Tales of the City: June 2009

Lay Of The Land

Living in a glass tower in the West End, you can’t help but get to know your neighbours. There’s the chronic Internet masturbator. Most of my guests have seen him in action—how could they not? They always ask after him: “Does he have a partner yet?” There’s the revolving door of young Asian women studying English, living in studios furnished with a lone futon, which is particularly concerning for men with daughters. Arriving for dinner, my dad always notes those dining alone, bathed in the lonely blue light of the TV, while in other, brightly lit studios more dine together on floor cushions around a tea towel, as though picnicking. Then there’s the couple that have sex so often, and for such long stretches, that life gets in the way and the novelty pales. The woman always seeks battery-powered assistance, which puzzles and worries some guests: “He has a good body and works so hard, but alas…” Gradually, though, even the most voyeuristic get exasperated: “Gawd, how long is this going to take?”—Danielle Egan

Method Man

I’d been asked to photograph the Hollywood actor Rod Steiger. A sturdily built man with melancholic eyes, he opened the hotel room door and said, “Please come in. I hope you don’t mind, but we are going to have lunch together and we shall first drink a white wine.” He wore a black hat. “Today is Saturday,” he noted, “and on Saturdays I never shave.” After coffee he said, “We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender.” He’d turned into Winston Churchill, though as it turned out he never got to play the British prime minister. I broke the spell by asking him what gum he chewed through most of In the Heat of the Night, when he played a Mississippi police chief. He became Rod Steiger again. He said, “Dentyne cinnamon.” —Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

A Dish On The Side

At a popular East Side restaurant and bar I frequent, there used to be a gorgeous South American waitress who hooked up with a patron. There were two hitches: he already had a girlfriend, and she had an STD. She finally told him about her diagnosis. He obviously didn’t want to tell his girlfriend but knew she needed to be treated. They concocted a plan. He brought his girlfriend into the restaurant on a night the waitress was working. The waitress took their orders and, when their food was ready, ground the chlamydia medication into her dish. —Rory LaPierre

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Anything To Declare?

Entering the international terminal at the airport, I passed two husky uniformed women and their chocolate Lab. The dog sniffed at the cuff of my pants, and one of the women motioned me out of the line.
      “Where have you been?”
      “Mexico City.”
      “What were you doing?”
      “Touring a silver mine.”
      “Our dog seems to think you’re carrying drugs. Are you bringing drugs from Mexico?” It continued: Do you have a criminal record? (No.) What do you do (realtor), for how long (20 years), where do you live (South Surrey), for how long (20 years), take off your jacket, turn around, put your hands behind your back.
      They handcuffed me and told me I was suspected of transporting narcotics. They read me my rights and asked if I wanted them to contact a lawyer. I said no. I was escorted to the customs area, where they searched my pockets and got my luggage stub. While one went to fetch my suitcase, the other peppered me with questions. Had I ever smoked marijuana? I said no.
      “Come on, everybody’s tried marijuana. When you were young?”
      “You must have had at least one puff.”
      They went through my suitcase and my wallet and told me they were going to test my credit cards for molecular levels of methamphetamines. It would be easier, they said, if I just told them where the drugs were. After 20 more minutes of bad-cop badgering, the other officer returned with the credit cards and threw them on the countertop. “They’re covered with cocaine and meth residue.” She turned to me: “How do you explain this?”
      “I don’t believe you.”
      “We can’t fabricate this—we need reliable information for court. You’re better off telling us where the drugs are.”
      “I don’t have any drugs.”
      “You’re saying you don’t, but your body language says you do.”
      From my toilet kit they took my toothbrush. As it happened I’d lost mine and had got a new one—in its plastic container—from the hotel concierge the night before. They supposedly tested it, and 20 minutes later told me it too was covered in residue and it was time for me to come clean. “If you don’t,” said one, “we’ll get your stomach X-rayed.”
      “Do what you need to do,” I said. “I don’t have any drugs and I’m not answering any more questions.”
      Two male officers appeared and escorted me into a back room. “Hey,” said one, “we don’t like this any more than you do.” He undid my handcuffs and, while I rubbed my wrists, told me to take off my shoes. Then my socks. Then my shirt. Before long I was buck naked. “Now bend over,” he said, “and touch your toes.”
      After I got dressed again, they escorted me back out to the counter. The two female officers were stuffing clothes back in my suitcase. They seemed disappointed. “You’re free to go. Just for interest’s sake, there won’t be anything on your record saying you were stopped.” Two-and-a-half hours after getting taken aside, I picked up my suitcase.
      “I’ll give you two tips,” I said. “Get your drug-testing machine recalibrated. And send your dog back to drug-sniffing school.”
      “Nothing you can say,” one said contemptuously, “is going to make me think you’re not a drug user.” —John Hewlett

