A city is an accumulation of small towns that gradually grew together. The neighborhood in Portland where I grew up was “Vernon.” It has been overwhelmed and absorbed by Albina and Alameda because of history. In my day, Alameda was too upscale for my family. I remember this Alberta streetcar, the dime I kept in the tip of my tiny crocheted white gloves, and the privilege of pressing the pearl button that meant you wanted to get off at the next stop. In those days the population of the neighborhood’s modest houses and shops was shaped by both World Wars. People were likely to have immigrated directly from Europe with very little money but with skills like machining or carpentry. They often lived over their shops.

When WWII overwhelmed us all, Kaiser needed to build ships as quickly as possible and imported black rural people who had been share-cropping in the South. For housing, a levee held back the Columbia River so that instant houses could be built on the flood plain near the shipyards there and on Swan Island.

In 1948 the levees broke, flooding Vanport. The residents moved to the N and NE neighborhoods and clustered in old houses near the Willamette. They had lost both their housing and their jobs, which were already much diminished after the wartime need for ships ended.

Then the Rose Quarter sports arena and the Lloyd Center shopping center required the clearing of another large area in NE. In 1987 Union Avenue, which crossed N/S to the bridge to Washington, was renamed in honor of MLK Jr.

This was a turning point.

Now Vernon was occupied by displaced Blacks. When I went back to my elementary Vernon school, I was greeted with suspicion by a female white principal so icy that her nails were painted silver. She wanted me to leave and forbade me to go upstairs where a friend was the librarian. She carried a walky-talky with a button to call the police. Her vice-principal was a warm black woman who was friendly. When kids passed her in the hall, they stopped to give her a hug. Sumner, the street I walked to school, was patrolled by officers two to a car because of the gangs.

Our house when I was little was flanked by the Ottos on one side and the Hanisches on the other, craftsmen with non-working wives. Then came an older Black couple with one daughter in elementary school. In the after-work gap before the parents got home from work, my mother took in the daughter for milk, cookies and chat. When that girl was late in high school, the drug invasion turned her into a screeching, violent addict. Her parents died, apparently of despair. She had a deranged daughter of her own who beat her screaming pet puppy to death. My mother was terrified of these two.

When I returned to my mother’s house in desperation in the Nineties, I finally found a job with the City of Portland. I had done this once in 1973, becoming the first female animal control officer. It was when compensatory hiring was active and I’m sure it was the young black man on the interviewing panel who pulled me into the job. He was highly amused by my rez stories. The second time I interviewed there were no Blacks but the entire bureau management appeared to be lesbian. No one was ever Asian or indigenous.

I was in the Nuisance Department where there was always turnover. One of the two Black men was previously an employee of Tectronics and kept a slab of chip silicon on his desk. The other was named for a president but I could never remember which one: Madison? Washington? Jefferson? His boring job was running traces on the license plates of abandoned cars and sending out form letters telling them they would be towed away. It was the first Black man who went to the field to supervise the towing, which often meant threatened violence. Most of the owners of old cars were Black and had been rural in their youth where the custom was to stockpile old machines.

Our supervisor —a small round white woman — was so driven, tactless, and punishing that one of the City Commissioners looked into the possibility of requiring her to take tranquilizers — but no one else would take the job. She was racist and blocked Madison from escaping his slavery. I advised him to go to the Black city commissioner for help, a man named Jordan, and that worked.

In the meantime one day, I joked about God being female. He was shocked by this but invited me to his church, the oldest Black church in Portland. He would meet me there so I wouldn’t feel odd about being the only white person. When he came, he brought his small son as a chaperone. I was early and when I came in the front door, an extremely elegant older woman with gloves, hat and heels, met me and quizzed me about my motives. The service took hours. The soloist was as high quality as any Metropolitan opera star. Handsome, exquisitely dressed male ushers kept order.

My job in the Nuisance Department was just answering the phone and I sat between a young man who was Maori and another who was newly married, which was so emotional that he sometimes wept. After six months one was allowed to transfer to a different desk. I finally found my niche with Environmental Services, which was all soils engineers, but they also worked with field inspectors.

Two of these, Black, stopped by my desk everyday. One had a white wife and often bragged about his wealthy and influential father in the Black community of Washington DC. The other was younger than me but graduated from the sister high school of mine and was much like me except for being Black and male. I called them Heckle and Jeckle and worried about that being racist. I asked them what they thought but they had no idea who Heckle and Jeckle were.

Another smaller and smarter Black inspector would stop by my desk to use my hand cream. I really liked him and sat by him on the bus, but I thought he should have his own hand cream and gave him a tube of his own. He was crestfallen and avoided me after that. I thought I was gifting him but he thought I was separating him.

In this job my desk was pushed next to that of another clerical specialist, an older Black woman with desperate kidney trouble from diabetes. Her body had rejected two kidney transplants but so she could keep working she had been taught how to do peritoneal dialysis. it was brutal and only partially successful but she did it on her lunch hour every day. I gave her half my vacation days but she should have been on disability. Sometimes she was near fainting from nausea. The management was scheming that I was a liberal who would do her work for her, but I was progressive and believed in labor unions, so I wanted us to be in our own lanes.

Towards the end, the boss of the Bureau came up to see how we were doing. She put her hand on my shoulder (I was sitting at my desk) and chanted, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary!”

I stood up and said firmly, “I prefer to be addressed as Missus Scriver, or maybe even REVEREND Missus Scriver since I’m ordained.” She snatched her hand away and never gave me any more trouble. Strange smothered sounds came from the cubicles where the engineers worked. I was soon able to leave.

Now I watch the riots and police riot responses, the airplane that circles over the city at night, and the sound of sirens, the fogs of chemicals, and I can’t decide what I would do if I were there — so I don’t go back. Who are the rioters? Blacks, lesbians, people from California, paid MAGA insurgents, or hippies? Too confusing.



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Mary Strachan Scriver

Mary Strachan Scriver


Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.