As a clerical specialist for the City of Portland, meaning I was what used to be “secretaries” — answering phones, maintaining data bases, etc. — I was delighted to have a chance to move out of the nuisance bureau run by a maniacal squat woman who had the job because no one one else wanted it, but who didn’t understand it herself. Now I was the alternate cashier in the Permit Center of the Bureau of Buildings. It was a very strange job, accepting and recording payment for permits. The money could be in the thousands. There was no emergency button, no phone, and only a shoulder-high barrier with a wicket where the money came in. There was a rear entrance solid door that could be locked but which was at least once mistaken for the “gents room.”
The other cashier was a woman I called the Texas Mermaid. Actually, her name was Joy. It probably wasn’t real. But her long hair was crimped until it floated in all directions and she had a deeply honeyed accent. I’m pretty sure she was making money off some of the rougher contractors during her lunch break. Since she never got any proper lunch, she brought in a big tray of greasy steaming food to eat at the cashier counter, slopping soup here and there. I banned that and luckily the actual manager — who had a soft spot for her since she’d been beaten up by a “boy friend” and the manager and his wife were active in an organization for opposing violence against women — this time backed me up.
A statuesque blonde with a voluptuous mouth, she had previously been working in the water department on the street, flagging or actually digging or raking asphalt, but mysterious fights broke out around her so someone had the bright idea of putting her behind the cashier counter. She kept the combination to the safe taped to the wall above the safe because she couldn’t remember it. When I took it down, she was genuinely in terror and protested that I would get her killed because someone was sure to come in with a gun to hold us up and she would be too scared to open the safe, so she would be shot. The safe was so balky that even WITH the combination it didn’t always open. I asked for a security camera or a panic button, but it was considered unnecessary.
I always expected to open the newspaper and read that Joy’s naked body had been found half-burned in a dumpster in some remote clearing in the West Hills. At the time exactly that was happening now and then. (The Portland Chamber of Commerce will not give you this information.) In the end she was found dead in her former boyfriend’s bed. He had been gone for several days and had not invited her, but evidently she had never surrendered the key. At least that was his story. I never heard the autopsy report. She was in her thirties. I never thought of her as a drug user, except maybe pot.
Some young male bright light convinced the Bureau head that we needed to update and that he could convert our computer system though he had no real training and had never done it before. Two or three parallel systems on different operating platforms meant three screens had to be reconciled in order to record a payment for a permit. For two days we worked with the equivalent of muffin tins since this guy, in spite of staying overnight at least once, couldn’t make the transactions record reliably. Money and permits were in piles everywhere. In the end we simply declared every permit issued in that time frame to be paid, regardless of whether it was or not. This confused people who came to pay for their permit and were told it had already been paid, but they didn’t protest.
By this time I was as addled as the computer and there were supposed to be two cashiers anyway though Joy was gone. We struck gold. A tiny brunette woman, married to a long-time Marine boot camp officer and trained overseas by a German bank, came in like a blitz of precision. In short order, she had designed a form for balancing the money, established dependable routines, sterilized and organized the cashier’s booth, and become my savior. OUR savior. The manager had nothing much to do with it, but he was grateful since it preserved his job.
I’ve told this story many times and people are entertained but never take it seriously. As you know, I follow crime solving series based on old cases, usually pretty lurid. So last night, I started one I hadn’t seen before called “Catching Killers”. The very first episode was about a Portland grannie who helped an alcoholic in a way that got both of them wrongly convicted as killers, who eventually were displaced by a true serial killer who had strangled many. The evidence was found years after a victim’s handbag had been tossed over a bank. The jungle of blackberries was cleared by a determined team with chainsaws and then was searched inch-by-inch by boy scouts who found the victim’s ID card.
The impact of this on me was quite different than any other because the whole thing happened in the times and places that I knew well. The body was discarded just past Vista House in a scenic forest. Vista House was often our Sunday destination on leisurely drives, esp. if we had company from South Dakota who had never seen anything like the Columbia Gorge.
The story was buttressed by men who were working at the time and place that I was: Portland City Hall, Multnomah County Courthouse and so on — hulking buildings and echoing halls that I knew very well, all photographed to look as scary and overwhelming as possible. Our building inspectors at the time occasionally found bodies — heavy duty contractor’s trash bags are big and strong enough to stuff someone in. I must have passed these detectives daily, eaten a sandwich at a nearby table, but I never knew about this specific case.
Yet I was neither surprised by bodies — even that of the Texas Mermaid — nor felt endangered myself though my guard was always high. It’s amazing what citizens will tolerate without demanding action. I left for Montana as soon as I could. Women continue to be killed here. I knew some of them. There are protests.