Portland at All Hours

This city works around the clock, in ways you never imagined.
Perlia Bell (right) hugs a homeless woman after delivering her a bag of hygienic supplies in downtown Portland.PHOTOGRAPHED BY Justin Katigbak

Portlanders live and work in places you often don’t find in a headline.

This city makes plenty of news. Its politics are polarized, its protests are violent, and some of its institutions are broken. It’s easy to be swept up in a torrent of alarming events—police scandals, brothel busts, a measles revival, or even the threat of a snowstorm.

Yet the strongest currents of this city cannot be found trending on Twitter. Each day, Portlanders rise—often well before dawn—and squeeze their way into traffic, buses and trains. They work. They shop. They play and compete. And they give, generously, to each other.

Late last year, WW began planning an unusual project. We sent out photographers and reporters to find a dozen snapshots of Portland life over the course of a single week.

We got up early. We stayed up late. Below, you'll see who we found.

You’ll meet the doctors trying to stop the next disease outbreak before it starts. The police officer who tracks down your stolen bicycle. The basketball coach who turned around a lost program. A diner where (thank goodness) nobody knows your name. And a woman who briefly halted her mission to bring socks and sleeping bags to people living outside—because she found someone with an even greater need.

None of these people are famous. Instead, they are your neighbors, quietly contributing to the character of Portland.

Their stories show how much we rely on each other to make it through a day.

The nonprofit WW Fund for Investigative Journalism provided support for this photo essay.

Aaron Lewis says he’s used drugs since age 15 but has never experienced anything like Portland before.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY laurel kadas
6:55 AM
Feb. 15

Hooper Detox Center, North Portland

One man arrives wrapped in a damp sleeping bag. Another exits a taxi. Still others, seeing the “No Smoking” sign beside the door, drift to the corner of Northeast Broadway to smoke and wait for the 7:30 am intake to begin.

They are arriving at Hooper Detox Center hoping to kick their habits.

Hooper sits in the shadow of Moda Center, sandwiched between Interstate 5 and North Weidler Street. The five-story building, once a hotel, is now owned by the nonprofit Central City Concern. At Hooper, Central City helps people with substance-use disorders begin to get clean through short stays.

Oregon has the fourth-highest rate of people with substance-use disorders in the nation: Almost 10 percent of the state’s population is addicted to drugs or alcohol, according to federal figures. Yet Oregonians’ access to treatment for their addictions regularly ranks near the worst in the nation. That means facilities such as Hooper always have long waiting lists. About 2,000 people spend four to 10 days in Hooper’s detox beds each year.

Aaron Lewis, 36, aims to be one of them. Lewis smokes nervously at the corner of North Williams Avenue and Weidler as he waits for intake to begin. He has bright red hair and a new black winter jacket, still dry and puffy.

Lewis moved to Portland from Winston-Salem, N.C., a year ago.

“I came for the adventure,” he says. But mostly what he found was plentiful drugs, especially heroin and methamphetamine. “Out here, there’s a lot more needle use, and it’s a lot more out in the open,” Lewis says. “And the drugs are a lot cheaper.”

Lewis says he’s making his first trip to Hooper because he wants to get away from the crowd he met in Portland. They all use drugs regularly.

“If I don’t get in,” Lewis says, “I’ll probably die.”

Lisa Delgaudio talks to a customer at Tender Loving Empire’s PDX outpost.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY justin katigbak
7:33 AM
Feb. 11

Portland International Airport, Northeast Portland

Lisa Delgaudio woke at 3:30 am, riding her bike to a MAX station to arrive at the airport an hour later.

“It’s sort of the lullaby hour, and if I can help people start their day in a positive way, then I’m really content,” she says. “It’s very intimate in the morning.”

Delgaudio is a sales associate at Tender Loving Empire, an indie record label and gift shop that for two years has been selling Oregon-themed shirts, craft beer, and $18 cotton balls in Terminal C.

But she’s also a kind of therapist for travelers.

She says customers often cry to her in the morning if they’re having a rough day, something she credits to her former career as a hospice nurse. Just last week, a regular customer opened up about her upcoming kidney transplant.

“It’s those kind of conversations that happen in a split second, when you know people trust you,” Delgaudio says. “I refuse to not be there for people.”

A personal touch is unusual at an airport. Yet the Portland International Airport, where 64,000 people pass through on a busy day, prides itself on the local and small-scale: 33 of its 54 vendors are local, and they’re required by airport policy to sell goods at their normal price without gouging travelers.

