My Past, Its Past

I almost can’t believe this building once existed in Halifax. It stood at the corners of Hollis, Granville, and the now-gone Buckingham Streets.

A Long-Gone Flatiron Building in Halifax

I stumbled upon the “Vintage Halifax” page on Facebook yesterday and I simply had to go through it all. The experience left me with even more mixed feelings about that city I called home for more than two decades — most of my adult life. It reminded me of something I wrote in a series of postings from June 2007 that was my way of convincing myself that the time had come for me to leave Halifax.

…I can’t deny that when I found myself driving along South Park at Spring Garden the other evening, with the sun shining and the leaves out and the pedestrians everywhere, I think I saw the ghost of the city with which I had fallen in love a quarter century ago. I wondered for an instant if perhaps my eyes had changed with age and thus were preventing me from seeing that the beloved is still here, or if indeed, as I fear, the beloved has withered to a pale shadow of its former, vibrant self.

I do know that my reaching middle age has to be taken into account. But as I kept driving along the city streets on my way home, I concluded that I had, in fact, only seen a pale shadow back there. A lovely shadow in its own right, mind you, but a shadow nonetheless.

A sharp observer on the Vintage Halifax page, noticing that cars were driving on the left-hand side, noted that the shadow of Halifax pictured above likely dates back to before April 1923, after which authorities ordered that people should drive on the right. The shadow I remembered and about which I was wrote in 2007 dated back to July 1982 and the decade or so that followed. The flatiron-style building shown above was long gone by then, but the building in front of it, next to which the car is parked, still exists: it is now the first building to the right as one enters Hollis Street from the Cogswell Interchange.

I really knew nothing about Halifax prior to 1982. Some — although I don’t remember exactly who — had told me it was a rough and dirty port city and a bigger version of Saint John, New Brunswick, which I agreed at the time was an ugly and old industrial port city that reeked due to having a papermill just up-river from downtown. Thus I had no desire to go to Halifax until my longtime friend The Quad had to go consult with occupational therapists at a hospital in Halifax — an appointment that coincidentally came up mere days after BeeGoddessC suggested that I go to Halifax to talk to Danny. Since the Quad and I were inseparable at the time, I went along for the ride to take him to Halifax on a Sunday so that, once in Halifax, I would try to reach Danny to invite myself to stay a few days at his place beginning the following Tuesday.

That Sunday was beautiful and sunny and, when we arrived in Halifax, my jaw practically dropped to the floor. Rather than finding a dirty little port city, I found, as we drove across the Macdonald Bridge, a polished, gleaming seaport with an impressive, modern skyline. Even though I’m no longer fond of Halifax, I can’t take away from the fact that it does have an impressive skyline for a city of its size — one that has densified in the decades since I first set eyes on it. And, coming from little ol’ Moncton, New Brunswick, that had no skyline to speak of, I felt like I was “discovering” a mini-Montréal that existed, without my knowing it, less than 200 miles from my doorstep.

At that time, the Scotia Square / Historic Properties complex had been in existence for at least 10 years. The whole neighbourhood pictured above had been razed in the mid-’60s to make way for it. Looking at pictures yesterday of the dilapidated neighbourhood that used to stand in its place, I can understand why the city had been so bent on “urban renewal.” However, attitudes about development being what they were back in the ’60s, the way the plan was executed earned it much-deserved criticism. It would never happen today unless an epic catastrophe destroyed such a vast area that would then need to be refilled. It radically changed the face of Halifax but, ironically, that face I discovered that day in July 1982 was but one of the components that made me fall so hard for that city.

Less than two years after that first visit, or one year after graduating from high school, I decided to take a second “sabbatical year from school” and lived in Halifax for 16 months. Fate then had me return to live in Halifax in September 1987 when I decided to study public relations at Mount Saint Vincent University, and I managed to find work afterwards that kept me in Halifax until March 2008, which I deem, with hindsight, as about a decade longer than I should have stayed there.

Indeed, I went from finding no wrong with Halifax to finding everything wrong with it. For right or for wrong, I came to see it as a place where mediocrity wasn’t just accepted but celebrated. And, in a further twist of irony, as more and more quaint old buildings were being destroyed and replaced with characterless condos, I could no longer find that city I had loved so much.

This observation strikes me as somewhat odd because I’m not the type of guy who opposes development. I like the look and feel of modern big cities. But perhaps that’s just it: I came to see Halifax as an impostor — a big small town that hadn’t a clue what it wanted to be — and, indeed, that rough and dirty port city about which I had been told when I was a kid.

Looking at all those pictures on Vintage Halifax, I could see why the city had earned that reputation. However, as I looked at those pictures and thought of that city I left nearly five years ago, one thought crossed my mind: “Old wine, new bottle.” Worse still, I almost couldn’t see why I had once fallen so hard for it. Sadly, today, I can enumerate far more areas in Halifax than I can in Montréal where I wouldn’t dare walk alone at night. And that, along with many other factors, leaves me not missing Halifax one bit …except for my friends who still live there.

