Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: Ireland

Starbucks, Gay Bars and the Curse of Choice

It would be easy to look back on my undergraduate convocation and picture myself as an optimistic naïf, filled with great expectations about my career and future. Truth is, as I shook hands with Pamela Wallin, the school’s chancellor, I didn’t feel much of anything. I was ready to move on from Guelph, but had no idea of what came next. I had two goals for that summer: to find a job and get a boyfriend. It says something about me that the lack of second dates depressed me more than the lack of second interviews.

Eventually I found a job. To my identity as a drifting liberal arts graduate I added another stereotype: I was a gay boy, living in Toronto, working at Starbucks. My intellectual capabilities were now employed in announcing byzantine drink concoctions, which made the little boxes on the side of the cups resemble census forms.

“I have a venti-soy-half-sweet-sugar-free-vanilla-one-hundred-and-eighty-degree-tazo-chai-latte!”

“One-eighty-five,” the customer corrected, rolling her eyes. “But it’s alright.”

While adults may act like children, the skill of customer service is resisting the urge to treat them as such.

At the same time I learned that, despite what ‘Queer As Folk’ taught me, gay bars weren’t for hooking up; they were for standing by yourself, ignoring everyone, furiously texting. Like an animal forced into new environments because of depleted resources, lack of opportunities pushed me onto internet dating.

On websites like Plenty of Fish and Gay Romeo you are presented with more boxes to check than a Starbucks cup: age; height; hair colour; weight (diplomatically-worded); ethnicity (even more diplomatically-worded); profession; income bracket; interests (food, sports, movies, Britney versus Gaga); whether you want children or not; whether you are married or not; whether you want casual sex or not; and, on occasion, whether you are circumcised. Or not.

You upload a flattering picture of yourself and wait. Sometimes a polyamorous couple will message you for an orgy. Or, it will be some guy in Cambodia. So, largely out of boredom, you start emailing guys who seem friendly and funny and cute, who say they are looking for someone special in the same studiedly casual way you did. After the respectable amount of correspondence, you meet up at Starbucks (where else?), have a few lattes and share a few laughs. Two weeks later, your facebook message unanswered, it dawns on you that you were not ‘that someone special’ and the process starts again.

I did my Masters on the history of sexuality and gender, but Queer Studies disappointed me almost as much as queer men. If I didn’t want to become a prematurely bitter old crank, a crazy cat lady in a homemade snood living with my Mom, I needed a change, and fast.

So I moved to Ireland. As with many with Celtic blood somewhere in their veins, I felt a romantic pull to the ancestral isle. Also, I had a sneaking suspicion that gay men in Dublin might be more fun (outgoing, flirtatious, drunk) than their counterparts in Toronto.

So I followed the rainbow across the sea, but instead of a pot of gold and a little man in a green hat I hoped to find a dark-haired hunk with bright blue eyes (and with the leprechaun’s accent).

The Irish economy, having been driven off the cliff with de-regulation and an insane housing bubble, was in the doldrums and jobs prospects for a Canadian with only a one-year visa were bleak. Fortunately, the Siren saved me again and I was hired full time at a Starbucks in a mall just outside of Dublin.

At the busy store I certainly got to hear many accents. Sometimes I could barely understand Irish customers, who have a tendency to mumble. I misunderstood common expressions: when I would inevitably mess something up and apologize, I would be told “oh, you’re okay” or “you’re grand”, which I took as appreciative words of encouragement. After awhile I learned that “you’re okay” was not personal but just the equivalent of “it’s okay”.

But the biggest difference I noticed in Irish customers is that they didn’t get Starbucks cup sizes. And I don’t mean the tall-grande-venti trinity much maligned by confused Tim Horton’s regulars and people who actually speak Italian. I mean the idea of cup sizes.

“I’ll have a latte.”

“What size would you like?”

“Sorry?”

“What size: small, medium or large?”

“Oh. Umm… just the regular one.”

Starbucks has built an international empire on the fetishism of choice. The myriad cup sizes and drink options, and smiling baristas who are taught to accommodate almost any request, is what separated the company from it’s competitors. But Ireland only started to get fancy-shmancy cafes during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom of the 1990’s. Before that, your options were coffee or tea. Other than being disappointed when we didn’t have marshmallows for their hot chocolate, Irish customers requested almost nothing special for their drinks. They seemed to desire less options, not more.

And speaking of less options, there were only a handful of gay bars scattered throughout the city. But what they lacked in quantity they made up for in sociability. My first time at The George, the city’s first gay pub, an older gentleman didn’t wait ten minutes to inform me that I was in the section of the bar for mature patrons like himself.

“I’m not trying to chat you up, I just t’aught you should know.” He probably was trying to chat me up, but it was friendly all the same.

