When someone is dying the ones left behind have to wait in an awkward space of not wanting, but waiting until the end finally comes. We stood outside in the cold, a lineup about ten people deep. Strangers. Brought together out of a need to pay our respects to a neighbourhood bar in Vancouver’s West End called The Comox Street Long Bar and Grill.
Its closure was announced as summer turned to fall. Now it was winter, and The Comox was on its death bed. Like so many bars, restaurants and homes before it, The Comox Street Long Bar and Grill fell victim to the redevelopment of the hotel it was attached to. We warmed each other with stories about what made the Long Bar worth standing in line for while it gasped for last breaths, and tried to keep pace with an unusually large Saturday night crowd inside. It almost felt unfair. How could we ask for more when it had so little left to give?
John, an animator that lived around the corner, was the tallest member of the growing group. He fronted a line that trickled its way down to street level from the second floor entrance where I was standing beside him. Young, with the appearance of another era, he wore a large bow tie, tweed flat cap and small round, wire frame spectacles. He was a regular, and was as perplexed by the lineup as everyone else that got pulled into its vortex that night. He apologized to his girlfriend Coryn, who stood beside him on the steps, with ornately painted nails that sparkled white and gold. It was her first, and very likely last, visit to The Comox.
The white and green bar stools, just as filthy as I remembered. The gold accents. The Keno screens. The pool tables, still crowded with guys that looked like they just got out of jail.
Another member of our disparate procession, named Tony, was alone. In a wool coat, but still cold, he had little interest in The Comox itself, but was sad to see yet another live music venue in the city disappear. He always made an appearance at The Comox when his friends (under of the moniker of BANG!) were scheduled to play, as they were that night.
The bleak circumstances fuelled our small group with a united purpose. Every time the door man stuck his head out to take account of the situation outside, a new tactic to get in was attempted. Sometimes we presented ourselves as the best of friends if it seemed like a larger table was opening up. If a stool appeared vacant, we’d ostracize Tony in the hopes of reducing our numbers. Nothing was working.
“Ah. What? There’s a line up. Forget it,” said one of four guys wearing almost identical bomber jackets as they approached our elevated queue. Once an early claim on whether or not to join us was pronounced, the rest of the party quickly followed suit. As they turned to take their leave, it made me feel small, and defeated. Like John, I brought a date, and had promised her an exceptional and unique experience. I also had a camera hidden in my pocket, and with it, an agenda to write about my favourite bar in its final hours. Both objectives seemed to be hanging in the precarious balance of uncertainty.
The official goodbye party already took place weeks ago. I wasn’t there. The Comox’s last evening of its popular Friday karaoke night had already come and gone. I missed it — someone else already wrote about it anyway. And not an hour before my arrival in line, when I enthusiastically announced to a friend about my idea to write about our beloved Comox, he told me about a forthcoming piece his other writer friend had already written, revealing its past as a discotheque and Champagne bar called Champers over 30 years ago. I had no idea.
What was left?
Every conceivable “last” seemed to have been covered. Except the coveted last last call, which at that point, seemed like my only hope of saying something about The Comox that hadn’t already been said. But that thread fell through the gaps of the concrete steps I was standing on when someone further down the line mentioned we weren’t even attending our favourite bar’s final night. My intel had been wrong. This was just The Comox’s last Saturday night, and once BANG! left the stage, it would be the last time a band would play there, leaving the room void of live music forever. Maybe this was a better angle than ingesting the final drop of liquor dispensed from the Comox’s long, molded edge bar.
The place already seemed dead anyway. What it was, had already left us. There was never a lineup at The Comox. But now I was in one. The walk in at any hour for a $10 Manhattan or half-price martini on a Friday while a haggard-looking, aging rocker took to the stage in a gold lamay undershirt to play a set for a half empty room that was more interested in whatever hockey game was on TV was gone. Its unpopularity. Its strangeness. Its out of date collage of renovations. Its horrendously beautiful logo. Until its closure was announced, everything that made it great seemed like a secret that only a select clientele knew about. And even if you knew about the Comox Street Long Bar and Grill, you had to get it. You had to understand what was being offered there, and if you understood how special it was, you loved it. But all that was gone already. Now it was a place with a lineup. Busy. Loud. Every night until it whimpered out of existence, presumably in the depressing ambience of a coming, but unknown weekday would be like this.
Just as I started to think I didn’t want to taint my memory of the place with what was going on inside, the door swung open, scraping awkwardly along the concrete under it — just like it always did — creating an instantly recognizable and awful welcoming sound that for some reason was never fixed. It was a noise that said, “I don’t fit, and I don’t care. I never did. You want in or not?”
How could I say no?
