I never felt comfortable within my own skin until thirty, maybe not even then. My childhood dream was simple: survive high school as a closeted gay nerd living in the country, move to Toronto, and cut all ties to my life prior.
Having absorbed all the Disney fairy-tales, the basis of my plan was that all I had to do was run away to my magic kingdom, and I would go from having cow dung on my boots to being one with my own kind. What I didn’t know was that my magic kingdom was inhabited by people full of their own traumas.
Before the advent of apps, if you wanted to meet people, you went to the bars. You had to BE the profile pic. All the people my own age were struggling to either create their own spotlight, jostling to be the belle of the ball, or were stepping into the shadows, to avoid being lumped into society’s perception of gay. It just seemed wherever I went, my clothes were wrong, my voice was wrong, and my country-boy naïveté was an embarrassment.
There weren’t many options to just meet other gay people. Most of the purely social clubs revolved around sports, and one had to be out to go out to those. Inside the safety of the bars, one could be part of the pool league.
I loved watching the pool leagues play. Teams were quilted from people of different swatches that may not have hung out, if not from their love of the game. Out-of-drag queens, leather clones, bookish types, and down-low ‘straights’ roared their support to each other over those last crucial shots of the season. I barely noticed that away from the table, some never spoke to each other at all.
Still, I wanted to be part of that. So, I sat, I watched, and was observed.
My favorite bar was an eclectic assortment of people and entertainment. Each area was its own zone, where people had space to be themselves, and change their mood by changing their seat. The older gents tended to congregate at the front piano bar, talking uproariously about anything but their own life outside of the bar; the back bar featured handsome bartenders demonstrating the art of flirting, while wait staff made the continuous circuit of a small showroom/dance floor and seated area. The upstairs bar held the pool tables.
The flavor of upstairs could change a lot, depending who was on the bar, but there were always a few regulars rotating between the bar for an honest talk, and the pool tables for a good game. There was also a back patio, where the owner quietly let it be known that provided people were not making trouble, they could go to smoke a joint, after someone had gotten attacked in the back alley after going for a puff.
It was in the upstairs bar that I met Newfie Dennis, aka The Bitch.
Newfie Dennis was shy of six feet, paradoxically seemingly taller yet smaller with an ectomorphic build that was usually clad in flannel shirts and jeans slightly too big and bulky for his frame. He had a high voice, a thick accent and could not care less what most people thought about him. He ran his own cleaning business, which used to be his and his late partner’s, and worked six days a week because he wanted to be busy, not because he had to. He had a beautiful condo in a luxury building, simply but tastefully decorated.
Because he had his own business with well-to-do clients who respected him; had known true love; and had a family back home that knew he was gay and did not care, he did not need the approval of anyone else, especially some drunk in a bar. His nickname of ‘The Bitch’ came from the way that he could slice someone up while joking with them, or chop them as fine as deli counter coleslaw when he wasn’t.
It had probably been about two months of me coming to out, and having seen Dennis playing league games at other bars before we spoke. Even nowadays, I don’t normally say hello to someone in real life unless they speak to me first. Back then I was also perfectly conditioned to be polite and chat with anyone, until they gave me reason not to. Dennis did give me friendly nods, but I didn’t know if I could trust a friendly overture by someone who’s friends even called them The Bitch.
I was sitting by myself at a table upstairs, people watching when a smiling older guy turned from the bar and sat down, a pair of shooters in hand, one which he slid to me. “Mind if I join you, handsome?”
“Uh, sure. Thank you,” I managed.
He smiled as he cheered me with his shot, but the smile was replaced by a snarl as someone crashed hard into my arm, spilling the shooter.
“Oh fuck, dat’s a mess, bye, let’s get you cleaned up and I’ll get you anudder drink. ‘Sides, we’s just about to go smoke dat joint anyways. We’ll be right back,” came a fast, thick Newfie drawl.
His bony frame hid sinewy strength, as he pulled me a few steps away into the bathroom and ran water to blot black sambuca with paper towels.
“Hold up until we’re outside, my son,” he muttered, before laughing more loudly for other ears, “Oh hell, the mess I done made of you, bye. Let’s get you out to dry.”
It was late summer, later afternoon on the back patio. It was rarely used at that time, devoid of direct light. He sat me on the bench away from the window and stood in front of me, where he had vantage of seeing inside, before pulling out a thin joint.
