Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Corvallis Poet Charles Goodrich and Me

Charles Goodrich is a Corvallis poet (click post title) whose latest poetry book, "Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden" is on the poetry best seller list. I never knew there was a poetry book best seller list.

His book deserves the ranking and probably a higher ranking.

I don't really know him. When I was doing time in Corvallis, living in the projects, life for me was a stinky pit. Benton Plaza residents had nothing to do 24/7 and it showed. We were also the disdain of the community, the lowlifes, the scum, the rejects. We felt that, too. Inside that converted high rise hotel, we turned on each other, gossiped, had each other arrested, screwed each other, stole from each other, attacked each other and lived as what we knew we were.

Sometimes we'd sit on the park bench across from the hotel, in the shade of the courthouse. We talked about the county Gardener when we had nothing more to say about one another. His name was Charles Goodrich. We didn't know his name then. So we called him Mr. L.L. Bean. That's because he dressed in clothes that looked like they came straight out of a Bean catalogue. We sometimes called him the constant gardener too. We sometimes made up stories about what his life was like at home. We were ever so bored and desperate, you see.

I ran into Mr. Goodrich twice more in my life. One time, it was at a potluck to do in south town. I wasn't invited. The OSU security guard I knew, who lived in that area, was, however. I knew her because whenever there were cats loose on campus she'd call and want me to trap them. She invited me to the "to do", a neighborhood yearly potluck in a fabulously decored and elaborately gardened backyard.

I felt out of place at once. Corvallis, for all its diversity talk is class conscious, but in a different way, I think, than in most places. Their very liberal citizenry needs the lower classes to patronize, to look down upon, to be seen patting on the head, so they can feel good about themselves. That's how I see it.

I took a lot of abuse in Corvallis. Terrible things happened to me there. Justice? Not forthcoming, not even any support. You can be a white woman there and get beaten nearly to death on a psyche ward and nobody will raise an eyebrow. But if you are born to pick up a rifle or strap a bomb to yourself in another county, end up a prisoner at Gitmo and Corvallis residents get a whiff of your sob story, you'll have them demonstrating in the street. As long as its a distant rights violation or sad story. They want nothing of anything close up.

Anyhow, after years of crap in Corvallis, ending up uninvited at this fancy dandy south town yard potluck made me nervous as a bee trying to grab some pollen out from under a homeowner strapped into his chemical kill pack.

I ended up in the potluck line behind Charles Goodrich. I didn't want him to turn around. I would not know what to say to him. I knew he wouldn't remember me from the bench sitting in the court yard. But he might, I thought. I'd half escaped the mental health system by then. I'd tried to fight for justice after all the abuse in the mental health system but even the local paper editor at the time fought printing an essay I wrote and submitted about what I'd gone through.

There wasn't anything easy about being in the underclass in Corvallis especially if I wasn't kissing the feet of the right people or being a proper nod and smile peon. I did not exhibit proper peon behavior. For gosh sakes, I was a poor study.

I was at another free potluck once, put on by a group trying to start a local currency. At a vendor table, a family was giving away homemade "peace" buttons. The woman lost her son in the Iraq war and became extremely active, nationally, on peace issues. She was talking about the cost of war and all the money that could be saved if the US just quit involvement in war. I said "What would we do with all that money?" My question was tongue in cheek, because I know war takes a huge chunk of our country's taxpayer dollars. I wasn't inviting an answer.

But she gave me one. "Put it into social programs." I stared at her. My mind rolling over all I'd been through, in these revered social programs. I could not help myself. She obviously was ignorant on the subject. I said "Do you know what some of these social programs do to people?" Then I told her. I told her about being beaten and dumped out in a snow and ice storm. This made her uncomfortable. She didn't want to hear and immediately, as I was still talking, turned to talk to someone else. I tossed her "Peace" button back on the table and walked away.

I used to shop at the local True Value there. I chatted with and joked with the employees. The store was owned by a county commissioner and run by his son in law. They had a post office branch in the store, which I frequented.

One day, the employee manning the postal branch at the back of the store, accosted me when my turn came. He was furtive, eyes red, looked out of his mind worried. He said he had to talk to me right now, out behind the store and left his post it was so urgent. I thought he'd ask me something about cats, because that's all they knew about me there, I thought.