We were shown to a table we hustled from the doorman with John and Coryn as our newly acquainted accomplices, and by the time I sat down, I could feel the magic of the room warming my cold, negative heart. The Comox was very much alive. The pink neon glow of its double sided, slightly sunken long bar sizzled. The beige room was as bland as ever. The white and green bar stools, just as filthy as I remembered. The gold accents. The Keno screens. The pool tables, still crowded with guys that looked like they just got out of jail. The abundance of mirrors and glass left over from what I now knew t0 be Champers. The pedestrian pub menu. It was all so awful! It was all so wonderful! And with death near, the room was held in a frenzy of euphoric nostalgia, whipped into a fever by BANG! working through a cover of Holiday, from Madonna’s 1983 self-titled, debut album that made her a superstar.
Under the circumstances of last, with an at-capacity funeral party of mourners wanting to douse their loss in the spirits of the living, a cocktail seemed like madness. Still, this was The Comox, and a Manhattan served up was what I had come to rely upon it for many years, when its life seemed limitless. I approached the bartender, cash in hand. I could see the sweat forming on his brow from the strain of the unusually full room.
“How crazy would it be if I ordered a Manhattan?” I yelled across the sea of light beige wood, tinted with a hint of pink neon that separated us.
He looked at the Long Bar’s diminishing glassware with confusion, and defeat. Then he looked back at me, eyes wide, and solemn. He didn’t have to say a word. I understood the gravity of the situation, and instantly switched my order to the simplicity of a highball, and a glass of wine for my date.
Back at the table I was sharing with my new best friends — funerals are like that — a round of Molson Canadians came to the table for John and Coryn. It was a choice that made me suspect they might be from Winnipeg. I also grew up in the gateway to the West, and for unfounded reasons like to think that traditional domestic lagers are still preferred over anything new or contemporary.
First sips were taken, and John revealed himself as the former Manitoban of the couple, but he would soon be taking Coryn home for the first time to meet his family. We prepped her with everything she would love about Winnipeg — the Fat Boy burgers, the perogies, the rye bread, the kolbassa, the tomato juice they serve as a salad course at city’s oldest steakhouse, Rae and Jerry’s. The freezing cold… ok, maybe not that. But the snow! The Forks, the Fort Garry Hotel and Hudson Bay trading post that inspired its name. It made me think a return home was in order, until I remembered I could fly to Los Angeles for a quarter of the price, in half the time, to enjoy weather twice as hot.
Everything started to get fuzzy.
The lineup outside was gone. Everyone was in for the end. I doubled the dose of my highballs, and kept them coming. The euphoria beckoned me into the arms of the woman I was with. Her long hair enveloped my entire existence every time our lips locked. Parting from her was like stepping out from the curtain of a dream, and into the blurring spotlights of reality, where I was flooded with the intensity of a public in the throes of a Saturday night, and the driving beat of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life coming from BANG! The sequins of their lead singer’s dress sparkled like a galaxy of stars that still shine, but technically don’t exist anymore.
My eyes took refuge down the length of the bar. Everything seemed lost on a 70s era Ozzy Osbourne look-alike who was pouring out his heart and soul to the woman in front of him. The conversation was intense and unstoppable. He had no interest in anything going on around him. The band on stage, the guys in kilts who just walked in looking for a night cap, the people overwhelmed by music and breaking into dance all about the room. He had other things to worry about. The demise of the bar he was sitting in wasn’t one of them.
Last call was nearing. The dance floor held itself in a moment of melancholy pause while BANG! did shots from the stage. Then it all started up again when Tony joined his friends on stage to thrash madly on a cow bell while the final songs of the night’s set played out. I have no recollection as to what these last songs were — I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, I’ll never make it as a journalist. When BANG! reached the end of their set, the room kept asking for one more, chanting, pleading, begging for it not to end. Of course the last band to play The Comox obliged, once, then twice, and maybe even a third or fourth time. But eventually the inevitable hour arrived. The call from the Long Bar came for everyone to get their last drink orders in. Then the lights came up. Then the music stopped.
Back in Winnipeg, my mother spent a couple decades on the staff of a retirement home operated by the Salvation Army. For most, it was the last stop on their way out of life. Dying was an everyday occurrence. It happened so often, you got to know its patterns. How people tended to do it. She said most residents in their last moments would always hang on until anyone that happened to be around, eventually left, or were at least out of the room. That’s when they’d let themselves go, so they could slip away quietly, with dignity, in solitude, the least amount of burden on anyone they might be leaving behind.
I don’t know when the Comox Street Bar and Grill closed for the last time, but walking out into the night, after its final Saturday, after a few last notes had rung out from its stage, I knew it would be soon. It gave us one last, great evening. Now it needed to be left alone.
UPDATE: Word has it the Comox Street Long Bar and Grill left us in the hours of Monday, November 20th, 2017.
David was the Food & Drink editor for the now defunct Vancouver alternative weekly, Only Magazine. Since then, he’s written for the CBC, the Georgia Straight, Thought Catalog, and Geist Magazine. He now lives in New York, and spent the past summer on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, dressed as the octogenarian, New Jersey born writer, Gay Talese so he could write about him in the first person. His brief return to Vancouver was specifically for the closing of The Comox Street Long Bar and Grill. – davidlook.net