Nights at the Roxy, an All-Ages Queer Haven

Notes on downtown’s 24-hour neon dive from a former teenage client

By Thom Hilton June 1, 2020 Published in the June 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

Harvey Milk Street was empty on April 4. Signs outside Vaseline Alley holdover Scandals boldly read: “NO MONEY. NO BOOZE. NO TP. NO REASON TO BREAK A WINDOW!” Its next-door neighbor took extra precaution. The windows of the Roxy, downtown’s 24-hour-unless-it’s-Monday gay diner since 1994, were covered in sheets of plywood. “THE ROXY IS CLOSED UNTIL THIS IS OVER ... take care of yourselves, stay home, and Washie Washie!”

I’m a gayboy who grew up in the era of underage gay nightclub the Escape, so the Roxy was the scene of many milestone hangouts. I now live in New York, but on a visit home I planned to hang out at the diner one night from dusk till dawn, eat as much of the menu as possible, and share why it’s such a special place for Portland queer kids. And then everything happened. You know.

When I was a freshman at Lincoln, the Roxy was the site of the opening-night cast dinner for my first high school play. Sophomore year, the owner, “The Lovely Suzanne,” came in to speak at a GSA meeting. She wore pounds of makeup and a gown fit for a Pride parade; a Lunchtime Diva Queen in a hallway packed with snickering lacrosse bros. I remember Suzanne telling us how the Roxy wasn’t just a diner: it was a safe space for anyone who had nowhere else to go.

One classmate told me Suzanne let her sit at the bar and drink coffee all night after being kicked out of the house by Christian parents. Another said that a long chat with her sister in the light of the Neon Jesus, which hangs above Suzanne’s jukebox, was one of the most precious memories of her tumultuous high school years.

As a teen (not long ago) I loved to stand outside and try to get the attention of Scandals’ hot older clientele. Nowadays, I cruise by a little more carefully and a little less confidently. Sometimes I recognize a face in the crowd on that sidewalk, and it feels like seeing a ghost. And that’s kinda the whole thing. The Roxy is the meeting place of kids who want to be weirdo grown-ups and weirdo grown-ups who might become ghosts.

Summers home from college, after closing shifts at Salt & Straw, I’d go to the Roxy for chicken strips with tots and extra ranch, my go-to order. Except for the last night of the summer, when it was just me, a lonely cherry Italian soda decked out with whipped cream and sprinkles, and thoughts of lovers and the town I love and the knowing that I had to leave them both soon.

The last time I had my go-to order was in October. I sat at the bar and chatted with a cute 19-year-old server I'd never seen before. He told me he was from Clatskanie. I asked if he knew this person or that person. He said he knew What’s-His-Name but not So-and-So. The boy had left his small town; this was his big city.

This is a joint where you might pick up a cute bear’s number as you chat about Twin Peaks and lighten up your coffee with milk from a baby bottle. Now the only number you’ll get is for the owner, posted on those signs out front. Maybe it’s Suzanne’s cell. I think about calling her. Asking why she closed instead of doing takeout and delivery like most other spots have. But I don’t wanna freak her out or piss her off. She’s the woman who gave us her space. So I give her her space.

A sliver of neon shines through the plywood that covers the windows. As I take a few pictures on my phone, a jittery punk with scraggly hair dances around the corner. I wonder if the Roxy’s a place he likes to go. I wonder where the kids are. I wonder where the ghosts are. I wonder when we all get to go back to the places we like to go.

Filed under
Show Comments