" he cackled, gesturing to the aromatic green and orange dishes cooking in the woks. "We're making it two ways, a curry and a stir fry. What do you think Horrible Harper?" He always called me Horrible Harper or Zelda, whichever came to mind. "What do these dishes need? More ginger?"
And so it was that we dined that night on frozen penguin. It tasted an awful lot like chicken, as I recall, so much, in fact, that I'm fairly certain there never was any penguin in his freezer, but you never know. What I do know, however, was I learned two lessons that night. The first was that the line between lunacy and lucidity is sometimes very thin. And the second was that when it comes to other people's delusions, sometimes we need to run like hell. But sometimes it pays to play along. You never know when that lunatic by your side will turn out to be an undiscovered angel. And angels always leave us laughing, whatever mischief they might bring.