Saturday, November 7, 2009

Factory World

Spring and Summer, 1996, Portland, Oregon

I got a job at the Portland Press, feeding a machine that put labels on junk mail, sorting these newsletters, monthly bulletins and catalogs by zip code and then bulk mailing them to homes across the Northwest. A noble trade if there ever was one. It was the universe’s way of telling me I needed to get my work ethic back, working for people in exchange for a place to stay was good for a year, but now was time to buck up and get a life. My only hope was a factory job and a cheap hotel until I could get enough money together for a room in a house.

The Kent Hotel was home to all different kinds of people. I think they filmed part of Drugstore Cowboy there, no one told me the history of the place. I didn’t even talk to the receptionist until I needed a new mini-fridge. The only people who ever talked to me were a couple men in long black coats in the elevator asking me how long I’d been staying at The Kent and if I’d gotten to know the fine ladies on the Seventh Floor. I lied and told them I was new and passing through, so they tipped their hats when I reached my floor.

Sixty five dollars a week for the hotel allowed me put a little aside from the Portland Press paycheck, and overtime was available on weekends, so I put my all into it and soon got to know the other people at the factory pretty well. They were all lifers on the floor and they knew this was just a temporary bump in the road for me. The office people were on another planet behind their second floor windows and cubicles.

My main trainer and workmate was Cecil. He had accidentally killed his girlfriend with one punch two years before, he told me, and was working at Portland Press as part of his probation. He got off with manslaughter as a first offense, but he really loved and missed his girlfriend. Cecil had machine intuition, talking to it as he coaxed it back up and running. I sat down and did nothing at least five times a day while he freed up some jam or adjusted some springs.

Another guy I worked with and hung out with a lot was Roger, an old radical from the sixties. Again, that’s what he told me. Was at Woodstock, all that. I always love a good story, even if I think it’s a lie. He worked a couple machines over from me and we usually took our smoke breaks together, or sat out on the dock during lunch. He was really interesting and I felt sorry for him because he had no friends. Actually it seemed like he blew out his mind along with all the buildings he presumably blew up in Columbia and other places in the sixties with the Weather Underground. I met Roger’s mom and she kind of sloughed him off in front of me, confirming that maybe he was full of it. But I didn’t care, he was an old guy who still smoked pot, knew a lot about the sixties and had a great record collection, so that was all right with me.

There was another guy at Portland Press who was always trying to get in with me, Roger, and a couple other girls we had been hanging out with. He was really hyper and skinny, he didn´t blink very much, looked you right in the eye, and it took a while to warm up to him. Not just for us, but for anyone I thought, really freaky guy. We´ll just call him Skinny Guy.

One day Skinny Guy told us he knew where to get some good pot so we made a rendezvous plan for after work. We’d take Roger’s car and pull up in front of my new place, The Kent Hotel, and meet Skinny Guy there to make the deal. We had to meet our other factory girls in Forest Park soon after, so best to do it on the fly, and not have to hang out with Skinny Guy, or let him know where I was living.

We sat and waited with the engine running until finally he came out of the bar across the street, running over to us. He was now wearing blue eye shadow and lipstick and before we knew it he stuck his face through Roger’s car window. He said we had to go into the bar, his friend inside had the pot. This was not just any bar, but none other than The Portland Bathhouse, a city institution for gay men. We didn’t want to get high anymore and just said thanks but maybe another day. He said okay boys but if we needed him he’d be in the bar with a big fat joint and some big dick on the multi-screens.

The next day at work, Skinny Guy didn’t show up. Roger told me he had left his rig right on the mail sorting work table and the bosses had found it. At first they thought the syringe was a special factory tool they hadn’t seen before, but then Cecil my other workmate told them that the guy had been banging up speed at work.

A week later my doorbell buzzed at 3 in the morning in the Kent. It was Roger, my radical sixties friend, saying he had a girl with him who wanted to party with us, a little wine and a joint, come on Jay just for a I stupidly obliged him.

I opened the door and saw Roger with Skinny Guy, who was dressed in drag and drunk off his ass, wearing a big Dolly Parton wig and fake tits. Roger was laughing his ass off, so I punched him square in the nose and closed the door on both of them.

A few days later my friends Jeff and Anne told me they wanted me to help them paint their house and had a basement room available in exchange for working on the weekends with Jeff and Cosmo, another transitional friend. Purple was Anne’s choice.

No Jokes Allowed

Summer 1984, Detroit Windsor Border

When I was 20 I took a long road trip with my bandmate from Bob Uniform, Ben Paulos of Davenport Iowa, a great musician with a very interesting intellectual family. We took his mom’s 1977 Chevy Nova up through Canada and on east to look at Ivy and non Ivy league schools or Ben to study at in the Fall.

Within a day we hit the Canadian border at Windsor, and got in line to cross. I was driving. I had long hair and a beard back then, and Ben was sitting looking all innocent with his big square chin and child like expression of wonder. We got to the booth and they asked us the usual questions---how long are you staying, business or pleasure---on and on like at the drive-in at McDonalds.

Ben was doodling something in his notebook, probably a comic book character, but stopped when he heard them ask if we were carrying any firearms. I asked for clarification, whether they meant automatic or semi automatic. The woman stopped chewing her gum and asked me to pull over to the parking lot just up and to the left. Three other border patrol agents joined her as she squawked something into her walkie talkie.

They went through the entire car but luckily didn’t find anything. They grew suspicious thinking there would be drugs anyway, but we were straight and got off with a warning after an hour of detainment. Ben didn’t think it was funny, and held a grudge for a few days after that, doing most of the driving and deciding where to stop.

Later in the trip, I redeemed myself in Eastern Ohio, having to follow the brake lights of a huge semi through a downpour on a winding mountain road. I woke him up when we finally reached a little restaurant to wait out the rain. He knew by my shaking hands and the looks on the people’s faces when we went in that I had been through hell trying to keep us and the Nova alive.