Friday, April 11, 2008
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.
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.
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!
...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'.
I started midnight rambling when I was eight years old. During the summer my parents would let me sleep outside in the back yard sometimes. As soon as I could hear snoring coming from the house I was out the back gate and off.
For some reason I was fearless in the dark. I went places that I had NO BUSINESS going and would never have dreamed of visiting during the daytime. God only knows what the police would have said, but I was never hassled once.
The rambling, and that luck, continued up into my adult years. The only problems I ever had with anybody, I had in daylight. Once night fell, the town was mine.
Portland was an incredible place to ramble. The disconnected mixture of modern buildings with old carpenter gothic residences, mature trees and bare paved lots, derelict neighborhoods and haphazardly placed masses of urban infrastructure was already exactly like a dream landscape. It was sleep walking with your eyes open.
I ran into very, very few people out walking at night. Any homeless person you saw was so far gone and close to death that they didn't bother to hide up for the night any more. The few working girls left out at that hour were usually haggard and dope sick. When they asked for a cigarette that's all they meant. They'd pay you a quarter.
I carried a claw hammer anyway.
I could not stay away from abandoned buildings. And I discovered a strange and interesting thing: there wasn't a row of identical houses or businesses that could hide its secret from me, because you could pick the abandoned ones out at night by smell; an exhalation of old paper and leaves and dirt and damp. You could literally feel it on your skin as you walked into it, an invisible chilly stream with definite boundaries, and you could follow it easily to its source.
I'd squeeze between chained doors and peer inside old ice warehouses. I'd try doorknobs and step though empty window frames, stand in the moonlight coming down through rotted shingle roofs and rafters and read the old newspapers peeling off the walls.
The amount of wild animal life in downtown Portland was a thing that never ceased to amaze me. I liked to walk out and stand in the center of the Burnside bridge, or the Hawthorne, smoking a cigarette and watching the water. Bear in mind that this is the literal, geographical center of downtown Portland, too; yet not a single car would pass you for minutes at a stretch. And in the quiet you could hear horned owls call to each other from one side of the river to the other, up and down it's length, in turns...north and southeast, south and northwest.
Although Oregon had a huge problem with feral dogs at the time I never ran into trouble. Brave tame dogs would bark as you passed their fences, but dogs about town would sidetrot down the center line of the street and give you a couple of wags and a grin as they passed, maybe say 'wuf' in a conversational way.
Back then-and it probably holds true today-it wasn't uncommon to see a doe and fawn ambling down the middle of a residential street, or 23rd and Burnside for that matter. Raccoons tightrope-walked the sagging ridges of abandoned meat packing plants, feral cats slept in the engine compartments of parked cars. Skunks left eerily human, infant-sized footprints in the dew that kept alive a persistent urban myth about 'little people'. Down by the river in the steel yards, the masts of cranes and old towing rigs and logging booms, draped with rags of old morning glory, were hunting posts for barn owls who stretched their wings and flicked them as you passed. There was a kind of bat, one the size of a peregrine falcon, that hunted from building to building over the lighted intersection on 5th and Morrison, soaring like a miniature pterodactyl, long translucent wings stretched across a rack of skeletal fingers, small head turning inquisitively as it called and listened.
Portland was a large town that had expanded and engulfed many smaller ones, like any city does, I guess. A modern neighborhood development would be built up around the remains of the cities old horse-drawn trolley barns, the old wood buildings swaying and bellying, the vented cupolas laying on the ground. In the middle of the grimmest industrial district you would run into half a block of empty old Carpenter Gothic homes with scalloped shingles and wooden lace. Often you'd find a small section of abandoned shops...one or two blocks of false fronted buildings with weed maples growing out of the sandstone foundation blocks, plank siding painted with advertising for Bull Durham Tobacco, Liptons Tea or Fischers Mills, the corner gingerbread decorations wadded with old robins' nests. The coved shop entrances each held a windblown drift of dirt, accumulated leaves and trash. I would sit on the ledge out of the breeze and light a smoke, lift the old leaves and papers and find small frogs fast asleep like little square cut emeralds, or tiny fat salamanders black and shiny as patent leather.
And not a sound. Not a soul. Not a single car.
