Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Red Balcony

this is a description of a real place that I used to go to in Portland back in the '70's. I've been looking for a mention of it or pictures of it and no luck. The whole building is gone now.


The Red Balcony was a bar, and like most bars in downtown Portland it had a big mirror and a cute bartender and some old movie posters on the brick walls. What it lacked were the Boston ferns, Nagel prints, and the 'flamingo and palm tree' neon sculpture that would have said 'gay bar'. It was, though.

The first thing you noticed was the height of the ceiling. The walls with their antique molded pilasters seeming to go up and up and up into the gloom until complete darkness obscured their capitals. Sometimes in the evening the sunlight would reflect in off the windows of the skyscrapers and reveal it for a moment; ship lapped fir with flaking paint, blind chipped athenas with acanthus garlands atop the dusty columns.

The bar was mahogany and the top was either zinc or steel; some kind of grey metal that bore the mark of every sharp blow it had ever received. It smelled like money in your hand on a warm day. None of the taps wore a distributors pull. You took the bartenders word that the glass he filled for you was what you had ordered.

This was not a place you ordered a daiquiri. Napkins, no. Umbrellas, monkeys, picks, toy fish, no. If you found anything other than booze and ice in your glass you picked it out and reminded yourself that alcohol is antiseptic.

There were two slate top pool tables in the front next to the only two windows in the place. Twelve bar stools lined the bar, six on either side of the grab rails. Six tables with four chairs each in the front of the house, then a stage in the middle with a dance floor the size of a postage stamp, and finally a large back room with more tables, the walls lined with booths.

A semicircle of eight brass columns rose in barley twists around the stage to support the floor of a large half-moon balcony. A person seated up there had a view over the entire space and yet remained in constant shadow, unless they sat right against the rail.

A perilous, narrow and distinctly non-code corkscrew stairway lead up to the balcony. Each step you took made the entire structure shudder and creak. Flakes of rust fell down onto whoever was standing in line waiting to use the restrooms below. If you didn't think you could make it, then you'd probably be better off staying downstairs. If you made the climb, then chances were you knew enough to conduct your shit once above just as carefully.

Up above in the balcony everything was red and black, all of it old and stained and smelling of spilled drinks and cigarettes, aftershave and Brasso. Low backed chairs lined the rail overlooking the bar, and more of the same were scattered around, along with padded hassocks and low side tables. Bounding this was a Moorish-styled railing, bellied wrought iron, scaled with ancient paint. The only light was provided by one small candle on each table. No waiters served the balcony.

I used to sit at the bar in the early part of the evening and watch the young boys come in after school and go up the stairs, dark hair and sweet smiles as they glanced your way. You could hear them laughing up there in the shadows, lanky arms and legs, smooth faces up above you in the gloom, holding hands as they sat and leaned along the railing, sharing cigarettes, passing pipes.

and the rest of this is up at UJ.


  1. Is there a gay archives in Portland?

    Worth looking into next time you're there and maybe you can find some pics.

  2. is there really such a thing? wow!

  3. There's a Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto so perhaps there's something closer to your neck of the woods?

  4. Anonymous10:44 PM

    Them homos organize ...

  5. sounds like a place we had here called the red lion...only it was mainly a biker bar...had all of the secrecy, darkness, redness...was truly an experience in it's time...met a guy named spider there once...he was on work release and scared the shit out of it is a parking lot...go figure...

  6. I love the way you describe places. It felt like I was standing in the doorway and seeing it all while I read it. Lovely writing as usual.

  7. Now have to wait until I get home to find out if you went up there . . .

  8. Anonymous7:31 PM

    Very nicely descriptive. I have never been in a gay bar...I think...mostly Western bars, the kind that have chicken wire arrayed in front of the band so they don't get hit by flying beer bottles. Boy THAT was a couple decades ago. Retro

  9. mj:I'll look it up.

    mago: have you read my sidebar? I'm halfway organized.

    daisy: guys named spider are usually really cool. its the ones named runt, critter and smitty you have to watch out for.

    joy: thankyou!

    joe: and you call yourself an IT man. can't you hack the filter? for shame.

    retro:oh, they still have those. and in fact that described every punk venue in downtown portland back when, too. mostly to protect the patrons from the performers, though.

  10. Anonymous4:04 PM

    Did like dugongs use the bar..? I am confused...

  11. muttley: yes. and this is news how? ;)

  12. Anonymous11:00 PM

    Guess there's a sign at the door of this Schwuchtelkneipe saying':
    "No Franconians"
    Besides is the raw picture of a bearded man of "foreign" looks and the line: "We must stay out", signed by the Ortskommandantur ...

  13. After reading your description, I believe that the building has been sold to a connoisseur, possibly from Mars, who had it dismantled piece by piece, transported across the vast coldness between the planets, and re-erected in a Martian desert.

    Don't laugh, it could happen. One of our bridges is in Arizona even as we speak. (read? Blog? You tell me).