In April, 2020, I began writing a newsletter sort of thing called Pox Nobiscum (The Pox Be With Us), a compendium of thoughts under lockdown and kind-of lockdown. Some of these have related to my life as a beer drinker. This is Pox Part 36, which saw the light of day in October, 2020.
How do you know the people you know? There are thousands of ways. You knew them at school, you worked together, they’re friends of friends, they’re friends of the person you took up with, and so on. Maybe you shared a cell at some point, in a prison or a monastery. I’m not judging.
As you get older things change. You haven’t been to school for decades. Eventually you stop going to work. Even the much younger person you took up with stopped going to work. If you’re not careful you’ll wind up with nothing but friends you’ve known for decades. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, you understand, but they’re not getting any younger, and there’s the danger that you’ll spend too much time talking about the girls you knew in high school, and that’s the first step to long-term care.
No, every now and then you need some fresh blood, but where are you going to find new friends? I recognize that the current plague has made any human interaction perilous, but some day we just might return to something that resembles what we used to call normal. And we’re going to need beer. Well, all right, we need beer now, or I certainly do. Don’t tell my doctor, but I’m drinking about the same as I did before the pox struck. It just isn’t as much fun, plus I’m getting a lot less exercise.
Beer is how I meet people. When I packed in my day job, I resolved never again to attend meetings where beer wasn’t served. I had done my time sitting in meetings that raised a thirst but didn’t satisfy it. Enough already. So I became one of the founders of CASK! Toronto, a group committed to the brewing, serving, and drinking of cask-conditioned ale. Whenever we met, it was in a pub. Not long thereafter I was invited to be on the founding board of Toronto Beer Week. Where did we meet? You needn’t ask.
Having established CASK!, we had to think of something practical to do to raise awareness of our cause. As I recall, one day in a pub, my wife (the Evergreen Bride) and Hilary Turvey came up with the concept of holding regular events in pubs that sold cask-conditioned ale, to reward the pubs and entertain ourselves. Thus was born the CASK! Social. It was such a good idea I wish I could take credit for it. We try to make it sound as complicated as string theory, whatever that is exactly, but it’s actually simple. We persuade a pub to bring in some extra casks, usually on a Saturday afternoon, though we’re flexible, and we send out an e-mail to a bunch of thirsty people. We know rather a lot of thirsty people. Among us we have the thirstiest Rolodex in town. On occasion, we’re even thirsty ourselves.
What happens next is difficult to describe. People arrive, in ones and twos. They buy beer. They chat and mingle. (Remember chatting and mingling?) Given that cask-conditioned ales carry something of a visceral punch for those accustomed to drinking in English pubs, we attract a number of people who are prone to either boast about or (more likely) lament their English football clubs, though they do so in a remarkably non-confrontational manner. Unlike at some beer events, and perhaps because ours were conceived by women, many women turn up to our socials, which makes them even more social. All in all, we have what we used to call ‘fun’, back when that was a thing.
I’m not saying beer’s the only way to meet people. A lot of people, for instance, play bridge. I tried that once in Vancouver. I was called upon in a sort of wingman role, when the only person I knew in Vancouver had a sensational girlfriend whose flatmate insisted on playing bridge. They needed a fourth, and since I was staying at Wayne’s place I felt an obligation to help out. The person in the room keenest on bridge was my partner, the flatmate, who was not sensational. She might have seemed more sensational had she not been so determined to win with a partner who had just been taught the very basics of the game. We’re all familiar with the concept of looking daggers at someone; I’m not sure I’d ever been the victim of said daggers quite so intensely. Frankly, I was just as happy to see my host and his lovely girlfriend win. Scarred by the experience, I have avoided bridge ever since, preferring to meet people in pubs.
I met the Evergreen Bride in a pub. We officially met at the old Red Lion on Jarvis Street, but we got to know each other at the Morrissey Tavern on Yonge Street. Both these pubs, if ‘pub’ is quite the right word for these old holdovers of the Ontario beverage room, have long since departed this life. You could imagine a Heaven where all these taverns have gone, though some of them might be in the other place. You could again see John, the best waiter at the Embassy, though you might just as easily encounter Nick, the worst waiter at the Morrissey. Luck of the draw.