One evening just after the sun went down behind the tall buildings, when the sky was still violet and orange I was walking through an abandoned neighborhood, enjoying the incredible heavy perfume of the old cabbage roses that wanded out out over the sidewalk. I'd stop occasionally and peer through rusty spear tipped fences at the old Victorian residences, walls of blind wooden bay windows sagging into the grass, roofless Queen Anne tower houses through which swallows circled and drifted like schooling fish in the gloom. I always walked along with a sense of something cool waiting just up ahead. Mysterious statues listing in the fireweed, unexpected garden flowers emerging beneath overgrown trees. Once I saw a whitetail deer standing on a sagging porch, sniffing the places where someone last laid their hand, on the railing or the post or the door.
I stopped in the bay entrance of an old shop and lit a smoke. The flare of the match lit up the interior for a second. I could just make out what I took to be old scenery flats or lobby cards or advertising of some kind ranged along the walls inside.
Well well well.
Now I'm not a thief, but I also knew without even pausing to think about it that I'd be coming back with more than a clawhammer to do a little nocturnal antique collecting.
I tried the door and looked up at the transom window, sat back down and finished my smoke.
While I sat there the last sunrays came out from between some concrete warehouses and lit the interior of the shop behind me.
It wasn't lobby cards leaning against the walls; it was stretched canvasses.
It was a huge empty space, bare wood floors, with the old mercantile counters and shelves still intact along the walls, a couple of old, peculiar chairs here and there, the original gas fixtures still protruding from the walls. There were easels and tables in the back and jars all over the floor full of paint brushes and palette knives, buckets of varnish and thinner.
And the most amazing painting.
It was a huge, very lifelike painting of a very familiar man in a business suit, with details that revealed themselves by degrees and made you stop and re-examine the whole while you tried to believe what you were looking at. The composition came straight out of Medieval Christian iconography, and the execution was extremely sophisticated. Imagine a Dali, if Dali had studied with Jan van Eyck.
It was one of the oddest moments I've ever had in my life, standing there in the coming evening in the middle of an abandoned Victorian street, looking at the last thing I'd ever expected to see.
As I was walking away it suddenly occurred who the familiar-looking man in the painting was. The governor. Well, the dead governor, anyway-of Oregon.
The next time I saw it was in the Oregon Journal, headlined 'Controversial Tom McCall Painting* To Be Put On Public Display'-something along those lines. People were having a cow that their tax dollars had paid for 'psychedelic hippie art'.
I felt kind of proud. Way to go, art dude!
It almost made up for the fact that it hadn't been a stack of old movie posters.
*and here it is!
this obviously does not do the thing justice, but you can see that its not exactly your typical state portrait, either. the real thing is almost lifesized, and the colors really glow.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Most of these adventures involved the picturesque inhabitants of my building, although the surrounding neighborhood was filled with 'local color' as well (that color being kind of a weird brown with corn stuck in it.) Gosh, where to start?
-One evening I was walking down the sidewalk towards my place, carrying a sack of groceries, humming a little tune, smoking a cigarette. I noticed, a couple of blocks up, someone sitting in a doorway on the stairs. Not uncommon at all on a nice summer evening in Portland. Kind of uncommon in an industrial district, though. Probably a street person.
As I walked closer, several things became clear
1. This was not a street person.
2. Neither was he an employee of the nearby machine shops, because
3. his black Porche Targa was parked nearby, and he was wearing a dress shirt and a tie
4. but no pants
5. and was furiously whacking off.
As I approached he just kept on flailing away. I could actually hear it across the street: whappitywhappityfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfap.
He gave me a friendly smile. "Nice evening, huh?"
I nodded. "Yup. Have a good one."
"Oh, I will," he said.
I was two doors down from a tavern called The Union Jack. It was just exactly the kind of place you'd expect in that area; doorway nailed and re-nailed with boards and patch steel, black and shiny with old piss. You didn't want to walk too close to the building because unwelcome customers regularly came cannonballing out the doors. This place was so disgusting, so sleazy, in fact, that the owner actually tried to 'class it up' by billing it as a 'biker bar'. It was not a biker bar. It was a derelict bar. But that did not stop its habitues from trying to class themselves up similarly by billing themselves as 'bikers'.
One of these 'bikers' lived in my building and called himself Fat Mark. Well, he was fat; round as a bowling ball in fact. It was clear to everyone but Fat Mark that the closest he had ever come to riding a motorcycle was clothespinning a bunch of playing cards to the spokes of his Schwinn. He made himself a 'cutoff' to hide the 'patch' on his (vinyl ) 'leather' , and ran around talking about his 'hawg'.
