Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Vancouver March 1974

Chapter 2

March 1974

Early Friday evening and heavy rain was falling; straight down from a lack of wind to slant it. Pausing briefly at the doors of the main entrance to the office building where I worked, I fiddled with my umbrella to ready it just before venturing outside. 

“Oh God, please, not another wet weekend.” I silently sighed, pleading for dry weather.

Living in Vancouver during winter sometimes made me feel like a swimmer trying to decide whether or not to plunge into a pool of cold water. Going out into heavy winter rain had that effect. In spite of the downpour, sidewalks were crowded with people hurriedly heading home, or possibly elsewhere, after work. Upon reluctantly leaving the shelter of the foyer, I too became one of those seemingly unremarkable, nameless, insignificant and forgettable faces in the rush.

Pushing my way eastward along West Georgia Street was a game of constantly dodging umbrellas pointed in my direction. Some inconsiderate person could always be depended upon to be blindly rushing the opposite way. With head down and their umbrella tipped forward like a bayonet, he or she would charge ahead like the only person in the world. Maybe one of them owned the sidewalk and I was travelling toll-free.

Finally reaching the shelter of the canopies outside the Hudson Bay store at Granville and West Georgia Streets, I waited for my bus to come along. Not in any great hurry to arrive at my abode I ignored the first bus that showed up, choosing instead to continue standing under the canopy, avoiding the rain and contemplated some of the recent major changes in my life. 

Winter in Vancouver was different from the Montreal winters I'd always known. A Vancouver winter was decidedly different; not anywhere near as cold but not anywhere near as dry either. 

Months had passed since I heard or overheard a conversation in French. In fact, I hadn't heard a single word of French since having said adieu to Montreal and Quebec. The "Maitres de chez nous" debate wasn't even a relevant social issue in Vancouver. 

People here were different and many looked different too. Very few Asians lived in the Montreal I had always known, but in marked contrast, the Vancouver I was discovering was home to many Asians. Out of curiosity I watched and occasionally listened-in on others waiting for their buses. Chinese, at least I assumed the language to be Chinese, was the most common other language I overheard in conversations. Chinese was very different from French. Chinese was very different from any language I ever heard before.

I glanced over at Burrard Inlet and North Van's mountains, visible only as narrow strips between tall buildings. The early evening sky was grey; light grey, dark grey, every shade of grey in between and more shades of grey than anyone can imagine possible. No other words could possible colour a typical March evening in Vancouver. The rain had paused at least, but everything was still wet, damp, moist, misty, dank and of course dripping. All week the rain had persisted without a break and at times I felt like too many weeks had passed since the last pause in this so called, "Liquid sunshine." 

Someone had recently given me an accurate weather forecasting formula for Vancouver, "When it’s raining, you can’t see the mountains; when you can see the mountains, it’s going to rain." 

The formula hadn't been wrong. Incredulously, I recalled some of those glowing descriptions I'd heard from other people who had verbally painted wonderful pictures describing Vancouver as the best place to live in Canada. Supposedly Vancouver was one end of that proverbial rainbow, but the reality I was living was much more like a cold soaking.

A bus with the correct route number eventually followed and observing that the bus was nearly empty I decided to board and take advantage of the luxury of having a seat on the way back. After a few more stops the bus quickly filled with passengers to standing room only. The windows fogged over the way bus windows always do when packed inside and wet outside. A small circle near a lower corner of the window was wiped clear for an occasional peek outside. Being new to this city, I easily lost my way when I could not see out. Some of the bus drivers would call out the names of the streets, but too often the drivers could not be heard over the din made by a busload of people.

Buses in Vancouver were unlike any that Montreal had. These buses were electric and powered from a system of overhead wires. Attached to the rear of the buses were two sprung poles with cables. The ends of the poles ran along the overhead wires. Once in a while the poles would bounce off and when they did, power was lost. The bus would come to a quick forced stop making it necessary for the driver to exit, run around to the rear of the bus and place the wayward poles back on the wires. I often wondered how the drivers regarded this task in heavy rain. In spite of the idiosyncrasies of electric trolley buses they did seem to be just as reliable as diesel buses minus the fumes, but when the power failed nothing would move those electric buses.

The bus continued following its route of stops and starts but I had stopped looking at the people getting on and off. I was not going to find a familiar face. I stared ahead at an imaginary fixed point and drifted into reflective thought about my life. The sense of adventure in moving from Montreal to Vancouver had waned and first pangs of homesickness were surfacing. The excitement from a first full time job had subsided and the drudgery of eking out a living began to set in. Only now were the realities of the consequences of the changes in my life becoming all too uncomfortably apparent.

