I hear that before the town of St. Helens was ever plotted, the Indians had a river toll booth somewhere around there – an optimal location because no one could avoid the toll by going on the other side of Sauvies Island. Nowadays most people come, not by the river, but by highway 30.
From the highway, St. Helens is ugly. The highway is wide and it’s not flat, but curved (For the water to run off, I imagine). On either side are some buildings, but they provide little feeling of substance or town-ness. If they were solid storefronts it might hold together the whole long stretch of St. Helens on the highway, but as they are things like Taco Bell, Dollar Tree and McDonalds with spacious parking lots, it feels like the town sort of falls away from the highway, like water running off.
Go down to the old town on the Columbia for a real feeling town. There stands the county courthouse, built from rough hewn stone that look like the same kind of grey stone that you see craggily outcropping all around in old town.
( Columbia County Courthouse. Photo Credit http://www.co.columbia.or.us/)
(Tangent: I would rather be tried in one of the old style courtrooms with its altar railing, with the roman style crosshatched swinging gate separating between the actors and the spectators, and be cross examined in a solemn dark wooden witness stand. The old courtroom saith: “here citizen’s weighty matters are seriously considered;” the new courtrooms with their narrow spectrum fluorescent lights seem to say, “here’s where we process trash people who smoke Marijuana, and collect traffic infraction revenue” )
1st Street has the solid storefronts I crave. The ones with big main street style windows. Even the secretive Masons had big windows on their building. I once performed in a play in the old Masonic hall. It is not a Masonic Hall anymore and if you can wangle your way up into their old meeting room, I would recommend giving it a look. Of course there are no windows directly into that room. On the wall, shrouded in the dimness, are some paintings. I remember a waterfall and a tree and the ubiquitous winding staircase with its lamp. A lot of the paintings did not seem Masonic at their core. The Masonic Symbols such as the sickle and sheaf hanging from the branch of the tree seemed added on to the basic idea of a tree. The story of the paintings is that during the depression a hobo showed up in St. Helens offering his skills as a picture painter in exchange for room and board. The Masons took him up on it.
(First Street St Helens, Oregon. Photo Credit: Mapio.net)
Closer down by the windy Columbia is the Klondike, a wooden building that has the standard history of an old west restaurant/hotel, so of course it is reported with a sort of wink that perhaps >insert euphemism for prostitution< might have gone on there.
I hate it how historical prostitution is talked about with a giggle, as if there is something quaint and funny or even charming about it in our history. It is euphemistically called the “oldest profession” although, to my recollection, the Bible mentions gardening, shepherding, farming, making musical instruments, and smithing before it mentions prostitution. That it is old cannot be denied. But for me, even all the numbness that the great distances of long ago and far away gives, does not remove my feeling of horror for prostitution. It sounded nightmarish in The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the thought of selling oneself on the streets of Portland today actually makes me shudder. Who wants their sister or daughter to grow up to do that? It is not what a human was made to be.
Happily, fighting it has become a popular cause. A lot of us young people today feel like we want to join in the fight for justice, but we wish it could be against Naziism or Southern slavery, something that everybody has agreed is wrong – not something from our moment where we would have to go face to face with living angry threatening opponents (as Sophie Scholl or William Lloyd Garrison did in their time), or have our living friends think of us as too obnoxiously radical stirrers up of hornet’s nests. Fortunately for us, there is not the same stigma in fighting sex slavery today as went with being an Abolitionist in its day. And it really is a heroic work. (I should mention that it being a hip cause only saves those who work against it from their friends’ disapproval; if you are seriously threatening someone’s livelihood, I imagine you will find a living, angry, threatening opponent. )
(Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst. If what you’re doing feels easy, if there’s no rough opposition, you are probably not fighting the Nazis of your time.)
Still, who does not like to sit around and find some common ground trashing the Nazis or the Confederates? These days if you criticize something – an idea, movement or profession, for instance – unless you can be sure there is nobody present of that persuasion, you are likely to get a response like: “Hey! I’m a pimp and your condemnation of prostitution offends me!” Then what can you do? Say something like, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were present. My opinions are different if I know a real living person of the profession I’m condemning is present and listening. How tacky of me! Present company excepted.” You then might proceed to “You have a point, and I see your side of things but prostitution …. just isn’t for me. For some reason I don’t like it.” As if your condemnation was irrational, just your own little idiosyncrasy and you were to blame for not appreciating the other guy’s stance. However, you can be pretty sure there will not be any Nazis present if you want to safely make an extreme statement against something and not have to back peddle to please those present. Living faces are so intimidating. Even if there is a Nazi present, the rest of you can gang up on him. Since the Nazis lost their power, there are not many around preaching understanding and saying: “We need to try and see things from the Nazi perspective and learn from them,” No one is saying, “You have a point there, Mr. Nazi.” Living people with any power are so persuasive.
When I was young, if you left a bike out in North Portland it often would be absconded with, and one could not help thinking: Some of these people I’m seeing around my neighbourhood must be bicycle thieves! We know the world is full of evil but we don’t want to impute it to any of the smiling present company, and how often do people tell you to your face that they are a bicycle thief? “Hi my name is Caleb, and I steal children’s bicycles.” And if someone does, do we try and blame a person who isn’t present? They had a bad upbringing? They had bad experience? We love to find a bad “they” to blame things on. Nobody here a politician? Then politicians are horrible creatures, of a different mettle than us, incapable of honest conduct. I once saw the end of a television drama where they caught an old man who had been a murdering Nazi. When he pleaded for understanding, one of the characters told him “No one can understand what you have done,” because, of course, you are one of those evil people from long ago and far away. The people of today have progressed to something different, and and of course none of us could understand doing something so…. unpopular as being a Nazi.
The other day a friend explained to me how a friend of hers did her math homework for her. “Come over to my house, K-rolina (name barely concealed to not protect the guilty), and we can do homework!” she imitates her friend saying. “Oh, I don’t know,” she replies. But her friend continues her seduction – “I’ll make you tea, it will be so fun!” and Karolina succumbs. “Oh, math is easy and fun for me!” says the friend, happily solving Karolina’s problems. “Well, I gotta go now,” says Karolina. “I’ll keep working!” replies the friend in a happy voice.
The criminal confessing the crime to my face! Should I find someone not present to condemn in this enormity? Too exacting math teachers? The friend?
“I am silently judging you right now,” I joked seriously.
Or – What do you tell a friend explaining his method of getting in line at the DMV when he has no business there, and then selling his place in line to someone who looks impatient? Is that what man was made to do?