Sunday, November 12, 2017


Until college my life was sheltered, naive, and conscientious — mostly.  Actually, it was in college, too.  I walked through all sorts of unconventional stuff without really understanding what was going on.  For instance, my roommate my senior year was AC/DC and one of her profs was regularly screwing her on the floor of his office.  I was not aware of that.  I was impressed by her black underwear, as I hadn’t know underwear could be anything but white.

Browning was different — the Blackfeet reservation.  Bob Scriver was in the habit of saying “fuck” and “sunnavabitch,” so I started saying those words, too.  He became very angry and forbade me to use them, but then he stopped as well.  Was that sexist?  Once we became intimate, I slept with him until 3AM (not a euphemism) when I had set the alarm and walked the two blocks home up the alley.  Being a rez, there were generally people around.  Indians knew, whites didn’t or pretended they didn’t.  It shows how layered society always is.

The worst language, jokes and sexual behavior came from the teachers, all of them white.  No one ever “came on” to me, because I was designated as taken by a man with local power.  The art teacher in the adjoining apartment was not so lucky.  The coach and the music teacher pounded on her door late at night, demanding sex.  I went to a Cut Bank bar with her once.  Never again.  

I became pretty good at raunchy repartee, but not with "Indians" — just other teachers.  Anyway, I didn't interact with Indians much except at school and in the shop — certainly not when they were drinking.  Since Bob was the town judge and I often acted as informal bailiff because court was wherever the cops brought the offenders for trial, I knew about the things that went on, big and little.  I became hard to shock.  But it was much later that I understood the complexity of "Indians" as mixtures of tribes and histories.

When it was clear about 1993 that I was never going to be hired on the rez again and I had run out of money, I went back to Portland for the second time and begged my mother for shelter which she did not want to give me.  I went on unemployment and looked for work, though I didn’t know how.  I registered at employment services and visited civil service, etc.  Finally, when I reported to unemployment, the clerk saw my previous address was Browning and she thought I was Blackfeet.  “You get a job and you get it NOW and you take ANYTHING that is offered.”

I’d been afraid to take temp jobs or downscale jobs for fear it would look bad on a resumé, but now I went to a temp service.  “I have a job where I can’t get girls to stick,” the placement lady said.  “They’re a little vague about it but I think it’s because it’s pretty working class and maybe a little rough.  Maybe you could handle it.” 

It was an electrical transformer rewind and repair business.  The transformers were huge, used in paper mills.  The guts of them is copper wire wound around and around a frame, then varnished and baked in giant ovens.  The employees were all Vietnamese, small tense men with shared names.  I got into trouble for talking to them.  There was only one other woman, older, a little tough, but pretty in a downscale way.  I was supposed to do the payroll and related stuff.  The head of the company was back east.  His photo showed a fat pompous guy in a suit. While he drove home in slow traffic, he called the Portland office to “see how things were going.”  And indulge in innuendo.  He got aggravated with me for being dumb.

The engineers were from the former Soviet union and had no degrees but the manager claimed they were just as competent and not nearly so expensive.  Once in a while the transformers didn’t respond to repair and the engineers didn’t know what to do.  Everyone got very angry.

We two women were forbidden to go on the floor.  At least one of the workmen there occasionally passed out — his doctor had forbidden him to do this work, but he felt he had to.  One of my jobs was to check that the first aid kit was restocked and that there were no signs of blood in the washroom because, you know, the workers might have, you know, something blood-borne.  If there were blood smears from cuts or something, a company had to be called to come deal with them.

Once there was a lunch meant to be a reward for the contacts in the paper industry, some of them timber men, working class.  We two women were required to attend, as amenities.  It was interesting because the guys were talking as though we weren’t there.  (There was beer.)  One described dances in the small town where the mill was and explained how the local girls would come on to them, esp. when they found out the guy was a foreman, making money.  “Then they dance really close.”  A second man said, “There goes your paycheck.”  And a third said, “What your ex-wife and the government didn’t already get.”  Bitter laughter.

Finally I got a civll service job taking nuisance complaints over the phone for the City of Portland.  The problem there was not rough men nor racism, but my education.  It was resented.  I shuttled around to various departments until I landed happily with the geological engineers.  

One of them, a family man, had a yard full of Portland roses and often brought me a huge dewy bouquet of them for my desk.  Once, feeling fond and warm, I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed it a bit.  He stiffened.  “I do not allow anyone to touch me,” he announced.  I was taken aback.  After that, I was careful.

But then another time the head of the whole section came by me and stopped.  She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary!”  She was referring to my rule abiding, which was unbending.  I had learned from my engineer friend.  I stood up.  “I prefer to be addressed as Mrs. Scriver, or possibly in more formal moments as Reverend Scriver.”  She was widely rumoured to be lesbian, though married to a very handsome man.  Indeed, when I first came, she loaned me the complete set of “Tales of the City.”  As usual, it went right over my head.  I’ll read anything.

If I’d been a little less obtuse about almost everything, a little less absorbed in my own stuff, I might have had a career.  But the little signals and score-keepings of racism, sexism, classism, and all the other high school signs like fashion and who’s buying and what did you watch on TV last night. . .  I say, as the English in movies say to their carriage horses, “Walk on.”

No comments: