Saturday, April 21, 2018

Wilful Ignorance: A Biopolitical Diary Entry

When I arrived in Toronto I wrote that I felt like the city would bring out my innermost Slytherin. I now realize that feeling was terribly optimistic. In a more accurate account of reality, I had a libertarian tryst with Toronto.

Toronto was the blank slate I chose after lighting my old life on fire with a hard turn into radical authenticity publishing my deepest confessions as my 2016 #Thisisme blog challenge. I thought being authentic and unapologetic was enough to thrive in the Big Smoke. I was wrong.

I’m quite proud of how alternative my life was in Toronto. The bubble I built myself was full of cannabis enthusiasts, kinksters, and artists, but something about the bubble never stuck.

Becoming a Torontonian crept up on me. I remember the moment; I was walking down Church Street, and a street car drove by down Queen Street. It clicked how much easier it would be to walk a few blocks South and streetcar to Queen West than take the subway to St. Andrew station and walk. And that was it: the moment I was 'one of them'.



Coming from small town Atlantic Canada, there's an internalized resistance to Ontario and Alberta. Significant brain drain leaves a bitter taste toward expats whose lives take them 'down the road'. Landing in the rest of Canada is met with much more optimism.

For a lot of us East Coast ex-pats, Ontario was supposed to be a phase. Get a degree or two; have a career job for a few years. Then it's on to Montreal, Vancouver, or some international city for a high life before trekking back East to start a family or retire.

Sometimes Ontario becomes home, and that's OK. It's not settling or a step back to change your mind about how you feel about a place. I made peace with being an Ontarian in Ottawa, but Toronto is a city without a silver lining; it's fast and harsh. The good never catches up to the greed, and the proof is in the streets.

I survived this two-year chapter paying my bills with sin-money. Both my jobs would have offended the sensibilities of many; I was dispensary staff at Cannabis Culture Church Street and a front house employee of Oasis Aqualounge, a popular sex club in Toronto. Despite the great party introduction, my “fun jobs” came with their own unique drawbacks.

Each job had I took a different toll. The legal context of Cannabis Culture and ethical concerns with Oasis were huge sources of anxiety. The duties of both required repetitive upper body movement that fucked up my neck and shoulders. The extreme compartmentalization that facilitated my employment came at an interpersonal cost; I had to banish the whole idea of work from my mind when I walked out the doors. Unfortunately, that process dissuaded me from forming closer friendships with co-workers. In the end, neither are businesses I will champion moving forward in my career.

Regardless, Cannabis Culture changed the course of my life, and I look at that time with fondness.

***

After a couple weeks as a customer, I talked my way into my retail first job by reminiscing about Amsterdam and speaking of my commitments to civil liberties. Marc Emery personally interviewed me and offered me a trial shift on the spot. That was my first of many days.

Marc and I had a mutually beneficial relationship that didn’t require much interaction. We couldn’t be two more different people, both impressive in our own rights. My tolerance for him would sour as I began to understand his approach to women. A self-professed hedonist, it was clear that Marc’s first consideration of a woman was sexual, and all her other details were secondary.

He was a horrible boss to women. I witnessed so much inappropriate workplace touching that I don't have one particularly jarring incident to share: cheek kisses, lingering hugs, massaged shoulders. Boundaries were more of a suggestion.

Cannabis Culture operated in a (dark) grey part of the economy. We were a registered business paying sales taxes, and the legalization had been politically promised. Staff were compensated well but offered no job security or mechanism for ensuring workplace standards. The role I performed was civilly disobedient and pre-legal. 

The storefront and lounge openly sold weed. Weed came from jars. Jars came from the safe. That’s all I knew. That’s all I wanted to know.

We were always busy, and our risk was compensated well. Pay was $15/hour and a cash daily bonus if the store hit predetermined sales targets to a maximum of $420 for over $65 000 in sales. At our peak of business, we exceeded that target each day of the week and cleared one million dollars in sales in one month. Obviously, they were going to shut it down.

It’s easy to look at CC with nothing but nostalgia, and I love it for that. I loved serving the most diverse cross-section of society I could possibly imagine. Literally, every type of person rolled through 461 Church Street. The anxiety melts away when you’re reflecting and not wondering if you’re going to be arrested during your shift.

I was really good at the job. I had the right combination of customer relatability, product knowledge, and efficiency behind the counter. Five of six of us at any given time would be dancing between one-another holding giant jars of weed. Eight hours of my day was near full-volume unchoreographed collision-prone budtending retail transactions. I miss it all the time, but I have to hold the experience to full account.

Cannabis Culture was problematic. 

