SHUT OUT IN PLAIN SIGHT:
In Search of Queer Life
Montreal again, later 1966, the main difference this time around was living downtown, mostly just east of McGill University: old stone/brick/block houses rented out as single rooms with a shared bathroom and (not always) kitchen, the tenants usually a mix of students and working people. In the basement rooms, decent though they were, the rats crawled in the walls all night. A novelty. Not a problem as long as they stayed on their side. I made a few friends, straight but that was alright and it made life less lonely. Rick Behrman, several years older than me, was an American graduate student in nuclear physics, played the clarinet, and let me hang around. A lifesaver in a way, he offered a casual and easy friendship for the remainder of my time in Montreal. With his girl friend and McGill friends we'd go to the local greasy spoon, movies, the usual. If it was out of pity it certainly never felt that way, so whatever the case, my thanks. It would have been possible to be open with Rick about my sexuality, he gave me opportunity. The problem was I lacked not only courage but any framework or language other than the homophobic one provided by the times.
If nothing else, some of my taste in books, movies, music must have occasionally given him pause. There was a side of me to which such things as the widescreen version of The Sound of Music appealed. Not to overdo it but before Montreal the only movies I'd seen in an actual cinema had played on the barely adequate screens of the Normandie and the Moon, two small movie houses in my hometown. These served up a diet of mostly Martin & Lewis and westerns and similar fare. In a village given to the kind of main street religious processions often associated with heavily Catholic regions of Europe the biggest movie event in years had been the re-release of The Song of Bernadette in 1958. When it opened at the Normandie there was such a crush the front doors had to be taken off their hinges.
The movie that truly knocked me sideways in those days though had been on our black and white set a few years after TV arrived in the area in the mid-1950s. The Search, in which Montgomery Clift rescued a young boy from the Berlin ruins after WW ll, was electric. Eleven or twelve at the time, I longed for Clift to take me away. While to a gay boy there may indeed have been something that felt different about the man, it was the thought of being seen of value, worth rescuing, which reached down into my gut. But alas, Tinker Bell notwithstanding, no one's actually in a fairy tale to rescue the fairy. It took me a while to come to terms with that.
If my sexuality is what ultimately changed me, required me to think more deeply about the world and its ways, Montreal was my true companion on the path. It carried me on its tide neither waving nor drowning but doing that bob and weave learned at home. In the 1960s it was the centre of incredible political and cultural ferment and though I was anglo that didn't stop me benefiting. It's hard to overemphasize the change in Quebec after Duplessis died. Minus a few years, he'd been premier and overlord since the 1930s. Once he was gone the Plouffes finally bit back, the dam gave way. With Jean Lesage coming to power the Catholic Church was ushered to the sidelines and the culture of the city and the province upended. Je me souviens may still have been there on the licence plates but it was Maitres chez nous driving now.
Over the decade, Pierre Vallieres, the FLQ, and eventually the Parti Quebecois under Rene Levesque became players and challenges to the old order accelerated. This was reflected in the rise of chansonniers like Pauline Julien and Gilles Vigneault, and the arrival in print and onstage of Michel Tremblay's words. On the federal front, others from Quebec like Pierre Trudeau and Jean Marchand delivered pushback, an opposing yet related message of renewal. There was no way to pretend not to see, not to hear. Well before the War Measures Act, with so many bombs going off or being dismantled I'd sometimes have to pass inspection from soldiers or police to enter buildings including the one that housed the restaurant where I worked.
What sometimes gets lost in all this is the importance of 1960s Montreal to more than one culture in tumult. There were two iconic Black conferences in Montreal in 1968, followed by the 1969 racism standoff at Sir George Williams U in 1969, with Rosie Douglas having a part in all of it. I've written elsewhere I just happened to be walking by when computer cards came fluttering down from the ninth floor at SGWU, but in fact I was following things and had walked over to see what was happening that day. Anything up there seemed far from me but there was a link of sorts eventually.
Guy Roy became a boyfriend of mine in Toronto later and along the way ended up cellmates with Rosie Douglas. Gay libber that I'd become, Guy had received many an earful. Douglas gave him an intro to another sort of politics that I suppose both served as a spur to action and offered further legitimacy. Putting his own spin on it all Guy ended up starting a gay lib group while in Joyceville prison. With his lover at the time, Steve Hannah, he also battled the prison system for years for gay visitation rights. Charlie and I eventually met Douglas at Guy's apartment and while it was never going to be of much consequence other things were not going well there that day and ended up limiting the conversation further.
Vis a vis future gay lib itself, Trudeau, child of Montreal, had by the end of 1968 introduced Bill C-150 which included the so-called decriminalization of homosexuality. Given a society starved of any sort of affirmation, for me it served at least as an acknowledgement of my existence though it made no actual difference to my life.
If it was invigorating to be in a city central to all this turmoil, then Expo 67 was the cherry on the oyster, a real boon for anyone with limited resources like me. I was an Expo junkie, often heading right from work and staying until closing. Film, live music, theatre, dance, art exhibitions, sculpture, turning a corner you never knew what to expect. One day it was a snake handler wound from head to toe in the coils of a python in a nasty mood. It took five huge guys from the crew to unwrap him and undoubtedly the watching kids went home to nightmares.
Definitely the gayboy, I juggled my resources and for a price saw Marlene Dietrich at the Expo Theatre several times, the repeats revealing how tightly scripted every word, every gesture, every lump in the throat was, no hiccup to make a fluffed line visible. Likewise I can still summon up Glenda Jackson and the National Theatre doing Marat/Sade at Place des Arts. Month after month for small town me it was get it while you can. Many things had a price attached, but there were also an unimaginable 5-6,000 free concerts, performances, events of all sorts on and off-site over the course of six months.
Beyond Expo these too were the counter culture glory years and there was much besides grass to expand your worldview. The underground paper Logos began to appear, as well as film mag Take One. Living near McGill the local dives were the coffeehouses on or near Park Ave and they supplied conversation in sympathy with the times. Among them the Yellow Door, then a folk venue run by SCM, was around the corner on Aylmer while the larger New Penelope, on Sherbrooke, was just down the street. With a capacity of only 200-250 the shows were fairly intimate at the latter and I saw Jesse Winchester, Joni Mitchell and others. Was it Montreal where I saw Beverly Glenn-Copeland, the impression outlives the setting. Whatever anyone else thought though, Petula Clark remained right there in my alphabet next to Leonard Cohen. Laid back though he was that drove Rick B. up the wall.
What kept me from getting more from this mind-expanding decade was my parochial self. Film became one of the ways to a better understanding of the world and all that was going on around me. By 1967 I was a regular at the Verdi, a repertory house on St. Laurent. As well the Cinematheque canadienne had opened an office in my neighbourhood around this time and was screening films in the Physical Sciences auditorium at McGill, so it too was always on my schedule. The Underground Film Center at Bordeaux & Ontario also become one more stop on my route. All these offered different ways of thinking and if I wasn't particularly into poring over it line by line no matter, Montreal was a process of osmosis.
Though not specific to Montreal there was another thing that had my keen interest and helped define these years for me, the first stirrings of Canlit, representing a generational change in attitude. Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje (whose Gladys I would dogsit in a later decade) Gwendolyn MacEwen, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Marie-Clair Blais, Patrick Lane etc began appearing in print in the many small literary magazines and in books. A quick bow here to Mavis Gallant who was there before them all and who I seem to return to repeatedly. (Apropos, I took an evening course, introductory lit, at U of T in the late '70s. The American instructor was part of that cohort of Americans and Brits hired by English Canadian universities during the rapid expansion they had undergone, were still undergoing. Things had reached such a state the colonies were now required to import and pay academic remittance men themselves. This one had not heard of, let alone read, a single Canadian poet or novelist.)
Of course all things are relative. With 1960s Montreal there's reason to whisper plus ca change when it comes to the way power itself was exercised. The city remained a place of much poverty, of civic fiat, of urban displacement and destruction in service of the new. What there was of queer culture --- the bars, taverns, balconies, parks --- had to continually fight to maintain a foothold against a society which at its most benevolent considered us some sort of disease.
