Shannon walked out of Nuts and Bolts just before last call expecting the air outside to be cool, or at least cooler than the soup of humidity that hung over the dance floor. But the early-August night offered no respite; no breeze with the heady scent of summer blooms, no drop in temperature from the sweltering heat of the daytime. It was hard to breathe, but she shrugged her leather jacket back on, the collection of buttons and badges of her favourite punk and industrial bands carefully arranged on the lapels clinking together as the heavy garment settled on her shoulders.
Her white t-shirt was soaked with sweat, and she hadn’t worn a bra. Usually it didn’t matter but this old shirt with The Smiths on the front had been worn so often it was getting faded and thin and while it hadn’t bothered her in the darkness of the club, on the street she felt self-conscious about the sheerness of the fabric.
Between the exertion of dancing and the temperature inside the club, what little make-up she had bothered to wear had mostly melted off her face, leaving her with only a messy smudge of black eyeliner under each eye.
The thump of bass from the Front 242 song followed her as she waved goodbye to some friends and headed towards Yonge Street, walking slowly because of the humidity.
Despite the late hour, the strip was still busy with people walking and driving. Cruising Yonge Street was a regular Saturday night pastime in Toronto, and it wasn’t just for teenagers. While the people in cars who drove up and down the length of the strip repeatedly for hours were mostly Norms or rockers from the suburbs, the sidewalks teemed with all types of weirdos from old hippies selling acid to hookers in thigh high boots perched on sky high heels. Punks, metalheads, drag queens, death rockers; it seemed as if every colourful and interesting freak was out on this hot summer night, reluctant to go home where it was probably just as hot and not nearly as much fun.
Down a flight of stairs, huge silver doors blocked the entrance to the subway. She had missed the last train north. Thinking of heading to to the all-night cafe on Charles Street where she could meet up with her roommates who had been partying at the dance clubs in the gay village, Shannon decided to walk. She watched the Yonge night bus whip past, packed to the doors, and was smugly satisfied with her choice. She couldn’t afford to waste the cash for a full fare to ride a few blocks on the “vomit comet”.
She joined the flow of mostly north-bound pedestrians. Cars blasting Guns and Roses roared past, revving their engines at stop lights, the young men inside yelling lewd remarks at any woman they saw. Only the hookers reacted, exchanging banter with the passengers before the cars pulled away, hoping for one more date for the night so they could finally go home and take their boots off.
Shannon was glad for the lack of attention. With her flattop haircut, black biker jacket, pegged jeans and army boots, she wasn’t flashy enough for the guys in cars to notice her.
The flashing neon lights of the big record stores were still on, making this particular stretch of Yonge Street as bright as daylight. The huge records on the front of Sam the Record Man spiralled round and round, while the A&A Records sign cast an eerie reddish-orange glow onto the sidewalk beneath. Across the street, what seemed like a million silver paillettes, each slightly larger than a quarter, shimmered at the slightest movement of air on the wall of the Pizza Pizza. The sudden smell of grease and Chinese food wafted past her nose as the Mr. Pong’s delivery truck cruised by. Hot dog vendors did a brisk business as club-goers tried to soak up the alcohol in their stomachs with doughy buns and mystery meat. You had to love Yonge Street, she thought to herself, it was all so delightfully tacky.
Past the main strip, Shannon hit a quiet stretch, almost all the other pedestrians having turned back to head south and walk the length of the strip one more time. She was able to walk at a faster pace, despite the sickly humidity. Striding northward on her long legs, she paid no attention to the flashing lights and loud BLEEP of the siren behind her. When the cop car pulled up on her left, she gave it only a quick glance and continued to walk.
“Hey faggot, wanna go for a ride?”
Shannon wondered who the cop was talking to as he leaned out of the passenger side window. She was the only person on this stretch of sidewalk.
The cruiser pulled to an abrupt stop and the officer got out, reaching over and grabbing Shannon by the collar of her jacket in one swift movement. “I said, wanna go for a ride?”
“What?” Shannon asked, not sure what was going on. Was the cop referring to her? Did he think she was a guy?
The policeman was large and grizzled. His jowly face was covered in 5 o’clock shadow and his large protruding belly sported what appeared to be a long stain of yellow mustard.
“You shithead punkers. Always causing trouble on my patch. What are you selling tonight?”
Alarm bells went off in Shannon’s head and she made a point of standing up straight and offering succinct, polite replies. She noted the officer was not wearing a name tag. “I’m sorry, Officer, there must be some mistake. I’m just on my way to meet some friends. I’m not selling anything. Honest.”
