BILLY RAY'S NEIGHBORHOOD DIVE has the antidote for your New Portland Blues. People have been using the long, skinny two-story building at NE MLK and Thompson as a springboard for bad decisions for at least seven decades.
In '47, two men hailed a Broadway Cab outside its doors, produced a revolver and submachine gun, and forced the young driver to whisk them to the hinterlands of SE 145th and Foster. They argued—drunkenly—about who should tie up the cabbie. They fled with the cab.
In '54, when it was knows as the Montana Tavern, two burglars looted the bar of 30 packs of smokes and an unknown amount of change.
When I lived around the corner, some 60 years later, the errors in judgment were less dramatic, but nonetheless pronounced. Bloody red, its sign—"Tavern"—blinking unfaltering into the night (unless the bartender on duty forgot to turn it on), Billy Ray's became that ideal I'd sought in every other city I'd lived in: the friendly, cheap, dingy corner bar.
Over three years of regular Rainier intake ($2 a pop), I'd rhapsodize with one bartender about our shared Midwestern upbringing, and go to see another's band play on New Year's. I'd bring my now-fiancée there on an early date and carefully gauge her reaction to the pleasant squalor. I'd seek sanctuary there, on those blazing summer afternoons when I had nothing to do, and no compunction about doing nothing.
Billy Ray's has occupied that long, skinny building only since around the turn of the millennium, an unfamiliar bartender told me when I revisited recently, but the ghosts of those past dives—of Marv's, and the Montana, and who knows how many others—still clatter their empty mugs against the copper bar top. For me, it is the Portland dive bar. You're allowed to disagree. We all have our own Portland.
On that recent visit, lots had changed (I moved in 2014, and now have a new, lesser corner bar). Ratty booths and cheap wire shelving have given way to sleeker tables and a fancy mirror behind the bar. There are Edison bulbs now, of course. The TVs are better.
But nothing important was different. B. Ray's is still maddeningly, charmingly a cash-only establishment that refuses to serve decent food (take your pick from an assortment of TV dinners, peanuts, or chips), although they welcome any outside fare you might bring in. The Medieval Madness pinball table upstairs is still somehow working. The re-entry policy—"You may re-enter Billy Ray's once per day"—is still in force, and "Surfin' Bird" is still on the jukebox. The smell of stale beer still hits you well before you walk in.
Most important, evenings at Billy Ray's still follow that necessary and familiar trajectory: A sullen silence between lone strangers gives way, eventually, to grudging musings over some shared observations, then, further, to comfortable and beer-soaked chatter.
This is what dive bars are for, and Billy Ray's is a hell of a dive.