Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My Valentine to Davie

So picture this:  On Monday, February 14, Chris and I stand in line outside Stepho's on Davie Street, in the heart of Vancouver's gay village.  It's only five o'clock, but, already, the queue to eat at this nondescript Greek restaurant, with incredible food, quality, and prices, extends to the end of the front window.  Of course.  How could we forget?  Valentine's Day.  And everyone must have had the same idea.

There we waited for about twenty-five minutes or so, under the turquoise awning, the heaters keeping us warm, the driving rain from earlier in the day on pause, the brisk wind reduced to a light breeze, watching people walk by on the sidewalk, hand-held devices, grocery bags, and bouquets of cellophane-wrapped flowers in hand.

And, suddenly, I was filled with what I can only describe as an inexplicable longing.

As I looked up and down the street--towards the intersection of Davie and Thurlow, to the long, red awning of the Shopper's Drug Mart directly across, to the row of single-storey shops and restaurants just beyond--everything looked familiar, just as I remember it when I lived in the West End, when I waited in the very same line over the past twenty-plus years.  It felt like home, really, and yet, curiously, it didn't.  And I couldn't make sense of the jumbled emotions I felt.  

Like so many other places in the city, Davie's changed a lot over the years.  Businesses, especially eateries, have come and gone, in some cases many times over.  Buildings have either received facelifts or been replaced altogether.  And, of course, the trees on the boulevards have grown taller and fuller.  I still feel comfortable, like I belong on the Davie Street of today, but maybe not as comfortable as I did in the late 1980s, after I moved to Vancouver from the Interior of BC.

Then, Davie was a magical place, with it's collection of shops and restaurants frequented mostly by gays and lesbians.  At one end was English Bay and Stanley Park beyond, while at the other was Pacific Boulevard and the abandoned Expo '86 grounds.  Admittedly, Davie has never been a pretty street; gritty is more how I'd describe it, with its derelict buildings, ramshackle apartments, and uneven, littered sidewalks.  But for a young, gay kid newly landed at the coast, it felt like a safe haven, a place where I could be myself in a way I'd never been before, and where there were other people just like me.

Speaking of magical, the Gandy Dancer, located on Hamilton Street just off Davie, in what is now tony Yaletown--but what was then an unused warehouse district--was by far the best place to dance the night away.  I can't tell you how many Saturday evenings I boarded the Skytrain at Patterson, near my Burnaby apartment, and rode it to Granville, anticipation--and a good case of nerves--building in me at the thought of walking through the door and being transported to a world of flashing lights, throbbing music, and beautiful, young men.

The Gandy was the place where I heard some of my favorite dance tunes of the time:  Pet Shop Boys's "What Have I Done to Deserve This," Hazell Dean's "No Fool (For Love)," and Natalie Cole's remake of "Pink Cadillac."  It was where I fed an insatiable need to dance until I couldn't stand up anymore, dragged myself to a seat, and drank a tall glass of Coke in several gulps.  Only to start all over again in a few minutes.  It was where I saw my first male stripper.  And it was where I met Olaf, Todd, Ron, and Mike--young men I'd hoped at the time I might spend the rest of my life with.    

Alas, the Gandy went through extensive renovations in the early '90s, and, upon reopening, failed to regain its once enthusiastic popularity.  Regrettably, it closed soon thereafter, and I felt homeless for a time.  Today, it's the location of a straight establishment called Bar None, which I've never visited.  Not even a curiosity about how closely Bar None physically resembles the Gandy has moved me to enter it.   All I need are my memories of once sharing enchanted evenings there with great friends like Dale and Paul.

On Davie itself, between Thurlow and Bute, just up from Stepho's and across the street, was Doll & Pennys, a restaurant Dale introduced me to.  From the sidewalk in front, I remember looking through the greasy, plate-glass window, seeing the dark, dingy walls, the shabby decor, the scary, older patrons who frequented the place, and announcing to Dale that not only did I have no intention of walking in there, but also I had no intention of eating anything prepared in its kitchen.  But enter I did. And eat, too.

What I remember most about Doll & Pennys is the first drag show I ever saw there.  Never had I been drawn into anything so flamboyant, so over-the-top, so giddy and gaudy and garish.  As the familiar gay anthems blasted over the sound system, the drag queens took to center stage in the middle of the restaurant, putting on an extravaganza like nothing I'd ever experienced--wigs like top hats, make-up like extreme Kabuki masks, exaggerated and radiant costumes--and breasts out to there.  What a blast.

