SHUT OUT IN PLAIN SIGHT:
In Search of Queer Life
MONTREAL, VANCOUVER 1964-66
Montreal 1964-65June,1964, a couple of months shy of seventeen, I've left home and am now living and working in Montreal.
The Royal Bank at Park & Bernard, my first day and I was late and trembling with my changed circumstances. Bank branch junior, a bottom of the ladder, file under cabin boy position at least beat the afflictions of home and high school. Mostly about running around to Orthodox Jewish and Greek businesses replacing old promissory notes with new, the only thing that made much impression was the amount of garlic the bank's clients seemed to consume. For comic relief there was occasional delivery of cash to another branch: riding a bus with one of the accountants plus a leather briefcase. He carried an enormous holstered pistol but were we really expected to defend the briefcase? Eventually I was promoted to teller, in a time when any shortage at the end of the day came out of your salary. Even with their own employees banks always had their thumb on the scale.
Home was now a room in a stone building a block from the bank. Significantly it was also only a fifteen minute stroll from Parc du Mont Royal. On weekend afternoons the grassy slope of the park was spread with lounging hetero families and couples. Beyond was the Olmsted Path with its cruisy trails and its cautious appraisals: am-I-interested? is-he? or-is-he-going-to-attack-me? arrest-me? Weird if you stopped to think about it, but who did ?
There could be particularly bizarre moments. Two or three in the morning, it had started to rain and a number of people wandered down to the shelter of the roofed bandstand near the Cartier monument. This was probably late spring 1965, I would have been seventeen by then. A young woman, early twenties, and three or four men, varying ages, a bit older, were gathered smoking. As I cautiously approached she was mocking them for hanging out in the park. Even a bit of thunder and lightning overhead, the debate, more monologue really, was over what women had to deal with versus queers creeping around in the woods in the night. It was a mystery why she was there or how it had started but clearly she felt secure. Rather resentful, I threw in a few words. This went on and back and forth for 15 minutes, a scene from some overwrought Euromovie. And then, rain slowing to a sprinkle, people just wandered off as though a work break had ended.
Just up the slope from this Antonioni outtake, and off that Olmsted Path, I had my first sexual encounter one Saturday afternoon soon after moving to Montreal, in truth as soon as possible after moving to Montreal. A small Italian man, probably in his early thirties, he spoke little English or French, wore immaculate jeans panelled at the bottom with several inches of turned up cuff. We did our thing, all he had to do was touch me to finish me off, and then, like a rabbit escaping the big (well, little) bad wolf, I ran from the trees to the grass, trying to pull up my pants as I sped past bewildered picnickers enjoying their day.
After that it didn't take long to discover the Rialto, a once elegant movie house on Park Ave. with busy balcony back rows. That led me to investigate the much more cruisy Strand and other cinemas downtown. With the Rialto I'm working on fumes alone, the wisp of a memory. Practically calling to me, it was conveniently around the corner from my room. An omnivorous reader, consuming newspapers, magazines, novels, poetry, plays, my attention was also automatically drawn to anything with a hint of gay content. So perhaps something in City of Night, or Last Exit to Brooklyn, or who knows what made me check out the possibilities of the Rialto. Probably I got to the balconies before the books though so maybe it was instinct well-goosed by the sight of likely men heading upstairs as I entered. In any case cruising the parks, movie houses, and streets and generally just roaming the night became my avenues to connection. Such as they were, such as it was.
While these things showed up on my radar right away, what took several years to find were gay bars, my sexual encounters in the meantime being fleeting things with uncommunicative men older than myself (bearing in mind even someone in their twenties was older). Most of these men were seemingly closeted and unaware like me, and at best they were unhelpfully vague when it came to conversation. People took me for younger than I was and that also affected who was interested and what they would tell me. Though they didn't mind having sex those I did score with didn't want to know or be in public with me or probably anyone else met under such circumstances. (This clearly wasn't everyone's teenage experience but lucky them. Whatever other gay teenagers were up to in my time in Montreal we didn't cross paths.) In bars in a later era I'd sometimes come across men like the ones I was having sex with here, particularly closeted people who wanted me to go with them but didn't want to be seen with me. A conundrum. For them at least.