When I went by myself to one of the various gay bars more often than not someone would start talking to me. Sometimes they were trying to get into my pants (once, on the dance floor this was literally true and I had to slap a man’s hand away from undoing the top buttons of my jeans), but often it was just because they were curious about who I was and where I was from. After the initial greeting, they’d buy me a pint (I had to get over my fear of being ruffied) and introduce me to their friends.

One night will stand in for many: I met Kevin through a group of American visitors I had latched onto. He was cute in a very blonde, wholesome way. After an evening of flirting (he asked if I was interested in any cute boys I had seen, I told him none other than him) we escaped onto the outside patio. Lighting a cigarette, he quickly leaned in to kiss me. Caught off guard, I some how knocked the cigarette out of his hand, almost burning my arm in the process. Apparently, I was Bridget Jones. When we kissed, it was magical, ‘nothing else matters’ kissing.

That I never saw him again doesn’t change the fact that it was one of the best nights of my life.

But, despite my adventures, I decided to move home. I didn’t want to spend Christmas in Ireland, forty hours a week at Starbucks was exhausting and I was realizing that you can’t run away from your future forever. Considering that I got my internship at WORN soon after that, I think I made the right decision.

I hoped that my experiences at Dublin gay bars would give me the confidence to start acting like the sexy young person I always was inside. Why couldn’t the things I did on the night I met Kevin (introduce myself to strangers, openly flirt, ask for cell phone numbers) work in Toronto?

It pains me to say that nothing had changed. At Toronto gay bars I reverted back to the unassuming and uncomfortable person I was before. There is something diabolically stifling about Church Street and I know I’m not the only one who feels it. Various gay guys complain to me that they never meet anyone, that no one talks to them or, worse, they get glared at.

“Sorry I don’t look like a model!” one friend thought out loud to me recently, reflecting the shared insecurities of gay men which are so easily exasperated.

Toronto has twice the population of Dublin, so it’s fair to say that the size of its gay community dwarves Dublin’s like a pine tree to a shamrock. And yet in Ireland I met and snogged many more people and I never once went online.

Maybe the size of Toronto’s gay community is the problem. Just like at Starbucks (tall-grande-vente) we’ve been spoiled by the endless choice of men (tall-skinny-buff). On Plenty of Fish, we can view page after page of Asian guys, or everybody but Asian guys, or Asian guys who like threesomes. We can automatically block those looking for casual sex, or those not looking for casual sex. We can scroll through profile after profile, never having to even message anyone. Who needs to shower and go to a bar?

At Starbucks, instead of handing you a cup of one-size-fits-all coffee, the multitude of choices leads you to believe there is a perfect drink out there for you. You just need to keep trying different combinations to find it. So the eye-rolling customer becomes convinced she needs a drink that is 185 degrees (that’s her drink). In reality, she’d be perfectly happy with one a little less hot.

We single gays need to try the same thing. The innumerable options on Plenty of Fish combined with the innumerable faces at Crews and Tangoes make us believe there are infinite guys out there. There’s not. You may think you need a Nordic blonde web designer who likes cats, doesn’t like sushi and is uncircumcised. But, if you felt like saying hello, the shy one with glasses sitting at the bar is pretty cool as well.

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Poor Ireland

Last night, officials from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank arrived in Dublin. This morning they will begin creating a bailout loan and a forced cost-cutting program, expected to cost about $81,000 per household. As unfortunate as an economic  crisis such as this would be for any nation, for Ireland a European bailout comes with humiliating historical ironies.

Already, a Brussels official referred to the loan as the “Oliver Cromwell package”, referencing the British Lord who invaded Ireland in 1649 and, as The Globe and Mail points out, “it is a particular badge of dishonour, for a people who marched under the banner ‘neither King nor Kaiser’ in the last century, that Britain and Germany are extending their hands most generously”.

But what other choice does the country have? The drastic cuts implemented by Taoiseach Brian Cowen were not enough to calm their European Union partners, a financial brotherhood which first much-benefited the small emerald isle during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom. That boom is a distant memory. As The Globe summarizes, “Ireland’s banks are close to insolvency; an estimated 200,000 homeowners—affecting about a fifth of the country—face default on their mortgages; unemployment has topped 13 per cent and the government’s budget deficit has reached 30 per cent of GDP, largely because of bank bailouts.”

But all of that sounds very theoretical. Weren’t you just in Dublin, Max? What was it like actually living there?

The most unnerving thing about an economic downturn is you can’t always tell.

Sure, I had trouble finding a job. Luckily, I was eventually hired at a Starbucks at a posh mall right outside central Dublin. And storefronts in downtown, which would be snapped up in an ever-expanding city like Toronto, sat oddly vacant and melancholy.

But human beings are funny creatures, set in our ways and slow to adapt to shifting environments. There are countless places I would have seen more economic devastation if I had lived there, but living in latte-sipping Ranelagh (sort of like the Annex of Dublin) and working at Dundrum Town Centre, serving frappuccinos to wealthy women, bangled arms weighted down with shopping bags, and their spoiled daughters (speaking with a distinctive Irish-Valley Girl swoopy accent), you could almost believe that everything was going swimmingly.

