On the AirBART shuttle from the Coliseum station to the Oakland airport I spied a Carrow’s and a Red Lion, two chains I thought had ceased to exist just because I hadn’t encountered one in years, in close proximity to each other. West Coast, sometimes I miss you. I always associate Shari’s and Carrows (and recently discovered East Coast brethren, Perkins, which is going bankrupt anyway) with each other since they’re both regional third-tiers that serve pie in addition to burgers and omelets. Shari’s is open 24 hours, which is no small feat in Oregon. Though when I recently mentioned Carrows, my sister Melissa had no idea what I was talking about. I’m certain we had them in Oregon in the ‘80s (can anyone vouch?) though now they do appear to be focused in California.
My friend in Portland, Adam, has a birthday the same week as mine and was celebrating it at the sixth-floor lounge on top of the Lloyd Center Red Lion (six floors is tall for the area, ok?). Too bad I was heading back to NYC the night before. He and his boyfriend will be arriving in Brooklyn this evening and staying with me for a few nights. I wish I had a Red Lion equivalent for them.
Right before we broke up and I graduated college, my boyfriend at the time (last name Roth, followed by a Robinson, followed by a fixation on a Roberts, now in the trenches with a Robb. Go ROs!) got a job as a bellboy at the Lloyd Center Red Lion. As a new hire, we got to test out the Red Lion experience and stayed one night free with dinner and room service breakfast. That was the first time I’d ever eaten Coquilles St. Jacques. It was also the last time, if only because I’ve never encountered the cheese-topped scallop dish in the ensuing 17 years. I am 99% sure that this boyfriend told me that as a treat all new staffers were taken to see The Concierge, a new Michael J. Fox flick. Now I am seeing there is no such movie and feeling odd. What a strange lie that would be. Around this period, he began paling around with a new coworker, smoking pot and climbing on bridges so who knows the truth.
Last month in Portland, we had no place to stay on Friday, our final night. Everything in my acceptable, stylish enough but under $200 (preferably under $160) range was booked weeks before we had even left, so I figured we’d just wing it, even though it goes against my plan-crazed grain, stay at a Marriott if need be or at my mom’s if we had to. While scouring travel sites days before getting the boot from the Hotel DeLuxe, James mentioned the Red Lion in Vancouver, Washington. It was only $81.
Hell no. I would party in their bar, but I wouldn’t stay there. Plus,Vancouver? My only experience the nearby suburb was occasionally hanging out with Adam our freshman year of college when he still lived at home. It was pretty much just like Gresham where I grew up but north rather than east. Not a place for 18-year-olds in art school. But maybe perfect for a newly minted 39-year-old who works in an office?
When I saw the straight ‘70s northwest wood beam architecture, I softened a bit. Faded, yet originally trying so hard. I can appreciate those spires and angles. Frankly, after four days I had burnt out on Portland’s incessant indie-ness. My memory is so false (maybe I imagined The Concierge, after all). In my gritty, mom-and-pop NYC perch, I had developed false notions about my hometown as if it were simply a west coast New Jersey, packed densely with chains stores, restaurants and highways. It is not. I needed a break from the cocktails enlivened by tinctures, artisanal maple bars and bicycle-friendly streets. Vancouver it was.
I felt at ease the second we crossed the bridge. Who-Song & Larry’s?! That’s still there? Very occasionally we’d get to go eat chimichangas while the parents ordered frozen margaritas and combo platters. I think the draw was the view of the Columbia River. I’m pretty sure there were mariachis. Unlike Carrow’s, Melissa did remember this Mexican semi-chain (it’s now owned by Real Mex, the same as Chevy’s) and said, “It seemed like a fun place to go if you were a grown-up.” Indeed, it did. And she encapsulated much about my chain fixation. They are the kind of places that seemed more for adults when we were younger (never mind that Olive Garden and its ilk didn’t exist when I was a kid) like you could cut loose and have a few drinks and eat as much food as you’d like and you could do it whenever you felt like it. The last time I recall going to Who-Song and Larry’s it was a late ‘80s Easter and afterwards, Melissa and I drove downtown and shoulder-tapped a homeless guy to buy us 40s of malt liquor and we drank them in the Rose Garden and no one said anything when they stumbled upon us, I guess because it was Portland.
When I stepped into the Red Lion’s lobby, AM gold was trickling through the speakers as if they could only play music from the era the hotel was built. Even the stifling caked-in cigarette smoke not even close to being masked by pine-scented spray that assaulted us on the way to the elevator felt right. Before heading to a family bbq, we had a drink in The Quay Bar to take in the crustacean-themed stained glass, porthole windows and interior boat mast. A little pirate, a little coastal. We were the only ones in the bar at 3pm other than a band sound-checking, providing a small taste of what was to come.
And it came with the $5 price of admission that evening. The entire parking lot was packed when we showed up around 10pm. The band, not Gina K., as advertised out front, was playing covers from Prince to Wild Cherry. People were dancing. Hard. Ladies were drinking shots. Screaming. Everyone knew each other, including our waitress, the same one we’d had seven hours earlier. The women dolled-up in the shortest, tightest, stretchy low-cut dresses like you might buy at Rainbow if they had Rainbow in Oregon, all radiated cougar-ness, even the young ladies (28 is old in the suburbs if you’re single). I was surprised women in their 20s would take part in such an oldies, motel bar scene. The men were all sloppy, not trying half as hard as the women. And I guess they don’t need to. One young knobby dude with a moustache that would appear intentional across the Columbia River was flanked by two women, one tiny, one plump, and he was rubbing up against both of them, arm over one’s shoulder, then the other. Threesome, Washington state-style. I tried to take a cameraphone picture of the 50-ish gentleman with long blonde hair styled into crunchy ringlets, aviator shades and a fitted glittery t-shirt tucked into jeans in a way that might’ve made sense in Germany.
We stepped out for a cigarette and a frantic woman stormed out, quizzing all the people outside (not us) about whether they’d seen a red sports car. They had, but it had left. This woman’s friend took off with the driver and had been gone for too long. She wasn’t answering her phone. As we were about to head back to our room, the car pulled up, the quizzer ran over and started screaming at both the friend and the driver, a clean-cut blonde man, younger and more attractive than both women. The friend ran inside of the bar while a screaming match ensued in the parking lot. As we walked past, the guy was pulling down his pants and bending over. I have never seen a mooning in my 13 years in NYC! Combined with the bare ass SF outdoor pooper, it was the week for butts.
When it comes down to it, there was nothing novel about any of this. This scene plays out Friday nights in small towns around the nation. And I love it. One of my many projects that I don’t have the skills (technical or social) or wherewithal to produce that I came up with when I first moved to NYC was a photo essay “T.G.I. Friday” that would document how people do their thing on Fridays around the city. I swear what I had envisioned is far less lame than that sounds. I think now I would call it “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend” and focus on small dance clubs, bars and restaurants around the country. I would start with Dallas BBQ. I want to celebrate Friday nights forever giant frozen blue cocktails.