Winning Streak

My first time in Vancouver and I’m driving over the Burrard Street Bridge after midnight when I see a flash coming from the opposite direction on the walkway. I slow down and realize the light isn’t a bulb popping but a human, and naked at that, in the form of a young guy who’s not being chased but is just running for all the world to see. His arms are pumping, his dick is flapping, and the sheer joy of the man is all lit up in his smile. —Peter Levitt


I went to a restaurant in Chinatown with three friends. We belonged to the same antiracist group and were a mix of ethnicities: one is Chinese-Canadian, one is Punjabi, one is Chinese and German, and I am mixed black and white. When the waitress took our orders, she addressed my Chinese-Canadian friend in English, assuming perhaps that because he had dreadlocks he was assimilated and did not speak Chinese. He answered in fluent Cantonese, at which she started a little. The waitress turned to my Chinese/German friend, who looks more white than Asian, and addressed her in English. She also replied in Cantonese, further flustering the waitress. Then the poor woman moved on to my Punjabi Sikh friend, who was wearing a turban and was clearly not Chinese. She asked for his order in English. My Sikh friend grew up in Hong Kong and knew Cantonese as well as English and Punjabi. He, too, ordered in the Chinese dialect. The exasperated woman turned to me. She regarded me closely for a long while, then plunged forth—in Cantonese. I answered as best I could: “Number 142, please.” —Wayde Compton

Boy Meets World

Every week we’re visited by an elderly Chinese woman who raids our blue box. Though she speaks no English—and we no Chinese—she always greets us with a warm smile and an enthusiastic wave. On several occasions, she mocked my pregnant partner, Karen, in a pantomime of sympathy for the burden of pregnancy. The week after our child was born, she saw that Karen was no longer pregnant and gestured a question from the sidewalk. Karen held the infant up to the window for her to see. The old woman smiled and asked a question we did not understand. Karen nodded and assured her that yes, the child was healthy. The old woman asked again—louder this time—but we still did not understand. This unfailingly polite woman then set down her bags, thrust her hips forward, placed her wrist against her waist, and wiggled her forefinger. We laughed so hard we almost dropped the baby. Karen replied by placing her hand at the baby’s pelvis and repeating the gesture. “Yes,” she said. “It’s a boy.” —Monte Paulsen

Gather ‘Round

It must’ve been shortly after the #10 turned east off Granville and all the bridge-hoppers had got off. Almost everyone still aboard the standing-room-only bus was suddenly singing. We were headed to a Bob Dylan concert, and the whole group was chanting out the bitter refrain “How does it feel?” at the top of their lungs. I was easily twice their age and slow to buy into the merriment, but finally I couldn’t help myself.

How does it feel?
With no direction home
How does it feel?
Like a rolling stone…

At the Coliseum, we thanked the driver. He beamed at us as, one by one, we stepped down and were absorbed by the crowd. —Sean Rossiter

In Living Colour

Last summer, I had a friend visit from New York City. His mother’s Nigerian. He’s six feet, five inches tall. He works for the largest social-networking website in the world. And his voice is a booming, charismatic instrument that fills a room with warmth. “You might get a lot of attention here,” I warned him. He laughed me off. We spent his last afternoon walking around downtown. In the span of a couple of hours, five people approached him. Three wanted to know if he played basketball. Another, a tentative Japanese girl, asked to take his photo. The last, a young Indian guy, asked not whether he played basketball but which team he played for. As we drove out to the airport that evening, I asked him what he thought of Vancouver. “Dude,” he said, “this has got to be the most diverse city in the world. You just need some black people.” —Nate Sellyn

They Shoot Gift Horses

I was helping my friend get rid of some old stuff, and in the alley behind the Value Village I saw a guy collecting bottles out of a Dumpster. I pulled the truck over and asked if he wanted a DVD player that worked. I figured maybe he could resell it and make a bit of cash. He squinted through the smoke trailing into his eyes from the cigarette that dangled between his lips, and turned the device over in his hands. He handed it back to me, shaking his head. “No way, man,” he said. “Not without the remote.” —Ivan Coyote 

Weird Science

When I arrived at the UBC hospital, I told the nurse what had happened: in the lab, I’d accidentally pricked myself with hamster cells. I smiled in a manner that I hoped conveyed my concern at having hamster bits inside me. “So, you’ve injected yourself with hamster blood?” she said. Not blood, I replied. Ovaries. She looked up and asked, “Are the hamsters healthy?” There were no live hamsters involved, I said, just ovary cells in suspension. “But the ovaries,” she insisted. “Were they healthy?” “Actually,” I said, “the ovaries have cancer.” She put down her pen, gave me a form, and told me to wait for a doctor. He entered as I was writing “Hamster” under “Name of person with whom you’ve shared a needle.” He prodded my hand a few times. “Well, you aren’t dead yet,” he said. “I think you’ll be fine.” —Patrick Francis