I venture to add that, as terrible as the American economy is, you would get a very skewed view if you lived in New York.

I venture to add that I have a skewed view of Canada’s economic health living in Toronto.

Of course, this Marie Antoinette distance from reality can’t last forever. After having a labour shortage and welcoming in my Eastern European, Asian and Middle Eastern Starbucks co-workers (“The Irish don’t want those jobs,” a native Irish person told me), the government is scaling back on who gets in. And Starbucks closed about six locations in the greater Dublin area, as good an indication of any that people are cutting expenses and guarding their money.

If I knew more about economics, I would draw a lesson about not letting banks run amok with mortgages, not letting housing developers build like wild men, not letting governments go in to debt because they bizarrely and ahistorically believe economies continue to grow indefinitely.

For now I’ll just sign off with the hope that when Ireland pulls itself (or is pulled out) of this marshy economic quagmire, that the lessons hard-won will help the sun shine again.

Goin’ Out

The ending of ‘Bob and Rose’ is just as lovely as everything which came before. As the simple and romantic xylophone theme song reaches a glorious climax, the various single characters, straight women and gay men, are shown getting ready to go out on the town. “You gotta get out there!” Holly tries to convince her reluctant friend on the phone. “Anything can happen! One of these nights, we’re going to get lucky!” A chorus of cell phone conversations about where to meet up, what shoes to wear and past and future hook-ups (“Did he call you back?” “Bollocks he did!”) rises above the Manchester skyline.  Coupled with shots of a strob-lighted dance floor, Holly delivers a stream of consciousness ode to clubbing, a rosary chant for the single girl:

“It’s Saturday night. It’s Happy Hour. It’s Ladies’ Night. It’s Singles’ Night. It’s ‘girls get in for free’. It’s cueing up in the rain, and dancing in the heat. It’s every pub and every bar and every club and every single one of us.” The scene of dancing straights is interspersed with scenes of Bob’s friends at gay bars, cruising and strutting around not unlike the triad of ‘Queer as Folk’. The climax argues that gay, straight, female, male, we’re all the same and that being single and going out clubbing is just as valid a happy ending as being in a monogamous couple. Compare this with the standard romantic comedy end in which every character pairs off or disappears.

If it’s a truth universally acknowledged in British TV that any problem can be helped by a cup of tea, ‘going out’ as a solution comes a close second. Every age group in the United Kingdon and Ireland seems to get out and have fun more than their equivalents in stick-in-the-mud North America: old men nurse pints in pubs, young people do tequila shots, middle-aged ladies don feather boas and pink cowboy hats for hen parties.

Knowing not a soul in Dublin when I moved there, I had to go out in order to make friends and not spend my evenings watching ‘Golden Girls’ on my laptop. Sometimes, nothing happened. But sometimes I met new people, danced until my legs ached, kissed a random guy (there was a tendency to treat making out like the equivalent of a ‘thank you for the dance’ handshake). The night when I forced myself to talk to a group of Americans, made friends with a wonderful girl from California (“Max, you’re such a beautiful person!”), made out with an adorable Irish guy (after, startled by his advance, I knocked his cigarette out of his hand, alsmot burning myself), and walked home in a daze, with five new numbers in my mobile, was probably the most fun night of my life.

And even the nights went something went wrong were good for a funny story, like the time the twink I had been dancing with all night started makin out with another guy right in front of me (“What cheek!” my new fag hag friend declared) or on Halloween when I got kicked out of the bar for allegedly being too drunk. I loved walking back home to my little apartment in Ranelagh, just outside city centre. One night in the rain, a drunk young woman joined me as to not have to walk by herself. Another time, I made friends with a group who were walking behind me after I laughed at their funny stories of waking up in the garden: “Oh! I’ve gone to far! I’ve slept in soil!” I joined them for “chippies”. It was remarkable how much life you could see walking hom at three am: people texting or yelling into phones, couples making out or fighting, guys peeing or vomiting.

Truth is, friends you make superficially often end up being only superficial friends: I never saw the “chippies” gang again, not the cute Irish boy I made out with. I moved home largely because I felt like I had roots here that needed to be tended rather than continuing planting seeds in inhospitable foreign soil.

But I’ve stopped going out in Toronto. I had a number of reasons: people here are less friendly; Church Street is dead; it’s too expensive; too tiring; too cold. They are all pathetic excuses. I worried that the chattiness of Irish clubbers had spoiled me for going out in Canada, but it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if I never make the effort to go out and give new people a chance.

I miss dancing. I miss finally getting inside a warm bar. I miss the irreplaceable feeling of getting slightly shit-faced in public. Most of all, I miss the expectation of the beginning of the night, when anything’s possible.