The owner of the Union Jack had given Fat Mark a job. Fat Mark claimed he was employed there as a bouncer. And strictly speaking he was; if you walked past the back of the building around 10pm you could see Fat Mark bouncing garbage cans into the back of a pickup truck, or bouncing cases of napkins in through the kitchen entrance while somebody inside screamed 'get a move on you fat fuckin' punk!"
That was not punk as in 'punk rock'.
It was punk as in 'spent six years up in Rocky Butte hanging off someones belt loop '.
Every Friday, when Fat Mark was feeling flush, he used to like to pay a couple of local businesswomen to come up to his place and sex each other down. During this encounter he never did a thing; never even seemed to enjoy it much, according to them. What he was doing, essentially, was buying advertising. He wanted a reputation as a bad man; and most of all he wanted a reputation as a straight man. He figured that if the word out on him was that he went through two women at once then everyone would think 'Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaang!"
The word that went out on him was "Cash Friday means he's ready for plucking without any fucking."
-Over a period of a couple of months an extended family of eleven souls took over the entire streetside end of our building. That they were family was never in question. The whole lot of them looked exactly the same.
What did they look like?
Imagine if you will that the Pillsbury Dough Boy had committed an unspeakable act with Little Poppy, and that the result was a Pillsbury Sideshow Fetus.
Kinda like that. Only not bakers.
There was something so repellent and fascinating about this group that people would stop and look. Dead in their tracks. I saw it happen. Cars would slow down and the passengers would gape out the windows at them. In a neighborhood full of the sordid and the bizarre, these folks turned heads.
When they talked to each other they lapsed into a slurring, baby-pitched singsong. You could nearly understand them, but....not quite. You had to get the hang of it.
They were often clearly excited about things...a bug in the kitchen sink, a commercial they'd seen on television, a red car...it didn't take much. Something would set one of them off, and soon they were all up in each others faces, spit flying, flapping and lolloping like lobotomized elephant seals. "Wow! Did you see that guy in the red car? Yeah, that guy was fast! It was a red car! That guys car was red. Did you see that go by? That was a fast red car with a guy in it! Yeah, he was in that red car!"
For 45 minutes at a stretch.
It was better than television. And when they argued, which was frequently, it was simply not to be missed.
...yeah, well. Ya take your funny where you find it.
A late spring evening in Portland is something you savored. Everyone came out and sat in the yard, and the poorer the neighborhood the more people were out enjoying the air.
The Whateleys* were no exception. They barbecued all spring and summer long, out on their porch by the street, and you'd have thought the circus came to town. People would drive around the block to catch another glimpse. I used to sit out on my rail and smoke, and I frankly watched them almost every single evening.
Two of them would be smooching so loud and enthusiastically that the saliva ran down their faces and stained their shirts. The others would smoke and mill around, occasionally getting right up in each others faces suddenly and exclaiming 'Gnwe gonna have gnot gogs! Gnou wike gnot gogs? Yum! Gnot gogs ah good! I gnove gnot gogs! Gnwe gonna have'em!"
Another would be turning the hot dogs on the grill with tongs. They frequently landed on the porch and rolled off onto the sidewalk. Then he'd hang over the railing and yell at passers-by to hand them back up to him.
One evening a cat slipped out from under their front steps and snagged an errant sausage, that quick.
Holy fucking Pandemoniac Hell broke lose.
Mutants were leaping off the porch and over the railings, hooting and freaking, trying to fit through the plumbing access and getting caught, running up and down the sidewalk, trying to lift the porch up, trying to stop passing cars. The one on the porch with the tongs overturned the barbecue in his excitement, and then hopped around trying to pick up briquettes with his fingers, yelling "Gnammit, gnriqettes! Gne' back heow! " dropping them and flapping and then trying to pick them up again.
One of his buddies down on the sidewalk yelled up 'Gnickem widjo shoes!' Barbecue Guy obliged by kicking the whole red hot pile of them straight into the guys chest.
In this building, in this part of town, if you heard anything out of the ordinary outside, you STAYED THE FUCK INDOORS UNTIL IT STOPPED. Nonetheless, people were now opening up their windows and coming out on their porches to gape in amazement.
A pack ran past where I was sitting on my porch, exclaiming "Da gnat got owah gnot gnog! A gnat got owah ho gnog! Godda go gnach da gnat!"
"He probably went down in the basement," I said.
