Sunday, February 21, 2010

Yours For Ever, Lunch Counter Jones

Last time I was recalling my first encounter with a character from Vancouver’s past named Lunch Counter Jones. This was sometime in the late 1970s. I was sitting at a table in the Vancouver Public Library, slowly paging through a Vancouver World from 1888. The library hadn’t put all the old newspapers on microfiche yet, so this was the real thing, big yellowed pages snowing little flakes.

Vancouver in the 1880s had grown from a little sawmill town on Burrard Inlet into something more serious. It had rebuilt with a vengeance after the inevitable big fire. The railroad was coming. There were stores, saloons, restaurants; in the World, lots of ads, lots of confident boastings of a city on the move. Stanley Park had just been formally dedicated a few days earlier. But there was also one little farewell.

At the bottom of a column entitled “City and Country News” was the heading JONES’ LUNCH COUNTER, followed by a short paragraph. The author wanted to thank his customers for their loyal patronage over the years, having sold his business to Messrs. Tilden and Ward for reasons of ill health. It concluded: “[the proprietor] intends to travel…and perhaps after regaining his strength may return and reside amongst us and run a chicken ranch, for at the price of eggs here he believes that is the best paying business.” It was signed, “Yours For Ever, LUNCH COUNTER JONES”.

Prior to this I had been thinking of beginning a children’s book called “Windowsill Tales.” A boy cooped up inside on a typically rainy Vancouver day makes up stories to amuse himself: nature stories based on what he sees outside. But the kid was too boring. I needed a mobile storyteller, someone already out there. Maybe someone who knew Vancouver’s history. Maybe I could bring back this guy Lunch Counter Jones.

So I did. I had a little girl wish him back, for reasons not revealed till the end. He appears in a rowboat out in the Gulf of Alaska. He befriends a sea gull. He rows his way down to Vancouver and has to accustom himself to a city older by a century. He befriends other critters. He tells them stories. They tell him stories. The book starts in August and ends the following July—kind of almanacky. You get glimpses of history and mythology involving animals and people. Jones finds out why he was wished back and off he goes again. I called it “Yours Forever, Lunch Counter Jones” and wondered if I’d hear from Jones’s descendants after it became a wildly successful Canadian children’s classic. That what-if hasn’t proved out yet.

With the light on Vancouver these days, a made-for-television light, I’ve gone to the file cabinet and brought Jones out again. Good old Jones. He helped me get to know the bones of the city. To put him in different places and see what he saw, I did a lot of wandering, from West Point Grey to the Fraser Valley. I did a fair amount of rooting around in the city archives. I invented a few myths, like the day elk of Jericho (Jerry's Cove, an old logging camp) who clashes with the night elk of Locarno every vernal and autumnal equinox. I wrote a few tales that rang true to me, like the one about the blackberry scout who turns purple first to be a model for the other berries. Wrote some fatuous stuff that makes me wince a little. But mainly not, mainly I feel affection for Jones and for the Vancouver I brought him to and he brought me to. The one I still see in dreams: a kind of fabled place, with storied mountains and inlets and trees, never mind the skaters and skiers and snowboarders.

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