Despite my achey legs, I’m not old yet. There’s still time to be Nathan from ‘Queer as Folk’ or Holly from ‘Bob and Rose’. Despite my two new jobs, my responsibilities at WORN and my need to save up for India, I’m getting out there once again.

It’s all happenin’.

Eduardo and Sorcha

Eduardo and Sorcha

Despite being a visual person, I have mostly shunned images on this blog or used them sparingly. This was as aesthetic choice as well as a professional one. I think that if you have a blog primarily to showcase your writing the main thing on the page should be text and not slow-loading pictures. But when this photograph showed up on my facebook, I couldn’t resist sharing it with everyone. I don’t know who took it, but it’s of my friends and Starbucks co-workers from Ireland, Eduardo and Sorcha. Great names, huh? I remember complimenting Sorcha by saying that her name sounded “juicy”, which probably sounded weird.

I love the way they’re posed. I love that the over-exposure of Sorcha’s face reduces it to the features, including shockingly blue eyes. She looks like an angel, while Eduardo is the devil. Eduardo has a habit of going all James Dean in pictures, furrowing his brow and looking disturbed. The contrast it produces here is great. I even like the texture of the background wall. The finishing touch is the green facepaint which links the two faces together. I think it’s from a bar in Dublin where everyone wears ‘tribal’ make-up, a gimmick I doubt you’d ever see in Toronto.  

Going Gaga (or not)

Not that I want to suggest in any way that I saw her before she was cool, but I did see Lady Gaga perform last summer when she didn’t feel as huge as she does now. It was at Oxegen music fest in Ireland, and I went primarily to see her and Katy Perry. I wasn’t fans of either particularly, but I liked their songs and was glad that fun dance-pop had staged a comeback after the last couple of bleak years. Katy Perry was energetic and connected with the crowd, even coming out from under her enclosed stage to get soaked in the rain with the audience.

Gaga, on the other hand, from the odd intro video to her singing voice to her kept-at-a-distance attitude, was pretty darn awkward. It felt like the audience had wandered into a gallery and now were forced to watch performance art. A guy walked around with a poster that said ‘Lady Gaga has a camel toe!’ and, when asked by the next performer “how’d you like Lady Gaga?” one of the boisterous Irish girls I was with screamed “She was CRAAAAAAAAP!”

Some time later, my friend Eduardo sat me down to watch the ‘Bad Romance’ video. “Isn’t it so good?” While I liked the song, the video’s nightmarish mix of murder, vodka and glaring white light kind of terrified me.

And I still feel disconnected from her. The fact that I enjoy her songs like ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Love Game’ (we had a lot of fun singing ‘Paparazzi’ at karaoke the other night) leads me to believe it must be something about her image. It’s funny that Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times, in an article about how today’s celebrities reveal too much, that Lady Gaga would be wise to keep quiet like the legendary Garbo, because I want her to say more. Despite the fact that she’s been great about gay rights and has talked openly about her life and career, I still do not associate her with any idea or personality.

And all the costumes are exhausting. I read her profile on Wikipedia and learned, along with the alarming discovery that she is a year younger than me, that the blonde wigs came from her not wanting to be confused with Amy Winehouse (presumably, being confused with Christina Aguilera was better) and that the name supposedly derived from a cell phone autocorrecting Queen song ‘Radio Ga Ga’. Lady Gaga reportedly said “don’t ever call me Stefani again” and one wonders what happened to Stefani Germanotta.

The process of putting on an alternative identity, especially a musical, sexually aggressive one incorporating wigs and outlandish fashions, ties Gaga to drag queen culture far more than her support of gay rights and her androgynous look.

Which leads me to my last point, which is in her support, although it won’t sound like it.

I think that Lady Gaga is the first music superstar who uses sexuality without being sexy herself. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not calling her ugly or suggesting there is not a place for non-conventionally attractive women. I am the first to defend actresses and singers when people declare flatly that they are not pretty, as though that was a valid conversational contribution in of itself. I’m not  saying anything about my feelings on her looks.

All I’m saying is, almost every other pop star who has a sexualized image, from Madonna to the Spice Girls to Britney Spears, has been helped by being appealing to the straight male population. While taking agency over their images (especially Madonna), which endeared them to straight women and gay male fans, their conventional attractiveness allowed them to simultaneously be the object of, to use the academic term, the heterosexual gaze.

And I don’t think that’s the case with Lady Gaga. She dresses provocatively (hell, she never wears pants, not even to a baseball game) but, despite her inarguably great body, I can’t really picture a group of straight men standing around a bar lusting after her. I could be forever biased because of the Video on Trial episode in which the entire panel of comedians (male, female, straight, gay) mocked her for being a “but her face” (“Bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-bu-butter face!”), but I think she may have succeeded in titillating the public’s interest without becoming a sexualized object.

