Downtown Portland in a Lawless Decade: The 1970s

When I hear the anguish that goes on about Downtown Portland, it sometimes makes me smile. Do you realize what it was like in the late 70s? The Portland Hilton was an island of respectability in a fairly seedy section, and - oh, by the way - the hotel had a massage parlor of its own.

It was called the Relaxeena Spa and it was on the 3rd floor. Guests including Rod Stewart and his band would drop in and choose from a menu of massages with names like, "The King and I" for big bucks. The wallpaper was a flashy zebra skin pattern. The fixtures looked like gold and all the furniture had a glamorous decadence. The spa had a great little stereo and a really exotic atmosphere. Not to mention erotic.

When I was the banquet night crew supervisor, along with a guy named Clayton, we would go in and chat with the gorgeous women who worked there. If you closed the door, you would think you were in a fancy brothel somewhere, and come to think of it, that wasn't far off. One of the women absolutely floored me. She was half Japanese and half French and she'd wear these beautiful dresses with thin material. If she walked in front of a light you could see the outline of her body as if she had nothing on. I was in my 20s and when I saw her, my heart would race. Ahh, back to Downtown.

Across the street to the south was a striptease nightclub called - if memory serves - the Carriage Room. Shoot, maybe that was the bar across Broadway to the west, where we used to go to get in the mood for a fancy dinner. I'm also getting the name Clementine's, but it had hookers and others of even less moral standing. Up Taylor was the legendary Spot Tavern where the crew would drain pitchers of beer on our afternoon break. Actually, if there was a two or three hour break, we often went up to the Bullpen right next to Civic Stadium, where we'd eventually return, revved up to the gills, ready to serve Portland's high society. Some of those nighttime functions were a bit of a blur.

Across the street from the hotel to the north - as I recall - was the YMCA, but that's not really clear to me now. Then diagonally across to the East was the old Greyhound Bus station. The fancy, classy Heathman Hotel? Please. We had Hilton waiters who lived in it. In the 70s, Downtown had a really sleepy, decadent, whipped feeling, but of course that went along with tons more atmosphere and soul. Walking down Broadway in the rain, you could almost hear that lone jazz saxophone playing a mournful tune. Today, Downtown is all modern and politically correct. I suppose that's progress, but what a price to pay. Frankly, I liked it a lot better back then.

The other night-crew supervisor, Clayton, was a real character. He was a natural-born socializer and would go on to be quite a legend in these parts, throwing a series of annual parties that attracted hundreds. We became good friends although there was a real element of danger to our association. I was living with a woman I'll call Lyla and she worked a morning shift. I would often get off work at 4 a.m., wind down partying at Clayton's house, and then get home around 6, just in time to say goodbye to my girlfriend and then go to sleep. It was a troubled living arrangement. Clayton enjoyed smoking opium and that's as much as I'll say about that. It's sometimes tough to project back to the lawlessness of that decade. Portland was an out of control party, and trouble awaited us everywhere.

Take what happened one night as a result of the Relaxeena Spa: There had been a fancy reception on the Plaza level in a glass box-style room called the Pavilion that opened out onto a huge patio with an outdoor pool. This particular function had a company name spelled in maybe 7 giant letters made of ice. The party had gone well, and the night crew was tearing it down. As I recall, there were around 6 men, so we were okay on manpower.

In fact, this was a good time for a break because the social events of the night had gone well. We could let down a little before focusing on the sets for the next day. Clayton and I decided to go relax in the Relaxeena Spa, where the girls enjoyed smoking the hashish Clayton also relished. On the way out of the Pavilion, a houseman asked what they should do with the ice sculptures. It was a fair question. Sometimes an unmelted swan might be saved, but what were we going to do with these letters? Play a giant frozen game of Scrabble later? I just said, "Get rid of them."

Clayton and I took our break, sitting on the fancy sofa in the massage parlor, listening to the soft jazz and flirting with the gorgeous women, including the Japanese-French babe who so impressed me. Eventually, we decided our break was over, and duty called. We headed back to work, with our heads remarkably refreshed.

What awaited us on the floor below was a sight that stopped me cold. The police had our night crew lined up outside on the small strip of patio overlooking Taylor, one floor up off the street. A voice from below was pointing at individual crew members, telling the police, "Him, no, not him..."

Everything about this picture was wrong and deeply mystifying till we approached the patio and got a glimpse over the rail. Remember the 7 letters of ice? The night crew had decided to throw them off the Plaza level, where they had made a spectacular white, frosty burst that extended well out into Taylor Street. I remember some smaller pieces had actually made it to the opposite sideway. That's where the citizen below had apparently been walking, and he claimed a small piece of ice had struck him which was probably true.

Claty and I had to think fast. Justice was justice but we had a long night of setting rooms, and our crew was about to go to jail. This next part sounds pretty bad but remember, I was in my 20s and I had yet to mature fully in the morality department. When the citizen below pointed at the two housemen to my left, I found myself saying, "That's impossible, they were with me." Incidentally, this move bought me several months of true loyalty - at least till this crew turned over and moved on. The citizen backed down, and admitted that he wasn't sure about them. A compromise was reached in which two housemen were taken away in a squad car. A true detective would have pointed out that it would take more than two to lift a letter, but, when in doubt, it's always better to let a guilty man go free, especially if he's on your night crew.

As luck would have it, the General Manager of the hotel pulled up just in time to see the two fall guys getting in the squad car. They were only at the police station a short time before he got them released. And - God bless them - they came back to work. By the way, nothing ever happened to me or anyone else on this. It was a lawless decade, remember? I can only imagine all the human resources-type bullshit that would follow today. Human resources - Isn't that a twisted name? Like they're feeding them into a meat grinder: "Uh, the natural resources are holding up, but you better order some more humans." Back then, I think it was just called "Personnel", and they didn't sweat stuff like this. Truthfully, if a security guard had gotten involved, it would have been officially dealt with, but that didn't occur in this case.

Nothing happened at all. We were very busy and the incident was clearly just one of those unfortunate mistakes. In fact, it was beneficial. The crew worked with a lot of energy that night - I think they were excited to be free.

The incident was soon filed away in my mind and we moved on. Of course, what kind of supervisor would I be, if I didn't glean something from the experience? I made a mental note: When a houseman asks what to do with an ice sculpture, be more specific. In a general sense, I also realized that being a leader of men was a demanding job, and I had much to learn.

Looking back, it all fits. The level of dangerous lifestyle choices we made back then was extremely high. In fact, we were extremely high. The city was on a real decadent tear in the Lawless 70s. Remember what the Mayor, himself, was doing in those years - often meeting his underaged sex partner in the same hotel we were working in that night. Downtown Portland may not be perfect now, but it's funny to hear them talk about it when it's almost pristine by comparison. Back then Downtown had a rotten, sleazy element to it that, frankly, I really miss.

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