The worst thing I saw on the job wasn't sketchy; it was mean. Marc yelled at a 5'0 employee until she quit for something I did and told Marc I did.

During a rather slow day, I'd been facing our retail case for a bit with my co-worker. The day before a vendor rep (from EDT) came in during business hours when Marc wasn't around and demanded a better position for his products. With no direction otherwise, the manager on duty agreed.

The following day, I was cleaning up the mess of the Happyface pens from the askew from busy night before. What started a disorganized pile, I replaced with as many unique varieties as the glass-space allotted would allow and an elastic-bound set of duplicates behind. Not idiotic, right? 

At a very busy point near the end of my day, Marc asked me "who set up the Happyface pens? I'm really upset about that." To which I responded: "Oh, I did. You know the EDT rep messed everything up yesterday, right?" I see that he's about to launch into a rant, so I looked at him coldly and said "Well, I'm going to help the next customer..." And I did.

As I did, Marc literally spun around to find the first person he could take his feelings out on; I won’t name her. Co-workers told me after the fact that they’d kept an attentive eye on that conversation because they were worried about the possibility of violence. 

After Project Gator raids across the country, Marc and Jodie Emery were arrested, and Village Cannabis Dispensary was resurrected in the ashes of Cannabis Culture Church Street. Jamie McConnell took the reigns of the dispensary; one of his first decisions was to call her, apologize, offer her job back, and promise that she would never be spoken to like that as long as he was owner.

Side bar: Jamie's a great guy, and he runs the city's best dispensary - I encourage any Torontonians looking for an elevated cannabis retail experience to check his current spot, Sea of Green, 2140 Dundas St. W.

Cannabis Culture management was oblivious to the dispensary's position in the Church-Wellesley village. CC pinkwashed so hard it ought to be used in introductory gender studies textbooks.

Local events company, and self-appointed queer community ambassadors, MOJO Entertainment contacted Marc to complain that they’d heard about patrons who were disrespected or harassed in and in front of the store. Legit concern? Yes. Legit response? Not quite.

The answer was drag show called Ganja Queens produced by MOJO Entertainment and a few thousand dollars donated to an HIV-related charity. MOJO Entertainment stoked the criticism of Cannabis Culture as inadequately queer-friendly in an ingenious/insidious play for business. Indignation on behalf of queers was the brand and ignorance was the customer. Rather than administering the space in a meaningfully inclusive way, a transaction was amends enough.

The problem was deeper than a drag show. Cannabis Culture hosted the wildest instance of transphobia I’ve ever been witness to. As I’m telling my cis gay co-worker in his 40’s why he shouldn’t be referring to trans women as "'trannies", a trans woman walked into the store. He pivoted and clocked her immediately asking: “It’s ok to to say tranny, isn’t it? We’re on Church Street.” She had an accent of some kind, but her response was cold and clear. “No. Don’t say “tranny”; it’s as offensive as “nigger””. At that point, I apologized on behalf of my co-worker and filled the woman’s order. I’m pretty sure I gave her great count for her troubles.

Indigenous profiling was rampant. Marc, to be consistent with his tax-hating libertarian values, wanted us to honour the tax-exempt status of card-holding indigenous patrons. Some of the staff took it upon themselves to pick out people who “looked native” and tell them about the policy. They thought they were helping, but we were selling weed openly and pre-legally. Making the transaction immediately about indigeneity was not a good idea.

Cannabis Culture was like Studio 54. It was magical because it was always a limited time offer. Only the handful of people who lived it know what it was really like. For all the memories I have from that place, it’s not a brand I’ll be supporting in the future.

Until Cannabis Culture, I’d never used a cash register, and Oasis was the first time I found myself on the merchant side of a debit machine. I didn’t sell weed before or after my time at CC/VCD, and I had never set foot in a sex club before the Oasis interview where I was offered a position.

Oasis is a sex club. Cis men had an observably hard time understanding that a sex-positive space is not necessarily going to get you laid. A lot of straight guys thought we were a brothel, and many gay men thought it was a bathhouse for straight people.

None of the above. A bar with a pool where you're allowed to have sex isn't that complicated. If you want to get laid, show up with a partner. Lots of singles hook up, but it couldn't be further from a sure thing. Many patrons joined for the facilities and the alternative social atmosphere the club fosters.

Oasis shifts were brutally long. They actually adopted shorter shifts during my last week, but during my time, a cleaner shift lasted from 9:30 am-7 pm. A day bar/day float/door shift lasted from 10:30 am-7 pm, and night shifts began at 6:45 pm and lasted until 4 am on an average night. My shifts were a mix of day bar, cleaner, and night float. I bar-tended two nights, but night shifts were hard on me.

