Last weekend one of my daughters told me she would be hanging out with her “best friend.” I’d never heard this girl’s name before. Eleanor has a new BFF every week. She also has a new favorite TV show, a new favorite movie, and a new favorite color. (My own favorite color – green, duh – has never budged.)
I can identify best friends from each chorus I’ve sung in, as well as best friends from high school and college, a best gaysian friend, best friends from Seattle/Chicago/______, etc. But in contrast with Eleanor, there’s only one person I refer to as “my best friend.”
I met Paul Anzinger on the first day of first grade (or Grade 1, as we say in Canada). For the next four years, the school inexplicably placed us in the same class together, no doubt to the dismay of our teachers. We were precocious, creative, and fun.
Paul had red hair and style. He lived on Eton Street, and we lived on Cambridge Street. Even when they finally put us in separate classes for a couple of years, Paul and I were partners in fun after-school adventures.
Unfortunately, the summer after Grade 6 my family moved from Vancouver to Brigham City, Utah. My parents wanted to be closer to family, start a business, and build their dream house. Presumably they didn’t also want to traumatize me. But that’s what happened.
In addition to all my other Utah wounds, I lost touch with Paul. I didn’t return to visit Vancouver until I was in college, when my parents moved to nearby Bellingham. All through the 1980s, I would come home from college, mission, grad school, and law school. I reconnected with Vancouver, and with Paul.
I saw Paul for the last time in Fall 2000. He died a couple of months later. We were thirty-six years old.
Vancouver Men’s Chorus begins two weekends of concerts on Granville Island tomorrow. (Excellent tickets are still available at angry and elegiac takes on the AIDS crisis, to lesbian gym teachers, to a “Divas Medley” where Team Gaga ultimately triumphs over Team Madonna.). This year's show is extra gay, with everything from
One of our songs, “Climb the Stairs,” is about a bookstore.
Sadly, VMC’s bookstore song is not a much-needed pretext for shifting the focus from buff dancing boys to sensitive gay nerds. Or gay dads. (Maybe next year.) We’re singing about an actual bookstore – Vancouver’s Little Sisters.
Not the current incarnation of Little Sisters, with its harsh fluorescent lighting and scant inventory of tawdry magazines and sex toys. The real Little Sisters was originally located a block away, on Thurlow at Davie. This was before Amazon, big box stores, and general illiteracy drove most independent bookstores out of business.
In “Climb the Stairs,” we sing about how Little Sisters functioned as Vancouver’s queer community center. The bookstore and its proprietors were also towering civil rights heroes, standing against discrimination and government censorship. Little Sisters even survived a bombing.
I wasn’t around for the explosions. Instead, my most vivid Little Sisters memory involves my friend Paul and the power of paradigm shifts.
After graduating from law school and moving to Seattle, I finally began the coming out process in earnest. I also began getting my Vancouver fix more regularly. Whenever I visited my parents in Bellingham, I would try to add a trip across the border. I would see Paul and other friends, and make my pilgrimage to Little Sisters, Numbers, and similar gay shrines.
When we were in our mid-twenties, Paul lived in the suburbs. One spring weekend I made a quick trip to the West End. I hadn’t told Paul I planned to be in Vancouver. So I was startled when I ran into him in the middle of Davie Street. On my way out of Little Sisters.
I was mortified. My immediate reaction was alarm that Paul must have figured out from my location that I was gay. (That’s how the closet works, folks, messing with your mind.) Fortunately, Paul didn’t say anything. And obviously I didn’t leap to any new assumptions about him.
A few weeks later, we were talking on the phone in preparation for another excursion to Vancouver. Paul casually mentioned that he’d seen me from a distance in Seattle the week before – in Volunteer Park at the annual Pride Festival.
Yes, I’m that clueless. You probably won’t be surprised when I describe the similar after-the-fact conversations I'd already had with my best friends from high school, college, grad school, and law school. Apparently I’m some kind of oblivious gay magnet. Or contagion.
Or maybe I’m just particularly likely to cling to outdated mental paradigms. Even in the face of experience and overwhelming contradictory evidence.
I’m fascinated by the many variations on “doppelgangers” you encounter in your life: college roommates marching down the road you were afraid to take, repeated versions of the same patently unsuitable admirer, people you meet just once at camp or a conference who nevertheless manage to change your life, the nemesis who got the job you wanted, etc. I’ve already published several “doppeler effect” essays on this blog.
It was my relationship with Paul that first started me thinking about the phenomenon. Not just because my childhood best friend turned out to be gay. But because Paul died when we were only 36. Since then he’s been part of my life in a different way – like a phantom limb I can still sense as life goes on.
In recent years I’ve recognized how much Paul is my doppeler in another important way: both our lives were bent by mental illness. Paul struggled with depression and other disorders. During the 1990s I often stayed with Paul at his gay West End condo, first on Broughton and then on Haro. We spoke about mental health and his experiences on numerous occasions.
The summer after I moved back from Chicago, I saw Paul a few times in Vancouver. Then no word.
At Christmas, a letter with a Canadian postmark arrived at my Seattle apartment. It was from Paul’s younger brother. Paul had killed himself.
A couple of years ago, I went back to New Haven for the first time to attend the 25-year reunion of the Yale Law School Class of 1990. Last year I started writing about our reunion, but I’ve been stuck for months.
At first, I was alarmed that my writer’s block might have returned. But I realized I probably just had more mental processing to do first. In October 2015, I was at the peak of my professional career,1but just one month away from my PTSD diagnosis and the beginning of the end.
1[Ed. Note: Hopefully enough voters in Whatcom, Island, Skagit, and San Juan counties believe in redemption stories and exceptionally well-qualified appellate judges. Visit www.leishmanforjudge.com.]
In writing about my friend Paul, I identified a second reason my essay about the Yale Law reunion had bogged down: I’d written the sentence “I had never been to a high school, college, or law school reunion before.” That’s false. I happened to be in Vancouver the weekend of the 10-year reunion of the Burnaby North Secondary School Class of 1982, so I went with Paul.
It was fun. I recognized folks I hadn’t seen since Grade 6, and vice versa. And I learned about numerous Canadian life paths stretching into the future – if you hadn’t made the mistake of moving to Utah. It turns out Paul was my doppeler in another important respect. He represented a lost Canadian alternative to the diminished American life I was leading.
One of the hardest parts of grief is realizing you will never have the bright future you used to dream of. And one of the signs of improved mental health is when you’ve learned to accept that particular loss.
Happily, I’ve reached that point. My life experiences – even the traumatic ones – brought me where I am today. I wouldn’t want to have arrived somewhere else instead. Even successful and PTSD-free in Vancouver. Because I wouldn't want to end up anywhere without my three kids and the strange lessons we’ve learned along the way.
Among many other blessings, Vancouver Men's Chorus gives me a pretext to drive to Canada at least once a week. (Don't tell the border guards the chorus takes the summer off; I’m still planning on driving up every week.) Everywhere I go in Vancouver, I’m reminded of my friend Paul. They’re all happy memories.
In my redemption story, Vancouver isn’t just a mythical lost paradise. It’s a real-life paradise, with layered memories, present-day experiences, and multiple rosy futures. It's where I drag my kids during school breaks, and where they want to go. It's where I sing and (rarely and ineptly) dance. It's been my refuge for the last two years as I gradually emerged from the fog. Contrary to what you may have heard about the climate, it's always sunny in Vancouver. At least for me.
Eternal gratitude to my two favourite Canadians
Paul Anzinger, 1964 – 2000
Vancouver Men’s Chorus, 1981 –