Beer is a very sociable drink. It is, by and large, the right sort of strength. (I enjoy imperial measures, but imperial IPAs and stouts are meant for home consumption.) It intoxicates slowly and pleasantly, and it goes down smoothly. It encourages conversation but rarely belligerence. It loosens tongues and rewards wit. How better to wind down from a day’s work than to stop in a friendly pub on the way home? And what better form of group therapy than a Friday gathering at the end of a week?
I’ve been drinking with friends on Friday nights since the early 1970s. Then it was the Morrissey Tavern. Some time in the mid-to-late 1980s the Morrissey was being torn down, its denizens scattered to the winds, and we migrated to the Duke of York, which at that time comprised only the original basement room. (It was Toronto’s first neo-quasi-English pub.) By the early 2000s the Duke had expanded several times and was actively soliciting large groups. Thanks to the robust patronage of our unofficial leader, Douglas Marshall, we were always guaranteed a table on Friday nights; we just never knew where it would be. As often as not we were placed in close proximity to the weekly meeting of the Midtown Toronto Shouting Society. Douglas was increasingly heard to say “We need a new pub!” almost loudly enough to be heard over the braying of the MTSS.
What Douglas really wanted was his old pub back. It was close to home, he knew the staff and, more important, they knew him. By this time he was retiring from the Toronto Star so could drink during the day, when the Duke is more agreeable. (Any pub I can think of is more agreeable by day, except the ones that don’t open till the working stiffs are set loose, but that’s another story.) The wage slaves among us still needed a place to go on Friday that was less noisy and had better beer than the Duke, and we found it.
I had recently discovered Kilgour’s Bar Meets Grill on Bloor Street. I had heard interesting stories about the Kilgour brothers, then I learned that writer Christine Sismondo, who had written a generous review of Notes on a Beermat (even though, or perhaps because, she hadn’t met me yet), worked some shifts there. This was clearly a place that deserved my attention, and it quickly became my post-work venue. (I later found the Victory Café, which had better beer than Kilgour’s, but that’s also another story.)
Eventually I felt emboldened to raise the relocation issue one Friday evening. The core Duke crowd had been drinking there since the place opened in 1976, and I felt presumptuous proposing a change, but there was interest. We gave it a trial evening, and people liked it. Kilgour’s played music, but quietly. You could talk to one another. And the geography of the place worked against big crowds. We liked the staff. Hell, we even liked Peter Kilgour. And they promised to reserve table 110 in the window for us. And they did so for about sixteen years. Occasionally, on particularly festive evenings, Peter thanked me for bringing my friends to his bar, sometimes observing that they raised the tone of the place, something that has almost never been said of my friends.
Douglas even turned up once. As he came through the door he announced, “I don’t see this is any better.” But it was. The only drawback was that it was a Montreal Canadiens bar, so when the Habs were playing on a Friday evening we usually went elsewhere. But otherwise Kilgour’s was our Friday night spot until March last year, when everything went kerflooey. (I believe that’s the clinical epidemiological term.) My last Kilgour’s bar tab was paid on March 13, 2020 – yes, it was Friday the 13th. After hanging on to see how all this was playing out, the brothers Kilgour finally threw in the towel. And they never got to celebrate their 25th anniversary two months later, which is a crime against humanity.
Getting old is not altogether bad. You’ve long since stopped giving a damn about contemporary popular music. Come to think of it, I lost interest about fifty years ago. Who is this Fleetwood Mac bloke I keep hearing about? And with any luck you don’t have to go to work any more. Sure, you have less money, but you stop buying clothes and pretty much anything except food and drink and reading materials. But at some point you reflect on the notion that you can remember more bars that no longer exist than bars that currently do, and that’s just ever so slightly on the gloomy side. They weren’t all great bars, but you were happy there. It was the bar, it was the beer, it was the people. And will be again. Just don’t ask me where we’re going to meet on Friday evenings.