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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible






Down and Out in the Dufferin

Vancouver, Canada: May 2003. I am staying in the West End district with Marcus and the absent Jon, in a fourteenth floor apartment surrounded by other high-rises standing at a discreet distance. In the distance lie English Bay to the west with its sailboats and tankers, and snow-capped mountains to the north. The clean glass and concrete buildings exude a quiet affluence, capped by the maple leaf flag waving peacefully at the top of the Landmark Hotel. An underlying theme is the rainbow flag fluttering on my friends' balcony and its companions visible on several neighbouring buildings.

140 feet below, the perspective shifts. The rainbows are more prominent, lining a mile or so of Davie Street, but gay men and lesbians here in "Davie Village" are still a minority and men perceived to be gay are still attacked by other young men less sure of their sexuality. Meanwhile, the neighbourhood's affluence is fading, along with the few remaining Victorian houses. Young and middle-aged beggars line the streets. They are mostly peaceful and only hesitantly ask for money, but it is clear that for many their lives are dominated by the recurring need for heroin or cocaine, alcohol or nicotine. 

Yet there is a gay community here. Follow Chris, an old friend who has spent most of the last twenty years tending bar here, on his return after three months away. In the Pumpjack, where we have our first drinks, conversation is repeatedly interrupted by others greeting and hugging him, offering kisses and smiles. Nothing exuberant, of course. This is Canada, where loud voices are unwelcome and whoops are illegal, except when the Canucks win a hockey game. Sometimes he introduces these acquaintances, at other times he explains afterwards that he has forgotten their names. Eventually we leave, but walking down the street we stop again and again as hellos are exchanged. At last, several blocks from Davie, we reach the Dufferin, where he has tended bar for most of the past twenty years. Here, he knows half the customers, particularly the older men with weatherbeaten faces and smiles that tell you that they have seen everything that life has to offer and they are still not impressed.

Ah, the Dufferin... I first came here in 1987 and apart from minor rebuilding, nothing has changed. In the distant past it was a biker bar, then lesbians took up residence (some prejudiced wits might say that nobody noticed the difference), but since the mid-1980s it has been home to gay men and their friends. It is the most ethnically-mixed of the city's bars, with black, Latino, Inuit and other First Nations mingling easily; only East Asians are underrepresented, surprising in a city where perhaps one in three is of Chinese descent. There are always a few Real Women and a few Drag Queens and most of the time it is easy to tell the difference. Midweek, when it is half-empty, its customers are often down on their luck or never had much luck in the first place; at weekends clients tend to have more money to spend. And while it tolerates no illegal drug use, many of the young men, especially mid-week, are familiar with chemical concoctions that William Burroughs, Aldous Huxley, Timothy O'Leary, Hunter S Thompson, and others would be happy to experiment with. 

The Dufferin was the first and only place that I have drunk redeye; the idea of lager and tomato juice sounded as uninviting as lager and lime or lager and cranberry to the uninitiated, but I liked it  -  unlike the clameye (lager with tomato and clam juice) which has replaced it. And the three bars of the Dufferin are one of the few places in the world where I invariably find someone to talk to and invariably find the conversation enjoyable. The fact that Canadians drink steadily and that I, always here on holiday, am happy to drink with them, no doubt helps the process.

And so the other night, Marcus and I arrived at one of the Duff's three bars in time for the last of the evening's drag acts: an elderly Cher followed by an athletic Liza Minelli. I was accosted by the resident shoeblack, in his thirties, rotund, camp, goateed and talkative, who persuaded me that my shoes indeed needed polishing. I paid three dollars (Canadian), plus one in tip for an efficient shine and wondered how successful such an initiative would be in London.

My feet sparkling and the entertainment at an end, we moved down to the Tavern, where a slim go-go boy in more clothes than usual moved rhythmically but independently of the music. When that palled, we watched the pool game. One of the players, half Québecois and half black, goodlooking, short and wired, held out his hand as he introduced himself. He was a good player, he told us, then missed several shots before impressively potting five in a row. Every so often he darted off to play, then came back to flirt and converse. When he finally took his leave, it was in a typically Canadian gesture that we Brits have long since lost, to offer his hand again as he said goodbye.

M and I headed for the enclosed smoking area which almost every BC bar now has, thanks to legislation banning smoking in public spaces. There I inhaled more secondhand smoke in ten minutes than I would in several hours in a London club, before we exited again and looked around the Pub. (By mutual unspoken consent we avoided the Lounge, where karaoke makes its nightly appearance.) The drag acts had come to an end and a camp young man and overweight young woman were dancing more or less in rhythm to the music. Most of the audience had left and I insisted on sitting on a vacant stool. The evening, it seemed, had come to an end.

I had reckoned without George and Harry. George was first, somewhere in his thirties, black curly hair cascading onto his shoulders, a straggly beard and a permanent gap-toothed round-faced smile. George was sitting on a stool near the one I chose and was instantly smitten with Marcus. Marcus, ever sociable although unsmitten, smiled back; soon I had ordered us all a drink and M and I were listening to a confused story about George having to sit because his leg was weak after spending six months in a wheelchair.

Meanwhile, hovering at the edge of our group was a short, slim figure in lumberjack shirt, grey hair and beard, round glasses and an expression and stance that suggested that keeping constantly upright was a major achievement. His glass was empty and had been, I suspected, for some time. No doubt his pockets were similarly vacant. A couple of grunts suggested acquaintanceship with George and were offered as entry fee to our group. Marcus did not appear to notice and George was too taken with Marcus to care. But when George suggested a smoking break and the two of them made for the choke-filled room, I introduced myself and asked whether George really had been in a wheelchair.

Not to my knowledge, said Harry, although I presumed his statement was no more reliable than George's. We moved onto the staples of all bar talk, where we were from, whether we were regulars, what we did for a living. Harry, it appeared, was from Northern Ontario, was a piano teacher and musical therapist but  -  and I am glossing here, stringing together statements that may be unconnected  -  lost his job when he couldn't find an address in Vernon. 315 was the number, but that was a restaurant when it should have been a care home. He never did find the care home.

In sympathy, I poured half my beer into his empty glass. We toasted each other and drank. There was a pause and suddenly he came over, put his arm around me and gave my cheek a wet, hairy kiss. Then he returned to his place and concentrated on remaining upright. Perhaps my age or a few years older, he reminded me of someone's lost, lonely grandfather, who one day had absent-mindedly taken the wrong step in life and who no longer knew where he was, where he wanted to be or how he could get there. Unlike George, who appeared still optimistic that he could achieve his goal, whenever he decided to set out for it.

Marcus and George returned. Smiling, laughingly, but earnestly, George repeated his desire for Marcus, for someone to embrace, for someone to relieve his sexual frustration. Harry smiled vacantly in the background. Marcus and I sympathised but could do no more. The drinks and the evening neared their end. At last hands were shaken, shoulders tightly embraced, me by Harry, Marcus by George. M and I slipped out into the cool night streets, his apartment a ten minute walk away. As my eyes readjusted to the streetlights and we passed the women in tight miniskirts who knew we would never be customers, I wondered where Harry and George would sleep.

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