"Gnasemen! Gne do ina gnasemen!" they exclaimed to each other. "Weh da gnasemen'?"
"It's that big pair of doors around back that looks like a garage," I said.
Soon I could hear a whole host of feet kicking at the padlocked double doors at back of the building. I ran through my apartment and looked out my bathroom window-sure enough, there they were, kicking the doors, beating on it with their fists and shouting. "Gnopen uh! Gnopen da do! Hi' won gnopen! Wha we gon do?"
When I came back outside barbecue guy was hollering down to someone on the sidewalk "Ca oo get doze gniquettes? I needem! Gnose gnriquettes! Hanem up!"
This is when I saw Gnran'ma Whately waddle slowly out of their front door.
You seldom saw her. When you did, it explained a lot. She was bald and her arms and legs were wrapped in ace bandages. She always wore a flowered house dress and it was always shredded and hanging in thin strings in the back. You felt like looking away when you caught sight of her scalp, the flesh of her arms or her chins... translucent white, with clearly visible veins and capillaries, creased with grey waxy accumulations of dried filth. You felt like it, but you couldn't.
Gnran'ma was carrying a dish.
She waddled down the steps and disappeared around the corner.
When she came back, the dish was filled with charred black hot dogs.
She heaved herself back up the steps, leaned over the railing and bellowed "Gni go da gnot gogs! Gni go da gnot gogs! Gome eet! Is' gonna be gon iffen you gon gome ee!"
And the whole group came racing around the sides of the building and down the alley like a herd of mutant sea cucumbers. Straight into the house, slammed the door.
The entire building busted out into hysterics. Junkies, winos, whores, schizophrenics, everyone. We just howled. It was awesome.
*Not their real names, but if you're up on your HPL (and you SHOULD BE) you'll know exactly what I mean by that.
Monday, April 07, 2008
...and speaking of crazy old ladies...
While I was working the three different maid jobs I've mentioned previously, I was living in an absolute rat hole of a place over on the Southside, on 9th and Pine. Don't come swimming across the Atlantic and expect to find it; the place was torn down years ago. And really, I'm shocked it survived upright long enough to meet the wrecking ball; it was in total violation of every health and building code ever devised. Probably several moral ones as well.
Not that it didn't have its own R. Crumb kind of charm. Still, the best thing about the place was that I could afford it. This is the place I moved into when I escaped Meadows family.*
Here is a floor plan:
For the sake of the following, note particularly where it says 'bed alcove' and 'tiny thin wall separating units'. The neighbors' unit was the mirror twin of mine. That means that when we slept at night we were only separated by a barrier 2 inches wide, made of composition board nailed over some lath.
Now I didn't realize this at first. It was summer and I was working hard, and when I wasn't working I was sleeping hard, and anyway the last thing I wanted to do was to get to know anyone in this building. All I wanted to do was money up and get the hell out.
My neighbor, as it turned out, was someone I saw every morning that I took the bus. She was usually rooting through the garbage can next to the bus shelter. She would get right down into the thing, shoulder deep, and work hard, grunting and wrenching. She never took anything out, though.
Now this was Portland, and people were kind; they'd offer her money or their newspaper-but as soon as she looked up they always took a step back, fast.
She must have been in her early sixties. She one of those titanically schizophrenic people who are completely at the mercy of some kind of feral, mindless vigor, like an animal metronomically smashing itself against the bars of its cage. Her hair was burnt a pale canary yellow. Her lipstick was scrubbed on hard in kindergarten stripes all the way across her face, side to side. Rouge made an uneven circle on each cheek, and heavy blue eyeshadow like greasepaint circled each eye. Sometimes she wore false eyelashes. Sometimes they were on her eyelids. I could not tell you what her clothes looked like or anything else about her, because the appearance of her face was so ferociously insane that it eclipsed every other impression. Diane Arbus would have kissed her on the lips.
By the time I realized that she was living next door, though, I'd been in the place for a month. She never made made a peep, and so I never gave her a thought. After all, this was the early 80's so I knew lots of people who wore makeup stranger than hers. Besides, I'd just come from the ninth circle of Hell so I had a whole new scale of 'fucked up behavior' to measure with. So far she hadn't tried to sniff my sheets.
One night, late that fall, I brought home a sleepover guest.
After some drunken, halfhearted fooling around we both gave up, and soon Sleepover Guest was snoring. I was too bombed to sleep, so I laid there and watched the room twirl around and the moon go by.
