It was in Portland, OR, in 1997. Things were a little out of control. I took the bus to work downtown and on one evening when I had worked late enough for it to be dark, my bus got caught up in a drug bust. One perp was backed up against the bus with the cop holding a gun on him right under the window by my seat. I was curious and moved a little closer so I could see what appeared to be 3 or 4 carat diamond earrings on the perp. It didn’t occur to me until later that if the cop had fired, I would probably have taken the bullet.
I was getting fed up with the city. I came home one Friday evening and walked the last few blocks past apartments with broad green lawns. But here was a car stopped in the driving lane, its doors standing open, and a man dragging a woman across the grass. She was Asian, probably Vietnamese, and the man was shouting at her. Then he hit her. She was almost yowling.
“Hey,” I yelled at him, “We don’t treat women that way in this country.”
The woman said, “It’s okay. He’s my boy friend!”
By this time I was close. “I don’t care if he’s your grandfather. You can surely do better than that guy!” He wouldn’t let go. I had a soft briefcase and I hit him with it.
“Don’t do that! I won’t be able to keep myself under control!”
“Ha! You’re already out of control.” I started to yell, “Help! Call the cops!!”
Suddenly the tables turned. The small woman grabbed the big man’s wrist and yelled, “Run!” I was inclined to chase them, but another bus came along and the two of them jumped on, she still dragging him. I wondered if they had coins for the fare. The car was still sitting in the driving lane, lights on, doors open. I didn’t care. I was fed up. I headed for home.
At the next corner a classic Mustang intercepted me, driven by a bleached-blonde tough-looking woman. I recognized her. She was a Sergeant for PPD. “Where did they go?” she asked, evidently already knowing the events.
“The bus. They got on the bus.” She went after them. I went home. It was one of those nights I was sort of sorry I don’t drink.
The next morning when I waited in the bus shelter, a small Asian woman came to wait. She looked at me, did a covert double-take and began to laugh. She said, “Good morning.” An accent. I wouldn’t know a Vietnamese accent if it bit me. I nodded but didn’t start a conversation. Other people came. It was another day before I realized she was the woman I had “saved.” I wish I could figure stuff out in the moment.
In a few weeks the word came to me that the problem had been that the woman had sold the man a stolen car, which was the one flapping its doors in the street. He wanted the title and she had run out of excuses.
And after that the story grew. The girl was arrested and was key to the shutting down of a Vietnamese chop-shop. I don’t think it was because of me.
Silver Court Apartments My apt was on the corner.
That was out on the open street. I had totally misunderstood and was probably in a little danger from her friends. In the once-fancy apartment house there was sometimes muffled violence, behind locked doors. One evening, after listening to the screaming and thumping for a while, trying to decide whether to call PPD, I went and knocked on their door. “Is there someone I can call?” I asked. I think they were a married couple — maybe not. Dead silence. Then the woman in a shaky voice, “We’re fine.” In a few days they moved out.
My cat jumped out the bathroom window in the night onto a canopy over the basement entrance. But she couldn’t jump back up that high, so she would go around to the front entrance, wait for people to go in and follow them through. She sat at our apartment door and waited but didn’t meow. It would be 2AM or 3AM by then.
The first time there was a knock on the door, I just about jumped out of my skin. But it was the Japanese cocaine dealer from across the hall, knocking on behalf of the cat. I appreciated it. We were friends after that.
There was a window box on the bathroom window and I planted it with mostly geraniums but added a nicotiana which turned out to be a true tobacco plant, maybe a throwback. It grew so big that it always looked as though someone were either climbing in or out. I was nervous for a while because there was a young man who kept climbing in windows and stealing. Then he added rape to his repertoire and then they caught him. He was the son of the Portland plumbing inspector’s department head, a short black man with powerful shoulders. He was a devout Muslim. He looked totally wiped out, disgraced.
On impulse, sort of like my Japanese friend, I stopped by his desk and said, “I’m sorry that your son turned out to be a Jaguar Man, but God is not finished with him yet. Maybe things will change.” Then I walked off while he stared at me, wondering what had just happened. I was wondering whether I ought to have said Allah instead of God.
In my own department, which was Site Development — mostly about soils — we had a few builders who were getting more and more frustrated by our limitations. I was behind a counter, but one of the engineers slipped me a spray canister of Mace, just in case. I kept it in my desk drawer as though it were a gun. I guess it was a concealed weapon.
There was another reception desk at the foyer where the elevators opened and the woman there had orders never to let angry and demanding people get past her. She weighed five hundred pounds and people didn’t talk to her because they were embarrassed. She told me, “I’d never be able to stand up fast enough to stop anyone!” She was getting her stomach stapled and I tried to encourage her, but I don’t think much of the procedure. I have no way to know how it turned out. The stapling is only the beginning of years of consequences.
One of the newer inspectors was a woman from Nigeria. We had a bomb threat and — as was usual — everyone trooped outside to the park between the Portlandia building and the Justice Center to wait for clearance. The woman had been out for coffee, didn’t register the people in the park, came back to an empty floor, and when someone brisk with a flashlight arrived, asked what had happened. “Oh, just another bomb threat,” the person said, not much concerned. She quit in a few days. In her country bombs were real.
Portland Oregon Justice Center
These last few years I hadn’t heard about demonstrations in front of the Justice Center just across the small park from us. Our office was on the 6th floor so we had a good view of the upper floor basketball court that was open except for wire mesh. The prisoners played with great verve and emotion. Once I stood at the window and spotted a raccoon peacefully sleeping in the top of an elm down below.
Once I looked out just as a young white cop parked right in front and almost tenderly helped his prisoner, also young but black, up the stairs — I assume to the jail. The captive was staggering, nearly collapsing, and totally naked, but the cop had wrapped him in a painter’s clear plastic drop cloth. Probably his clothes were putrid and he was, too. But the cop wasn’t yelling at him or hitting him — just holding him up and moving him along. I often think about that.
And the raccoon.