Daily I was fighting off the urge to just give up and return to Montreal. Continuously I told myself that a return move to Montreal would just be an unconditional surrender; an admission of having really failed. I was not prepared to swallow my pride and make any such admission. Not yet! Months earlier I had believed it vitally necessary to head west out of Quebec to find my raison d'etre, but now that I was here in Vancouver, the reasons were becoming difficult to recall. Before leaving home and Montreal, those reasons had seemed so overwhelming, so monumental, so urgent, so compelling but now they seemed less relevant. Exactly what was it that drove me to come here?

Unlike high school and far worse, drug use in CEGEP was rampant, openly visible and seemingly so natural and accepted. Constantly having to confront substance abuse at CEGEP left me discouraged and totally disheartened. I knew where a few of the teachers stood on the issue of drug use from what they had said and they were not the same side I was on. Sure life was difficult and events beyond our control could make life miserable but I just could not comprehend what may have driven too many of my peers to use those substances. Far more incomprehensible to me was the importance students and teachers seemed to place on the conflict in Southeast Asia. What was the relevance and what possible connection did substance abuse in academic West Island have with an American military mess? The latter was supposed to justify the former but the logic was beyond me. I did not want to hear about drugs and Vietnam any more and I was not under any circumstances prepared to join in and blindly follow along. Having drawn my line, the fear of not fitting in and not belonging was crushing.

If the world was going to have a second Beethoven, then I wanted to be that person. At times I almost believed that I was destined to be that person but such was the world of self-delusion. The truth was that the world did not need or even want a second Beethoven; in fact the world did not even need a first me. Reality began to sink in; making any sort of living from music composition was impossible. Prior to awakening from my delusions, it had never occurred to me there might be a need to prepare for the possibility of requiring a plan B so there never was one. Disillusioned, I had absolutely no desire to waste any more years in higher learning.

The increasingly vocal language issues in Quebec were gaining political momentum and the French fact, or threat depending on how one perceived the issue at the time, was becoming more real. The truth is that I was completely ignorant of the issues the French in Quebec were so terribly upset about. The whole issue was of absolutely no interest or of any value to me and, as far as I was concerned, the debate was totally irrelevant. Nonetheless, reality was clear enough for me to see that my lifelong dream of working on CP Rail’s trains in the Eastern Townships was beyond any hope of grasping. Trains and railway jobs were disappearing. Working for the railway in Montreal or anywhere in Quebec would never happen as far as I was concerned.

With more apparent reasons to leave than reasons to stay, I believed myself to be ready to leave home and strike out on my own. I had always been comfortable in keeping to myself when I lived with my parents, in fact I even preferred being left alone, but nothing; neither parental advice nor advice from friends had prepared me for the complete separation and aloneness that independent living in a distant city would entail.

Instead of finding happiness and a sense of contentment that my expectations had led me to believe would automatically follow from successfully achieving the few modest goals that had been set, I was terribly miserable. All that I had managed to accomplish was to cut myself off from my immediate family and all lifelong friends, to severely distance myself from everything familiar and to completely turn my life upside down and make myself very unhappy in the process. Many times I would ask myself what were to become two familiar questions, "What went wrong? Did I miss something out somewhere?"  Over the next weeks and months I would have many hours in which to consider these two questions and possible answers, if there were any.

Pulling the cord to signal the driver to stop, I exited the bus a few stops early and walked the remainder of the way. The northwest corner of West First Avenue and Arbutus Street was an excellent location to live, particularly for my needs and requirements. Kitsilano Beach was only two short blocks away and the bus route over Burrard Bridge to downtown was even closer. The office was a fifteen-minute bus ride when it was raining or a half-hour walk when it was not raining but it usually seemed to be raining far more than it was not. Most of the nearest stores and businesses were located a few blocks north on West Fourth Avenue.

The doorway to my residence was dark and I fumbled around with the key to get it into the lock. I had turned off the light when leaving for work in the morning without remembering that it was going to be dark upon returning. As I unlocked and opened the door I silently prayed that someone special would be there to greet me; if not today, then some day. Darkness and silence were the only companions waiting to welcome me back to my dwelling. I was reluctant to use the word home because my new dwelling did not yet feel like home.

My dwelling was a sparsely furnished apartment in the basement of what was an older house in one of the longer established areas of Vancouver. Judging from the well-maintained solid hardwood floors and high ceilings of the upper levels, this structure must have at one time been home to an upper class family in the post Victorian era. In later years the building had been converted into five small apartments. My suite was more like a three-room closet. Size was definitely not this suite’s strong suit, however, the rent was low and affordable for someone just starting out. The only luxury was the private side entrance complete with coat hooks on the wall just inside the door.