Some time later I realized that I was hearing something scratching, very lightly, very nearby. I slept right over the cellar stairs and God knows what kind of messed up mutated shit was living down there. I assumed that was the source of the noise.
I slowly realized that the sound was coming from right next to my head. And now it was louder.
OK, I thought, so there's some kind of rodent in the wall. Fine. Old buildings have problems.
When it started a cadence, I became a little concerned.
*Scritchscritch, scritchscritch. Scritchscritch, scritchscritch.*
OK, that's kind of ooky.
I laid there and listened to it for awhile.
*Scritchscritch, scritchscritch. Scritchscritch, scritchscritch.*
It got louder.
Was it louder?
Yeah, it was definitely louder.
That was when I heard the first....noise.
I froze for a second, then I relaxed. Oh hell, the neighbors snoring. For shits' sake. Get a grip.
....Well, OK, the neighbor's having a nightmare.
I sat straight up in bed and banged my head off the bottom of the staircase. Sonofabitch!
RRRREEEEEEEEEEEERR! RRRRRRRRRAGHRAGH! RAGHRAGH!WWWWAAAA! AAUUUUUGHEEEEEEEE! EEEEERRRRRRAAAUGH!
I found myself standing in the middle of the room staring in horror at the wall. I'd cleared Sleepover Guest like a low hurdle in a steeplechase. He was still dead to the world.
RRRREEEEEEEEEEEERR! RRRRRRRRRAGHRAGH! RAGHRA
Meanwhile Asmodeus Lord of Hell was still giving voice like a puma. I could hear fingernails dragging heavily down the wall on the other side in long measured passes.
My red ass was comprehensively FREAKED. I had no idea what to do. What on earth do you do? Nobody prepares you for this! 'Your New Apartment: What to do when your neighbor becomes a channel for malign entities at 3:am and tries to claw a hole through the wall'... I totally missed that issue of Cosmopolitan! So hugging myself and bouncing and saying "Oh Jesus" over and over again in a tiny little voice with my eyes bugging out was going to have to do.
And let us not forget, I'm still flying three sheets to the wind.
That might be why, when I got the bright idea of banging on the wall with a broom handle, it seemed like a really good idea. As I staggered back in from the kitchen with the broom in my grasp I dimly recall thinking that if the person on the other side truly was having a nightmare then maybe the shit would stop if I woke them up.
I guess I don't need to say that this was a really bad idea.
On the one hand, it did seem to shake something loose next door, because the snarling ceased.
It was replaced with pounding and inarticulate grunting.
*WHAM! WHAMWHAM!* GHAHAGH! HAGNN! MWARR WAUGHWAH RRRAUGH!
*THUMP THUMP THUMP* HAGN NAHFARH! HUH! HUH!
*THUMP WHAM WHAMWHAM WHAM THUMP* RAGHNAGHNAGHAHGHNA!
Well that's just great.
I stood there for awhile. Then I put the broom back beside the refrigerator. I got a candle and a book, sat down, wrapped myself up in a couple of coats and a blanket, and lit a smoke.
After awhile, I kind of got used to it.
So used to it, in fact, that one hour later, when all the plumbing froze solid, shattered and burst, and began falling, and came racketing and banging and clattering down between the walls, and emptied by sections straight into the basement where it clanged and bonged and rebounded off the cement floor, I hardly blinked an eye.
Yep, yep yep.
*Not familiar with the name 'Meadows' ? Visit my sidebar and go by the numbers. You'll be so glad you did!
When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
with a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
and satin candles, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired
and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
and run my stick along the public railings
and make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
and pick the flowers in other people's gardens
and learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
and eat three pounds of sausages at a go
or only bread and pickles for a week
and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
and pay our rent and not swear in the street
and set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
Now, that's fine. And really, so are the stated aims of this organization:
Still, this is a poem about women who have never misbehaved, and a society for women who still have a crush on Donny Osmond.
I've been invited to join the Red Hats twice already, and I've declined both times. Neither do I see myself rethinking that decision any time soon: my definition of 'breaking out' does not include sitting in a room full of former office managers all wearing red hats and purple dresses, all of them just old enough to have some really gruesome gynecological disorders to recount, and just enough martoonies on board to recount them in detail. No no no no no.
When I am an old woman, I shall dye my hair purple
when I get tired of the violet-blue; neither color will suit me anyway.
And I probably won't have a pension, although I shall hardly need one
because I'll be growing ganja up a small canyon in Eastern Washington.