Ray’s Ray

Reflections of RaymondI simply haven’t been able to get Raymond out of my mind since Tuesday.

So many layers of disconnected thoughts and images keep flashing before my mind’s eye as I continue to live my day-to-day life, as one does. I have probably read every news story, comment, editorial or whatnot I could find online since last Tuesday’s horrific news. However, the extent to which I am grieving Raymond surprises me.

I do — or should I say did — count Raymond among my friends, but I would be greatly overstating things if I claimed that he was one of my best friends. I would also be lying if I said that he was on my “must call” list for my next trip to Halifax this coming August. At best, I may have had this vague notion in my mind that I might bump into him while there, for he was such an ubiquitous figure about town and, as the outpouring of tributes attests, everyone’s friend.

It’s also too easy, given the circumstances of Raymond’s death, to elevate him to a status of quasi-sainthood. Now don’t get me wrong: of all the people I’ve known, Raymond stands out as one of the most sincere, genuine, honest, dedicated, fun, selfless, and loving person I have ever had the chance to meet. In fact, I don’t think I ever met someone so devoid of malice, and even if he found himself on the receiving end of malice, he was likely to step back from it calmly and simply broker a truce, even if that truce was to agree to disagree. But it’s because of all his laudable qualities — and his playful naughtiness I myself witnessed — that he would have been the last one to aspire to the status of sainthood.

Some of the gruesome details of his fatal beating have been downplayed or redacted from the first accounts that hit the news, but they have been haunting me every night as I’ve gone to bed since Tuesday. Having lived in Halifax 22 years, I know the exact location of the crime scene very well. And the initial footage on TV showed that it was a foggy night — pea-soup foggy as I remember so well nights can be in that town he adopted and quite literally embraced. As I try to fall asleep, I keep seeing the assailant bashing Raymond’s head into the sidewalk; it’s a series of images in which I can see Raymond’s face so clearly and that keeps playing in an infinite loop until I literally shake my head to try to focus on other thoughts. I then say to myself — as if some comfort can be found in thinking this — that it probably all happened so fast that he didn’t have time to realize what was happening before the trauma caused his body to shut down. And, in that brief instant, Ray’s ray of life simply slipped away.

Thankfully, when I finally start thinking of “Ray of Life,” I see his tall, lean figure on the dance floor, dressed very much like in the photo above, and his playfully mischievous grin. “Goofy” is an attribute that is anything but pejorative when applied to Raymond.

My biggest struggle — and perhaps that of many others — is not to feel anger — some rational, most not. Why the heck were you out again so late on a Monday night, Raymond? Why didn’t your primal instinct not kick in to assess that you, all of 150 pounds when wet, couldn’t possibly overtake a 260-pound man? Why, in that moment, did you have to be so you? Who in their right mind — pardon the pun — would consider it safe to let the man who turned out to be your undoing out on an unsupervised leave from that mental health facility?

As cliché as it is, though, the reason why I — we — must not be angry is because you wouldn’t have wanted us to be angry. Ironically, Raymond, you would have been the first one to argue in favour of rehabilitation of mental health patients. You were profoundly human/humane that way. You wouldn’t have seen this matter in monochromatic black and white.

In fact, when I think about those who are calling for your murder to be considered a hate crime because your assailant supposedly called you “faggot,” I suspect you would reflect long and hard before getting on that bandwagon, if at all. It pains me to think that “faggot” may have been the last word you heard when you slipped away from this world, especially you who have fought so hard against homophobia. But while I still can’t bring myself to forgive your assailant — not to mention those who let him out — I have a feeling in my gut that the storm in his head brought him to hate anything and everything, indiscriminately. By that definition, your death was unequivocally a crime, but one for which many forces converged. Therefore, it’s a tremendously complex crime that mixes homophobia, race, and caring for the mentally ill into a ridiculously tangled web.

Maybe, just maybe, the way your life ended so brutally will add to the rich legacy you left in life. Destiny can be funny that way. This is very difficult and perhaps politically incorrect to write, but had a lesser known and loved person died last Tuesday, would the outcry be so loud for having allowed a clearly dangerous person a one-hour leave from that hospital? And if, as I fear, your assailant is found not criminally responsible of second-degree murder, could this not mark the beginning of public demands for an overhaul of our judiscial and mental-health systems?

I need to believe that something good, something greater, will come out of your death, Raymond, not just perfunctory “justice.” You were such an agent of change in life that we owe it to ourselves to be agents of change in honour of your life.

And for all those wonderful hugs.

