Post Road Magazine #11

She, Under the Umbrella, Went

Melissa Haley

Perhaps it was dusk and all of the neon had just come on. It was very likely raining, and the puddles would reflect the signs. But my memories of Portland can be vague, and they all have rain. I do know I stood behind the el-shaped counter and took the customer's usual ad, seeking submissive women. I counted his words-a short ad-and received his cash. The customer had curly, dark hair and wore glasses and, maybe, a plaid shirt, running shoes. He was never chatty, but neither was I. From where I stood, I could see the street through the window, the angle where it met Burnside, the city's main thoroughfare. Didn't I once see a man dragging a cross on wheels along Burnside while prophesizing earthquakes?

It was a minor incident, but I remember the newspaper had recently received its allotment of phone books from Pacific Bell and they were stacked in a tall column by the door. As I watched, the customer paused by this yellow pillar on his way out and looked furtively to his left, to his right. Then he seized a few phone books, maybe two or three, and broke through the door. There may have been a look on his face that showed he thought he was getting away with something big. I could see him running toward Burnside, our regular advertiser clutching his stolen phonebooks to his dominant chest.

At the age of twenty-five, and soon after the souring of a serious relationship, I found myself living in Portland, Oregon. The decision to move there was a whimsical one-I made a list of cities where I had good friends (New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston. . .) and slowly eliminated each for one reason or another until only Portland, a city I had seen just briefly (I remembered the bridges), remained. These were its selling points put forth by my friend there, an Irish carpenter: three straight weeks of rain (I like rain) and a movie theater where one could drink beer in a wooden balcony, and admission was only a dollar. Within days I had packed my small, gold car and headed west across the country.

To get to Portland, I acted as a modern pioneer, tracing the Oregon Trail (now Interstate 84) in treacherous early January, past Dismal Hollow Road and Deadman's Pass and Hell's Canyon. I found ice in Missouri, snow in Kansas, a blizzard in Wyoming, and the whole state of Idaho temporarily closed. I passed stagnant cars and trucks that had spun from the road. But I finally arrived after six days, crossing the Broadway Bridge in the middle of the night en route to my one friend, who lived then in a cold Victorian in the Northwest corner of town.

Six months later, Portland still felt alien to me. There were roses, for example, that were as big as hats. And Portland had a mountain that came 'out' when skies were clear, looming behind the city. It would scare me when I first moved there, to turn a corner on a city street and find the mountain out-white, even in summer, and sharp on top. It used to be an active volcano. I imagined the mountain secretly circling the city at night, like a shark.

I was out of money, having spent too many days unemployed and sitting on the floor of my one-room apartment watching the TV, balanced atop a cardboard box. I had been fired from a bakery job scooping muffin batter into baking tins (then placing a wedge of fruit on top), and wiping whisked eggs on uncooked scones to make them shine. My one good friend became entangled in some romantic confusion, and had surreptitiously left town, seeking refuge a hundred miles to the south in Eugene. In essence, I was stranded in Portland and I was alone. It was in this state that I found myself behind the desk of an alternative newsweekly's classified department, selling personal ads.

I counted the words in each ad and charged the advertiser accordingly. Each word cost the same, regardless of its length. I typed the ads quickly, then paused between them to look out of the large window, out onto Burnside, where solitary men turned the corner on their way to the Lighthouse Mission. I screened the voicemail ads that accompanied the personals, to make sure they were not obscene and no last names were mentioned. If there was a problem, I 'disapproved' the voicemail, and no callers could access it. I would have to tell the advertiser why. I am sorry, sir, but you cannot say 9-inch-cock on your voicemail. I am sorry, sir, but you cannot use the word boob, as it refers to a specific reproductive body part. Buxom is acceptable, since it can mean other things. Sometimes it rained though the sun shone. Sometimes a wet shirt hung from the branch of the tree outside the window. Men often put what looked like notes in the crook of that tree, but I never went to see what they were. The newspaper had certain standards for its ads.

It was these standards, varied and vague, that caused problems for me as a Customer Service Representative. Body parts were usually suspect. Nothing between the neck and the knees, my boss would say. Feet were fine, as were toes. A regular advertiser, in fact, sought a woman with overlapping toes, or missing toes, or one leg. Once an advertiser called and asked if any men worked in classifieds-he did not want to offend me with his question. As our staff was pure pink-collar at the time, I reluctantly fielded his inquiry: Can I use the word uncircumcised in my ad? Let me put you on hold, I replied. The answer, of course, was no. If it conjures up an image, my boss would say. Phone sex advertisers also faced restrictions. They could not use photographs or drawings or fancy typefaces.

They could not use the words wet or nympho or, obviously, wet nympho. And a woman could not sell her unwashed underwear (USED PANTIES!) for twenty-five dollars a pair. Put a smile in your voice, my boss would say.