One of those customers is Harrison Oakes. He wants to get back home to Ontario, Canada, but his flight last night was delayed a day due to icy weather.

He picks up one of several dog-centric illustrated books—for adults—and tucks it under his right arm. He almost bought the book Sad Animal Babies but decided on a more uplifting one called Really Important Stuff My Dog Has Taught Me.

“I’ve been leafing through it,” Oakes says, “and there are already three pages that almost made my cry, so I have to have this.”

At the checkout counter, sales associate Jess Lai asks to see a picture of his dog. “Her name is Zara,” Oakes says proudly, as he flashes an indiscernible picture of brown fur to Jess.

Oakes heads back toward his gate—and Zara—as store workers call after him with a flurry of farewells.

Justin Garrity monitors Tesla social media engagement in Sprinklr’s control room.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY sage brown
9:49 AM
Feb. 13

Telegram Building, Southwest Portland

Justin Garrity doesn’t know whether McDonald’s adding bacon to its classic burger is a good idea.

Yet Garrity, 45, smiles in satisfaction, watching on his laptop as electronic billboards in New York’s Times Square go live with customers’ reactions to the bacon gambit.

Garrity sits in the hushed downtown offices of tech firm Sprinklr, surrounded by a coterie of mostly men, all of them peering intently at large Apple monitors.

Garrity could be in New York, Austin or any of Sprinklr’s 10 foreign offices, doing exactly what he’s doing. His industry, applied software, is growing fast—state economists expect it will expand by a third in Oregon, mostly in Portland, in the next decade.

Workers like Garrity ply their trades across the country and around the world without leaving town. He and his crew at an earlier Portland company, Storycode, stuck together when it got acquired by Postano, which then got acquired by Sprinklr. No need for them to leave Portland—companies come to the talent.

Sprinklr, based in New York, creates software that allows its customers, mostly large companies with a heavy retail focus, to manage and benefit from social media. It writes software that permits real-time interaction with big screens in public places, and it also builds “control rooms” so clients’ marketing teams can monitor and make money on social media activity.

Starting in December, Garrity and colleagues from other Sprinklr offices across the country worked with McDonald’s and an electronic billboard company in Manhattan to make sure the Times Square billboards could seamlessly reflect the Feb. 13 consumer buzz about McDonald’s bacon bonanza.

“The last thing you want,” he says, “whether it’s a video screen at a concert with 50,000 fans or a store opening, is a screen that says ‘cannot connect.’”

Making sure the social media responses gleaned from more than 20 platforms show up instantaneously is Sprinklr’s niche. It’s like producing a live play onscreen rather than showing a video that’s been carefully edited and produced over a period of months.

As the billboards go live, the votes pour in from Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms: Yes to bacon!

Garrity makes sure the Time Square billboards are updating, displaying results in a high-quality image and delivering what McDonald’s wants. He then shifts his attention to another project: the opening of a Michael Kors store, also in New York.

“There’s a little bit of excitement when a project goes live,” Garrity says. “The relief only happens when it’s all over.”

Jose Ramos (left) receives a round of vaccines from a Multnomah County nurse.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY Henry Cromett
10:39 AM
Feb. 16

David Douglas High School, Southeast Portland

Enedina Ramos believes in vaccinations. She just couldn’t get a day off work at Lowe’s for her kids’ shots.

So Ramos finds herself at a vaccination clinic, sitting in a high school boardroom with her three kids, Nicholas, Genesis and Jose on a rainy Saturday morning. If Jose, a smiling 6-year-old with a fondness for dodge ball, doesn’t get his first round of school-required vaccines in the next four days, he’ll be forced to stay home.

“Attendance is a big thing for us,” says Ramos. “I don’t want him to have to miss a day.”

The measles outbreak ripping through Vancouver, Wash., and seeping into the Portland area has called attention to parents who won’t immunize their kids. The virus, which has nearly been eradicated by vaccine in the U.S., has infected more than 60 children, most of whom were unvaccinated. The Multnomah County vaccination rate is 87 percent—not enough to assure “herd immunity” from measles.

The outbreak has inspired state Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) to propose legislation that would do away with personal and religious exemptions from required vaccines. That would force vaccine-resistant parents to choose between getting their kids immunized or pulling them out of school and day care.

Kids like those getting vaccinated in East Portland will almost certainly be immune to the measles—two doses of the vaccine are 97 percent effective. Yet the waiting area of the clinic isn’t packed with the ideologically reluctant. Instead, it full of parents like Ramos, who couldn’t get a day off at work at Lowe’s to take her kids to the doctor on a weekday.

