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The Bartenders Building Community One Drink at a Time

Vancouver’s neighbourhood pubs and bars bring connection to a city where it sorely lacks.

By Gabrielle Plonka 11 Apr 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Gabrielle Plonka is a Langara journalism student who is completing a practicum with The Tyee.

If Tom Graham has ever dried your tears or confiscated your car keys, rest assured that you’re far from alone.

Almost every day since 1995 Graham has been at work at the Fringe Cafe on West Broadway Street — bartender, chef, bouncer and therapist to thousands of patrons.

Graham is exhausted. After 30 years, he’s quitting the business.

“I can’t do it anymore,” he tells me the night of his final shift. “It’s getting to me. I have workmares more often than not.”

Graham’s last night has a guest list, and the Fringe’s general manager passes around two good luck cards for patrons to sign. They quickly fill with equal parts well wishes and gentle ribbing.

It feels impossible that Graham could be allowed to quit the Fringe, so much is he part of the fabric there. On his last night he dresses in his “Sunday best” — a plaid shirt, vest and utility kilt — and the Fringe fills with regulars who seem to feel his departure like a rip at the seams of a teetering world.

“Where’re you going to end up, Tommy?” somebody asks, as Graham prints the customer copy of his debit slip.

“In a ditch,” he responds, handing him the receipt.

“Just let me know what ditch and where,” the man replies, shaking Graham’s hand.

So he carries on, determinedly dodging all attempts to pin down his hopes for the future. Throughout the night, his answer to the same question varies only slightly from “whatever I’m doing, it won’t be this.”

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Tom Graham and Erin Quittenton, who Graham hired and trained as one of the Fringe's bartenders, exchange heartfelt goodbyes on his last shift after 20 years. Photo by Jackie Dives.

The Fringe Cafe is a difficult place to work. It’s one of the last places where the bartender doubles as server and chef, making nachos and Jamaican patties (a cousin of the Pizza Pop) at a stove behind the bar.

On most nights Graham works all 55 seats by himself, weaving through the crowd, brow furrowed, utility kilt swishing with every movement.

“You burn out,” he tells me. “I should have left years ago. Time passes differently here. Regulars call it the vortex.”

Part of the Fringe’s charm is its madness, walls cluttered with paraphernalia gathered over 20 years and a thick layer of dust on the floor. It smells vaguely of stale beer and pine smoke, thanks to the palo santo that the Fringe’s day bartender uses to ward away the “gnarly spirits” she says haunt the cafe.

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Defining moments in the Fringe's history — tabletop dancing, fish kissing and a weapons-themed secret Santa — are highlighted on the wall of shame. Photo by Jackie Dives.

Graham, an Ottawa native, started as a cook at the British pub Royal Oak in his hometown in 1989 before moving to the now-closed Café Wim, an eclectic hole-in-the-wall in the Byward Market. In between those two places he spent time in the army, and before that, seriously considered attending seminary school.

“I always expected to be of the cloth,” he often tells his regulars, listening for the sound of jaws dropping to the floor.

He moved from Ontario to Kitsilano in 1992 and immediately became entrenched in the Fringe community.

Bartenders might be some of the greatest community-keepers we have in a city that has been described as pretty lonely. Over the years at the Fringe a “cult of personality” has found comfort in Graham’s company, a community he considers to be built on liquid foundations.

“The regulars are just entrenched,” Graham says. There’s Big Eric, who has frequented the Fringe since its opening in 1990. And Bruce, a painter known for wacky expressionist pieces centred around “the tragic clown.”

“We’ve lost a lot of people, too,” Graham adds.

On the cafe’s south wall, above the Star Trek pinball machine, hangs a painting of a tattoo artist named Jimmy.

“He did a lot of tattoos for people who came in here,” Graham says with a glance at the canvas. “He passed away, so we had his wake in here.”

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A painting of one of the Fringe community's beloved members, Jimmy, has sat in a place of honour since his passing seven years ago. Photo by Jackie Dives.

When Jimmy worked at a tattoo parlour down the street, he and Graham became friends. He did Graham’s sleeve tattoos at a discounted rate, because he considered Graham to be walking free advertising.

If it was an intended marketing method, and not just a joke, it was a good one. Jimmy became the house artist for the regulars at Fringe. When he died, Graham planned Jimmy’s wake and the fundraiser that paid for it.

Graham massages his eyelids with two middle fingers. “That was pretty brutal, actually.”

When another regular was diagnosed with cancer, the Fringe, in partnership with other restaurants raised almost $7,000. They’ve hosted book publishing parties and benefits for animal shelters.

When Graham’s bike was stolen a few years ago, his coworkers and cafe regulars pitched in to buy him a new cruiser. The owner of Ride-On Bikes down the street matched the donation.

Graham remembers getting tearful when the new bicycle was presented to him, so much so that he had to duck into the back alley to collect himself. A coworker chased after him, worried he didn’t like the bike model.

Graham, nicknamed Tommi Tsunami, is a beloved figure in Kitsilano, especially with the neighbours who have come to treat the cafe as a second home.

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From left to right: Tiny Tom Gogh, Tom Graham and Erin Quittenton. Photo by Jackie Dives.