I crossed a drawbridge on my way to work, the Burnside. There were others upstream: the Morrison, the Hawthorne. Some of these drawbridges split in the middle and some simply rose up, flat and whole. The bridges stapled the sides of the city together. Once, on my way to work, I saw a man inside one of the towers on the Burnside Bridge. He seemed to be sweeping, and it was early in the morning. On my way to work I also crossed train tracks, underneath the freeway, where sometimes I had to wait for a train to pass. One morning there was a pair of wet trousers spread between the rails. My apartment was near the river, on the east side, in a neighborhood of produce warehouses and stained bars. It had a view of downtown Portland and the hills behind it. At Christmas, the houses in the hills put out their lights and the fog hung with them.

We often instructed the advertisers to be specific: do not simply write that you like movies, state which genre you prefer. Everyone likes walks on the beach-which beach do you enjoy most? Cannon Beach, with its driftwood art and kite flying? Manzanita, where the wind off the Pacific catches in your ears? Sometimes on weekends, I drove to the coast alone, crossing a low mountain range dense with forests, then valleys where fields held solitary trees. All of the advertisers, it seemed, were eclectic and irreverent and easygoing.

My boss would tell me that the handsome freelancer who passed the classifieds desk daily was within my reach, if only I would comb my hair. She would tell me that I might benefit from the Dale Carnegie School. I became familiar with the regular advertisers. The Chicken Man (so named because he once spread a complete fried chicken meal before him at the table where he filled out his ad) sought younger men for encounters in hot tubs, surrounded by pine trees. Sometimes, however, he sought women for those walks on the beach, candlelit dinners, and eternal happiness. This disturbed my boss. She felt it immoral to allow the Chicken Man to misrepresent himself to the single ladies of Portland, even if he was a paying customer. My boss was from the old days of newspapers and smoked menthols in the doorway. She did not like my shoes. My shoes were old and my sweaters had holes in them. The single ladies of Portland were wary of the personals in general, and we had to run specials to capture their interest. We printed stories and photographs of our successful matches, surrounded by clip-art of wedding bells.

Personal ads are not a recent phenomenon. This I discovered much later, in the New York library where I worked, while reflecting on my Portland days. The researcher in me, the historian in me, needed a thread,

some context for what I'd experienced, and I found it in the fragile newspapers of the past. In the late nineteenth century, for instance, newspapers such as the New York World carried both "Personal" and "Matrimonial" ads. Many of these ads sound familiar to me, like this personal from 1885:

A YOUNG WIDOWER with a prosperous business, character none better and of high standing; wishes to meet a true, sincere, educated Christian lady of means; view, matrimony; only those of high standing need answer.

It is perhaps the more blatant reference or objective to personal wealth that stands out in the nineteenth-century version: "STYLISH young maiden has $10,000 in her own right, would love a devoted husband." "A POOR YOUNG MAN (German) 26 years of age, wishes acquaintance of young lady or widow with some means. Object honorable." Nowadays, of course, the phrase "of means" would read "professional" or "financially secure."

No matter how honorable advertisers claimed to be, nineteenth century personals carried a heavy stigma. "Those who advertise in the papers are four kinds-adventurers, loose and dissolute women, fortune hunters, and those who want to get married so bad and cannot be, for nobody wants them," one young woman opined. In the early 1890s, psychiatrist Andrew MacDonald determined that the best way to investigate "abnormal" women was to place personal ads and analyze the responses. "In a sociological sense. . .answering a 'personal' cannot be considered a normal procedure for a woman," he concluded. A hundred years later in Portland, the newspaper where I worked struggled to make the answering of a personal ad seem a "normal procedure." Singles seeking committed, stable relationships (straight or gay) received twenty free words in their ads; the so-called "Other" column, where threesomes formed and the married sought to stray, received only ten. These shorter, fetish-driven "others" (shaved heads, glass eyes) were relegated to the end of the ads, next to the phone sex.

The paper threw "Romance Parties" in tidy downtown Portland, in coffee shops and jazz bars and health clubs (PUMP UP YOUR HEART), where we gave away free ads. Downtown Portland had no vomit or wet clothing or open jars of mayonnaise on its streets. It had no soft pieces of cardboard where someone once slept. Instead, downtown Portland had drinking fountains that continually bubbled, and there was a cheery legend of abstinence around them.

The advertisers there, at these romance parties, looked "normal" enough. They wrote their free ads on colored forms we provided and glanced over the shoulders of each other to read them, to answer them right there in person, over a local microbrew or Pinot Noir. We sat side-byside at a long table, like a panel of judges, available for advertisin guidance. Be specific! Should I say I'm attractive? Well, everybody does. We offered games to loosen things up. Once we passed out pink and blue cards, with the name of one-half of a famous couple on it. Romeo & Juliet, Bogey & Bacall, Superman & Lois Lane, Cinderella & Prince Charming. "Men receive BLUE cards and Women receive PINK cards. . .Collect at least four matching mate cards. Example: Ladies, if you are Jane collect four Tarzan Cards." The object, of course, was to "find your match!" and everything, presumably, would roll from there.

