It was three years ago today when I lost one of my closest friends to cancer. In keeping with my personal policy of keeping the identities of all people mentioned in this blog confidential, I shall refer to her in this blog only as “The Queen”. That was not the name on her passport, of course. But it damn well should have been. In the last week of her life, she was officially proclaimed the Queen of the Punks by none other than Joe Fontana, who at the time was the mayor of London, Ontario, where the Queen was born, raised, and lived her entire life. But in the hearts and minds of London’s punk rock community and all the people across Canada and the United States and around the world who knew and loved her, she was always the Queen, and the mayor’s proclamation was a mere formality.
The Queen entered my life through the same door that almost everybody else in my life has entered it through since the turn of the twenty-first century – the Internet. In August of 2002, shortly after my twenty-eighth birthday, I stumbled across an online forum on MSN Groups called the Insane Asylum, a forum that would serve as my home on the web for the remainder of the decade. Don’t go looking for it now – it no longer exists, and hasn’t existed for some time. But during its heyday, the Asylum was in many ways ahead of its time. Unlike most online forums, it was not devoted to the discussion of any particular subject. Instead, it was simply a place for friends to get together to goof off and make each other laugh – a bona fide social network, in the days before Facebook and Twitter even existed. Once one gained the trust of the management, a new initiate into the Asylum would find himself part of a very exclusive and close-knit society of online denizens, one whose core group of regulars would regularly address each other by their real names as opposed to their online handles, and where everybody knew each other’s email addresses, phone numbers, and even home addresses, at a time when sharing such information online was considered – well, insane. And if that weren’t insane enough, once a year there would be an official Asylum Shindig, where members of the gang would organize a weekend of drunken revelry at somebody’s house (I myself was in attendance at every Asylum Shindig between 2003 and 2006, and the Queen attended every one save the first one and the 2006 get-together). Even though the Asylum itself no longer exists, many of the old Asylumites are still friends to this day (roughly about a quarter of the people on my current Facebook friends list have at least some past history of association with the old gang), and there have even been several Asylum marriages – as in people who have met their current spouse by way of the greatest little online forum on the planet.
It wasn’t all fun and games, however. The original Asylum was founded by an ex-convict and confirmed cocaine/crystal meth abuser from the St. Louis area whom we shall call Mr. Methhead. This guy was a stereotypical boneheaded far-right wing American who made himself a lot of enemies in the world of MSN Groups with his radical political views. Particularly vexing to a lot of people was his shamelessly racist and xenophobic outlook, his unwavering support for the administration of George W. Bush and the Iraq War, and his blatant advocacy of genocide. He despised all practicing Muslims and anyone who appeared to be of any kind of Middle Eastern heritage (except Israelis, of course), and believed that every single one of them – man, woman and child – must be killed in the worst way possible. I recall at one point, he laughingly attempted to enlist in the U.S. Marines, so he could, in his own words, “kill sandniggers”. I believe he actually stated this to the recruiter as his reason for wanting to become a jarhead, and needless to say, the Marines turned him down.
Mr. Methhead made no bones about the fact that he wanted to see the entire Islamic world nuked to oblivion, and would frequently air these sentiments on the messageboards (he would eventually denounce Bush in the later years of his presidency however, not because he had a change of heart about the war, but because he felt Bush wasn’t doing enough to kill “sandniggers”). Anyone who dared to openly disagree with him was declared a “terrorist sympathizer” and would be promptly banned from the group, usually immediately followed by the creation of a new thread on the boards in which Mr. Methhead would launch a whole character assassination of the person so banned (he generally had a low opinion of gays and “liberals” also). It goes without saying that he pissed a lot of people off. So much so, in fact, that several anti-Asylum groups started popping up all over MSN, started by people who were dedicated to making Mr. Methhead’s life a living hell. And for the most part, they were very successful at it. The conflict would eventually escalate into an all-out flame war – a war that all the Asylum regulars were all but obliged to take part in, lest they be declared traitors by Mr. Methhead and be banned from the group. To make a long story short, several of the other managers eventually got sick of his bullshit and elected to kick him out of his own group. But the Asylum would carry on without him in some form or another for years after his overthrow, right up until decade’s end, when Microsoft pulled the plug on its MSN Groups service. The Queen (who by that point had been promoted to manager) effortlessly filled the power vacuum that Mr. Methhead left behind, taking up the mantle of the spiritual hen-mother of the whole gang. The Asylum was a much kinder and gentler place under her reign.
