According to the sign above the bar at the Goose Hollow Inn, the tavern owner was out. "Gone to City Hall," it said.

The sign was wrong.

J.E. (Bud) Clark, mayor of Portland, was mingling with the after-work crowd at the Goose, a homey, Yuppie gathering spot. His tie was loose; he held a draft beer in one hand. His wife, Sigrid, sat at a bar stool nearby.

"Hi, Mr. Mayor," a half-drunk man said as he stumbled up to Clark.

"Hi, Mr. Citizen," replied the mayor. Sigrid Clark giggled softly.

The Clarks are not your typical, stuffy political couple. She is first violinist for the Oregon Symphony, owns an antique shop named Mother Goose and manages the family tavern now that her husband has another job. He is an appealing free spirit, a maverick holding his first public office.

A campaign poster on the tavern wall hints at this. It pictures Clark in a full, gray beard, serving a beer. "This Bud's for You," it says.

Clark, 54, has been in office only a few months. Although the opening reviews are good, a sense of uneasiness persists. "He is a sincere, good-hearted guy," one businessman said. "But I'm just afraid he doesn't know what he is doing. A lot of us are holding our breath and hoping things will turn out okay."

The new mayor, however, has attracted the kind of national attention most politicians only dream about. This includes invitations to appear on the Johnny Carson and David Letterman television shows.

Clark turned down Letterman. His staff expressed concern that the comic would talk only about Clark's famous "Expose Yourself to Art" poster, which has sold more than 300,000 copies nationally. It pictures Clark, back to the camera, in a raincoat that he is flashing open toward the statue of a nude female.

In an age of plastic, blow-dried officials, Clark is different. He rides to work on a beat-up bicycle called "the Stump Jumper," pushes his canoe down the Willamette River with a pole, snaps pictures of people who drop by City Hall with a pocket camera and shouts everywhere he goes, "Whoop! Whoop!"

Some think this kind of behavior silly or at least undignified for a mayor. "He makes it look like we in Portland don't take this mayor business seriously," one businessman complained. "We do."

"We all like a good joke, but Portland's future is at stake," said a campaign advertisement last year for Frank Ivancie, Clark's predecessor. "Do you want to put a self-proclaimed born-again pagan in the mayor's office, someone whose chief claim to fame is exposing himself to a downtown statue?"

The ad did not work. Clark upset Ivancie in the nonpartisian primary last May and faced only token opposition in the general election. He is now seen as a populist, not an oddball.

"Bud is Bud. None of us are exactly normal out here," Portland Commissioner Margaret Strachan said. "Oregonians are pretty individualistic people. Bud relates to the average guy on the street. He listens to people and really hears what they say. Can he pull off being mayor? I think so."

Part of Clark's appeal is that he understands something few politicians do: how to make people smile. It is a powerful, underrated weapon. It helps him connect with people. The nation may need more tavern owners and fewer lawyers as politicians.

But it is wrong to dismiss Clark, a Democrat, as frivolous.

"I'm not a funny man. I'm a serious man," he said in an interview. "I'm a conservative. I know you have to have money in the bank to pay your bills. People who think I'm an eccentric misjudge me. Everyone in the world is different. That's what makes it wonderful. I've been riding a bicycle for a long time. People didn't use to run, but our DA now jogs around downtown at noontime in short pants. There's been a revolution in the way people look at the world."

This is especially true in Portland, a picturesque port city of 371,000 with a magnificent view of Mount Hood. Once a town of quiet, old wealth and discreet culture, it has become one of the nation's most pleasant, most lively cities in recent decades -- a place where one finds a backpack store on almost every corner and people on downtown streets after dark.

Clark has made several major changes. His new police chief, Penny Harrington, 42, is the first woman to hold that post in a major city. He has proposed major budget cuts, including reducing the size of the police force, and raising taxes on tickets to theaters and sporting events. He has also revived a long-dormant convention-center project.

But Clark's biggest accomplishment is intangible. "We've changed the spirit of the city," he boasted. "There was a negative feeling about the city, a feeling that things weren't going well and they weren't going to get better. Frank Ivancie had a negative personality, and it rubbed off. I look at the world positively, and people see that."

He also has placed major emphasis on neighborhoods and common-sense approaches to problems. When residents of one neighborhood complained about speedway noise, he spent a night sitting in people's homes to verify their complaints.

Each Thursday, he invites citizens with grievances to a brown bag lunch at City Hall. When he hears about something good or bad in the city, he slips away on his bike to investigate.

One Saturday, for example, Clarke showed up on his "Stump Jumper" at Papaccino's Expresso Bar on the east side and ordered a pound of "Mayor's Blend Coffee."

"He sat down and talked to people," owner Michael Sigari said. "He's that kind of guy. He is not a politician. He is going to take his lumps, but the people are behind him."