Goodbye, Dear Sweet Raymond

Raymond Taavel

Normally, my workday doesn’t allow me to take much of a break, but today was different: a call took less time than expected, so I could have a late lunch before my next call while reading the CBC News and CBC Nova Scotia websites. The story that greeted me at the latter was this one:

Gay activist’s beating death prompts murder charge

Of course I clicked on the link and my heart stopped as I read the caption for the photo at the top of this news story: “A memorial is being set up on Gottingen Street in Halifax to honour Raymond Taavel.” I stared at the name: Raymond Taavel. My brain refused to believe it. There must have been some mistake. My eyes wanted to see that it was Raymond kneeling in that picture, but it didn’t compute: it definitely wasn’t Raymond, showing respect for a fallen comrade; it was a woman I did not know, setting up a memorial for Raymond.

Raymond is dead?

Raymond is dead.

Worse, Raymond was murdered.

Image upon image flashed before my eyes in an instant, as did thought after thought, memory after memory. One distinct memory: that of getting hugged by Raymond. Tall and very slim, Raymond somehow still managed to give bear hugs. In that instant I remembered and felt his skinniness and his warmth. And then I thought about how I would never feel that again.

I tried to remember the last time I saw him, the last time I spoke to him, the last time we e-mailed each other, the last time we commented on each other’s Facebook status.

I think the last time I saw him was in Halifax, on Grafton Street, with NowEx just a few days before we wed. It was cold outside that night so we didn’t stand there long to chat.

The last time we spoke was when he called me in Montreal so we could talk about transferring control of the Halifax Pride site to people back in Halifax.

The last time we e-mailed? That one makes me sad right now. He was on some pan-Canadian vacation tour last year and mentioned he might be in Montreal in mid-June. He asked me how I would feel about having “a blue nose couch surfer” at my place. But last year, as those who could endure reading this blog know, was not a good year for me and I didn’t have it in me to entertain. So, after delaying a few days, I wrote back to tell him that I couldn’t entertain but would love to see him when he’d be in town. I think his plans changed and he didn’t make it to Montreal after all, so that “bite to eat” never happened.

In addition to being a GLBT activist, Raymond was a political junky for as long as I can remember. I recall a conversation we had once in the late ’90s or early ’00s at the original Menz Bar — not the one in front of which he was murdered — about the NDP which had dwindled to a dozen MPs in the House of Commons. “The NDP has become irrelevant,” he declared, “it has to change.” But as many have said in various tributes over the past 24 hours, Raymond was persistent and optimistic. He stuck it out with the NDP and lived to see it form the government in Nova Scotia and the official opposition in Ottawa.

I also remember being a little pissed off at Raymond when I thought I might have a chance to get something on with a guy whom I’ll call Mr. Sailor, only to find a few days later the Raymond had snagged him first. Now, as I think back to that, I smile. I have to say, Raymond: I always thought you had good taste in men.

I look at your picture, Raymond, and I still can’t believe you’re gone. It hurts to look at your Facebook page. Yet, as I think of you right now, I have an image of you with a martini glass in your hand. I don’t know if I ever actually saw you with a martini glass in your hand, but that’s still the image that comes to my mind.

Back in Town Blah, Blah, Blah

View of my cityI arrived back home in Montréal early yesterday evening after a 10-day vacation road trip to the Maritimes, and just like the previous times I came back, I have to admit this place is Home. Yes, as I mentioned in some of my previous post, this is a very imperfect city, and there’s much about it to drive someone crazy (not to mention a nervous wreck). But while watching the handsome — nay, HOT — waiter Miguel go about his business as I was having breakfast at Lafayette (which I dub La Faggot due to its proximity to the Village), I just had to come to that conclusion.

It was sunny and warm when I arrived, a stark contrast with the abundant rain and cool temperatures that marked almost the entirety of my trip to the Maritimes. I hear the weather wasn’t shit hot in Montréal either, but it was still much better than the horrible summer that’s being experienced in Moncton and Halifax this year. Although the weather is a totally disconnected thought, it nonetheless made me feel like I was coming back home, to the warmth and humidity that I’ve come to associate to summer in this city.

I can’t believe that my two weeks off are almost over, and I’m truly dreading going back to work on Tuesday morning.

Sidebar: Although I shouldn’t have looked, I did notice this morning that my colleagues booked me an appointment for Monday morning even though I thought I had indicated everywhere and to everyone that I was only coming back on Tuesday. I sent out an e-mail to key people and hopefully they’ll fix that, as I am NOT going in because of someone else’s screw up. Maybe I should make a call as well, but I really don’t think I should have to.

