Wednesday, August 19, 2015


The apartment had been classy, sort of French.  I rented the front one, which had a second across a tiny hall and a third up some stairs.  Another three went along the side of the lot back to the line, all crowded over to the side to make room for what was once a garden.  We each had a set of French doors on one side and floor-to-ceiling windows in the front room.  There was a basement under the front apartment with outside stairs doing down under my bedroom window to the laundry room.

This apartment was so small that the only way I could get everything inside was to build a bed high enough to put stuff under.  In fact, it was so high that the windowsill was even with the top of the mattress.  My little dog thought this was an excellent idea, though I had to arrange boxes as stairs so she could get up there.

One night -- actually very early morning -- the dog and I had a conversation with the cops.  This was 1975, Portland,OR -- a time period when things were mostly calm.  Cops had college degrees and at a reading featuring Ken Kesey one of them who was a poet had been invited to be part of the warmup.  In spite of clouds of pot there was a brief dog fight.  Kesey was pretty drunk and there were no outdoor lights but a lot of flashlights.  It was in Washington Park, a natural ampitheatre high enough in the West Hills to look out over the city.  

I only tell you this to establish that the baseline for cops was peaceful.  It had nothing to do with me sitting up in bed, visiting with a young guy in uniform while his colleagues ventured down the basement stairs and my dog snuffled beside me with her head poked under the curtains.  I had covered the windows with metal mesh.

The problem was that the cops had chased a burglar down under my apartment.  He was a handsome black guy I had seen packing various electronics up and down the stairs.  It turned out that he had found the hatch to the crawl space that went under all the rest of the apartments and was stashing his loot back in there.  It was a long way to crawl.  Today the officer left to monitor the top of the stairs would have his gun drawn and would have been against the wall instead of in front of the window where I could have shot him.  I could easily have been armed, a co-conspirator.

In a sense I was a cop myself, newly promoted from a street beat as a sort of deputy sheriff.  That is, I was the first female animal control officer, but management wanted us to look harmless, like humane society people.  We were not armed, we had no communication except the truck radio, but we wore county sheriff badges and had to qualify on a gun range.  There was no way to predict what we might encounter.  The rumor was that Patty Hearst was being held in town.  The Black Panthers were active and scary.  Still, in those days pit bulls were rare and it was college professors with a taste for defiance of authority and a belief that righteousness justified force (theirs) that were potentially lethal.

Laurelhurst Park

In the field I had once started a riot on one of the first days of summer.  There was no meth yet but a lot of beer.  Laurelhurst Park is the remnant of what was once a gentleman’s farm, with a big pond in the middle meant for livestock and now hosting waterfowl.  Park shrubbery (mostly rhodies) was a point of assignation for gays.  The foreman of the park was a closeted gay I knew from the Unitarian church where we both attended.  (I’m not gay, I’m not black, I’m a little overweight, I have have naturally-curly hair and in those days no one ever suspected me of anything except getting in the way.)

The foreman asked me to drive through the park now and then, not to arrest anyone but just to keep traffic moving.  I had finished my handful of complaints for the day so I parked near the pond and started carrying a pad of dog license applications around, handing them out to people who might have been the owners of the many loose dogs.  I didn’t try to impound any until a poodle ran up and I could see he meant to pee on my leg -- a favorite poodle comment on authority figures.  So I picked him up and tucked him under my arm.  

By that time the hippie crowd had tried to liberate the dogs in the truck, which meant that the animals would be scattered around far from home, without ID or GPS.  No one ever grasps that the point of impounding loose dogs is to centralize them where their owners can find them.  Anyway, the door to the back was locked.  The dog-lovers wrenched off the handle, but it stayed secure.  I had the truck keys in my pocket so they could not drive off with it.  So they let all the air out of my tires.

When the cops came, I was sitting on the hood, holding the poodle, and lecturing everyone.  It was sort of like teaching seventh grade.  No one claimed the collarless poodle.  I had called on the truck radio for someone with a tank of air so I could come back to home base.  Though I was talking to AC, the sheriff’s radio was monitoring and called PPD.  Squad cars converged from every direction.  It had been a boring day.
Penny Harrington, PPD

The crowd didn’t disperse -- things were just getting interesting.  Pretty soon the radio reports to PPD meant that the sergeant on duty arrived.  When they spotted her (she was one of the early PPD female cops, a tall redhead), everyone dove into their squad cars to get their “lids,” their hats, which they weren’t ever supposed to take off.  She called a wrecker and we were soon outta there.  She was NOT pleased with me.

My boss, an old cop, had been monitoring from the shelter.  He laughed. “Mary, you may have to put leashes on those dogs and walk them out here!”  Troutdale was maybe 12 miles east.  Then aside to the shelter people, “If she had to do it, she could!”  Many jokes.

KOIN Tower

The world has changed.  In the middle Nineties there were often shots fired downtown because of Hispanic drug gangs.  Someone freaked out and held the KOIN- TV station two blocks away hostage, all televised until the cops shut it off because they were showing the SWAT team’s tactics.  We had a bomb threat, cleared the building, and when one employee who had been at Starbucks returned with to-go cups for friends, she found the building deserted.  She was only puzzled until the reason was explained, then terrified.  In the country she had left behind, the bombs actually exploded.  She quit as soon as she could find another job.  A man was shot to death while he walked down the street holding his little daughter’s hand.  It was an accident.  The shooter was blocks away.  Portland had invested in well-designed tempered-glass bus stop shelters.  When bullets hit them, they shattered around you.

I would never challenge a cop now, not even the friendly sheriff’s deputies here in this village where their grandmother might live across the street.  Nor would I try to help unless asked.  I’d get invisible but watch carefully.  And I couldn’t be a cop now -- I can’t handle that much adrenaline anymore.  I can’t interpret what’s really going on.  I’m much too inclined to give upset people too much room.  Too many people have lethal reflexes.  On BOTH sides.

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