On any given day at the Red and Black Café, an anarchist, worker-owned vegan restaurant at the corner of Southeast 12th Avenue and Oak Street, you can find people from all walks of life enjoying good food and a laid back atmosphere.
You’ll also find Street Roots vendor Tee Mills, a tall, tan, bearded man who looks out calmly from behind his bifocal glasses and speaks softly with a charming Southern lilt. Tee knows all of the employees by name and they have all gotten to know him over the past few years that Tee has been selling Street Roots there. Tee finds the Café’s overall mission of social justice and workers’ rights fits in well with his own personal beliefs in human equality, compassion and acceptance.
“I could make a lot more money elsewhere, but I prefer doing it right here, a choice factor,” Tee says.
Despite Tee’s comforting, Southern-tinged accent, he was actually born and raised in Northeast Portland near the Mississippi/Fremont neighborhoods. Half Irish and half Shoshone, he has witnessed Portland’s vast demographic and cultural changes over the past decades.
“Back in the neighborhood where I grew up,” he says, “everybody took care of everybody. It was a different culture. It’s nice that it’s revitalized the neighborhood, but it also took something away from the neighborhood … So I don’t really much care for that.”
Tee has also had the opportunity to watch Street Roots grow and change over the years, having been involved with the paper since its humble beginnings back when it was called Burnside Cadillac. “It’s something I believe in so I just keep on doing it,” says Tee.
A green beret veteran of the Vietnam War and former prizefighter from 1975 to 1985, Tee sold the paper whenever he had the opportunity to return home for a visit. These days, Tee sells the paper a few days each week outside of both the Red and Black Café and Sweet Pea Bakery just around the block. As a result, he knows almost all of the employees who work at all of the shops on that block. In his off time, he is kept busy up with five grandchildren. He also enjoys participating in the many lectures and workshops on social justice hosted at Red and Black Café.
“Here at Red and Black, they have some special events that are designed to make people aware, and I go to them just so I am aware of all the issues,” Tee says. “I don’t necessarily believe in every issue but I am aware of what they are, which gives me a chance to go to the library to check up on these issues and see just how valid their statements are.”
Tee takes a genial approach to selling Street Roots, greeting passersby and discussing the various issues in the paper. Every new paper day, Tee leaves his post early so he can read the latest issue and be able to talk about it later with customers. Like many Street Roots vendors, Tee sees his job as an opportunity to connect with other Portlanders from whom he would normally be isolated. However, one thing that does set Tee apart from other vendors is that he hand delivers papers to those loyal customers who request it. It is through this vintage service that Tee keeps alive the spirit of community and togetherness that he remembers so fondly from his youth.
As the weather gets warmer Tee looks forward to spending more time outside, both selling Street Roots and relaxing in the nearby park. He will also be celebrating his 65th birthday July 5. “Enjoy the summer,” he says, “because winter always comes back.” He also advises Street Roots readers to “be good to each other.” So if you are ever looking for some good conversation on current events or tales of the Portland that once was, go visit Tee at the Red and Black Café. He’ll be sure to encourage you to try the food.