Just turned nineteen when I returned to Montreal, despite my best efforts my connection with queer life hadn't expanded much since 1964. Still there was plenty of sex as consolation --- on offer in the movie houses, not only the Strand, the Crystal, the Midway, even the Rialto, but others including the enormous Loews (seating 3,000) when its balcony was open. And all I had to do was walk five minutes to be in Parc du Mont Royal. Montreal streets of course were cruisy and now occasionally someone might return with me to my room after a stroll. Or take me to a Tourist Room. I was not everyone's cup of tea in the looks department I thought, but seemingly acceptable given the number of sexual partners I had. Even right downtown in daytime a trick might pull me into the low hedges then flanking the cathedral beside Dominion Square. Though I was slowly catching up to them all my partners still seemed somewhat older, mid-twenties to forties. A few people my own age would have been nice too, for varieties sake if nothing else.
Those Tourist Rooms we'd sometimes end up in were particularly abundant in the old red light district around St. Catherine & St. Laurent. When people took me to these, usually down some side street, mostly in the daytime, there were no eyebrows raised, everyone understood quite well what was going on. There's a vague memory of someone being charged for an afternoon one time and it wouldn't surprise me if the rents were sometimes hourly. But it wasn't me paying so I was never very attentive. Though these rooms were also elsewhere in Montreal, probably only once did we end up in some other area.
The side by side Midway and Crystal mentioned before as movie houses with lots of gay sex in the seats (and lots of arrests as part of the calculation) were in this same district, on the east side of St. Laurent just south of St. Catherine, and it likely took me until 1966 to discover them. Of the two my preference was the Crystal. Both had busy washrooms, and the Crystal was pretty wild both there and in the balcony. If the Midway had a balcony was it possibly closed a lot of the time? Meaning activity was limited to the more awkward main auditorium and the basement washroom? Whatever the reason, and it probably did have something to do with balconies, the Crystal seemed to have more opportunity for whatever you wanted. As bonus for either place, a few doors down was a huge butcher shop, good for cheap meat, a way to stretch your dollar. It could go either way on a Saturday afternoon if anything interesting was happening in the seats but the butcher was about to close.
While the Crystal was a close second, the Strand at St. Catherine and Mansfield in the downtown district was both a much earlier discovery and my favourite cinema for sex in Montreal. The Crystal had the larger reputation, probably because it had been offering sex for longer, but the Strand was as active. There wasn't much difference in the mix of people from balcony to balcony. You could tell the anglos because they dressed like they watched too much American TV, immigrants and ethnicities had slight variations in clothing and hair, francos well I suppose it was a matter of degree, just less American TV. Classwise it was blue and white collar and not for the pretentious. Bathhouses weren't on my radar in Montreal but balconies served as a version. Allowed to sit through repeat screenings, you could stay for hours and have sex without much hassle. You could even have popcorn and watch an occasional interesting movie. Before I had access to the bars these places were crucial to me. The movies themselves were in English, sometimes dubbed. While the Strand offered a double bill and the occasional recent release of respectable quality, triple bills were common, and in whatever city likely to be westerns (regular & spaghetti), horror, sci fi, sexploitation, etc. Any of these theatres could have discouraged much that went on but it wasn't in their interest. With the audience for movies decimated by TV it had become a matter of survival, a case of whatever sold tickets. This attitude played out in late '68 (October) when Famous Players turned the Strand into the Pigalle, a French language porn venue for straights.
For The Historical Record
The routine in all likely movie theatres, whether Montreal, Vancouver, or Toronto was pretty well the same. Find a balcony section with mostly men, go up to the last rows. Sit behind or beside who you were interested in, or sit by yourself one seat in from the aisle and wait for somebody to show up. Balconies could be pretty active and sometimes you had to play a version of musical chairs to end up where you wanted. A jacket to cover your lap was a handy accessory. It was mostly blow jobs and hand jobs but if there weren't too many straights around and it was dark enough occasionally more had been known to happen. That was the case with the Biltmore in Toronto, with its projector room dividing the upper portion of the balcony in a way that particularly sheltered the seats to the right of the projector from general view.
That projector room layout (though not always providing as much privacy as the Biltmore's did) was shared by the Rialto and the Strand in Montreal, among others. The latter didn't have seats in the sheltered area, which simply gave more standing room way at the back, hardly a minus. If there were no balcony, only the ground floor auditorium then it was often on the sides towards the back where people connected. The Rio, next to the Biltmore, was like that and the situation called for more discretion. Even in respectable theatres things could occasionally happen in the right circumstances. As more theatres switched in desperation to cheap double and triple bills in the attempt to stem the overall decline in movie attendance, easily accessed central locations remained the cruisiest.
Washrooms could be as active as balconies. They might be used for a well-lit look at likely individuals, or making contact before hookup in the balcony. It's possible people sometimes met in the washroom and then went home together but it never happened to me. Of course sex could happen at urinals if there weren't many people around, but most often washrooms were about stalls with glory holes. Depending on your particular sexual intentions these stalls could at times be as difficult to get as Streisand tickets and those in possession often weren't inclined to vacate until traffic itself stalled. That might happen in an occasional glory hole standoff, occupants of adjoining stalls trying to outlast each other in hopes of more interesting prospects. A middle stall offering alternative choices was prime real estate. Pity anyone who actually had to use a toilet in the busier hours. I wondered if someone went from theatre to theatre drilling holes as a community service. Certainly there was an art to it, you didn't want anyone injuring vulnerable parts.
In the spring of 1967 I lost my job as an office boy at Canadian Steel Foundries. Prowling the enormous, now demolished, foundry in east end Montreal, mostly it had involved gathering and compiling statistic cards from the metal pours. Someone had seen me either going from the Midway to the Crystal (in my form fitting cruise corduroys that screamed tapette), or else cruising in the Crystal itself, in any case being in some way obvious. Even among straights, blue collar ones anyways, both places were well known for more than their cheap movies and by next morning the sly and suggestive comments had started. Within a couple of days I was fired. I'd always done a good job and asked for at least a letter for my next job search. According to that I was let go due to a "reduction in workload" at the foundry. Well my own workload, for sure . . . Now I was in an office tower across Sherbrooke St. from the Ritz Carlton, working in the coffee shop: serving at the takeout counter, cleaning tables, sweeping floors, hauling soft drink crates, delivering coffee and food. Forty-three dollars a week after taxes, bacon and eggs in the morning and a sandwich in the afternoon thrown in.
Life continued in its usual disjointed fashion, the remnants of my family life, the New Brunswick clan I now worked with at the coffee shop, the straight crowd that came with my friendship with Rick, my life as a young gay male, each was a separate and very different world. Totally inept at ferreting out, at finding gay life beyond the park/balcony/street encounters that led to only more of the same, it felt as though I was wandering the outskirts of my existence.
I wondered why Quebec anglos and I hardly seemed to connect at all sexually. Did they cruise differently, elsewhere (they were in the balconies), were they even more closeted, was there a secret handshake? In contrast there were plenty of francophone guys willing to go a certain distance for the sake of sex. But my inadequate French seemed to put further limits on the possibility of making it about more than that. Years of French in school, yet basic conversation was pretty well all I was capable of. No matter how bilingual and tolerant of uptight anglos they were I was never someone they were going to take home to their mothers. Trying at least to improve I took the free language courses on offer at the time.
To a degree I was also still not fully comfortable in my own skin. Dealing not only with society's rejection of who you were, but the feeling of being rejected on a personal level, worthy only of a quick fuck, the barriers to finding your way required holding on to self-esteem in any way you could. I tried not to overcompensate.
Of course sex is always going to be a field of contention. Social, political, economic forces are always going to seek advantage by attempting to channel and control it. In a world where birth, sex, death, and all the bits in between --- the actual structure of life --- are just cogs in the machinery that grinds us up, the effect on gay life in this era was neither benign nor insignificant. It was up to you to sort it all out, deal with it as you could. While there was as much or as little meaning in queer life as you cared to acknowledge, or address, it definitely did present challenges to convention, to easy ways of thinking. .
With my sexuality and the perspective it provided so central to me, it feels almost beside the point to speak of that time on any but a very personal level. My childhood was a breath taken at birth and held for sixteen years, only on moving to Montreal could I exhale. Now I wanted to get on with it, exit that great void that offered no possibility of rooting yourself in any world. Life itself was not only lonely and difficult but also vital and new, exhilarating, contradictory. Such may be youth, but for certain being human is not a tidy proposition and sometimes the years seemed one long grapple with that.
Looking back what rankles most was the total denial of information about any aspect of gay lives and life and the difficulty this presented. I envy those who seemed to sail through this all flags flying, not a scratch on them. For me how to break out of this cultural clockwork of oppression and repression remained the question.
