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Monday September 12, 2011

I REMEMBER / BRIAN VALLEE

George James of Hastings, Ont., remembers Brian Vallée, whose obituary appeared on Aug. 27.

Some 20 years ago, Brian and I decided, with some friends, that we should meet regularly for a drink at the end of the week at a fixed, unchanging location. We decided on The Rex, the jazz tavern on Toronto's Queen Street West. It suited us because it was, despite its upmarket location, cheap and friendly, unlike the trendy and expensive new joints appearing like blight all around.

But with the introduction of early-evening amateur talent nights the music got louder, and not necessarily better, and we reluctantly decided to decamp to a bar where we could actually hear one other speak. Over the next few months we made unsteady and erratic progress in an easterly direction, stopping at a wide variety of taverns, inns and dives (some now gone).

Our lubricated odyssey concluded when Brian announced he had found a place, near where he lived, close by the St. Lawrence Market. Our search over, we washed up on the shores of a pub called Times Square, or as we knew it: Nick's, named for its Greek-born owner. And there, for the next 20 years, we met regularly, our numbers sometimes swelling as friends joined us.

We stood or sat around the horseshoe-shaped bar, usually talking in separate groups, or silently experiencing that relaxation enjoyed by people who are completely comfortable in one anothers' company. During the U.S. football season four of us, playing as partners, would pick teams for the bar's weekly NFL pool. I can recall the sight of Brian crouched over the form sheets, his face screwed up with the same intensity he brought to his journalism, taking agonizingly long over each selection, his exasperated partner, Fred, sitting beside him with steam issuing from his ears.

We rarely won, but one week, in a spirit of devilment I asked my partner, Murph, if I, a pigskin ignoramus, could make our selections unaided. He concurred and while Brian toiled alongside me, immersed in stats and information, I merrily picked only teams that had animals' names (i.e., Dolphins, Ravens, etc.).

Naturally we won, scooping the pool, to Brian's bemusement. They were good, simple days.

At the end of every evening Nick would pour us all a nightcap and we would toast one another, and Nick, his wife Sophie, and their daughter, Helen, the manager. On the day of Brian's memorial, Nick's was closed while he and Sophie took their annual holiday in Greece. So we went back to The Rex, and, to our joy, found it unchanged with some of the old, friendly bar staff still there and delighted to see us.

Before we trudged down to Glen Gould Studio for Brian's memorial, we agreed we would all go back for our own personal wake: Fay, Roma, Virginia, Arvo, Fred, Mel, Bill, Nick, Sophie, Helen, and one or two others who will be sure to join us. And at the end of the evening, Nick will pour our nightcaps and we'll drink a toast to one another and a special toast and farewell to our dear sweet friend Brian, taken from us before we were ready to let go.

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