The Kindest Cut

In Yaletown, two 50-ish women (who’d done everything possible to look 30-ish) found much to dislike: a dirty fork, background music too loud, salad dressing too tart. The handsome young waiter, who gave every sign of being an unemployed actor, kept his patience until one of the women, inspecting her main course, thought to ask if the salmon had been humanely harvested. “Absolutely,” he answered, not missing a beat. “It was line-caught with an unbarbed hook and given its own berth on the fishing boat. When our chef put it into the sautée pan, he said a little prayer and sang Verdi’s Requiem.” He pulled it off, too. The women laughed robustly, and went about their lunch. —Jesse Spencer

Class Warfare

I went to interview for a teaching job at an ESL academy downtown. From the street the building looked more like an accounting firm than an educational institution, but the lobby was decorated with shiny posters featuring a multicultural cast of eager educators and learners. The principal rolled her eyes as she told me that many of the students were in university yet still didn’t know how to speak English. She took me into her faux Ivy League-crested office, where she offered me the job—on the condition that I sign a bunch of documents because, as she put it, “they want us to write their papers for them.” She added: “They may even offer to pay you 500 bucks a pop.” A tight smile—she was convinced that if an us-and-them situation should arise, we were on the same team. There were two weeks left until rent day. I shook her hand and signed my name. —Mette Bach

Out Of Thin Air

When my friend Dave and I made our first ascent of the Lions, we took the trail leading up from Lions Bay. We clomped along the logging road, dipped into a small creek valley, then followed the switchbacks up the hillside until we rose above the treeline. At this point, where the trail scrambles up a steep scree slope, Dave looked back down and, terrified, imagined he was going to plummet down the slope and die, splayed on the lawn of one of Lions Bay’s tony residences below. Not even the offer of a cold beer could draw him away from the small boulder he was bear-hugging. That is, not until we heard someone call “Heidi!” far above us. A girl with pigtails, perhaps 12 years old, came skipping down the scree, hopscotching past Dave as he huddled beside me. Then Heidi’s mother appeared, in a skirt and pumps and carrying a shopping bag, like an alpine June Cleaver. It took another couple of minutes, but Dave was eventually persuaded to let go of the boulder and clamp the beer, and we moved on. —Cam Sylvester

Blaze Of Glory

We sat in adjoining deck chairs and watched the cat stalk the winged scavengers who visit us daily. Mary thumbed through her Vogue, stopping to compliment Michelle Obama’s fashion sense and scratch the back of her neck. Mosquitoes, I thought, until I found myself chasing the same itch. When our mutual discomfort became obvious—a strange, warming sensation just above the collar—we turned to look behind us, and up, and were startled by a yellow-whitish glow. “Can clouds catch fire?” asked Mary. “A reflection?” I suggested. Mary wrinkled her nose. “From what source?” What could cast a circle of such light and warmth? We closed our eyes and basked, a recharging of sorts. When our faces turned cold, we opened our eyes to find the phenomenon had vanished back into the clouds, never explained, never seen again. —Chris Cannon

Uncalled For

I was making my way past St. Paul’s Hospital when I came upon a woman curled up on the sidewalk. Her hair was matted with blood, and she wouldn’t respond to my voice or a hand on her shoulder. When I hurried into the hospital and asked the receptionist to send help, she told me that, for insurance reasons, they couldn’t help unless someone called 911 first. “Can I borrow your phone?” I said. “I need it,” said the receptionist. “It’s not for the public.” —Michael Harris

Blunt Force Trauma

The crowd was shuffling home from English Bay after a spectacular fireworks show. My friend Sam offered me a beer. As he opened the bottle, a van screeched to a halt and two VPD officers jumped out. They grabbed Sam, emptied five bottles onto the street, and pushed him up against the side of the van. A helicopter appeared and hovered overhead, beaming a light down on us. I asked the officer what I could do to speed the release of my friend. “Move on, sir,” he said. When Sam caught up with me, I pointed out that we were screwed: our beer was gone and we had no money. He shrugged, produced a large joint, and lit it up. As we passed it back and forth, the van cruised by, not even slowing. —Carl Maxwell

Sidewalk Stories

Dawn on Denman Street. One or two jaywalkers aim for Starbucks. The white-haired, round-bellied regular in front of Book Warehouse carefully folds his bedding into its box. Three binners are waiting for the cheque-cashing place to open. Their jeans are grubby and their hair—what I can see of it under their hoodies—is wild. They’re joking and sharing a smoke, but they step politely out of the way as an elderly Chinese woman toddles past. Her longjohns—all she’s wearing—look almost sporty. Oops, listen! Here comes the lady who frowns and never, ever looks up; her sensible pumps click-click-click along the pavement.  She carries a briefcase, and her coat and scarf are dark and neat. One day, I tell myself, I’m going to get up the courage to ask some of these neighbours of mine what their stories are. —Miro Kinch


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