Vancouver is a younger sort of city. Unlike older, more established cities, where civic identity is based on at least three generations of residency, the Vancouverite can emerge over a single weekend, always the result of a struggle within those who find excitement where they expected boredom and frustration with what drew them to the city in the first place. This struggle, which often involves Nature at one end and Culture at the other, is the engine that defines and drives the Vancouverite. For someone such as myself, among the few who were born, raised and stayed here, all I can do is remind those who recognize this struggle that they are, for better or for worse, Vancouverites.
And so it was that Vanessa came to Vancouver, excited to be working at a design house that not only wanted her, but even agreed to sponsor her residency application.
‘But you’ve never even been!’ her boy-friend kept saying. ‘What makes you think you’ll want to stay?’
It did not occur to her that she might like Vancouver, only that it was a road out of a London that had no use for her, to say nothing of a boyfriend who could only look at her when drunk.
‘It’s a good company’, she said, avoiding his gaze. ‘They are con-nected to things I’m interested in.’
‘Like what?’ he demanded.
‘Like…’ she began, before retreating into herself.
‘Right’, he said reaching into his pocket and peeling off a twenty be-fore tossing it at his half of the bill.
Leaving was a letting of sorts. Vanessa was surprised by how fun it was to divest herself of that which she had carried with her, forever; the dolls her nana gave her; a rowing trophy she won in Year 8; an espresso machine that made perfect cups of coffee. After a week of packing, her life had been reduced to two large suitcases, a shoulder bag, and an air of sadness. What she did not bring with her, she would purchase in Vancouver.
‘Reason for travel?’ asked the customs officer.
‘Work,’ said Vanessa proudly.
The officer wanted to see her permits, which she had placed neatly before him upon arriving at his desk. She pushed them an inch in his direction. He scooped them up, looked them over, looked at her once more, then marked her customs form and waved her on.
After collecting her bags she handed the form to another officer at the exit gate and was told to wait in a room to her left. There, two officers rifled through the bags of a frightened looking South Asian family; a grandmother dressed in a purple sari, a Westernized younger couple and their children, both toddlers. Another officer asked her to lay her bags on an adjacent table. Once the officers were done with the family, the same would be done to her belongings.
Vanessa might also have appeared frightened, if she had something to hide. Instead, hers was a fearlessness that owed everything to her most difficult packing decision: The disposal of a joke gift given to her during her final year of college, something that fit her so perfectly, so completely, that she came to see it not as a joke but as one of life’s great serendipities; a gift which, when it did not bring her intense pleasure, brought an equal amount of shame.
Her boss had emailed to say that she would be met at the airport by an intern with a sign and this was something she’d looked forward to: arriving in a new city to see her name held high! But after emerging from customs, what she saw amongst the many signs held high that evening was not her name. It was the name of her new company.
‘I thought about writing your name’, said Marty, handing her his sign in exchange for her bags, ‘but then I thought, what a great way to promote the brand!’ He looked at her with proud eyes as he explained this decision and appeared to figure that she’d appreciate the bright idea or at the very least, his sense of industry; and she did, but not exactly in a way that would be described as flattering.
Marty narrated as they drove to the apartment the company had rented for her.
‘We’re on Granville Street,’ he said as they climbed the southern residential slope of Vancouver proper and the mossy green mountains appeared in the distance.
She commented on the houses, the transition from modest postwar bungalows to more recent stucco mansions. But Marty’s tour was not programmed for input. He talked like someone who took pride in the inevitable perfection of his voice.
‘Granville runs right through the city – from the Fraser River to Burrard Inlet. The area we are driving through now is Marpole. After that, Shaughnessy, the wealthiest part of city. Your apartment is in Gastown, the oldest part of the city.’ Only after they crested Granville at 37th Avenue, what Marty announced as the beginning of Shaughnessy, could she see the city’s downtown core; a shimmering birthday cake of colored lights and towers. Just a peek, at first. Then, as they floated down the north slope of South Granville’s shopping district and onto the Granville Street Bridge, a city like most cities built over the last hundred years, where the more recent towers stand as if laughing at those below.
They exited the bridge onto Seymour Street. Marty pointed out Yaletown, to their right, where the office was. Vanessa lowered the window. The summer air wafted in, lifting her shoulder-length hair and exciting her nipples. ‘The buildings look newer,’ she said carefully.
Newer, yes, but she was appalled: A glass, steel and ceramic mélange that strained to look both old and fresh, rustic and modern, vernacular and international, yet managing none of it. She considered sharing her thoughts with Marty to gauge his civic pride, but Marty was not finished.
‘Yaletown was once a site of heavy industry,’ he began, ‘but it was cleaned up in the early 1980s for Expo. Most of the new buildings are residential condos erected in the past ten years.’
