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Exploring Toronto's Seedy Underbelly

Forget “tres cool cafes” - see the depraved and the forgotten

By Paul Carlucci

The October winds canvas Yonge Street like a pack of effervescent politicos on the campaign trail: toothy, insistent, and all together intrusive. The dawn is nigh, and the streets are void of any benign strain of humanity. Just the drug dealers and the homeless, with a few hookers thrown in for good measure.

A dull blue hatchback pulls up to me, gives me a start. A woman — perhaps? — sits in a darkness only tempered by the glow of her speedometer.

“Do you know where Bloor Street is?”

“Up there,” I say, and point north. Read Toronto hotel reviews

“Are you feeling horny?”

Christ. How did I get here?

“No,” I mutter.

She throws the car into gear and pulls a surprisingly controlled U-turn into the southbound lane. I shiver in her wake. And not because I'm cold.

I'm making my way to my sister's, making my way to her hardwood floor and the cups of coffee I know will help me convalesce come late afternoon.

The woman — if indeed — seems a fitting end to this Toronto soiree, the bulk of which was spent reeling around the labyrinthine corridors and the vast main hall of the Church at Berkley. The inexcusably twisted editors of Rue Morgue magazine outdid themselves with a Halloween party the likes of which could only be thrown in some dark and extremely decadent circle of Hell.

Horror Film Fan Club

In retrospect, I should have been prepared. Rue Morgue, like Fangoria, is one of North America's most cherished horror culture journals. It's a bi-monthly thrown together in the east end, right at the corner of Queen and Broadview, next to a strip club. The editors, Rod Gudino and Jen Vuckovic, also organize monthly screenings of some of the most out-there horror films from all corners of the globe.

The entire Rue Crew, in fact, is composed of a gaggle of irreverent movie buffs who are happiest when watching acts of extreme violence rendered unflinchingly on film. Until recently, the monthly screenings were held at the Vatikan Nightclub, which is conveniently located across the street from the warren-like Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, home to the Being Scene art exhibit—a collection of paintings by disturbed artists unnervingly spread throughout the hallways of the hospital.

Now, however, Rue Morgue 's local fan base has grown, and the movie night has shifted to the esteemed Bloor Cinema, a hotbed for independent film.

Ummmm…nice make-up, mister. photo: Feisty Produtions.Some of the Rue Crew's favorite flicks were projected on the walls of the Church at Berkley during The Circus of the Grotesque, an annual romp through the annals of mummery and madness. While DJs Bolt and Dragomir spun out a cross section of pyschobilly and R&B, ordinary people, transmogrified by the season, lilted about on stilts, guzzled alcohol, picked at a tasty buffet spread out over a fake corpse, and waited eagerly for the witching hour, when the winners of the costume contest would be announced.

Posse of Amazon Zombie Babes

Most of the women were painfully beautiful; their breasts squeezed ebulliently into vinyl corsets; realistic fangs pinching their sultry, blood-encrusted lips; belts and buckles and chains and straps swinging to and fro as they danced beneath the gyrating Go-Go Ghouls, a posse of Amazon zombie babes commissioned by the magazine to sex things up.

A girl dressed as a vampire, functioning as manager for a brutish, mask-wearing fiend she claimed to have dug up in a Burlington cemetery, approached me at the bar. At first, she gave me a hard time for being out of costume, but, after someone placed two live Madagascan cockroaches in my calm, intrepid hands, she took a lascivious shine to me. Our tryst was nipped in the bud, though, when her undead companion suddenly started choking me. Hard.

Meanwhile, The Human Shriek Show provided entertainment in extremis . Looking like a classic circus geek—complete with old welder's goggles, a greasy chest, and blackened overalls — the Shriek Show ringleader skillfully juggled lit blow torches while standing in a puddle of freshly spilt gasoline, all the while yelping like a puppy in a bear trap.

His performance reached its taut climax when he used a chainsaw to carve an apple held in the mouth of his clad-in-lingerie assistant. Miraculously, he did not mulch her face to pulp.

These disjointed memories whirl through my mind's eye with carnival abandon as I lie exhausted on my sister's living room floor. Toronto, sometimes you amaze me.

I've lived in this city for about three years now, and, like most of you reading this, I at first found the place boring and ineffectual, just a city with a superiority complex. Most of our politicians and some of our micro-communities act like the city is an unsung hub of international prestige, a Canadian Mecca for backpackers, artisans, entrepreneurs, and anybody with anything worth offering to the global discourse.

More to see than CN Tower

The people touting that sorry line are the same sort who suggest you while away your travel budget in the CN Tower or the Skydome, two sterile Toronto monuments.

Another so-called pride of the city is the awkwardly titled Distillery Historic District, a blasé expanse of cobblestone streets peppered by outrageously expensive beer huts, jewelry shops, and what Where Toronto magazine refers to as “tres cool cafes.”

Lame, n'est pas?

Further compounding this repellant vignette of my far-from-fair city is the famous Eaton Centre, which is really just a multi-level mall that's easily as offensive as any other melee of mindless consumerism. A Toronto worth marketing? Hardly.

