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passing through the heartbreak hotel

Suki's is just your average slightly weird Portland bar

If you think about it (after several drinks), some screen images try to keep us in a constant state of fear, while others are trying to keep us in a permanent state of desire. Fear and desire, fear and desire Ñ the twin engines of modern life.

For proof (and those drinks), step into Suki's, your average slightly weird Portland bar. Soundless TVs tuned to the news channels serve up images of males suspected of wanting to blow us all to hell, or of shooting their families, or for drinking and driving right in our path on the way home.

Meanwhile, the video poker screens promise that the big score is just one more bet away.

Suki's is made up of four different sections: There's the area with the blinking video games and free pool, where PSU students can be found lapping at the saucer of irony, hoping they don't fit in.

The almost-horseshoe bar area is where the regulars and drop-ins face each other with increasing friendliness. There's a small square of dance floor to which one repairs, microphone in hand, if seized by the muse of karaoke. The restaurant is tacked on the end, with a dozen quiet tables offering an eye-level view of the drivers going by on Southwest Fourth Avenue.

The staff is friendly Ñ in that firm but fair way that career bartenders have. In the evening, Dawn Murray serves booze and food with a smile, calls cabs and patiently explains things to visitors. Marci Maitland, the daytime bartender, is similarly friendly Ñ not bad for someone who hasn't touched the stuff for 20 years.

Thirteen years ago, Suki Chung from Seoul, South Korea, bought the Travelodge Hotel of which Suki's is a part. He still helps out, emptying the dishwasher and changing kegs.

The dŽcor seems old: red walls with textured swirls and glitter, electrical wiring strung along the low ceiling and a disco light. One nook has dimpled Naugahyde booths and comfy seats. This is America's den, parked by the freeway.

Suki's used to have live music five nights a week, including an 18-piece string band, but this proved too expensive. Although the owner says karaoke has declined in popularity over the last few years, it's still better than nothing. Fridays and Saturdays, he hires a karaoke host to get people over their shyness.

On a typical Friday night, as the booze kicks in, men gravitate toward songs of derring-do, women to songs of spite and self-pity.

'Fire all of your guns at once/And explode into space!' shouts a man absorbed by Steppenwolf's 'Born to Be Wild.'

'You're so vain/I bet you think this song is about you,/Don't you? Don't you?' sings a woman, taking on Carly Simon's accusatory ballad.

Next, the perfect venom of Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone' brings out the best in everyone, as the crowd mumbles along.

'Theme From Shaft' follows, unsung by Isaac Hayes. Comes the chorus, everyone suddenly squeaks one word: 'Shaft!' Even the power drinkers at the bar chime in: 'Shaft!' Then it's back to drinking.

'It's a casual bar' is Chung's definition of the place. Patrons tend to drop in on their way home from work, or they live in the neighborhood. He calls it 'the Southwest side of downtown by the YMCA.'

Chung lives in a condo downtown and has two kids at the University of Oregon. The daughter's doing a double major in physics and biology, the son doing the same in accounting and finance. They won't be running a bar.

You can't leave without taking a look at the pay phone nook where 24-year-old Portlander Max Uffelman was found after closing time April 19 of last year, asphyxiated by the steel phone cord.

Much to the mystification of his friends and family, the Multnomah County medical examiner's office classified the manner of death as 'undetermined.' Murder, suicide or accident, everyone has a theory, but no one has an answer.

Many out-of-towners with relatives undergoing treatment at Oregon Health & Science University, which is just up the hill, stay in the hotel and use the bar. These are people whose loved ones are sick, and they want to be as close as they can, while conserving their funds.

The employees are used to them. They also know they have to keep an eye on drinkers who think they can rocket home on the freeway. 'If they get too drunk, we can get them a room in the hotel,' Chung says.

Fear and desire, and the shadow of death. It's a good thing they sell booze.

Contact Joseph Gallivan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..