A Life in The Bar, 1969-2000
A mysterious disease
of unknown origin

Island life

Jane and Helen

Helen Sonthoff & Jane Rule
on Sticks Allison Beach, Galiano. Photo: Betty Fairbank, mid '80s;
sent as a Christmas card.

"Houseguests seemed to us more satisfying than dinner guests. A conversation begun one day can continue the next, & the luxury of time allows for quiet, too, for breaking away & coming back together."

Jane Rule
on running "Hotel Galiano," 1993.

July through December

With TBP's summer double issue put to bed in June I had time for a break, accepting an invitation from Jane Rule to visit her and Helen Sonthoff in British Columbia. The offer was also a gift, Jane paying the way.

I spent some time in Vancouver on the way out and back, seeing Brent Ledger, Bob Harris once of Calgary, and others there who wrote for The Body Politic. Bob and I did some bar hopping. The pub at the Castle Hotel -- once called The Puss'n Boots Room -- had the feel of Toronto's Parkside, but other places were more distinct.

On Davie Street in the West End, soon the core of Vancouver's gay commercial scene, Numbers offered porn videos less chopped than at Chaps, sucking on show if not fucking or ejaculation (this under the same federal obscenity laws applying in Ontario, if interpreted in rather different ways).

Most of the city's older bars had been east of downtown, some still there and newer ones as well. At the Gandydancer were disco boys; at Streets, boys who stripped. Back in the West End, on Burnaby Street, there was Buddy's, opened in 1982. It was no relation to Buddy's in Toronto, if a bit similar in tone. But gay bars seem named from a limited list: Vancouver had also had an August Club and a Music Room.

In 1989 Stan Persky, who wrote for TBP and had co- edited the Flaunting It! anthology with Ed Jackson, would tell his own bar tales, set in and named for this one: Buddy's: Meditations on Desire.

But my true destination was Galiano, one of the many Gulf Islands out in the Strait of Georgia, a 50 minute ferry ride from the mainland.

Jane and Helen had first seen it in the early '70s, as, Jane later wrote, "a weekend getaway from a life that had become too crowded with meetings, openings, dinner parties," Helen then teaching English at the University of British Columbia, Jane there too, both caught up in the city's growing art and literary scene.

It was in Vancouver that Jane had written The Desert of the Heart, published in 1964, the first serious work of lesbian fiction to appear in Canada; it would be the basis for Donna Deitch's film Desert Hearts in 1985.

They had been in the city since 1956, having met two years before at Concord Academy in Massachusetts, both unsettled by life in Cold War America, the witch hunts of the McCarthy era not entirely past. Talking about that time, Jane, Helen and I would discover an odd connection: from Concord they often went west, for pizza or a movie, to Ayer -- where I was then, just four years old.

In 1974 Jane and Helen rented out their house in Vancouver and wintered over on Galiano. The next year they decided to stay. Jane later wrote:

"We learned that winter what living on a small island is like, and, even through the long power failures when we shivered in front of the fire in my study and cooked inadequate meals, we loved the quiet rhythm of the life, the simplicity of our days.

"Our phone rarely rang. Often we took a break at lunch time, packed a picnic, and walked out up to the Bluffs and the wonderful view of Active Pass, the islands lying to the south, the Olympic Mountains down in Washington on a really clear day. ...

"On weekends we were ready to welcome city friends with whom we explored more of the island.... Houseguests seemed to us more satisfying than dinner guests. A conversation begun one day can continue the next, and the luxury of time allows for quiet, too, for breaking away and coming back together."

And so it was, for me during my week there and for many other houseguests over time. Jane and Helen took to joking that they ran "Hotel Galiano." What I sensed most there was that quiet rhythm Jane spoke of, patterns in which one was free to partake or not: walks; trips to the few local stores; drinks at 5:30, dinner at 6:00, more drinks afterwards until everyone fell into bed.

Jane and Helen liked gin in the late afternoon and, of an evening, scotch. Of course you could have whatever you liked but I was happy with their selections, scotch especially. It became my own nightly libation.


