Tales of the City: July/August 2009

Teach the Children

On my way to work I sometimes stop for coffee at the central library branch, then cross the street to CBC. Often there’s an assortment of rough-looking young men hanging out on the library stairs. They’re the “wake and bakers”—some have just spent the night at the Catholic Charities shelter across the street and they’re waking up with a joint or a rock. One morning I stepped out of the library into a particularly rough-looking bunch. They were arguing over the best place to light up. One of them headed up the stairs, calling on his friends to follow. Another man called back, “Dude, that’s a fucking daycare, man!” —Stephen Quinn

Happiness Is A Warm Handshake

In the mid 1970s I was meeting the Vancouver artist Robert Banks for lunch at the Bayshore Inn. He walked into the restaurant behind me, stopped at a couple’s table, and I overheard him say, “Excuse me, sir, but aren’t you Norman Rockwell?” He introduced me to the famous American painter and his wife, we chatted briefly, and then left for our own lunch. That evening Banks phoned to tell me that, after our lunch, he’d phoned up to the Rockwells’ hotel room and offered to show them around Vancouver. They accepted. Afterwards, arriving back at the hotel, the Rockwells were in a side conversation in the lobby when a gentleman approached Banks and said, in awe, “Is that Mr. Rockwell you’re with? Do you think I could introduce myself?” To which Banks replied, “Sure, that’s how I met him.” The new arrival approached Rockwell, extended a hand, and said, “Mr. Rockwell, I’m truly honoured to meet you. My name is Charles Schulz. I draw Peanuts.” —Rick Antonson

The Out-of-Towners

During my aunt and uncle’s first trip to Vancouver, our family did what we always do when Winnipeg relatives visit: climbed Grouse Mountain, walked the seawall, and dined by the water so they would have every opportunity to admire the views. At the end of their stay, we asked what they thought of the city (expecting them to rave about it and confess their jealousy). My aunt replied, “It feels very closed-in and claustrophobic. I don’t like all the mountains and water trapping you in.” —Tara Schmidt

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Money For Nothing

I was having dinner one night at Aurora Bistro, which had recently opened on Main Street (and has since closed). I was alone, so I took up my usual practice of eavesdropping on the nearest conversation. At the next table, what sounded like two old university friends were catching up. They were classic representatives of the 30-something generation in Vancouver. He was Chinese; she was Caucasian but, from what I could pick up, married to a Filipino man and the mother of a child whom she wanted to make proud of his biracial heritage. The talk inevitably turned to jobs and money, and the young woman sighed about how they were struggling to get ahead. “What I should do,” she said, “is what all our friends are doing. You know, line up at one of the presale condo projects to get a unit, hold it for a few months, then flip it and make a quick ten grand.” —Frances Bula

Loonie Tune

We’re sitting in Starbucks outside Tinseltown, digesting the movie we’ve just seen. It’s raining, a grey afternoon, and few lights shine from the high-rises. A man approaches, talking rapidly, smiling, teeth missing, and opens his long coat. He’s confused—or we are: is he selling clove cigarettes or a computer? We wave him away. Another man flashes plastic under our noses: a credit card for sale? Young bearded men jerkily check the ashtrays; one grabs the butts from our table, dipping his fingers greedily into the ashes, not hesitating to put his lips where strangers have sucked. Then a woman with a leg missing below the left knee rolls up in a wheelchair, black hair plastered by rain. Her left eye is puckered shut, empty; and yet some loveliness still clings to her. She’s about 30, her voice gravelly, deepened, and she wants a loonie, just a loonie, she says, for the bus. Try the woman two tables down, I say. She wheels past us, propelling herself with her one foot. The other customer also refuses, and the unhappy woman wheels back, bumping our table, crying, her face scrunched in humiliation and outrage. For a moment, I wondered if she actually did need a loonie for the bus. —David Zieroth

California Dreamin’

Vancouver in 1968, when I arrived, was a confounding place. On one hand, it was a quaint outpost of empire, with laurel hedges cut into outlandish shapes and “Cotswold” cottages whose shingled roofs aspired to thatching. To fit in, one of the first things I bought was a set of sherry glasses. But change was in the air: the Georgia Straight was flourishing, Vietnam was driving Americans across the border, and Jerry Rubin had just come up from California to occupy UBC’s Faculty Club. Before I could become a landed immigrant, a medical examination was necessary. The setting was disheartening: a big, ramshackle wooden building by the water. The doctor, who had also seen better days, rattled off a string of questions by rote. “Do you have syphilis? Do you have gonorrhea? Are you from California? Do you have diabetes?” I laughed and asked if being from California was a disease. I’ve always remembered that apparently out-of-context question as the sign of a watershed: Vancouver’s sleepy, colonial days were numbered. —Katherine Ashenburg 

