By Evelyn Waugh
The three of us, myself and two friends, make our way downstairs into the dark, ambiently lit basement of Center Street’s Aura. You can’t miss it. Red light glows from the doorway. Hell? No. But somewhat inspired by it. We’re headed to Plague, Portland’s ‘goth night’—think a Renaissance fair with a…Black Death theme.
Founder Amy Black, wearing a feathered mask, works the door, taking $5 cover fees to the Midwinter Masquerade. My friends Amanda and Juniper, my ‘seasoned goths,’ lead the way.
A DREAM WITHIN A DREAM
Inside we’re greeted by a parade of corsets and full-body leather jumpsuits. Masks—black, glittery, and feathered—hide the faces of regulars. A pair of elf ears pass. It’s as if I’ve walked into Oz. We’re not in New England anymore. I spy a girl wearing a tail and another in a ball gown. Tonight’s the annual goth ball, and I’m horribly underdressed. Lucky for me, there are masks scattered around the club’s tables and bar. I choose one that suits me: dainty, blue, flowered.
Feeling out of place before, my mask eases any inhibitions. We head to the glowing, blue bar, and the cocktail selection doesn’t disappoint. I sip a Death in the Afternoon—heavy on absinthe, light on Champagne. We mingle with two women wearing cat ears and corsets. The men in kilts and tuxedos linger by the bar. Someone’s dressed in white from the tuxedo to the boots and giant feather fan—like an angel swimming in a sea of black. I’m in awe.
“We try to offer a place for those who don’t feel comfortable being themselves normally. They come out and get to be themselves, whatever that may be,” Black says. “Is Halloween your favorite holiday? Do you enjoy Poe and Beetlejuice? Are you into comics, sci-fi? Plague is all of these things.”
MORTICIA’S NEW GROOVE
Am I brave enough to industrial dance sober? The world may never know. We finish our drinks and hit the floor. It’s a specific style, goth dancing, one that typically involves lots of arm movement. Add in a few hand twirls and a kick every now and then (used sparingly), and you’re off. If all else fails, just do what everyone else is doing.
I’m swallowed by twirls and stomps. “Is this Tool?” Amanda asks, bewildered that the 1990s alternative band would be playing. “It’s like Tool but sexy!” A woman in full leather and high platform boots with blunt bangs and winged eyeliner dances by herself. She’s killing it. The music is eclectic—Joy Division, Florence and the Machine, White Stripes, Echo and the Bunnymen.
We find ourselves dancing well past midnight. Turns out, sober or not, I’m a natural. Because after all, the real secret to dancing like a goth is to go to the club and dance. And you can. Every Friday at Aura.
Flask, the brick staple of Spring Street and one of the most welcoming bars you’ll find in town, is home to Monday of the Minds. Zachary Mullin, better known as rapper Stay on Mars, started the weekly “community hip hop showcase” in 2015. “People need interaction,” Mullin says. “Minds isn’t just going out to a concert to see an artist. It’s going out to hang with friends and see hip hop.”
The vibe at Minds feels like a party of old friends. The regulars are welcoming and the newbies encouraged. From spoken word to poetry, even modern dance, Mullin has created an outlet artists as far as California and Seattle seek. “It’s a growing city and very diverse compared to ten years ago,” Mullin says. “It needed to happen. We bring in a lot of touring acts, people from all over the country.”
There’s no stage at Minds. We stand in the “pit” with the artists, the bar and tables behind us. I’m sipping a gin and ginger as Viva of Viva and the Reinforcements beckons us in. “Closer, closer,” she says. The boldest squeeze to the front. I’m eye-to-eye with open-mic performers, who signed up only hours before. They rap about their lives—the losses, the wins, economic oppression, drug abuse, mental illness. The pursuit of their dreams.
After the open mic, Christina Richardson, local community organizer, leads us in a universal clap. She counts, “one, two, three,” and the bar claps in unison. It thuds somewhere deep in your chest—that place where bass reverberates, where feeling happens.
“First with power,” she says.
“One, two, three, power.”
“Now with equity.
“One, two, three, equity.”
The DJ puts on a “throwback beat” I don’t recognize, but the whole bar starts moving.
Over a beer, I talk with a fashionable woman in blue eyeshadow with a pierced cupid’s bow. She’s here to support her “maybe boyfriend.” Ah, the maybe. Dating limbo. I don’t miss it. “Tonight’s awkward,” she tells me. “I can’t dance as well as him.”
He happens to be one of the rappers and kicks off a freestyle cypher, on-the-spot rhymes that come straight “from the top of the dome,” as Mullin says.
“The good old days are long gone, they say,” starts the rap. He’s critical of our culture’s tendency to retreat into nostalgia, but I’m struck by the clarity of his optimism. “He seems nice,” I tell his date before heading out.
It’s nearly midnight, and the beat is still strong. I carry it with me up Spring Street, brimming with energy. Portland’s beat is one fueled by the people that can hear it and feel it, the people keeping the collective tempo while adding notes of their own. Different looks, tastes, scenes, and cultures merge each day into the city’s cypher.