Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Today I’m thinking about Heckle and Jeckle. You remember those two crows in cartoons? They were a version of a vaudeville act, a sort of corvine version of Amos and Andy. But that’s not quite what I mean. There used to be two building inspectors who would stop by my desk every morning. The City of Portland was obligated to hire a certain amount of black people and these were two of them. They were nothing like each other whatsoever.

“Heckle” was from Washington, D.C., was light-colored, and married to a white woman, from such an elevated part of black society that he said his father would come to live near him in Portland except that there was no -- I mean NO -- apartment in the city good enough for him to live in. Not even the apartments where the Blazers lived. He was arrogant as hell and he meant to get rich. The building inspector job put him onto good properties to buy and he was carefully accumulating a portfolio of them. He was very curious about me, since I made a point of establishing I was from Montana and all that. Blacks are always curious about Blackfeet, if only because of the name. I said they couldn’t possibly be Blackfeet -- because African-Americans have pink feet, at least at the bottom. They sort of liked that kind of talk instead of the usual pussy-footing. I asked whether they thought calling them Heckle and Jeckle was racist and they said, “No, why would we?” I don’t think they quite got it. Too young to remember either Heckle & Jeckle or Amos & Andy.

“Heckle” always brought “Jeckle” along with him so that it wouldn’t look like a romance. At least I took it that was the reason. Jeckle was second generation Portland, very dark, with a black wife. He was a Black Muslim and wore the little crocheted beanie. (Heckle was secular.) He had graduated from the rival high school next to mine because the Vanport Flood had pushed his family out of the Columbia River flood plain where Kaiser built ships, bringing Southern rural blacks up to work. Considering that both of us had parents from the country and we went to very similar high schools, we were more alike in some ways than the two men were like each other. I liked them both.

When Bob Scriver died, I was hurting a lot. Heckle could see that and was trying to figure it out. On some level he didn’t think that white people really grieved and he didn’t understand the age difference or what a sculptor’s life might be like, esp. a cowboy sculptor. He stood by my desk alone and asked one question after another until I was crying and telling him to stop. Finally, we both heard my boss push back his chair in his cubicle and knew he, a dedicated pacifist since Vietnam, was about to intervene. Then Jeckle left.

We had a landscape architect (white) working with us who had taken several blows to the head when he crashed his bicycle on the way to work. He was becoming more and more irrational and I was the focus of his fantasies. He got the idea that I liked black men’s bodies and kept dropping recommendations about boxing magazines and movies. This man was the real reason that I cleared out of my job as fast as I could when my mother’s estate came through. Management liked him.

Most of the Code Enforcement crew was black and female. I was the clerical specialist for the Site Development team and my desk was pushed next to the clerical specialist for the Code Enforcement team. This was because the manager of the Bureau of Buildings presumed I wouldn’t mind doing the work of both teams because their clerical specialist, a black woman a little younger than me, was dying of kidney disease caused by diabetes. She had had a transplant which had failed, so she was at the bottom of the wait list that was her last remaining hope. She did peritoneal dialysis on her lunch hour by injecting solution into her abdomen through a surgically implanted port. She felt as though she had an unending and vicious case of the flu and often put her head down for ten minutes. The city personnel department said she didn’t qualify for disability and she herself wanted to stick as long as she could, since she was supporting a grown daughter (who didn’t even look for a job and busily and triumphantly got pregnant) and her disability check would be based on her total salary. The best I could do for her was give her a week of my vacation time, which I didn’t really want to do since Bob Scriver was dying and so was my mother.

She was one of the gentlest, bravest, most generous people I’ve ever known. And she is the reason that as soon as I was diagnosed with Diabetes II, I went cold turkey on sugar, white flour, and all processed foods. I did NOT have to be urged and I didn’t bargain or rationalize.

There were other memorable black men friends. One was Eddie, who grew up on a catfish farm on the Louisiana/Texas border. He was keeping track of abandoned cars, towing them after a certain length of time and a warning. The car owners would see the tow truck and come boiling out ready to fight. Eddie, who was over six feet tall and had a beautiful smooth oval face, would say patiently, “Well, all right. If you insist.” Then he’d serenely take off his jacket, fold it nicely, put his clipboard on top of it, begin to roll up his sleeves very deliberately, and usually by that time the hothead was ready to bargain.

Another man, eager to assimilate, was small and worked constantly at his golf game. We rode the same bus, and if there was an empty seat next to him, I’d sit there, but he always looked a little worried and flinchy, so I’d visit loudly about work and everyone around us had their ears sticking out. For a while he was in the habit of stopping by my desk to bum a little hand cream every morning. Blacks worry about dry skin. Thinking I was doing him a favor, I bought him a tube of his own, but he was hurt! I hadn’t understood that coming by for hand cream was his way of saying we had a trusting connection between us.

That job was a miserable one. I probably saved my life by getting out early because the stress level was so high that I survived on coffee and brownies, triggering the diabetes. But the great gift was getting to know blacks as equals and coming to trust them. I have no fears about what it means to have Barack Obama for our next president.

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