Because I'd read brief hints about establishments of some sort, supposedly in Old Montreal, where "perverts" and "degenerates" could be found much of my time was spent exploring that area. As the search expanded to other parts of the city it at least supplied me with an education in Montreal byways and alleys and the fragrant scents and strange stinks that permeated the city at different times of year. Being my first city everything was twice as vivid and Montreal itself became part of me. For that and other reasons it took a long time to get used to Toronto later.
Though ever grateful for sex my hopes did include companionship, talking with, being around people like myself. What still roams its own padded room in my head is the loneliness, the overwhelming sense of isolation of those years. Only after a move to Vancouver for eight months, circa 1965-66, and the subsequent return to Montreal did I finally discover, in later 1967, the Altesse and then a host of other taverns and bars. The cultural suppression and the self-censorship that affected gay life led to it being both hidden and not. Once you made your way in you realized it was all around, shut out in plain sight. It turns out there were hints in the tabloids but that was a much after the fact discovery.
My clueless nature didn't help, gaydar is apparently not parcelled out equally to all. In 1963, still living at home, I'd had a summer job as a delivery boy with Mitchell Photo in the Dominion Square Building in downtown Montreal. The south entrance to this building faced the cruisy square after which it had been named. Meanwhile across Metcalfe St. from the east entrance was the Dominion Square Tavern, one of the city's longest running gay taverns. And kitty corner to the west side was the Peel Pub which seems by this point to have also been gay or at least mixed.
One mid-afternoon the other, somewhat older and quite cute delivery boy at Mitchell's peeked in the the Dominion Square and was greeted with a chorus of wolf whistles from a room full of men. He returned to the store totally mystified, asked one of the women working there what that was all about. She just shrugged. The memory stuck but it never occurred to me to check out the DST in those years of searching for gay bars. At most the whistling had seemed to me a taunting of someone too young to be there, signalling them to get out. So add obtuseness to naivety in explanation of why it took me so long to find my first bar. Gay 101 was pinball with a blindfold, a series of ricochets until you somehow scored.
When it comes to gay life being both hidden and not it's also worth mentioning the only gay erotica generally available, the small physique magazines directed at gay audiences. A bit larger than a paperback, but only magazine thick, they were filled with mostly black and white photos of young men in posing straps. The queer cousin of bodybuilder magazines, it took a bit of searching to discover where they were hidden on the shelves. Not stocked by every magazine store but fairly widely sold in the city, I first discovered them up in Park Extension while renting a room there from the Engels, an older Jewish couple whose lives revolved around their budgies. Taking no chance my stash of these mags was kept well out of sight in the bottom of a padlocked trunk.
Beyond work and cruising my only social life consisted of monthly meetings of the Playwrights Workshop at a Place Ville Marie cinema. My high school skit (described in Family, Religion, High School) was the only stage piece I ever attempted and I had no further ambitions in that direction. But in 1964 for the annual price of a dollar an associate membership allowed me to sit and listen to people talking about and reading drafts of their plays. It at least put me among people interested in words and was about all the theatre I could afford at the time.
In late 1965 I took off for Vancouver, a $43 dollar train ticket and 4,500 kilometres away. A small city compared to Montreal but an adventure, it was different not only from Quebec but of course from how it is now. My eight dollar a week room at Powell & Princess, a couple of floors above the beer parlour of the Drake Hotel, looked out over a junkyard towards the Strait and I could glimpse ships and freight trains and smell the salt air hear the ever-present seagulls. The Drake, several storeys of small rooms each with sink, reasonable bed, linoleum-covered floor, one or two toilets and showers per storey, anchored the west end of Vancouver's skid row. Home to men off the fishing boats, dockworkers, Indigenous and transient people it was cheap and clean. The women were mostly girlfriends of the men, plus women who did the daily cleaning, sometimes one and the same.
