“Mr. Jones, “said my friend Ken in a sonorous baritone, “Happy Birthday.” And with that, I was handcuffed and blindfolded and pulled into a car.
When you’re an adult, birthdays are not exciting things, at least not the way that they were when you were a kid, when a birthday was about a crowd of your friends all in the same room being corraled like stampeding horses by your parents. It really isn’t even about presents, about a cake, about what I call “the birthday smell” of wax and chocolate on the air after you’ve blown out the candles and made a wish. When you’re an adult, birthdays are supposed to be either for the children in your life who appreciate cake and excitement whenever they can get it, like my niece and nephew who practically open my presents for me, or they’re about an excuse to get mildly sozzled. The creeping realities of mortality can be real party poopers, when events like birthdays are viewed in a certain light. But there are also the milestones to consider – 13,16, 21, 30 – all of the ones which we consider to be rites of passage, a sort of the lighter side of the mortality discussion. My 21st was memorable, although not for the reasons my friends at the time thought that it would be. But it’s really the memory of the event that really counts, the impact it leaves, and not really about the execution of the details. You’ll find out what I mean.
Everyone was in on it. It was not my first surprise party. I had had two before this one on my sixteenth and my nineteenth, all orchestrated by friends who very easily fooled me into thinking that there was nothing going on that I should be suspicious about, even though at one point they were talking in code right in front of me. I consider myself pretty sharp most of the time, but there are times when I think that when it comes to surprises in my honor, I have a blind spot. A couple of days before my actual birthday, a Wednesday in February 1990 and a very cold Wednesday in February 1990 I might add, I was surprised again by a similar group of dedicated friends and led by a friend behind all of my surprise birthdays over the years, my best and oldest friend to whom I shall refer as The Mastermind. This was to be the piece de resistance of surprise birthdays, incorporating an extended experience of disorientation which is usually only a few seconds long as far as regular, every day surprise parties are concerned. This magical event was to be typified in a kidnapping, a “hey, this is not the way to the airport” motif embodied initially by a car ride while blindfolded and an ensuing set of meetings in various places with members of my social circle, all of whom had clues which were meant to point me to my next destination, where another friend would be waiting, and on and on. My ultimate goal was to locate my birthday party, awaiting me like a bride, somewhere in the heart of Toronto. Sounds like fun, right? It was. It really was. Eventually.
My first stop, and as it would turn out, my last, was High Park in Toronto. By the time we got there it was approaching dusk. It was a clear, very cold day and the park was beginning to empty out of joggers and dogwalkers. There were some stalwart joggers still there, brave (or fixated) souls who would not allow Old Man Winter to have his way with their health regimens. I was left there alone, with a clue in my hand which directed me to the extreme rear of the park where I would be met by a contact who would give me my next clue and allow me to continue my adventure. So far, I was greatly impressed, mostly because the effect the Mastermind wanted to create for me was a reality – I felt like a secret agent on a secret mission. I felt excited, like a little kid living in a movie. As I walked, feeling this, I tried to overcome this feeling by concentrating on how nuts this whole thing was. As a newly turned 21 year old, I could hardly enjoy this childlike feeling without mitigating it with thoughts of “I can’t believe I’m stuck doing this”. I wasn’t old enough to really relish the feeling of excitement, to embrace the childlike feelings it brought on. Soon though, it would no longer be a problem.
I was to meet my contact by a structure of some kind, I can’t remember exactly what. When I got there, there was no one to be seen, and the sun was beginning to sink like a rock in a blue-black sea of night sky, rimmed red on the horizon. Did I mention how cold it was? Now comes the part where I tell you about High Park after dark. Some of you already know and could see this coming. I certainly had no idea. I certainly didn’t as a 21 year old Christian, then enrolled in Bible College, sequestered away from the realities of life in a world-class city. I had no idea, really, what the word “gay” really meant, for instance. I had no idea about how some members of the gay community feel in the wider heterosexual, Judeo-Christian world. I had never met a gay person. I assumed that if you were a “homosexual”, then there would be no need for you to be worried about who it was you were homosexual with, as I was sure that it would be easy to identify someone who was like you. Further to this, I had no idea that some people lead double lives, and the need to meet certain people in secret was a matter of course. I effectively split the world into halves, where there were certain people were interested in marriage or who actually were married, and homosexuals who were interested in being homosexual, whatever that meant. It never occurred to me that a person could be both. It never occurred to me that there were places in the city where many of these people go in order to maintain a certain level of secrecy, creating a wall between one life and another.
High Park after the sun goes down was, and possibly still is, one of those places.
I had been standing there for some time, hoping that I’d got the directions right, aware that if I hadn’t, I’d be stuck. I was looking around for some sign of someone I knew when a car pulled up and someone got out. The man who approached me looked like a science teacher, late 40’s, bearded and wearing a blue winter coat. He approached, and asked me a question I had never been asked before by anyone, least of all someone who looked like a science teacher and who happened to be male. My reaction was one of surprise – more of a surprise even then being kidnapped – and then one of incredulity.