“With the measles outbreak going on, there’s a lot of talk about parents who don’t vaccinate, but they are truly in the minority,” says Dr. Jennifer Vines, deputy health officer for Multnomah County. “Most parents vaccinate and feel good about doing that.”

In a backroom, a team of nurses administers shots to child after child. A few cry but most suffer through the experience quietly.

Jose sits calmly in a chair as a nurse rolls up the sleeve of his Trail Blazers shirt and pokes his arm with three needles. As soon as the last Band-Aid is applied, he bounds to a table scattered with stickers for the kids getting shots. He picks one featuring Spider-Man.

Napoleon the alpaca takes a carrot from a new friend.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY justin katigbak
12:10 PM
Feb. 12

Laurel Parc at Bethany Village, Northwest Portland

Nine-year-old Napoleon enters Laurel Parc dressed in his best Valentine’s Day outfit. He’s wearing twin hearts above his ears, a garland of roses on his neck, and a red sash reading, “BE MINE.”

His arrival at Laurel Parc is greeted with the buzz of any celebrity visit.

“He is beautiful,” an admirer coos.

“Can I give him a kiss?”

“Can I feed him?!”

“Napoleon’s fur is so beautiful and soft!”

By now, the legend of Portland’s therapy llamas and alpacas (Napoleon is one of the latter) is cemented in civic history. They can be found at festivals, at weddings, in dive bars—always contentedly humming, perfectly implacable. In a place that adores animals—the most recent demographic findings by the American Veterinary Medical Association, in 2012, show 63.6 percent of Oregonians own a pet, the fourth-highest rate in the nation—Napoleon and his stablemate, Rojo the Therapy Llama, can sometimes seem like affectations.

But their core purpose has always been right in the name: They are therapeutic, bringing peace to people who couldn’t care less if they’re cool. The Peruvian creatures made 250 public appearances last year, often to places where people feel lonely: schools, college dorms, and nursing homes.

“We’ll have really unresponsive people in hospice, and when the llama kisses them, a smile comes across their face,” says Shannon Joy, vice president of Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, which is actually based not in Portland but in Ridgefield, Wash. “Maybe they haven’t spoken in a long time, or are antisocial. But it’s hard to not have questions when you see a llama dressed up in a Valentine’s Day costume.”

Word of Napoleon’s visit spreads quickly in the halls of Laurel Parc, an assisted living facility nestled where Portland’s West Hills descend into Washington County.

Residents trickle into the dining room. They line up to feed Napoleon carrots. He takes them from their mouths, as if offering a kiss. No one wants to leave. They cannot stop laughing.

Portland Police Officer Dave Sanders (left) encounters a campfire near the Eastbank Esplanade.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY henry cromett
1:01 PM
Feb. 8

Burnside Bridge, Southwest Portland

Dave Sanders knows where to find a hot bicycle. He starts by looking under the west end of the Burnside Bridge.

“It’s a den of thieves,” Sanders says.

For the past seven years, Sanders, a Portland police officer, has been a member of the bureau’s Bike Patrol unit. The assignment, he says, is “coveted by few.” He loves it.

Portland is a bike-friendly city. The burden of keeping it that way falls in part on Sanders, who tries to return some of the 3,000 bikes reported stolen in Portland each year, according to the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Near the Skidmore Fountain MAX station, Sanders eyes a bike with sloppy spray paint concealing the logo. He walks up and flips it to check its serial number. The bundled man sleeping near the bike wakes up as Sanders approaches. He just bought it on the street for cheap, he tells Sanders. He and Sanders agree it was probably stolen and that Sanders can take it back to the office to try and find its owner.

“Hey, that’s my bike!” a group of men dressed in tattered clothing yell mockingly as Sanders and his partner ride past on their 2018 Marin mountain bikes. Sanders says it’s a common joke from bike thieves—they yell it at him every day.

About a third of Sanders’ eight-hour shift is spent looking for bicycles. The rest of the time he enforces “order” on downtown streets—rousting campers and dousing trash-bin fires. But his passion, he says, is spotting bicycle thieves.

Off the Eastbank Esplanade, Sanders and his partner encounter a man they call Jon-Jon, who they say is a known bike trafficker. Jon-Jon is friendly, unsurprised by Sanders’ visit. After some conversation, Sanders confiscates a nice-looking Schwinn road bike on suspicion it’s stolen. Jon-Jon swears he doesn’t know whose bike it is.