The Guy’s A Jerk

It was bad enough that my middle-aged neighbour, a father of two, sometimes “forgot” to close the curtains when he sat naked on his sofa, watching something on his television screen and, shall we say, strumming his banjo. It was much worse the evening I was closing my bedroom blinds and found him gazing up at me, full monty, not pretending to anything other than a frank and furious strumming session. But the really horrible moment came later that evening, when I answered a knock at my door and peeked out to find the man in tears, begging my forgiveness and promising he’d never do it again. What do you say at such a moment? You say nothing. You double-lock the door. —Margaret Osborne

Into Thin Air

I thought the guy who scrambled past us wearing flip-flops made for the ultimate Grouse Grind moment. That was, until we passed a stylish young Japanese couple taking a smoke break. He wore a black suit,  she was in a dress and platform heels. As we approached, they said, “Excuse me, are we almost at the top?” We were maybe halfway to the one-quarter sign. —Bruce Carvey

Consumer Report

I’d just parked my Explorer at a meter on Seymour, near SFU Harbour Centre, and was fishing in my pocket for change when a wild-haired fellow appeared at my elbow. He wore a glazed look, a battered overcoat that was far too large, and a greasy Yankees cap. I braced myself for the pitch. “Hey,” he said, nodding at my car. “Ford’s done a decent job of making six-cylinder SUVs that are reliable, easy to maintain, and not bad on gas. But you already knew that. Have a good day.” —Gary Stephen Ross

Cowboy Pride

I was 10 at the time of my family’s first trip to Vancouver, my brother 12. Granville Island was a joy, Granville Street a thrilling terror. My mom adored the clean well-fed seagulls, and my dad ate fish and chips everywhere we went. Day after day my brother wore his usual cowboy outfit: leather boots, button-up shirt, bolo tie, wide-rimmed Stetson. He was a thin child, red-haired, covered in freckles. I loved him, but I burned with embarrassment every time a Vancouverite guessed, correctly, that we had just arrived from Alberta. —Todd Parker 

United Nations

The spring warmth draws a swarm of children to clamber and slide in the playground at UBC’s Acadia Park student family housing. My grandson, McKinley, and I are charging about the field in an epic Star Wars battle. Other kids join in, and for the next half hour, the Jedi—Mohammed, Carlos, and Ivan—jink and joust around the trees and play toys, pursued by McKinley, Nehar, and Cheung-Boh of the dark side. I call a timeout and suggest a game whereby I guess each child’s ethnic background or cough up a quarter. Carlos volunteers first. “Mexican,” I offer confidently. “Philippines,” he grins. Mohammed collects for being Egyptian instead of Iranian. Nehar turns out to be Turkish, not Iraqi. Cheung-Boh is Vietnamese rather than Chinese. This leaves Ivan—a sure bet, I imagine, to have Russian parents. When I suggest this, he looks at me, blinks, hesitates, then nods. Aha! Finally nailed one. “I think so, anyway,” he says shyly. “My dad’s name is Owen.” —Colin Campbell

Animal House

On a sunny Friday afternoon, a realtor took an American couple to look at houses near, as he explained, the Endowment Lands at UBC. The couple, 50-something dermatologists moving here to join a practice in Yaletown, fell in love with a gorgeous home with three bedrooms and four bathrooms. As they drove away, the wife raved about the house, praising its design, its layout, the view of the mountains. The realtor stopped at a crosswalk for a group of students who were boisterous and obviously about to get their weekend started. “Tell me,” the wife said disdainfully, “are there always so many students around?” —Shira Bick

Take A Ride On The Magic Bus

When I was a UBC student, I used to catch the 99 B-Line from the campus transit loop. On many days, around 4 p.m., we got the same driver. He was quite taken with the speaker system, delivering weather forecasts, announcing each stop like a bingo caller (requested or not), and mentioning shops and restaurants that he liked along the route. I never knew his name, but I clearly remember how contagious his jovial mood was: strangers made eye contact and laughed together, and agreed that the ride went by too quickly. —Rosemary Poole

What’s New?

While shopping in a popular clothing chain, I was surprised to see the iconic “Hypercolour” shirts of the 1980s—the ones that change colour with your body heat. One of the salesgirls came up and said, “Aren’t these so cool? They’re brand-new. They change colour when they get warm!” I smiled gently and explained that I’d spent much of my youth decked out in the very same shirts. She gave me a withering look and said haughtily, “No. These were invented by us. Nobody else even sells these. You must be mistaken.” —Darcie Hodge

Up In Smoke

A divorced Mexican heiress once hooked me up with her pot dealer. Her parents had bought her a Shaughnessy mansion so she could raise her kids in safety, far from kidnap-crazy Mexico City. Her dealer sold pot out of a downtown office building. The place was a revolving door, where Downtown East­siders rubbed shoulders—and compared sativas—with, well, Mexican heiresses. One day, on my way out, I ran into a woman I knew professionally. She huddled in a corner, hiding behind enormous sunglasses. People were always running into someone they knew. The previous week, a vice principal at a West Side school had run into one of his student’s parents. The office has since closed. —Guy Babineau


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