In the night the screaming and wailing from some of the rooms could freak you out but the couple who managed the place, the Leans, were good people. While looking for a job my money ran out and they let the rent slide in the meantime. Other than a Christmas present of $20 from my mother what had kept me going until then were a few silver dollars saved as a teller from bank deposits. They turned out to be worth $10-15 each at a local coin store. After a couple of false starts I landed a spot as a busboy at a restaurant downtown on Howe St. Not having eaten for a week, more of a surprise than a drastic privation for a healthy teenager, I had to keep from drooling during the aroma-filled interview. Ironically, a block from the Drake people waiting to be fed lined up every day at a soup kitchen in the local park. Yet again clueless, I was still the timid small-town kid banging around the city.
The Steak House manager was British, the hostess Canadian, the owners Chinese, the maitre d' Portuguese, as were the waiters except for a couple of Greeks, the chef and cooks were German and Chinese. In a faux Russian touch Lara's Theme from Dr. Zhivago was in heavy rotation that year with the organist, a small man in some way part of the network of cousins and in-laws who worked there. My job required a cheap pair of black pants and a white shirt, but since I was totally broke, not a penny in my pocket, the restaurant loaned me money to pick them up at Woolworths. While people can indeed be cruel, they can also be kind.
Besides clearing tables, folding napkins in pretty ways, and a million other tasks, busboys served diners with fixings for the baked potatoes that went with every meal. Baby-faced, not shaving yet, this often led to concern I should be in school, or home tucked up in bed. As I twirled my lazy susan and recited the choices - parmesan, bacon, sour cream, chives - motherly sighs slipped from the mouths of women clearly without intentions towards motherhood anytime soon. Was I actually hired in hopes sweet youth would help goose the tips? Especially at night the money that changed hands was mind-boggling to me. There were a lot of people with incredible expense accounts and a tab in a booth, including liquor, had been known to reach $1,000-, particularly with one big spender for whom the restaurant would stay open as late as he pleased.
Worked off our feet from the moment the doors opened, I outlasted several busboys who couldn't take the pace. (Saturday evening two busboys weren't enough to handle the volume and a third had to be hired.) A two hour afternoon break between shifts made for an even longer day, stretching it from 10 am to midnight, but this also meant I could wander the city in daylight, cruise the streets after dark on the long walk home. There was a conflict between my work week and the labour laws which required either overtime or time off. So sometimes there was an extra day or two at the beginning of the week in which to explore the city; and the Vancouver library. A revelation --- public libraries weren't exactly abundant in Quebec, particularly English ones.
Making $30 a week, plus occasional overtime and whatever tips the waiters shared, my bare bones life meant I had cash in my wallet. It went in installments to the Gallery of The Golden Key for a few paintings and provided a time and place friendship with the gallery owners Denise and (artist) Daniel Izzard. Once in a while I'd pass along stories of mine to read. In that department it eventually became clear to me I had nothing to say and didn't say it very well. As for the paintings, within a year they became wedding presents for my middle brother. Precious library card marking my place in whatever book in my hand, the smell of the oils had filled my room in these months. It mixed with the salt air as I'd sit by the open window looking across the inlet to the mountains. The world neither before nor after ever felt so full of possibilities.
The Steakhouse was actually my second job in Vancouver, for a few weeks I harvested salal, a florist greenery. Picked up at a street corner downtown, we'd be driven across the Lion's Gate bridge to the mountains on the north shore where it grew wild. Our crew would be let loose with loop-ended wires and small wood-handled tools, the latter used to twirl the wires tight around the bunched salal. Eventually it became clear to the crew boss I was gay. On the way back one afternoon he made a comment about a "faggot" bar while looking in the rear view mirror at me. I froze, couldn't look out the window at it and never did figure out where it was. They didn't have me back on the crew and stiffed me for that last week's work. You live, you learn. I still have the little twirly thingamabob with the bright red handle. And got to ride around a few times with a nice Northern Irish kid on the crew who owned an old red MG. So it wasn't a total loss.
Before this I'd tried out for a crew selling magazine subscriptions to Macleans, the Saturday Evening Post, etc. It blitzed different neighbourhoods each day and we were trained to deliver a script that in the end seemed all about misleading mostly elderly people into signing up for magazines they neither wanted nor could afford. After a day's rehearsal you went door to door for a few hours with an experienced hand to see the patter in action. I got as far as that but it felt totally dishonest and kind of disgusting, so that was the end of it. The remains of the cheesy sales script is another souvenir.