“I sees you here and you sees me too, enough to know that I don’t bullshit, and I gots a big mouth. So, I’m going to ask you something, and wants you to know that whichever way you answer I can still be friends with you. Are you a rentboy?”
“Lord Jesus, saves us. A rentboy. A hooker. A prostitute. You’re a young guy, you don’t have a lot of people you talk to. People talk.”
I’m not sure what my face looked like, but Dennis laughed hard and genuinely, not just show for the man inside watching from the table. He lit the joint, took a drag, and passed it to me.
“Just puff if you don’t smoke, takes a drag if you do,” he instructed, “just so you smells like pot when you go back.”
I took a careful drag, trying not to choke.
“So, you ain’t a rentboy. You play pool?”
“Sometimes with my brother, but I’m not very good.”
“Good enough. We go back in; I’ll buys you a drink; and we’re shooting pool and you tells me your life story.
Now listen, that guy likes to beat up strays and rentboys. Nothing wrong with a little slap and tickle, but he’d bust you up. Bastard goes for ones he knows ain’t out, or won’t say anything or no one’s gonna care about. And he spiked your drink. I sees him do it. Probably thinking he’d beat you up, and not pay. Beat up a friend real bad.”
That evening was a whirl, mercifully not from any unknown compound. Dennis got the guy barred; I met a score of people playing pool; and by the end of night I had picked up the ebb and flow of his speech.
Evenings turned to years of pool, friendship and me coming into my own. Dennis delightedly encouraged me at everything. I tried my hand at drag, and he would bring me gaudy sets of jewelry from yard sales. We talked about my limited food experiences, and he would invite me for dinner, specifically cooking things I did not like.
Once when visiting, Dennis noted that I had various rocks and crystals that I had collected as mementoes. Not long later, he came to the bar with a heavy bag for me, and I unwrapped it to find a large flat piece of iron pyrite.
“Fool’s gold! I’ve never seen a piece this size!”
“You know what it is!” he said, delighted. “My clients are lining flower beds with stones, and didn’t like this one. Not worth nothing, but I thought you’d like it.”
Those were fun years. Then, he began to avoid me as I started loving just being myself.
I’d walk into the bar; his eyes would settle briefly before he turned away into the crowd. He would come later, when it was harder to find time to talk. On the few occasions I could speak to him, it was one-word grunts, until I walked away. Occasionally, I would see friends whispering with him, pointing at me. I would sometimes see him staring at me on the dance floor with the strangest expression, only to vanish as I made my way over.
Eventually, I stopped trying. Because of that, I couldn’t say when he was gone.
I sat at the bar one day, hoping to see him. I needed to know what I had done wrong. As the night wore on, I asked the bartender if he had seen Dennis.
“Oh hell, he never did tell you, did he?” the bartender said.
“No, I don’t know what I did!”
He poured two shots, discretely downing one, and sliding me the other, to be marked ‘spillage’ in his notes.
The bartender smiled, lips quavering, eyes already overflowing. “Honey, you didn’t do a damn thing, except be a good friend. His meds stopped working. He went back home to be with his family and kill himself. Didn’t want anyone else see him get sicker. Especially you. He figured you were ok now. But I’m pissed The Bitch left it to me to tell you.”
He slid me a beer, and moved to the other end of the bar to serve, trying not to look at my face.
Fast forward to a few summers ago: late afternoon on a different bar on a patio, a group of guys talking about how the scene had changed, trying to remember bars long gone. I mentioned Trax, and someone sneered their distaste about that “old guys’ bar”. He had celebrated his fiftieth not long before then.
I retorted, “The average age in Trax was 40. You must know kids now refer to THIS bar as the “old guys bar” now.”
“Well, you only see a handful of old guys in this place,” he blustered.
Before I could reply, an unnoticed older man, with the facial wasting of a long-term AIDS survivor softly stated, “that’s because most of the guys who were in their forties and older then are dead.
“If we’re lucky, we get to tell other people of good time at a better bar. But even if you had the best night of your life, someone else was having a terrible time. Someone was breaking up, while someone else found love. Someone was drowning away a positive test, while someone else was celebrating being accepted by family. Not too different now, maybe easier for some. Less funerals these days, thank God. Sick of funerals.”
The group slid away; the older man laughing as the door closed behind them. “Some people just don’t get it when they got it good. Oh well.”
He saluted me with his beer. “I loved that bar. Hey, did you know Newfie Dennis?”