I will still sit down on the pavement when I am tired
I will continue to gobble up samples in shops
and carry an aluminum bat in my car, and clamber up on public railings
and drive too fast, and turn up my music too loud, as I did in my youth.
I shall wear my 'Fuck Off And Die' t-shirt in the rain
and gank cuttings out of other people's gardens
and teach my grandkids to spit.
I already wear terrible shirts over my fat
and eat three pounds of sausages at a go
or only spaghetti and burritos for an entire week.
Plus I hoard pens and pencils and weird shit off the sidewalk.
But now I've got some clothes to tie-dye
later I'll write some porn and go swear in the street
and set a good example for the children.
We might have friends to dinner . Or we might lay around all stoned and naked, eating chili cheese dip and watching subtitled films on the Sundance channel.
But maybe I ought to get started on my new ink?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I show up on my Sportster with my entire left arm covered in tattoos.
When I visit my father in law at the assisted living place I look around and wonder how many of the people around me might have, up until that point, lead lives of unrepentant misbehavior? How many of these folks would really rather not be playing bingo for stuffed toys, or listening to kids from the local grade school warbling Christmas carols? How many of them might have been, say, founding members of the Interstellar Space Brotherhood, or nudists or drug smugglers or street buskers or artists or drag queens or mack daddy kings? Where do the funky people go? You don't spend a whole life being wild and then suddenly wake up one day and decide 'well, I'll go out and subscribe to Readers' Digest magazine, I guess'. Is that dementia? Is that what Altzheimers does? It turns you Republican?
.....Oh sweet fuck; I think I'm onto something here. I've always suspected the typical conservative had a head full of something other than brains and now I know what it is: refined bauxite.
I've always thought that I'd like to spend my twilight years in an old Airstream trailer in my daughters' back yard. I'd have some of those inside-out tire planters, and I'd stick old Barbie doll heads on the fence. In the mornings I'd roam around out in the yard in my ratty pink bathrobe shouting at people on the telephone. Maybe have a few red chickens running around in and out of the house. Grow a bunch of dope out by the street. Every time the police come by to yank it out I'd make a big screaming old lady scene. I am REALLY LOOKING FORWARD to making lots and lots of screaming old lady scenes. There is nothing like a screaming old lady scene. They are always the best ones. I figure its probably because once you hit a certain age you have a lot of really good material stored up and it's all on a hair trigger.
"That's dope? That ain't no fuckin' dope! It just grewed there! What the fuck am I supposta know know about no maryjewanna? I'm a hundred and fifty fuckin' years old! I don't even know what this rash here is on my ankle! Are you accusing me of bein some kinda hippie? I have a rash! I cannot believe you comin up on my property accusing me of being no communist fuckin' hippie! I ain't got no idea how it got there; it musta been something the birds crapped out. Go arrest the goddamn birds! Why in the hell you think I put all them goddamn Barbiedoll heads on that fence! Fuckin Barbie! I hate Mattel! They make them plastic butts for the AK-47s you know! Them and General Electric, man, look what they did to that Paris Hilton! She was chairman of the board of Pepsi at one time! But they sent up them Chinese satellites that got her, and now I got birds shitting out heroin all over my yard! I probably need a camel! This country's just GONE TO HELL! ITS THE CANADIANS! THAT'S WHY I DON'T GO OUT AT NIGHT ANYMORE! DO YOU HEAR ME????
It's a nice fantasy. Of course it presumes that I'll be outliving my Biker and obviously that's not allowed to happen.
Sunday, April 06, 2008
My grinder sandwich bread recipe:
Wet ingredients, all at room temperature:
1 cup drained plain whole milk yogurt
(maybe about 1/4 to 1/3 cup lukewarm water-or milk- as needed to make resulting dough sticky. Better to err on the side of too wet now, since flour is easier to incorporate into dough than liquid is.)
3 cups plain white flour
1 HEAPING tablespoon of yeast granules
1/2 level tsp sugar
1/2 tsp chicken or vegetable bouillon granules. Yes really.
Stir wet ingredients together.
Dump all dry ingredients into Cuisinart, mix for a couple of seconds (no, you don't need to proof the yeast; this isn't 1866.)
With the Cuisinart OFF, dump wet ingredients into dry. Now whir until the clump of dough begins to clean the sides of the bowl. This takes no more than a couple of seconds. It won't be perfectly mixed; that is not a problem. You'll mix it completely when you knead it.