“We’ll see about that,” the cop said as he dragged her by the arm and flipped her face down onto the hood of the cop car. The metal was hot against her cheek and she pulled her head away for fear of getting burned.
His pat down was quick, and didn’t graze either her chest or groin, mostly because he was too concerned with pulling a small bag of white powder from his pocket and making a show of holding it up to his partner. “Lookee what I found. Our friend here likes the nose candy.”
Shannon felt her stomach flop into a queasy lump. “That’s not mine and you know it!”
“Well, whose is it then?” the officer sneered at her. “You’re going down to the station, freakshow. Possession of cocaine is a crime.”
“How do you know it’s cocaine?” Shannon smirked, unable to hold back her sarcasm. “That could be a number of different substances, and if you just pulled it from my pocket, like you claim, then you wouldn’t yet know whether that was coke, heroin, or baby powder.”
Her insolence got her yanked upright and punched in the gut. Her stomach turned and all of the air left her lungs. Doubled over in pain and unable to breathe, she tried to stand up straight but couldn’t manage it. She felt handcuffs being slapped onto her wrists, the metal oddly cold in the warm air, and was then pushed into the back of the cruiser, the door locking behind her as she fell sprawled across the seat, which was covered in crusty stains and smelled of piss and vomit.
The cops got back into the car and the officer driving did a full U-turn, heading south. What the hell was happening? Were they actually taking her in? “Please, my name is Shannon Del…”
“What kinda name is Shannon for a boy?” the officer that had hit her sneered over his shoulder. “That’s some kinda queer name. You one of those fucking girly queers?”
“Hey Mike,” the other officer replied, “my brother is named Shannon. Fine Irish name for a boy. That means nothing.”
“Sorry Dale,” Officer Mike said, slightly chastened. “Just, y’know, look at this one. Queer as a three-dollar bill. A’intcha fairy-boy?”
“Officers, I’m not a man! Please, let me show you my drivers licence.”
Right, her driver’s licence would clarify everything thing when they got to the station and they tried to process her. They’d take one look and know not only her name but that she was female.
Officer Dale turned on the siren and blasted through the intersection where he should have turned, causing pedestrians to scatter in all directions.
“Hey, wait, where are we going?” Shannon cried. ‘The station is back that way.” No, really, where the fuck were they taking her?
“Oh it’s a warm night. We thought we’d take you down to the lake so you can dip your toes in Lake Ontario before we take you in.” Officer Mike leered at her though the plastic screen.
Shannon sat back in her seat, incredulous. “Is this…. am I on the Cherry Beach Express?”
All those stories she’d heard from male friends; always from someone they knew, never them personally, of being picked up if they were walking alone along Yonge Street late at night, then taken down to the lake and beaten to a pulp… were they actually true? Some stories told of being taken in and charged, but most were about being left face down in the sand, often without their shoes or wallets, and then trying to get home from an area where there was no transit or even many cars.
“That’s a stupid song, you shut your faggot mouth!” Officer Mike was obviously a little sensitive about being called out on illegal police tactics that were thoroughly derided by most of the population.
“But… it’s true right? You pick up young white men; punks, gays, metalheads, and take them down to Cherry Beach to beat a confession out of them. I always thought it was just an urban myth, but I know guys who won’t walk along Yonge Street alone after dark.” Shannon had finally managed to sit upright. An odd ache emanated from near the bottom of her left rib cage. She was still terrified, but couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out the truth about the Toronto story once and for all.
Shannon caught a guilty look in the eyes of Officer Dale from the rear view mirror.
Beside him, Officer Mike blustered, “Yeah, well, maybe if they weren’t out selling drugs or stealing cars or destroying property, we’d have no reason to pick them up.”
“Most of the stories I’ve heard have been of guys who were just on their way home. Not trouble-makers at all, although they might have looked a bit weird, or been a bit drunk. And most of them were never charged with anything. Just harassed and left at the beach.”
“If they got picked up, there was a reason for it, mark my words.”
“What I’ve heard…” Shannon said, drawing out the pause so that both cops turned around to look at her. “Is that Toronto Police do this to bump up the numbers and even out the race statistics. Because you guys got shit a few years back about a report that claimed you were stopping and charging a disproportionate number of young black men.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, you’re a stupid faggot and I’m gonna kick the shit out of you! Shut yer dirty faggot mouth!”
Clearly she’d hit a nerve.
From the safety of the backseat and the barricade, Shannon found the courage to keep talking. “So you don’t deny it.”
“Listen, we got to keep the streets clean. Those boys are out here causing trouble. Or they will be if we don’t get to them first.”
