Friday, April 11, 2008

UPDATED: 12 blocks wide, 3 miles long - the Riviera of the Willamette Valley

...yeah, this place again.

Down towards the end of our building was the Death Dumpster.

Unlike Blood Dumpster, which features an Episcopalian in a wheelchair, the Death Dumpster was an industrial sized trash container for the use of the tenants of our building.
The problem was, it wasn't a locked receptacle and it was on the intersection of two alleys; a perfect stop and drop for people with things they had to get rid of in a hurry. Like dead bodies and murder weapons. About twice a month someone would give me the word-"Somethings in there. I ain't fuckin' with it."

I don't think there was a week that went by that the police weren't standing on a stack of milk crates poking around in the thing with a broken broom handle. A couple of times the coroners' wagon came, and that end of the building was cordoned off. A few hours later the tape came down and it was back to the usual wacky hijinks and madcap hilarity.

Every dumpster in the area was 'swap -n- shop'. There were always a few milk crates nearby to stand on, and sometimes an old garden rake too. Re-usable items were stacked alongside the container. Furniture, wiring, prosthetic arms; anything you can imagine. It never remained for more than a few hours.

Early in the morning you would hear the divers would come by with their shopping carts. A lot of them wore a magnet around their neck or tied to their belt loop on a string so they could test metal for aluminum. You'd see a guy throw a couple of crates into a pile, jump into the dumpster and thrash around with the rake for a few moments, and then emerge with a burlap sack or a backpack filled with refundable cans and bottles. Those would go into the cart and they'd rattle off down the alley to the next one.

Fat Mark made a little extra money on the side selling dreg bottles out of the back door of the Union Jack. How this worked was, desperate winos would pay him to take away a case of empty liquor bottles so they could suck the last drops of whatever might have collected in the bottom. Meanwhile Mark didn't have to buck it up into the truck, and the owner didn't have to store it or haul it off to the recyclers. Everyone came away happy.

Aluminum pop cans were the big prize, though. The law was, if you sold recyclable containers of any kind you had to store the empties and return them - and that was a health hazard and a huge pain in the ass for business owners. But street people loved aluminum pop cans and they were more than happy to take them away. Aluminum was light, compactable, and recycled at a higher price than glass did. They made money, and you didn't lose any.

Back then you could actually live fairly comfortably off recycling aluminum. In our area there were a couple of teams of guys who drove around in pickup trucks all night long collecting. They hit everyplace-rail yards, building sites, offices, machine shops, the post office, supermarkets, mom and pop stores, factories, house parties -but they would NOT touch a dumpster. That was icky, apparently (meanwhile they drove around with roaches and rats and nasty old backwash pop spilling out of the gate every time they took a corner.) These were people you stayed the fuck away from. They took their recycling SERIOUSLY. One guy would jump out and collect, while the driver stood in the bed and guarded the load with a shotgun.

I worked at the motel next door, and I ran my own pop can situation. I had an alcoholic buddy* named Duffy who would always meet me by the back breezeway, and I'd hand off a garbage sack full of cans to him every day. In return, he'd flip me a pack of cigarettes he'd shoplifted (which I wasn't supposed to realize), and none of the street guys every gave me any shit. Basically, I was his pet girl.

Another thing I did was let one of the local businesswomen stand on my porch. That doesn't sound like much, but the way the laws were then, if the woman was on private property and had permission to be there, the police couldn't pick them up in sweeps. I was friends with a woman whose street name was Sunshine, and in exchange for standing on my porch (not tricking, now...simply standing on my porch and bullshitting for a couple of minutes) she'd buy cigarettes for me, and keep my name clean when people asked her what was up with my shit.

And this worked.

I was living in the worst part of town by myself, and I was never fucked over by the locals once. I was never solicited once. I was never robbed once. I could walk to the store with money in my pocket, and I could do it wearing a tank top. I lived in the only unit that was never broken into the whole time I was there. Good thing, too, because its not like I would have had any recourse to the law.

The cops would come stifflegging like Doberman dogs down our alley about once a week, two by two. Apparently my sitting out on my porch talking to people was a highly suspicious activity. They'd come put their foot up on my step, and give me the word, like we know who you talk to and we've got our eye on you and shit.
And I gave them the word back: 'You do that. Come at me. The door's right here. See what you find.' Give my screen door a little tap with my foot.