The living room was small to say the least, but did have a trio of small, double hung windows that faced the front lawn and street at ground level. The windows were adorned with yellowed blinds and white curtains. The walls and ceiling were a dark shade of beige and what I could see of the floor was covered with a beige-orange and brown patterned linoleum. The furniture consisted of a well-worn, chocolate brown couch, which was positioned beneath the windows and faced the kitchen alcove. At one end of the couch was a small brown, almost black, wooden end table with the room’s only lamp upon it. A small, dark-brown, rectangular-shaped carpet covered most of the open floor area. Everything was well worn and some shade of brown.

The kitchen was small and very much smaller than the kitchens I had seen in the dining cars of the train that had brought me across Canada. The walls were a light shade of what would best be described as mint green. Seated in the back right corner was a small, white gas range, with four burners and an oven, with just enough room for the oven door to drop down without hitting the opposite wall when fully opened. A small built-in counter and sink, with a cupboard beneath, occupied the remainder of the right side. A few additional small cupboards were located above the sink. The counter and cupboards were made of wood, had been stained dark brown then covered with several coatings of what appeared to be polyurethane. The metal fittings betrayed the probable age of the cabinets but the wood-finish had stood up well over the years. Against the left wall was a tiny wooden folding table complete with a matching small wooden chair. These two looked as if they were made of pine and both had seen numerous layers of varnish over their many years. I could stand in the center, stretch out each arm and just touch the opposite walls at the same time. This was the length of my kitchen.

The bedroom contained a large, ancient, brown, metal framed double bed. The mattress surface must have been at least three feet off the floor. The only other furnishing was a large, brown, wooden, double-door wardrobe that stood against the wall facing the foot of the bed. From the floor the wardrobe almost touched the ceiling. I often wondered how the wardrobe had been moved into the suite. On the far side of the bedroom from the doorway was the only other window in my dwelling. The window was a pair of double-hung wooden-framed panes hidden behind a well-worn dark green blind, which was always kept pulled-down and obscured by a pair of curtains.

The bedroom also had a second door that was at a right angle to the opening to the living room. A key was constantly sticking out of the turn-of-the-century lock on this door. On my first visit to see this place I thought a closet was behind the door. The second door turned out to be an exit into the basement where my refrigerator was located as well as the route upstairs to the main entrance and foyer. The floor on the outside of the door was a step higher than inside, so I left the key in the lock where it was found. I am certain other tenants before me must have done the same. Leaving the key where it was, was a sure way not to lose they key. Anyone who may have given thought to gaining entrance by retrieving the key from poking it out of the lock on to a paper pushed under the door would have been stymied. Sometimes out of boredom I would try to think of a possible solution to this puzzle but gave up. Such a feat was impossible at this doorway.

Nothing in the entire apartment could even remotely be considered new, however, the place was clean and everything did work. In Vancouver rental units were difficult to find, and affordable ones even scarcer. This was my first home and I had finally made that exciting but terrifying first step of making my own way in the world. I was truly on my own now and responsible to pay my own way. Yes I was free, but free to do what? Yes I was independent, but independent from what? Yes I was also alone, but now what?

Upon entering the pocket-sized suite, I chased out my two unwanted companions darkness and silence by turning on the lights and the radio, then I hung my hat and coat on the hooks just inside the doorway. Water requires time to boil so I started the pots going on the stove before going upstairs to see if there was any mail. Nothing. No letter from home; not a single edition from any of the three daily out-of-town newspapers I subscribed to; not even a bill and I think I would have been grateful even for that.

While waiting for the water in the pots to boil I peeked out the window. The rain had not started again so I decided to pass on making my own supper, shut off the stove and dumped the water. I found that making dinner was far more convenient when I walked around the corner to the far end of the block to the little Chinese restaurant to pick up something that was already cooked and was going to taste far better than anything I could possibly prepare.

During rainy evenings and through wet weekends the silence in my three-room closet could be excruciating; silence was noiseless torture. How else could quiet and alone have been described? If anyone lived in the four upstairs apartments, there was little evidence from sounds heard and lack thereof. Not once did I ever meet or see any of the other tennants, even in passing or when I was looking out front window. The other tennants were silent, faceless anonymous strangers, but they did not remain nameless. Mail was shoved through the slot in the front door and dumped on the floor inside the upstairs entrance. One of those unwritten rules was that the first one in sorted out the mail and placed it on the small table by the stairs leading to the top floor. On occasions I was the first in.

My telephone rarely rang. When the telephone did ring, the caller was almost always a wrong number or somebody trying to sell something, and that was just as good as a wrong number. On the odd occasion, the receiver would be lifted just to see if there was a dial tone. Acute shyness coupled with an inability to understand people in general made it paralyzingly difficult to take the initiative to reach out and call someone on the telephone. And who would there have been to call in this new home city? I found it difficult to meet new people and the few people I did meet were already too busy with their activities or too occupied with their relationships to welcome interference from an outsider. Very few of the attempted calls ever made it to the first ring.

