Fiorito: Toronto’s gay history honoured by painter
George MacIntyre wore a black jacket, his brightest tie, his handsome top hat. He was about to unveil his latest painting, a portrait of Woody’s Bar, at a small gathering in the 519 Community Centre.
This event is worth noting: over the years, George has been working on a series of paintings in honour of the most important places in the history of gay Toronto.
The painting of Woody’s is the 11th of 12 works that George hopes will one day be made into a calendar. The others are, in order: Barrett House; Casey House; The AIDS Memorial; McEwan House; St. Michael’s Hospital; The Barn; Bar 501; Honest Ed’s; The St. Charles Tavern and The 519.
The paintings are, in a sense, chapters of this city’s history. The last in the series is a painting of the Rosar-Morrison Funeral Home; it is nearly done and . . . back up a second, how did Honest Ed’s get on the list?
Wait for it.
Before the evening began, refreshments were offered around the room. Someone asked the man next to me if he would like a cookie.
“I said it nicely.”
“What kind of cookie?”
He accepted oatmeal/raisin, and then someone else said, in a loud aside, “Are we expecting the mayor?”
Not then, we weren’t.
Just before the painting was unveiled George spoke briefly and emotionally. “It was 30 years ago this September that I was diagnosed with HIV.” That means he was diagnosed in 1982; that also means he is a walking miracle, and his work is therefore a bright and brave history of the darkest times.
He said he began to paint in Barrett House, Toronto’s first residence for men with AIDS. George said, “Boys were dying there every day. Brother Gerrard — he was a lovely man — told us we each needed a project, something to lift us up.”
George chose to paint in the folk-art style. I’m not sure if the paintings saved his life, but it would be easy to make the case.
We went for coffee the other day, and one of the first things I did was to ask about Honest Ed.
It is a long, good story:
“When I was first tested, the results came back negative, but I noticed a decline in my health and I got tested again. This time, the results were positive.
“I couldn’t work any more. I’d been making $25 an hour as a dietitian. I was dismissed. My license was taken away. I had tuberculosis and pneumonia.”
He was too sick to work for a long time, and when the AIDS cocktail was eventually concocted, he was taking 60 pills a day. His health was up and down.
He had a bit of cushion in the bank, but money was a problem. “I needed a job. I’d had 37 rejections. I was almost suicidal. One day I went into a bar. They told me to see Honest Ed, because there was a job as a line cook.
“When I got there, Ed invited me into his office and made me a bowl of cappuccino. He looked at my résumé. He asked why I wanted to work for $6.50 an hour when I’d been making $25. I told him to keep reading.” Ed kept reading.
“He froze. He looked down. He clasped his hands. He never said a word. I got up to put on my coat and he said, ‘Where are you going?’
“And then he said, ‘I need you more than you need me.’” Read that again, and remember the times: there was Ed Mirvish, under the radar, on the cutting edge.
“I told him I’d work two days for free, and if he was happy on the third day, he could hire me. Ed said, ‘No, I’ll pay you for the two days, and on the third day you can tell me if you’re happy.’
“I told him I’d work with gloves on. He said the only time I’d have to wear gloves is if I took his wife to supper.”
George worked for Ed for three years; eventually he went on to cook at the Hot Stove Lounge at Maple Leaf Gardens, and many other places.
These days he is retired.
I also asked him why the last painting in the series is of a funeral home. “There was a day, years ago, when I was staying at Casey House, when we lost three people in one day. Two families did not come to claim their relatives. We called around; no one would take the others, and then Rosar replied. They were the first funeral home in the city to bury people who had AIDS.”
Such are the uses of art.