The Queen was not a member of the Asylum when I first joined. She joined almost a year after I did. But upon joining, she immediately endeared herself to the other Asylumites; there was hardly anybody who didn’t like her. Mr. Methhead was known to dislike her (her political views were way too left-wing for his liking), but he dared not ban her, because he knew damn well that doing so would cause the other members of the gang to declare mutiny on his ass.
After the Queen entered my life, she would be a regular fixture in it for the next nine years. I first met her in person at the 2004 Asylum Shindig, which was held in Toronto (and would turn out to be the first and only Asylum Shindig to be held in Canada). In the weeks leading up to the big weekend, she and I would regularly converse on instant messenger, making meticulous plans to round up the others on the day everybody was scheduled to fly into the city. From those conversations, her qualities as a hen-mother and a motivator of people were apparent to me. She was the one who did the lion’s share of the organizing and co-ordination; I was merely along for the ride. When we finally met each other at the subway station we agreed to meet at, the first thing she did when she saw me was give me a big hug. It was the first time we had met each other in the flesh, but it was already well-established by that point that we were soul-siblings.
We would meet each other many times after that, even outside of Asylum-related activities. Throughout most of the noughties, I lived with my sister and her husband in Hamilton. Every year for Thanksgiving, they used to have this obnoxious habit of going to Toronto to spend Thanksgiving dinner with their friends, without so much as even thinking to invite me along. They didn’t even have the decency to bring me back any turkey; I was forced to have pork and beans (or whatever other food was available around the house) for Thanksgiving, and eat it in the dark all alone. When I logged on to the Asylum and started grumbling on the boards about how I had been forsaken by my own family, the Queen told me that I was welcome to spend Thanksgiving at her house any time. In late 2007, my brother-in-law accepted a new position in Calgary and moved out west with my sister and their growing family in tow, while I stayed behind in Ontario. The following year, I would take the Queen up on her offer. And it was the best Thanksgiving dinner I had in years. I’ve been going down to London for Turkey Day almost every year since.
Such was the Queen’s character. She was a woman of boundless compassion and love. She was an avowed agnostic, yet more Christ-like then just about every Christian I’ve ever met. If you were down on your luck and had no place to go, she would open her home to you and give you the shirt off her back, and do everything in her power to help you get back on your feet again. If you had just experienced an unspeakable tragedy, she would be the first to offer you her shoulder to cry on, and if she had to make a huge personal and/or financial sacrifice to offer you that shoulder, then so be it. Conversely, if she felt that what you needed was not sympathy but a severe kick in the groin, she would never hesitate to give that to you too. She was an ardent fan and supporter of London’s punk rock scene, always in the front row whenever some local band was performing at Call The Office or Fitzrays or some other live music venue, and practically every musician in the city knew and loved her (she was not really a musician herself – she could definitely sing, and I personally had the pleasure of hearing her perform karaoke at my old watering hole in Toronto way back in the good old days before they tore it down, but she never pursued music as a career, opting to become a hairdresser instead). And probably most importantly, she was a devoted mother to her son, who was the centre of her whole universe. She occasionally expressed disappointment in some of her son’s life choices, but there was never any doubt in my mind that her love for him was ceaseless and unconditional, and she cherished him above anybody and anything else in the world.
The last time I visited the Queen at her castle was in the summer of 2011. I went down to London to celebrate my thirty-seventh birthday with her. At the time, she seemed perfectly normal and healthy, and it never dawned on me for a second that she would be gone by the time I would celebrate my thirty-eighth. She would announce her cancer diagnosis to all her loyal subjects via Facebook the following December. The punk rock community of London came to her aid, organizing a benefit concert for her at London’s Call The Office venue on Valentine’s Day of 2012. But her cancer was a relentless bitch, and in the end, no part of her body would be left untouched by it. By the following summer, word came out of London that the Queen’s condition had gone terminal.
