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"Can we, as a country, all agree

xmag.com : December 2002: Dead Portland family faces discrimination


 

I lived in Colma for ten frickin' years. I had to get out. I moved to Portland because you can walk half an hour in any direction and not see one dead person.

--Big Carl Felton, Portlander

 

Grey skies cast soft luminance upon the dew of freshly cut lawns. Birdies hop amid fallen pastry crumbs, ruffling their feathers in thanks. Squirrelies bob their cute li'l heads in an unspoken "howdee-do?!" Steaming coffee burbles in polished percolators, hot 'n' ready for the honest, hardworking man's consumption. The sun pokes nimble beams through the haze. Ah, Portland. Groovy, nippy Portland. It all seems straight from the pages of some beautiful, well-told fairy tale. A glimpse into lovelier, simpler times. Gosh darn it, nothing beats the fresh, rosy tranquility of a Portland suburb. It really makes you feel alive.

That is, unless you live next door to a bunch of
DEAD people.

For some reason, Portlanders still find dead people unpleasant. They become fearful and agitated in the dead man's presence. They tend to think dead folks should chill with other dead folks. Even in our liberal times, Portlanders treat dead people as if they're part of an entirely different race.

Take, for example, the recent arrival of the Fergusons, a dead family, into the "city that works." Entranced by Portland's beauty and with high hopes of a new start, Devon, Shawnee, and their son Jermaine moved to 1638 Bud Ct., located in an all-live neighborhood. In fact, the Fergusons are the first dead family to live in the area since the late forties, and it hasn't been easy. Foolishly thinking lifeism was a thing of the past, the Fergusons had no expectation of the backlash they would receive at the hands of their more active neighbors.

The real trouble began early last year. On a blustery night as the dead household lay still in their beds, a large navel orange crashed through their bay window. Devon awoke and shuffled over to the fruit and felt a cold shame settle across his bones. Scrawled across the offending citrus item were words which brought back the horrors of a cruel, intolerant past. He pushed back a dusty tear as he read the message aloud: GET OUT DEAD MAN. Fighting the initial urge to flee, Devon and his family girded up their proud, dead loins, replaced the bay window, and made the decision to stay in Portland as an example to their rotting brethren everywhere. A family pact was made to call attention to community injustice and the issues of lifeism that still exist in the Pacific Northwest. That following Sunday, amidst an

otherwise entirely live congregation, the Fergusons sat in the front row of the local church, as if to say, "we're here, we're dead, get used to it."

I met with Devon and Shawnee in a small coffee shop at the edge of town, a place where the stares and comments aren't quite so bad. Soulful jazz and the fragrance of musk oil spooled in the air. As we seated ourselves in the back corner, Devon first explained that Jermaine wished to be interviewed separately. He then proceeded to thank me for the opportunity to voice his
complaints to a live man, though I noted a hint of mistrust and hostility in his voice. Shawnee looked
festive, yet demure. When I asked Devon to share his negative experiences with me, he exhaled in frustration and propped himself in his wooden chair.

"Growing up dead, I learned that some folks are just plain ig'nant [dead slang for ignorant]. I don't expect every live man to be completely fair, but the situation here is way out of control. In Portland, it's like a dead man can't just go out and take his family bowling without people staring." I nod, puppy-eyed, with feigned concern. He continues: "I see the looks in live people's eyes when I walk down the street. It's like, 'Oh, that dead man is going to steal my

purse.' 'Careful, honey, that dead man looks like he wants to fight.' That's all I am to live folk: the 'big, horny dead man.' It's humiliating."

Shawnee adjusts her bonnet and chimes in. "I'm a strong dead woman. I endure harassment from live girls every day, and I stay strong. They make comments like I want to steal their men just 'cause I'm dead, like all dead girls are some kinda hussy. Bullpuckies! Horsebeans! I got a family, I don't want none of their mess!" Devon calms her with a little squeeze. "She's upset right now, but she's right." He states, "The stereotypes are unbelievable. Dead people have been around for as long as anybody, and yet these unfounded stereotypes persist." I ask him to tell me exactly what stereotypes he's had to face day to day. "We draw insults like flies. You know. You've heard what live folk say about us deads. There's all sorts of things, like we're lazy and we stink."

He submits that the problem runs far deeper than juvenile name-calling. Once again, Shawnee offers her two bits. "Ask my man how long it took him to get a job! Ask him!" Not one to pooh-pooh her suggestion, I inquire, "Devon, how long did it take you to find a job?"

"Eight months," he says angrily. "Eight muhthafuckin' months. And if you think for a minute that prejudice is bad on the street, you should won't believe the shit I hear at WORK." Shawnee Ferguson begins to weep as I adjourn our meeting, thanking them both for their candor.

