‘Rare Bear’ by student Heath Ramsay was developed in Writing Nonfiction in 2021.
I first met David in March 2016. A dizzying vision in brightly coloured spandex, he was the first neighbour to welcome me to “Le club Jessie”, which he bellowed in an atrocious French accent before declaring, “I bet you’re a Chef, I’m right, aren’t I?” After replying no, he countered with, “well a foodie then” before winking and tapping my belly. Forgiveness being a virtue I was not blessed with, I might never have spoken to him again, but he was the gatekeeper to the lemon tree and proved a caring first responder when my bike was stolen the following day.
David Pill, retired tram driver, rare bear collector, legacy member of VicBears and aspiring DJ – he has more than a few snazzy ideas for remixing famous television theme songs into club-track, dancefloor bangers – is the longest standing resident of 7 Jessie Street, an eventful chapter coming to a close as he prepares for the second big move of his life, to New Farm in Brisbane.
“Come on then, make yourself useful!” David, clad in signature lycra, gestures to a flat stack of packing boxes leaning up against the glass entrance door. I grab them and follow him up two flights of stairs to apartment number six, his home of the last 27 years. A tall, heavyset man, he is covered in silvery-white body hair, a characteristic I’ll later come to learn defines him as a polar bear within the VicBears community he’s so proud to be a part of. As we climb the last of the stairs, I’m transfixed by the cut of his calf muscles, a testament to a lifetime of cycling, one of his greatest joys.
The apartment door wide open, David welcomes me inside, “come on in and meet the family.” I’m ushered down a small hallway into the living room and my first and only foray into the unique world of rare bear collecting. “Here they are!” David, beaming with papa bear pride, flicks a switch backlighting a display cabinet packed with teddy bears, individually encased behind polished glass covers. Reflected light bounces around the room like a mirror ball.
No less than forty bears peer out at me, a vast array of winsome expressions vying for my attention. One of them appears to be winking at me, another offers a knowing smile, a handsome Daddy bear wearing a matching leather codpiece and bandana, holds a whip in one hand, beckoning with the other. Is that the one that winked at me? Is that a Princess Diana bear to the left? Are the bears without costumes naked? So many questions.
David draws my attention to the adjoining wall, covered in an abundance of plates depicting images of teddy bears enjoying themselves in myriad ways. One is fishing, another dances, most plates, however, affirm the notion that teddy bears do love to picnic. While I drink in what David refers to as his "great wall of china", I hear the crackle of a needle tonguing the grooves of an LP, the opening riff of Boogie Oogie Oogie starts blaring, and just when I’m sure we’ve hit the outer limits of our combined gaydom, David asks if I’d “fancy some peach schnapps?!”
David’s bear collecting has, of course, an origin story; a delightful mix of happenstance and misunderstanding. Sitting in a well-loved brown velvet armchair, nursing his schnapps, he begins.
“Like so many good stories in my life, it starts with a pretty memorable hook-up! I’d lucked out at a mate’s party in Fitzroy, and gone home with a strapping lad, punching well above my weight. Next morning, he was stroking my hairy belly, calling me his bear cub, and told me I should check out VicBears and head to the Laird Hotel. The rest, as they say, is history."
Since its creation in 1996, VicBears has been a social club for gay men of all shapes, sizes, and ages, with a particular reverence for the hirsute and heavyset. “After years of feeling less than, too big, too hairy, not gay enough, I finally found my people, and to this day, I reckon you’d be hard-pressed to find a more friendly, accepting bunch.” The warmth and inclusivity David experienced through his community gave him the strength and courage to finally come out to his mother, who still lived in their family home in Goulburn, NSW. “Community is everything, more so for those who feel… displaced. I had the benefit of knowing I’d be looked after if things went belly up with Mum.”
Upon retrospect, David reflects things might have gone more smoothly had he come out in person but then he’d likely not have his bear collection either. “I wanted to tell Mum in person, but felt too nervous about it, so one night when I’d drunk enough to decide it was now or never, I rang and blurted out ‘Mum I’m gay and I love bears!’ Mum, bless her, chose to focus on the last, because a week later I received Barclay in the post!” David guides me to the display cabinet and ever so gently, opens the glass lid of a charming, scruffy Steiff bear, the centrepiece of his impressive collection. “Isn’t he something?! He’s my gateway bear!”
Barclay inspired a fiery love of collectible bears and memorabilia whilst providing much-needed levity and connection as David guided Debra towards acceptance of his sexuality and his lifestyle. Debra came to watch David march with VicBears at Midsumma Pride March in 2002, “Hands down, one of the happiest… moments… of my life." His voice cracks into an anguished upper register as he struggles to finish his sentence. Tenderly closing the lid, he returns to his chair and pours another round of schnapps.
While 2020 is globally understood, as a year steeped in tragedy, isolation and fear, David’s 2020 was particularly distressing. A fortnight after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Debra passed away, and although it wasn’t Covid-19 that took his mother’s life, it kept David from seeing her one last time. Suffering health complications from a previous diagnosis, he was deemed too at-risk to travel and was forced to say his goodbyes over the phone. An unimaginable feat, too painful for him to speak of.
Two days later, I’ve popped over to bid David farewell and find him sugar-soaping the walls. Debra’s passing reconnected David with extended family, a deciding factor in moving to Brisbane, a new beginning he’s even more excited about having already connected with Brisbears, “A whole new pond, can you imagine?!” Grinning, he leans in for a bear hug spiced with a heady mix of body odour, cologne and sugar soap.
After a torrential outpouring of gratitude, I turn for a final goodbye only to hear David calling from somewhere inside, “Wait! I have something for you!”. Emerging from an empty bedroom, he wheels his electric blue bike towards me. “This is for you, I’m not allowed to use it anymore and I’d like you to have it, just promise me you’ll use it.” He winks, “but not too much, you gotta keep that belly of yours!” David Pill, ultimate purveyor of blindside surprises, strikes again.