Do you ever think about the 1980s? Me neither. What horrible decade. It was the birth of vulgarity. A lot of the worst trends we have today you can trace back to the 80s. If we could erase that era entirely, people would be speaking proper English and they certainly wouldn’t be tattooing Louis Vuitton logos on their biceps.
Having said that, the 80s was a major growth period for me. Lots happened. High school, CEGEP, university, moving to Toronto, getting married. I lived in 6 different places. I had more than 10 jobs. I dated lots and put out every time. I made friends and influenced people. Nowdays, the past 10 years at least, have been like moving through quick sand in slow motion….Nothing happens and everything takes so long. It took 2 and a half years to get divorced. Last year, it took me the better of 4 months to finish eating a Toblerone bar and 6 months to change a light bulb.
Last weekend, when Whitney Houston passed away, I was shocked, sad, and stricken with a bad case of the nostalgies. Back in 1986, I had met her at a boutique I worked at in Yorkville. I do find a celebrity sighting super exciting but when I actually get closed to one, it becomes a big deal and I become emotionally attached. Famous people radiate a different energy like they have super powers. Even mildly well-known ones like local newscasters. Once I saw Gord Martineau at the Summerhill liquor store and I was like all “Wow, it’s Gord Martineau…he’s so short!” They are all so much shorter in real life. It makes them them that much more precious.
Back in 1986, when I was new to Toronto, I was obsessed with fashion. It was all about shoulder pads. Looking back with embarrassment, I’d like to pretend I never wore them but I layered them like a cake boss. I’d wear a set under a shirt, then on a jacket, and then a padded coat over top. In the height of the madness, I got a position as assistant manager at Parachute, where the fashion elite shopped. It was a job that I literally stumbled upon when I was walking on Bellair at Christmas time and saw a sign in the window. Had I have not tripped on the sidewalk, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it because it was a grey, blank looking space in the basement below an antique store. I had just moved to Toronto two months earlier and I had already gone through a handful of jobs that I was a disaster at: Cappuccino maker at Le Select Bistro, I fired steamed milk all over a customer and burned my hands. Receptionist, I kept forgetting the name of the company I worked at and still can’t remember: “Good morning….um…Something Something Designs…” Mannequin dresser at Joy Cherry, I snapped the limbs off one of the “brides” trying to put her gown on. Right away I noticed there were no mannequins in the Parachute store, the display outfits were layed out flat on a step. The clothes were austere and unisex in a monochromatic colour tone of greys and blacks. And heavily shoulder padded. Just like me!
There were two guys my age (early twenties) working there when I walked in. Both were dressed in what looked like a uniform, black jacket and black leggings(LOL! Leggings on boys!) They looked like the imaginary fashion police. And they were scary. One looked like a vampire from the 1800s, he had grey skin and shoulder length black hair slicked back, sharp pointy eyebrows and squinty eyes. The other one was equally sinister but more human looking. He was tall and lanky with zits and a goofy bowl cut. They were both named John. The Vampire John, clearly the alpha of the duo, hired me on the spot; “We like you, you are perfect for us.” I didn’t know whether to be flattered or freaked out but I figured I’d go with it. They looked intimating but it turned out they were the nicest, funniest guys. They were from Newfoundland and when they let their guard down, the accents would come out, and oh, how we laughed.
Aside from the two Johns, there were some part-timers who worked there, one was an aspiring model named Michelle. Michelle was nicknamed Zwiggy because she walked with a hip wiggle like the Carol Burnett character Mrs. Wiggins. She was 19 but you couldn’t tell because wore so much makeup and put on a squeaky, breathy voice like Marilyn Monroe. She was Siouxsie and the Banshees all the way, dyed black hair and with heavy white base, blacked up painted cat eyes, red lipstick in a heart shaped bow, she looked like a punk geisha girl. She and I bonded quite quickly and after work, we would go to Bemelmans, that pickup bar on Bloor and Bay. Arab men would fall over themselves wanting to buy us Long Island Iced Teas. One night in February, after a particularly uneventful Bemelman evening, she came to my place (I rented a room in a shared house at Broadview and Gerrard). She wanted to smoke a doobie and crash at my house. She brought out an unfamiliar mothering instinct in me even though I was only a couple of years older.
