Athena is the only person I meet at Bloor and Lansdowne -- or even see, for that matter -- who isn't smoking. She doesn't drink either, or do drugs. "Striptease dancing," she explains, "is bad enough."
She lives in Niagara Falls but is working at Club Paradise for a few days, trying to save enough money to go back to school once she secures her landed immigrant status. She is not particularly enthralled with the Bloor-Lansdowne strip. "I don't like it here. It's a freaky place."
If by "freaky" she means that anything can happen, it's easy to see what she means. Indeed, it seems that everything happens here, much of it behind closed doors and darkened windows, like a rave I hear going on down an alley that's blocked off with a piece of plywood, or the blackened storefront with a stark neon sign advertising "massage."
But on the long weekend, when many other neighbourhoods are abandoned, the sidewalks here are crowded with people doing whatever it is they do. That is, everything.
9:20 pm I enter Duffy's Tavern, which boasts that it's been open since 1949. Signs warn that the premises are monitored by video camera. But this doesn't seem to deter the knots of young men in loose-fitting clothes fidgeting with pagers and cellphones, milling about without drinks and coming and going.
The action unfolds against the backdrop of walls painted oxblood red, jars of pickled eggs on the bar. Men with shirts unbuttoned to the waist slouch in chairs or hunch over on their stools.
9:33 The man to my left, who has been smoking Colts and holding his head in his hands since I arrived, begins a discourse on vomit and its propensity for exiting via his nose.
Massage parlours 9:40 Walking down Bloor, past laundromats and massage parlours. A car pulls over and a window rolls down. The driver points to her nose when a young man in a FUBU shirt leans in. I keep walking.
9:50 I enter the most animated Coffee Time I have ever seen, and certainly the smokiest. It's filled predominantly with gesticulating conversationalists leaning over ashtrays filled well past capacity. They are the surplus, it appears, from a Middle Eastern cafe across the street that is spilling customers onto the sidewalk.
In the corner sit a dour trio, each of them holding a cellphone and looking out the window. There's no coffee on the table. Their purpose seems to be something other than fine talk.
10:26 Along Bloor, I pass three Burmese men in tribal skirts laughing good-naturedly. They're smoking and wearing flip-flops. They smile as I walk by.
10:38 I enter the House of Lancaster, where a stripper is performing handstands and other more implausible acrobatic feats. I ask her later where she learned such contortions and learn that she was once a competitive gymnast. Her name is Avalon, and she laughs with uncontrollable mirth every 20 seconds or so, tossing her hair around and clapping her hands over her head.
She explains her philosophy of life in response to what she interprets as my unnecessary seriousness: "You've got to make your own fun. If you're not having fun, it's your own fault." And then she takes off to have some more fun.
But it's not all fun and games at the House of Lancaster. A sign behind the bar warns that "all waitresses must bring a pen to work," as though a penless waitress might be an insupportable burden to the enterprise.
10:51 A stripper at the end of the bar leans off her boyfriend's shoulder, toying absentmindedly with his hair. This is not an act of seduction, but rather of familiar affection. Then, with a peck on the cheek, she's back to work.
He remains at the bar finishing a beer, and he's there a few minutes later when the girl walks by with a customer on the way to the private booths where strippers perform "private dances." She glances at him numbly.
10:58 A young man I recognize from Duffy's walks in, hands a tiny package to a patron, then leaves without as much as glancing at the stage.
11:20 Only a couple of doors down, I come across families with young children leaving the Hindu Sri Menatchy Amman Society. They're all giggles and seraphic smiles, parents holding the hands of sleepy kids.
11:22 Across the street, I enter the Anarchists' Cocktail. The doorman lets me pass but stops the slightly preppy guy behind me, asking, "Do you know what kind of crowd this is?" Indeed, a sign at the door warns that the dress code is strictly enforced. But it's not much of a crowd at all. A few restless spirits are shadow boxing in the strobe lights to the gothish industrial techno that's attracted some ex-denizens of the now-defunct Sanctuary.
It's certainly a change from the bar across the street. Here, it's the patrons who are dancing. When I point this out to Monika the waitress, she rolls her eyes. "There are a lot of creepy-crawlies around here," she says, "but they're mostly harmless."
The topic of creepy-crawlies prompts the girl to my right to ask whether I've seen Club Paradise yet. I haven't, so I finish my beer and go.
11:56 The Club is across the street from the Buddhist Association of Canada in a building shared with the evangelical Church of the Crusader. If there is indeed more rejoicing in heaven over the salvation of a single sinner than the righteousness of a legion of saints, then the crusaders have certainly positioned themselves well to curry favour with God.
While the patrons of the Cocktail hold their cigarettes elegantly with long, pale aristocratic fingers, those in this den of vice are of a different demographic. The bartender has to uncrumple a $5 bill for a Ukrainian labourer who beams a hockey player's toothless grin at me by way of explanation for the fact that his fingers are simply too thick and muscular to manipulate anything as delicate as a bill. His cigarette looks like a toothpick in his hand.
12:14 A naked woman shrieks by, emitting a profane and wrathful jeremiad against a customer who has refused to pay for a "personal dance."
If the Crusaders next door could hear, they'd be on their knees interceding on behalf of her soul, which she has just imperilled by her blasphemy alone.
But it's a bouncer who comes to her aid, a hulk in a white shirt who looks in the black light like an enormous snowman built with the largest sphere in the middle and a bowling ball for a head. Alas, tonight the sprinting customer is faster than justice.
12:22 Athena, the Hungarian non-smoker, approaches me with a smile to suggest that since I look lonely I might feel better after a "sexy dance" of my own. I decline, but she stays and we talk about this and that, which is sometimes difficult while a big-screen TV is playing explicit pornos at the edge of my peripheral vision.
12:53 There's time for a nightcap, so I turn into the House of Cheung Tavern and Dining Room, which is old-school Chinese. Everything is red and gold, and has been for 21 years.
The cheap beer draws an eclectic crowd: a man with a bulbous nose and a polyester suit sits with a cowboy hat tilted back; a group of Sri Lankans laughs about something.