The anxiety drugs I'm on are to be taken at the same time every day. They're uppers, so they regulate sleep times. A night shift or two per week meant throwing my neurochemistry out of balance, quite often agitating an immune system crash and getting me sick. Unfortunately, the fiscal reality of Oasis was that night shifts were worth almost double a day shift with tips calculated in.

Oasis, like Cannabis Culture, was a magical place where the everyday rules of society were suspended by default. Customers could skip niceties because of the sex-positive nature of the club; things could take a funny or serious turn in an instant.

Day bar was my favourite. Being personable and knowledgeable were more important than discerning taste. I’m not a great bartender; I barely drink and it’s not a sophisticated consumption when I indulge.

I am, however, a great person to stick behind a bar at a sex club. I don’t flinch, and I practice utmost diligence with inclusive language (minus swearing all the time). Day bar was where you could actually have a good conversation with the patrons.

Cleaner shifts were laborious and repetitive, and that’s what I liked about them. I felt like my time had the most purpose cleaning. I could avoid people almost entirely if wanted to, and I conceived it as a work out. It was one.

Float shifts at night were hit or miss. It was when I'd see the most sex going down.
Because you’re going to wonder: it took 3 weeks for the “holy shit, everyone is just having sex around me” to wear off. And the most extreme thing I saw was two rows of flesh pierced on a woman’s back. Each was fitted with a silver hoop through which a ribbon had been strung.

As mentioned, Oasis is not a business I will champion. If you've ever read anything I've written in the last seven-ish years, my flagrant opposition to gendered admissions and pricing discrimination would have been assumed.

Enter the ethical qualm: Oasis gender polices for profit. Single men's admission is restricted or billed differently depending on the day's events. Two men are not eligible for the couple's rate, and AMAB non-binary patrons have their identities challenged. These are not practices I condone; these are not practices I believe are compliant with the Ontario Human Rights Code.

I made peace with the arrangement in a few ways. First, they were the kind of business who I would take money from, but not give money to. I refused door training; I would not be personally gender policing anyone. I also skipped all of the staff meetings where I may have been asked my opinion on operations. At one point I considered throwing a costume-themed event at Oasis, but I couldn't put  my name on an event in a space that gender polices.

I agreed to disagree with Oasis in silence only as long as I financially needed the job. My late March resignation was my first big step out of Toronto, and it felt gooooood.


The no-holds-barred resignation letter I handed in solicited an unexpected response from the principal owner. I haven't and won't be reading that email. My gift to myself and to Oasis is letting it go. Richard is a kind, reasonable man, and I suspect he would want to talk about it. I don’t though. My peace came at a cost too.

The decision not to file a human rights complaint against Oasis was not one I arrived at lightly. As an activist and a non-binary person, I constantly advocate legal gender pluralism. My complaint could have significantly advanced judicial consensus toward gender justice, but the personal cost was too much.

Filing against Oasis would have meant months, if not years, of investigation and bureaucracy. It meant having to publicly vilify people I considered friends. I continue to believe that Oasis policies are discriminatory, but I cannot take on the duty of seeking legal gender pluralism alone.

So here I am, fleeing Toronto 22 months after arriving. I didn't get what I expected out of the city, but I appreciate what I did get.

I made a lot of peace with my body. I sold original art. I got way better at makeup and owned my identity as a club kid. I reconnected with some of the best people I met at Carleton. (Shout outs to Laura, Tim, and Hayleigh!!)

I'm also super proud of myself for being open to romantic relationships. Toronto is a great place to be an unrepentant slut, so I'm happy I found something more than that. It's a big deal because isolation is one of my more unhealthy responses to anxiety. Being open to a serious relationship was a concerted step toward a balanced life.

I don't date in a conventional sense. I usually know by the end of a first date if there's long-term potential or not. If there is, I don't fuck around. Either they're the co-pilot or they're not; let's not waste time.

While, I'm leaving as single as I came. I had someone I loved, who loved me back. The relationship was fast, bright, and ultimately incompatible, but I did find love, however fleeting.

A lot of days I feel like Toronto won, and I lost. In reality, Toronto was a growth opportunity, not a game. I leave with mixed feelings, surer of only one thing now than I was when I arrived: talent does not stay still.


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey Devyn

How do you feel about Steamworks and Excess who only allow in men?

At Oasis they offer the space to everyone even tho it's not every day. They even throw inclusive events.

I, as a cis woman would be laughed at if I tried to come to Excess or Steamworks any day of the week

D$$ said...

Also bullshit! I actually explicitly called bathhouses out in my resignation letter...