O to Copa: Home and the Local

I miss a lot from my former lives. I’ve spent time living in Ottawa, Vancouver, Costa Rica, Montreal, and now Toronto, and with each move, each shift of life, I’ve left something special behind: a girl I loved, a friend I cherished, an apartment I felt right in, a diner that burned my grilled cheese just right, a quiet street I liked to stumble home, a spot on the beach to celebrate the eventide, a girl I loved. I like moving. I enjoy that sense of displacement. The rush of adrenalin born of fear of solitude and loneliness. The way a new place smells. The way it tastes. Of walking unfamiliar streets completely alone. And what I like best of a new place, a new temporary home, is discovering a local, a pub or tavern to call my own. And on a recent visit back to Montreal, I stopped by a former local to find it turned inside out, contemporized, changed. And I realized, much to my disappointment, that I haven’t had a local in some time, that I’m without a true home.

Many more intelligent folks than I have considered what we “need.” Virginia Woolf claimed that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Why this only applies to women and fiction is beyond my two degrees in English, but it didn’t turn out all that well for Ginny did it? Neil Young claimed a “man needs a maid” but Neil is notoriously messy, and that all turned pretty bad for Carrie Snodgress. Hunter S. Thompson told us “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” which some of us have tried to varying degrees of success, Thompson himself on the low end of that measurement. For me, a man needs a home, and that home is a local, a bar to call his own, a place where you can drop in at 11am without judgment for a cold 50 and read the paper. A place where a stool is always empty, where you can have both conversation and silence, where a hockey game plays on a TV quietly in the distance, where a friend will drop by, or not. And where it doesn’t matter.

My first local was an Irish pub in Ottawa called Gentle Annie’s. My friends and I went there because, well, it was close to our homes and they’d serve us even though we were sixteen. The owner, Des, whose nose had burst so many blood vessels it looked like an irrigation chart, and his staff very much knew how old we were, mostly because we would drunkenly admit it in the wee hours. We were peach-fuzzed little drunkards, but we could hold our liquor and we tipped well. We knew all the words to all the Irish songs, and we belted them out as best we could. The only problem with being so close to our homes, was that from time to time a friend’s parents or one of our high school teachers would come in. We’d all pretend not to see each other, except for on one occasion when a rather inebriated algebra teacher struggled to his feet to declare he was taking attendance, and proceeded to call on the five of us by surname over and over until someone settled him down.

On one of my last visits to Gentle Annie’s, I accidently broke my buddy Joe’s front tooth with the end of my pool cue. Opinion on how it happened differs, as Joe claims I hit him and I maintain that he face planted into my cue as he bent over for his pint.  Joe, suffering from too many drinks and a bit of vanity, naturally called 911 from the bar payphone. We were a little surprised when two cop cars, a fire engine, and an ambulance showed up upon hearing of a broken tooth at a local not averse to the occasional scuffle. The cops laughed at us, the fire engine quickly departed, and after the ambulance attendant explained to Joe that he would be charged a $95 fee for the ride, he thought it best to just go home and sleep it off. To this day his cap doesn’t quite match his teeth, and his mother holds me responsible for his now slightly less than perfect smile. He’s still very pretty, though.

There were a few places when I moved to Vancouver that I considered my local, but I never really felt at home in that city until I found The Fringe Café. The Fringe was like a house party with all your closest friends, every night, all night. I would imagine that the party is still going on, but I haven’t been there in twelve years. The Fringe was special, in that you could go in at any time and feel comfortable whether you were reading a book or hitting on the barmaid or doing shots of Jäger. The staff was more than friendly, and it was not uncommon to stay drinking right into morning, and greet the day staff as they came in for their early shift. On two separate occasions I put my ball cap down on a candle, nearly setting fire to the table, and perhaps the bar. Another time I left the bar not by walking out the front door, but by somersaulting the length of the room and out the back. I remember once refusing to leave the patio, and being carried, pint in hand, by Karen the bartender to an indoor seat. I remember great music. I remember feeling light. I remember good people. I remember being three thousand kilometres from home, and not at all.

Eventually, the sane man sobers up and leaves Vancouver. And in the years that followed I was without a local. There were a few weeks in Ottawa where the Alibi Room was close, but it was too small and dark to find any real comfort. It was, however, the place that supplied my roommate and I with toilet paper, as we were broke and he was handy with opening the locked dispenser in the men’s washroom with his Swiss Army knife. But then one night a girl I was seeing decided to pour an entire litre bottle of water over my head in the middle of the bar, and after that it wasn’t really a place I wanted to go back to.

In Montezuma, on the Peninsula de Nicoya in Costa Rica, there were a couple of little hotel bars I liked, where eventually the staff acknowledged me as a pseudo-regular. If I was a true regular anywhere there, it was the breakfast place that would whip up my eggs and café con leche as they spotted me coming down the beach, or the groceteria that had cheapest pilsners and discounted guaro. But down there, we were always happiest to drink on the beach, and no one is in Costa Rica on any permanent basis. No one is home.