On my twentieth birthday, legal age under Quebec liquor laws and therefore significant in allowing me entry to a gay bar should such a mythical creature ever appear, I sat down in a beer garden at Expo and over the course of the night had all of two beers. By which time the garden was closed and everyone had left but me. Getting up to catch the last transit out, to my surprise I couldn't stand, had to hurl myself from tree to post to whatever would hold me more or less vertical. It was my first time with more than a sip of alcohol. But my body, thank you, learned quickly, never reacted so poorly again. (My first hit of poppers, amyl rather than butyl in the '70s, left me even more helpless, but that too was it.)
Besides my continuing life in Montreal what follows includes the bars in as much (rather hazy) detail as I can recall. Which means primarily a bit of characterization, some of it doubtful, and an anecdote or two. To flesh things out there are a few notes on a couple of bars in the 1970s-80s, written at that time.
Archives de la Ville de Montreal
Early autumn, 1967 and I'm looking down on St. Catherine St. from a small side patio of what was then Theatre Port-Royal, part of the Place des Arts complex. Below and across the street are two or three obvious queens loitering by a door. A clue even I couldn't miss. Above them, stretching upwards a storey a big neon sign in English. "TAVERN" it read, and at the top, perched like an overweight bird, "ALTESSE". Let my life begin . . .
While I'd learned both in Vancouver and Montreal that it didn't take much to lose your job, with gay life and my first sight of the Altesse, as later with gay lib, there was too much need and frustration to leave room for hesitation. A door presented itself and either you walked through and into a different world or you didn't. (In this case a world impossible to conjure without cigarette smoke, beer, and jukeboxes so add those to whatever descriptions follow. And whatever you imagine, double.)
In 1967, with the Altesse and its very real door, I plunged right in. Actually I went home, changed into something a little more likely to draw interest, then plunged right in. The Altesse was a good-time joint, and even more than most it was alive, loud, raucous, people enjoyed themselves here. It had been gay or at the very least mixed since at least 1954, and quite probably 1950 or even earlier. While there was always some mingling of classes and of language it was francophone and blue collar and included the usual sprinkling of garden-variety queens, drama-plus queens, anglo tourists (was I one?), future and former inmates, hustlers, dealers, take your pick. The front door opened to cigarette smoke and jukebox music and a windowless space, a corridor lined with tables. Knowing what I wanted didn't keep me from being both shy and somewhat cautious when I got it and this alcove was more my speed than the larger room it led to. In any case the trip to the washroom was the way to check things out, make your presence known.
That flood of music as you entered the Altesse was of course the soundtrack to life in gay bars. Here, as in other taverns in the east and west, the jukebox was a stream of French stars like Francoise Hardy and Quebecois covers of American songs. And constant replays of ballads from Piaf . . . Je ne regrette rien . . Milord . . . and the faux-Piaf, Mirielle Mathieu . . . La premiere etoile . . . plus a little Aznavour and whoever else. For a Gauloises or Gitanes though, you had to head to a coffeehouse.
There was nothing fancy about the Altesse, it was in the business of selling beer and built for wear, a beerhall, liquid flowed in all directions as the hours passed, arrived often enough paid for. Earlier in the evening there was always a big pitcher on the table, easy on the wallet, the pronunciation gorlo, the spelling a mystery. Later in the night the company I began to keep often ordered beer in quart bottles not only for their size. At the Altesse they were also simple to smuggle out as last call approached, especially if your table was in that corridor. Barely old enough to drink in Quebec, I continued to look younger, and when a raid was expected (sometimes they were a surprise) the waiters at the Altesse would warn me to leave. The less hassle the better given the puritanical crackdown by the city at the time. (According to a 1966 Gazette article, minors found during raids were released to the custody of their parents pending further court action. Probably not the best way to come out to your family.)(See the Notes for more description of the Altesse layout.)
The Altesse is where I met Johnny. He was twelve years older, good looking, Cree/Irish he said, black hair, dark eyes, and very white skin. Call him my first boyfriend. But for him it was less than that, I was probably more of a hanger-on. In prison (Dorchester certainly) more than once as far as I could figure, he worked as a cook much of the time. Occasional frozen roasts and steaks and the like were known to exit restaurant back doors to feed the people he felt responsible for. These included Evelyn, with whom he'd had a relationship, and her two young daughters. A Black woman from Nova Scotia she was now dying of cancer and mostly bedridden. It was her apartment he shared and everyone centred on.
Among the others: Uncle John, an older man from prison days who lived down in the old Griffintown area, in these days before its destruction was more or less complete. He helped out with necessities and did some of the cooking, and had probably been in love with Johnny at some point, as Gaston, in his thirties and also from prison, still was. When goofballs didn't have Gaston on his rear he kept the apartment in order, helped with Evelyn. Somewhere in the background there was a macho nephew of hers who pulled a knife on Johnny one Sunday afternoon as I stood in the kitchen doorway. Also in the picture, Red (for his hair), a prison friend with a wife and a kid and his own place. (His wife, rightly as it later turned out, sensed a threat and didn't like me one bit.) He hung around the apartment a lot and wondered what the hell I was doing there.
And how did I come to be there? Well Johnny, aka Pancho, aka Glen, sat down at my table so I shared my beer. He had seemingly spent all his money already, I was a gay kid, I was an easy mark. When the tavern closed we walked the couple of blocks over to the Main (St. Laurent) for steamed hot dogs. He began cadging, trying to figure what I had left, which amounted to maybe a dollar, all in change. Which I gave him. Pulling out my pockets to show that was truly it, I told him to go fuck himself and walked away. That endeared me to him no end, and if he hadn't planned to take me home he changed his mind. We ended up at that basement apartment on Liege O., way up in Park Extension.
(The area was part of a wall of low slung apartment buildings south of Cremazie. I'd lived on Ball Ave, three blocks south, for a few months in 1965 and in the eastern portion had briefly shared an apartment with some straight guy on Des Erables in the Rosemont area. There were another seven addresses elsewhere in the city in these years, a portent of the future. I was restless, ill at ease everywhere and with everything. The world was not a comfortable fit . . . in the world that was waiting, only Charlie . . . )
As for my now empty pockets there was never much in them anyways. A good part of my paycheque went to fix a mouth full of cavities, thirty-five of them, acquired from the coke machine at the Drake Hotel in Vancouver. Long bus ride to a dentist I could afford, once a month when I could afford it, aching teeth dealt with one per visit, paid for as we went. It took at least four years of fillings, root canals, extractions, and at the end cutting open my gum across several teeth to scrape the roots. (All afternoon in a dentist chair for that one . . .)
On the other hand, though it put the Molsons in their mansions beer cost little. Similarly the fleabag movie houses charged almost nothing. And of course, as mentioned, even in more respectable cinemas you could often stay through repeat screenings. Not an option to be ignored for anyone below the poverty line in a Montreal winter. Coffee houses were also cheap, rent was cheap, paperbacks were cheap. I even had enough for occasional first-run movies and a bit of live theatre if the tickets were priced right. Though only usable at the department store my Eaton's card with its $200- limit and its monthly minimum payment helped get me through, made things manageable. It was surprising in fact how far a little money could be stretched when it was only yourself you had to worry about. As long as I could pay for my room I was okay.
With Johnny, that short sharp exchange over hot dogs somehow became the basis of our relationship and he accepted me, I accepted him. He was a good guy, amiable, wry, cute, bi but leaning hetero, who liked or perhaps needed his alcohol, though for all he drank you never saw him drunk. He was happiest with a vodka & OJ and a packet of Exports. For me, he was a way in, he showed me the bars, down at the heels speakeasies, places to get cheap stuff, he was company. For him, well I was a kid who, despite our very different backgrounds, in some most improbable way seemed to remind him of himself, of his faraway younger brother in Manitoba who I resembled not at all. Nevertheless our pasts were our pasts and we never talked much about them. Given how vastly more difficult Johnny's life had been it would have been a conversation between people from different planets, and equally questions are a luxury not everyone can afford. In December/67 I went to see John Herbert's prison play Fortune And Men's Eyes at Le Centre (home soon to Centaur Theatre) but I never brought it up. As for the state sanctioned mayhem inflicted on Indigenous and Metis lives and its part in how his life had played out, he was easy-going but we'd have needed to know each other a lot longer for him to let much of that out.
