Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Pendleton Underground



I was recently in Pendleton, Oregon. Kristin and I were there because I had heard about the Pendleton Underground. A network of cellars and tunnels under the streets, side walks, and buildings where an underground city had thrived in the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. I was intrigued by this world under a world and wanted to see it. This was not unique to Pendleton, other cities within cities existed on the west coast, but Pendleton had rescued a portion of their underground world, preserved it, and now conducted tours.

I had this impression that it was a completely secret nether world carved in the ground beneath the upper lands. The good citizens of the Christian upper world walked about in charity and devotion while the seething pits of hell churned below. Nah. It was more like a thing that just happened, with everybody knowing it was there, many people taking advantage of parts of it, nobody knowing the full extent of it, and most people not really caring. It was more sprawl than city. Just like everywhere else.

There was a bar where cowboys could come in for their three month baths. And then get drunk. They brought in bags of gold dust as currency. The bar tender would take a pinch of gold dust and carry it across the bar to a scale. He always had exactly enough gold for the drink, even though he sported an elongated finger nail that scooped up a little extra dust, then sprinkled it on the counter, on his way across. The bar keeps always had their bar towels at the ready to swab the bar and sweep any detritus back onto the floor. They kept whatever they could track out on their shoe soles at night.

Bar girls also prowled the bars. Not just looking for customers, but passing slightly sticky fingers along the bar, then shoring up their hair. A good night could yield ten dollars of gold dust at the next wash. There's gold in them there cowboys!

Speaking of washes, you could get yourself a ten cent wash. That was one where the water was fresh and hot. Or a nine cent wash. That was for the next in line. Or an eight, seven, or six cent wash, down to a one cent wash. You can imagine how those worked. You got what you paid for. And what was left over. Still better than a gully. Barely.

We moved on to the laundry owned by a Chinaman for some thirty years. I swear I thought the guide said his name was Hop Sing! That was the Chinese servant in Bonanza! Can't be the same guy.

The Chinese had been brought over to build the rail roads, much like the Irish in the east building bridges and tunnels and bars to fight in in Manhattan. They brought their culture. And their laundry. And their opium. They could venture out by day, on business, but no Chinese person ever went out at night. They were one class of humans liked where they served and detested everywhere else. Like others in town. This was becoming a pattern.

The tour brought us to the cellar of a meat market, with refrigerated rooms for meat and even ice cream. We toured a jail. There was one legal system for above street. One for below. Glass prisms embedded in the sidewalks provided the only natural light. Kerosene fumes from lamps and stoves must have been unbearable down below. Ventilation primitive. There was even a speak easy from prohibition. Gambling was OK but alcohol was not. So they had moth balls hanging on the oil lamps to vaporize and cover the smell of booze as the patrons escaped through secret doors during a raid. I don't know what gave them more of a buzz. Or more brain damage. The booze, the kerosene, or the moth balls.

We came back onto the streets and walked over places we had just been under. There were the prism blocks which let in light and shadows from the sidewalks above to those who lurked below, but which were now opaque to us on the street, much like the world beneath. It's not that we don't know what goes on in the world beneath our feet, it's that we know just what we want to know and no more. What serves us, saves us. All else is heresy.

Stella Darby. Madam Saint

On August 27, 2014, the citizens of Pendleton, OR, unveiled a statue of Stella Darby in front of the business she built and ran from 1928 to 1953. It was the Cozy Rooms Bordello and it sold, shall we say, services. OK. It was a whore house. A house of ill repute. A place where good, clean Christian men would never go but they were never in short supply, either. A brothel. A place that half the population dreamt of but all the population rejected. Officially.

And there was controversy over putting the statue of a Madam on a sidewalk of Pendleton. Oh, there are similar statues of cowboys, colorful rogues, and a beloved sheriff who kept law and order in the town for years without firing a shot from his gun, until he was tragically and ironically shot to death. I don't know what that says to the NRA but I admire his style. His funeral was richly attended. But a Madam?

The Cozy Rooms boarding house was in downtown Pendleton and was above ground. This shady secret was a 'hidden in plain site' one. It was on the second floor up a steep stair case dubbed 'The staircase to heaven.' The gag was that if you couldn't climb the stairs, you were in the wrong place. Stella's business parlor was to the left. There you could negotiate 'goods transfers' as it were. Oh, and the girls were encouraged to look out the windows onto the main street. If they saw an acceptable partner to a transaction, they would toss a button on his head, to get his attention. Advertising was fierce, those days. To the strong go the spoils.

So it was a brothel. Girls were used and abused. How is it possible to white wash that? Why is Stella considered a hero in Pendleton? Several reasons. First, she was generous to local civic organizations and charities. So she greased the wheels. That's not altruistic. That's just good business sense. She also took care of her girls. They had a local doctor who provided free health care and a minister who came in every Sunday morning to preach to them. No record of how either was compensated exists. Stella insisted that her girls learn skills, other than the obvious, and arranged several marriages. So she looked after her 'fallen doves' who had nowhere else to roost. Once in a while the sheriff would come knocking on the door for an 'inspection.' Stella would meet him at the door with a donation to the civic good. He would leave, satisfied. The community was sufficiently apathetic.

In the 1950's, long after prostitution had been banned in Oregon, Stella met her match. A Presbyterian minister came to the sheriff and said he had collected a list of names of all the men seen visiting Stella's establishment and that he would make it public that Sunday if the sheriff didn't shut it down. An emergency meeting of the town council resulted in a unanimous vote to shut Cozy Rooms down, which probably goes to show what names were on the list.

Busses appeared directly to transport the working girls out of town. To other cities, boarding houses, and bordellos, maybe not as accommodating as Stella Darby's. Stella eventually went to Wala Wala and opened a boarding house for elderly men. Not as spicy. Not as many opportunities to help the desired and despised body workers of Pendleton. No good deed. When she died, Stella Darby's funeral was the second largest attended for a public personality. That's why she gets a statue.

So how do we interpret this? I can't help but notice that the righteous Presbyterian minister failed to offer any help to the girls at Cozy Rooms. No offer to take them in, cloth them, feed them, give them shelter, or a home. No, "When I was hungry you fed me," "When I was naked you clothed me," horseshit. Just, "Get out!"

Is that all we can do to the undesirables at the edge of Christiandom? Even when those undesirables are actually quite desirable to a large part of that Christian culture, but only on the sly? Only as long as they stay 'at the edge?' Anonymous but available? Whose fault is that? And whose responsibility? Just who created them, anyway?

Can you help people by running an establishment that exploits them? Would Mother Teresa have been better as a madam? The Salvation Army was created to fight white slavery. Would they have saved more girls by being white slavers themselves? How about slavers in the antebellum South? If they sold some but sent others to freedom in the North, would that be acceptable? Some were freed, after all. But if they did nothing, the slaves, the poor, and the prostitutes would have had nothing but their slavery. Do the organizations that oppose a sin and point and say, "This is immoral!" have the moral high ground while the cultures that support, prolong, and benefit from that sin go uncondemned? Physician, heal thyself.

It was a good tour. And as such revealed history to be ambiguous.

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