Monday, May 16, 2011

Cool Things in North Portland; Marching

Busy weekend.I won't bother you with the playtime at the pool, or the lawnmowing (although the new electric mower kicks ass like a crazy monkey) or the terrific Saturday evening I spent with my friends Brent and Julie - and about 400 other Timbers Army supporters - down at the Thirsty Lion to sing for our Boys in Green (who came away from Qwest field with a hard-earned point thanks to Futty Danso and his brilliant header).

There's just too much there, and it's mostly home and kiddo stuff, anyway.

Nope, the highlight of the weekend was the 49th edition of the St. Johns Parade.

First, if I may, a bit of local history.

The only source I could find for the history of the Parade was the May issue of the "St. John's Review", a ridiculous local fishwrap news and advertiser that serves primarily as the ego-polisher of one Gayla Patton, who is the notional editor of the birdcage liner. Whenever I glace at it it seems composed largely of advertisements for local businesses and whatever oddball local news Gayla and her friends can drag in.A fellow named Speirs writes local history, including the piece from which I siphoned most of the following information.

Jim Speirs has never met anything made, born, or thought of after 1971 that he's enjoyed or approved of, and most of his writing is a slavering paean to the wonders of living in North Portland when men were men, women wore pumps and pearls, cars ran on real gas, and all these damn dirty hippies, ungrateful college punks, noisy negros, and scary wetbacks lived somewhere else.

But aside from that the man knows his North Portland history.According to Brother Speirs, three residents of the North Portland area, led by the manager of the local Savings and Loan, got the idea of a "a parade and neighborhood cleanup" some time in the late fall of 1962 or early winter of 1963. Apparently the notion was connected with removing "mounds of trash" which, again according to the redoubtable Mr. Speirs, "...was spewed throughout the neighborhood with careless abandon by private citizens and public municipalities..." (which is a pretty good sample of the guy's prose. I said the man knows his North Portland history - he just doesn't write it worth shit...).You see, since early in the 20th Century, St. Johns had the only landfill in Portland city and there seem to have been a lot more people who had trash to dump than had the buck to pay to put it in the landfill. So the northern end of the St. Johns peninsula, including what are today Chimney and Pier Parks, and several now-vanished locations such as the old Kaiser shipyard housing areas near Marine Terminal 4, had become, again in Jim Spiers words, "a huge mound of stinking trash".These North Portland civic boosters managed to get the then-Mayor Strunk (who lived up here, perhaps the last Mayor to do so) involved in the project, "Operation Cleanup", which consisted of a week in which the dump was free to all, and a concerted local effort to clean the illegal dump areas around St. Johns.According to Speirs, the entire business woke the rest of Portlanders up to the mess that was happening in St. Johns (he claims that garbage trucks came from as far as Kalama, Washington, to creep into the side-streets like North Taft to illegally dump their loads) and the resulting furor eventually resulted in closing the landfill.

It's now a nature trail.Seriously.

Anyway, the first one of these parades kicked off on May 25, 1963. I have no idea what it looked like or who marched in it. I suspect that it wasn't that different from this years, with various politicians, bands, civic organizations, car clubs, and rodeo queens.It was preceded by a "Talent Show.

And a "Cowboy Breakfast" served in the parking lot of the local Safeway.

I swear I am not making this up.

What the fuck this public feed had to do with cowboys I have no idea; there couldn't have been an actual cowboy within the municipal limits of St. Johns, and I doubt if the meal consisted of cowboy, either. I've been to that old Safeway, and other than smelling vaguely like a very old cow it wasn't remotely Westerny or cowboyish. Not so much as a cowgirl or cowkid. I don't get it.

We'll just have to chalk that one up to the Sixties' fascination with all things wild and woolly but they did serve a pantsload of hotcakes and sausage that morning.Thinking on the entire business I find it funny as hell that the entire idea of the Parade has absolutely nothing to do with...well, anything, really, other than cleaning up great heaping mounds of nasty shit. It neither commemorates nor celebrates anything, has no historical regional or local basis. Although it's sparsely advertised as the "first event of the Portland Rose Festival" I don't know of anyone who really knows this, or really cares much if they do. There's supposed to be a "theme", although nobody lining the street could tell you what it is or gives a shit about it.Come to think of it, tho, it's perfectly North Portland that the entire Parade is the brainchild of a freaking St. Johns Rotarian bankster who specialized in home loans for St. Johns. I especially love that he had a weekly radio show called, ingeniously, the "The Bob Hazen Show" (the man was a fucking marketing genius), which, according to our scribe Mr. Speirs "...broadcasted weekly programs extolling the desire and benefit of North Portland properties." I know the feeling; I've felt the desire of North Portland properties myself.The whole early Sixties Parade farrago and the stalwart worthies who ramrodded it sends our boy Spiers into an orgasmic paroxysm of suckupitude. I can't reproduce it; you have to hear it from the man himself;
"What these heroes of North Portland couldn’t have known is what an incredible gift they were giving to St. Johns. They couldn’t have dreamed that their efforts would forever change their community; that they were at the cutting edge of history and would help give residents a new sense of pride.
They never thought in terms of getting credit, nor did they think they were in any way special. They were giving to the point of exhaustion, selfless in their efforts, and unaware that the hours and days that they toiled over would forever and permanently change the face of St. Johns. Like so many heroes from other situations, these people simply shrugged their shoulders when you expressed disbelief at their efforts. They responded with words that are seldom used in today’s world...words like “it was the right thing to do,” or “North Portland needed our help,”...or something so jaw dropping and amazing as “anyone could have done it”...and they never failed to give praise and credit to others!"
Well, okay then.Now in all seriousness, Hazen, Dunn, Benshoof, the Levetons, and the other organizers of the original Parade did do a hell of a good thing; it sounds like North Portland really WAS a hell of a nasty mess back in the day, and they got up and helped make things better. Whether they used all those words seldom used in today's world...well, I guess we'll have to take our man's word on that. Home loans might just possibly have been involved.We may never know.But last Saturday's St. Johns Parade would probably have appalled them. The marching bands were all from local middle schools or even elementary schools, and their "uniforms" were matching T-shirts, at best. The Boy Scouts straggled along in a gaggling clump that would have had them and old Baden-Powell weeping bitter, bitter tears at the state of the former sons of Empire.

The straw skimmers and ice-cream suits of the Royal Rosarians, our very own Kiwanis-Lions-Rotary Club would have reassured them.But what they would have thought about the marching pregnant mommies from the Children's Relief Nurseryor the yoga float, or the piratesor the steampunks..?Well, the reassuring thing to me was the very slack, chaotic, unmilitary lassitude of it. There was no danger of being energized to go invade something or fight someone; this was as far from massed troop units and the regimented splendor of a military parade as can be imagined. Even the leading color guard was a packet of shambling sheriff's deputies who seemed consciously out of step, like children deliberately defying their father's attempts to make them walk like grownups.There may be many things about today that trouble and discourage us. We may have wars abroad and unemployment at home. We may be a society as divided by wealth, and ideals, as any time in our history.But, for me, to sit on the lopsided trash can savoring the fine greasiness of the Signal Station Pizza's bounty and to watch the richly odd, untameable, freakishly unique, foolishly serious little parade pass by was to feel myself sink deeply into my community, into the workaday hours that are St. Johns, that is the North End, that is Portland, that is my home.And was to realize that this is my home. That for all the many lands and many seas I have passed over, all the places I have lived and the people I have lived them with, it is here that I have come home to; here is my heart of rest.

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