Vancouver, mon amour

Photo by Hadani Ditmars

True story.

Coming back from concussion rehab therapy at GF Strong earlier this month in Vancouver, I walked to the Canada Line station at 25th and Cambie, clutching my ancient, threadbare Lululemon hoodie. Still slightly dazed, I passed rows of empty character homes, with shiny green lawns and fragrant gardens and nobody home. I gazed at the 1920s-era Hobbit House, saved from demolition but now dwarfed by condos to the West and something giant and under construction to the East.

I’d had a very Vancouver accident. Whilst on assignment for Wallpaper, writing about a modernist heritage house perched between woods and water, in imminent danger of being monsterized, I’d fallen backwards down an unsafe stairwell. And like Alice’s rabbit hole experience, my post concussion wanderings in the city of my birth began to seem curiouser and curiouser. Was I the one disappearing or was my hometown?

Once on the Canada Line, I battled a teenager -- with one of those ubiquitous, deeply transient wheeled suitcases that could indicate homelessness or Airbnb hopping -- for a handicapped seat. I sat silently practising the deep breathing technique my therapist had prescribed for post-concussion panic -- all the way to Olympic Village. Going backwards with my eyes closed as my youth flashed before me, I remembered Vancouver as a place that was not empty and lonely and vanishing, but one that seemed so full of promise.

How did middle age betray us? 

A woozy ride on the 84 later, I found myself at my neighbourhood bank, going in to deposit a cheque for ‎£200 -- several days’ work on an article I had published in a UK publication two months ago. Today was going to be a good day -- it had finally arrived in the post. 

Little did I know I would soon enter the bizarro world of international banking. On a street across from rows of heritage shops waiting to be destroyed and replaced perhaps by more banks and chain stores, where homeless encampments keep popping up, I walked up to a teller and presented my cheque -- about ¼ of my rent or the cost of a new Lululemon outfit -- and asked for the exchange rate.

The teller, a Chinese woman named Yang, seemed perplexed and asked a Mexican colleague for help. When I remarked that rate seemed rather low, she replied, “That’s the best we can do for euros.” When I pointed out that the cheque was in pounds, it was too late, it had already been put through as euros. After much head scratching, a Ukrainian manager told me there was nothing to be done but to “call someone in Toronto tomorrow.”

I stopped in at the Safeway where my friend Carmela works -- and regularly fends off wired shoplifting addicts with her bare hands --to buy some overpriced produce.

I came back home to my tiny flat where a young millennial girl who supposedly works for a famous yoga wear company has just moved in next door. Based on various noises emerging from the flat, she is engaging in more than downward dogs. Or perhaps she weekend sublets to Airbnbers with strange fetishes who enjoy the ocean breezes.

Tonight, I arrived home to various party sounds and pot smoke curling up from her door and flooding my hallway. In the distance Chip Wilson’s mansion gleamed mindfully into the Point Grey night.

Now it seems a pot shop will be installed next to the friendly neighbourhood gelato shop on Yew Street, a few hundred metres from the beach, so the children of millenials can also become comfortably numb. 

I remembered the old Big Scoop that used to be where the Starbuck’s was on Cornwall and the old locomotive that we kids used to climb on in what is now a parking lot. The memory of the smell of tar from the train was soon walloped by a huge waft of marijuana smoke from next door.

The intense second-hand smoke induces mild paranoia about the whole bank episode, especially because the manager has the same name as the head of the Ukrainian FBI. And with the recent Vancouver Opera festival’s Russian White Knights-themed program and stories about Trump and oligarchs galore, my mind is rife with conspiracy theories. I begin to google all kinds of frightening stories about local banks and Russian money laundering. There appear to be shockingly few convictions, as compared to say the number of local grandmothers arrested for protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

I retreat to my balcony for some relief and watch the local binner swear to himself in the lane as he dives for bottles. I remember last weekend’s performance of Russian baroque music at the Chan Centre, where I learned that traditionally composers were serfs. Plus ça change I think, trying to calculate if the bin diver may be doing better at five cents a bottle than I am at 10 cents a word. 

Vancouver’s new aristocracy/kleptocracy -- criminal or otherwise -- don’t seem to invest much in the arts, preferring price per square footage to being immortalized in song or verse. No wonder the operatic version of Gogol’s Overcoat has been such a hit here, although in my libretto, the overworked clerk would be a writer scraping together enough to buy a new hoodie, whose ghost steals one off the back of a local property speculator/yogi/oligarch.

I look out at the beach that was stolen from Chief Khatsalano many moons ago, and to the unfinished hulk of Vancouver Housethat looms like a scar on the horizon and sigh. Oh Chip, oh dodgy bankers, oh moonlit Kitsilano night, oh ugly towers, oh dwarfed hobbit house. How did it all come to this?

Later that night I self medicate by browsing kitscondos.ca, trying to imagine myself in the tiniest of places that I might one day qualify for before I die, and then binge watch Grace and Frankie on Netflix. I’m not sure it’s the performances by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin that draw me in as much as watching people interact in huge square footage houses by the sea with guest rooms. 

The next day I decide all my agony is in my mind and head to the local yoga wear emporium where I shop with exotic money launderers for upwardly mobile hoodies.

I run to the sea in my unaffordable spandex, past all the real estate signs and homeless bin divers, and smug dog walkers and self-congratulatory people who still read the Secret like the Bible, until I reach the water. I wade right in and pray to Chip Wilson for absolution. 

In the distance along the sand I think I can see the Ukrainian bank manager, running fast. But where shall we run to Roman, where to? What is left that has not been ruined by plastics in the oceans and bags of laundered loot at casinos and dinner party conversations about real estate prices?

I do my deep breathing technique again to quell the rising panic. A plane flies overhead bearing a banner advertising a free joining fee this month at Ron Zalko’s. Oh well, perhaps there is no looming zombie apocalypse after all, I muse. Maybe I just need to work out more. Some days in Vancouver it’s really hard to tell.

Photo: Hadani Ditmars

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