This is really apparent in her ‘Telephone’ video with Beyonce, who’s deliberately stilted dialogue annoys the heck out of me (and also, is she obsessed with murder?). Rather than look plain next to the gorgeous Beyonce, Gaga looks the sexiest she ever has, while her campiness rubs off on her, who suffers exaggerated eye make-up, Betty Page bangs and absurd (and frustratingly memorable) editing which turns Ms. Knowles into a gaping fish.

If Gaga’s star continues to climb, and the fact that Christina Aguilera is now stealing her look demonstrates how little competition she has, we’ll see if behind those sunglasses there’s transgressive ideas to match the persona.

And let the hate mail begin!

 

Other People: Siobhan Murphy

Siobhan Murphy made my shifts at the Starbucks in Dundrum Town Centre (a posh mall in Dublin) much more enjoyable. With her sexy, deep voice, sarcastic sass and habit of whispering ‘suck my balls!’ she brightened up my days. From her, I learned some Irish pronunciation (like her first name, which sounds like ‘shev-von’) and in turn, I introduced her to gay culture, through ‘The Birdcage’.

MM: What are you studying in school?

SM: Politics and Art History

MM: What would you like to be doing in ten years?

SM: To be self-sufficient, not to have to worry about money. Not that I want to have a lot just not lose sleep over it.

MM: Describe your absolute worse day at Starbucks.

SM: I remember I had a horrific cold one day and they couldn’t get a replacement so came in any way. I could only do the washing up because I looked so sick and my nose was red and runny and completely gross. Washing up is hot work since Dundrum is so busy and it was just torture trying to keep up with the mountain of dishes but in fairness the boss man was pretty nice to me and the other staff were good too. Just the customers and their annoying ways that made me bitter and twisted.

MM: What book should everyone read?

SM: If This Is A Man by Primo Levi.

MM: What are people’s biggest misconception about the Irish?

SM: We drink too much.

MM: Are there any funny cultural differences between you and your Scottish boyfriend?

SM: Accents and words. Like “Yes” is “Aye”. When you’re in a supermarket and the lady at the checkout in Dublin says, “That’s 26euro love”. In Scotland she says, “That’s 26pounds hen”.Other than that nothing major. The Scots are pretty similar to the Irish with the weather, drinking habits, distaste for English glory: in the words of Tommy Tiernan [Irish comedian], “We like to see them beaten in things like football and war.”

MM: Where would you like to travel next?

SM: Korea, Hong Kong, somewhere that side of the world.

MM: What comes to your mind when you hear ‘Canada’?

SM: Max! Toronto, Quebec, people who speak French with a Canadian accent, red and white, famous actors who you think are American but on further study turn out to be Canadian.

MM: List your top five favourite swears.

SM: Nice girls don’t swear but if i had to pick one, we all know what it would be.

Oh. Canada.

Right, Canada Day!

Crap.

What to write about? You would think that I would, as somebody who recently lived in another country, be filled with nationalistic ideas, but no. I could write about foreigners’ opinions on Canada, if they had any. Or I could recount how I was the politically-correct one at my Dublin Starbucks, informing my co-workers that pulling up the sides of your eyes to signify ‘Chinese’ is not cool, and write yet another ‘multiculturalism and tolerance is deeply rooted in our national identity’ paean.

But those are tiring, and they pretend like Canada has never had any racial problems, and are lame.

I could write about coming home, my joyful feeling as the plane tilted slightly and I first saw the entire Toronto downtown illuminated, CN Tower and shimmering lights, and being back where every neighbourhood, almost every street, recalls a personal story, an aimless wander becoming a survey of my life.

But those are very Toronto, not Canada, and the rest of the country hates us, right?

So here’s a different tactic.

When I arrived at Pearson airport that December night, lugging two gigantic bags of clothing, books and the random relics of my European adventures, I had no idea where my life was going. I would look for a job after Christmas and start a few Ryerson courses, and that’s as far as I got. I had a few euros in my pocket and a habit of turning sentences that were declarative into questions by going up at the end (the only Irish influence on my voice, my brother discovered). But that was it. I lay awake at night worrying and wondering how someone who finished undergrad so passionate and excited ended up, at 24, with no direction.

Virginia Woolf wrote that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.”

Well, on or about February 2010 Max’s character changed.

If you had told me, when I was still jet-lagged, that my Ryerson courses would re-energize my writing, force me to practice and polish my voice and get me excited about posting a blog everyday and pursuing freelance writing, I wouldn’t have believed you.

The school is Canadian.

If you had told me, as I unpacked my grey and neon Penny’s t-shirts from Dublin, that I would get an internship at a fashion magazine within two months, and not just a fashion magazine, but an alternative feminist one, literally put together in a Parkdale attic by dedicated and fabulous volunteers, and that this internship would encourage my writing while reuniting me with my old love of fashion, I would have thought you were crazy.

This magazine, shipped all over the country and the world, is Canadian.