Erected, she thought, what a pretentious choice of words. She turned to Marty.
Marty looked at her if it were her turn to say something.
‘Nice,’ she said, before retreating into herself.
She could tell he did not believe her.
‘Some people think this is the ugliest part of the city,’ he said, his eyes back on the road. ‘But wait till we get to Hastings Street.’
As they continued north, Vanessa’s attention shifted from buildings to people. Cyclists chatting at stoplights; father’s jogging behind expensive strollers; tourists gathering around a map. Apart from the tourists, most people were dressed in colorful sportswear and khakis. Everyone had a healthy glow; only a few looked over fifty.
After crossing Georgia Street, the road again sloped downwards, and the sidewalks, which had earlier teemed with pedestrians, grew sparse. To their left, a faux Georgian department store, and following that, a block of international language schools and the businesses that service them.
At Hastings they turned right. Here, pre-war buildings, some of which looked abandoned, mingled with those built in the seventies and eighties. But where were the nineties and oughts? she wondered. What happened, or did not happen, to allow for their absence?
The light ahead was changing. Rather than race through it, Marty tapped the brakes.
Vanessa was drawn to a small green park that rose up the hill from a cenotaph. The lampshades atop the posts were based on army helmets, the wide-rimmed British kind. She thought of the Spandex-clad cyclist she saw on Seymour, waiting for the light to change, one foot on the ground, the other high on a pedal, his leg cocked.
Marty pointed across Cambie to a former department store that had been converted into a downtown university campus, and behind it, as if on guard, two vaguely Italianate residential towers that underwrote the store’s conversion. But as the light turned green Vanessa sensed a change in tone, as if the program that powered those on Seymour was no longer operative on Hastings. The sidewalks were busy again, but this time the pedestrians were sootier, their movements angular, erratic.
Street people, she thought to herself, and Marty responded as if he had heard her.
‘Just wait!’ he said smiling.
As they crossed Carrall Street, a toothless woman with a mop of rust-colored hair stepped onto the road and opened her shirt, the scabs on her chest making her nudity moot. Vanessa looked away, only to catch sight of a weaselly young man in a top hat chasing a heavy-set man in a motorized wheelchair, hurling after him a ski pole. Moving in the opposite direction, oblivious to the ski pole, another motorized wheelchair, this time piloted by a legless woman clutching an autoharp.
Marty turned left at Main Street, away from a building whose corner entrance was framed by Ionic columns and capped with pale green cupola. ‘That building with the people in front of it,’ he said motioning over his shoulder with his thumb – ‘that’s the Carnegie Centre. If there’s an enemy down here, if anyone’s responsible for this zombie show, it’s the poverty pimps at the Carnegie.’ Three blocks later they pulled up in front of a much older low-rise brick building on Alexander Street. Behind it were railroad tracks and behind them, the harbor.
After settling into what she considered to be a posh loft apartment, Vanessa opened her laptop, connected to the strata’s router and Googled ‘Carnegie Centre.’ A moment later, she Googled ‘DERA’, an acronym for Downtown Eastside Residents Association. From there she came upon an ‘anti-poverty’ activist named Jean Swanson, a ‘libertarian’ real-estate agent named Bob Rennie, a young ‘socially responsible’ restauranteur named Mark Brand and a ‘gentrifying’ eatery called Pidgin, located across the street from Pigeon Park.
Suddenly an hour had passed. Craving a drink, Vanessa took her thoughts with her on a two-block walk along Alexander, where she came to The Irish Heather, a bistro recommended to her by Marty.
‘You seem to know a lot about this place – for someone who just got here’, said the middle-aged man standing next to her at the bar. ‘Another drink?’
Vanessa nodded, eyes wide.
The man held up two fingers, than he turned to her, like he did a half-hour earlier when she sidled up beside him at the bar. ‘So, what don’t you know?’
Vanessa enjoyed the man’s relaxed wit, his playful indifference. It suited him, she thought. Not because it fit with his chiseled, almost shallow good looks, but for its contrast; how it added to him, softened him. She noticed his hands and wondered what his cock looked like, what he did for a living.
‘Here’, he said tossing a couple of twenties at their bill, ‘I’ll show you.’
The alley across from the bistro is called Blood Alley. As they entered it, Vanessa told the man how it was once filled with butcher shops; its cobbles covered in blood. ‘So that’s how it got it’s name,’ she said, stumbling on a cobble as the man continued ahead of her quietly, oblivious to the bustle of the recently opened tapas bars to their right.
Suddenly he stopped before an alcoved door. He removed from his suit jacket two keys, opened the locks and ushered her in.
‘What’s this?’ she asked, staring up the brightly lit concrete stairwell.
‘A building I secured last week.’