As for that other agenda, sex, for me it remained mostly about balcony back rows in Vancouver. You wouldn't find activity in every cheap cinema, but the price of admission was certainly a major clue. There was one particularly active theatre that served as my main outlet but I no longer remember its name. A few years later a small news article in some also forgotten newspaper or newsletter said it had been shut down by the Vancouver health department. The first time at this now nameless homosex haven someone asked if I wanted to go to their nearby room. That was particularly interesting, nobody had ever made such an offer before. He was a really hefty man, but this was neither here nor there to me. Nevertheless when we got undressed and into bed, another first, he was so large I truthfully couldn't figure out how we were going to manage and told him I'd rather leave. What has always stuck was how meekly he accepted that, the thought perhaps he'd expected it.
Though Vancouver streets weren't as cruisy as Montreal's there was one guy in his twenties who sometimes picked me up in his car late at night on my walk home. Taking me back to his basement apartment he'd put me in ballet tights. The endgame was always sex but my constant erection spoiled the dancer fantasy for him and he was always chastising me.
Once or twice he took me to a steambath rather than his apartment. For the historical record, and filtered through the many steambaths and decades since, my impression was of a well built place, the lobby solid, possibly stone. There was a wicket to one side of this lobby. While it may be a confusion with the old Oak Leaf baths in Toronto there might have been heavy felt curtains instead of a door/doors somewhere in the mix. And there seemed to be entry from some of the rooms directly into the steam room. But it really is all a fog . . . Though it still felt wholly sexual the routine with this man at least involved more time together. I wonder now what we talked about, we must have talked. Gary B. with a North Burnaby address is written in the small address book I used for 25 years, could that be him . . . ?
At some point there was an ad in The Province or The Sun from a filmmaker looking for a part-time assistant. After Mr. Ballet Tights, who was in fact a nice guy whose face I still remember, this turned into the second time I actually had something other than momentary contact with a sexual partner. My appointment brought me to an industrial lot. On the lot was a trailer. What was this, did I really want to go in there? I'd seen my share of movies where the soon to be deceased should have known better . . .
Not being muscular I always proceeded with a certain amount of caution. A girl I'd known from school was strangled in a motel room north of Montreal around this time and it served as additional warning. While I rarely felt in danger in an apartment or room, public places like bars, parks, or streets & alleys were another matter. One of the few instances of major trouble in private space found me trapped in a hotel room in the later 1970s. And I talked my way out, albeit with great difficulty. For me personally, the 1980s were the most violent, but through the decades there were great stretches of time when I knew few gay people who had not had to deal with physical attack in some form, from incidental to the truly horrific. The potential was just something you lived with. Hardly unique to gay males, keeping an eye out was part of the territory.
The trailer turned out to be full of equipment: movie and still cameras, lights, etc. At the far end was a bed where said filmmaker was soon jerking me off while listening to my heartbeat. I'm not sure whether he just made porn, or if he even did, but I wouldn't let him take any photos of me. In any case my heart must have danced to the appropriate beat since I got the job. It was genuine enough, if not as described. Probably in his forties, he maintained equipment at a TV station and needed someone to work with him. He tried to train me on my days off, but it was all knobs and dials and wiring. Being hopeless at that kind of thing myself, possibly wilfully, we eventually lost patience with one another. Given the business(es) he was in it seems unlikely I could have been the only gay person he knew but there was never the least suggestion otherwise. During weeks of contact he never introduced me to anyone else, nor was I able to extract any info about gay life or where people congregated.
Despite episodes like these, sex, as I've already said, continued to be mostly about balconies. And certainly less about park cruising than Montreal --- Stanley Park offered opportunity but the seashore rather than the trees was what drew me. Burrard Inlet with its ships, rocks, flotsam and shells fascinated me. The remaining sense of the seacoast frontier town it had once been was part of Vancouver's appeal. Relatively young, the bones of its initial development felt not far from the surface, not yet layered with the years. But that also brought with it a further feeling of isolation. Besides, Expo 67 was on the way. So if Australia wasn't in my future I might as well head back to Montreal. Still, whatever else, I had felt gloriously alive in Vancouver.
Click Here For Shut Out In Plain Sight, Part 2: Montreal 1966-69.