“The punk boys?” Shannon asked. “Or do you mean all the black men you unfairly target?”
“The neeegros,” Officer Mike spat, drawing out the first syllable in a fake Southern accent. Shannon could tell he said it that way because it was the closest he could get to using the N-word without being reprimanded for racial slurs. “We got to keep them from causing trouble. If they’re not up to something, then they will be, it’s only a matter of time.”
“And you think that’s a fair and legitimate way of policing? Harassing innocent young men because of their appearance, whether that’s their skin colour or their hair cut?”
“Didn’t I tell you to shit the fuck up, faggot?”
Shannon sat back and watched the dark city slip past through the window. They were approaching the dock lands now, all empty and abandoned warehouses, scrub land, parking lots, and the occasional ship overwhelming a narrow channel. She began scanning the empty sidewalks for a payphone while she tried to remember how far a walk it was from Cherry Beach back to the first area where she could wave down a cab… a 30… 45 minute walk? How about in bare feet?
The cruiser pulled into the gravel parking lot and officer Dale cut the engine.
“I’m giving you one last chance to confess to the charge,” Officer Mike said through the screen, his rank breath filling the back seat area.
“I’ve done nothing,” Shannon replied, wondering how long she could hold out before telling them the truth. They didn’t believe she was female, but would they listen when she told them her full name and showed them her license? Part of her — the stupid part, she acknowledged — wanted to see how far she could take this. When would she play her hand — before of after they started beating her?
Officer Mike, sweating profusely in the humidity, opened the back door and gestured for Shannon to get out. “Move or I’ll make you move, faggot,” he said snarled.
Shannon scooted across the seat as Officer Mike reached in and grabbed her arm to drag her out the rest of the way. He turned her around and pushed her towards the beach. She stumbled as they moved from the gravel of the parking lot to the uneven sand.
In front of her the lake was calm, lights from the cottages on Ward’s Island twinkling on the water. The air was cooler here, the humidity still present but less cloying. There was something almost resembling a breeze coming across the water.
“So, how many guys have you brought down here on these dates?” she asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm as they marched her along the waterline and away from the parking lot. “My name is Mike, and I like pina coladas and long walks on the beach in the dark with a punk dude.”
“You mouthy piece of shit!” Shannon felt the back of Officer Mike’s hand across her face and the metallic taste of blood in her mouth. From behind, Officer Dale grabbed her still cuffed arms and wrenched them hard behind her back.
“Are you gonna confess, you fucking faggot?”
Time to end the game. Shannon spat some blood onto the sand and said, “Yes, Officer. My name is Shannon Delancey, I am the daughter of Deputy Police Chief Connor Delancey. My address is…”
“SHIT!” Officer Dale let go of her arms as if she was on fire.
Officer Mike screamed, “You are not! You’re a lying sack of shit.” But he looked scared.
“Hang on gentlemen, let me show you my ID. Please… my wallet is in my back pocket.”
She felt Officer Dale extract the wallet and detach it from the chain attached to her belt.
He flipped through it and pulled out her drivers licence, aiming his flashlight at it and reading it with concentration, then holding it out for his partner to see. “Fucking hell, Mike. She’s not lying. We just picked up and beat old man Delancey’s kid. We’re so fucked.”
Shannon watched in amusement as an array of emotions passed Officer Mike’s face as he looked from the ID photo to her and then back.
“Well, for starters,” Officer Mike said in a slow drawl to Shannon, “you could help by not being a fucking lezzer and wandering around looking like a fag boy!”
“Shut up, Mike! What do we do?” snapped Officer Dale, a note of impatience in his voice. Shannon could tell he was one of those cops who went along not to cause trouble, but wasn’t really happy about the way his division, or his partner, chose to enforce the law.
Shannon stood by, drawing patterns in the sand with the toe of her army boot as the two debated.
“It’ll be okay. Delancey knows about the program.” Officer Mike tried to assure his partner. “We won’t get in shit for that. And it’s not our fault if his daughter dresses like a dyke truck driver.”
“No, but you just sucker-punched her. That’s not going to go down well.”
Shannon was flabbergasted. “Am I to understand that this whole Cherry Beach Express operation is approved of by higher ups? They know you’re doing this shit? It’s not just your division, or a few bad apples?”
“We were told to balance the numbers. So as not to look like we were picking on the black kids.” Officer Dale looked sheepish.
“So how about just not stopping and charging so many black kids?”
The two cops looked at each other and laughed. “Oh, Sugar, then we’d never meet our quota,” said Office Mike, amused at the idea.
