Look back in copper
Redheads and I go back a ways.
It’s roughly 1986. I’m in Toronto for the homosexualist pride celebrations. I am roasting in the sun (a precursor of future Pride® experiences, though the other major Pride themes, of sorrow, futility, and unwantedness, had not yet manifested themselves). The Woman’s Intuition® tells me to stick around for the auction, held late in the day.
I have the impression that my genuine Ray-Ban® shades conceal the fact that I am staring openly at a shockingly handsome and well-built strawberry blond. Uh, no. He can tell. After a Calvin Klein® Eternity® he finally chats me up. Tom’s the name.
I am summarily dragged around to the fagbars of the era – Chaps, Komrads – and, after Tom decided my fingering his nipple at Komrads was a bit trop, we retire to his place, a squalid dump of a rooming house on Pembroke St. with Kitty Litter® ground permanently into the shag carpet.
Not an ideal environment for one’s deflowering experience. (You heard me.)
Tom is strawberry-blond- and/or brown-haired all over. He doesn’t work out, but he doesn’t need to. He can hoist me onto his shoulders and walk around the room. (Admittedly, that required only a few paces, and if he’d swung me around I’d have had the thrill of saying later “Tom’s room wasn’t big enough to swing a cat, let alone me.”) He has excellent hair patterns on his chest and stomach.
Tom is not too smart. Well-known in Our Diverse Communities®, but not too smart. He’s a salesgirl at a shoe store in the Eaton Centre.
I return to Montreal, where I was attending McGill. A correspondence ensues. He comes to visit one weekend, and the moment I lay eyes on him at the bus station (the bus station?), suddenly I hate his guts. His thorough dumbness gets on my nerves. Why am I wasting my time with this guy?
On the other hand, Tom was absolutely in love with me. For the first time in a good ten years, as I write this now I remember his tears in the Outremont Cinema as we watched, of all things, the Michael Apted–Sting vehicle Bring On the Night. The love songs of Sting, so heartfelt in the late ’80s, spoke loudly to Tom, who had finally noticed my testiness and asked me why. I remember feeling for him and his disappointment, and also remember not budging a bit from my cherished perch of superiority and peevishness.
We were both pretty young at the time.
Years later, after moving to Toronto, I bump into Tom in the waiting line at the beer corral at Pride. With too much earnestness and some kind of misplaced concern, which turned out to be the Woman’s Intuition manifesting itself obscurely, I tried handing Tom some AIDS literature. He wouldn’t take it: “I don’t want your garbage.” So I folded it in half and pushed it into his back pocket.
Still hurt, I guess, he pulled everything out of the pocket, balled it up, and threw it at me, saying “There. Take your garbage.”
Incredibly enough, I tried another fling or two with Tom. None of the other fish were biting, that’s for sure. We were never again friends, but I had long since stopped being peevish. I would see him around from time to time, until, on December 31, 1991, I read his obituary. My first boyfriend, a magnificently beautiful strawberry blond who loved me completely, had died of AIDS, and I never knew what was happening.
But the Memories Are Not All Bad
The film After Life (Japan, 1998) treats a metaphysical issue matter-of-factly. You’re dead. You appear at a holding facility and are instructed to select one memory from your life which will accompany you to the afterlife to the exclusion of all else. What do you choose?
I didn’t even have to choose. It chose me. I pegged it on the third paragraph of the first After Life review I read.
When Tom visited me in Montreal, he emerged from the shower on the second day wearing a towel. I lay on the couch, where he came to see me. I ran my fingers through his hair and immediately felt the coolness, the dampness, and the density, while also noting the fair pinkish colour. The temperature and wetness were startling, and they mixed with the sensation of moving my hand through his hair, which resisted slightly. It was nearly 15 years ago, and I remember it better than what I ate for lunch yesterday.
Unexpectedly, what happened next – the best blowjob of my life, bar none – rates a mere footnote. It was the cool damp strawberry-blond hair I’ll take with me, if not to the afterlife. There are worse things one could remember about your first boyfriend.
I used to work out at Hart House, the ancient University of Toronto facility. The place was well-maintained, except for the weightroom, worse than what you’d find in any high school built after 1975. Most important omission: Air conditioning. In summertime, only hardcore weight-training types sweated it out.
And, perhaps improbably, I was one of them. With my friend – who would later experience the RhCP with me firsthand – I worked out three or four times a week. My friend ended up built like a brick shithouse, while I looked hirsute, strong, yet vaguely pregnant.
