Why you should care
Because mysteries still abound.
Our friendly neighbor to the North? Not even. And very specifically not for Americans. You see getting into Canada has always been a colossal pain in the ass for Americans.
“It’s not any easier for us getting into your country,” a border guard once sniffed at me, hinting at an in-kind reprisal campaign that benefits no one but border bureaucrats. Who — as we’re having our van searched for “guns, drugs and contraband, eh?” — were denying entry to two college girls.
The girls are from Alaska and were going to drive home for summer break but were being denied Canadian passage on account of them not having $500 each. Not to pay, but to “prove that you’re not prostitutes.”
Which made no sense since we’re quite sure prostitutes would have had the cash, but the girls did not and the errant comment ignited hysterics, which benefited us very directly by shortening their search of our van and letting our rangy hardcore punk band drive right on through to Vancouver.
…[B]efore the internet and cellphones, you really could stumble into distinct and sometimes distinctly weird microclimes of culture … And as an outsider, you just never knew …
Whipping Boy was the name of the band and while it was not our first time in Canada, it most definitely was our first time in Vancouver. The year was 1987 and since we started playing in 1981 we’d been lucky enough to play a panoply of shows with a who’s who of hardcore music — Minor Threat, Circle Jerks, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, D.O.A., GBH, U.K. Subs, Hüsker Dü and more — and we had managed to do so all across North America.
But before the internet and cellphones, you really could stumble into distinct and sometimes distinctly weird microclimes of culture. Attendees in Oklahoma listening to Hitler’s speeches in the parking lot before heading into our show, dog sex criminals in Ohio, kids getting killed going to shows in Saskatoon for having mohawks. So as an outsider, you just never knew.
But pulling into the parking lot of the club in Vancouver, everything seemed normal like everything else in Vancouver. Big western city, big western city vibe. Gear gets loaded in, eventually soundcheck would commence but since we do vocals last and I am the vocalist I do what I sometimes do before a show. I take a walk. To scare up some food, or just to get a sense of the city so that I’m seeing something/anything other than just a succession of darkened nightclubs.
There’s decent food nearby. That’s the good news. It’s served in a strip club. That’s the bad news. I never liked strip clubs, tended to identify too much with the stage performers and was routinely disappointed that they were held in such low artistic regard. But the food was good and so after eating too much of it, I decided to try to walk some off before the show.
I stood up, donned my fez and headed out.
In a burst of reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Matt Groening’s Life in Hell (his fez-sporting protagonists Jeff and Akbar a definite influence), I had decided to go so far fashion-forward that there was general confusion about why I was rocking a red felt cap with a swinging black tassel like some crazed Turk, but there I was.
Two blocks from the strip club the cherry reds of a police car start spinning, along with their sirens. The car starts grinding into a turn in the gravel. They must be after some fairly serious Canadian desperado, and so I angle off away from them until the car comes racing up and stops. Next to me.
“How are you, Sir?”
“Me? So far, so good. Thanks for asking. And you?” I had heard that Canadians pride politeness and so my play was to keep the party polite.
“Great. Out for a stroll?”
“It appears so.”
“Are you from here?”
“Is there a problem, Officer?”
“A problem? Not yet.” He stared at me. He was about 45, graying hair, thick set, with glasses. Seemed like a pretty convivial cat. Outside of the whole questioning me for no reason thing.
His eyes rose from mine to my head before he called me closer, reaching out to shake my hand. It was a weird handshake that left me feeling like, more than anything, I wasn’t … getting it. Until I did. It felt like he had just given me a secret handshake.
“Where’d you get the headpiece?” He wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t frowning. Sirens and lights now off, it was just him, his silent partner and me.
“Oh, THAT.” My response was much closer to what it’s like when someone compliments a kicky new outfit you might be sporting. “I got it at Goodwill back in the States. Cool, right?”
“Do you know what it is?”
“It’s a fez. Popular in Northern Africa and Turkey, mostly.”
“It’s more than that.” Cue creepy music because now I was officially getting creeped. “Specifically the one you have.”
“It’s super expensive, so I’ll just come out and ask you: Are you a Shriner?”
And I laugh. I know the Shriners mostly as some amusing fraternal organization that’s fond of football and tiny cars that they drive at football games while wearing the fez. So I say so.
He doesn’t laugh but tells me it’s no laughing matter and that the one I am wearing clearly belonged to a high-ranking officer. He tells me more about what it means to be a Shriner. Probably just the Reader’s Digest version. Then the kicker: “Do you have a bill of sale that shows me that you bought this?”
“Do you have a bill of sale on you for any article of clothing that you’re wearing or even own?” I am still smiling, even if not laughing, and we’re just looking at each other.
He wants to take it. I don’t want to give it.
Eventually he just, ever so slightly, smiles. “Well … take care of it.”
“I will! Now that I know what I know.”
I head back to the club, my walk shot. It’s time to soundcheck vocals when I get there. “You’re not going to wear that stupid thing on stage tonight are you?” It’s Gabriel, our one driver and roadie. “Because if you’re not, I want to wear it.”
“No. And no. This thing is way too valuable. I gotta take care of it.”