Though he'll always be Johnny to me let's call him Glen since that's who he was. (With close relatives possibly still alive, leave it at that.) For a while in his younger years he'd been a favoured companion of a San Francisco porn producer from Montreal known as the Dirty Frenchman and he'd occasionally tell me bits and pieces about gay Montreal of a few years earlier. The only remnant I retained was him falling asleep at the Taverne de Montreal and waking up to bullets flying overhead. The Taverne de Montreal was by 1967 a major hustler bar and I remember it just as a long room, stretching back from St. Laurent, crowded as usual with wooden tavern tables and chairs, and with a fair number of young hustlers socializing among themselves. While there was some glass brick in the frontage, the only real daylight that ever entered was from the door opening as people came and went. I felt the need to be more cautious here than at the Altesse. Gangs tried to take it over but the owner was a particularly tough nut and survived several murder attempts. Better luck than the owner or the pianist at the Jan-Lou, a gay/straight, country & western bar a block or two south.
If you stood at the heart of this area, the intersection of St. Catherine & St. Laurent, in the 1960s and looked in any direction there were clubs, taverns, restaurants, cruise cinemas, tourist rooms that queer people had made theirs, sometime totally sometimes in company of others. You could be gayer here than anywhere else in Montreal. Much of it had seen better days, all of it was full of life and a complexity the downtown places in the west didn't seem to have. In a changing world everything was eventually swept away. (And with the gentrification of gay bar life, never replicated --- probably impossible anyways given the destruction of the Main's ecosystem.) All the east end taverns I now began to go to were francophone and blue collar and by gay Toronto or similar standards they would have been considered at the least rough-edged. (When Lindsay Kemp brought his Genet-based Flowers to Toronto in the late '70s it was almost nostalgic.) Like other Montreal drinking establishments many of these places were said to pay protection to the Mafia or the various other gangs and/or the police.
One of these, the Plateau, was just east of St Laurent on the north side of St. Catherine. Later on I think this became a leather bar, but anytime Glen and I were there it seemed a gay hangout for people who'd done time. A bit of an exception, you'd find more anglos here than you'd expect in the east end, including a few who were alos regulars at the downtown Dominion Square Tavern. Small and extremely plain, a room entered from the street through a tiny vestibule in a front corner, it was so featureless that was its main feature. It had been gay or at least mixed as far back as 1954, probably earlier. The Plateau was hard on waiters, one dying in a gangland slaying in 1964, another in a shooting in the tavern in 1970 (one other person killed, two others injured this go round). It wasn't really somewhere for me by myself, I was referred to there as fish more than once. The first time Glen took me a fight almost started when I chose to leave with him rather than a guy who'd been talking me up. Not sure my sweet youth was the prize, maybe he thought I had a dollar or two despite my penniless ways. After that I kept my head down in the place.
After leaving the Plateau, what Glen and I never did was cross St. Catherine to the nearby Monarch, in shorthand the Zoo. A place that had been around forever, it supposedly had an older crowd. Some of its original patrons, it was rumoured, though no longer breathing were still in their seats. Glen was so down on it I was never curious. Maybe he'd been barred.
A few glimpses of the Monarch, and also the Bellevue, in later times.
The Monarch 162 St. Catherine E.
Charlie and I did take a look at the Monarch in June of '76. Thought to have been gay as far back as the 1930s it too was francophone, and during the Olympics at least, it didn't come across as rumoured i.e. the open grave the Cavaliers in Toronto was sometimes flippantly called by the still-young. On the left side of the building a steep interior set of stairs rising back from St. Catherine brought you to a tired looking second storey space packed with tables,with little room for manoeuvre --- it did seem there might be an unused section at the far end. There's little else that stuck other than the next table being particularly hostile Pequistes. We left after one draft, departed for the more familiar and always wild Bellevue.
The Bellevue 151 St. Catherine E.
When I dropped by the Bellevue in December of '79, it was still as popular. Not much had changed, still tin foil on the ceiling, Christmas lights and strobes, the music as good as ever. Mostly francophone, there were variations to suit everybody including leather, long hair, western, hustler, the just damn cute. Grass passed around freely all evening. A North African guy from Sherbrooke, 30'ish, came and sat with me, big scar on one cheek, a spaced-out teddybear look to him, not unattractive but not attractive. We talked in French. I said very little and understood only half of what he said but only had to nod my head. He asked if I liked men, said he'd only done it a few times, wanted to know if I was South American or Vietnamese (in bars people were always trying to account for me, put their finger on something that puzzled them), also if I had a sister and how old she was. 11:30 and last call, that surprised me, maybe the grass. He got up to go, did up his jacket, returned to speak to me. It came out as a garbled "On ne passe beaucoup", maybe he was suggesting I was cheap? Well you sat down at my table not vice versa. Or maybe I just didn't hear it properly over the music. As he went to the door the waiter came by and took his beer. He turned, returned, took it back, sat for a minute, had a sip, went to the washroom and disappeared forever. Neither to my relief nor disappointment. Moroccans, thought I, pulled down the rabbit hole by his way of carrying himself and his appearance --- a sudden flashback to an Algerian and a crumbling concrete pillbox in France a few years earlier. Another country another story.
In Montreal for a week, I went to the Monarch late one evening in 1985. The crowd was older, downwards on the social scale, the place a joint, beat up. Everybody was drunk and having a good time, someone asked me to move so they could sit with their friend, someone else asked me to dance and when I said no, was put out. After the apology I was a lousy dancer, they gave me a hug. I've got my glasses on, extra pounds on me, am wearing old and dirty clothes, my hair is getting long again. I feel quite at home, tolerated, content, neither keenly desired nor rejected, my French still adequate, if barely. Maybe I should have ignored Glen and tried the place out in the 60's.
Went to the Bellevue around 6pm and stayed most of the evening. Crowded, friendly, lively, like the old Altesse. When I came to the door I was signalled, then shoehorned into a seat along the west wall near the rear, a great table for crowd watching, which is why I stayed so long. I vowed to be calm, tranquil. My exuberance makes people in Toronto uncomfortable and while it might fit better in Montreal it is now a strange city to me. Nobody talked to me but nobody was rude. Lack of French is a real barrier -- decent French that is, rudimentary will still get you picked up. I remained quiet all night, faded into the background, just wanted to watch, enjoy the place itself. The silver foil ceiling is gone, replaced by one with mirrors, there are reflector balls, spotlights, pink neon tubing. The music is really loud but somehow people can still talk easily. All night a parade weaves among the tables. On the walls moving images formed by small flashing lights that go into action every few minutes, one of two guys fucking, another a guy jerking off. A stage against one wall. Dancers come on two or three times during the night. First with clothes on and then off -- for most of the act naked, cock rings and semi-erections part of the show. And three sets by a very tall black performer, Twilight, who may once have lived near Charlie and me on Langley in Toronto. Excellent Diana Ross and Tina Turner numbers. Elegant, graceful, beautiful, raunchy. Abandons lip-synching often to snort poppers one person then another hands up, or to chugalug beer. A friend sends a large bottle and the whole thing has to be downed in one swoop. The beer and the poppers are what turn the audience on and bring them over and Twilight knows it --- complains in a wry, mock-injured voice to the friend who forced the big bottle into the act "I never do that to you". This after having downed several more bottles. With each set the song is abandoned more but the elegance and grace play on. Big, good looking, football player type, Black, passes through and they throw kisses to each other. I've never seen guys this huge in a Toronto bar. Another one moves across the room, enormous, white and in a white T-shirt, jeans, good looking too. Tucked into the back of his pants, the pants not the pocket, either a billy or a huge knife. A leather and lace queen goes by, half leather gear and wearing a long black veil. Toronto people scattered through the audience. The dealing is much more circumspect than in Toronto though. People smoke openly enough but sell with much less show. And it seems more grass and hash than coke and pills, though maybe I just don't see. The waiters are all gay, experienced, thirtyish, the younger ones are kept behind the pumps or clearing tables. Their eye on everything they sing, dance, joke, laugh, keep everybody in a good mood, make people feel welcome. I hope the manager owns a piece of the place. He looks somewhat sternly at me later in the evening after having flirted earlier. Probably I'm not drinking enough, so I increase my tip. When I leave one of the waiters wishes me Salut in a way that makes me feel cared for. A nice touch, for which I'm grateful.
Two other east end places get a mention in passing, just in case they've been wiped from the historical record. There's no reference to them on the internet at the moment.
My notes on the Bellevue say I also went to the California a couple of times that week. Only a name, they contain zero details about the place itself though some about ending up from there at Jean Talon & St. Denis with an albino guy from St. Agathe.