I took "erotic" to mean what Audre Lorde did: "the nurturer of all our deepest knowledge." It "does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife."

It's enough to call it life: all our engagements of affection, desire, & will.

The rhythm peaked at 3 pm, when kids from all over the Island came to swim in Jane and Helen's pool. They had once envisioned a public pool for the Island but it would have needed lifeguards. Here Jane guarded, the pool public, in effect, two hours a day for the kids, another half hour for grown ups -- who at 5:30 would of course come in for drinks.

I got some wonderful grown ups there, mostly young parents and a few literary lights: Margaret Atwood was there one day with her partner Graeme Gibson and their daughter Jess, then seven years old; we had a nice spaghetti dinner that night. On a later visit I'd watch another novelist, Audrey Thomas, splash around.

I didn't splash. I watched, mostly the kids. They were the real wonder, all of them -- but on that trip one especially.

July 21, 1984, to Jane:

I have of course related my experiences in BC many times since I returned, and I take especial pleasure in saying that one of the highlights was being seduced by a five year old boy. (I was later seduced by a 35 year old man who barked at me on Burnaby Street -- shades of Victor Bardawill! -- a curious and only tentatively sexual night that began with a "woof.")

The politics of children, their interactions with each other and with adults, were wonderful to watch, to be part of, as I hardly need tell you. But the experience with Ki was the most -- what? Exciting? Maybe. Satisfying, I think, is the best word.

Ki was a skinny little boy, full of energy. At the pool he'd decided I might be fun to play with; bathing suit or not, I got quite wet. I saw him again at Galiano's community hall for a screening of a National Film Board production on Elisabeth Hopkins, known as "Hoppy" on the Island, a woman who in great old age (she had been a nurse in World War One) had become a painter. There, Ki's favourite seat was my lap. He felt wonderful.

"What was so satisfying about Ki," I wrote to Jane:

wasn't that his skin felt good or that his hair smelled good, though they did and that was certainly a pleasure. It was that he wanted me to like him, and that his physical affection was one of the ways he had of communicating that -- a way he wasn't old enough to have grown wary of, self conscious about.

We teach children to grow guarded for what are, for the most part, sensible reasons, but a part of me suspects that the very teaching and learning of that defensiveness helps reinforce the need for it.

I was then reading Ashley Montagu's Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, and Melvin Konner's The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit. Both were more about potentials than constraints, about the body itself as, among much else, the basis of sexuality.

Surely, the social construction of sex must begin with the flesh. It was nice to be reminded that sexual politics, truly understood, has to encompass the affections of a five year old, a gift worthy of respect.

I talked about that later with another of Jane's guests, Michael Wellwood, from Vancouver, an occasional writer for TBP. He didn't like me calling that experience with Ki "erotic." "Sensual" was fine, he said, but people take "erotic" to mean "genital." That it was not. But it was much more than an exercise of the senses.

I took "erotic" to mean what Audre Lorde did in her 1978 essay, "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power." "The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge," she had written, noting its "open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy," a joy that could come from "dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea," and that "does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife."

It is enough to call it life: all our engagements of mutual affection, desire, and will. It's such a wonder to simply be liked by another person, to like in return, to relish each other's presence. I think that's erotic, and that such eroticism should be spread around. We talked about that in another way the next night.

I think I was trying to touch on the matter of xenophobia the night you, Helen, Margaret Edgar [an Island neighbour, also a community activist] and Michael Wellwood were talking about relationships, when Margaret said I was "certainly not a romantic" and Helen said I seemed to be talking about non- relationships.

I was talking about the circumstantial nature of relationships, about how particular people who become very important to us seem to come along quite by chance. What I was trying to argue against was something I sensed in what Michael was saying: that the existence of the "one special person" makes other people less valuable to you, less interesting.

Michael spoke of not going out much, not being a "bar person," though getting into that more now that he's single. Plenty of good reasons for that -- simple availability of time; the fact that the bars and clubs provide a limited range of options and experiences.