Pissed off? Pissed off? Packs of matches spontaneously burst into flame. Streetlights began exploding one by one. Oh fuck yes; I was pissed off.

In my entire life I've never put a needle in my arm, never turned a trick, never gone on the books, never shit where I eat. Never. But you can't have skid row lowlifes see you walk away after some little bitch faces you up like that; that won't do.** So the police went to my building manager and my boss and 'warned' them about me. I 'consorted with known criminals'.

Everyone howled. My boss bought me a drink! Jesus Christ, ya fucking morons, this is Burnside! You can't help but! Every other goddamn person here is a known criminal!
But to this day? That still ices the fuck out of me.

It gave me an interesting new perspective on things. I'd always been neutral about cops up until that point. When I saw how they were doing people down there, though, I changed some views.

It didn't matter if you never imagined committing a crime. It didn't matter if you ran a business or owned property; God help your ass if they looked at you twice. God help your ass if you were any other color than white, or someplace doing anything but what they figured you should. Due process, Miranda, BULLSHIT. The people who lived there said "This ain't America. This is Burnside. Down here you ain't even in America." Above or below a certain street, the police could do anything they wanted, and they did. That is the absolute honest truth. I saw it. It was disgusting.

Truthfully? To me it seemed like the police were enforcing poverty. You were presumed guilty for where you lived and treated accordingly - like an undeserving criminal piece of shit. "Your car got stolen? Your house got broke into? Too fucking bad. What did you expect, living here?" It was incredible. But I think I have a point, too, in a way at least. When's the last time the police came strolling through your nice suburban neighborhood and put their foot on your step and said we're just waiting for you to set foot out of line?***


Nobody lived in that part of town without a reason. Everyone referred to it as 'down here'. Down Here extended from the banks of the Willamette river up to about 12th back then. This was not the ghetto. This was Skid Row.

There, that's my big admission. I lived on Skid Row. For a year and a half. Gasp! Clutch the pearls!

People would ask me why. At first I'd tell them it was because it beat the hell out of the alternative.**** The sad truth of the matter was, it did. I was treated better, I was safer on Skid Row, than I was in the home I grew up in. How fucked up is that?

After awhile I just got tired of people trying to figure out what my 'problem' was. I started spreading my own rumors, whatever goofyass thing came to mind at the moment, and let the theories run wild. At least it was more interesting than the truth; which was, I had no idea what my problem was. All I knew was that even after the childhood drama was left in the dust, something kept knocking me back and it was out of my control. It would keep me in bed for days at a time, unable to walk from the door to the street or use the phone, forget things, transpose things, make me blank out in the middle of conversations, miss entire hours or days, make me lose jobs, lose friends, keep me awake for days at a time, or make me sleep for 20 hours at a stretch, drag me down into hell at a moments notice and keep me there for months at a time, and I had no idea what it was or how to fix it.

Anyway, there I was. Clean as snow. I lived in a shitty apartment and ate Top Ramen and tried to earn a living working a straight job. A lot of my neighbors did the same: you'd be surprised how many people on Skid Row work two and three jobs and never touch a controlled substance.

A lot of my neighbors lived in abandoned cars and broken down campers and caves in the middle of blackberry patches, and operated completely outside the money economy too. I'll tell you something true: a lot of those people living rough worked harder than I did, and they worked longer hours. Scrapping metal, busking, returning bottles and cans, scouting around for things to re-sell or trade; they busted ass. And I'll tell you something else: a lot of the people who lived rough were not insane and did not do crimes. They viewed themselves as nobility. They were living completely outside the system by their own rules, and that meant that they won.
Interesting, huh.

I'm not saying that we ran in and out of each others homes, or trusted or admired one another, but we treated each other like neighbors, at least.
That isn't to say that the working poor were in the majority; we weren't. We were vastly outnumbered by junkies, the mentally ill, the career criminals, and the feral. They had their own thing; they went their own way. I'd give a pack of matches to anyone that asked, but I'd walk to the other side of the street to avoid a junkie. General consensus. Even the raving batshit neighbor lady avoided them. A junkie would cut your throat and lick the knife. They were the walking dead.


