Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Adventures in the Grain Trade, Part 1

M/V Panamax Sun loads 120,000,000 pounds of Soft White Wheat at O Dock 2011

Way back in the 1970’s I was struggling to support a family by working at a music store. This would be pathetic enough on its own, but the store manager was addicted to heroin and needed to steal my commissions to feed his habit. One day it occurred to me to go to the state employment office downtown to see if I could make a career move. Something that caught my eye was a temporary job, “30 day appointment” doing what sounded like driving a truck and picking up samples of grain. I thought that would be easy, that I would get laid off after the 30 days, and then I could collect unemployment until I figured out what I could do with my life.

I then stepped into a rabbit hole leading to the wonderland of the waterfront world at a peculiar time in history. The United States had been given a black eye around the world for the nefarious and greedy practices of its grain exporters, especially in the Gulf Coast. Congress had decided the business needed to be regulated nationwide and had authorized a new agency to do so—the Federal Grain Inspection Service—and they were scooping up people to work for them wherever they could find them. Portland had never had a reputation for extreme corruption in the grain industry. Not to say things were lily white here, but by comparison to New Orleans the industry here was pretty straight arrow. Still, suddenly the four grain docks in Portland were flooded with an army of young people, many of whom didn’t even know that bread was made out of wheat, supervising the shipping of grain. This army was required to wear orange coveralls and orange hardhats, because a safety officer from somewhere thought it would be easier to find the bodies after a grain elevator explosion.  I was sworn in as a member of that army on the 11th floor of 911 NW Broadway by the field office manager, Gary Wasson.

Those early days were lively ones. Many of the old time heroes of excess were still working the docks, taxi loads of prostitutes showed up daily. Ribaldry and practical joking broke up the monotony, and everywhere I was assigned new and bizarre characters appeared in a Dickensian sequences of unfolding drama. The “30 day appointment“  (we were called 30 day wonders by the full time employees) turned into 33 years. Ronald Reagan came and the workforce diminished. Big agricultural  corporation lobbyists worked away on congressmen, and the workforce diminished.   Terrorism became popular and the docks were wrapped in razor wire fences and guarded with guards. The taxi loads of prostitutes disappeared. The heroes of drug and drink died. But the grain keeps getting shipped.

They never could get us to wear those orange coveralls. Long, long ago the safety officer fell through a hole on the shipping gallery at Globe dock (where there is a big warning sign with letters ten inches high) and retired for medical reasons. As soon as he retired his wife gave him “the old heave ho” and took half his pension, so he moved into a rat trap apartment in Tacoma. The story goes, he hired a kid to go to the liquor store with him in his station wagon and a hand truck. He filled the back up with cases of vodka, which he had the kid carry up the stairs to his apartment. A month or so later, Cortney, a Seattle FGIS man, went to visit.

“Can I get you a drink?” queried the bleary-eyed retiree.

“Yeah,  sure.” Cortney replied with hesitant courtesy.

The retired safety man then went to the refrigerator, which was stuffed full of Hood River Vodka bottles, and proceeded to pour Cortney a water glass of vodka to the brim.

A few weeks went by and the neighbours noticed an unpleasant smell coming from the apartment.

This is a cautionary tale for all of us. It would be for me, except that I have lost my appetite for alcohol. Also, I have not retired but work sixteen hour days supervised by Ralph, my kitty. And, I don’t live alone.  I thank God for that. I definitely thank God, and my lucky stars to be married to someone who is, among many other fine qualities, an editor. She is also very busy—too busy, in fact, to be bothered with editing my loquacious blog. So, if you have noticed that it is filled with typos and hyphenation peccadilloes, she bares no blame.