In the winter it was dark when I walked to work, making me feel as if I'd been up all night. If I stood beneath the House of Louie sign in Chinatown I could hear it working, the bulbs taking turns. At work, the High Rise Man called daily, repeating the words I live in high rise, I want to place an ad, I live in a high rise, I want to place an ad until I hung up on him. At work, I once received a faxed poem entitled "She, Under the Umbrella, Went." Why the advertiser chose my name from the masthead was unclear to me; he probably just picked anyone in classifieds, but he acted as if he knew me, signing off "Anyways, talk with you later." The poem was about a woman the advertiser once encountered on the street, one rainy day in Portland. She had looked at him, but then hid her face with an umbrella as they passed. He ran an ad in our 'Chance Meetings' column for weeks, hoping that she would recognize herself there, and would respond. Then he wrote a poem about her. "I wonder what she thought,/And why the glance was spent,/And will I ever know,/Where she, under the umbrella, went."

The classifieds have long been a place to search for somebody, whether known or unknown. They were also, in the age before telephones, a way to communicate quickly. In Chicago, 1892: "J. A. SIMPSON: CALL QUICK AT Room 5. 204 1/2 Clark-st. am in trouble. JOE." In New York, 1891:

FRANK-Toppy is sick: you are breaking her hear go at once: you can have all the help you need...

ADOLPH-Better you come soon and see me. Anna Hirshkoff

EM-The folks are distracted: go home. Your father, G.P.

KITTY, come home; everything is all right. . .

And I wonder if MISS MARY HUGHES even saw the ad placed for her in the New York World in 1885: "Dear friend: For God's sake come to 267 West 54th St. to-day. Eliza Gamble."

Soldiers in the Civil War, both Northern and Southern (many were prisoners of war), used the personals to communicate with their family members. These ads often read like tiny letters, forsaking any privacy, and I feel like a voyeur perusing them.

DEAR UNCLE.-Your personal was received, and found all well excepting Mary Lizzie, Uncle Mike's oldest. She lost her three fingers and a portion of the fourth by a sorghum mill. . . Please let Nicholas Ryan know that his mother died on the 7th of this month."

Sometimes, I find a more perfunctory, telegram style: "We are all well. Gilbert W. dead. Sister Ellen married." Prisoners and soldiers replied with word of their condition, and asked for things.

LIEUT. WM. B. POINDEXER of LEXINGTON, Va. is here a prisoner of war, in good health, but very much in need of funds and clothing. Best love to all at home. Let me hear from home very soon.

J.T. MURRAY, WILMINGTON, N.C.
-I have never received the tobacco.

Families also sought news of missing soldiers, who failed to return home when the war ended. In the months following the South's surrender, the New York Daily News, for one, printed columns of ads from desperate loved ones, giving whatever information they could provide of their relative's last known whereabouts.

The last heard of him was after the battle of Cold Harbor, when he was seen by a comrade of his. . .if killed, he fell in Fort Gregg, Boydton Plank Road, near Petersburg. . .who was left sick on the road somewhere between Appomattox Court House and Richmond.

An unidentified soldier drowned, I read, "while bathing in Swift Creek, when Sheridan's Cavalry were marching from Petersburg to Richmond." His body, later found floating, was "decently interred near the mill, on the turnpike," the ad announced.

In the course of my research, I find myself especially drawn to the nineteenth-century classified ads in the Daily News that sought the identities of bodies found floating in the rivers around Manhattan. One woman's "hair and flesh on her head were all gone," so it was hoped she would be recognized by her clothing, which included "white cotton stockings." Another woman, found in 1866, wore a "brown calico dress, gray knit stockings, laced shoes, black India rubber buttons on front of dress, white chemise, hoops, and striped gray petticoat." Some had been in the water for months, and the coroner's ads were a last attempt to find someone who once knew them.



*

"The train woke me up last night," I said one day at work, standing behind the classifieds desk. It had passed through town around four a.m., blowing its whistle the whole way along the river. "It woke me up, too," my coworker replied, "we must have been lying awake at the same time." For some reason, this comment seemed to me strangely intimate and made me feel lonely. Who else was lying alone when I was, awakened by the train? The High Rise Man? The Chicken Man? The man writing poems for his umbrella woman? I felt as though I lay awake at night with all of them. •

Melissa Haley is an archivist living in New York City. Her essays have appeared in The American Scholar and Common-place. She is a 2005 fellow in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

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