But I sensed some expression of what Ken Popert talks about when he calls a couple two people with their faces turned toward each other and their backs to the world, turned that way in mutual lack of need for anything but each other -- even in some contempt for the messy and sometimes hurtful quest they've left behind.

I was, I suppose, trying to demystify the "one" as a way of saving the mass of "others" from inattention, dismissal, even scorn.


Rare sample

Edgar Friedenberg and friends

Hell, no. It was photosynthesis."

Basking among friends: Edgar Friedenberg in Nova Scotia (photo undated, uncredited, CLGA).

Edgar has since died. When, I don't know: after TBP, we fell out of touch.

At Chaps I could feel great just watching men dance, one in particular. People would say: Why not make something happen? But basking in that vision was enough.

Or was I, as Edgar suspected he was, just finking out?

Before my trip west, Edgar Friedenberg had sent me a copy of Screw Your Courage, his autobiography -- though he said it wasn't really: he preferred to call it "a study in marginality with a sample of one."

Edgar is a sociologist less famous than he should be, perhaps because he had abandoned the US in 1970 for the relative obscurity of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I'd read him in my own American youth, The Vanishing Adolescent a companion volume for me to Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd -- both writers gay though I didn't know that then. I'd got to know Edgar by mail, editing a piece he wrote for TBP in 1980.

Edgar loved smart young people, but his affections (unlike Paul Goodman's) had always been platonic. In Screw Your Courage he wrote about teaching at Stillwater, Oklahoma in the 1940s when he himself was just 20, surrounded there by lovely men with euphonious names. Even by that age he had decided that his horniness was a version of the white man's burden, as he put it, about which he could do nothing.

But he was happy to bask in the radiance of those boy / men, getting his energy from their mere presence. "Sublimation?" he asks himself. "Hell, no. It was photosynthesis."

August 1, 1984, to Edgar:

I liked what you said about photosynthesis, liked it because it said one could get a good deal of erotic pleasure out of the simple existence of other people; that desire (or pleasure at any rate) needn't entail the requirement that one's enjoyment become sexual in the technical sense in order to be real or complete.

What I'm after in all this is the eroticization of everyday experience, rather than a ghettoization of the erotic to places and times where it is expected to become (or one is expected to want it to become) genitally sexual.

One of the things standing in the way of our fuller enjoyment of turn ons that don't end up with the plumbing connected is that such situations are seen as failures: erotic attractions are supposed to end in consummated sex; when they're not likely to we squelch them right from the start. Any pleasure we might have got out of ambient eroticism is lost. It's not supposed to be ambient. It's supposed to be directed.

Well, maybe. What I'm reflecting on, cast as a particular experience, is watching a man named Derek dance. When people ask me why I don't just introduce myself and "make something happen," I tell them that's not the point. Looking at Derek being happy makes me feel good. Why should I complicate that with any attempt that might give him pause, make him have to dissemble or even flee?

But here I catch myself on my own argument. What I may really be saying (some might say) is: Why take the risk? Why should I lay my ass on the line, as you put it, only to have it ignored? Do I glorify my spectatorship of Derek as a way of letting myself off the hook?

Again: maybe. Edgar said in Screw Your Courage that perhaps he should have tried to more often. He sometimes cast his celibate state as a kind of abdication: had he, after all, just finked out? Was I finking out?

Well, I was hardly celibate. And I did talk to Derek in time, not at Chaps where I watched him dance, but at The Fare Exchange, where he was a waiter. (Their ads later gave a reason besides the food to show up: "because our waiters don't wear underwear." Derek, from what I'd seen, set the style.)

That was fine but not as fine as watching him fly around the floor, even finer when his younger brother joined him. And I did once ask that younger brother to dance. He did, grinning, trying to yell over the music to tell me his name: Byron. He and Derek were here together, from Corner Brook, Newfoundland.

Leaving the bar I saw Byron outside and smiled good night. He smiled back, his head turned in my direction rather than the one he was going -- and he walked smack into a pole. (I still remember exactly which pole it was.) But that, I found, wasn't the strangest way one might end the night.

