Notes on 1919
By Noam Gonick
The Alexander Steam Baths was tucked in behind and below Bill’s Barbershop in Chinatown. Filmmakers, artists, and regulars from the Main Street skid row hotels would sit around waiting for octogenarian Bill Sciak to minister haircuts and hot shaves, careful not to instigate too much conversation because Bill couldn’t express a point and clip at the same time. The complex included an adjoining Chinese tailor shop and frozen dim sum/fireworks joint. The sauna was segregated: mixed upstairs (my cousin Lloyd took girlfriends into the sauna with hot and sour soup, the thought making me retch), and male-only in the basement. Looking down the staircase that led from Bill’s shop, you’d often see troglodytes and trolls wrapped in thin graying towels peering up with hopeful anticipation. The downstairs clientele was decidedly down-market, but I was charmed by the decrepit old sauna–the bell you’d ring to order soft drinks from the tailor’s wife, the feeling of being in an ancient grotto. Fire code safety issues crossed my mind, and indeed the entire structure eventually fell to arson during the great firebug epidemic in the 1990’s, but I’ll get to that later.
1919 / Noam Gonick
A brawny handlebar mustachioed regular would unscrew the bare light bulb in the steam room allowing me to summon the queer spirits in the dark wafting in the acrid steam of this ancient establishment. Alexander Avenue is a few blocks from the epicenter of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, the spot where strikers overturned the burning streetcar and Mounties charged on horseback, guns firing. The crumbling plaster and stonewalls attested that the steam bath was active during that episode which still defines the city we love and call home. I transported myself to that time, Like a Chinese doctor listening for hidden pulses – Oscar Wilde’s prosecution and death alone in Paris... conjuring sex-segregated working conditions, tense muscles working the gears of industry, a town on the frontier of civilization… cowboys frolicking with Indians, not solely in pursuit of conquest and colonization but also looking for love and brotherhood far away from church and family. Back through the pulsing steam and I see the riots in Quebec City during the Summit of the Americas, a tear gas and bonfire-lit intersection. Massive heat melting newspaper boxes, XXX Grind Fag is staring at me, his face illumined by the fires, bruised and blood from a rubber bullet running down his face, sweating, thick erection in his skater shorts. No words.
Erotic revolutionaries. With 1919 I fucked with history, situating the organizing committee of the Winnipeg General Strike in the bathhouse, mixing a cocktail of early-twentieth century labour politics and late twentieth century sexual politics. The potion was potent: we’d invert historical fact, drinking the results: the reversal of received history and a strike that ended in favour of the Bolsheviks. Struggles joined across time, changing facts, new results.
This was my first movie, and the cocktail was on a strictly need-to-know basis: we didn’t want internalized homophobia to prevent actors and extras from participating, captured forever on film at the tubs. Poor Mark Lubosch, only wanted to be a model and show off his impressive body, stubbed his toe badly in the final scene, didn’t realize what we were up to, show business is full of prancing queens, doesn’t mean we’re making a gay movie. Scandal caught up with him when he tried his hand at civic politics, sitting as the councilor for the conservative North Kildonan riding. His largest accomplishment in office was championing the anti-smoking bylaws.
Labour took its revenge. Queer mischief was punished (even though the film was partly a love letter to my Marxist father). The Labour Gods were angry and a wildcat strike at Purolator courier prevented the film from being delivered for its premier during height of the flood of 1997. To the packed house we projected my student work and I read aloud the opening scenes from Guy Maddin’s un-produced flood masterpiece Dyke Master’s Daughter while the city all around us braced for the rising Red River. Fey and weak, we couldn’t muster the strength to volunteer on the dykes. Our cultural production was what required protection: the people were sandbagging to save the art of Winnipeg, and we celebrated in tuxedos that night at Cinema 3.
Dead of winter, arson strikes the Alexander Steam Baths! The old clients are plucked off the roof of the flaming building by burly firemen. They’re shivering in the cold, wearing only their towels. Next day the structure fully encased in ice. This was during “Indian Posse” arson outbreak, a time when every out of control BBQ was pinned on the insurrectionary Native street gang. Investigation later determined that the cause was a mentally unstable gay flight attendant who didn’t obey the city’s anti-smoking by-laws. My good friend and colleague Neil Minuk was working late that night in his architectural studio next door, seeing the smoke and flames he evacuated his office, carrying computers, plans and models into his Volvo station wagon. He slyly told the gathered news reporters that the bathhouse was the birthplace of the 1919 General Strike. The CBC’s news website and the Winnipeg Free Press reported this enhanced nugget of history in their coverage of the blaze, an error that was retracted in the evening edition.
1. Summoning the Queer Spirits was a performance ritual by AA Bronson that I participated in years later, introducing me to the term. Projecting through time and visiting long gone queer spirits is something which I encourage all psychically sensitive fags to engage in.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Noam Gonick’s film and installation work has investigated street gangs of Winnipeg, queer hippie cults, TV psychics, apocalyptic stockbrokers, and prison semaphore. He has presented work at the Venice, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Serpentine Gallery in London.