Opinion
4 min

Ghost towns, gay villages and missing faces

What happened to Davie Village fixture Madame Coté?

Old friends and fading memories dot the Davie Village landscape for columnist Kevin Dale McKeown. Credit: Indiana Joel/Daily Xtra

Madame Coté has vanished.

For many years he was a fixture in the Davie Village, a rotund character who affected a Karl Lagerfeld look, with the white ponytail, the too-tight designer jeans, and for special occasions even Lagerfeld’s signature hand-held paper fan.

For the 30 or so years that Madame and I were air-kissing friendly acquaintances he was known to dabble in the hospitality industry, rumoured to have made and lost a probably imaginary fortune in Mexican real estate, and was a reliable source of herbal refreshments. He was always a late arrival at Mrs G’s celebrated patio parties, usually showing off the latest pot-smoking device or some new bling.

In recent years Madame Coté resided in Holly Lodge, that grand old heap at the corner of Davie and Jervis Streets. He was on the main floor, and if the blinds were up you could stand on tip-toe and get a peek at what was going on. The blinds were usually closed.

About a year ago that old gang and I, including Mrs G. and Mrs Fisher (yes, we all have real names, but it’s more authentic this way) started to ask if anyone had seen Madame lately? Was he on vacation (that Mexican land deal again?) or ill or. . . ? 

Let me be clear that by “that old gang” I mean a group of us who had been thrown together, largely at Mrs G’s various clubs and booze cans, in the 1970s, hung out at the dear old Dufferin Hotel pub in the ’80s and ’90s, and in the past decade or so mostly saw each other in passing on West End streets, at Mrs G’s periodic gatherings, or making discrete purchases from Madame.

We were friends, we shared a past, and we delighted in one another’s company. But like many friendships forged in the bars and after-hours parties of our era we knew little or nothing about each other’s lives beyond the parts we shared.

Indiana Joel/Daily Xtra

And so it was a few months ago that I ran into Mrs Fisher doing a little shopping on the high street, and this time Madame was the hot topic on Fisher’s mind.

“I haven’t seen him in months and he doesn’t answer his phone and last week I walked by his window and the blinds were up and the room was empty and it looked like it had just had a fresh coat of paint! Is she dead?”

How would we know?

Finally taking this seriously, and actually knowing (or thinking I knew) Madame’s full and real name, I called St Paul’s Hospital. I called Vancouver General. I searched the obit archives. I called the morgue. No Madame.

Vanished, I tell you. Just gone.

Call Mrs Fisher. Drop in on Mrs G. at his latest venture. Call around and make inquiries. Do we know his family? Do we know any of his friends outside our little circle? Do we know anything?

No.

After nearly four decades of sharing laughter and boys and tokes and better and worse, we realized, as Mrs Fisher bluntly acknowledged, that many of our long-time connections were as shallow and disconnected from the rest of our worlds as a night at the baths.

I have recently been reflecting that my city has become something of a ghost town to me. Not the abandoned buildings and tumbleweed rolling down Main Street sort of ghost town, but a different and equally nostalgic sort of palimpsest of my life.

As I pass Granville Street on my way east along Robson, I cannot walk by the India Gate restaurant without hearing the music of the ’70s spilling out from the 616 Club and imagining dropping in and letting Big Bird pour me a stiff gin and ginger.

Across the street at Robson and Seymour there’s a shiny steel and glass Roger’s Wireless outlet. I recently went in and asked the young staff what they’d think if a flash mob of senior citizens suddenly arrived with a boom box, and started wobbling about to Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown” or lip-synching to Shirley Bassey’s “This Is My Life!”.

 Just as they were exchanging concerned glances and wondering whether to call security, I explained that we were on the dance floor of what was once Faces, the hottest gay disco in town. I paced out the location of the bar and they were suitably amused when I did a little disco move to demonstrate where the mini-stage had been when Gary Gilbertson was our first go-go-boy. They laughed, and I felt surrounded by ghosts.

Photographer Fred Herzog captures the intersection of Granville and Robson Streets in 1959.
Fred Herzog/Courtesy of the artist and Equinox Gallery

There are few places in downtown Vancouver or the West End where I don’t have moments like that. At Davie and Seymour I see the drag queens hurrying out of Champagne Charlie’s to cab down to BJ’s on Pender Street for their next show.

Further down Davie Street, I walk with the long-gone girls on their way to the Davie stroll and Tranny Alley to pick up the latest street-level gossip. I have moments when I almost expect to run into young Jamie Lee Hamilton loitering outside the White Lunch.

And not only people, but places as well. Absent buildings shadow my streetscape, and one of the most peculiar sensations is to look at a new building and not only remember what had been there before this new edifice, but to also recall what had been there before that!

Each of these ghostly moments (or could they be the acid flashbacks they warned us about?) comes with a parade of former companions of the night, some clearly remembered and many now just vague impressions. Drinking pals, friends, tricks, foes and nodding acquaintances. Now all missing faces.

When did I last see big Max? Whatever happened to the Borden twins? And remember that old queen who used to. . . ?

And now Madame Coté has joined the missing faces, and we’ll never know how or what or why.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that friendships that revolve around the party scene are well and good, but it wouldn’t hurt to dig a little deeper into the lives of “friends” you really care for. I hope that a new generation is taking their friends home to meet Mom and Dad (something we seldom if ever did), and including siblings and extended family and colleagues and co-workers in the growing web of their life’s connections.

I suspect, and hope, that the missing faces phenomenon is something unique to my generation’s experience, born of the isolation of our community during our early lives.

I’m keeping a close eye on Mrs G and promising myself not to let Mrs Fisher slip any further away. Don’t let your friends go missing.