Friday, February 19, 2010

Vancouver on my mind

Forgive a spasm of memoirishness today, probably the first of two parts. I’ve been feeling a little odd/wistful with Vancouver showing up everywhere in the news these days. I lived there from age 24 to age 37, but I left (like Ronald Colman leaving Shangri-la) 25 years ago. It’s been kind of like seeing your ex in the movies. In fact, I’ve gotten used to seeing a lot of Vancouver in the movies, but not on this scale. Most of what I’ve seen in glimpses looks the same: the blue north shore mountains, the trawlers on English Bay, the Lions Gate Bridge stretching over Burrard Inlet: that seductive geography.

Time spent, but still not spent.

I moved out there in 1972. The reason was graduate school, an MFA program in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. I had been hitchhiking the summer before through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, and the landscape said, “Stay here,” which is what fabled lands have always said to travelers, from Ulysses to Manco Capac. The rain didn’t concern me. I reasoned it was what kept everyone from going there. It was a secret, mostly, and I figured Vancouver, in Canada, tucked among straits and islands, had to be the jewel in the crown.

Which it was, although after a few months it ceased to be the subject of a National Geographic article and became where I lived, which for a while was a fifty-five-dollar-a-month basement apartment I shared with two Trinidadian brothers and a Bolivian-German-Israeli girl, a mile or two from UBC. I was intending to get my degree and move back to Watergate America. But then came the Adjustment of Status Program, a two-month window in 1973 during which students, draft resisters, and other huddled, yearning masses could become landed immigrants inside the country, meaning you could stay, get a job, be legal.

So I stayed, sitting out the rest of Nixon, Ford, Carter, and most of Reagan. I subsisted on government grants and unemployment insurance. Got involved with Vancouver Co-op Radio (CFRO), co-writing and producing kids’ programs (“Hey, Listen!” and “Jinglepot Road,” among others) with a gang of American and Canadian friends.

I roamed the beaches of Kitsilano and Point Grey, getting to know Jericho, Locarno, Spanish Banks, and the University Endowment Lands in fair weather and foul, stalking herons, harlequin ducks, and the elusive, mellifluous varied thrush.

I launched a career as a playground monitor and after-school daycare worker, spreading rice cakes with peanut butter, playing monster with eight kids hanging from me, renting films from the National Film Board. And I discovered an old character in an 1880s Vancouver newspaper, a restaurant owner named “Lunch Counter” Jones.

More on whom next time. I’ve got to go out and listen for cardinals.

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