In the Time of COVID. Day 51
May 8, 2020
The Wall of Immigrant Leavings
Sometimes what seems like social isolation is actually a door opening to our memories. It gives the mind an opportunity to traverse the landscape of the past. We remember through image and sound, through taste and texture, through aroma and emotional encounters. There is an image that has stuck with me for 65 years. It was a wall of immigrant leavings.
When I was a kid, my mom worked in a hospital kitchen. We were on the edge of poverty and my father’s job was spotty at times. They had six children and I was in the middle. Five years separated me from my older sister and older brothers and five years from my younger brothers. I was in a weird position. There was no one my age to play with. My imagination had to carry me through that social isolation.
My dad was a drinker. He loved beer. He made beer. I worked the siphon hose from an early age. The taste of green beer was natural to me. The walls of amber quarters with congealed yeast balls, lining the basement shelves was just part of my childhood.
Dad had pals who loved too drink, gamble and bowl. They met on Saturdays at Bolero Bowling Alley. They played “pot bowl”. Each guy ante’ed a few bucks and the high score winner racked in the mullah. Mom made Dad take me along sometimes, but it could get lonely.
I’d get a bottle of soda, a hamburger and chips from the lunch counter and sit in a window booth looking out at the world. Inside the building, the sound of bowling balls crashing against the 10 pins was constant, and the juke box pulsed between those crashes. The smell of frying burgers and the salt-sour delight of sliced dill pickle were delicious sensations.
Outside, a muffled swish of traffic drove by on East Sprague Avenue. There were no trees along the road but there was a brake and tire shop. There was a print shop and between the two was Spokane Junk. It was a visual feast for the imagination. It’s old brick exterior had a riot of objects fastened to it’s east wall and below, caged in by a tall wire fence was a junk yard. The main line of the East-West Great Northern Railroad ran just behind the building.
The last of the three great US transcontinental railroads, the Great Northern, was completed in the late 1887 and linked Chicago to Minneapolis and Seattle and ultimately Portland. The long haul over the Rocky Mountains made Spokane a natural sight for Round House Train Repair and freight hauling. The population surged from 1,000 European settlers in 1881 to 100,000 thirty years later. Immigrants from Western Europe flowed in and brought their dreams with them.
These were not wealthy folk. They were laborers and domestic workers, subsistence farmers, stockyard and slaughter house workers and hard rock miners drawn to the silver and gold mines in the Coeur d’ Alene mining district. They were brickyard workers, and roving work gangs of Wobblies following the wheat harvest. These were also Japanese truck farmers in the Peaceful Valley and Hangman Creek areas. Hard workers everyone.
By the 1950’s the residue of this human migration could be seen on the wall of immigrant leavings at Spokane Junk. High above the rooftop, on a steel pole was a taxidermied Bald Eagle in frozen, stoic perch. In all weather it sat sentinel, with snow dusted wings or in blazing summer sun. Below it, at angle, on the pole, a trombone was wired in place. The wall was adorned with bear traps, trumpets, iron bed-frames and headboards, tin lanterns, peeve poles from forgotten logging camps, a run of welded-together bread pans from a labor-camp kitchen ,and milk cans with their bottoms gone. There was a whimsy to the wall. Along with survival tools were tennis rackets with their weaving sprung, bed pans with nicked white enamel, several two-man rip saws with rusted teeth and weathered gray wood handles. Hanging down were massive block and tackles with rotting hemp rope, ox-bows, shovels, picks and baby perambulators. There were hay rakes and scythes, each object elicited a narrative. I wanted to know who had owned these things. Who those people were.
In the yard below the wall were anvils and massive links of chain, stone grinding wheels with treadles. There were mangles. There were buck boards, wagon wheels and harness traps. There were old steam powered tractors and blacksmith tools and a few old decayed truck chassis.
As I got older, I crossed the street and peered in the windows and went inside. There were kegs of nails and railroad spikes and used work clothes handing on a wire, high up. There was a bin of used loggers corks and carpenter aprons and hand tools still good enough to use. It smelled of grease and a mothball muskiness common to army surplus and Hank, a near toothless man of indeterminate age and with no inclination to bathe or shave. He lived in back, a true bachelors life.
I Dream of that place even now. Those inanimate objects had been touched by human hand and were part of a great desperate narrative of survival. Those immigrants were not all good people, they helped displace the native people, they were crude and rambunctious , they were exploited and used up. They inhabited the flop houses along Trent in the great Spokane skid row. They lived in small workers quarters away from the gleaming mansions on the South Hill. When I think of my home town, my first thought is of the wall of immigrant leavings.