My routine was shattered when a fellow with bright-red hair, no discernible bodyfat, and a conventional Hollywood-handsome face with subtle freckles made an appearance. Then the next day. Then pretty much every day. I was going out of my mind.
An engineering student, as it turned out (I have a diploma in engineering, ostensibly giving us something to talk about), working a summer office job at the Bank of Montreal, where he mostly wrangled WordPerfect. To this day I had a hard time imagining this masculine engineer type – the kind who thinks cinema means anything with Bruce Willis and literature is The Lord of the Rings, but only back when they were in high school – doing office-lady work, no matter at how high a level.
I think Bryan knew I fancied him. For a butch engineer, he seemed to know what gave. Bryan had words with a senior citizen over using a bench at one point. “Aw, don’t worry," Bryan said. “He’s just an old fag.” And you know, he was.
Bryan actually handed me soap in the shower at one point. We’re talking perfectly-flat stomach, a beautiful range of skin and hair colours, and good proportions. He was always a bit shy undressing around me. I think he was shy about doing so, period, but it was necessary. We worked out in a sauna.
The exercise bikes and rowing machines were located upstairs in a sun-drenched old gymnasium complete with a stage, presumably for the football team should any of them wish to rehearse for The Fantasticks while waiting for the bike. It was a long afternoon. I had my towel, my book, my water bottle. Bryan walks by en route to the onstage rowing machine, stops, talks for a moment, gives me a big plastic grin, then stands there.
The Woman’s Intuition® screams at me: Wipe the sweat off his face, idiot!
It would’ve been no skin off his arse. That day, he liked being liked. But I didn’t have the guts.
Bryan’s a troubled young man, or was. I’ve spotted him twice in the near-decade that has passed, both times on campus. His hair on both occasions grew past his shoulders in great overlapping curls, bobbing up and down as he walked, scowling at the world. He noticed me once.
In my misguided youth, I used to do a lot of activist work. I attended actual New York City ACT UP meetings. I was in on the ground floor on the formation of the Toronto chapter of Queer Nation, and I watched the cliques in full tear at AIDS Action Now. I showed up at tapings for the Shirley show, a tawdry housewife talk show on CTV presided over by a faux-compassionate Jewess, Shirley Solomon. In fact, I was in the audience so often that Shirley recognized me, and made fun of my name. That tends to go over poorly with me. Lucky for her she didn’t put me on camera, or the production company would have borne a few dollars in editing costs as I switched to bitch-diva mode and read Shirley.
There’s a lot of downtime during a show taping. There was often very little to distract me from staring at the kid with the screaming blue eyes, eyes discernible even from ten feet away and behind him. It was the strong studio lights glinting through the corneas that brought the brilliant blue iris into relief. The lights made his hair glow; it was already the proverbial carrot colour, but supernaturally so here.
"Who is he?" I ask my friend. Jason, he tells me. My awe is apparent. “He’s only 18," I was told.
But by 1994, Jason was 23 – a man, albeit a man with a boy’s name. I put out a call for queer engineers for an article I was writing. (And boy, are fag engineers ever a piece of work.) An E-correspondence ensued, then a face-to-face. Did I know that this Jason was the Jason? I can’t remember.
Still and all, I couldn’t believe my luck. He’s obsessed with the Pet Shop Boys, whom I love, too, ostensibly giving us something to talk about. We spent a lot of time together – touring the cafés of the slum called the Annex, and, most memorably, schlepping him out to a disused bridge between Dundas and Queen over the Don River for a photo shoot.
I still have the pictures. Jason had grown up. His hair had darkened, but it was incontrovertibly red. The eyes still gleamed. He preferred a hybrid queer wardrobe of butch jacket and baseball cap with fey scarf, which, as a gay redhead, he could actually get away with. We had acquaintances in common – acquaintances wild about redheads. We weren’t attracted to Jason for his mind, at least at first blush. (An intimation of an affair with a particularly weird friend, a disturbing image.) Jason is terribly smart, and verbal, and generally quick on the uptake, and tart.
We had a lot in common. Except the most important thing. At my place one evening, he shut up long enough for me to plant a kiss.
”That was unexpected," he tells me.
There’s only one direction things can go from there, and that’s downhill.