“It’s all about the numbers?”
The two cops nodded in unison. “It’s all about the numbers.”
“And you go after young white men so that you can still go after and charge just as many young black men?”
“Gotta keep those fuckers off the streets,” nodded Officer Mike.
Shannon sighed. There was no point in any further discussion. “Can you uncuff me and take me back to where you picked me up, please?” She intentionally spoke with an authority in her voice, copied from her father, that she knew these boneheads would respond to.
Officer Dale unlocked the cuffs and handed her back the wallet, along with a rumpled handkerchief extracted from his pocket so she could wipe the blood off her face. “We’re happy to drop you at home. We know where the Deputy Police Chief lives.”
“That won’t be necessary, thank you. I was on my way to meet friends when you picked me up, they’ll be worried if I don’t show.” These bozos didn’t need to know that Shannon had been estranged from her father and hadn’t lived at home for two years, since she had refused to follow his footsteps and join the police force herself. Now she was doubly glad of her decision.
The ride back to Yonge Street was silent and uncomfortable. As she dabbed at her bloody lip, Shannon briefly wondered what might have happened if she had revealed herself to be female but without the protection of her family connections. Would she have been kindly escorted home or left on the beach, beaten and bruised, and possibly worse?
The strip had cleared out significantly by the time they returned to where the cops had picked Shannon up.
“Can you drop me at the corner of Charles Street, please?”
“Will do,” Officer Dale replied, meeting her eyes in the rear view mirror. Shannon hoped his hangdog look was meant as an apology.
“Say, you’re not going to tell your old man about this are you, Missy?” Officer Mike turned and asked through the divider.
Shannon wondered briefly what he was angling at. She doubted she could influence her father, even if she did tell him. In fact, he’d probably laugh at her, take their side, and tell her she deserved it.
“No,” she sighed. “I have no intention of telling my father.”
“Good, because I wouldn’t want to have to balance my quotas by picking up one of these friends of yours,” he gestured out the window at the various groups of gay men walking along the street.
“So you’re threatening me now? Threatening my friends?”
“Not threatening… just warning. You know. This is a bad neighbourhood. Lots of bad people along here.”
“This corner okay?” Officer Dale asked, pulling over behind a red light at Yonge and Charles.
“Yeah, thanks.” Shannon could see her roommate John and his friend Lolly Pop the drag queen on the opposite corner. Officer Mike got out and opened the door for her and she yelled to John and Lolly to get their attention. “Oi!! John! Lolly!” She waved frantically so they would see her.
“Remember what I said now,” Officer Mike spoke in a low voice as he heaved himself back into the car. “Be a shame if that pretty ‘lady’ took a dip in the lake. Mess up her hair something awful.” He gestured at Lolly’s beehive wig and red sequinned gown. “And maybe try and make yourself look more attractive, you know? Take some tips from ‘her’. If you go around looking like a fucking faggot, you can’t blame us for thinking you are one.”
“Cocksuckers!” Shannon yelled, flipping the bird with both hands as the car pulled away through the intersection.
John and Lolly reached her with expressions of fear and concern on their faces. “What the fuck was that about?” John asked as he engulfed her in a fierce sweaty hug, despite the heat.
Before she could answer, the three of them watched the cruiser pull a U-turn, roll back through the intersection heading south and begin to flash its lights as it pulled up alongside a young black man walking alone.
The Toronto “urban myth” of the Cherry Beach Express existed from the early 1980s (although some say it began in the 1950s) until the mid-1990s. It reportedly involved Toronto police picking up young men and driving them to the abandoned waterfront area of Cherry Beach to beat a confession out of them. This system was provoked by a damning report in the late 1970s in which certain downtown divisions had a disproportionate number of stops and charges against young black men. (Sound familiar? Nothing changes, does it?) Instead of simply stopping fewer black men, these divisions instead began picking up young white men, usually punks, homosexuals, or anyone who looked a bit different, and giving them the same treatment, in an effort to balance the race statistics.
While most people in downtown Toronto had heard of the practice (made well-known by the song by the Toronto band Pukka Orchestra – sadly the original video doesn’t seem to be on YouTube at all), few ever admitted to experiencing it themselves until 1996 when Thomas Kerr, a homeless man, filed a suit against the Toronto police — and won — for his ride and beating on the Cherry Beach Express.
During the time I spent clubbing in Toronto in the late 80s, it was common practice in the gay and punk/alternative bars along Yonge Street that nobody, especially young men, walked home/to the subway alone lest the boys in blue offer them a ride.