Joe, Winnipeg, 1967

A steamy summer evening in Winnipeg, 10:30 pm-ish. I was waiting at the transfer point going north by Harman’s Drugs (my high-school-friend’s father’s store), for the little connecting bus that passed the General Hospital, where I worked as an orderly that year, part-time, before my first year of Arts at the first year of the University of Winnipeg.

Joe hailed me from where he was standing–a lithe, diminutive man with coiffed reddish hair in his late 20s wearing a tight, dapper male nurse’s uniform, that looked somewhat futuristic like a Star Trek outfit. He worked in Emergency; Casualty they called it then. My father told me he dispensed the drugs there and was also the ‘life of any parties. I had never met anyone like Joe before. His voice was smooth and gentle for a man back then.

He knew I was “Del’s kid” and he started talking to me like he had known me all his life. We chatted easily and at some point when he learned I was a singer-musician, he mentioned an LP he was carrying. “Do you like the blues? Have you ever heard Billie Holiday?”

I said I hadn’t and he promptly gave me the record to borrow for a listen. Lady Day he called her, a name I only heard again decades later when jazz-player friends referred to her. At the time, I politely listened, but found nothing that spoke to my Stan Getz and Beatles sensibility. Holiday’s voice sounded ‘small’ and full of woe to me, like that of a prematurely ‘old’ black child.

Anyway, I saw Joe a day or so  later to give him back the record. He was clearly disappointed when I told him Holiday and her music were “ok”. From that point on, we never talked again whenever I saw him catching the same bus. (I always wondered what would have happened had I been more enthusiastic in my response.)

It was several years later that my Dad told me Joe had come into Casualty as an overdosed “queer”, looking beaten up by his partner. His smile and easy manner were not apparent to any of his former co-workers that sad, troubling evening. Instead, he was bruised and sobbing.

Joe died young and I once looked up his obituary years later and wondered at the kind of life he had had. He had once been so popular and friendly, but finished badly apparently. And I have never heard Billie Holiday sing since then without remembering him and how he had tried to connect to me one summer evening through one of his favorite singers via his simple, freely-offered gift of music.

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