Have you heard that Gus Van Sant is making a film about John Callahan’s life? Callahan, the prolific cartoonist and writer, became a quadriplegic in an auto accident when he was 21. His car was being driven by a friend whom he barely knew and with whom he was bar hopping after a day of drinking. The driver crashed the car into a utility pole at 90 miles an hour. When the accident severed Callahan’s spinal cord, he had already been an alcoholic from the age of 12. Eventually, with physical therapy, he regained the ability to draw by guiding his right hand across a page with his other hand, and working slowly. For 27 years until his death, his cartoons appeared in Willamette Week, multiple other publications, and he authored many books.
Callahan liked to portray my friend, Kevin Mullane, aka K-Man, as a hopeless inebriate staggering and lurching his way through life when he wasn’t collapsed on the sidewalk reeking of piss and alcohol. This portrayal, of course, served Callahan’s comedic purposes but wasn’t quite the truth. Another part of the truth is that Kevin and Callahan were very close and that Kevin was Callahan’s unofficial, and mostly unacknowledged, creative partner. The two shared a wicked sense of humor and often finished each other’s sentences.
I met Kevin at the bus stop. Semi-retired, he works as a sexton for Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. I was waiting for a bus and he was tending to church business when we struck up a conversation and became firm friends. We share a lack of concern for clothing — we don’t care what we wear — and an Irish background. As I shared certain miseries with Kevin, one of the first stories he told me was about a nun who hated his mother and made two years of his school life unbearable. She managed to force him to repeat a year so she could continue tormenting him. Part of the impression this made on me, because of the way he handled it and what it taught him, was that Kevin is an optimist no matter what. If you press me, I suppose I believe that humanity is going down the tubes because we can’t be honest with ourselves about human nature and work to change it. Kevin, on the other hand, is convinced that we’ll manage to pull something out of our hats at the last minute. We’ve had many conversations that go round and round about this and no one’s mind is ever changed — but we have a perverse kind of fun, I suppose. Considering the challenges he faced, the pain he lived with, and what he accomplished, perhaps Callahan is a human-life example of Kevin’s philosophy.
Kevin misses Callahan sorely. And I will miss Kevin badly when I move to Washington in two weeks and can no longer have our bi-monthly Sunday morning talks over coffee and cookies. Kevin is Northwest Portland through and through and has lived here for over thirty-three years. He is an old hand who has the slightly jaded, disillusioned air of someone who has seen the neighborhood transformed into something unrecognizable and not always in a good way. He is an instrumental part of the local community garden and, being a writer too, writes the monthly Nobby News (“News you can’t always believe”) in the Northwest Examiner. I never miss it.
One reason I love Kevin is because I can tell him anything. For the three years I’ve lived here, I’ve loved my vintage apartment and the charming, ever-interesting personality of this neighborhood. Kevin was a bonus I could never have imagined and one of the long-lasting gifts of my Northwest Portland experience is our friendship.