Sanders says few Portland riders register their bikes or report them missing, making it difficult to prove bikes located by officers are stolen. Sanders stresses that registering your bike is quick, easy and the most important thing you can do to help combat bike theft. He brags Portland has one of the highest success rates for bike returns: three-quarters of recovered bikes make it back to their owners. But in a small, unmarked office downtown, a room remains full of recovered bikes waiting to be claimed.

Portland park ranger supervisor Vicente Harrison watches geese fly above Cully Park.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY laurel kadas
1:30 PM
Feb. 13

Cully Park, Northeast Portland

Vicente Harrison loves birds. He even keeps photos of bald eagles on his phone. But now it’s his grim duty to dispose of a dead cackling goose.

The bird shares the same black and brown markings as the better-known Canada goose, but it’s smaller. It’s lying with its neck curved at an unnatural angle on a small snowdrift. Harrison manages security for Portland Parks & Recreation, overseeing 25 rangers that patrol 200 city parks, as well as roughly a dozen more who join them during the busy summer months. Their territory has expanded: The parks bureau has developed or acquired 124 acres to open six new parks and a public golf course in the past seven years, most of them on the underserved, eastern fringes of Portland.

In these places, park rangers enforce rules both small—no smoking, keep dogs on leashes—and more fraught: keeping homeless campers out of parks. Camping-related complaints have been a growing part of rangers’ work. In 2017-18, there were 3,691 calls to the parks bureau related to camping, up from 841 three years before that.

Harrison and Ranger Kayla Miles have come to Cully Park in part due to complaints about campers. After more than a week of cold weather, they find the park all but abandoned, except for hundreds of geese feasting on the grass.

Snapping on royal-blue plastic gloves, Harrison walks to the edge of the playground, where Miles has spotted the dead goose. The first step is to see if the goose shows obvious signs of harm. They’ll call in the Audubon Society or DoveLewis Animal Hospital if they do.

“All right, little guy,” says Harrison as he lifts the right wing of the bird to inspect the underside. The body is completely intact. “No trauma at all.”

“He looks just frozen,” says Miles.

They lift the bird into a white trash bag that contains one piece of litter (a Venti-size Starbucks cup) collected as they crossed the playground.

Harrison knots the top of the plastic bag and throws it out on the far side of the parking lot away from the playground. They’ll call parks sanitation workers to collect it.

“He had a good life,” Harrison says.

“Hopefully,” adds Miles.

Cedric Barrett pilots Shaver Transportation Co.’s tugboat Chinook.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY justin katigbak
3:10 PM
Feb. 13

Willamette River, Northwest Portland

Cedric Barrett carefully reverses the tugboat Chinook out of its berth, churning the swollen, cappuccino-colored Willamette River as he steers into the shipping channel.

Barrett, 33, a graduate of Portland’s Benson High, has worked on the river for five years for Shaver Transportation Co., a sixth-generation, family-owned business founded in 1880.

Tugboats are an essential part of marine commerce in Portland. Each year, about 1,500 ships enter the Columbia River system from the Pacific Ocean. Many dock in Portland, the country’s largest exporter of wheat and a leading import center for foreign automobiles. Like other Shaver tugboat captains, Barrett, a graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy, spends about half his time guiding ships into berths: On any given day, he might bounce from vessels arriving at Longview, Kalama and Vancouver, Wash., to 700-foot grain ships docking in the tight confines of the grain terminals in downtown Portland.

It takes two tugs to push a ship into its berth, one at each end. The tugboat captains take their orders from a river pilot aboard the ship. The squat, highly maneuverable tugs nudge the ships into place so they can tie up and unload or take on cargo. When he’s not docking ships, Barrett may be called on to push barges full of wheat down the Columbia from as far away as Lewiston, Idaho. Shaver deploys 15 tugs and owns 20 barges.

On this February day, the weather is calm. But Columbia Gorge winds can whip the river into a frenzy. Barrett says the tensest moment of his career came when he steered a procession of wheat barges 650 feet long and 84 feet wide through the John Day Dam locks in 85 mph winds.

“When you start out, pretty much everything is scary,” Barrett says.

Tugboat captains, who can make more than $100,000 a year, are stars of the Portland harbor trade. But Barrett and his colleagues depend heavily on the work of marine mechanics like Nick Walsh. As Barrett returns the 77-foot Chinook to its berth, Walsh, 23, crouches in the bowels of another tug, the Lassen, installing new engines.