If I’m dreading going back, it’s not so much for the work itself. I know that I do my job well — possibly better than some — and I don’t dislike it, either. It’s just that my time off has made me realize that perhaps I need more time off to wrestle a few monkeys off my back so that my subsequent visits with Lucy will be more productive. Indeed, I feel I’m putting what little energy I have into my work (when working), leaving me without the time and energy to get rid of the noise — monkeys are noisy — that has partly contributed to my running out of steam. In fact, Lucy’s closing remark after my second appointment with her was both interesting and validating, as she pretty well said that it’s no wonder I’m in the state I’m in!

I realized, while speaking with friends and family in the last few days, that there are many little incidents I hadn’t previously shared with them — some stuff going back decades. The fundamental question that is emerging in my mind now is whether or not I care about what other people think of me. I always thought that I didn’t — that I do what I please, when I please, while remaining a functional and responsible human being living in a civil society. However, I believe a more nuanced answer is that I do care a great deal about what those towards whom I have chosen, for whatever reason — some good, some bad — to give my full loyalty think of me. I can go way overboard in accommodating (and sometimes funding) others’ wants and needs, at the expense of my own or even my ability to accommodate them.

As such, I think I’ve reached the conclusion that I must expend as much energy in the coming while to accommodating my own wants and needs without feeling guilty and without feeling that I’m being a total selfish fuckwad. There are qualities, like my accommodating nature, that I don’t want to lose; I simply need to control them better and apply a generous layer onto myself right now. The tough part is not only figuring out how to reach that balance, but also uncovering what my legitimate needs and wants are.

Memories, Nostalgia, and Some Sadness

It was mid-April 1984. I wasn’t quite 19 yet. I has just moved to Halifax in an upstairs duplex on Quinn Street for a 4-month sublet. The owners had left all their stuff so I needed only bring my clothes and look for a job. And among their stuff was Keith Jarrett’s 3-LP Bremen / Lausanne Concerts.

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for several years will recall the lead up to my move to Montréal. Some of you may have said to yourselves — nay, some of you have said to my face …lovingly, of course — “Oh, enough already and just do it!” So, in June 2007, I wrote a five-part blog entry that, on one part, amounted to my ode to Halifax and, on the other, served to convince myself that it really was time to “just do it.”

As for those of you who knew me well before this blog existed, back when I was that teenager who deferred university for a second year after finishing high school in order to get a job and live a year in Halifax, you’ll remember a small-town Maritime gay boy who had become obsessed with Halifax. That city seemed (and, in the early 1980s, was) so much more exciting than Moncton, yet not too far from my comfort zone. As I wrote in that 2007 five-part series, I didn’t think in August 1985 when I returned to Moncton to study translation that I would ever live again in Halifax. But things changed, and I returned two years later and stayed there almost 21 years.

Rediscovering Jarrett’s Lausanne had me almost in tears last night. I can assure you that, in 1984, I didn’t think about 2011. Perhaps I thought of the Year 2000 — who didn’t back then! — as it still seemed so remote and, good heavens, I would be 35 that year! Now here I am, about to enter the second half of 45.

Last night I remembered that teenager, sitting alone by the fireplace, tucked comfortably on that white sofa in the living room on Quinn Street, listening by candlelight to the Lausanne before going to bed.

Yes, last night, remembering that teenager, and perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt old and truly realized there is less life before me than there is behind me. Oh, the things I didn’t know back then! The optimism; the naïveté; the not knowing where life would lead me — not that it led me to a bad place… And last night realizing not only just how little 2011 resembles 1984, but also how little 2011 resembles what I might have thought it would in 1984.

Being gay back then was still a very big deal. Each time you befriended someone or got social with someone at work, you would ponder not only when but IF you would come out to them, and take some distance from the fledgling friendship if you sensed that coming out would lead to painful rejection. In that sense, for most young gay guys like me there was an undercurrent of fear, which I need to make clear here so that you not think that last night I looked back at ’84 through rose-tinted glasses and thought, “Those were the days!” With the advent of and phobia towards AIDS that rose in those years and the backlash to which to it led towards gay men, it was unimaginable that I, nearly 25 years later, would find myself legally marrying a man. And three years after that, be working on divorcing him.

Last night I acutely felt the sadness I have been feeling for several months now. It is not sadness over the breakup of my marriage nor about being single and not wanting to be so. It is not sadness due to being in the middle of a long, cold winter, as it took hold well before winter started. It is certainly not sadness about where I am professionally nor the city where I now live. No, it’s not that specific; it’s more encompassing. But the kicker is that, meeting me or talking to me, most wouldn’t know it is there.

I don’t need a fancy Westmount therapist to recognize that I’m going through a kind of depression. (There! I’ve actually written the word, and it staring back at me makes it more real.) But I also recognize that the time has long come for me to get off my duff and tidy up all the loose strings I have left hanging, be it financially or legally, or the need to lose weight and quit smoking.

It’s the time for DOING, as that teenager of ’84 would do after listening to Jarrett’s Lausanne and a good night’s sleep.