It wasn't about cats. He said he was in a bind, that he had a military reunion coming up and there was a bet on he had to win. He had to have a woman take photos of him in his underwear, and he wanted me to do it, that very night, after dark, but not at his house. He wanted me to meet him, and he'd drive me up to some god forsaken lake in Kings Valley where I would photograph him, in the dark no less, in his underwear. I went pale with disgust, with hurt because I knew he likely was going to rape and kill me, or that he owed somebody drug money, and as payment he was going to offer up me, for them to rape and kill. Nothing else crossed my mind except "danger" flashing and that he was asking me, because he figured I could disappear or be grossly harmed, and nobody would know the difference or care. My mind was reeling, racing. I needed a witness. I stalled. I told him I'd have to think about it. I got in my car, heart racing, trying to think who I could get to come back with me, how to do it. But then I couldn't function I was shaking in rage. I walked back into the store and very publicly yelled at him "NO! I'm not going to go out with you to some lake in the dark. I don't even know you." Then I went and told the manager.

The manager was initially sympathetic. He said he'd call the police and that no one should have to go through that when trying to mail a letter. But all this sympathy changed. He discovered I was a nobody and I figure, that they likely would not be sued by a nobody. He called me later to say the store employee admitted to what he'd told me, apologized to the manager (never to me) and that he had talked to the chief of police, with whom he was friends, who had told him I was mental case, and he said that fear of this guy was my mental problem. He derided me. So did his employees, defending the man as "a good guy".

I was so happy when the store went under. I drank a toast to the demise of the local True Value store, when I read they went under in the paper. When I saw the manager in a Christmas parade that year, our eyes met and my middle finger raised to meet his eyes. I never voted for that county commissioner again.

The poor and the disgusting exist solely to contrast with the rest of society, for their sake. I never caught on. At least not for a long time. I had by the time of the south town potluck into which I had intruded.

Mr. Goodrich was already a popular poet by then, having left behind the county job and had published his first chapbook "Insects of South Corvallis". Thankfully, standing in line behind him, he did not turn my way.

I used to go to writing groups. It is not easy to find one open. I wanted to be a writer back then. It was the only skill I had, back when I had nothing at all to be proud of, no family, no friends, and labeled like I was, stuck with a life of staring at walls alone and dodging the radar.

I tried to find an outlet. Wasn't easy. In the end, I gave up. The writing community is discerning, you see, in Corvallis. And by then, rubbing shoulders with normal people in middle and higher classes, who had jobs and friends, was something that made me so nervous I was unable to relax in their presence.

That brings me to the last time I met Charles Goodrich, which happens to also be the last time I ever went to a writing group.

I had decided I'd try one last time to join up with a writing group. They were meeting at a house in N. Corvallis. I was nervous, sure, but by this time I had left the mental health system and felt slightly worthy. After all, by then I had accomplished feats like trapping over 200 cats at one seed warehouse. There, I'd climbed pallet stacks to the ceiling, in the middle of the night, flashlight in my mouth to net kittens, suspended 50 feet up with no safety net! I'd crawl back down with them hissing and spitting, attached to me with their claws only.

But there were no cameras documenting my incredible feats. Only my heart knew the extent of my bravery.

Regardless, I thought it would shine out of my insides there, in that room cramped full of proper people doing writing exercise, led by the now locally adored Charles Goodrich. He'd just made a big speech. I hung on every word. He was advising not to assume a reader is stupid and over explain detail in a story. It was my turn then, to read what I wrote in the exercise. My stomach was queezing and my voice shaking. All eyes were on me.

And I blew it.

I'd written a short paragraph-long story as was the instruction. The story detailed an alien debate on an overpopulation problem and what was to be done about it. Only I didn't let on it was aliens debating or that they were talking about humans. I made it sound clear to the last it was about a cat overpopulation problem and how best should it be resolved, by killing them or TNR'ing them. Then I sprung the trick, that it was aliens discussing how best to control the destructive overpopulating humans.

None of them got it.

There were gasps of horror as I described first targeting the preggies.

Dead silence when I finished.

I hung my head, stared at my feet, blushed red, looked for a way out, asked to use the bathroom, instead slipped out the door.

That's how I "know" Charles Goodrich. I don't know him at all.

His poetry is excellent. Buy the book. You won't be sorry you did.

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