When he graduated from De LaSalle North Catholic High School in Kenton five years ago, Walsh says he knew only that he didn’t want to go to college. He made sandwiches at Subway and worked in an insurance office before a friend told him Shaver was hiring.

Now he knows how to weld, do basic electric work and perform much of the installation of the Lassen’s new $500,000 engines. “When I started here,” Walsh says, “I didn’t know how to change the oil in my car.”

Perlia Bell delivers tarps, gloves and a sleeping bag to van campers. “We need to do what we can for each other,” she says.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY justin katigbak
4:45 PM
Feb. 15

Industrial District, Northwest Portland

Perlia Bell started the night with two dozen sleeping bags. She has just 10 left when she reaches the Big Underground.

That’s what Bell calls the echoing, concrete chambers under the Burnside Bridge, one of the places she knows homeless campers will be taking shelter from the rain. The space below the Broadway Bridge? That’s the Little Underground.

Bell, 56, keeps this private geography in her head as she drives a long white van to hidden corners of the city four nights a week, delivering outdoor gear to people sleeping on the streets.

She starts in the Northwest Industrial District. “Anybody home?” she calls, peering in the doors of a neighborhood of vans parked end to end near the Powell’s warehouse. “Do you need blankets, gloves, socks, sleeping bags, tarps?” she recites.

“Anything you need. A care package.”

Portland’s homelessness epidemic has never been more visible or vexing. Oregon has the nation’s second-highest rate of unsheltered people, and 911 calls about what police term “unwanted persons” have increased 60 percent in the past five years.

Yet this city also has a volunteer army improvising defenses against the damp and cold. Bell, an outreach worker for the housing nonprofit JOIN, may be its greatest field general. She estimates she’s delivered blankets since 1995, when her friends teased her for giving money to a panhandler near the Rose Festival midway. “Somebody had to be there for somebody,” she recalls. “I didn’t know it was going to be me.”

“We are out of socks,” announces her delivery partner, Imaan Adil, at 5:30 pm, barely an hour into their rounds.

“Already?”

“We had five packs, I think.”

Wherever she stops the van, Bell soon finds herself surrounded by people looking for warmth or food. In three hours, she raises her voice only once, when a man in a cowboy hat briefly catches fire. (He stubbed out a cigarette on his jeans.)

The shift ends when the sleeping bags run out. Tonight, that’s at 6:30 pm along Southwest 1st Avenue. But then a silver-haired woman walks up to the van and announces she needs help. She has pneumonia, she says, and every time she coughs she loses control of her bladder. Bell makes a Rite-Aid run, picks up a box of Depends, and returns to the downtown parking lot to find the woman waiting. They embrace.

“At night,” Bell says at the van’s wheel, “you go to sleep thinking you changed someone’s life.” But then she gazes onto the streets of Old Town, where people are huddled in the warmth she delivered. “I don’t know,” she says, “that this was intended to be this way.”

Benson Polytechnic High School girls’ basketball coach Eric Knox rallies his squad during a game against Roosevelt High.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY sage brown
6:27 PM
Feb. 8

Benson Polytechnic High School gym, Northeast Portland

Eric Knox looks at the ascension of Benson girls’ basketball and sees a miracle.

When Knox, 53, signed on as the Benson Polytechnic High School girls’ basketball coach six years ago, the team was on a shortlist of squads local sports reporters argued should be shown the “mercy rule”—speeding up the game when one team is losing badly.

“We got beat six times by 60 points,” Knox says.

Benson is now the top-ranked 6A girls’ basketball team in the state. This season, the Techsters are undefeated. In a city often derided for its homogeneity, school sports can provide a road map—and a role model—for achieving greater equality.

“To think that a girls’ basketball program, and a black girls’ basketball program, in what’s coined the whitest city in America, to have this kind of beautiful blackness—[it shows] that black girls’ basketball can be played at a high level in this state,” Knox says.

Knox, who moved from South Central L.A. to Oregon State University in 1984 on a basketball scholarship, is more than a coach. He’s a youth pastor at Imago Dei Community and a mentor in nonprofits focused on kids of color. In Knox’s huddle sermons, the court often becomes a metaphor for life.

“Tonight, you should beat Roosevelt,” he says before a Friday night game. “But most importantly, you should love the grind of beating Roosevelt. Hoop will end. You’ll get old like me. But now it’s just about loving life, the grind of life, the process of life. Tonight, that’s what I want us to do. Because you won’t have it tomorrow. Tomorrow’s not a promise. Life is but a vapor.”

