The Set, the Crew, and Some Cast Members
1255. A number seared into my cortex, Mike’s too, Kevin’s too, everybody’s, I wasn’t even a law student, not then, but 1255 loomed large in the lives of an awful lot of the law students I hung out with. The year Magna Carta was signed? Get real. Nobody teaches law students about Magna Carta, and anyway, that was in 1215. No, 1255 was a street address, 1255 Seymour, on which Haligonian plot stood a dilapidated old house that must once have been a nice place where a nice family lived, maybe even somebody I knew as a kid, because my first years were spent just around the corner in a house long gone.
It’s strange to think of the generations that must have led normal lives there before the structure was, you know, repurposed. Young mothers must have brought their new babies home to 1255. Maybe grandparents grew old there. There would have been Christmas dinners, teenagers studying by the radio, maybe young men sent off to war. The reverberations of the Halifax Explosion might have echoed off the shingles, the place seemed old enough; the old plaster walls must have witnessed all manner of joys and tragedies, as people were born, moved away, grew sick, grew old, all of that must once have happened there.
But now, this was happening.
Mike was leaning on the bar, his head resting on his folded arms, riding out the doldrums of another dead Friday night of not yet slinging beer. Kevin was behind the bar with him. Mike and Kevin – inseparable back then, and joint Friday night bartenders, which was a stepping stone to the coveted Thursday slot. Friday, nothing much went on during regular bar business hours. There was no real action until it got late, and it was still early, hours away from the real beginning. Only about 11:00 PM. That’s 11:00 PM Friday, Domus Standard Time, understand, quite early, and at that point the action was still hours away, and wouldn’t start until all the other bars downtown had closed, everything had to wait until the flow of alcohol ceased everywhere else on the peninsula, and then they would be coming. Oh yes, then they would be coming.
This being the law school bar, you might have expected to see some law students lurking about, but except for the two behind the bar, there weren’t any. There was hardly anybody at all, really, and whoever was there, and whoever showed up, it wasn’t likely to be any frigging law student, not on Friday.
Mike looked sideways at the little ceramic tip bowl sitting near where his head was resting. There sat tonight’s pay. About 75 cents. Kevin was behind him, playing air guitar; at least they had the toooooons. And oh yeah, the free beer and liquor. Bartenders drank for free. That’s probably not policy at most bars, and it probably isn’t a great idea, because you wind up with drunks serving drunks, which, come to think of it, ought to have given pause to anyone who just went through torts class, but you know, you couldn’t staff the bar otherwise, a guy isn’t going to stand back there and take the shit that went on at Domus for 75 cents in cash.
So this is the scene: a wood-paneled basement with a linoleum tile floor. The tiles are dirty grey and dirty brown in a checkerboard pattern. The linoleum is worn through in the high traffic areas. The light is dim. There are a few small tables, with chrome and foam chairs – the vinyl is torn and the foam is sticking out. There are some picnic tables with benches. The ceiling is low – very low – maybe a bit under six feet at the lowest end where the place was settling, and never higher than seven feet. The bar area is set up like a little redoubt, sort of a fortified canteen, you have to enter it through a door that could be bolted from the inside, and it has its own exit to the outdoors – safety first! – and in a pinch, there are thick wooden shutters that could be slapped in to seal off the bar area entirely, fitting between the counter and the ceiling (always upon the rousing order “raise the blast shields”).
There’s a tired little washroom off to your left as you enter via the narrow basement stairs. Behind the bar are a couple of big fridges for the beer, a Coke fountain, and various odds and sods; a pair of shark’s jaws is mounted, with a cute little stuffed dog lodged in its teeth; a little bulletin board with plastic letters spells out “DOMUS SEZ URINE LAW”; an apparently authentic World War One British Army helmet hangs from the wall, “Goose Green” painted crudely on its front, a reference to the Falkland Islands battle site. Below the counter is a lead-lined truncheon, just in case. A baseball bat leans in a corner. Just in case.
