Riverside, 1973

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

A Shiny Spirit

David Edward Olson came into the world at a difficult time. Depression plagued the US economy, and tyrants emerged overseas. Born on June 15, 1932 the child grew to manhood in rural Wadena County, Minnesota., In defiance of hard times, young David was a happy, shiny spirit; always a welcome visitor to the many homes of his extended family. 

In 1950 the 18-year-old followed his friends into the Minnesota National Guard, which was soon nationalized for duty in the Korean War. A whiz with automobiles, David drove trucks for Uncle Sam, fulfilling his military duty by 1952. While away his parents relocated to Spokane, Washington, and David followed them west.

It was in Spokane, on a blind date, that David met the woman who would change his life, Rita Tucker. Hired on at Kaiser Aluminum in Mead, David and Rita soon married, bought a house and began their family. Coming of age in post war America, the couple embodied American prosperity, enjoying new cars, vacationing via the brand new interstate system, loading up the kids for drive-in movies, and Sunday afternoons cruising the countryside. 

With his children and friends Dave loved to hunt, fish, and cut wood in the forests around Spokane. It was at Cocolalla Lake that Dave taught his, and everybody else’s kids how to play. He spent hours swimming, boating, and pulling skiers across that pristine little lake. Those were the best times.

After retiring from Kaiser, Dave turned his kindness to service for others in the community. For fifteen plus years he volunteered for the Spokesman Review’s Christmas Bureau. Additionally Dave gave his time to the Catholic Charities Food Bank, Meals On Wheels, delivering bakery goods to the Union Gospel, and transporting those in need to medical appointments. 

Every morning for the last twenty years Dave was a regular with his dog-walking companions at Lincoln Park. Leading first his little buddy Toivo, then Padfoot the Pug, Dave met other dog lovers who became his dearest friends through his declining years. And the highlight of his week was Thursday dinner with the Post Office bunch.

David was preceded in death by his parents Kurtz and Mabel Olson, and his sister Marie. He is survived by his wife, Rita, his sister Susan, sons Dale, Stephen (Betsy), and David of Spokane, and his daughter, Gail Chumbley (Chad) of Garden Valley, Idaho. David loved his many grandchildren, and great grandchildren; his pride and joy. 

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com