Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Time Traveler On TV


The big announcement/reminder is this:
Tomorrow  I will be interviewed on 
KATU Channel 2 AM Northwest at 9 AM
Then that evening I will be speaking at
Powell's City of Books downtown at 7:30
I will be so happy to see you there

Barney and Ralph in time warp


In pondering how to describe myself, and my work to people who know nothing about me, or the subjects I write about I decided that I am a time traveler.  When I went to work on the Portland waterfront I entered an entirely separate reality that coexisted with the rest of Portland. I worked side by side with Portland longshoremen, a group so set apart unto itself that there was even an anthropology book written about them.

Then when I started digging into the history of the things around me—the docks, the old warehouses, the bridges—I stumbled into a completely different version of the waterfront. I discovered an unknown city, a Portland that wasn’t the Portland I knew. It was a city where the police wore uniforms similar to the British bobby, a city without bridges, with odd people, doing very odd things.

When I began to work on my book, Portland’s Lost Waterfront I soon discovered I was living in that slice of time between about 1879 and 1906. Most of this time Portland was what is called “wide open,” meaning that cheap women, cheap booze, and gambling joints were plentiful. I found myself researching one subject and becoming completely sidetracked by another--something strange and unexpected. I was spending 15 – 16 hours a day in newspaper databases, query upon query, enthralled by the lively reporting, the cadence of the language, the prejudices, the pseudoscience practitioners and the hucksters. I even found myself cluttering up part of my office with hundreds of newspapers from that period that were not even digitized, like the Portland Daily Standard. After a year or so of living like this my book, Portland’s Lost Waterfront came out.  The Willamette Week reviewer noticed that I had been so out of touch with the present that it had affected my language.

In prose that sometimes seems heavily affected by the old-time newspapers he’s citing, Blalock describes boardinghouse gangsters like the  mighty Jim Turk and former boxer “Mysterious” Billy Smith.

“Heavily affected by old-time newspapers” is an understatement. My mind and imagination would be gone for hours on end, watching the carriages kick up dust on the dirt streets, or catching a ball game at the park, and closing my eyes to listen to the distant whistle of the Albina  Ferry.

Then I came back to 2014 and I see all this stuff written about people I have come to know, maybe even understand, and it is bogus. Who asked these folks to write about those times? I had no choice, I had to write about it. There was a great vacuum sucking the facts I had squirreled away, like a miser, out on to the page. I could do more. I could write about the Grant boys, Sullivan, Mysterious Billy and the others for the rest of my life. I have enough material. But I won’t.

(I keep wondering,"Why has no one written a book about L.M. Sullivan? or Mysterious Billy Smith? or the Grant family? or the Turk family? Even old Paddy Lynch would make a good subject for a book, or a Coen brothers movie. Maybe my obsession is unhealthy."
 Opinions on this subject are welcomed. )