 

BIG WAYNE'S BIG LUMBERYARD GRANDÉ stands at the ass-end of a long row of desolate warehouses. Man and machine grunt in laborious syncopation. Devon is under Big Wayne's employ, and I've come to confront the staff about their attitude toward dead men in their workplace. As I enter the front office, an obese bee-yotch in bifocals asks me if I'm "that lefty journalist." When I confirm, she huffs and rolls her eyes, buzzing me into the main yard and curtly barking into the intercom, "he's here." For a brief-but-poignant moment, I feel what it must be like to be a dead man. Forgetting about it almost immediately,
I saunter out into the lot. Tiny filaments of sawdust collect in my roguish beard.

The first gentleman I run across is a hefty, jowly, flannel-clad piece of work by the name of Hank Coca. I address Mr. Coca with an innocuous question with respect to Devon Ferguson's work ethic. "Oh, you mean the boss man's pet dead guy?," he bitterly retorts. Before I can respond, he draws in close to my face, leering vehemently. "Look, the man is NOT QUALIFIED for this job. He's got no history or training in the rich artistry that is lumber work. You know it, and I know it. He only got hired 'cause he's DEAD." Other living workers echo Hank's remarks. They complain of quotas and slanders of lifeism. A man simply known as "The Duker" expresses his feelings thusly. "I'm sick of being called metaphysically prejudiced for telling the truth. I couldn't give less of a fat, flying shit if he's dead. I don't judge anyone by their state of decomposition. The fact is, our government, both state and federal, seems to think that as soon as one's heart stops beating, you owe them a fucking living. I have a family, too! I take my job very seriously. I love lumber. It's in my blood. I think it's an insult to my craft, and MY DADDY'S CRAFT, I might add, to hire someone on the basis of anything other than proficiency and skill. I don't think Devon's a bad person. Hell, I LIKE him...he's just not a fucking lumberman."

Only Big Wayne himself backs up his dead worker. "Now, it's been alleged that I hired Devon on account of his bein' in a deceased way, and that just ain't the case," the big man states flatly. "He works just as hard as anyone else. Besides, these dead folk are built for this kind of labor. You know, they got the bone structure and whatnot."

"How do you you feel about Devon and his family personally, Big Wayne?," I ask, drawing a thick cigar from the box on his desk. The Wayner steps over to close his office door, requesting that his comments be kept off the record. I give him my word and he takes it, the fool. "I got no problem with dead people," Wayne intones, "but there's a difference in the way dead and live folks act. I have to think about the community environment. Especially in terms of Jermaine. I have a son about his age, and they go to the same school. Look, my son is ALIVE. That's the way he was born. I don't want him acting like he's dead because it's 'cool.' I can't say that I like the influence of that Ferguson boy." I urge Big Wayne to elaborate. "Jermaine is...um...political."

The following day I arrive at Vic's Naugahyde Room, a pool hall said to be frequented by roughnecks and thugs. In the far corner, shrouded by the acrid fog of tobacco smoke, sits a very, very angry young man. Seventeen-year-dead Jermaine stands when I greet him, but he doesn't shake my hand. He's dressed in traditional dead clothing, his tattered tuxedo smelling of wet earth. The white lily tucked through his left lapel hangs flaccid. A small stack of pamphlets and a few brain pies lie on his table. I haven't a chance to say a word before he begins what seems a well-rehearsed address. "I don't believe the values imposed by a media run by live people and Jews," he begins, "but I consider this interview a means to an end. Let's get this started." When I ask if he feels treated unjustly, he launches into a frustrated speech. "As soon as you're dead, the live man sews your mouth shut. It's fear. The live man is afraid of what the dead man has to say. They want to keep us quiet and put us in a box. It's organized." I offer that not all live people are part of a lifeist cabal. He seems infuriated by the notion.

"Live man's bullshit. Look at it historically. Dead culture has always been kept underground. Since the beginning, dead folks have been consistently under-represented in the media. It's always 'LIVE nude girls,' 'the Beatles appearing LIVE,' and fuck, man, the few times we do appear the in living culture's media, how are we represented? As stupid dead folk who can't control their urges. Always eating live people. Terrorizing live farming communities after a government mishap. It's only gotten worse since we were totally SAMBOED by Michael Jackson's Thriller. That's the live man's agenda--to portray the dead as either a scapegoat or a complacent zombie that rolls his eyes back and does a little dance." I pause for thought and ask him what he intends to do about it. "The time has come to rise again. We need to reclaim our identity as dead people. Our numbers are legion. I believe in leadership through example. I've cast off the live man's coil. I am no longer Jermaine Ferguson. I am Idi Jermaine Admallah, 1971-1985. You are dismissed." I leave the table, a rotting fist raised in the air behind me.

After investigating all sides of the story, I can only say that things don't look hopeful. The Fergusons continue to endure the uncomfortable mistrust of live folks. The live men at the lumberyard show no hope of changing their view. Despite Devon's strength of character, Jermaine's fearless activism, and Shawnee's intolerably loud voice, the neighborhood still harbors a hatred. The only hope is that in time, people will come around to a new way of thinking. For now, however, prejudice lives on...and the dead shall dead remain.

X

 

 

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