Fri, 6 Jan 95 18:19:14 EST
Subject: A very poor masking tape analogy
Q. Were one to wrap your entire body – from foot to ego – in masking tape, would you rather that same person (or any other) pull it off slooooowly... or with one big “onomatipeic" RIP!!!!?
A. WHO ASKED YOU!?
I can tell you now that I am not interested in pursuing a relationship with you, or I can put it off for a few weeks and tell you the same thing. Quickly or slowly, the choice is yours.
While I am tempted to give explanations and shed some of my own light on the situation, I can’t really see how it would be of much use. You have spoken. Fine. I suppose that the only techicality now is for me to gather my assorted PSB paraphrenalia chez vous.
Sorry to mince words. You’re the writer.
We pass now to a memory with something resembling a happy ending.
In 1994, at the height of my career writing on social issues in sports for the Village Voice and elsewhere, I was dispatched to New York to cover the Gay Games – for the Voice. Yes, indeed, the editor believed in me enough to assign a local event to a foreigner.
Day One: Wymmynz powerlifting. I had no expectations. I did know the antiquated, even Hart House–like gym in the Village hosting the event was walkable. Except I forgot New York’s devastating heat.
I was a wrinkled prune by the time I got there, and I would spend eight more hours in that same stuffy room. Eight hours. Eight very enjoyable and inspiring hours: I’ve never seen a sports event with as much camaraderie and good-naturedness as wymmynz powerlifting. As I wrote, it was an all-out highlight of the Gaymes for me.
I spent that day fretting and trying to attract the attention of a lad in a sleeveless T-shirt, with an excellent body, beautiful skin, screamin’ red hair, blue eyes, and... a press pass. Who the heck is this fellow, and why isn’t he catching my eye? I certainly did enough pitching. Our press passes alone would ostensibly give us something to talk about. I even snapped a blurry photo surreptitiously.
I chalked it up as One of Those Things. You spend eight hours in a room with a sexy red-haired man in tight clothing who evidently can write and what do you get out of it? Sodden clothes and a memory.
Except: Months later I found myself at the library reading Tennis and experienced mild coronary arrest when I spotted a photo showing this same man – with his arm around a guy with “Semitic good looks," to paraphrase Lisa Simpson. Oh, my. It’s an article about the Gay Games tennis event, where the author, Doug the redhead, finished with the overall men’s gold medal. Eep.
I looked up his number and called him. Talk about breaking the ice. Hi. You don’t know me, but we spent a day in the same room together at wymmynz powerlifting. I just read your article and... we’re both homos who write about sports.
He seemed to buy it. We exchanged snatchmail and had a couple of phone conversations, some of which were not my finest hour by any means. Early on, Doug wrote:
So, Joe, is it a weakness for redheads or something more pathological? We are, indeed, a special lot, but don’t cross us; we can be vicious. And yes, in fact, by and large I prefer to be the object of adoration – distant adoration – since it allows me to be a thing perceived and not a thing understood. You know how men are with intimacy. I remember the powerlifting day quite well, but not you in particular. Too bad you didn’t say hello. You must know by now, Joe, that we must seize oppportunities when they arise. They rarely come twice.
Twist the knife, Doug. Twist the knife.
We kind of keep in touch. He’s been a reasonably successful journalist, while I have been reasonably unsuccessful. I kind of still admire him tremendously. Even without having met.
This one’s tricky. The recollection and the man. The recollection is tricky because the man is famous. He’s a well-known Canadian athlete. Do a bit of poking around, or simply sit and reflect a moment, and you’ll know who I’m talking about.
Jeff is another redhead I’ve followed since he was a young adult. I pitched a story on him to a local newspaper circa 1991. Everything was all lined up until, late on a Saturday night, his “manager" rings up to cancel. Talking to the “manager" and to Jeff, I’m told that, since the newspaper carries personal ads and uses the word “fuck," appearing in an editorial article might rile his sponsors, one of whom employs many blue-collar workers. The kind of workers who read the Toronto Sun, Jeff, with its Sunshine Girl and voluminous escort-service ads?
Jeff refused to help out with another article years later. Older and wiser, I simply wrote around him, and went so far as to snap his picture and run it alongside the article. A responsible journalist, I mailed him a copy once it came out, telling him whatever hate-on he had for me was juvenile and had to stop.
We set up a coffee date.