It wasn’t until I got back to Canada, and moved to Montreal that I found a local again. The Cock n’ Bull was one of the first bars I had been to in my youthful visits to Montreal, so it seemed natural to return. I didn’t know anyone in the city, and I liked going there alone in the afternoons for pitchers of 50 and to read the paper, maybe try and do some writing. There were always these sad old men at the bar, Bukowksi’s without pens or poetry, drinking draught beer from white wine glasses, contently awaiting some kind end. I kind of admired them, their comfort in solitude, their confident quiet. It was here that I wrote most of my first book, where I could look into the future of my speakers as they sat at the bar next to me. As I found a community, when we called each other, we didn’t even need to say which bar to meet at, just when. The Cock n’ Bull became a home. Many nights would start at a large table, pitcher upon pitch being devoured, and inevitably end up with just myself and Nick McArthur as 3am rolled around, doing shots of Southern Comfort, wondering where everyone went, talking about how one day we’d be writers.

I remember the summer of 2006, coming back from St. Petersburg, Russia, a place devoid of comfort or locals or home, and being legitimately excited to return to the Cock for a beer. In the two months I had been gone, Montreal had passed a bi-law prohibiting smoking in bars and restaurants. Walking down into the bar, for the first time I could smell the place, a sad mix of bleach and spilled draught, unshowered drunkards, and unclean washrooms. Though we kept going there for beers, something had changed, like the absence of smoke had taken something away from us.

Things change, and the Cock was bought out by some conglomerate that turned it into a flat screen filled abomination. But before that, most of us had left, and I had found a new local. The Copacabana, an infamous haunt on St. Laurent, was where my beers were served, my hockey games watched, my evenings spent. At the Copa, a table was always reserved, a Cinquante quickly served, a shot conspicuously provided, a pool table to embarrass oneself on, a dispenser of hot nuts left untouched since the 80s. But most of all it was a place for Anglo Montreal writers who weren’t complete assholes. It was where I once declared myself Canada’s greatest living poet, where Edmonton writer Cara Hedley soundly defeated me at arm wrestling, where I saw Jon Paul Fiorentino launch his accomplished collection Indexical Elegies, where Sina Queyras once challenged the male faculty to produce their wives, where a drunken Concordia prof told me that I’d never understand Ulysses until I had kids, where I decided not to discover if that was true, where Jay Taylor grilled me some of the best steaks I’ve ever tasted, where the game of JägerMuller was invented, where Darren Bifford titled my book JACK, where I met Ian Orti and he first imparted his wisdom to me, where Dave McGimpsey and I edited my first book, where I wrote parts of the second, where Liz Bachinsky told me it was alright to have a man-purse, where I brought large groups of visiting writers who fell in love with it, where Kevin Canty called home on his first visit to Montreal, where I watched the Habs make a magical run in 2009, where I met the last girl I loved, maybe the last girl I’ll ever love, and where I realized that I loved her.

Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again. Ok, what he really wrote was “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” My difficulty with Wolfe, besides confusing him with that Wolfe who wears white suits and got famous for following Ken Kesey around, is that his declaration challenges you to prove him wrong. So we all try to go home again, and it never works out. We try to go back to our childhoods, to our youth, to the loves we’ve lost, and the mistakes we made.

Jon Fiorentino and I went back to the Copa last week, to find it has been dismantled of its charm and grace. It most certainly is no longer home. Gone is the sweet indie soundtrack that filled the room with Wilco, and the Silver Jews, and Spoon. Gone are the barflies, the rub-a-dubs that freckled our affection for the place. Gone are the friends, and the staff, and that feeling of comfort, of belonging. And in its stead is a room that is trying incredibly hard to be that which it once so naturally was: cool, effortless, home. The walls are blood red, there’s literally a sandbox in the back like they’re expecting a herd of cats to come in, the prices have gone up, and the clientele is a formidable mix of assholes and club kids. The table that used to be ours, a beautiful mosaic table top, has been lifted from its legs and hangs insultingly above the urinal. The waitress is dressed for some club that only exists in my nightmares, and the music that beats against the room with an unrelenting mischief is born of those same nightmares. It is, to say the least, horrid.

Wolfe was right, the knowing prick. But Jon and I got our revenge. We ordered very large drinks and tipped very poorly. We took our pockets full of change and filled the jukebox with an unending playlist of the old Copa: The Constantines, Wilco, The Weakerthans, Johnny Cash, and as much country music that could possibly upset the crowd. As “Beer for My Horses” confused and discomforted the room we chugged our overpriced drinks, and left them to fend for themselves.

And now I’m back in Toronto, with no local as of yet, no pub I turn to in quiet afternoons for a tall stout and a long read. It’s possible that at my age, and in this life, Starbucks is the local, but I refuse to give into that notion. But I’m taking Wolfe to task again, I’m challenging him because I’m stubborn and not very smart and blessed with a lot of free time and an unhealthy affection for the past. Because as I get older I keep convincing myself that you can go home again, “back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting”, back home to the girl you loved, the late nights, the local, the good friends, the quiet beaches, and the eventide.