These days a mention of the dark side of the 1950s conjures up images of the threat of communism, the cold war, the blacklist, the suppression of minorities and, in general, a grayness that permeated daily life. Those ideas come from movies and from pundits, most of whom were born well after that decade. From my observations, as a young guy growing up during the 1950s, communists were few and posed little or no threat. The blacklist, which is the subject of a couple recent movies, was a terrible idea but it affected a really small number of people, eg. The Hollywood Ten, etc. I can’t speak about the discrimination of minorities, because in Portland during that time I didn’t know any of any.
There was, however, a grayness, at least at times, in spite of Hawaiian shirts and chartreuse automobiles. The threat to civilization was, if not grayness, then ennui. I felt it. I worked all day at a blue-collar job. In the winter it was dark when I left work for home, and the darkness and the cold was depressing. My mother fixed dinner, hamburger and fried potatoes, or Polish sausage and sauerkraut, maybe Jell-O for dessert, and while I was always hungry and the food tasted good, the menu had a gray sameness.
When I got bored I got in my car and drove toward hubs of people; I saw my car reflected in large store windows, a rolling brightness, blue paint and whitewall tires. But by early evening traffic had diminished, and there were few people out walking. Most good citizens were home watching the gray images on their televisions, or were already in bed, tired from a day at work and escaping into sweet sleep before they had to rise and do it all again, and again, and again, for the rest of their lives.
Seeking color, I’d park at the curb in Lents and enter Mt. Scott Drug Store; I’d walk to the rear, where the magazines were kept, and spend time reading the car magazines; when I’d read the new Road & Track, Motorsport, Cycle, I’d move on to the comic books. If there was time, if the druggist didn’t come over and remind me that this was not a library, maybe I’d glance at a copy of Sunshine and Health, where a healthy American family would be playing tennis in the nude. When the druggist repeated his reminder I’d walk across Foster and enter the Rexall Drug Store, where I’d read more publications until I was tired or was asked to leave. The big clock on the wall might read 8:30 pm.
I’d get in my car and cruise. At this hour there was almost no traffic. I cruised to the Hancock gas station at SE 82nd and Woodstock, where I could always find John McGraw, Paul Stukey, Ratchit Ass Nash, maybe Larry Grant and a couple other guys who hung out there. Every station had a bunch of guys who hung out. Looking back, I can see that they were hopelessly trapped in a web that defined the lower class, guys who had perhaps dropped out of school to take a lousy job that would prepare them for another lousy job. They were the working class, but they were certainly not communists, nor were they repressed minorities.
Then, with movement inspired by desperation, I drove south on 82nd until I got to the Harmony Inn, the street’s terminus; all beyond that was dark except for an occasional headlight. Then I cruised Foster Road until I got to 112th; ahead was the forest primeval. Anxious, I quickly made a U-turn and headed toward civilization, land of lights and color.
It was perhaps 9:30; the evening had cost me nothing, except four bits for gas. I headed for home, where the acetylene light of the television flickered against the window.