Shortly after moving into the three-room closet, my first major purchase was an inexpensive stereo. Having managed to save some money out of the little that was left over after paying the bills, again being able to listen to Beethoven, Mozart and others was a joy. Music was also some relief to lessen what often seemed like endless silence. My purchase required a rearrangement of some of the furnishings in order to find a place to put the stereo. The folding table and chair were moved out of the kitchen into the living room and set up to use as a desk. The lamp from the end table was placed on a corner of my new desk. The end table was just the right size for the stereo and speakers. The now empty leftover carton was turned upside down to become my coffee table. In the process of moving things around, I gave up sleeping in the bedroom and permanently made the couch my bed so I could listen to music at night. The move was a wise choice because the couch turned out to be more comfortable than the bed. The bed in the bedroom became my place to spread out books, sort and file newspaper clippings as well as any and every other piece of paper that was of an esoteric value. In other words, the bed was soon buried with junk.

Laundry was one of those chores given no thought at all until I was on my own for the first time. Doing laundry became a weekly ritual that usually fell on Monday evenings or Tuesday evenings or any evening later in the week if it was raining on Mondays and Tuesdays. Hauling bags of laundry uphill to the laundromat was not remotely exciting the first time and became drearier each successive trip. Later, a classical music record store opened up right beside the laundromat so I timed my trips to coincide with the store's open hours. Waiting for clothing to wash and dry became more bearable as I looked for new recordings to add to my Beethoven collection.

Food shopping was another chore given little thought until I had to do it for the first time. A rule quickly learned from having to walk was, "Never buy more than you can comfortably carry." My learning was all done the hard way. Food shopping eventually fell on Thursday evenings because the food stores were open late on Thursday evenings and paydays fell on Thursdays too. As with the other chores, the grocery-shopping schedule would be altered if it was raining.

Dinner was quickly finished and the few dishes had been washed, dried and put away. Sitting at my desk, I began fiddling with a pencil and scribbling down notes on a sheet of music paper. I soon placed the page aside. Several months had passed since I last looked at a sheet of music. Picking up the sheet again and taking another look at the marks that had been scribbled down, I closed my eyes, tipped my head back and then tried to imagine what sounds the notes were supposed to produce when played. I just could not hear the music in my mind. I could not be certain that what had been written on the paper were the melodies heard in my thoughts. Opening my eyes I pushed the chair back with disgust. Perhaps Beethoven and Mozart could compose music without the aid of a musical instrument but I could not. Tossing the sheet on to the desk, I gave up wasting any more time with music. "I need a piano,” I muttered aloud. 

Reaching over to the tobacco tin that was perched on top of the row of music books that lined the wall at the back of the desk, I pulled out one of the half dozen plus pipes kept there. Removing the odd little pipe tool I usually carried in my pocket, I began scraping out the cinders and clinkers that had accumulated on the inside of the pipe's bowl; a task much like chimney sweeping without having to climb on top of a roof. When that was done and like a judge with his gavel, I banged the soot out into another empty tobacco tin that had now been relegated to ashtray duty. Satisfied the pipe was now suitably prepared for another burning, I stuffed it to the brim with one of my favourite mixtures of tobacco. Striking a wooden match afire I waited first for the chemicals to burn off and then set my little stove alight as I had done so many times before. In no time at all clouds of smoke billowed upward to the ceiling and shortly afterwards the upper half of the living room was blue with smoke.

Pipe smoking certainly wasn't a healthy activity nor was it even remotely useful, but I enjoyed it nonetheless and almost regarded the habit as a different type of art form. Choosing a pipe or a tobacco mixture was a matter of personal taste, however, packing tobacco into the bowl had to be done just right or the tobacco wouldn't burn quite right. And getting this far along was to no avail if the pipe wasn't properly lit. Firing a pipe with a lighter was almost sacrilege. Lighter fluid gases always ruined the flavour of the tobacco not to mention leaving an awful aftertaste in the mouth. Cardboard book-matches weren'ot much better because of their short lengths; they didn't burn long enough to properly set fire to a packed pipe without burning fingertips in the process. Wood matches were best and the longer the better. Even these could completely ruin a smoke if the match's chemical-laden head wasn't completely burned off first. Except possibly for lighter fluid flavour, nothing tasted worse than puffing away on sulphured tobacco.

Before turning in for the night I took a last peek out the window. The street wasn't dry but it hadn't rained in the last few hours. 

"Perhaps there's a chance it'll be dry tomorrow." I thought optimistically.

Here in Vancouver, I think people's winter prayer on a Friday is for sun on Saturday. If not, then it should be.

The Oddblock Station Agent

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