Look real hard in the upper right.

...See where it says 'Death chair'? Ok then.

The longer I lived there, the more 'street' I was becoming. Not that I was all 'bad'; Jesus no. I had 'mark' written all over me and my safety was as much a matter of luck as it was treating people right. It's just that my values were beginning to slip and I was beginning to get comfortable in a type of life that I didn't want to live. it was squalid, depressing and degraded and you were paranoid all the time. It felt familiar. It felt a lot like home. And 'home' was what I was trying to avoid.

The thing that made me take a new look at myself was when one of the men in my building died.

He was just an old guy. Nobody knew him or knew anything about him. He lived there, and then one day the coroners wagon came and they loaded him out.

And deliberately left his front door open.

One of the Pillsbury Sideshow Fetii was talking to the driver. I heard the driver tell him "We're all done in there now. Wait till we roll, though, but yeah; it's OK to go in."

The meat wagon rolled off. As I sat there, every door in the building opened up and people began heading down the alley towards the now-vacant apartment.

I turned back toward my screen door and told my girlfriend "You gotta come see this. You won't believe it."

People were going in and out of the open door carrying stuff.
They were looting the apartment.

The Pillsbury Sideshow Fetus grinned up at me as he passed by carrying an electric coffeepot. "You better hurry! All the good stuffs' gonna be gone! Come on!"
My girlfriend looked at me and said "Are you gonna?"
"Hell, why not?' I replied. "I'll go down and take a look at the death apartment; sure."

It was like a garage sale. I went inside and pushed my way through the people opening drawers, checking the mattress, looking inside the cupboards and raiding food out of the refrigerator. "Anybody like microwave popcorn?" called someone from the kitchen. "He's got some."

There was a round table and a loop-backed chair in the corner of the front room, and the telephone was still lying there off the hook.

"That's where they found him. Had a massive heart attack calling 911" said the building manager as he walked by. "You need a chair?" He laughed.

I looked.

Well shit. I did need a chair, in fact. I sauntered over and looked down at the chair, looked at the table, put the phone back on the hook. A couple of people took the phone off the table, put it on the floor and carried the table away as I stood there. Then someone else stepped over, said "You need this phone?" then unplugged it from the wall and carried it away when I shook my head.

So I picked up the chair and carried it out.

My girlfriend was appalled.

"Oh come on. It's not like he had the plague or anything; he died of a heart attack," I said. "It's just a chair. We needed one for the kitchen."

"Yeah, but you looted it," she said. "And you're going to put it in our kitchen. A chair that a guy died in."

The building manager walked past helping one of the tenants carry a mattress.

I got some bleach and a rag and I washed off ever single inch of that chair, underneath, the bottoms of the feet, everyplace. But I never did get over feeling really, really strange about what kind of things I didn't really care about any more.

So what did I do?
I got my shit together!
I took up with a guy who belonged to a cult and married him!

Yeah, shit.


...and the update was, I quit being all cute and added the word 'girl' to 'friend' there. May as well be straight up.

*That was actually how they referred to themselves, and they were very particular about it too. An alcoholic drank hard liquor and would work for his money. A wino was a passed-out bum who shit himself up and begged for change.

**No, I don't know what I was thinking either. It sure impressed my neighbors, though. But to this day I remember them putting their foot up on my step and it just enrages me, and I'd probably do the same stupid thing.

***obviously this question isn't being directed at either MJ or Knudson.

****That's why I got along with Sunshine. When I told her that, she got exactly what I meant. She never ragged me to 'go home'.


  1. Anonymous3:37 PM

    yay!!!! first! woo hooo!

  2. Anonymous3:42 PM

    it would totally piss me off too to be singled out by the police when everyone knew i didn't do anything wrong. ron white puts it like this = "that's profiling and that's just WRONG (spoken in a very thick southern accent).

    but good for you to know who to "befriend". it never hurts to know people.

  3. Nothing surprises me when it comes to cops. I went 'slumming' for a couple of years - bartending on the wrong side of the tracks and seen some pretty shifty things done by our finest....the good ol' boy system I call it.

  4. I'll be back after dinner with a cocktail.

    This is going to require some time to read. It's got diagrams and stuff.