I've put a description of this place in the Notes
Archives de la Ville de Montreal
There was a small tavern, the Oriental (58 St. Catherine O.), in the first block east of the Altesse, on the same south side of St. Catherine. Like many places in the area it didn't take much to get picked up there and it illustrates the nature of the whole distract, that it was gay territory as much as straight no matter how any part of it might be classified. In memory anyways, you stepped right into the Oriental from the street, no vestibule or hall. A plain room though not as cheerless as the Plateau, it and the Plateau must have had glass or a fair bit of glass brick in the frontage since there seemed a decent amount of daylight in both places in the afternoon. Other than those details the only recollection here is being picked up one Saturday afternoon by a couple of older guys, maybe forties or fifties, much younger than I am now of course. (Time passes and here I am here we are, those of us who made it.) The room was fairly empty, they bought me a beer, tempted me with some porn, drove me to their apartment. They declined to part with the porn.
Once in a long while on our way to or from the Altesse Glen and I would drop in at the Only, across St. Catherine, half a block east and up a stairway to the second floor. A bright pink/red neon sign outside bathed the room in pink through a window: small place, big sign, and again the memory so vague it's hardly worth crediting. Maybe there was more room further back, but the front was as far as we ever went. It had a bar rather than tavern licence, so women were allowed. I thought of it as a gay spot but unknown to me at the time it seems to have been lesbian territory too. It was pretty quiet anytime we went, perhaps a matter of timing, maybe the hour, maybe the day. That might account for my not realizing it was also lesbian. No idea if the clientele went beyond that when busy.
Especially towards the end of the week, after the taverns closed at midnight everyone headed for the bars (open until 3am) or maybe something to eat. For the bars I headed west, downtown. For food, a bit east of the Only but before St. Laurent, there was a greasy spoon. In my mind it's an open kitchen, with your order passed over the counter by the cooks. Is that really the way it was, well who knows? Maybe after all these years I've got the kitchen mixed up with some Greek place on the Danforth, part of my after midnight progress in Toronto. In any case, rudimentary, cheap, open late, basic cafeteria with nothing that aspired to decor. Hot food and nobody bothered if you just sat with a coffee for an hour. Big windows on St. Catherine and lively when busy, a definite and large queer presence but straights mixed in -- refugees from the taverns, hustlers, me. It could be interesting. Or depressing -- grey, grubby, lonely, you and one of those chipped cups. Sometimes you just didn't want to go home. Given the gay clientele, would it have made a difference if I'd clued into this place or others like it a few years earlier ? Who can say.
There were other options south on St. Laurent, around the corner, including the Montreal Pool Room where I went that first night with Glen. Later it moved across the street but at this point was still on the west side. A lot of traffic, including gay, arrived there after midnight for steamed hot dogs and sauerkraut. If it was too crowded, as it often was, there were a couple of other pool halls nearby with food counters. There were also other cheap places to eat in the block that everybody from the taverns, gay and otherwise, ended up in at some point. An online comment attached to an article on the Main supplies a bit of the feel of the times, describing the bar/restaurant Peter's Panhellinion: "Peter's bar (Panhellinion) was one of my favorite between 1970 and 1990, a real 'ruff and tuff' place I can say, customer then know the greek owner as Kristo, I remember very well the old waiters Jacques, Raymond and Yvon. Most of the clients was gay but there was also many bikers, pushers, male and female prostitutes, mafia guys like the Dubois Brothers and sometimes tourists . . Everybody there was happy all together, rich and poor without distinction . . "
My own take on the area made no assumptions about everyone being happy together. Maybe you rubbed shoulders but you wanted to avoid accidentally stepping on toes in the process. The Dubois and their enforcers, among others, had no problem with violence, including murdering owners of gay bars. For me there was no particular romance to it all, but there was certainly a more apparent rawness to queer life in the east.
The west, downtown, i.e. anglo Montreal, had another cluster of gay spots -- taverns, bars, dance floors -- on the whole more middle class. While in the east I centred on the Altesse and the Crystal, in this area my main hangouts were the Peel, the Dominion Square, Bud's, and the Strand. Once going to the taverns, theatres like the Strand and the Crystal were less important to me though still part of my life. At least there was less pressure there than in the bars. In most downtown bars there was a good mix of English and French, in the east anglos were, as I said, much less abundant.
The Peel Pub, a basement tavern, fronted on St. Catherine at Peel, kitty corner to the Dominion Square Building of my 1963 summer job. A busy place day and night, it was gay on Saturdays while Monday to Friday it had a straight office worker crowd in the daytime gradually changing over in late afternoon to totally gay. There are references to it being a gay space since the late 1950s. See the Notes for a bit more about its layout.
Always a wanderer, the Peel was part of my regular circuit in the late 60's. Still my most vivid memory of the tavern came from 1976. Down from Toronto for a few days at the Olympics, it was the last hours of our last day in Montreal for Charlie and me. All travel arrangements were set in stone because of the Games, not even a train ticket to be had, and we'd given up our hotel room. On top of which Charlie had a shift to work the next day. We were wandering around the old financial district of Montreal, in those days mostly deserted on a Saturday. Leaning against a building looking forlorn was an attractive guy a few years younger than us, maybe twenty, twenty-one,. What a sweetheart, his name was Charlie too. In port with the navy, he was a sailor as Charlie had also been. Would have been different if we'd met him another day but there was only time to show him the Peel, his first gay tavern. Buying him a beer, we sat an hour providing as much info and hope as we could, then left him in tears as we headed for the airport. There was much regret of course. He was as lonely as we'd each been a decade earlier and knew as little as we'd known. You still had to find your way in.
A block east of the Peel, across from the other (east) side of the Dominion Square Building, the Dominion Square Tavern was the place that second delivery boy at Mitchell Photo had poked his attractive head into in 1963. Gay since at least the 1940s and possibly earlier, the actual room though a bit grubby at this point, was fairly decent, with a decorative ceramic tile wainscotting and other features left over from a more prosperous past. Neither genteel nor bottom of the barrel the place was its own brand of interesting. A mix of blue and white collar and sharing a few rougher customers with the Plateau, on balance it probably trended anglo and older, more guys in their thirties to sixties, some of whom were there for the hustlers. Perhaps because of the company I kept, occasionally I was mistaken here for trade. Certain gentlemen of the filet mignon as foreplay crowd were known to treat those they desired to a good meal at an expensive restaurant as part of the adventure. While I had no price tag, being desired is its own aphrodisiac. Although the Peel Pub had lots of regulars, it also had a fair bit of turnover. In contrast, while older out of towners did know it as convenient for trade the Dominion felt less like people were passing through, more that it was their tavern. (See the Notes for a bit more about its layout.)
Running into him as he exited I once had a short encounter with Benjamin Chee Chee on the sidewalk in front. We stood around for fifteen minutes talking about his troubles with his lover. I couldn't persuade him to come home with me. He did tell me to remember his name because some day he would be famous.
There was a small hotel (remnant of a much larger one) above the tavern where you could rent cheap rooms for a night of whatever. I'd been up once or twice with people from below and like the Tourist Rooms there didn't seem to be any subterfuge about it, with everything obvious and accepted (remember this was the 1960s). At the top of the stairs from the street and just to the right was an actual front desk, unlike a number of Tourist Rooms where front doors sometimes seemed to serve that purpose.
After the downtown taverns closed at midnight and especially towards the weekend, there was a great migration to bars like the Quatre Coins du Monde, Bud's, upstairs to the Hawaiian Lounge and its dance floor, all three of these on the west side of Stanley St. south of St. Catherine.
Or you could head over to the Taureau d'Or on Drummond. It was just a dark bar up a flight of stairs but had a dance floor. I was too shy to dance in the 1960's, the view though could be interesting and it provided one more excuse to stand around. (Soon enough and for a couple of decades dancing became the way I dealt with life. Now if I try blood vessels in my eyes burst. I still dance in my dreams.) Drummond St. had the YMCA decades before the Taureau d'Or opened a few doors south, and became even gayer when a building the next block south was taken over by gay enterpreneurs, possibly the ones who owned the Taureau d'Or. It housed the Cachot and the Tunisie and soon included a gay hotel, though I can't remember how I ended up in it one night. Notice nobody ever took me to the Ritz, or even the Queen E. As a date or a life mine was the economy model, cheap and it could be a bumpy ride but it got you there. Eventually.