And, at twilight on New Years Day, as I lay on my bed in the dark, just broken up with by the guy I had started seeing, wondering how many more times this would happen, and angry at this dismal start to my year, you said,

‘Worry not: in a few months you will meet a man who will be the smartest, bravest and most heroic person you’ve ever known, and he will inspire you and change you and even ask you to write with him.’

I would have thought you sarcastic, and a bit of a bitch.

Having left his first country, he came to Canada, to be free.

Two thousand and ten has already made me a new person. And my life is fun again. Maybe too much fun, actually, as my latest credit card bill was equal to my last pay cheque.

I am saving up to go to India with Dervla.

After which, I will be happy to come home.

Sunday Reflections: Fashionable Me

As everyone who works at WORN knows, “I’m in fashion” rolls off the tongue much too easily. It starts out as a joke. When explaining why it took you so long to get ready, it’s fun to say “I was putting together an outfit. I am in fashion, after all!” It works well with a flamboyant Vreelandesque hand gesture. But it’s pretty easy to start taking it seriously.

“Max, did you need a second white Nehru-collared shirt?”

“Yes. I’m in fashion.”

“Oh God,” friends and family mumble.

I can’t remember exactly when I began dressing for fun. My personality made  me stick out enough in elementary school, and God knows I wasn’t going to let my clothes make things worse. Then part way through high school, I don’t know if it was getting into high fashion (via Vogue and FT Fashion Television) or no longer caring what bullies thought, but I started to experiment. I remember distinctly seeing a man on the bus in a tweed suit jacket  and thinking I would have to find one at the Goodwill (this being before they staged their huge comeback and were available all over the mall). The summer of 2002, after reading an article about him in the newspaper, I bought a traditional grey fedora from the old man at Rotman’s hat shop on Spadina. I also, for some reason, safety-pinned fun quotes on little pieces of paper onto my clothes: a sort of punk/wit aesthetic.

Then I went to university and a clotheshorse was born. The combination of a residence at which I was accepted, university-town second-hand shops (they’re the best), and the opportunity to change outfits three times a day convinced me I was the gay boy version of Carrie Bradshaw. I schlepped gi-normous bags of arcane t-shirts, argyle sweater vests and army jackets home on the Guelph city bus, sometimes, if memory serves correctly, through blizzards. There were triumphs and there were misfires (I know I want to use my Japanese biker shirt as an example, but I can’t decide of which one!) but I always experimented and have fun. I didn’t feel much socialist New Democratic guilt, as the clothing was all cheap and second-hand, and many would be ultimately returned to the Goodwill in garbage bags during my yearly purge.

Then, I don’t know if vintage (or vintage-inspired) clothing became too popular, or my break-up made me grow up a bit, but I stopped feeling my previous manner of dressing. And nothing replaced it for awhile. I wanted to buy new clothes, but they were too expensive and they seemed to look dated much quicker, like the long-sleeved t-shirts in red and blue I bought from American Apparel. I had lost my inner fashion voice, the siren who guides you as your fingers dance on the wire hangers: ‘Not that, not that, this one! Ahhh!’

And it only got worse during my Masters, when I got bogged down and depressed and gained weight and didn’t enjoy dressing at all.

“I used to be passionate about things?” I moaned. “What happened?”

When I took off to Ireland, I adopted the Euro neo-rave scenster look that many people have over there. It’s hard to explain, but they don’t dress as frumpily, ironically bad as we do in North America, particularly Toronto. While I loaded off a garbage bag of cast-offs to a Dublin charity shop before I came home, I cherish my Irish rain jacket and my Berlin t-shirts. I fully intended to keep a bit of my Euro style going in Toronto.

And then I got an internship at a fashion magazine.

One of the amazing things about WORN is that, while everyone involved makes an effort, there is no ‘WORN look’. This is in keeping with a fashion journal that doesn’t cover trends or inform readers of what’s ‘in’ and ‘out’. But being around people who put in effort encourages one to do the same. I decided polo shirts would be my thing: stylish, but casual; comfortable in the boiler-room hot WORN office; boyishly cute (as the only male, have to represent); and they come in all the colours of the rainbow. Just as I used to, I find I’m planning outfits a week ahead, especially for special events or if I think a camera will be present. We’re planning a group photo of the staff this summer, and I’m embarrassingly excited about it.

I am once again having fun with fashion, experimenting and creating an identity through picking out clothes.  It feels like a home-coming. I hear the siren’s call, and it’s fabulous.

Peter’s Chung King (reissued)

Just west of Spadina and College, at the foot of Chinatown and on a street that has gradually turned into a computer supply store village, is Peter’s Chung King. You wouldn’t notice it passing by; old white drapes obstruct any peek inside, although a signed 1980’s photograph of Sharon, Louise and Bram proves their endorsement. Inside is not more noteworthy. I believe it has mostly blank dull walls, interrupted only by some foreign money taped up and those weird landscape paintings (are they plastic?) that only appear in Chinese restaurants. Truth be told, I don’t remember much more about the interior, as my family always ordered to take out.