Secret desires
(Exposed & otherwise)

Scott Madsen

Scott Baio and Secret pantyhose

Sheer fantasies:
His real & worn in life; mine merely imagined in print.

This firm young body in front of me: Scott Baio found in a bar, Scott Madsen after the shirt comes off, his dick swelling at eye level. And I could take it.

September 18, 1984, to Jane:

I recently had an encounter with a beautiful, anxious pre med student who wanted to buy pantyhose for both of us and head home to bed -- well, perhaps not bed, but something. I declined the pantyhose, though he bought some. What happened after that was an amazing lesson in sexual confusion and the demolition of fantasy by reality.

In short, nothing happened after he donned his stretch nylon (or whatever that stuff is), nothing but talk and fear and retreat.

I want to write something about this (and I'm tired of hearing myself tell you I want to write about something and then not doing it; tomorrow is my day off and I'm going to try) so I won't say much more about it here.

I did write about him. We'd been talking at TBP about starting a column called Tricks, loosely based on Renaud Camus's book of the same name (later the model for Stan Persky's Buddy's). Chris Bearchell was afraid we'd make the column too rational, too analytical; she wanted to free us of that obligation and have us tell tales of sex, period.

It's never that simple of course, except in porn. Her fears did end up justified by what I wrote. It appeared in this year's final issue -- though not flagged Tricks; that column never came to be.

I titled it "Sheer Fantasy" and gave it three images: a package of Nude Secret sandalfoot pantyhose; a page from a fan mag on TV teen idol Scott Baio (the headline, sheer luck: "Let's Share My Secret!"); and an ad for Soloflex exercise equipment quite famous at the time, showing model Scott Madsen stripping his shirt off over his head -- just as that boy had done in my bedroom.

Sending the article to Jane I admitted the details "had been a tad fictionalized -- I didn't really think of Scott Baio or a Soloflex ad; these were after the fact ways of describing him while at the same time taking some of the burden of fantasy off his shoulders and putting it on my own, which I knew I needed to do to make the piece more honest, less smug."

But it was in the end about my being deadeningly honest. And smug: too blasé, too "real life." My fantasies were locked safely in my head (in truth, invented later). And I got to work them out -- if in print.

There he was, this beautiful boy sitting in my bedroom naked -- well almost naked -- offering me his cock. And I could take it.

Stand up, I could say, and there'd be this firm young body in front of me, Scott Baio found in a bar, Scott Madsen after the shirt has come off, his denim stretching dick [as I'd seen it in the bar] swelling at eye level, and I could wrap my mouth around it and grab his ass and he'd cup his hands around my head and fuck and fuck and fuck, fluid, powerful, the muscles of his back driving his hips in full rhythm, his thighs straining, quivering as he groans and yelps and at last, at last roars -- roars coming and coming, letting out a whimper as I swallow him.

Yes. I wanted it like that. But it wouldn't be like that.

It wasn't. (And that bit above is, as we'll later see porn narrative called, "merely a quotation.") That boy had to risk exposing his fantasies, as I had not. He was wearing them, his cock on offer through the torn crotch of a pair of pantyhose. I should have taken it -- and on his terms: easy ones; delicious even.

But I didn't, implicitly setting terms of my own that, on reflection, I saw made me seem "normally" gay, him some kind of freak.

He left, leaving his hose behind. My last line in "Sheer Fantasy" was: "What am I supposed to do with these?" A friend writing in response to the article (I got quite a bit) said, "Wear them under your jeans and let them warm your thoughts." If I had it to do again, I'd let them (and him) warm my lips.


The Bar
(For a while)

Vox, once Cornelius

579 Yonge St:
Upstairs (with the heavy metal Gasworks then still below) Cornelius -- "the only bar to be at."

Cornelius glass block ad

The wall (if not the anatomy):
One ad that did at last reflect the reality of the place.