Beat Roosevelt the team does—46 to 24. It’s an easy win against the fourth-ranked 6A team in Oregon. Now it’s other teams who need a mercy rule. And the Benson girls have become something larger.

“We’re living in a moment that historically doesn’t happen for African-American girls,” Knox says. “At the state tournament, to see so many black and brown grade and middle school girls hover around the door just to watch black girls that look like them take the court, you know, that’s a proud moment for me. That is my state championship.”

Tomas Peralta (center) leads Clan Macleay Pipes and Drums practice in Tigard.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY Laurel Kadas
8:24 PM
Feb. 12

Calvin Presbyterian Church, Tigard

Screeches rise from the sanctuary. The Clan Macleay Pipes and Drums tune up to begin their weekly bagpipe practice.

Bagpipes are temperamental. A bagpipe may stay in tune for as few as 10 minutes. The members of the band scatter across the aisles alone or in pairs to warm up their instruments. Eventually, a unified note begins to emerge.

The band performs at the Oregon Pipers Society on Saturday, and has a reputation to uphold. The Clan Macleay Pipes and Drums started shortly after World War I and is one of the oldest continually performing bagpipe bands in North America.

“The legacy and camaraderie is part of what did draw me initially,” says pipe major Tomas Peralta, who’s led the band for a year and a half, “and what keeps me coming back.”

Portland is a town with a reputation for eccentricity. But for many in its niche subcultures, finding a fellow oddball can feel like a homecoming. That’s true in the city’s hipper districts—and here at this church in Tigard.

The group circles up by the altar. Peralta stands in the center and the 13 pipers surround him in a semicircle. He stomps to keep time. Peralta hums a few bars of “Steamboat” as the band gears up to begin. An untimely squeak escapes from one of the players a moment too early and the whole group groans.

After a couple of songs, the pipes are joined by the drums, who have been practicing in an adjacent room, to rehearse songs for an upcoming performance. Behind the altar, four women with colored drumsticks topped with pompoms twirl their sticks in unison.

Pace is a problem. Peralta expresses the need to “keep it more sprightly.” Fingers are pointed toward the drum line. “There’s plenty of room under the bus for everyone,” a drummer quips back.

Then it’s time for another tradition: the post-practice beer at McMenamins.

Lee Taylor (left) and Ferrell Black come to the 24 Hour Hotcake House for the comforts of fluorescent lighting, watery coffee and greasy diner food.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY sam gehrke
3:45 AM
Feb. 15

24 Hour Hotcake House, Southeast Portland

Love is rarely in the air this late at the Original Hotcake House, the glowing, neon-yellow diner just over the east end of the Ross Island Bridge. It’s one of Portland’s few 24-hour businesses—it only closes two days a year, on Thanksgiving and Christmas. In a city that, unlike others of its size, mostly shuts down at 2 am, the restaurant is a beacon for heavy-lidded night owls not yet ready to submit to their beds. But it is not what you might call a “date spot.” At this hour, its main function is as a way station for evicted bar-goers hoping to sop up some of the hangover awaiting them in the morning.

But for Lee Taylor and Ferrell Black of Scappoose, the Hotcake House is their place.

The couple, together for 13 years, started this Valentine’s Day at Ilani Casino in Ridgefield, Wash., arriving with $90 in credits and walking out with $600. So they decided to celebrate, driving 30 miles for a plate of corned-beef hash and chicken fried steak. Taylor, 57, has been coming here regularly for three decades. As a musician who’s played just about everywhere in town—“from the Coliseum to the smallest shithole,” he says—it was often the only option for a post-gig meal not handed through a drive-thru window. People assume the worst of any place that picks up where the bars leave off, and regulars like Taylor admit they’ve seen some crazy stuff—brawls in the parking lot, oral sex in the corner booths. But servers insist the graveyard shift isn’t nearly as action-packed as you’d imagine.

“You have to cater to the drunks,” says Carl, who’s worked at the Hotcake House on and off for seven years. “The crazy ones, once you give them the food, they’ll settle down.”

Who knows? Maybe one day, you’ll stagger in sometime after 2 am, and stumble straight into the Hotcake House’s occasional wedding reception. But it won’t be for Taylor and Black.

“We believe in marriage,” Taylor says. “We just don’t believe in
 paperwork.”

News Editor Aaron Mesh
Creative Director Kat Topaz
Web Editor Elise Herron
Web Developer Keith Rodri
The nonprofit WW Fund for Investigative Journalism provided support for this photo essay.