Thursday, August 18, 2016


It's a band.

Law enforcement people are basically complaint responders.  Sometimes emergency responders, which is a little more exciting.  I spent two periods of my life doing complaint response, once five years in the street as an animal control officer and once six years in the office as a telephone responder for neighborhood nuisances and regulation-breakers.  I learned a lot and it wasn’t respect for complainants.  The mantra behind the scenes is always “we probably can’t get rid of the problem, so let's get rid of the complainant.”  They tended to be grudge-holding soreheads.

One of the AC officers had to deal with a cow that had broken through the rotten old wooden top on an abandoned cesspool.  It couldn’t get out and helping it was a repulsive job.  The officer located the owner of the cow and said,  “I’m leaving now.  I’ll be back in eight hours.  If that cow isn’t outta there, I’m writing a cruelty ticket for $300 dollars.”  The owner, who had been hoping he wouldn’t have to hire a backhoe, then saw the economic wisdom of doing it.

I myself got a complaint about a flock of chickens running around in a street.  There turned out to be two batches: one of leghorns and one of banties.  Clearly they had been put in a garage with the door open, in hopes that lots of chicken food would keep them there.  Instead, they opted for crossing the street.  No one was home, no clues from neighbors. 

Bantam rooster

I could chase in the leghorns OR the banties, but they refused to share the same spaces and paces, and I was only one person.  Finally an adolescent kid came home from school.  I told him either he rounded up those chickens by suppertime, or I would return with a very expensive ticket.  I figured he knew other kids who would help and anyway the chickens knew him.  It worked.  The point isn’t really to punish people — it’s to solve the problem.

So now the Valier citizens who think that lookin’ good will bring in prosperity and respect — a high school idea — have nagged the mayor to enforce the nuisance laws on the books, the ones about tall grass, abandoned cars, and feral cats.  Certain people have strong opinions of which individual people/property should be upgraded forthwith, an equivalent of micro-zoning, which is illegal.  Anyway, it’s based on judgment, which — like pornography — is in the eye of the observer.  I was surprised at how many times the word “indecent” appears in the Valier ordinance.  All those naked weeds, I guess.

NOXIOUS WEEDS is a formally defined category in the ordinance.  My most persistent unwanted growth is cotoneasters planted by the birds who eat the berries next door and digest them in my trees, and the alfalfa plants that blow in from seeds off farm trucks.  Both are standard domestic plants.  The alfalfa falls over, so what does “tall” mean for a flat plant?  I’d love to get rid of it, but I’m terrified of herbicides.  I believe it is the cause of the high cancer rates here, which have never been studied.  The roots of alfalfa can go thirty feet deep.

What authorities don’t seem to grasp is that such projects necessarily — NECESSARILY — come down hardest on the old, the handicapped, the alcoholic, the dying, and — in this town — the indigenous.  It is built-in stigma and punishment for being poor.  The prosperous know that but consider it a cause of failure to maintain standards (if they would just stop being old or ailing and get jobs, they wouldn't have a problem) rather than a result of not having the money or energy to address them.  (This is a place where it's pretty tough to find a job that pays more than $8 an hour.)  Their standards are what they can afford, influenced by magazine images.  Their standard for what is a fair fine is also much higher than it might be for a less prosperous person.  Ten dollars is minor for them, but three meals for me.

The remedy announced but not recorded in the present ordinance is that the city will hire someone to mow the yard, but charge the owner $150 to do it, and if the owner can’t pay, attach the fee to their county taxes, thus increasing their burden of poverty and verging on the confiscation of property if it is put up for auction for not paying taxes.  In a quiet village of a couple of hundred  people where 47 households are tax delinquent, we’re talking uproar.

Who pays the contractor who cleans the yard until the county either receives the taxes or auctions the property?  One problem in Portland so offended everyone that the city paid for clearing the debris and cutting down vegetation.  The bill came in at $3,000.  Actually, $150 is about what it would cost me to hire someone to mow my yard for the summer. But it can't be cut on a riding mower, so there would be few mowers.

Personally, this summer I’ve stayed indoors because of a belligerent neighbor.  The former mayor has the same problem despite a tall fence.  Earlier a neighbor from farther away offered to help me with the yard.  So did the retired prison chaplain from the Baptist church next door.  (Well, at least his wife did.)  What I suspect is that their idea of “help” is dictating terms, inspecting, instructing.  It’s a form of gentrification, a “taking” of my privacy.  Power-mongering.  I backed them off.  The last time I accepted “help” it was a man named Kenny who mowed down three white peony plants that never bloomed again.

The dynamic of racism can’t be avoided.  In conversation it comes up again and again that Valier doesn’t want to be Browning, which is notorious for neglected yards and ancient buildings.  I am more Browning than Valier.  I sort of miss the row of antique cars waiting to be restored that used to be in front of the old Texaco station.  They were not “offensive to my senses” in the phrase of the ordinance.  The deeper problem always comes at the level of enforcement.  A rule is a rule unless it’s your grandma or your drinkin’ buddy.

In this last week we've had an electricity brown-out.  The two water towers, which are controlled by computers, first failed to signal that they were empty and then, after the program was restarted, failed to signal they were overflowing.  People taking showers felt the flow shrink to a drip.  Later the pressure was high enough to blast the dishes out of the sink.  This morning the town offices were off the internet.  All this was probably due to lightning storms, but It seems as though there are other things to tend to than weeds.  Like dependable high speed internet to support businesses.

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