There was a brass rail on the edge of its raised dance floor -- a good place to lean and watch. There, I witnessed a vision I would cherished for the rest of my life.

I tell you about that boy (mostly) to tell you where I found him: Cornelius. I was on my sixth beer when suddenly there he was, right beside me. "Hey," he said, "I gotta talk."

We were leaning on the brass railed U shaped bar set across the middle of that long space. Behind us (up a small step; I once sprained my ankle on it) was a pool table and the cans; ahead, out across the bar (and its lovely bartenders, the two loveliest lovers, dark handsome Ian and curly blond Jamie), was the dance floor.

Cornelius had opened in early 1983. Where the name came from I never knew, but its origins otherwise I did. I'd been there 10 years earlier, when it was The Chimney, over The Gasworks at the corner of Yonge and Dundonald.

At the time it had a few gay customers but I didn't much notice. I was there then just twice, once with a few friends, among them Bozo Moyle visiting from Montreal. The other night was to see Carole Pope's band Rough Trade -- rough enough (I hoped) to scandalize a younger cousin up from Ohio. (I was right, even if he had got here on a motorcycle with his girlfriend on the back.)

Both the Gasworks and its Chimney later went heavy metal, but by the early '80s its owners saw other bars cashing in on the gay market and thought they'd give it a try. They took out big ads in The Body Politic, beginning in the March 1983 issue, for the first year or so a full page featuring a lumpy hunk, his jeans open -- and very badly drawn: this artist I knew; he did not know anatomy.

The next year they went for a more high tech look, once with a sharp contrast shot of a man taking his shirt off: Scott Madsen -- the very image in that Soloflex ad. I suppose they got caught: that ad ran only once.

Later it would be another drawing, same artist, same bad anatomy if a bit less revolting: a man seen from the back, naked but mostly missing below the waist, holding his arms up against a wall of glass blocks.

That image did, at last, reflect something of that bar's the reality. Its curved corner window over Yonge was glass block, sending a diffuse daytime glow, the twinkle of streetlights at night, over the raised dance floor right up front. And men there did take their shirts off to dance. There was a brass rail on the edge of that dance floor -- a good place to lean and watch. I would come to know it well.

Cornelius was famous for its lack of attitude, and for wonderful, crowded Sunday afternoon tea dances. "An uncompromising, uncomplicated place," someone once wrote, "the best bartenders in town -- friendly, personable guys. For this fan it was the only bar to be at."

Note that he said "was." He was writing the bar's obituary, less than three years after it opened. Well, such things don't last. But while it lasted it was, for me too, if not the only bar then certainly, quintessentially, The Bar. And it was there, standing by its dance floor, that I'd witness a vision I would cherish for the rest of my life.

It was at Cornelius that I met my next lover. He was not that vision, perhaps not even a lover -- though I worked hard to make him one. Too hard, and in precisely the way I'd predicted in that bad novel I abandoned in 1974: much as I wanted him I was always stepping back, making space, wondering just how much room he'd need to let me stay in his life at all.

Mind you, I wasn't always a saint.

To Jane, Saturday, October 27, 1984:

I began a letter to you on Wednesday night and was in the middle of page 7 when I stopped, still having too much to say because, at the moment, I needed to say it all. A good deal of those seven pages were the working out of my feelings about a simple fact: I fell in love and it didn't work.

The second and final crisis in all that was on Tuesday night, when a date I had with this man became, through various machinations, his date with someone else. (I won't go into the details of the phone call in which all this happened, but it had an amazing psychological progression that I mean to write down sometime.)

After that call I wrote him a letter that I left in his door, saying that it wasn't going to work but that I wanted it to end positively, happy for what had been good about it.

But later that night hurt and anger -- and booze -- got the better of me: I called him at 2 am, knowing he'd be in bed with Greg, the third party in all this. That was an exchange worth recording, too, though I remember less of it.