The furthest south of the Stanley St. bars, the Quatre Coins (did you step up or down going in?) seemed the most middle class, the clientele pretty staid. But then I only bothered with it occasionally, maybe a late afternoon or early in the night. At 1218 Stanley, like other bars it must have been busy later, and perhaps its nature changed with the hours. The room itself was dark and quiet in the day and early evening, tables and chairs and running up the left side a substantial bar with stools. It felt as though part of some appropriately respectable hotel, perhaps stepping out another door you'd find yourself in a thick-rugged lobby with reception desk and elevators. And perhaps also I exaggerate a little. If I wasn't with Glen then sometimes I'd run into him here. He seemed surprised once or twice when I walked in. Maybe it was an inconvenient moment. At most it would have been some small transaction he was up to, a matter of getting by. We'd go over to Rockhead's Paradise once in a while and he'd make me stand by the door while he went to talk at the other end of what seemed like an enormous room. Things like that, didn't know what it was about, didn't ask.
Bud's, just north of the Quatre Coins at #1250, wasn't yet a leather bar. Quiet before the taverns closed of course, good for a rendez-vous earlier in the evening. It had a younger, fairly boisterous crowd and was the bar where I was most likely to end up after midnight. Strangely though its the place whose details I recall the least. (See the Notes for a very hazy attempt.)
The Hawaiian, 1254 Stanley, the furthest north on the Stanley St. block, had been a mixed club since the 1940s. It might get a brief visit just in passing but that was about it for me. I was up there the New Year's weekend, 1970/71 during my one and only acid trip, having acquired several purple tabs at Bud's. They did have drag shows, etc but, unlike Toronto, I didn't stick around. It had a straight/gay crowd of a kind that did nothing for me and vice versa. In later years The Limelight took over the space and I danced there and downstairs at the packed and vibrating Le Jardin -- where I lost my shoes and ended up running along St. Catherine in mid-winter snow in my sock feet. Many of these downtown places got a decent amount of gay tourism, with the Drummond St. YMCA contributing much to that.
THE END OF MONTREAL
In writing about the 1960s I began with a small cardboard box of odds and ends. Though thinned out over the years it still allows me to be precise about certain things such as how much my room at the Drake cost. Digging around in it right now turns up a matchbook from the Rymark Tavern. A straight tavern across the park from the Dominion Square Tavern, it served a mix of blue and white collar workers, both English and French speaking. Well I know why I have that, it's where Glen worked, where sometimes I'd meet him after I got off at the coffee shop.
Also in the box a small wrinkled photo that he used to carry in his wallet and gave me. It's a school photo of his teenage half-brother (no resemblance to Glen apparent) and on the back in pencil is written "Bruce, School Days". In another hand and in pen: "And Baby Bruce send him back too." There's a story there but beyond his brother being raised in a Manitoba orphanage I can only speculate. Further down the box is a blue tuxedo ruffle, made to button to the front of a dress shirt for frillier occasions. Another Glen remnant, this one from his days in the company of the Dirty Frenchman.
Near the bottom a matchbook from the Downbeat, a mixed club near the Peel Pub that closed after a fire circa 1965. Before my time as far as bars go. So maybe Glen used to go there and it's a fourth remain. Or more likely they handed them out at PJ's, its later replacement, same address, same host, Armand Monroe, Montreal personality, performer, impersonator. (It was PJ's Cabaret when I was there. According to the Gazette it closed down in March of 1971, reopening in July of 1972 as PJ's Tropical Room.)
Like the Monarch, the Hawaiian, the Taureau d'Or, PJ's was up a set of stairs to the second floor. I'd look in, stand around the dance floor for a bit, maybe buy a drink. There were no stage shows anytime I was there. I've seen a photo of the interior and don't recognize it at all, did it have a makeover after it seemingly went on hiatus in 1971? It was just a few steps north on Peel from the Peel Pub and proved a good place to meet people after last call at the tavern. A cute PJs bartender took me home one evening and I stayed for a day with him and his older lover and their album of Marilyn Monroe songs. Miracle of miracles he was that rarity for me, anglo, albeit from Newfoundland. Another time there was this guy, picked me up at PJs, used to be a model and wanted me to look at all his photos, was endlessly excited all night, couldn't remember my name in the morning. In other words it's the usual etc etc etc, people, places, pick-ups all running together, needing parsing to separate out.
Before the bars it was rare for anyone to bring me home or give me their phone number. I was a boring skinny anglo kid and how far out of their closet was anyone going to step for that? Once in the bars and ending up in people's apartments there were the usual matchbooks and scraps of paper with scribbled names and phone numbers, a trail leading from one encounter to the next, more wham-bam-thank-you-sir. When you were young, with no way of recognizing how the hetero culture's hostility shaped the personal even in this part of your world, it could sometimes be difficult. Nonetheless my foot was in the door and I was finally getting at least a glimpse of gay life, even if the part I inhabited with Glen was a niche version.
While it might have seemed still mostly about sex, for me like most people sex had always been about more than simply that. No matter the difficulties and doubts that might be attached, it certainly helped carry more weight than it added. Along with the enjoyment, the distraction from life's problems and frustrations, and the many other things that gave it its power, sex and cruising were part of my search for connection, with other people obviously, but also to ways of fitting with the world. When I did discover I could be an object of interest the sexual side of things also proved useful from time to time in dealing with feelings left over from childhood. In my dim way it was years before I fully understood that was part of the agenda.
From the beginning I'd always bet on my impatient body, less colonized by my upbringing than my brain. The two of them in dialogue often seemed more of a chess game with disembodied me watching from the sidelines. My overheated brain constantly struggled to keep up with the rest of me as it tried to free itself from those notions with which I'd been raised. It did help (really!) that in Montreal it was absorbing at some level the lessons of Quebec's upheaval. Witnessing a colonial mindset being overturned in a few short years was an education in itself, it loosened all chains. When gay lib crossed the street and sidled up in 1971 I was going to be beyond receptive, I was going to fall into its arms with relief. At least being at odds with the world was easier in company.
But at the moment, with no way of adding it up it was just one day at a time in hopes it all led somewhere. Those hopes put a lot of pressure on the taverns, bars, clubs, and ratcheted up the many tensions in my life. The self-consciousness and shyness that complicated my life required strategies for every situation. It was easier outdoors or in the balconies where it was possible to move out of people's gaze. When I went to the bars by myself it was often a matter of trying to be both visible and invisible, distinctive enough that people would notice me, but out of the direct view that would paralyze me. There's no doubt I had a good time once there was someone to talk to. But it was frequently the limit of what I could handle to sit in a corner away from the action, minding my own business until someone sent me a drink or sat down at my table. It worked well enough but certainly affected who I met. As did, at least in Montreal, going around a lot of the time with Glen and/or his friends, who had all been through the prison system and who were the only people I really knew in the gay part of my world. Being seen as chicken dinner for much too long didn't help anything either.
In 1968 I was living in a small apartment building, the top floor of which had been turned into rental rooms -- the usual shared kitchen and bathroom. You didn't see your neighbours much, maybe once in a while in the kitchen. An older German, who had the room next to me, pulled a big chef's knife on me one day, held it to my chest and backed me up to the kitchen counter. Supposedly he objected to my being there in my pajamas. I think it had more to do with my having had a guy in my room the night before. It was crazy and I talked him down, but you never knew where the hazards were.
That same year, Glen and I were coming out of the Plateau. It was night and as we crossed St. Catherine a police car pulled up. Two cops jumped out, guns drawn, shouting at us in French to raise our hands. You really didn't want any attention from Montreal cops, at all. The excuse: we looked like a pair they were after. They marched us to an empty lot, some building had been demolished, held us at gunpoint while they checked out our IDs. Then they let us go. A better ending than other possibles but one more thing added to the pile. (In the 1970s Toronto cops hassled me more than Montreal ones ever had but, at least with me, they kept their guns holstered.)
By the beginning of the next year things were coming apart in Montreal. Yes I had found the bars, went home with people, had this strange involvement with Glen, but life was not exactly offering a way forward. I was taking the coffee cart around to the different floors of the building where I worked. Roll in roll out of the elevator, park in the hallway and tap a little desk bell six or seven times. People strolled out of their offices to buy coffee and snacks. How many floors had I done before realizing my face was wet ? One thing too many somewhere along the line ? It was a mystery to me. The 1950s and '60s had required me to wall off my feelings as best I could but that didn't stop them from throwing me around from time to time. Back into the elevator and down to the basement as the tears continued. I was perfectly functional, felt nothing, no emotion other than bewilderment a person could be crying and be so unaware. If my cheeks weren't wet I wouldn't have known.