 To call it our favourite Szechwan restaurant would be incorrect: it IS our restaurant. My parents were first introduced to it years before I was born when it was at another location. Its second place on College Street was conveniently just below my elementary school and five minutes from our house on Brunswick. The story is that they found it so delicious that, when they were finished, they licked their plates. Actually, many myths surround Peter’s. Most evocative are the stories of picking up Peter’s on our way to our cottage and driving the other passengers crazy with the delicious smells on the boat ride across to our island. Even if this only happened once, it caught on as a family tale because it sums up a wonderful experience of living in Toronto: you could actually pick up really good Szechwan food and enjoy it on a dock beside a lake within an hour. How lucky are we?

Over the years different dishes were added or subtracted to our take out list (it is always Mom’s job to phone, always Dad and mine to go pick it up, and smiling Peter would occasionally come out and greet Dad as I waited in the car), but it was mostly the old favourites: spring rolls, Muchu Pork (later switched to the vegetarian Muchu), ginger chilli shrimp, garlic broccoli and, last but not least, Spiced Chicken, which because of a typo on the original menu (another legend) all of us call “spice-ces chicken”. This last dish of chicken, peppers and peanuts in a smooth, spicy brown sauce is so popular around the table that, as my brother and I got bigger, we had to start ordering two dishes of in order to prevent family fights.

It is our special occasion dinner, a good thing to have with visitors, but also good on a gloomy day when no one feels like cooking. Peter’s was one of the things I missed most when I travelled throughout Europe last year, made worse by a lunch I had in a Parisian Chinese restaurant one Sunday afternoon when a dish that looked surprisingly like Spice-ces Chicken was given to me and got my hopes up only to end up tasting NOTHING like it. On my first evening home, when I told stories to my parents for three non-stop hours (drive from the airport, drive to pick up food, sitting down at dinner) we of course had Peter’s. And I realize now I had already subconsciously chosen Peter’s as my first dinner when I return to Toronto.

My Dad called me on skype today as I was dressing for work. At one point Dad said, “So did you hear about the terrible thing that happened on Grandma’s birthday?” In my gut I knew what he was going to say. In reaction to my pained expression by Dad said, “Well, it’s not THAT bad…”

But it was. “We had our order all ready and Mom phoned and a woman answered the phone and said, ‘Oh, didn’t you know? Peter decided to retire and the restaurant is closed. Next month I’m opening a sushi restaurant.’ So yeah,” Dad said, trailing of. “Thirty years, and it’s gone.”

Now, I was feeling pretty tired and lonely and a bit homesick already. Tears starting coming to my eyes, but I suppressed them. I can’t remember what I said, perhaps just nodded, and Dad said, “Well, he deserves to retire. Peter had been running it for a long time.”

In my head I replied ‘I don’t care! His kids should run it or something!’ Mom, still in her housecoat, joined us. “You know what, sweetie, don’t upset yourself about it. All this means is that we’ll have fun trying different places to find a new restaurant.”

Again in my head, I reacted with a modified cliché of the petulant child who has just lost his first pet: ‘But I don’t want another restaurant! I want Peter’s back! Now!’

“My only consolation,” I managed to say finally, “is that I’m not missing the final meal. But shouldn’t he have told us or something? Thirty years…”

“Yeah, Mom and I were joking that we should hire Peter for around the house.”

If only. But of course, it wouldn’t be the same.

Then I had to go to work. As I walked in the bright early afternoon sunlight, tears streamed down my face. At first I berated myself; ‘You ARE NOT crying about a Chinese restaurant!’ But it’s about so much more than a restaurant or food or eating, although of course I will miss those dishes to no end and good Szechwan has completely spoiled me for the crap that is often called ‘Chinese food’ which tastes alright on the way down but revisits you all night. No, it’s not just the food. It’s the role it played for my family. It’s the beloved tradition that has been snapped unexpectedly from us. And now I can’t even remember the last time we ate it.

I was already upset about some of my favourite places in Toronto shutting down (mostly bookstores, like Mirvish Books and Pages on Queen Street). But Peter’s closing took me completely off guard. I understand that restaurants come and go, and big cities are always changing. I will eat good Szechwan again and, more importantly, the warmth and fun of our family dinners (which made the Peter’s tradition special in the first place) will continue. But the two together, along with the ritualized drive down to College street, the parking in little-visited Snow’s Flowers across the street, the sitting with the warm plastic bag on my lap and the arrival home to a table set with plates and bowls and little pink tea cups from Chinatown and plastic chopsticks whose red and green markings have long since faded in the dish washer, these things will never be the same.

And recognizing that you can’t, as much as you’d like, stop time in its tracks, that sometimes things just have to change, is a part of growing up.

Peter’s, I will deeply miss you.