It was all over before it began, really, though it didn't end for more than a year. After Greg there was Chris, after Chris a young poet with tiger stripes dyed in his hair. I knew some of them, even liked them and wanted to -- so I would still be wanted. Oddly, I was: for talk (he was hugely, if deviously, smart); for sex (six times, I counted); for even more talk after that poet's presence banned me from his bed. I didn't want to let go.

Looking back, I have never regretted my relationships. But that doesn't stop me judging myself, sometimes, in some of them, a bit pathetic. I haven't told you this man's name, and I won't. He had two children, young women now; last I heard he was trying to be a good father. I'll leave him to it, in peace.


As long as I sat at that typesetter, editor of last resort, no one else would have room to learn.

And then -- what if I suddenly fell off that chair?

At The Body Politic, evolution was shaping the lives of mammals and dinosaurs both. In a move meant to spread power around we'd decided that when a job came open we should hire not one person but two, part time.

The old gang had grown up with the paper, ready to give it their lives; now newer people were supposed to give it only half their lives. Their commitment, and the workaholic mania of the place, made that harder to do. Resentments grew.

Staffing had been remarkably stable since I'd come on board in 1977. No one had left; people already around got added on: in 1980 Chris Bearchell; Ed Jackson that same year though at first unpaid, living on his savings; Ken Popert in 1981, both he and Ed at half pay well into 1982; John Allec coming on that year, too. Then in 1984: Paul Aboud, Gillian Rodgerson, Sonja Mills, Lee Waldorf, Barbara Klemme -- all part time.

Staff turn over had never been an issue. Soon it would be the issue, as chafed mammals grew disaffected and old dinos simply tired -- not only of the pace, but of poverty. Pay had risen but not as fast as inflation; this year we were again dealing with a financial crunch by going on the dole.

Chris was the first to quit, if not entirely. She had come to resent staff power itself, even though sharing it full time. By June she left the paper's employ but not the collective -- the better to stand guard over the rest of us. Ed Jackson had decided it was time to see what else a man approaching 40 might do with his life. He was looking for another job and would soon find one.

Gerald Hannon, already 40 and around with Eddie since 1972, made similar noises but would hang in for a few more years. John Allec left staff in September; Sonja took over his work on Out in the City and Xtra. Paul Aboud, hired to produce Xtra, found similar work at Maclean Hunter -- at twice the pay.

With Chris and Paul gone, all the part time staff were now women, all the full time -- and old time -- staff men. For some years gender tensions had been rare within (if not beyond) the walls of TBP; now they grew from the staffing structure itself.

Paul Aboud's departure also left me putting together both papers, meeting three deadlines a month. In September I'd told Jane about my most recent round of night shifts.

The effects were finally felt by Saturday morning, after I'd spent too much time trying to salvage the Out in the City calendar, Sonja's first, which -- through little fault of hers and very much the fault of her inadequate training and lack of experience -- was pitiful.

Sitting at that typesetter, I am the quality control of last resort whether I should be or not (and I shouldn't be); whether mistakes, sloppiness or other shortcomings have been noticed by editorial people or not, they end up staring me in the face off that glaring video screen at five in the morning.

The calendar was the last straw. I ranted around the office alone for a while, finally called Eddie at 9:30 Saturday morning to see if he could come in and spend the day pulling the thing together -- and ended up simply breaking down on the phone.

Well, by the time I came in the next evening everyone was chipping in like mad. If sobbing over the phone weren't such an embarrassing technique (to say nothing of being a bit unfair), I might be tempted to try it again.

I didn't. I tried something else: I quit. I didn't want to. I'd always imagined working on The Body Politic for the rest of my life. After all, it had become my life.

But I couldn't stay if the paper were to have a life beyond my own. As long as I sat at that typesetter, editor of last resort, no one else would have room to learn how to do it. And then -- what if I suddenly fell off that chair?

I didn't go suddenly. I set June 30, 1985 as my final day on staff, planning to be a volunteer editor after that. I also set myself to spend the eight months until then not just working, but teaching. I meant to make myself redundant.

In the end it worked, almost. If not quite in the way I had hoped.

Go on to 1985: January through June

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