But like anyone who stands behind a bar every night, he’s also witnessed a harder reality.

“Some people, they will get so drunk. I’m like, ‘I’m glad you’re so comfortable that you can relieve yourself of all responsibility for yourself,” Graham says.

On the eve of his final shift, a customer spat on the floor at his feet. He has been groped, fought and shouted at. Once, a regular punched him in the face, aiming for another customer. “Oh my god, I punched Tom,” Graham remembers him exclaiming, horrified at what he’d done.

Sometimes, and only for regulars who are also friends, Graham will shoot video of those worst moments, saving the footage for the next time they meet sober. “This is what you’re like,” he’ll say.

There’s a hook behind Graham’s bar where he’ll hang your keys if he’s worried you might consider yourself fit to drive after a long night at the watering hole.

“There are people who bonafidely hate me because I won’t let them drink and drive,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.

It’s a tough line to tread. The moment you sit at Graham’s bar, he is up to 80 per cent liable for what happens to you after you leave.

On the final evening, I sit with Patrick, a mutual friend Graham and I share, surveying the many faces crowding the bar. How many voices and stories was I still missing?

“You could stay here for a year, but you’re never going to get it all,” Patrick says, kindly. “This is the Fringe.”

Titi, and the island of misfit toys

At a pub across town, Titi the dog is occupying his favourite bar stool.

It’s his favourite because it’s squarely in the centre of the pub, and the right height to ensure that the top of his scruffy head is at waist level. Patrons passing through on their way to the bathroom or patio feel obliged to stop and ruffle his ears.

Titi, an untidy mutt rescued from Mexico, and his human are regular customers here, and Titi finds himself in the happy circumstances of belonging to a neighbourhood, not just one person. At the suggestion of a treat from someone across the room — a call or snapping fingers — he’ll hop from his stool and trot towards the sound, a blue leash trailing behind him.

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Titi the Dog is one of the Brighton's most beloved regulars, who can be found most days surrounded by adoring fans. Photo by Jackie Dives.

It’s business as usual at the Brighton on East Hastings Street. The front bay windows are swung open so that a spring breeze can blow through, and a woman lounges in the open space, one sneakered foot resting lazily on the stool in front of her. She’s singing along to a Rolling Stones song.

The captain of the whole scene, Aimee Braun, is almost on time for her shift. She breezes in five minutes after six o’clock, shoulder-length blonde hair flat-ironed to a shining sleekness. Jumping behind the bar, she immediately turns to Titi, who is staring at her across the wood bar.

“Titi, let me see your I.D.,” she says, grinning broadly. At the sound of his name, Titi careens onto back paws and stands tall, searching her empty hands for signs of a cookie.

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Aimee Braun is the general manager of the Brighton, a community hub on East Hastings. Photo by Jackie Dives.

Braun greets the folks sitting on either side of him and waves hello to her landlord, who is sitting with the singing woman at the window.

Braun, 35, is the nucleus of this island of misfit toys, living proof that in a city generally hailed for its lack of community there are still some places where a friendly face holding a matted bar rag is sure to know your name.

Braun took the helm as the Brighton’s general manager two years ago, and it’s easy to understand why East Villagers flocked to the pub. She’s fun. She leans in when she’s talking to you, conspiratorially.

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Aimee Braun sips a coke with her landlord, Dale Dickerson, one of the many ways she constantly consumes caffeine during her shift. Dickerson had been a regular of the Brighton for years when he offered Braun a tenancy in his house. Photo by Jackie Dives.

Settling in, Braun removes her jacket and holds court, talking to everybody at once. When somebody points out a bruise on her right forearm, she admits she got into a scuffle (outnumbered four to one) the previous weekend, and she ran out of long sleeves to hide the evidence.

Braun is tough, as Sye, a seasoned regular in his 60s, confides in me later. “You don’t mess with Aimee.”

It’s a necessary trait when dealing with the kind of issues that arise any place where liquor is served late into the night. Braun says it can be challenging. When she closes the bar by herself she is responsible for breaking up fights and forcing out regulars who don’t want to leave.

“Sometimes I have to jump in between two very large men who are about to fight each other, which is scary. You just have to handle it.”

Braun is a little over five feet tall, and she puffs herself up demonstratively. “I try to be bigger than them!”

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If you are found guilty of galivanting excessively at the Brighton, you might be sentenced to writing an apology. Photo by Jackie Dives.

There are other challenges that come with being a female bartender.

“You can’t be sensitive,” she says, smiling wryly. “If you’re worried about men looking at you, you can’t put it on that it bothers you. You’ve got to put on a hard shell, be a little tougher.”

Interrupting the thought, a gentleman approaches the bar and asks for a scotch “just like that.”

“As though I don’t know what ‘neat’ means,” Braun says when the man has returned to his table. “Not a lot of people believe me when I talk about whisky. And the cocktailing world is more male-oriented. I don’t know why. People always think of women in the service industry as being servers, not bartenders.”

The issues she faces are par for the course, and she’s mostly happy to come to work every day in spite of them.