I just sat until my boss, alerted the coffee wagon wasn't making its rounds, came and found me. Soon after this my job at the coffee shop came to an end.
Evelyn died in February of '69 and her body was sent back to her hometown, Halifax, where she and Glen had previously lived. He decided he'd done his duty and there was no more reason to stay in Montreal, so prepared to head off to Winnipeg and his home province.
We'd hung around together, or I'd hung on to Glen, for 18 months. There were a few phone calls later, a couple of times I sent small sums of money to help, but the fall of 1969 was the last time we actually saw each other. By then I was living in Toronto and washing dishes on the trains. (Who knew railway diner crews were gay: not me until after I was no longer part of one.) Working for CN on the Rapido between Toronto and Montreal there was an overnight layover on alternate days in each city. For eight or nine months through to the end of 1969 both Montreal and Toronto bars were part of my routine, alongside a Toronto life that now included gay friends, and boyfriends.
At the moment I was being punished with a Winnipeg run by the union steward for taking a sick day. This was the time of full service dining cars and "punished" meant a day and a half up to your elbows in scalding dishwater heated by the train's steam line. By the time we pulled into Winnipeg layers of skin were peeling off in long strips. Maybe when we get back to Toronto look for another job, thought I. Phoning Johnny (let me call him that one last time) on landing, I bought a case of beer and went to visit him and his girlfriend for an hour. An Indigenous woman about my age, he told her I'd been his boy and she sat in my lap and giggled. I said "fo goodness sake", what his old granny up in Pine Falls used to say. Or so he'd once said. And that was the end. More or less. He went to prison one more and ignominious time, then worked as a chef/cook in various places in Manitoba, finally dying of a stroke in 2003.
Back in February it was clearly only downhill for me in Montreal, so on Feb.20/69 I hopped a train for Toronto. My mother had been raised there but other than the rumour there were jobs and the pay was better, it was a total mystery. Getting off at Union Station I put my bags in a locker and headed out to look around.
Still referred to as Hogtown, the city came across as drab, sleepy, and without a centre. Yonge was supposed to be the main drag and I kept walking and walking, wondering where the downtown began. Maybe College St. led somewhere ? First I went east and ended up in Cabbagetown, then west as far as Spadina. A Chinese family had rooms for rent on Beverley St., so I lived there for the next couple of years. A half block up was the then Central Library, where Russians like Pilnyak and Paustovsky for whatever reason became part of my fantasy life. Kensington Market was nearby too and the next day I discovered the Hungarian bakery and florentines. And got a jaywalking ticket. Jaywalking ?! Welcome to English Canada . . .
But that first day, after retrieving my stuff from the train station and stowing it in my room, I went back to Yonge St. to continue the walk north. And within a couple of blocks saw Charlie's, the St. Charles Tavern, with its clock tower. An American had told me about it in a Montreal bar. Without anything to prove my age the waiters refused to serve me. So back to my room for my passport, my only proof, and back to the tavern. Where I sat with my beer wondering what was next. It was still daylight but eventually I probably went home with somebody, as I usually did. Now that I'd more or less figured how things worked, it was somewhere to start.
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GAY LIB EPILOGUE
Go through the damn door, lay it flat --- the need and frustration building through the 1960s, pulling me through the door of the Altesse and into a different world, was for me the propulsive force with that first gay demo on Parliament Hill in August/1971, The Body Politic later that year, Toronto Area Gays and its phoneline in 1975, and much else. Likewise after the 1981 Toronto bath raids the feeling was familiar and the answer the same. With a couple of thousand angry queers trying to break through the doors of the Legislature the night after the raids (I like my concepts concrete but admit to thinking that a step too far) clearly I wasn't the only one with a thing about doors.
As for the choices people made for themselves once through all the real and metaphorical doors, I had enough trouble keeping my own life in reasonable order. Others were more judgmental. The disagreements within and between parts of the gay movement, and the personal acrimony that sometimes accompanied this, often felt too much like a continuation of the conflicts of my not very distant childhood. I found myself going in two directions, contributing what I could but also pulling back and looking for other ways to participate, taking part in actions but not enthusiastic about the dynamics of groups or some of the analysis on offer.
My own analytic acumen hardly dazzled. With each ride I felt the need to reinvent the wheel. That made for slow progress in any direction. I was always a body available for demos and other actions, considered that a duty given how few of us there were for such things. But, just like my mother taught me I suppose, I was also careful what battles I invested much in. (It was probably from my father I inherited the nerve to stick my head above the barricades in the first place. My mother's diffidence and my father's nerve, how was that ever supposed to work?) In early 1991 I went to a couple of tense Queer Nation meetings and it was deja vu, a group of people armed with pink-washed politics and treating each other with the disdain of the self-righteous. With little idea of the past they had no way of knowing how much of it they were recreating.
Gay lib itself was costume change (interior decoration?), it offered people a way of thinking better of themselves and a framework for political demands. What it didn't offer was much insight into queer lives beyond oppression. At least in terms of its usefulness to my own life much of the theorizing since then has seemed simply more costume change, moving around of the furniture --- more a reflection of the chameleon nature of queer lives than an understanding of them.
As for my own queer existence, my resistance to the aggressive and pervasive hetero culture takes it form from my own version of queer life, which at first was a search for companionship. Then it became a search for community. Then it meant a way of being. Now it is queer life as idea, as metaphor in search of meaning, a particular point in the universe from which to look down at the world.
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B) The Bars
C) The Montreal Gazette (formerly The Gazette)
A) General Notes
There's a link to Ross Higgins detailed and very informative thesis on gay Montreal, A Sense of Belonging: Pre-Liberation Space, Symbolics and Leadership in Gay Montreal, at the bottom of the main Website Menu page.
Good sources for dates and addresses and invaluable works for so many reasons are Don McLeod's Lesbian And Gay Liberation In Canada, A Selected Annotated Chronology, 1964-1975 and Ross Higgins' thesis.
In suggesting how long any particular place has been gay or mixed, I've paid attention to what others have found and also done a bit of digging in the archives of The Montreal Gazette (formerly The Gazette). Two other sources were the 1954 Lady Jai Recommended List, circulated in Detroit, and the 1949 Gay Girl's Guide. Lady Jai (Jerry Moore) was the secretary of the Detroit chapter of Mattachine in the late 1950s but compiled the list prior to that for friends who travelled for the auto industry. He seems to have been a publicist for the entertainment industry at the time, dealing with such people as Tallulah Bankhead. He died in 2020 but there is at least one video interview with him on the web. The Gay Girl's Guide was privately printed and networked primarily as a guide to New York City but information for other cities was included. It also covered other topics such as sexual techniques and how to distinguish types of trade, along with fiction and scientific literature suggestions.
Of interest with regards to the Taverne de Montreal and the Jan-Lou are Histoire du Crime Organise a Montreal, 1 & 2, by Pierre Champlain. Also the Montreal website Coolopolis and verious other websites easily found with a web search.
Also interesting are Queering Discourses of Urban Decline: Representing Montreal's Post-World War II "Lower Main" by Julie Podmore; and Remembering Lesbian Bars: Montreal, 1955-1975 by Line Chamberlain.----------------------------------------
B) Notes On The Bars
THE ALTESSE, Taverne Altesse
The Altesse had a long gay history, briefly lost its licence in 1950 because it "tolerated undesirables". It was included in the Lady Jai Recommended List of gay spots in 1954, though listed without an "all the way" asterisk. It's not quite as clear as it should be but I'm taking the lack of asterisk to mean it was thought to be not totally gay but either comfortably mixed or predominantly gay. Confusing the matter there are "S" designations for some bars, meaning "Semi". The guide seems to be a word of mouth compilation so accuracy probably depended on whose mouth and what words. It seems strange for instance to see "Mnt Royal Hotel Tavern" with an asterisk.