Look up. The low ceiling is covered, every square inch of it, by graffiti left in magic marker by generations of Domophiles, everything from signatures (including the autographs of some august judges, right up to Supreme Court level), to sly comments from former science majors (“Reunite Pangea!”), an almost empty rectangle designated “Map of the Universe”, with a small “x” in one corner labelled “You are here”, and a straightforward declaration that “Jane Braddock puked right where you are now standing”; and so on. One read: “Shit! Piss! Fuck! – A future justice of the Nova Scotia Superior Court ”.
Look out over the counter. There are enormous speakers affixed to the far wall opposite the bar, custom made band monitors, with metal grilles over the big bass cones. The music is loud. With Mike and Kevin behind bar, it is likely the Clash, or the Ramones, the Stones, or the Who; put them in charge of the bar, and the music would be good.
There is a strange, leather-clad Goth type sitting at a table in the corner. An early arrival.
Look right. Leaning against the wall, in Mike’s peripheral vision as he rests his head on the counter, standing there at the low end beneath the very lowest beam in the basement, almost wedged in between the floor and the beam as he stands there, beer in hand, semi-conscious, with his ball cap on sideways, is Jack McKilroy.
Jack McKilroy was one of what might be called the “Domus Troupe of Players”. An extra, but omnipresent, there in every scene, somewhere in the frame, perhaps participating in the action, perhaps just there, off in a corner, inconsequential for the moment but part of the necessary fabric of things.
Oh, Jack. Where are you now?
We all figured that somewhere in there, the real Jack was a stand-up guy. We just never got to meet him. He was always a slit-eyed, stumbling drunk by the time he wobbled into Domus, but I’ll tell you something, he was a sad and gentle drunk, not a mean one, and in this world of wall-to-wall assholes that counts for much. If being plastered strips away the veneer to reveal the real person underneath, then Jack was just a melancholy man looking for some company.
While perfectly harmless, he had a habit that often suggested he was just the opposite, if you didn’t know him, and it could get him into trouble. You could be standing at the bar, minding your own business, and Jack would sidle up behind you, tap you on the shoulder, and say “Challenge me”. You’d turn around to be met by a pair of bleary, bloodshot eyes, half-crossed beneath a sideways baseball cap, and he’d say it again, maybe while poking you a bit in the chest, not forcefully, mind you, but poking: “Challenge me”.
At Domus, that was a pretty good way to solicit a rabbit punch to the trachea, and if any of us was around when he proposed it to a stranger, he’d say something like “I’ll challenge you, Jack!”, and that would be it, situation avoided. Jack would beam at you and wander over your way, looking forward to being challenged.
You see, poor Jack wasn’t looking for a fight; he wanted you to challenge him to a game of hockey trivia. He knew hockey and its history backwards and forwards, and very much enjoyed being peppered with questions that really tested the depth of his knowledge. By Christ, he had mastery of the material, you had to hand it to him, he could give you the whole line-up of the cup-winning ’58 Canadiens, wax nostalgic about the heyday of “fire wagon hockey”, extoll the virtues of Richard’s amazing 50-goals-in-50-games performance, and tell you who scored the decisive markers in every Stanley Cup final. “Dicky Duff!” he’d shout. “Greatest clutch hockey player in history!”
You could fact-check him if you wanted, but all you’d find is that Tricky Dicky Duff really was a great clutch hockey player, with a Stanley Cup-winning goal among his accomplishments – not a game winner, a Cup winner. Not many could claim that. Some players had two such goals, did you know that? Toe Blake. Belliveau. Orr. Mike Bossy, now there was a thinking man’s player, guy was a sniper, could score from any angle, he had just scored his second consecutive Cup-winner, he was a 50-in-50 guy too, first since Richard.
He was a hapless drunk, sure, but Jack was OK. Besides, unlike so many of our real problem children, he was an alumnus. You had to have some respect. He was one of ours.
Now, not everybody who actually belonged there, as a bona fide current or former law student, was somebody you were happy to have running around unsupervised. No argument. Among a number of students that rubbed everybody the wrong way was one who favoured argyle sweaters, and once thought it amusing to stand on a chair, in what was perhaps an episode of alcohol-induced non-insane automatism, and repeatedly bellow suck me off. He was known to us, thence forward, as the “Duke of Argyle”. There was another guy who actually landed shifts as a bartender, whose tendency, when you asked him for a drink, was to feign an inability to hear you and say “What? What?”. More like “Wha?”, actually, with the final “t” being silent. He had these thin reedy appendages, a strangely distorted torso, and seemed more vegetable than animal, so we called him “the Plant”. There was one poor fellow dubbed “Rodent Man”, unfairly, it seems clear to me now.