Do yourself a favor: shuck this glossy, brochure vision of soul-sucking Ma and Pa merriment, and instead embrace the pimply underbelly, a seedy and deplorable thing worth groping if only to wash its scales from under your nails when you return home, safe but violated.

Jill Allen as her alter ego drag King Joe

Jill Allen is a quirky mainstay in the city's grungy back alleys. From her unravels a colorful quilt, each filament leading to a weird and unusual end. She's head and founder of Feisty Productions, a productions and promotions company she uses to pollute civil Toronto with all manner of nastiness. Her next bash is planned for March 19; Carnivale Sange-Froid will be a whirlwind freak show featuring flesh hook suspension by local outfit I Was Cured.

Drag Idol

While hyperactive in the organizational end of things, Allen is just as dedicated to participation. Most recently, she donned her alter ego, drag king Joe DeMachio, and entered Toronto's own Drag Idol, a cheeky spectacle akin to its straight-laced televised cousin, American Idol — the difference, of course, being the rabble of cross-dressed talent, all feverishly competing for the $2,500 first place prize, the largest cash reward in Canadian drag history.

Drag Idol is in its second year at Zelda's, the notorious Church Street den of poofed-out faggotry and gender-bending brinksmanship. Forced by the contest's thematic construct to change their acts each week, the queens and kings of Toronto have had to transcend their creative limitations, constantly recreating their stage personas and enhancing their performance repertoires.

The personality tweaking is easy for someone like Allen, and her current status as the competition's last remaining king proves it. Watching her MC at her parties just reinforces it.

Consider the Raunch Launch at the Zen Lounge, a putrescent Queen Street dump if ever there was one. What is basically a dark loft with a bar, pool table, DJ booth, coat check, and some feculent bathrooms was Allen's arena of choice when she was SMUT magazine's marketing and promotions manager.

There, just a few weeks prior to the Rue Morgue bash, was the launch party for SMUT's first issue. SMUT magazine is Canadian porn's answer to The New Yorker. It's tastefully subversive in its photography and surprisingly intelligent in its typo-laden editorial. Give it a chance to rally a production budget, and it should live up to its loud and proud declaration as the Taiko drum for Toronto 's fetish fusillade.

I showed up in jeans and a plaid shirt, my equally drab friend slogging his loathsome burden behind me. We were rejects among rejects, to borrow a phrase from my slack-jawed associate.

All around us: kilts, corsets, and cleavage. Everywhere we looked: straps, studs, and stilettos. One pasty anomaly wore naught but carefully bound leather lashes, a matte black cock sheath, and what could have only been orthodontic head gear.

“I made this myself,” he confided.

“How the hell did you get here?” It was, after all, cold out.

He feigned offense and slinked away.

The place was turbid with the rank fragrance of massage oil and sweat, beer and cigarettes. I drank five beers, had to hit the commode, and cut a swath through the bobbing crowd. On Stage was Kelly Clipperton and the Kelly Girls, a band of what looked like men.

Like it mattered. In the bathroom, two people I'm sure were women were undressing in front of the sinks, coked out of their minds, sniffing like they were trapped in a curry monsoon. Surprisingly, for people high on coke, they weren't very friendly.

No matter. My friend and I were ready to bail. SMUT parties, Allen assured the crowd, would become a staple in Toronto 's nightlife, both as a way to fund the magazine and as an outlet for untold perversions.

A cute shooter girl in a blue wig convinced us to join her at a thing called Dark Rave, a monthly all-night party hosted by DJ Lazarus and held up the street at the Big Bop on Queen and Bathurst. We paid a modest cover charge and got swallowed up in the four floor cornucopia of transvestites, drug addicts, alcoholics, rave beats, and live music.

Technicolor, conical light beams swept up and down the bar, which was tended by some of the most heavenly creatures I've ever seen. There, like at the SMUT party, people were free to dabble in any taboo they pleased. There would be no judgments and no consequences, just good, filthy fun.

The Big Bop

The Big Bop is one of those complexes with a dozen different rooms, each with its own name. There's the aforementioned Reverb, which plays host to such functions as the Fetish Masquerade, a monthly sex-bash for men who want to dress like women, women who want to dress like men, girls who dig baby doll fashion, and people of both sexes who want to hang out in their bathing suits all night. There's the Kathedral, which is one of the best punk rock gigs around and was once the proud host of a show headlined by Tub Ring, Chicago 's venerable tweak-rock gurus.

And then there's Holy Joe's, which has turned out to be the Zen Lounge's main competitor. In response to waning business, the Zen Lounge renamed itself the FunHaus and started hosting Monday movie nights, sinful evenings celebrating drug and horror culture on celluloid.

Bars and clubs of this nature are everywhere. There's the Velvet Underground, the Bovine Sex Club, the upstairs of Club Rockit, the Q-Bar; the list goes on, each entry a testimony to all things kinky, subversive, and most definitely Torontonian.

Paul Carlucci is a senior journalism student at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, Canada.

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