I'm confused about where the actual St. Catherine St. front door to the Altesse was. It would have been either the first or the second door west of St. Urbain. While the tavern did have both part of its east side and a side door on St. Urbain it may have had a corner carved out of it right at St. Catherine for a shop or a set of stairs to the second storey or somesuch. It's usually referred to as being at 100 St. Catherine Ouest, a couple of blocks west of St. Laurent, on the southwest corner of the intersection with St. Urbain. But in a news article in The Gazette circa 1959, the address is listed as #100A, with a restaurant at #100. The latter number would have been the corner. My half-century old memory of the layout of the interior, with an indentation to the east at the front seems to say the door itself was a bit west of the corner rather than right on it. But I have no idea whether by 1967 there was still an entrance to some other entity right at the corner. In an expropriation notice in The Gazette in 1972, 100A St. Catherine O. is given as well as 1292 St. Urbain. In another expropriation notice, in 1973 four numbers on St. Catherine and two on St. Urbain are given, presumably because the "Tenant" was the same for all. In 1972 this person is named as Dame Marguerite Roy Desmarais. I don't know if its just coincidence that the Desmarais name also appears in a 1973 cabaret licence application for 1422 Peel, site of PJ's, where the applicant is Mrs. Therese (Desmarais) Buongiorno. As for the general area, the buildings on the south side of St. Catherine were older and pretty non-descript, for the most part three stories. Not much different on the north side east of Place des Arts.
The front door opened from St. Catherine onto a windowless hall wide and long enough to put a few tables along at least one side, possibly it was both sides. This space led into the main room, which immediately widened to the left and right into a square space, perhaps 20-25 tables. Entered from this larger room and behind the west (right) wall of the hallway, was the busy washroom. Urinals against that wall, the stalls possibly at the far end. On the other side of the main room, in the front corner, was an exit to St. Urbain part way along that street from the corner of St. Catherine. I remember that as door either half or fully plate glass. Possibly there was another door for deliveries. Ross Higgins has shown me a photo of the St. Urbain side which says there were at least a couple of head height plate glass windows on this side. These I don't remember. (Maybe he'll let me post the photo sometime, hint nudge wink !!) The photo includes a neon sign in French, "Taverne" as compared to at least the west facing side of the St. Catherine St. sign with its English "Tavern". St. Urbain always felt more of an alley here because there seemed to be parking losts and sides and back ends of buildings including the Comedie-Canadienne auditorium, formerly the home of the Gayety where Lili St Cyr headlined. In 1972-73 the Altesse was caught up in the expropriation that eventually made way for the huge Desjardins complex that wiped out the whole block. I'd be hopeful the Archives de la Ville de Montreal would have more photos of the exterior of the Altesse as part of that expropriation.
(1250 Stanley) was a bit north of the Quatre Coins. Particularly here the specifics have long since faded though I spent more time in it than most other places with a bar licence. It must have been pretty generic. Probably there was some sort of bar along the south side wall, not as substantial as the one at the Quatre Coins. Perhaps more room for tables though I seem to remember doing a lot of standing; washroom maybe down a set of stairs near the front, that part's even hazier.
Listed just so it's not lost to history. Unknown year. No notes on it, but a gay tavern I went to several times on St. Catherine E., quite a bit east, called possibly La Cabane -- a well lit large room, urban sugar shack, the room and furniture all blonde shiny wood. I've thought of this place as early '70s but have no memory that would actually place it in time so it could well have been before or after that. Not to be confused with the later bar on St. Laurent with a similar name.
Included here to make sure the address is on record. The Continental was four doors west of the Altesse, at #108. I walked by it often but other than the name sticking in my head and possibly looking in once or twice, I remember nothing. It had a neon sign to rival others on the street. Viviane Namaste makes reference to it in C'etait du Spectacle!: L'histoire des artistes transsexuelles a Montreal. Also referenced in the area were the Only, Altesse, Taverne de Montreal, Rialto, and Blue Sky. To put a slightly different spin on those references, it would suggest that those places that had perfomances did have drag shows, and those that didn't were at least friendly to queens and (in later terminology) trans women.
DOMINION SQUARE TAVERN
1243 Metcalfe. Listed as a gay bar in the 1949 Gay Girl's Guide. The guide also lists the Hawaiian, Penguin, Peel Tavern, Samovar and Tic Toc iu Montreal. Strangely Lady Jai doesn't include the DST at all, which speaks to the haphazardness of these guides. Can't remember where in the room the beer came from but if you were hungry you could get more than a pickled egg. The Gazette mentions it in 1950 as a "mecca of ad and radio men and musicians". Perhaps this was just a lunchtime crowd. If there was a straight lunchtime crowd during the week in the 1960s the changeover to gay was much earlier in the afternoon than at the Peel Pub. It was a rectangular, narrow room, the frontage much less than the depth. There's a vague recollection of a raised area on the right, possibly towards the back, with a wooden railing. The bathroom was on the left (north) towards the front and down a set of stairs and sometimes things could happen there. The actual room is still there, operating as a restaurant under the same name. Their website mentions people using a back door when it was gay but that doesn't register, people entered and left via Metcalfe. Any back door that existed wasn't a major portal in the 1960s. Online photos of the current place show a bar along the right side that wasn't there in my day. The ceramic wall tiles in the photos took me right back. If not as clean and shiny as now, the present room i.e. walls. floor, ceiling is in fact the original room, the bones were good, better than most.
TAVERNE DE MONTREAL
The Taverne de Montreal, 1415 St. Laurent, was in the first block north of St. Catherine, a few doors up. It had a bit of glass brick at the front but the little daylight that entered was mostly a matter of the front door opening as people came and went. It was a long, fairly narrow (not as narrow as the Dominion Square) room running back from St. Catherine, filled with wooden chairs and tables. We're talking over half a century ago so that's as clear as the picture gets. Well not as clear, as with other places I can see it in glimpses either hard to be sure of or to put into words.
1107 St. Catherine O. The main door was set into a cubbyhole on St. Catherine, with the name spelled out above it. This and the side door onto Peel at the far end, constituted the only street frontage, the rest taken up by, I think, a ground floor drugstore. A basement tavern, both doors opened to landings and a flight of stairs down. The room itself was large, square, and fairly well lit for a tavern. The washrooms were under the front stairs and the beer came from beside the back stairs as I remember, but get a second opinion about it all. Not to be confused with the Peel Pub of the 21st century further south on Peel or an earlier gay spot to the north, the Peel Tavern.
PLATEAU, Taverne le Plateau
Located at 71 St. Catherine E., around the corner from the Taverne de Montreal, the Plateau briefly lost its licence in 1949, though its not clear whether that was for the same reason as the Altesse i.e. tolerating undesirables. Like the Altesse it was included in the 1954 Lady Jai Recommended List of gay spots, without an "all the way" asterisk.----------------------------------------
C) Gazette Articles (now The Montreal Gazette):
Sept.3, 1949 Mention of raid on the Plateau Tavern as part of a "district wide tavern clean-up". According to the article all beverages were seized and the owner's licence cancelled.
Nov.15, 1949 Mention of the address of the Oriental Tavern
Feb.16,1950 Acquittal in murder trial after a fight in front of the tavern, originating from an argument inside the Plateau.
March 16, 1950 The Altesse loses its beer licence and is ordered closed because it "tolerated undesirables and was often the scene of fighting"
March 18, 1950 "The Dominion Square Tavern, mecca of ad and radio men and musicians, serving green beer yesterday"
Sept.30, 1959 Breakin at the Altesse, 100A St. Catherine. West, and the Kent Lee Restaurant, 100 St. Catherine West.
Nov. 17, 1964 Surrender of a person wanted for the murder of a Plateau waiter.
Mar.28, 1966 Mention of raids on the Plateau and the Altesse in which minors were taken into custody.
July 25, 1966 Article on raids on several establishments in search of those under the drinking age of 20, with 35 people taken into custody from the Plateau. It's stated that those found to be minors were released to the custody of their parents, pending court actions.
Jan.3, 1970 First brief article on shooting at the Plateau.
Jan.5, 1970 Further coverage of murder of two people at the Plateau, including a waiter. Two other customers were shot but survived.
August 6,1971 Notice of application to Quebec Liquor Board for Dining Room - Bar, - Cabaret permit, 1422 Peel St., by Philippe Beauchemin, Tropical Room Inc.
July 5, 1972 "Also open again after a long time (15 months closed) PJ's Cabaret on Peel, now called the Tropical Room"
Nov.20, 1972 Expropriation notice for the Altesse, listing the address as 100A St. Catherine, 1292 St. Urbain, Tenant: Taverne Altesse as Dame Marguerite Roy Desmarais
July 6, 1973 Notice of application to Quebec Liquor Board for Cabaret permit, 1422 Peel St., by Mrs. Therese (Desmarais) Buongiorno. Tropical Room Inc.
July 7, 1973 Another expropriation notice for the Altesse, listing 100-104 St. Catherine and 1292-94 St. Urbain, Tenant: Dame Marguerite Roy (Taverne Altesse)
Oct.12,13,17,19,21, 1972 Murders at the Jan-Lou
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