I was a short-order cook for a few months through the winter of 1986 and into the early summer of 1987, at Roxy Hearts World Diner in Portland, Oregon, a silver-chrome-and-red-Naughahyde, vintage-movie-poster-decorated little place on Burnside, in the Pearl District, the rough part of town where the bums lived, near the seedy gay bars, the seedy straight bars. My friend James and I worked the night shift, so we handled the rush when the bars closed between 3 and 4 in the morning and the entire male gay population of Portland showed up drunk, spangled, howling, cruising, and hungry for omelets, burgers, sandwiches, and French toast. James and I threw garnishes at each other mid-rush, singing operatically, laughing, cursing, punchy.
James was a willowy, dark-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned English boy by way of the San Fernando Valley, funny and sensitive, arch, with a charming mean streak. Back then, at twenty-one, he was just coming out; now, he’s an AIDS activist and lawyer in D.C. We’d been close friends as students, and we’d both stuck around Portland the year after graduation, feeling a bit lost, two lovelorn sensitive plants nostalgic for Reed and wondering what to do next with our lives.
We were both pining for hot, unavailable younger boys who were still in college. When we weren’t at our low-paying demeaning post-college jobs, we decked ourselves out and headed over to campus to cruise around the S.U. steps, the Café, the library, and the Great Lawn, hoping to “run into” one or both of them. We had nothing better to do. I was struggling to pay my rent ($165 a month for a dingy little studio apartment on SE Division) working fifteen hours a week at the Waldenbooks in the mall downtown, augmenting my tiny minimum-wage paychecks with government cheese and food stamps and an occasional babysitting job for my former thesis advisor.
Compared to me, James made pretty good money cooking at Roxy Hearts. He also worked much harder, twelve-hour shifts, but he always had money to go out drinking, and he was generous with it. When the other night cook quit, or was fired, I don’t remember which, James recommended me to take his place, probably so I could afford to buy my own damn cocktails. By that point, I was getting the bad feeling that that if I had to unbox and shelve one more load of slippery, glitzy romance paperbacks or help one more smarmy yuppie find a self-help book, I very well might kill someone, probably myself. I was ecstatic to get the job at Roxy Hearts.
We only once missed a shift. On what was supposed to have been a day trip to the Oregon coast, on the way back to Portland for our shift, James’s van skidded and slid into the guardrail and James broke his hand, gripping the steering wheel so hard the bones were crushed. The van was towed by AAA to a local mechanic’s. There was no public transportation that late in the day back to Portland from wherever we were, and we couldn’t rent a car, because I had no license and James was on painkillers and couldn’t drive with a broken hand. We had no way to get there, short of beaming ourselves via teleportation.
So we had to call Keith, the gay, tough, black day cook, and tell him we weren’t going to make it to work that night. He was a clean-and-sober ex-alcoholic ex-junkie who later died of AIDS (as did our favorite waiter, the tiny, doe-eyed Joey, who batted his Bambi lashes at James and swanned around the place as if he were an heiress on a cruise ship instead of a waiter schlepping heavy plates of food). Keith had tattoos from when he was in the Navy, he was covered in scars, his nose had been broken in fights, he was a battered guy who’d seen it all, and we were whining about a fucked-up transmission and a broken hand. Because of our ineptitude, he now had to work the kitchen all night alone after working there all day. He very understandably sighed and acted put-upon, but he didn’t fire us, and he didn’t get mad. He was a saint about it, and we felt like, and were, bratty little pussies.
After the van was towed away, we spent a few hours in the nearby hospital. Afterwards, James’s hand in a cast, we walked along the highway from the hospital to a convenience store and a liquor store. We holed up for the night in a motel room, eating Doritos and smoking and drinking cheap vodka with orange juice and watching TV movies. We stayed up all night; we felt too guilty about missing our shift to sleep. We called Keith at six in the morning, after we knew the rush was over and the place was empty and he was sitting around smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, and told him (our voices slurred, on the verge of alcohol-inspired tears) that we loved him. He told us to shut the fuck up and get our asses back to town, now.
We got the first bus back to Portland and went straight to Roxy Hearts, contrite and pale. We told Keith to go home, we’d finish his shift. James’s hand was broken, of course, so I did most of the cooking and let him do the set-ups and garnishes. We worked the rest of that day and all night. After we hosed down the grease-covered rubber mats, bagged and took out the trash, prepped for Keith’s shift, scrubbed the countertops and de-greased the grills, we said a bleary hello to Keith and went out into the drizzling grey early morning and walked to Pioneer Square and got a bus back to Southeast Portland.
We were feeling too sad, broken-hearted, and co-dependent to sleep by ourselves in our own apartments, so we both went to James’s, where he loaned me a pair of pajamas and a clean toothbrush. After we took showers, James pulled down his Murphy bed and made up a comfy foam pad for me on the floor. We slept all day, a whole eight-hour stretch, then woke up feeling groggy and seasick and took the bus back to Roxy Hearts to eat a big breakfast and drink as much coffee as we could before our shift.
At the end of that summer, in late August of 1987, the heretofore elusive boy I was in love with (who had just graduated, and who no doubt saw me as the perfect means to postpone having to figure out what to do with his life) and I bought a VW hatchback and put all our things in it and moved to Iowa City together.
James stayed on in Portland for a while, cooking at Roxy Hearts. He was still there when Keith and Joey died.
Meanwhile, I started my first year at the Writers’ Workshop. My boyfriend lasted until winter, and then he got fed up with me, his crappy job, the weather, and the town. He dumped me, moved back to Palo Alto, got a great job renovating someone’s house, and stole his best friend’s blonde, nineteen-year-old girlfriend. Devastated, in need of immediate distraction, I moved on to the next self-annihilating heartbreak.
Roxy Hearts Cajun omelet
Crack 3 eggs into a bowl with a dollop of cream and beat till frothy. In an omelet pan, melt a wad of butter and throw in a handful each of minced onion, red Bell pepper, and celery — sauté till soft. Sprinkle well with the Cajun seasoning you mixed earlier and threw into a shaker – paprika, dried powdered garlic, oregano, cayenne, salt, and pepper. Toss in a handful of chopped cooked shrimp and another of chopped Andouille sausage and stir and let sit on the flame another minute. Pour the beaten eggs into the pan. When they’re almost set, throw a handful of grated cheddar on top and run under a salamander to finish until brown and puffy. Plate with a spatula scoop of home fries, a sprig of parsley, and 2 pieces of buttered sourdough toast.
Gorgeous. The last one too. Love Keith. Love the part about opening the door and feeling like you’re staring into a mirror. Fantastic.
Such a great story. Beautiful.
I am in love with these posts….every single one.