Update: We are still without a good Chinese restaurant, so if anyone has a recommendation, leave it in a comment.

Canadian Barista in Ireland

I moved to Ireland at age 24 to start over on my own and connect with my ‘Old Country’ culture. Instead, the international friends I found there turned me into a citizen of the world.

The ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom is over.  I was lucky to be hired by Starbucks at an upscale mall on the outskirts of Dublin. Although I worked for Starbucks in Canada, there were things about Irish customer service I had to learn. Our customers could not seem to grasp cup sizes, and I don’t mean ‘tall’, ‘grande’ or ‘venti’: they didn’t understand the concept of sizes at all. My boss Jason explained that specialty coffee shops were new in Ireland. Not long ago, your only choice was coffee or tea.

My co-workers were expatriates or gregarious Irish girls with non-phonetic Celtic names. In contrast to them, our Eastern European girls were stand-offish. Lenka, from Slovakia, was as admired for her efficiency as she was feared for her icy stare. “Who said this to you?” she demanded when you complained about a rude customer, “WHO?!” 

Varun was a dedicated shift-supervisor from India. He could be obsessive, as when he made me count the mugs to make sure we hadn’t “lost” any, but he left the day’s stresses at the store. He had a goofy sense of humour and if you laughed at his lame jokes he would slyly wink. We developed a brotherly rapport, but we didn’t discuss our personal lives until one night at a pub we ran out of Starbucks shop talk.  He said he had a girlfriend in India and asked if I had one back home. I thought everyone at the store knew I was gay. (Anna from Poland had asked me once, “How do you know when a man is the gay? Because I have NEVER known the gay before!”) Caught off-guard by Varun, I answered, “No. I’m gay.” Barely pausing, he continued, “Well, do you have a boyfriend in Canada?”

If Varun was big brother of our expatriate family, Daria was the rebellious sister. Petite and pretty, with  cutting-age style, she hailed from Mongolia. It surprised her that I’d heard of Ghengis Khan.  “The Irish don’t know about him…” she muttered. She treated Jason like an overbearing father, but he always forgave her for rolling her eyes or opening the store hung-over. She was brutally honest and said whatever she felt. “I didn’t like you at first,” she told me. “But now I do!”

Most of my co-workers couldn’t relate to my occasional homesickness, but Daria gave me a big hug. “I’m away from home, you’re away from home,” she explained, “Sometimes we all just need a hug.”
Sometimes a person fills a void you barely knew was there. I felt I was a good gay role model for my international friends, but I had no one to check out handsome customers with. Enter Eduardo. Tall and with a boyish face hiding his naughty streak, he came from Brazil by way of London, where he spent two formative years of his youth nightclubbing and befriending hip, neo-punk lesbians. I figured out he was gay by singing Britney Spears lyrics and noting whether he joined in. Newer to the city than I was, he desperately needed to meet people and we became fast friends. After a day of wandering the city alone, I could always phone Eduardo and get him to join me.

I even convinced him to go on a weekend trip to Glendalough, a medieval monastery nestled amongst hills and forests, where we trudged around the marshy lakes discussing skinny jeans and Lady Gaga. We walked in the rain for forty minutes to find the town’s lone pub, but when we did it was perfect: a fire place, mulled wine and local men gathered around rugby on the TV. Here, of all places, Eduardo opened up for the first time about coming out, his uncle who made him give up his nose-ring and punk clothes, and his hipster London friends. “I keep referring to them as my best friends,” he confided, “but you’re my best friend now.”

When I decided to move back home, my Irish co-workers insisted on a going-away party. Everyone came, including my boss and the raucous gaggle of Irish girls. Daria danced all night. Lenka cuddled up to me and kept saying, “I don’t want you to go, because I really like you.” Varun stayed until last call, even though he had to open the store the next morning.
 Eduardo, the most upset at my leaving, asked if I was ignoring him. “No,” I said. “If it seems I’m paying you less attention, it’s because you’ll be the hardest one to say goodbye to.” After the bar closed, we stumbled into McDonald’s, the traditional Irish thing after a night of partying. As I walked up Grafton Street with Jason he said it was sad that it took one of us leaving for us all to go out together.

Although I didn’t feel I left an impression on Dublin, I marvel at the legacy I left with my expat family, who are now spreading back out around the globe. Soon after, Varun returned to India to get married, and I missed my chance to experience an Indian wedding.  When I visited the store during my last weekend in Dublin, I learned Anna was pregnant and planning a Polish wedding. I joined Eduardo for his break. As he puffed at a cigarette, we said awkward, unmemorable things. His timer dinged when his break was over.

“Okay, I’m going to go,” I said, not knowing if tears were going to come or if I just thought they should. “I’m going to miss you a lot,” Eduardo said, hugging me.
“Behave yourself!” I said, getting up to leave. “Don’t forget about me!” I added as I walked away, not looking back. 
My expat family will go their separate ways; their influence on me will last.