Officer Jack Olsen, our man on the Avenue
We should count ourselves lucky that police officer Jack Olsen has appeared on the scene: young, good-looking and, let's be honest, just a tad naive. But if that weren't so, there's no way he would have gotten involved in this half-baked scheme to expose the city's payoff system, one five-dollar bill at a time.
Of course, there is absolutely no guarantee that he will succeed in this endeavor. In this life, the odds against good winning out are always pretty high. In the city of Portland, in the late fall of 1955, they probably are more formidable than usual. But at least now we have someone in this story we can pull for.
The plan, of course, is that he will keep a detailed record of all the 'smile money' given him in the course of his duties as a patrolman on the Avenue Ñ as the cops called the city's black part of town. Eventually, he hopes, he'll work his way up to the big boys Ñ the precinct captains, the chief, the city councilmen Ñ who are pulling down the really big bucks.
And when he's got that nailed down, Jim Miller, the reporter over at The Oregonian, will write it up in his newspaper and expose the whole crooked mess.
When he gets home each morning after work, Olsen doesn't go to sleep until he's put everything down in his notebook. Like this, for example:
We entered the East Precinct at approx. 12:45 a.m. Sergeants Moore and Sprague were at the front desk checking in the incoming officers. Sergeant Sprague told me at the time he would like to see me before I left. He stated approximately as follows: 'I want to see you before you go.' I replied by nodding my assent.
As we went to the front desk, Sergeant Sprague came to the door of the Lieutenant's office and motioned for me to enter. Sprague was standing in front of the first night relief's desk. He handed me a small, approximately
3-inch by 5 1/2-inch manila envelope. He said, 'This is for that little deal down there.' I nodded and put the envelope in my left front pocket.
I rode home that night with one of the second night officers in district car No. 24. On entering the house I went to my den and examined the contents of the envelope. In the envelope I found five apparently new Federal Reserve Notes, all in $5 denominations. The serial numbers of the notes are: L02020134, L02020136, L02020137, L81461003A, L81461005A. Each note was initialed 'JO' and dated 12-2-55.
The irony of all this is that Olsen really loves his job. He loves the action, the camaraderie. But most of all he loves the Avenue, extending along Williams Avenue, from the Steel Bridge to about Russell. He loves the sights and sounds of the Avenue, the way the hookers tease him and call him 'Pretty Jack.'
There's one in particular, a young girl by the name of Hazel Stamp. It's never more than a friendship between them, but it is a friendship. Sometimes he runs into her at the Keystone, and they sit and talk. Olsen, a graduate of Grant High School and Lewis & Clark College, is touched by her vulnerability. She doesn't know how to read. She can barely write her name. 'What else is she going to do?' he tells himself.
At the time, the Avenue was a bustling neighborhood with nightclubs, restaurants, rooming houses and even a hotel or two. But the hub around which everything seemed to revolve was the Keystone, owned by Tom Johnson, at the corner of Northeast Williams and Cherry. On one side of the building was a real estate office; on the other a diner that served barbecue. That's where Olsen and Stamp would meet now and then for a cup of coffee. At the rear of the diner was a door that opened onto a gambling room that did a reputed $100,000 nightly in gambling business. In the basement of the Keystone was a huge safe Ñ perhaps 8 feet by 8 feet Ñ which attested to Johnson's abilities as a businessman.
Johnson ran the rackets along the Avenue under arrangements similar to those that prevailed elsewhere in the city Ñ 'smile money' for the beat cops, and more substantial payoffs for the ranking police officers and their superiors at City Hall.
It was that larger payoff, the one amounting to hundreds of thousands a year, that Olsen was after. But even if, by some magic, he had succeeded in bridging the gap that separated him and fellow officers from their bosses, he still wouldn't have been onto the biggest game in town Ñ or even, for that matter, on the Avenue. Then, as now, the big game in town is real estate.
As the year 1955 was coming to a close, there was a serious battle taking place in Portland over where a new, deluxe sports arena, to be called the Memorial Coliseum, would be built. Sites had been proposed downtown, at Delta Park on the flood plain north of town, or just east of the Steel Bridge, in the heart of the Avenue. Fortunes would be made by those who guessed right Ñ and as Jack Olsen went about the lonely business of writing down the serial numbers of $5 bills, men in higher places, with what they fervently hoped was inside knowledge, scrambled to buy up options on the properties in question.
At the center of the scramble, of course, was Tom Johnson. Not only was he the rackets boss on the Avenue, he was its leading real estate practitioner as well. Old Tom, as they called him, must have known something. The old vice cop who appears so frequently in this story, pointing us one direction or another, recalls how Johnson took him aside one day. 'Sarge,' he said, 'if you got any money, you should be buying real estate over here' Ñ meaning along the Avenue, down by the Steel Bridge, of course. But on a salary of about $400 a month, there wasn't much the old vice cop could have bought, even if he'd been so inclined.
But you can bet that Jim Elkins was interested. He might even have thought he had some inside information from the local Teamster rep, Clyde Crosby, who sat on the Exposition-Recreation Commission. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn't. At this point, nearly half a century later, we'll never know.
The point is, though, that even with everything about to come down around his ears Ñ and believe me, it is Ñ Elkins is still out there wheeling and dealing, trying to make a buck any way he can, and the more devious and underhanded the better.
So the stage is set: The final act of our drama is ready to begin. In a matter of weeks, the city will explode. All that's needed is a little spark. No way we could change it now, even if we wanted to.
Continued next Friday