I don’t know what’s going on. I inch closer and closer to insanity. The Redhead Cluster Phenomenon is the mildest of the unexplainable paranormal phenomena I’ve experienced since youngest boyhood. A lot of déjà vu experiences, which have declined in frequency over the years (the gaps are spaced out seemingly in exponential sequence, in fact). I have a very strong and infallible Woman’s Intuition, which I only sometimes heed. I can’t explain these events, but they happen.
Jeff, however, pegged all the meters. I’ve never been so nervous in my life. I bump into an acquaintance at the then-new and lavishly-renovated Future Bakery and hope he won’t sit too close by and eavesdrop. Even in New York at the Gay Games I didn’t sweat as much. I was an absolute wreck.
Then Jeff showed up, looking OK. He’s not as handsome as you might think; not all redheads are. Some are downright funny-looking. With his puffiness and on-again/off-again acne, many are the speculations of steroid use, though in reality he’s just puffy and pimply.
And very smart. Indeed, he’s the only person I’ve met who’s exactly as smart as I am. I’ve met many above and a great many below that line, but Jeff and I are evenly matched. Verbally, too. In a lot of ways.
My acquaintance buggered off (and how ironic: the acquaintance is a total dreamboat whose presence I would have welcomed any other time), but another fag spotted us and sat close by. I wonder what he spotted, exactly.
Jeff and I talked shop for quite a while, and to our surprise we found we agreed on pretty much everything related to his oddball sport and its arse-backward oversight. But, when talking about Jeff, it was when I uttered the phrase “What’s not to like?” that I plunged the dagger into my guts.
Jeff gave me a knowing and uncomfortable look. We had done a lot of talking about my being queer, as though I were the first one he’d talked to. In fact, I suspect I was.
After an inelegant sendoff, we went our separate ways. I fax-o-grammed him a couple of notes over the next weeks suggesting another rendez-vous, jerking the dagger to the left and right by addressing one of them to “Macho Man!”
A great deal of time passed. Then one day the fax-o-gram lit up. I knew it was Jeff. In fact, I felt like our minds were connected. I didn’t feel like it; our minds were connected. The letter explained that Jeff was in the midst of sorting out a few important issues in his life, and that he would contact me at a later time. Wishing me well, the letter ended, the fax-o-gram turned off (the return phone number was listed, inexplicably, as MATT), and the supernatural link closed.
I saw Jeff one more time, at SkyDome. He was holding court at floor level for a couple of hours. – Jeff borders on the self-aggrandizing, and, as a redhead, has attracted attention from day zero, which he relishes. I headed him off at the pass en route to his car. On this occasion uniquely, Jeff looked beautiful. Even surrounded by the concrete of the SkyDome.
In the intervening years, Jeff has finally grown up. He divorced the chick he married at 24, an age even he agreed was too young. I spotted him on TV with wild unkempt flaming hair and a tattoo, which have since been suppressed. Despite a newspaper report of some kind of suspiciously-glamourous butch girlfriend in a city conveniently far away, Jeff’s queerness is growing more manifest. Despite his riches, athletic achievements, and fame, is it only now that Jeff is coming up on happiness?
More than a decade ago, at Chaps, the ruling fagbar of the moment, I couldn’t stop myself from saying to a friend “Isn’t he the most beautiful man you’ve ever seen?" “Well, not the most beautiful. Very attractive, yes.” My friend had a taste for understatement. Uncharacteristically, I chatted him up immediately. A man named Don, strawberry-blond, fit, and with perfect proportions. An unhappy bank teller, annoyed at the perfectionism of his petit-fonctionnaire coworkers.
Don tolerated a number of telephone calls. He came to the house for dinner. I unconservatively changed my shirt in my room with the door open wide enough for him to see. And all I remember after that point is walking up Yonge St. one afternoon and spotting a breathtaking creature beaming like a beacon half a block away (and talking with an Oriental guy for a moment: the prospect of losing a redhead to an Asian was too disagreeable to contemplate). He carried a box and was dressed in white and khaki. Never seen anyone so magnificent, full stop. He’s been in Vancouver all this time, no doubt contentedly. I just wish I had a clearer mental image of him, let alone a photograph.
Redheads en passant
That’s it for the big epochal list of seminal redheads in my life. But they’re the base of the iceberg, which has many ruddy tips.
- I barely managed to keep my tongue in my mouth as a teenager. My nerd friend’s jock brother was in perfect shape, with muscles covered with freckles and hair, featured the best kind of plastic skin, and knew enough to carefully close as many doors as possible between me and him when taking a shower. Oddly, he now lives in Toronto and is a shadow of his former self.