When she was on her deathbed, I made plans to travel to London to visit her one last time before the inevitable happened. Several other old Asylumites did the same – it would turn out to be an Asylum get-together of sorts, although it was by no means a Shindig. No one would pass out or throw up; there would be no drunken shenanigans, or pranks involving fire and urine and shower caps and bare butts. It would be the most serious Asylum get-together yet, for we were a nation bidding a tearful farewell to our beloved monarch. During the weekend we all went to visit her, her hospital room would receive an almost constant stream of visitors, like she was a rock star or something. Things eventually got so chaotic that her sister (and power of attorney) had to impose a limit of three visitors at a time. She was very visibly ill by that point and all her hair was gone, but her sense of humour was still intact, despite the fact that she was in a lot of pain. I remember her face lit up when she saw me. When it came time for me to return home to Toronto, I personally made a point of entering her hospital room to kiss her on her bald head. It was a fitting final memory of the big sister I never had, whose legacy on my heart and soul I will cherish until my dying day.
The next time I would see the Queen, she would be inside an urn. She did not have a traditional funeral, but a memorial concert and social gathering, with several local punk acts on the bill. At least two hundred people were in attendance, and there is little doubt in my mind that if instant teleportation or travel by UFO was a thing already, at least five times as many people would have showed up. I was personally blown away that one single person could touch the lives of so many people. To this day, I consider myself a lucky man to have known this remarkable woman while she walked this earth. She was the closest thing I ever met to a living Buddha.
In the three years that have passed since the Queen left us, I have taken to adopting her as one of the patron divinities of my personal religion. If she was still with us today, I know she would get a kick out of that. I can make up my own traditions since I invented my own religion and all, and one those traditions involves me getting stoned and consuming an entire package of bacon in the Queen’s honour every year around the time of the summer solstice (bacon being one of her favourite foods). This year, I begun a similar tradition for February, to commemorate her birthday (she would have turned forty-eight this year). The bacon feast day of the Queen is the second most sacred holiday to me, after 4/20.
This is going to sound crazy, but I have definitely felt the Queen working her mystical bacon bits in my world; the permanent mark she left on my heart has without question influenced the course of my life since her passing. The most bizarre thing was when I met Helen. When I first saw Helen’s profile on that cheesy dating site (I shan’t say which one), my first thought was: Holy shit! She looks just like the Queen! My mind was totally blown. I never mentioned this before in this blog, but the physical resemblance between the two of them is uncanny, and that’s not just because I was space truckin when I saw her profile either (I always make a point of doing online dating while high). So I interpreted the whole thing as an omen, and sent her a message, and she sent me one back the next day. As our courtship began in earnest, I realized that the fact that they look alike isn’t even the half of it – she also has a similar personality and sense of humour as the Queen. Her laugh even sounds like the Queen’s laugh. When she invited me to her apartment for the first time, I couldn’t help but to notice that she had an LP copy of Blondie’s Parallel Lines displayed prominently on her kitchen table, which if memory serves me correctly, was the first record that the Queen ever owned. My mind was blown clean off when I saw that album cover. It was almost as if she had returned from the dead to offer me much-needed consolation and relief from the heartbreak and devastation I was going through at the time. Helen could have definitely been an Asylumite; it’s kind of a shame that the mystical erotic adventure we went on together was short-lived, and we never got to a point in our relationship where we started introducing each other to our friends. The old gang would have loved her for sure. But she gave me exactly what I needed, just like the Queen would have done. I like to believe that the Queen heard my silent screams of insufferable agony, and responded accordingly.
There hasn’t been an Asylum get-together of any sort since the Queen passed away. You could probably chalk it up to the fact that we’re all getting older, and our bodies just can’t handle ingestion of large quantities of alcohol like they used to. But more likely, it’s because the social dynamic among the old gang has changed – we’re all still friends, but you get the sense that there’s something missing. If one of these days we ever get around to planning another Shindig, however, it’s almost a given that when we’re all sitting around that bonfire, one of those lawn chairs will be kept vacant, in loving memory.