In school a teacher asked us, "What has no beginning and no end?" "A circle," was my answer. The teacher drew a wobbly oval on the board and said I was wrong. The correct answer, she told us, was "God's love."But Ray Milland, who plays the desperate drunk in the classic film The Lost Weekend, redeems my answer, saying the circle is perfect because his glass leaves wet Os on the bar. He describes the sensation of entering the circle - and he's talking to me!
I am a member of the Golden Circle where whole lives get lost along with Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Inside the Circle there are no weekends, or it's always the weekend. There's no telling.
I guess I was initiated into the Circle by S. I know him from the 1980s, when I performed stand-up comedy in extreme makeup and costume. S. was the door person who refused me entry to my own show, for which I always held him in high regard. At the Golden Circle, S. had reached the position of Head Drinker. He had a tab that got passed on to new owners as part of the sale. He was the power inside the Circle, and as such he offered me protection, not to mention cachet.
I fell into a social club where I instinctively knew all the rules. There are rules - but then there are none. The Golden Circle can seem like a dream, but nightmare characters and situations flare up all the time. I keep to myself, but still I am inextricably bound up within something with no beginning and no end.
The only way I know time is passing is by counting sets of owners. I'm on my third. The last ones dumped the place at record pace. The one occasion I saw the homesick wife smile was when they sold the Circle.
"You'll be happy to leave us, won't you?"
"Oh yes, very!" she beamed.
The two current owners turned up, shook our hands, learned our brands, and it felt like New Year's Eve.
The honeymoon lasted about a day. The new owners may not speak English, but they soon figured out they'd bought themselves a few problems, most of whom eventually got barred. When ownership changes again, word goes out and the worst riffraff of Parkdale slams back in. Regulars just watch it all like TV. They, or should I say we, run a School of Hard Business.
The Golden Circle sign says it's a café. I must try their coffee. For the longest time I thought it was a tavern. Then it dawned on me. It's a saloon! Old-fashioned lamps and woodwork and that wide-open, anything-can-happen-and-the-jukebox-will-just- keep-playing kind of feel. It's the sort of place that makes genteeler types quite nervous. People in the Circle are intense and emotional, and that's scary to those who aren't.
We don't try to close down their wine bar/bistros. But there's always some group of Those Who Know What's Best for the Neighbourhood rattling for a clean sweep of Queen Street.
The Circle feels relatively safe. Mostly, everybody knows everybody else. And I really didn't feel too threatened when that woman I'd never seen before stormed up just to announce for the eighth time that she was effing leaving and suddenly turned into my face and spat, "And you! You stay away from my husband!!"
"No problem. I'll avoid your whole family for free."
I could sit back in a booth, but I feel hemmed in. I prefer the chair in the window where I can watch the street and leave in a hurry if I get a mind to. And, yes, I wear steel toes, just a habit from living on Hastings Street in Vancouver. Some women need makeup to feel good. For me it's steel toes.
In the same block as the Golden Circle there's a nice live-music bar I could go into. Chances are I'll see people I know. Chances are they'll ignore me. Being cool is such a bore. I'd rather play Jimi Hendrix on the Circle jukebox, preferably with someone else's coin. Silence is not Golden. The tune stock has not been changed in six years, and judicious selection is crucial. One must consider the room when choosing. "Who the hell played that?!" and all eyes squint my way as Elvis describes life In The Ghetto.
Used to be I'd walk in and ask my friend the Head Drinker, "How's it going?" To which he'd reply, "I'm halfway there." Then, about six months ago, the position of Head Drinker was retired when S. quit to save his health. He still drops by for a game of pool, although he finds being surrounded by drunks is not the fun it was before.
I don't know what's worse, being caught in the spell of the Golden Circle or the spell being broken. The new owners insist "many people" asked them to brighten the place up, which I find incredible. Show me one! They've traded some of the restful dark-green nicotine-glazed paint for white! The flags of Mexico and a few other places no one here has been are gone from the ceiling. New signs breach this zone, which never before referred to the commercial world outside. Heineken, Heineken, Heineken - eyeache everywhere I look.
"Why? You're expecting a different crowd?"
They laugh nervously and show me another big pile of ads they intend to install. The "improvements' just highlight the ugly business of selling cheap drinks to lifers. But nostalgia is not easily overcome. Anything can happen in the Golden Circle. And to me it already has. I'll return to remember until I forget....