Shut off machine, ignore the dough in there for 20 minutes.
Dump dough out onto floured counter top and knead for 8 minutes until it is smooth. It will be sticky.
(Remember, flour is really, really reactive to the ambient humidity, so there's always a margin for wiggle in the wet to dry ratio. If the dough is altogether too ridiculously gluey and unmanageable, lightly sprinkle in flour each time you fold and knead for a few strokes, and think about the texture before you add more, until it becomes less gluey. It should still stay somewhat sticky, though. You will have to flour the board and pick dough off your hands every now and then. The important thing is that the dough is smooth; that you cannot feel any lumps or granules in it. Smooth is the important thing and the end product you're going for. At this stage, if you're going to err, err on the side of a little too sticky.)
Put in a covered, room-temperature bowl and let dough rise in a warm place (99-101f) for 1 hour.
Handling the dough lightly, push dough down and form it into a ball in the bowl. Then take it and form it into a long, french-style loaf on a flat, lightly greased baking sheet.
(Try to keep the top free of creases; it won't hurt the bread but they will split apart in the oven. If this can't be done, the bread is still perfectly good and edible; it just isn't magazine perfect. I try to keep it as smooth as I can because we make huge 'grinder' sandwiches with this bread and the intact crust acts as a nice case to hold all the goodies inside. If you do get creases in the top, brush a little warm water into them with a wet paper towel or your fingers and then pinch the edges together; that can glue them. But it isn't vital.)
Let the formed loaf rise for 20 minutes in a warm place.
Bake in 400f oven for 25 minutes, or until nicely browned on top.
Turn out onto a rack and cool.
To make grinder sandwiches: Split the loaf lengthwise. With a fork, lightly scrape out some of the fluff to make a shallow cavity in each half of the bread. Then fill with meatballs, shrimp, cold cuts, lobster salad, whatever you like!
I made this recipe specifically for grinder sandwiches. The bread has a distinctive flavor, but it doesn't fight with the ingredients, and it has a structure that holds up to sloppy stuff. It's on the heavy side; this isn't an airy, fluffy bread full of cavities like a french loaf.
Now-you could bake this in a regular loaf pan and it turns out fine. Slice it up for sandwiches and toast; its great.
If you wanted to get really rooty zooty, you could add some fresh herbs to this; rosemary and garlic are very nice!
If you want to be all 'gourmet', you can make this dough up to the first rising stage, and then put it in a covered container in a chilly place-like a cold cabinet or the front entry; NOT the refrigerator- overnight. Then bring it back into the warm part of the house, let it warm up to room temp, and THEN put it in a slightly warmer place (99-101f) to rise for 1 hour. This is called 'cold fermentation' and you will be surprised at how much it really does make the bread taste better.
People always wonder-where the hell do you rise bread that's warm?
There are such things as 'proofing chambers' that you can buy. It's just a box that gets slightly warm. For about 35.00! Wigga please.
If you have a heating pad that has a good temperature control-i mean, one that doesn't sneak up hotter and hotter over time but stays the same- you could set it on its lowest setting (no higher than 101f!!) and let the covered bowl rest on there.
If you have a deep kitchen sink, you can warm it up with hot water, and then float the covered bowl in a couple of inches of very warm water with a towel over the whole thing. Don't do this if you have cats, though. They cannot stay away from dough rising in a sink full of water for some reason; they tip over the dough and lay on top of the towel and just cause all kinds of trouble.
What I do is I heat up the oven for about three minutes on it's lowest setting, and then turn off the heat, open the door and let it cool back down until I can just place my hand on the wire rack and keep it there comfortably. You pop the covered bowl of dough right in there and shut the door, and it will stay nice and stable. And cat-proof.
If you have a tank style hot water heater, that's another good place...just set the covered bowl on top of it and let it go for an hour. Another good place? On a sunny warm day? Set the bowl on the seat of a car that's parked in the sun.
I made the mistake of rising dough on top of a radiator, and, no. Same goes for in front of the furnace vent. NO.
Anyone want some blue columbine? Or some 'Pink Panda' strawberry?
Ooo, I know, how about some iris laevegata? It's white! It only grows up to 51/2 feet tall and only spreads once again its former size each season. And it's roots are really easy to break up if you have a small saw, and a butcher knife. And a shovel. And a dirt fork. And are fat. And jump up and down and cuss.