Alas, Doll & Pennys is now gone, too, along with its greasy food, glitzy drag shows, and classic red Pontiac with male mannequins dressed in drag above the front entrance, replaced in 1999 by the Pumpjack, a bar with considerably less allure, spirit, and character.

Sometimes, I look back on the shows I saw at Doll & Pennys and think, until then, I didn't know how exciting and joyful the gay experience could be.  My reality had been verbal and physical abuse, hiding in shame, and isolation and loneliness.  But drag took me to a different world, as did the many evenings I spent at the Gandy, allowing me to escape the daily realities of being gay, and filling me with the hope my future would be a better place.  Who knew drag shows and night clubs could make me feel that way?

The longing I felt standing in line outside Stepho's on Valentine's Day was, no doubt, partly nostalgia, for the way Davie used to be, for the way I felt all the many times I walked along it, and for the places I knew and loved half a lifetime ago.  In that sense, I wish some things never changed.  I wish young gay people arriving in Vancouver today had the same safe places to go, to meet people just like themselves, to take their first tentative steps toward who they were meant to be.

But, to be sure, the longing wasn't just about the unfortunate changes along Davie.  It was also about the changes in me and my own life since then, nearly a quarter of a century later.  No longer am I that naive, wide-eyed kid who left his small town home for the dazzle and the promise of the big city. Today, when I look back on who I was, I remember being so obsessed to love and to be loved that I didn't realize how cool my life was, even how cool being gay was--at a time when there was less acceptance and more risk.  

Now, I have all that I ever wanted.  I have a relationship that's endured for nearly nineteen years, and I have the love of an amazing man I could never have imagined myself being with.  I am truly blessed, even though, at times, I feel I may have paid for everything I have by failing to live as much in the moment as I should have back then; and by focusing too much on what I didn't have as opposed to what I did.

Looking down Davie Street, as we were about to walk into Stepho's to have dinner, I was sad.  Sad I hadn't realized all those years ago how happy I really was.  Sad the experience of being a young gay man, exploring what that meant and what the city had to offer, was long over.  And sad that, like me, Davie Street had moved on to a new reality and would never go back to that time and place when anything could happen--and I lived in fear it would.


  1. Hey Rick, when we were in Vancouver in September, we stayed at the Sandman Suites, right by that restaurant! Small world! Also discovered Melriches coffeehouse, yum. Have been super busy lately (returned home today, leaving tomorrow for a few days) but am looking forward to having your new posts to read in quiet the little snips of Vancouver, what a cool city.

  2. This article makes me really look forward to SFU. Not that I have actually confirmed that I am attending just yet (I am waiting to hear a financial offer from Dalhousie), but, wowie - how awesome to be able to live in a place like this. Gay couples out and about, doing stuff together in public and in large numbers.

  3. @Sarah: Good to hear from you, and I look forward to any feedback you have on my posts when you get the chance to read them. Safe travels.

    @Neal: Your last sentence is pretty much correct, although I think it's still easier to be gay in some parts of Vancouver more than others. In particular, the West End is the best place, and especially the Davie Village. A huge concentration of gay people live in the West End, and they generally go about their lives unencumbered by those not accepting of them. It's not unusual to see gay couples hold hands and walk down the street--always something that warms my heart.
    You'd like it here, Neal. Who knows? You may end up going to school here. Then you can find out for yourself.

    Many thanks to both of you for your comments.

  4. I guess we never fully appreciate the present until it's gone! Thanks for filling me in a little on the way Davie and the gay scene used to be. That line is always there at Stepho's... it must be legendary. I'll have to brave the lineup one of these days : )

    P.S. Sarah, I've been reading the book you recommended (At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream).. very funny! that author (Wade Rouse) should make a reality TV show.

  5. I'm not sure if you read "Xtra!", Doug, but several recent articles speak to the many changes along Davie that resulted in the street being less of a gay mecca than in the past. That's a shame (which "Xtra!" also recognizes), because the question has to be asked, where do the young gay people go now to feel comfortable, to be themselves?
    I can't believe you haven't eaten at Stepho's yet. Get yourself down there ASAP and try it out. You won't regret it. Excellent quality and value for the money.
    By the way, Stepho's doesn't always have line-ups, but, if it does, they usually move quickly. Let me know what you think when you finally go.
    Thanks for your comment.