On an otherwise dull Tuesday, while the rest of Portland is at home watching screens, Rainbow City hosts Sword Society.
Here, weapon nerds hold light-saber duels, only with the grunts and impact sounds drowned out by dance music. Sunday is spiritual night. Mass, hosted by DJ Antichrist, is a goth night with a drag show and dark vibe, which alternates weekly with Sacred Seshes, where belly dancers, tarot readers, "light workers" and "starseeds" take over. Other nights host hip-hop shows, African music, arts and crafts nights, ecstatic dance, hula hooping, or whatever a promoter can persuade the club owner Strawberry Pickle is a good time.
Rainbow City, the all-ages nightclub behind Hippo Hardware on East Burnside Street, has emerged as one bright feature from the dark-cloud misery of 2020. There's a lot going on at this former truck garage/pinball workshop. The aesthetic is black light-friendly maximalism, with street art, hippie surrealism and horse and unicorn installations competing for space with curious vending machines, handmade merch and few seats.
The patio/parking lot and food truck mean it can host 125 people, although no one is running around with a clicker. Now that COVID masks are optional inside for the vaccinated, Portlanders can close talk with a stranger, or dance with them, without fear.
This being America, Rainbow Cityalso is a church, and owner-operator Pickle (she changed her name from Sheridan Rolland) recently performed her first wedding there. But she's not about pushing religion, unless her religion is play.
Strong festival vibe
Pickle's nickname came from a friend who loved "The Simpsons," and it stuck through all her years of going to Coachella, the music festival in California. She's a music producer, painter and ran a preschool for seven years, which explains her free-form taste in art.
The Inkbus, a school bus that houses a mobile tattoo studio, often is in the courtyard. Its owner Mark Dugally also runs a sub-gallery inside Rainbow City. Right now there are shoes turned into mouths with horrific resin tongues and yellow teeth, as well as laser-cut mandalas and trippy tiger heads.
At a recent Sword Society, Adrienne Derryberry brought her twin boys, Maxwell and Jubal, both light-saber nuts, and watched as the adults battled them kindly. Derryberry has known DJs Bobby Bluefoot and Jersey Girl since their wilder days at Burning Man, the festival in the Nevada desert, and is all about exposing the kids to alternative culture.
"I used to steal my mom's car and drive to Portland to the City Nightclub," Derryberry says with a laugh, now in a sensible coat and clutching her car keys.
The heyday of Portland indie nightlife looms large in Pickle's imagination, too.
"The reason for all the art is I grew up in Portland going to places like the City Nightclub, X-ray Cafe, and Big Bang Warehouse, places where you could hang out and just totally be yourself. I used to take the bus downtown and stay out all night, catch a dollar punk show or get super cool secondhand clothes. So I wanted to create a place where it would recapture all of those because, over time, a lot of those places have just disappeared."
She means business: she sold her house in Hillsboro to fund Rainbow City. The first thing she bought was a huge fiberglass triceratops from a theme park supplier in Texas, which she splattered with paint and glitter.
It wasn't until the owner of the CyberCat Cafe food cart quit and she took it over, devising vegan menu items such as Hater Tots, Haterade (salty strawberry lemonade) and fried PBJ sandwiches, that she broke even. There's a constant flow of Grubhub orders from people at home.
Vin Eden met Strawberry Pickle at Rainbow City in 2020. Later, he convinced her to let him start a fight club with light sabers. Standing outside the club last week with his $139 katana, Eden was pestered by the 6-year-olds to fight them until he stopped talking to adults and relented.
"The fighting's pretty hard, we're really into swords," Eden said. "There's drum and bass, and sometimes techno, it's really danceable." He said it's not like a nightclub because no one's getting drunk and they can ignore licensing hours. "You get to know people in a different way. The average quality of person hanging out is really cool. People are dressed up and they're really creative. I'm like 'Wow, everyone in this room is so cool,' and that's rare."
Pickle's father, Steve Rolland, also showed up to help out. He's a massage therapist and martial arts teacher who taught each of his seven kids to defend themselves. He notes that many of the swordsmen are handy martial artists.
Pickle says that on a typical weekend night the place is filled with teens dancing in COVID masks and a lot of others in costume or dressed up.
"We started out with some slower bass music, now we're starting to hype it up a bit," said DJ Bluefoot, of his first time performing at Rainbow City. He grew up in Sherwood and hung out at people's houses and the skate park. By day he's a carpenter on historic homes. "I love it. It's a great pace to hang out and be safe. Bring your kids. Buy some art."
Consider the Rainbow
Standing in one corner was OG Jonah (@OGJonah_) from Edmonton, Canada. He's a rapper who owns a label and an event company. He's been touring the United States while Canadian nightlife has been shut down. He promoted a night called Neon Night at Rainbow City with 125 people, and he came back for Sword Society with his Portland cousin, the singer Swego (@PrinceofPtown) who introduced him to the place.
"This was one of the only places we could get a show in Portland," OG Jonah said. "Everything's closed!" He said his audience is normally a young, Black urban crowd, not white hippies or "Star Wars" nerds, but still loves the vibe. With his gold teeth and immaculate clothes OG Jonah stood out, but fit in. He and his cousin were there promoting a night called AfroKingdom, with singer Heyden Adama from Sierra Leone.
Is it worth it for just 125 people? "It is, because we're able to bring people out of their house to experience a great show and meet new people. And the artists haven't performed for so long," he said.
Portland has been deadly quiet for a year now, especially for teens, who have few public places to hang out and have fun. Rainbow City feels like the opposite of the online world of comments and social media, where us-versus-them is the default and shaming, snitching and dragging pass for wit.
Strawberry Pickle's art space/club stands for the kind of radical self-acceptance, and acceptance of others, that made Portland a beacon over the past 50 years. A beacon not just for freaks, but for the many more people who like to be around them.
"I believe that everyone should be kept in a constant state of flow," said Pickles, talking about the importance of play. "And flow is doing something that you love, it's where you get in the zone. A lot of creators will come here and stay in flow for hours, anything to get people in that higher vibration. And when they're interacting with the rest of the community, it spreads."
Where: 21 S.E. 11th Ave., Portland