We were sometimes cruel but fair, sometimes simply cruel. Everybody that failed, for whatever reason, to pass muster, was gifted a derisive nickname, and being an otherwise innocuous classmate was no defence.
Mostly, though, the borderline mental cases who inspired the contemptuous “call signs” were outsiders. Not law students, and often not students at all, just people who stumbled in and generally made a bit of a mess. All too typical was this sloppy alcoholic we called “Laughing Boy”, we never knew his name, and I don’t think we ever figured out where he came from, he’d just walk in, somehow navigate down the narrow stairs to the basement without falling and breaking his neck, and bump into walls and pillars for a bit before somebody worked up the gumption to eject him. Before that, the only thing he seemed to want, besides booze, was for somebody to play some Lesley Gore on the stereo – he’d scream it out in the middle of a crowd, “Lesley Gore, Lesley Goooooooooooor!!” He’d be slumped in a chair looking at the floor, seeming puzzled, like he was a sloth who’d lately been having a nice nap way up above, but had woken up on the forest floor somehow, inert, lethargic, apparently near coma, and then he’d shout as loud as he could, “Lesley Gore!”.
“Hey, I just saw her upstairs” responded some joker one night. “I think you might still be able to catch her!” Well, Laughing Boy’s gears ground slowly, when they were grinding, so it took him a while to think over whether it was really likely that Ms. Gore might be upstairs right this minute, but he worked it out, and he wasn’t going for it. It was clear that being taunted this way made him sad, but what did we care? He was Laughing Boy. Fair game. Right?
We tried to bar him from the place, but he kept wandering in, and could remain unnoticed amid the general chaos for quite a while. He was, in his drunken way, a bit crafty, too. He’d try to hide, hoping we’d go home after locking up and leave him inside. Of course, being always on the ragged edge of complete insensibility, he wasn’t very good at it. Sean was closing down one night when he noticed a pair of legs in the upstairs fireplace – Laughing Boy was trying to hide up the chimney. You might find him in the washroom, squeezing behind the door. It was a bit like playing Hide and Seek with a toddler.
He flew on autopilot a lot of the time. You could deposit him on the front porch, orient him towards the street and say “Time for bed”, and he’d just walk away, back to wherever he came from. I doubt he was conscious at all. It’s more like he was working off a basic navigation algorithm, and most of the time it worked pretty well, except there was one spectacular system failure when he found his way blocked by one of our basement picnic tables, bumped into it, pulled out his pecker, and began a long, leisurely piss right there amid the patrons. I guess he’d been making for the bathroom, and when he got as far as he could, the all-purge sub-routine kicked in. He’d picked a table full of graduate students to pee all over, and we hated grad students, but still, taking a leak all over them was a tad beyond the limits of even Domus decorum; something had to be done, and the frigging grad students weren’t about to help themselves. It landed on Kevin to haul him away by his collar, prostrate, out the back door, dork still dangling, and send him on his way. The ruckus had roused his conscious mind, just a little, and he looked sadly up at Kev and asked, repeatedly, “What’d I do?”.
It’s indicative of how young and new to tragedy we were that this didn’t make us anywhere near as sad as we should have been.
After a while, Laughing Boy stopped trying to infiltrate the basement, and we never saw him anymore. I wondered, idly, if something killed him, a truck or a bus, maybe, or maybe he just died from the drinking. It wasn’t the sort of question we dwelled upon, back then. I can’t even remember why we called him “Laughing Boy”. It sure wasn’t because the poor, morose, friendless husk of a man laughed a whole hell of a lot.