‘You’re in security?’
‘No, real estate,’ he said, locking the door behind him. ‘I started in location scouting, for film and TV, but the more I got around, the more I came to know who owned what. A few years ago, when the industry began to sputter, I got out. Now I do this, brokering properties for off-shore clients, people who buy real estate for its speculative potential.’
‘Like stocks and bonds?’
‘Exactly’, he smiled. ‘But the keys stay with me.’
As they climbed the stairs, Vanessa could hear the muffled thud of music.
‘Are we going to party?’ she asked.
‘Sort of’, said the man, touching her hip as they came to the first landing.
Vanessa turned, looked him blankly in the eye. He stared back at her, just as blankly.
She closed her eyes and allowed him his kiss.
In the midst of his kiss Vanessa saw over the man’s shoulder a large poster on the door behind him: a picture of a forest, with sunlight streaming through it. At bottom, in loopy white serif text: SUPER, NATURAL BRITISH COLUMBIA! Vanessa recognized the catch phrase from a research file her company had sent her; a 1980’s promotion launched by the provincial ministry in charge of tourism. The company had just received a contract from the ministry to develop a new campaign, one that emphasized Culture as much Nature, geared at the Mainland Chinese market.
The man leaned back and smiled at her. ‘Hey, where’d you go?’
‘Oh, I just noticed that poster.’
He eyed the door. ‘I know where they took that. We shot a scene there. Have you seen Twilight: New Moon? Those trees are huge.’
Huge, Vanessa thought. There was certain hugeness to this man, too. His body was hard and solid, not unlike those trees.
This time it was she who leaned into him, taking his head in her hands, positioning her pelvis and leg in a way that would allow her to explore his crotch, a subtle gesture she read about online while researching the history of ballroom dancing. But no sooner did she make her move than he made his, spinning her around, sliding a hand from her ass to her breasts.
‘Are we going to that sort of party now?’ she asked, her breath heavy.
“Above it,” he said, ‘once again motioning towards the stairs.’
At the top of the stairs he produced another set of keys. However, the door he opened led not to a room but a flat, tarred rooftop.
Right away her eyes were drawn to the orange light of the container port, its groaning cranes, and beyond that, the purpling North Shore mountains, perhaps the same mountains where that tourism poster was shot. A nice backdrop, she thought. But when she heard voices, she turned quickly to see, at the south end of the roof, two young women in short black dresses sitting on wooden crates drinking beer with a young man dressed in a suit similar to the man she arrived with.
‘Do you know them?’ she asked.
‘No, but I see them around.’ He told her the roof is accessible from the building next to it, a development firm where the three of them are at work on what will be ‘the tallest building this city has ever seen.’
One of the women waved them over.
Vanessa turned to the man, as if to ask him what they should do, but he was already moving towards them. She followed.
The younger man stood up. ‘We were just about to get started,’ he said, looking Vanessa over, smiling kindly.
‘Get what started?’ she asked curiously, her eyes on the empty beer cans.
One of the women looked at the man and giggled. ‘What, you didn’t tell her!’
Vanessa noticed the other woman turn away and let out a long beleaguered sigh.
‘Hey,’ said the giggly woman getting to her feet, ‘this is what we get started up here.’ And with that she walked over to the younger man, unzipped his trousers and pulled out a flaccid but very long cock, tugging on it twice before letting it drop.
Vanessa was neither excited nor repulsed by the woman’s actions, merely startled. She looked around her, to see if they were alone. The container port still hummed to the north, but across the alley stood a run-down, slightly taller brick building whose windows and improvised drapes suggested social housing. ‘Uh, it’s very likely there are people sleeping over there,’ she said, pointing. At this the giggly woman laughed loudly enough to wake them, Vanessa thought.
‘That’s the idea,’ said the giggly woman, reaching under her dress to remove her panties.
Vanessa’s eyes returned to the young man’s cock. She was amazed at how fast it was growing, how thick it was.
‘He’s huge!’ declared the other woman. Vanessa turned and saw that the man she had arrived with was now on his haunches, kissing the woman’s thighs as she stared down at him. ‘His towers over yours,’ she added.
Vanessa felt a hand on her wrist. The young man was pressing his cock into her palm. She jumped back. ‘Can’t we go somewhere?’
‘And what, get a room?’ laughed the giggly woman, now naked but for her pumps, her breasts like giant teardrops.
‘This isn’t just about us, you know,’ said the other woman sternly. ‘We don’t just do this for anyone.’
As if in solidarity, the giggly woman frowned, motioning over her shoulder with her thumb at the building across the alley, then again broke into laughter.
Vanessa scanned the building’s windows. Still as lifeless as the first time she looked, only this time the two or three rooms that had their lights on were as dark as those around them.