When I first moved to Montreal, a friend from my hometown told me I’d be a good fit to work at the Wheel Club. This was of course in reference to my appearance as I have been known to dress like a grandpa.
I was immediately fascinated by this place. A 50 year old country music bar located in one of Montreal’s anglophone neighborhoods NDG. They have hosted “Hillbilly Monday” open mic events every week during the bar’s lifespan.
NDG was a ways away from the neighborhood where I lived in East Montreal. My friends and I lived in the city for six months before finally making the hour long transit ride to get to this secret country bar.
Tucked between high rise apartments and business plazas is the staircase that lead us down to the Wheel Club. I open the door and am immediately struck with the smell of mothballs and urinal pucks. This looks like a dark legion hall, or the recreation room of a retirement home. There are rows of folding tables adorned with gingham tablecloths and fake flowers, mounted deer heads at the bar, wagon wheels, dim Christmas lights, framed photographs of the good ol’ days and a pool table – always occupied. I feel at home. We are welcomed by old ladies with delightful names like Flo and Jeanie. There are polite old men too – many of which are named Bill. The band is setting up onstage and a crew of women are carrying giant tupperware bins of snack food to the back.
We order drinks at the bar and find a table. Flo leaves her card game with the gals to fix us a snack at their station. She presses a napkin into a woven basket and shovels one equal scoop of BBQ chips to one scoop of plain potato chips to one scoop of cheesies to one scoop of pretzels to one scoop of microwave popcorn. She’s done this a thousand times – I can tell. I hand her a toonie and she goes back to her card game.
I am captivated by the country band. Jeanie who is not much more than 5’ plays a comically oversized acoustic guitar. She has an incredible voice and a warm yet commanding stage presence. The band cracks inside jokes and the regulars sing along to every song. I feel joyful in this dimly lit basement.
It is after my third caesar that I am faced with a dilemma. Which bathroom should I use so as not to cause a scene in this Western institution?
I analyze how I had dressed that day and play it against the colour of my hair. What voice had I used when introducing myself to these old country singers?
In my day to day life I try to not give a fuck and pee where I want but I wanted to fit in here. I wanted to charm these old people who had so wholeheartedly let us into their home. I wanted to seamlessly integrate into this paradise of cheap drinking and snacking and wholesome entertainment.
I waited, overthinking, until in a panic of indecision I darted to the Pizza Pizza around the corner to use their washroom instead. Crisis averted. I returned to my table at the Wheel Club and let these seniors sit comfortably knowing that I was merely an effeminate young man or an overgrown tomboy. Opinions differ from person to person- they could discuss it later. But for now I would continue to drink and enjoy my snack basket and I would keep them guessing.
I love old country songs and old R&B songs, I love old cars and old photographs, 1960s architecture, diners, old Hollywood horror movies and fashion from when my Grandparents were in their 20s. I am a sucker for tradition. Passing on stories, recipes, trades, songs, and objects from one generation to the next.
How can I separate these things from the ignorance of habit-set people? Can anyone learn to comprehend and accept queer identities? Can genuine empathy be implored if I sat down and had a heart to heart with one of these ladies? I have made great strides with my own grandparents, but leading this crusade sounds exhausting.
I really just wanted to be able to put on a bolo tie and blue jeans, listen to Johnny Cash covers, and not think about gender for a couple hours.
The second time I went to the Wheel Club was on an evening advertised as it’s last Hillbilly night. The bar was changing owners and the fate of the Wheel Club was uncertain. Drinks were half off at the bar and the place was packed. People of all ages were crowded side by side at the long folding tables.
The long timers started off the night with their usual numbers and then the stage was opened up to anyone. I saw queer faces in the crowd that night. Youngins’ who had ventured out to NDG out of curiosity just like I had. There is safety in numbers and I felt confident enough to go to the bathroom. I knew someone would stand up for me if anything happened, but nothing did. And I had to pee a lot. I was knocking back $3 whisky sodas steadily.
Between the six of us at my table of friends, we must have eaten a snack basket each. We knew a lot of the old country songs and sang along. The night was bittersweet. I really felt for these old souls who had spent so much of their lives here performing for each other and growing friendships, now with an undetermined end to their home.
And I belonged here too. For I was also a cowboy. Surely they must see that.
Contribution by: Frankie Climenhage (he/they)
They are a musician (member of Lonely Parade and Fleetwood Mac Sauce), writer and photographer who loves to talk about gender identity, architecture and Americana from Souther Ontario and currently living in Montreal.