Strategies of Rose and Thorn in Portland

“I came face-to-face with a gray wolf in the woods and we embraced each other. I talked to him and he sat there and looked at me…. We have our fables, you know.”

– Leloo (Cliff Snyder), Honorary Chinook Chief, educator, athlete

Late Style in crime fascinates Phil Stanford in his irresistibly greasy scrapbook Rose City Vice. Behind the sordid tales, the outline of how corruption and city power work is very visible if yellow-colored, overexposed in bright noon rather than concealed by night. No one has slept since 1967. You wait for the girls in your car.

The burnt-out days of 1970s seedy Portland were a constellation of treeless concrete, bent pigs and stoolies, PVC hitmen and politicos thin as wax-beans. Squat criminal incompetence, slow decay, feebleness. A sense of beaten cruelty infests both lawman and quarry as they haunt Billy Moe’s Gold Coin Club, the windowless hub of Portland’s merry dance of death and trade. Only the semblance of riches here, the debris of criminalities: Mayor Goldschmidt has a liaison with an 11-year old girl; people rip off drug dealers who are too bushed to kill them for it; pornographers go mainstream out of genuine bankruptcy. Everyone knows who did the crime and no one is interested. The lesson is engrained ennui, rather than intimidation and pride.

The wholly cinematic figure of the crusading DA or Top Cop appears in Rose City under different names, in varying degrees of honesty:  Don Connall who went after the Gold Coin, charismatic narc Norm Reider, a pair of rugged vice cops nicknamed Gearshift and Rig Red. A probe is allowed to go only so far before reality rises up in the final draft – that is, stark downtown power – and the investigator realizes that he has been investigating himself. Power permits only the elimination of unstable elements (say, the thug-amateur grown arrogant or a careless love), internal ‘policing’ actions performed free of charge by an operative with built-in obsolescence.

Reading about the cheapness of these nasty affairs might make you nostalgic for Old Masters like Lansky and the golden age of crime and state symbiosis. Joe Kennedy and Bugsy Siegel clawed their way up from Rum Row to Incorporation and were arch-conservative believers in Social Darwinism compared to the mid-level entry cheats of swinging seventies Portland. Despite their oily tempers and working class chic, Portland’s Vincent ‘Ice Man’ Capitan and Willie Nelson were solid nouveau riches (even their names are the cheap reflection of fame). The stench of failure follows Portland’s hard men around from botched robbery to bloody murder. Picaresque photos in the book resemble stills from cut-purse gangster epics (there is a great Pirandellian shot of wank merchant Tom Shaw on the set of a 1984 papier-mâché actioner called Courier of Death). Imitation, imitation, fraud, open motel room doors. But aren’t there enough hagiographies of Lansky and Luciano? Rose City Vice is after something more eccentric and more pedestrian: an archeology of tinsel violence, miserly ambition and mid-life crises mourir de ne pas mourir.

What we call crime is the right of power to private means. The concentric circles of police, politicians on the take, real estate moguls and drug dealers provide a bridge between violence permitted and proscribed. But vice and law only exist according to the Law. Crime has no corporal existence. It does have expression, however: prison, assassination, price controls, frame-ups and set-ups, etc. Crime remains only a way to think about the digestive system of a society. It provides reward and punishment, or if you like, education. It provides employment and it influences rents. It is egalitarian and even permits one to climb up from the base, depending on the guile and devotion of the neophyte.

Both the legit and the parallel economy improvise off of each other. If the Law will not intervene, something must take its place between provincial power and subject. Crime, like Capital for Marx, is not a thing but a set of relations. An action can be said to be criminal if it occurs at a specific time, under certain circumstances, under a certain set of relations but perfectly legal if time and place are altered. To paraphrase the great Muslim jurist Abu Hanifa, for every case in which an act is haram, there is another case where it is permissible.

Only organized crime can protect you against a criminal organization. Only by fueling other drug transactions can drug dealers be caught. Only by expediting crime may crime be effectively managed (and surplus value extracted, dark value, life). Imprisoning a pusher merely creates a job opportunity or a promotion and returns the operation to the initial phase, at least down below. This is the glaring truth that the cretins who speak for crime prevention are blissfully unaware of, an uncertainty principle which is quite obvious to the effective practitioner. The war on crime is an attempt to reclaim the extralegal from the competition in the old grand style of pure number à la Busby Berkeley, a lucrative motor driven by crime itself and called mass incarceration.

The tensions of Late Crime work on the middle tier of communication from the Street to City Hall. Portland had a large and colorful mid-stratum, according to the facts in the case of Rose City Vice, but few were able to make the leap from busting heads to toxic mortgage production. Retirement usually meant death or Florida. In the end, there really was only the amateur crowd, left to flounder in deregulation by a new ambitious mob working in pensions and phantom liquidity. Several loose ends remained to be tied up: Short-eyes Neil Goldschmidt, once presidential hopeful; lawyer Earl Son, ensnared in a feud between bikers and cops, to name a couple. Or there was public rehabilitation for a seedy DA like Michael Schrunk, born into fraud by his mayoral old man. This sluggish world of artificial light could hardly keep pace with the parthenogenetic crime of high-speed cash transactions, teleportation to offshore accounts, and the birth of new paralegal larcenies such as asset stripping or the great S & L swindle. There is a lamp burning in the ‘bombed out land of parking lots’ (as one journalist described the Rose City of the 1970s). In the lamp is a swollen, economic niche. In the niche is the dancing train of cops and robbers, party hacks and gangsters, all blending into one another in a merry-go-round blur; and it is crime upon crime upon crime.

In the summer of 1970, as Stanford recalls with a sensitive chill early in his book, two girls from the infamous Gold Coin Club got invited to a party hosted by a certain industrialist and a ‘high ranking member of the governor’s staff’ (anonymity is always the work of the present tense). After the festivities, while crossing the road home in the rosy wee hours, the two girls were struck and killed by a car. No mention of it appeared in the papers or in police reports.

Two girls had gone ‘missing’ but were found after cockcrow by associates of those to whom they had just said goodbye. Perhaps by accident, they had been privy to the kind of knowledge that one cannot know and not be destroyed. Knowledge that was a banal detail for others, a preference or a bond perhaps, but which required decisive action in order to remain banal. These two workers were the first audience for the Rose City Vice stories of coke-dealing body-builders, aspiring hoods, bad lieutenants, bordello madams, and lost stashes of dead superflies. Who thinks of them now? Who remembers their hands, held tight or lit up by headlights? Between the acts of knowing and leaving is silence (the night road, a cliché), that ‘screaming all around you’, and safety gone for two below is safety assured for others above. Safety itself is a crime. Crime is a palimpsest of the Law. The evidence of its penetration is most strongly felt as a presence in life above and life below, a strategy of tensions as natural as the black and white ghosts of a lousy television reception.

The waning period of Rose City vice, with its own style of mockery as fist, has left desperate fables from a ledger less primitive than Blackstone’s in place of memories. Thanks to TV’s Portlandia and the tech boom, Portland is now a symbol for smirking middle-class irony, the worst quality of the worst people in the world. Lay the rest before the Rose Queen and yesterday’s rackets.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.