Fishing in Public

by “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley

Mellen Street Memories, Part III

How ya doin’ folks? Summer’s finally here — a cause to pause and rejoice in this damned state.

This is the third and final part of my tour of Portland’s most notorious street, so without further ado, welcome to Serenity House, a halfway house for recovering addicts. I’ve never stayed there myself, but all my memories of the place are good ones. It’s a peaceful building these days, just like the name says: serene.

The vacant parking lot across the street was once the site of the house of Maine Gov. Percival Baxter. That’s way too far back for my recollection. Next to that is the corner where I started delivering newspapers as a young’un. Oh boy — great fun! Five a.m. on winter mornings in a snowstorm. That was the early ’60s, when Mellen was still a normal, everyday street. It’s almost like that again now.

I got to know the last two houses on our tour because of that paper route. Nice places — they could almost be considered estates. I had a transistor radio back then, so I could listen to all the rock ’n’ roll I wanted whilst bringing the morning news. Things were changing so fast in those days — not just music, but women’s lib, sexual freedom. Seems like all those changes converged in Parkside. Sadly, some folks were slower than others to catch up — mainly the cops.

Now zip up to the ’80s and the last place on Mellen before it hits Congress. It wasn’t a house but a wall, a wall that became the most infamous spot on the whole street because that’s where the hookers would gather. Why there? Well, once again, it was the phones. Right around the corner, adjacent to what is now Rite Aid, stood a couple of very handy phone booths. The girls made use of them day and night, whenever they needed to “reach out and touch someone,” as the AT&T commercials back then used to put it.

I never partook of their charms, but boy did I hear the stories! I knew one girl who had a client pay her $100 just to sit in the car and talk with him. That was more common than you might think.

What folks called the New Wave of the ’80s influenced the Mellen Street scene too. The girls wore skimpier, sexier clothes and paraded more openly up the hill to the wall. Girls and guys by that decade, actually, ’cause for sure it wasn’t limited to heteros. And always throw dopers into the mix. They all seem to show up together — followed, inevitably, by the police.

So, why Mellen? Why was this street the epicenter of all this action? Why not, say, Forest Ave., or Pine Street? Because at one time Parkside was the single-mother capital of the world — with the exception of New York City, of course. Which is to say it was the capital of poor mothers, downtrodden, even. Broads, dope, money — who could ask for more? There was even a church to repent my disgraceful behavior. It all seemed to crystalize there, and everything peaked in the ’80s. But as George Harrison said, “all things must pass,” including the demise of home-delivery newspapers.

These days, at the top of the hill, all I see is pedestrians. I spot the mailperson and remember that at one time they would not deliver the mail after dark on Mellen Street. One winter there was no mail for me for four days! (I was at the end of the route, but Jesus!). ODs and drug busts used to be daily events. Now I mostly see transports for people going to opioid treatment centers. I’m so happy to see that change.

And there are hardly any hookers left, least as far as I can tell. The cops stepped up patrols and did undercover stings, Mellen Street Market ripped out the pay phones, the church locked its doors, folks started neighborhood-watch programs, but none of that did as much to change things as technology did. If you want a female now, go to Facebook or any one of many other websites to help cure loneliness. Why search for a phone booth when you got a phone in your pocket? It’d be nice to say “the neighbors won” or “the cops won,” but forget it. Microsoft won.

Would you care for my opinion about Mellen Street today? Frankly, it’s plain ol’ boring, unless you’re a family-type person. In that case, you can walk down the street to the farmers’ market in Deering Oaks on Saturdays (nice spot, by the way). The Mellen Street of yesteryear is gone, and that’s best for all concerned, I suppose. But Jesus, I miss them days.