- In what has to be the very first historical example of my automatic transformation into an obnoxious half-wit around the top percentile of the redhead population, at about age 17 I spent a good 20 minutes offending a friend of a friend whose handsomeness, fitness, and screaming hair colour dissolved me into tapioca pudding within instants of setting eyes on him. He remembered the conversation for a decade and a half, though the friend informs me of the following before-and-after specs:
What aging does to a strapping young redhead Before After Weight 180 lb 210 lb Description, à la personal ads Carefree gorgeous sex boy Married with Jetta Selling point Full head of fire-red hair (soft to the touch) Completely bald (hairline receded to brainstem)
- My old apartment building came equipped with a swimming pool, sauna, and queeny red-haired fag. Often seen wearing sandals, Duncan had the sort of vague-pinkish hair reminiscent of a senior citizen’s dye job. And pretty good clothes, despite a slight emphasis on brown. (Redheads should wear green or black.) Quite slender, in good shape, a major screamer, and, it is now apparent, he fancied me. To paraphrase Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, what was I waiting for, a singing telegram?
- I frequent the Maison de la presse internationale, the Montreal-import newsstand, because it gets everything first and is replete with European sports magazines. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the same cashier twice. I wish I’d see this one again: Six feet tall, 25 years old, downright skinny but carried it well, as pale as an albino, but the toughest albino you’ve ever met. I would describe the hair colour as fair orange. I plied him with my standard line: “What’s it like being a redhead?" We had a nice chat. Apparently he can sunburn in March. I would suggest sunscreen. ("No, no, you just relax. I can put it on for you.”)
- Attending a performance of Brad Fraser’s Martin Yesterday at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, the ticket-taker was a 20-year-old redhead with the brightest hair ever, delicate plastic skin, blond eyelashes, and... green eyes, like from old Bakelite dice. Oy. I plied him with my standard line. To his credit, he came up with the proper response: “I don’t know. What’s it like not being red-haired?" We then enjoyed a minidiscussionette about sunburn and I was on my way. The kids today – guys like me are barely considered human. Funny, Jason was like that at his age. The genes could be linked.
- Only recently, I found myself at a Queen St. coffee shop preferred by the self-consciously hip. Gee: A bright-red-haired 20-year-old takes my order. So I describe the Redhead Cluster Phenomenon. He’s mildly interested. But then, over the next 40 minutes, two other red-haired guys show up – one of whom works at the shop, too. Eerie even by my standards.
- This experience was a poor second to what I’d enjoyed earlier, over the span of a couple of months, at another café across town. I looked up from my magazine and, oh, golly, it was a clone of Bryan, with no fewer than four visible hair colours. (The very base of the skull was blond-haired, a first.) This 24ish man, Colin, who drove a white two-door Cavalier and epitomized the cockiness of sexy young guys, tolerated my slavering with reasonably equanimity until I brought two friends along. Both are confirmed heterosexualists, but with their beards and plaid shirts, they looked exactly like bears. Colin was not having any of my attempts to be matey that night, clenching his jaw and going along with our jokes about his red goatee and my friends’ facial hair. Butch redheads are the best kind, I think.
- I kind of knew Mark Leduc in a very en passant way. I hired him to MC at a lecture I gave on homoeroticism in sports photography, a substantial error of judgement on my part: Mark showed up in full leather, which was fine and dandy, but brought a trick along with him, with Mark begging me for advice on how to find a bed. The audience was baffled by his role in the process, after evincing bafflement at everything I presented.
- Mark posed for a local so-called barbershop wearing a harness and nothing else; was seen marching up Church St. in a kilt and no shirt; allegedly had a bf unit he liked, a small-of-stature young man he clearly cheated on; became a semi-famous example of out gay athletes (and closeted gay athletes, having appeared incognito on a CBC Radio documentary I helped put together); worked at the Toronto PWA Foundation; and, at last report, worked in carpentry for movie shoots. He’s mentioned briefly in Rick Bébout’s recollections of decades of gay life in Toronto.
- My image of Mark has him walking along Danforth of a Saturday afternoon, in tight black T-shirt, white jeans, and black Doc Martens, alongside his boyfriend. I followed him for a couple of blocks, quite in awe. This, of course, was before I actually met him.