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Patty at Powells

Big burly guys in jeans and sweatshirts, were outside the windows of the internet store. Patty thought the Longshoremen fit the stereotype so well as she read the signs they were carrying. The men were standing shoulder to shoulder.  It was a Spring day.  Patty’s thoughts were interrupted by the chants she heard outside.  They were chanting slogans.   Patty felt irritated, “What right do they have to be on the sidewalk there?”, she wondered?  Why were some of her co-workers so interested in making trouble, making noise, talking about union, causing all of this disruption, she was puzzled.

And what to do at five o’clock she wondered?  “At five I have to walk past those big burly guys?”, she thought to herself, feeling a little uneasy.  Patty bent down, her black straight shoulder length hair fell to her face.  She tied her hiking boots with resolve, as if preparing for battle, for five P.M.  

Pattie noticed the worn thin spot on her brown jeans at the knee, then she remembered the small hole in the heel of her sock she had seen this morning.  The heat was turned off for nonpayment, and she felt again the cold morning while she was getting ready for work, a chill ran through her.

And they are right about one thing, it isn’t great pay, but for a bookstore she thought it was OK.  Patty remembered working at the Central Library.  Multnomah County paid better for a Library Clerk and she reluctantly conceded to herself that they had a union at the Library.  But then no one talked about it, not like here.  

In Patty’s mind Powells was a more exciting place to work.  But, those people outside marching around were just a bunch of malcontents, marching around, having meetings and disrupting the store, “so infantile”, she thought to herself.  She wanted none of it, and wished the whole thing would go away.

In Powell’s internet shipping department most of the mail and UPS bins were full and ready to roll out the doors.  Friday was always a big shipping day.  The Next Day special packages were segregated for the UPS guy.  Normally Patty liked rolling the mail bins out the doors, breathing the outside air bringing the bins back empty.  

But today she would try to get Jake a co-worker to do it.  Jake was always easy going and responded well to female attention, everyone knew it.  “He would do it”, she thought.  There was a lot of noise outside and now there was a solid line of people walking around with signs.  More people and more noise all the time.  “Where did these people come from,” she wondered?

Patty could see the United Parcel Service man, Shawn outside talking to the thick solid men outside the windows.  Her eyes focused on the men as they moved closer together.  They were a human wall in denim and sweatshirts between Shawn and the door.  Then the bodies moved even closer together and blocked the door, blocking her view.  “Where was Shawn?”  The longshoremen were not backing down.  They were showing Shawn some papers and then Patty couldn’t see him anymore, was he gone?

Jake and Louie, Louie was called “always late Louie”, rolled the mail bins toward the door.  Louie was the tall, dark handsome girl’s dream, from New Jersey, but his life was always in turmoil.  This week he lost his wallet, his car broke down and his cat ran away.  

The Longshoremen wouldn’t let Jake and Louie out the door with the bins. Then Patty could see a tug of war with the bins, each side pushing the mail bins. The bins creaked, the tan stained canvas over the metal frame of the bin lost its square shape, the sides being pushed in.  The bins were not moving! She had never seen this before!  She stood still, frozen in place, paralyzed, just watching.

Then she saw Shawn, the UPS driver in the street walking toward his truck.  “What about the packages?  The next day’s”?  She slowly spoke the word to herself, “What about the next days”.

She felt like she was in a fishbowl.  The world outside was full of people and noise.  Jake and Louie rolled the canvas square bins with brown packages back into the shipping room.  Jake is out of breath.  The three of them for a silent moment looked at the bins full of packages.  Patty’s eyes followed the line of people with the signs outside the window, it was looking like a slow motion movie to her.  “What now?”, she wondered.

Patty then focused on the postman in his blue uniform.  He says a few words to the Longshoremen, and then he walks away!  No mail going out today either!  Patty stares out the windows for a few moments.  She is interrupted by Sherman.  Slow, steady Sherman tells her he will get the delivery van so they can drive the packages to UPS.  Lost in thought it takes a moment for Patty to understand what he is saying.  Sherman leaves and Patty watches as he squeezes his way through the crowd outside to get the van.

“This is not going well”.  Patty stares out the window, she feels that sinking feeling that negative sinking feeling when you know that things are bad you have lost hope.   What could be next, she wonders.  

Patty finds a chair and sits down.  She tries to orientate herself.   March 17, 2000, a Friday afternoon.  She would remember this day.

Then she heard a loud noise.  It was Sherman, it sounded like he fell through the door. Patty’s silent still moment explodes.   Breathlessly, Sherman said “The tires on the van are flat,”. noise from outside reached a high pitch and then came in waves.  The finality and defeat in Sherman’s words and tone are unmistakable to her.  

The chants outside are a blur of sound.  The shipping room is getting smaller as the noise increases.  Patty is in shock.  What seemed usual and customary is now impossible.   Her co-workers too seem stunned.  What to do, the question, is on everyone’s face but no words are exchanged.

Patty’s co-workers sit with her, pulling up chairs from behind desks. Everyone takes a seat, like their weekly staff meeting, but now with no agenda or manager to lead them.  Patty stares watching the hands on the clock move.  She remembers she has the weekend off and her spirits lift as she plans her escape from the store.  The back door is the safest course she decides.

An electronic flash stirs her, a white ELECTRONIC FLASH.  She sees someone out the window signaling, the hand and fingers swiped across his throat, a stop sign?  

Patty is deaf to the noise outside, but the flash image is indelible.   Like a Mayan glyph, it is all she sees for a moment and she looks to it for some meaning.

How was she to know that she would later spend hours repeating what she saw out that window after the flash.  It was like a logo for Patty now, without any inherent meaning.  Like the logo for an oil company or bank.  What did she see that day in March?  She would speak to the attorneys and the Labor Board, Jeff, co-workers, family, until she was tired and the words and memory lost all meaning.  The image entered her dreams and she awoke sweating on a wet pillow in the middle of the night.

Granny Janie, Patty’s grandmother asked her what happened after she read the editorial in the Oregonian on March 26th.  At first she ignored granny pretending she didn’t hear.  She struggled to be polite.  No one else Patty knew read the Oregonian, not even Frank, her dad got the paper delivered any more.  Patty simply said to granny, “It was a really bad day”, and said no more.