“It takes all kinds”, they say, but after a while in the Domus basement you might be inclined to question that. Surely, there were some kinds that could be done without, no? Take the guy who had a stainless steel plate in his skull, so he claimed, who liked to call us all “plebeians”, and took to dealing dope out of the TV room, drawing in all sorts of unsavoury types. Inevitably, we called him “Chrome Dome”, which was fun, but he had to be dealt with. The local constabulary gave Domus, and other marginally law-abiding student establishments like the frats, a great deal of leeway so long as we kept everything on campus and nobody got hurt, but the surest way to exhaust Official Police patience was to deal drugs. Do that, and the hammer blow of no-bullshit by-the-book criminal law enforcement would soon be delivered, never a very pleasant thing, and even less agreeable for anybody still clinging to the possibility of someday being admitted to the bar. Actual, real-world consequences were drawing near. It was not to be borne. We had to drag Chrome Dome out of there, kicking and screaming, sometimes five or six times in a single night. Out you go! Asshole. Fun was fun, but Chrome Dome was a cancer, a career dealer, which wasn’t the same thing as a casual user. Right? We were raucous, and undisciplined, and drunk and stupid most of the time, and yes there were drugs, but there was a line.
Or take the “Nerk Twins”. They were brothers, strange little guys, slight, with wispy blonde hair, and they blathered endlessly about the Deep Ideas you first glean from a few 100 level philosophy courses. Unlike you, poor slob, they had it all figured out, and they were most keen to explain. Listen up, untutored hordes! Wisdom will be imparted starting in ten seconds! Christ, they were tireless windbags. One time, Joe Rossi – more on him later – found himself sandwiched between them at the bar, as they yammered back and forth about existentialism, nihilism, pacifism, communism, every fucking ism there was, talking over him, around him, through him, yip yip yip, until Joe, slumping lower by the minute as he drank more and more trying to end the pain, moaned “I’m getting stereo horse-shit here”.
There was a militant lesbian in war surplus clothing with an entourage, who seemed to show up for the sole purpose of expressing her contempt for men in general, and frat-boy types in particular, which she took us to be, in itself a hanging offence at Domus. To us, frats were cults, whereas all we were about was having a good party; we hated the frats, there was none of that smug, cliquish, female-excluding, pledge-abusing, thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another Greek Life bullshit going on in our joint. She didn’t see the difference. Among those who followed her around was a rather slight East Asian guy, twitchy like a Pomeranian, who’d blurt, at the slightest provocation, that he carried a switchblade, so watch it. He became – what else? – “Blade Runner”.
Did the world really need Blade Runner? Was he really among the kinds that it took?
There were dozens more where these misfits came from. Technically, you were supposed to be a member to get in, and none of them were, but most rules were honoured only in the breach at Domus. We were open after hours, and like I said, after midnight this drew them in like flies from all the places that were obeying the closing time laws downtown. Probably, we should have kept them all out. There were nights when the mix got pretty volatile, and stoking the late-nighters with cheap booze wasn’t doing anything to calm anybody down; but we stoked anyway, until we sometimes found ourselves presiding over the local equivalent of Mos Eisley – like Obi Wan said, a hive of scum and villainy.
Many times, it could have turned out very much uglier than it ever did. We were, let’s just admit it, far luckier than we seemed capable of appreciating at the time, and luckier than maybe we deserved to be. More on that theme to come. For now, it’s enough to note that with such a diverse crew of oddballs, not all them fully sane, Domus personnel were often in purported charge of a strange venue on the cusp of going South, people essentially out of control, with everything balanced on a knife edge in that cramped and sweaty basement. Sometimes, we were awfully close. We skirted all kinds of calamity, weathered some storms that could have turned deadly, flirted with all kinds of disaster, but nobody got his head beat in by an angry drunk, nobody tumbled down the stairs and died, the place didn’t catch fire, the floor didn’t collapse, nobody got arrested, and nobody got stabbed.
Maybe twitchy little Blade Runner was lying about that switchblade.
Anyhow, where were we? Oh yeah, Mike and Kev, Friday Night, waiting for the human tide to come in. Mike has his head laying on the pillow of his arms, resting on the bar. Look forward. A man as big as a door was approaching. He wasn’t a stranger, but the boys behind the counter stiffened nonetheless. This could go either way.