“PARDON ME???!!,” I asked him, with more than a little puritanical rage.
Upon my response the science teacher looked sheepish, but not entirely unamused, holding up his hands and apologizing. I imagine that he was also surprised, wondering why I had shown up on the field if I didn’t want to play. He withdrew, not hurriedly, to another part of the park, leaving me twisting in my confusion. He did not look like a “homosexual” to me, not that I would have been a very good judge. He did not talk or act like one either and apart from his very direct question, there would have been no way I could have identified him as being gay. But, to be honest, I didn’t really ruminate on this for too long. It was cold, and I had just been propositioned by a science teacher. It was time to call it quits, birthday kidnapping or no.
I found a diner on the park grounds and called a friend of mine at the school I was going to at the time. He was on the front desk, carrying out his duties as a proctor. Of course, he was in on the kidnapping and when I told him that I hadn’t met my contact, he explained to me that it was because my contact had been propositioned by two men in the park and had beat a hasty retreat, probably because his two “homosexuals” were a little bit more tenacious than mine had been, or at least that was his story. I thought then of all of my friends waiting for me in various locations in the city with thoughts of amusement, mingled with the disappointment of not being able to pursue the adventure that had been laid out before me. I was also wondering how I would be able to find my birthday party, which was presumably still on, although no one knew what had happened to scupper any hopes of my making it there on my own. But my friend the proctor, being in on it, saved the day in this pre-cell phone world of February 1990. When the Mastermind called, my friend the proctor let him know what was what and after a series of back and forth phone calls, and a ride on the subway to a mutually agreed-upon locale, it was arranged that I would be picked up and taken to my party at a now-defunct Lime Ricky’s Restaurant at Yonge and Eglinton, where I would be met by my friends and my then-girlfriend who had spent a good deal of time at the Toronto Reference Library reading William Blake poems waiting for my arrival. She was actually more of a pre-girlfriend at the time, as we were negotiating the possibility of a relationship under the scrutiny of our bible college environs – no small thing if you don’t want people making goo-goo eyes at you and planning your wedding for you too when you’re with the one you love, or even just the one you kind of like. That’s the way a lot of colleges are, I guess, but I’d guess also that it is even more so in bible colleges, the supposed bastions of family values and a veritable hotbed of subcultural expectations. Maybe that’s another tale.
The rest of the night is a blur of good feelings, of friendship and of safety. My friend the Mastermind was more disappointed than I was, since it was his baby. I kept reassuring him that it really was a memorable birthday, and not without a certain amount of humour which even at this point I was able to appreciate. I’m not sure I convinced him. Even to this day, this smarts for him a bit, I imagine, just because at the time he looked upon it as something of a failure. But the circumstances it created made everything memorable, which was really the whole point, at least for me. Also, that night was the night that my pre-girlfriend and I consolidated our relationship to full girlfriend/boyfriend status, the result of a lot of work on both our parts, making it something of an enormous birthday present for me, and a not-so small victory for both of us, because we’d come to this decision on our own terms as opposed to any of the expectations of our peers. I went home happy and surrounded by friends, and laughing my ass off. And it was a very good year, to quote the Chairman of the Board .
As a sort of sidebar, when I left bible college I slowly but surely shed my naiveté and puritanical beliefs about what it means to be gay, among other things, mostly due to befriending and being befriended by those who actually are gay. I listened and believed the things they told me about their own experiences and points of view. I had faith in their stories, in their abilities to define themselves not as someone who does, or does not do, a certain thing, or who has a certain “lifestyle”. They spoke in terms of their core identity, of being, of perceiving the world in a certain way. They, like me, appreciated being able to work out their relationships on their own terms, despite the expectations of the wider culture and on that level, it made more sense to me than any moralistic model I had been fed in years previous. I appreciated too that working out one’s relationships in the context of love and life partnership, or even just romance, a luxury for me, was a necessity to them, given that their orientation was not something which was exactly defined as the widest and easiest road to sexual awareness in our culture. Also, it struck me later that my experience waiting for my birthday contact in High Park was the first time I had ever been offered a human face when it came to “homosexuality”, which had been hitherto little more than a menu item on God’s no-no list. As such it was an important experience, despite the fact that it was not a necessarily comfortable one, perhaps a characteristic of most important experiences. When I met and made friends with gay men and lesbians, I didn’t necessarily think that they belonged in the same category as the man who approached me in High Park. That man may well have been as much a part of the gay community as I had been. Perhaps. There was no way to know. There was no code to interpret that man, no way to map out where he stood on the cultural, or even sexual spectrum. There was no way to judge him or his actions. He could have been lonely, or maybe not lonely but just horny. Sometimes, that is reason enough for a lot of people. I figure that being in a place where you are unable to really judge someone is the first step in realizing that you don’t have to. As such, my 21st really was a rite of passage into adulthood.