“Zwiggy, you have to wash off your makeup or it will clog your pores. And brush your teeth, all the plaque forms at night,” I said. To this day, I have never once gone to bed without washing my face and brushing my teeth. Zwiggy didn’t seem to have the same regimented beauty habits. She layered makeup like she was plastering drywall. Her artistry actually distorted her features. When I first met her, I thought she was Asian and then I found out her whole life story: She ran away from her drunken parents (they were Irish) in Nanaimo, B.C. when she was 13, came to Toronto with her 25-year-old pedo-bear boyfriend and was still living with him after 6 years. She was a chubby teenager and then became a skinny vegetarian after she saw a dead pig carcass dangling from a butcher’s window on the Danforth. She lost 20 pounds and Elmer Olsen, modelling scout extraordinaire, saw her on the street and signed her to his agency on the spot. She wet on go-sees and ended up floundering, probably intimidated by all the competition and that was when she started piling on the makeup. The whole facade was a mask she wore to hide her true self.
She didn’t want to wash her face but I forced her and when she came out of the bathroom, she looked so much better, and I told her so. For some reason, she got all sulky, and stomped out. After that, she kind of stopped showing up to work after a while, claiming to have “diarrhea” and soon fell off the radar entirely. A strange little lost soul of the 80’s that I almost completely forgot about and now I wonder what happened to her.
In the meantime that winter, the two Johns, who both claimed to be bisexual began to fully come out as exclusively gay. By default and pure loneliness, I became their fag hag. We would go to 101, a gay bar on Jarvis, and all the gay raves, and gay events.
It was the springtime of my discontent, and I was not cut out for fag hagdom. I became disgruntled and non-supportive any time “Church Street” came out of one of their mouths. One of the Johns took pity on me and set me up with the only straight hairdresser in town. His name was Gideon. He was British, which naturally made him seem gay, and he was fashion obsessed. I was suspicious. He was either a gay straight man or a straight gay man. We went out for 3 weeks but it seemed like 300 years. It was before people had cell phones and he would call me from pay phones constantly. It was weird since I spent most of my other relationships waiting by the phone for the douche to call. I did that thing that men do to women, I treated him like crap until he dumped me. Although I happily kept him as a hairdresser until he ran off and married some rich woman and moved to Vancouver. Another past soul who I actually found on Facebook and trolled but didn’t add as a friend, he probably forgot all about me! I will no doubt troll him some more and then add him in a moment of weakness.
In the summer of 1986, the owners of the store told us they were closing the Toronto location for good because it was too expensive to run. They had locations in Montreal, New York, and Tokyo, so they sent us boxes of samples and rejected merchandise to push to the fashion victims for the next month. There were some really strange outfits that we conjured up. Neon green tshirts and plaid jodphurs that we wore ironically. We had a massive midnight sale one night where we partayed until 3 am. The entire store was pretty much trashed. There was still merchandise, but just the weirdest of the weird and maybe some odd sizes of the good stuff. While we were half-heartedly cleaning up, the phone rang and Vampire John picked up. It was Whitney Houston’s manager calling to request that we close the store down in the afternoon so that she could shop privately with her back up singers before her concert that night.
Whitney was a pretty big star back then and it was rumoured that she was a lesbian. That whole closet gay thing excited the two Johns so they worked furiously to clean the place up. Although Whitney was no Grace Jones, she was diva enough to give them fancy pride and big gay boners.
When she arrived late in the afternoon, the place was spotless but sparse. She was wearing giant sunglasses and stayed close to her butch manager while her back up singers gleefully rifled through the racks and tried stuff on. The two Johns were in Heaven.
They all bought matching mermaid dresses that Whitney paid for with a platinum American Express card. I was the one at the cash register. In our primitive store you had to call in each transaction over the phone for authorization from an actual person at a call centre that I would sometimes have conversations with. Awkward…do I go through proper procedure and call in the card or do I just swish it through like a boss and seamlessly fold the merchandise in the tissue and bag it up?
Flustered, I held her card in my hands and called American Express. She took off her sunglasses and gave me a stink eye so potent, my hand started to shake. When the operator answered all I could say was “Fuck.” And I hung up. But Whitney laughed, “Do what you need to do, Sugar.”
And that was that. A celebrity encounter with Diva Whitney. A week later, the store closed and I was out of a job and she went on her way to even bigger stardom, no doubt charging up her Platinum card with bigger and better stuff. The two Johns went their separate ways and we all lost touch but of course, I kept track of Whitney, my celebrity touchstone. She stayed in my consciousness as we led parallel lives, we both had baby daughters the same year, in 1993. I didn’t get into the rock cocaine though. Couldn’t afford it. But I did have some messy, bloated moments and a divorce. When I went to my family doctor and begged for something like Xanax to help me sleep, she told me to try herbal tea. Lucky me. Poor her.
And with that, I leave you with my favourite version of “I Will Always Love You” which is Lauren Graham as Lorelai Gilmore channeling Dolly Parton. It doesn’t get better, I don’t care what y’all say: