Before the 1974 Expo in my hometown of Spokane, Washington, the city’s downtown area was divided by social class. Riverside Avenue ran east to west, crossed by an arterial called Division, that ran north to south. That intersection literally cut the area in half. West of Division the downtown looked like the shopping scene in “A Christmas Story.” Magical tableaus filled each department store window, creating an elegant still-life to allure shoppers. To the east of Division sat run down bars, a rescue mission, and adult-only theaters dotting the grim sidewalks of despair. Consumerism connected both worlds.
In my senior year of high school, I worked at an ice cream shop situated smack dab on the dividing line. Attempting to capture the “good old days” ragtime music looped endlessly in the shop, and we all wore white dresses, and plastic skimmer hats. The clientele largely represented the reality of Riverside. Affluent shoppers, and business owners rolled in for lunch during the day, and the dispossessed wandered in at night.
The lunch rush is where the shop made money, and all waitresses were on the floor. Each day I left my high school around 11:00am arriving about 30 minutes before the onslaught. By noon we rushed table to table, chatting with the regulars, and earning pretty healthy tips.
Weekends were different, unpredictable, and the Saturday night shift catered to a different world. After dark, homeless men asked for water, while others scrounged up change to buy a cup of soup. Heartbreaking.
A late spring night in particular, stands out in my memory. Warm, with a light breeze, the shop felt like summer, leaving me restless, and anxious for graduation. The glass door facing Riverside opened, and a clutch of young women poured in, chatting and giggling like school girls. Sex workers all.
Preparing for their night, these girls crowded around the ice cream freezer, more like teenagers than high risk ladies of the night. The group was close, sharing a camaraderie that spoke of strong ties.
In the middle of the party towered a long, bronze, African-American woman. God, she was gorgeous, honestly runway material. Fascinated I watched her among her peers, laughing with the rest, while she gracefully perused the glass covered ice cream selections.
Honestly, this beauty could out Grace Jones, Grace Jones.
The starkness of her night’s work vaguely crossed my mind, but I was in the moment. Oblivious, unapologetic, she and her friends had no shit’s to give.
Weeks later I graduated, and at the end of summer headed off to college. The memory of that lithe beauty and her friends faded. The following summer, when I returned to Spokane, the face of downtown had been completely transformed. The railroad tracks, the bums, the skin flicks, and the girls had all vanished. The exciting facelift for Expo ‘74 displaced the rundown skid row of my childhood.
It’s now that I’m retired that that ice creamery, and the beautiful girl again live in my memory. I know now that I had choices, I had support, and a college education. But those residents of east Riverside, those belles of the street? It is impossible to know how life played out for them. Surely these people of the night were displaced, migrating where rail tracks, and sex workers could ply their trade, out of site, and away from the gentry.
I hope life turned out better than it probably did for these marginalized folk. But that warm spring night still holds a magical quality; one of beauty and of bleakness. A grim reality of a life I never lead.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight. She has authored two plays, “Clay,” about the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” a narrative of slavery in America.