  5. pink: no, it sure doesn't. but you know what? both duffy and sunshine ended up getting murdered. they were good to me. i always wanted to say something about that. they didn't have to be decent, but they were.

    gale: you never cease to amaze me, lady. get writing! you have to have some stories!!!!

    mj: I'm on my fourth tallboy, cookie. you finish up that three bean casserole and lemme know when you're ready. (if you have trouble focusing you can click the pictures to make them nice and big, you know.)

  6. That death dumpster...

    Is that where Knudsen's leg ended up?

  7. mj: was it a vibrating leg? with a rubber bunny on one end?

  8. Bugger me , this is a whopper.
    I lived in a really crappy area in London when I first got a job , it does start to change your values after a time. I couldn't have had the death chair tho , I am real superstitious about that kinda thing.

  9. i loved this post...god i say that a lot here...i have always been able to speak to people and make "deals" to secure my own safety...just comes natural when you are out there and are seeing what REALLY one ever bothered me in any situation i have been in and i have been in plenty...just seems when you treat people as people...even the ones that no one believes deserves come out stronger and better for the experience...think of how boring it would have been without all of the colour they added to your life...some days i miss those times in my life...i sit here complacent with my own existance and remember how alive i truly was back no matter what was going on in my head...i felt alive at least...even the depression was more brought me some great memories...thank you

  10. "To me it seemed like the police were enforcing poverty."

    has anything really changed other than our adresses????

  11. beast: that must have been an adventure and a half. and i've owned several death chairs since then. my grandmothers rocker in my front room is a death chair three times over, in fact. she didn't die in it, but her mother and two of her aunts did. it's a nice chair; whaddya gonna do?

    daisy: weird people are everywhere, and in a lot of cases it's been a pleasure knowing them, and an adventure knowing the rest. but i wouldn't go back and live there on a bet. it was dangerous, and i don't feel like i want to be scared every moment i spend on my own turf. thats the part that began to change me for the worse. you begin to agree that you aren't worth protecting.

    voices: right the fuck on! thank god now i live in an areas small enough so that everyone is up in everyone elses shit, because the cops have to answer to a community that they're actually a part of. down there, the cops saw themselves as overseers. we all carried a short handle hoe as far as they were concerned.

  12. Anonymous4:57 PM

    living in a small town has it's ups and downs. there are times when i wish that not everyone knew my business. but the good thing is i'll never get a ticket.

  13. So...why the picture of Zorak?

  14. xul! COME ON. BLOOD DUMPSTER. It's HIS show. Space Ghost was DYING to be on it. See the episode "Sweet for Brak"...season 6 or 7, I think?
    here's a linky poo for you:

    the sound is a little weird.

    Also, cops of most sorts are terrible. I know dear brother has a buddy who's one, but most are in it to be able to legally keep others down in one way or another.

  15. OK you need to turn this whole series into a coming of age super-duper Tarantino extravaganza.

    Your floor plans are fanbloodytastic too. You are amazin' simply amazin'.

    I love how you humanize the sitch and matter-of-fact it. It was what it was and you had the prescence of mind to figure that out and not swim upstream but go with the flow...without getting soaked so to speak.

    Brilliant fascinating walk on the wild side. Great characters.

  16. SSA: I'm lucky to remember even vaguely anything from back then...let alone Space Ghost at 3am while soused.

    Most of the cops I've ever known have been just as bad or worse than the "criminals" and are the types who should NEVER be in a position of authority.

  17. You have such a nice way of describing things - still makes me glad I didn't live there.

  18. enjoyed reading that

  19. pink: know just what you mean.

    xul: see SSA

    SSA: yup. you know the motto of the Bellingham Police Department-'whaddaya expect ME to do about it?'

    Donn: well thank you. my goodness.

    xul: agreed.

    joe: there you go. i wish i hadn't lived there either!

    frobi: *blush!*

  20. "When's the last time the police came strolling through your nice suburban neighborhood and put their foot on your step and said we're just waiting for you to set foot out of line?"

    Back in the 80's. But then, my mom was a Democratic politician in a Republican town full of good ol' boy sheriffs. And he caressed his piece while he said it, too. Asshole.