One of four co-owners of the LaurelThirst Pub, Lewi Longmire is also a very busy musician. He plays as a solo act, a member of several bands, and a “hired gun” for a variety of projects. He estimates he’s been doing at least 200 shows per year over the past decade, but since March he’s found a very different rhythm driving a delivery truck for Imperfect Foods. Longmire moved to Portland in 1997 and bought a house near North Mississippi Avenue about a decade later, “off the generosity of the tip jar.” (That generosity has continued through the pandemic closure, he notes, with LaurelThirst regulars helping out with donations: “The support of the community so far has kept us one step ahead of going in the red.”) This new gig has taken him out of his bubble, from the city’s core to suburban gardens to the edges of the urban growth boundary, with farmland on one side of the road and identical townhouses on the other. We checked in with Longmire on what it’s like to go from musician and publican to driving a food-laden van for a living.
“We shut down the pub a day or two before the order [that closed bars and restaurants to all but takeout and delivery]. The guidelines were getting slimmer and slimmer about how many people could gather. We were just watching what was happening in our bar. To order a drink while a band’s playing you need to lean in to the bartender and shout, which has a higher probability of particulate matter.... People were socially distancing pretty well, but they get a couple of drinks into them and they want to hug their friends. So we saw it being a thing that was untenable.
“I was offered this job doing grocery delivery, and I thought both for my own mental sanity to stay busy, and because I would like to be able to keep my savings to pump into the pub in case we need to, I should accept it. It also feels really helpful at a time like this, anything I could do that was going to help people not go to the store, and to be safer themselves. It’s a little weird, just because as a musician and as a pub owner I haven’t really worked a 40-hour-a-week job in decades. For someone who hasn’t had to be up at 6 a.m. in decades, it’s both good and grueling. The job is too busy for me to freak out about the situation. When I’m on shift, I can’t worry about my pub because I’m too busy. And then when I come home, I’m too tired.
“Two of my roommates got jobs [with Imperfect Foods] as well. The guy who was the manager there knew all these musicians and knew that we were all going to be out of work, and at the same time, with their direct-to-door grocery delivery, they were getting an exponential growth in customers. So he tapped into a community of people he knew was hungry to work and who he knew was skilled and had abilities. Regardless of whatever the mainstream people may think of people who play music for a living, it’s actually a pretty self-motivated group with a very diverse skill set, all sorts of organizational stuff.
“Musicians may look like a bunch of people who are shiftless, late-sleeping stoners, and dreamers, but if you are making a living doing this, you do the stuff that needs to be done. And some of the aspects of delivery driving—we drive on tour all the time. We pack trailers and the back of vans with far weirder shapes than boxes. The Tetris of loading a delivery van is a pure joy compared to what we’re used to as touring musicians. It’s like, oh, look, everything fits! It’s so organized!
“Driving the van, I do see a lot of really beautiful places. I’ve seen some amazing gardens. Time has lost all meaning with this virus. You can’t hardly tell what day it is. But I’m marking time by watching springtime roll into the valley, which flowers are blooming and what’s going on. That’s been really cool. Doing something like delivering food, at this time when a lot of people are home, there’s a generally really great outpouring of energy. People are glad to see me delivering the box, people are happy for deliveries to exist. People are out in their yards, playing with their kids, trying to maintain some sort of normalcy to their life, and that’s been good to see. There’s people who have boxes of snacks on their porch, so it’s “please take a snack.” There’s people who have specifically left really nice cards. It’ll just be labeled Imperfect Foods delivery guy/person/whatever, and I’ll open it up and there’ll be a tip and a card. Some people are really appreciative.
“I’m working a lot, but on my days off I play so much piano, which I don’t generally do in my musical life, and pedal steel and stuff like that, taking the time to find ways to still grow as a musician and creative person instead of worrying about if I’m writing songs. Creative juices sometimes don’t flow as well in panic time. There’s been a lot of talk among musicians of that recently, where some of my friends are a little bit depressed because they’re like, oh, I have all this time and I thought I would write my next great album during this, but, man, stuff just isn’t coming. And I’m like, no, man, ’cause it’s fucking weird out there! Don’t beat yourself up because you’re not creating!
“Since I have income I’ve been doing what I can to pump income back into the community. During this time I’ve taken all my various broken equipment and instruments to repair people to make sure that they have work. I can afford to still do this stuff, and I’m hoping that someday I’ll need my amp again to sound good for a gig. I don’t know. But I’m hoping that’s the case. I’ve been doing some little livestreams. I did a tie-in with Travel Portland. And I’ve done some on my own personal Facebook just to keep music going, and using that as a platform to raise virtual donations for other friends of mine who I know aren’t surviving as well.
“There’s certainly a bit of an existential crisis of just wondering who am I now. I’m lucky in the way my own personal brain works: when met with a panic like that, I have always kind of gone inward. When this stuff started happening I started doing more yoga. I started meditating more often. My intention is to come out of this situation physically better and mentally better and spiritually better than I went into it, if I can, by doing the things that I actually can control. There was that period when the news every day was just awful, more awful, scary. You want to stay informed, but the other side is you don’t want to get wrapped up in that. Anybody who’s dealing with anxiety or trauma, they tell you to see if you can tap into the reality of the moment—like, yes the virus is taking everything away, people are dying, but also I’m in my house right now, I’m warm, I’m not in danger at this moment. I can meditate. I can dig in the garden. I can pull weeds. There are things I can do to occupy my time and my mind that don’t involve worrying about what will happen in the future.
“Yes, I don’t know if I’ll ever play gigs the way it was again, but there’s no sense in my freaking out about it, because I wouldn’t be playing a gig right now anyway. If I never got to play music in public again I would find some way to be happy. There’s ways to be happy. All these things that we do that we think define us, they don’t really define us. They’re just stuff we’re involved in. It seems fatalistic, but I have been keeping one eye open towards the fact that what would I do if it never got normal again. And just being able to try and keep myself grounded in a way, it’s not going to kill me. I’ll find a way to laugh again even if I can’t play gigs.
“Of course, I would much rather be playing gigs.”