At 9 o’clock, the band, different every week but on this night a guitarist and saxophonist with a jazzy backing track, takes the place of four tables at the front and begins to play.

Perched at the bar next to me sits Braun’s landlord, a jovial older man named Dale Dickerson. “There’s a lot of loyalty here,” he tells me, while occasionally heckling the band.

“Everybody knows everybody, everybody loves everybody,” Dickerson grins. “It’s a home away from home.”

A new kind of inclusivity in the West End

The West End was once the downtown hub for neighbourhood pubs. But the last three years have seen the closures of institutions like 1181, XY, Bin 941 Tapas, Lolitas, Dover Arms Pub and Lickerish, just to name a few.

The re-opening of Mary’s (originally Hamburger Mary’s) last July is one of the few exceptions.

“Reclaiming that corner of Davie Street was really important,” Joel Gook, one of Mary’s new recruits and a veteran West End bartender, tells me.

The diner, overlooking Jim Deva Square, has deep roots in the West End — this year is its 40th anniversary.

It’s perhaps reached the end of its many misfortunes after undergoing what Gook described as a “Moxie’s-looking, generic” remodel before closing and standing empty for two years.

In 2018, the proprietors of a nearby bar, the Fountainhead, took over the space with hopes of reviving its community focus.

“I started coming here maybe 15 years ago when I first moved to Vancouver,” says Gook, a Kamloops native. “This was the spot everyone came to.”

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The Fringe's rotary phone lamps are one of the bar's many eccentricities. Once upon a time, you could lift the receiver to turn off the light. Photo by Jackie Dives.

Gook, 35, has slung drinks in Vancouver for 16 years and spent most of that time in the West End — at Fountainhead, Oasis, and Hook Seabar. Returning to Mary’s as a staff member has ushered in a new era.

“Making enough money to live in Vancouver is certainly hard, and that’s important, but doing something for other people is more important to me,” Gook says. “So [Mary’s] was an easy fit.”

Mary’s resurgence isn’t about “making handfuls of money,” Gook says, but rather focusing on charity and community building.

“We do fundraising every week; it’s not an afterthought. It’s the first thing we think about.”

Every week, Mary’s hosts bingo night in support of the Vancouver Friends for Life Society, a charity that supports people with life-threatening illnesses including HIV and cancer. Mary’s also has a partnership with the Dogwood Monarchist Society.

Gook blames the recent slowdown in West End bar scene on several factors.

Two decades ago, the pubs and bars provided hassle-free spaces for the West End’s gay community.

“In the ’80’s and ’90’s, those bars were there because they were safe spaces,” Gook said. “You could go and be yourself, and not have to worry about all the things you have to worry about when you’re in a straight space.”

As social attitudes changed, those kinds of spaces were less necessary. And online dating has given people an alternative way of meeting others, Gook notes.

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A warning to patrons who might be tempted to rush Tom Graham while he serves the cafe solo. Photo by Jackie Dives.

“There was a time where the only place you could really meet someone, comfortably, was at a bar,” he says. “Now you can do that on an app from the comfort of your own home.”

Given those changes, “it’s up to the restaurant community to do things differently.”

Gook is talking to me between placing beers and boozy milkshakes on the bar pass for servers to pick up. “All you do is take everything!” he jokes, as a thin server with short hair and sharp-looking acrylic nails grabs the double Mary’s Bean (an espresso and Kahlua milkshake piled high with whip) that Gook has just placed there.

One of Mary’s goals is to expand its inclusivity.

“Gay bars have been historically white spaces,” Gook says. “It’s about getting away from all that boring stigma.” The bar wants to create and nourish a space that’s welcoming to people of colour and non-binary and trans people.

Gook is celebrating his 36th birthday this week, and this year marks the 19th anniversary of his first bartending job, at a restaurant in Kamloops when he was 17. (“Oh, they knew,” he chuckles, admitting he scored the gig as a teenager because he looked older. “It was just a long time ago.”)

“I’ve actively tried to get out of [bartending] several times, it always sort of pulls me back in,” he says. “I’m back doing it on this street and I missed this neighbourhood a lot. It’s a community I’ve never seen before, a community that really supports each other, no matter what.”

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On April 3, Tom Graham punched out from the Fringe cafe for the last time. Photo by Jackie Dives.

Life after bartending

A week after his last shift, Graham and I meet again. This time he’s wearing jeans. On his left wrist a new silver watch gleams, the kind with a complex face full of dials. The watch was a retirement gift from the Fringe Cafe. He unclasps it so I can see the tiny tsunami wave engraved on the back of the watch face. Purely coincidental, he says.

“It’s the most expensive thing I’ve ever owned,” he says. “I’ll probably wreck it.”

It’s a diver’s watch, though Graham doesn’t dive. He uses the timer on the face for cooking pasta.

His future is uncertain. Graham was “thinking about working in parks,” but many park board jobs require a driver’s licence, something he has never been able to obtain because of his epilepsy.

Graham likes parks. He likes to be outside, and after a lifetime surrounded by the drunken din of the bar scene, some peace and quiet is in order. If all goes well, you might just see him working the rental shack at your local pitch and putt.  [Tyee]

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