In 1992 I was fired -- they say “non-rehired” in order to dodge things like unemployment compensation -- from teaching in Heart Butte. The basic reason was that I was a trouble-maker. In fact, the MEA rep I talked to about it said that with my personality I should never try to teach in a small place, but only in a large sophisticated city system and at the highest grade level possible. I had been certified to teach 7-12 but had taught a class or two at the Blackfeet Community College where many students in those days were still at 7th grade skill levels.
So for the second time I had to go home to my mother’s house where I grew up, this time also occupied by my brain-damaged brother who did not want me there and tried to terrorize me with made-up stories. My mother was in the earliest stages of a blood cancer that takes five years to kill a person. The two sat smoking and drinking coffee through every waking hour while the television dinned along. For eight months I searched for a job all day every day with no luck until I finally did temp work at an electrical company that rewound industrial transformers. It was a destructive semi-legal place that OSHA would have closed down. The workers were Vietnamese, possibly illegal immigrants.
Finally, haunting civil service, I was hired as a clerical specialist for the City of Portland Bureau of Buildings and moved to a one-room apartment. In the evenings I prowled Powell’s bookstore and on the weekends I “preached” as “pulpit supply” at a small UU fellowship. My computer in those days was a LISA, very early machine, but enough for me to respond to the prompting of Robey Clark, a former student in Browning, who was now the Indian Education Specialist for the Northwest Education Labs. He was supposed to be monitoring “bulletin boards” in which Indians talked to each other, but he didn’t have time so he talked me into pretending to be Blackfeet. All I did was say I was from Browning, which was true. The flame wars were well underway and some folks will be chagrined to know that I’ve kept many printouts. Strictly for blackmail.
At Powell’s the Native American books that publishers had thought would sell like hotcakes but didn’t (the public was romantically involved with Indians, but not enough to buy their books) were being remaindered for about $5 each. I bought three copies of each: one for me, one for the Browning library and one for the Heart Butte School library. The Browning librarian created a special shelf with a poster thanking me. The Heart Butte School librarian hid the books in a locked cupboard because, she claimed, the students will just steal them. Louise Erdrich read just after Michael Dorris died and Greg Sarris read just before he became chief of his tribe, the Miwoks.
These were the years that I collected my brain into writing mode and also the years that I developed diabetes II without knowing it. My drug of choice was brownies. And Starbucks coffee. Plus aspirin. Pretty soon I had vague symptoms and as one doc put it, “You’ve got the best health insurance in town, so let’s use it!” Test after test -- NONE for diabetes, but the testing of the time (this was the Nineties) probably wouldn’t have picked it up anyway. I sat in the waiting rooms, weeping, but no doctors said, “See here, woman! You are depressed!”) Meanwhile back in Browning with an alcoholic and childish fourth wife, Bob Scriver was beginning to die. If he had lived he would be 99 years old next week. There was nothing I could do to help anyone, including me, and no one reached out. Mostly they didn’t know.
It was a terrible time but I was earning a bit of pension, offering slight support to my mother and brother, and gradually upgrading through a series of computers and computer programs. I took classes, both on the City’s time and in the evening, though I was so exhausted that one night I sat helplessly in front of the machine I’d been using for a week, wondering how to turn it on. The young woman next to me saw my brain freeze and simply reached over to press the button.
At work I moved from one department to another. The first was a killer: taking nuisance complaints on the phone. There were eight of us. The person next to me was a young Maori guy who listened to didgeridoo music on a Walkman while he did data entry. If he needed to leave his desk, he would park the earphones on my head. (I love didgeridoo music!) He had many adventures with the cops at night because he rode a motorcycle. The manager was a small enraged hen of a woman who terrorized us all. I created a set of binders for each of us with reference phone numbers for entities who could help with problems. When I left, she collected them all and trashed them.
Then I was the cashier for the Permit Center. Bureau of Buildings takes applications to build and examines the plans to see whether they meet the codes, sends out inspectors to make sure building is happening as planned and in compliance with other laws, and develops zoning strategies like discouraging people from building on flood plains or unstable ground. Each of these functions is supported by fees. One of the contractors who came in often was from Quebec -- a glowingly healthy handsome man who wrote out his checks with a Mont Blanc fountain pen -- and when I saw him, I loved pumping my fist in the air and shouting “Vive la Quebecois!” This puzzled him, which I enjoyed. The other cashier whored on her lunch break. (Yes, turned tricks.) She insisted on keeping the combination to the safe taped above it, because she said otherwise if someone came in with a gun to rob us, she would be too scared to remember how to open the safe and would be shot. She was found dead in her “boyfriend’s” bed when he returned from a three day absence. Not shot. Probably drugs. Then we hired a small smart person who could balance tills. She was married to a Marine Sergeant and shaped us up in a hurry.
My best transfer was the next one, to the Site Development team. Six soils engineers with an intelligent, patient manager who was able to explain planar fascitis to me when none of my battalions of docs could figure it out. A week with an Ace bandage, and I was healed. I had torn the fascia in my foot sole by walking fast and hard on my lunch break, going through bead shops and smoke shops (they sold magazines) and luxury stores where I never bought anything -- just used their luxury marble bathrooms. Except for one man, who was actually a landscape architect and who rode his bike to work which earned him a series of collision concussions, these men were sensible, dependable, respectful people. In season Mike brought me a handful of roses from his garden every morning. When I left, he and his little boy made me a bird house which still swings from my big cottonwood.
At the desk butted up beside mine was the clerical specialist for field officers investigating serious nuisances. This specialist was a middle-aged black woman with advanced diabetes. One transplanted kidney had failed. In major pain, she did peritoneal dialysis on herself at lunch time by hanging up a bag of electrolytes that dripped directly into her abdomen. I don’t know how the liquid got back out except by peeing. We ate lunch at our desks in order to give her privacy. I gave her half my vacation time every year. She was still alive when I quit but still didn’t qualify for disability.
When my mother’s estate was settled, I gave two weeks notice and was out of there. Everyone kept singing: "Movin' to Montana!" The engineers gave me a $100 parting gift which I spent on CD's. None were Frank Zappa. Classical and a little Miles Davis.