I am sitting in Cafè Calabria across the street from my old walk up apartment on Commercial and Second Avenue. My old neighbourhood. My daughter’s first home. I used to be a regular here. I’d write at a table in the rear where it was quieter. Back when I still wrote longhand on yellow legal pads with a ballpoint pen.
It’s still cash only here. Maybe that makes it is easier to cook the books a little. Who knows. Still a blend of authentic Italian charm and garish “touristy” touches that might make me wince a little were I not feeling all this nostalgic affection. Plenty of semi-clad, white plaster statues — some of which may be Roman. Maybe Greek. Kitschy Italian music. The ceiling festooned in red/green/white paper garlands.
I’ve arrived in Vancouver.
My bike and gear are stored at Ben and Ally’s place. Ben is one of my daughter’s former sweethearts. They are still good friends. Most people have ex’s. Former lovers or spouses. Not all are on speaking terms. I think it is a credit to them both that they are still fond of one another.
And visiting Vancouver, for me, is a bit like visiting an ex-lover. I’ve arrived but she really hasn’t noticed me yet. Even Nick at the counter here didn’t show any sign that he recognized me. Nor his brother, Frank Jr. Their father, Frank Sr. always used to greet me like an old friend. Back when I was young and he was the age Nick is now. Oh well. Nick was always a little... restrained.
Nick is tidying some nearby tables. I ask him if he remembers. He gives me a (rare) expansive smile and says: Now I do. I inquire after his father. He’s still here at 6 am. Opens the shop. Does the early shift. Nick seems genuinely pleased to see me.
And maybe that is what I am here for. Maybe I cycled all this way, against the the wind, in the hope that, upon my arrival, the city might recognize me. This lover with whom a had... I guess I might call it a bad break up.
Being recognized by the barista at a family owned cafè - that is a sign of community. It gives one a sense of belonging. When my daughter Emma was a toddler, everyone on Commercial Drive recognized us. I was the father who always carried his daughter on his shoulders. Except on laundry days when I carried her in a capacious blue hockey bag with the clothes. Later I would spin her in the wheeled basket at the laundromat.
Community is what I felt as a teacher until I was unceremoniously dumped after more than twenty years of... let’s call it distinguished service. The staff were supportive. They knew I was getting humiliating treatment. But the bureaucrats rallied round their own and defended a really poor decision. Because, ultimately, the purpose of a bureaucracy is to sustain and justify its own existence.
Leaders often talk a good game about “community” but it is sometimes difficult for them to genuinely recognize it. Ambition to climb some parochial ladder. The politics of authority and advancement. These don’t really inspire loyalty. Or empathy.
I have a similar grievance with this lover, Vancouver. It is impossible not to be seduced by all the natural beauty. But Vancouver is like a date who never reaches for the check but has expensive tastes in food and wine. Had I stayed faithful to this city, an inordinate portion of my income would have been consumed by rent. Even if I managed to find very modest accommodations.
Other cities, of course, make similar demands on their inhabitants. But Vancouver is a kind of paradise for real estate speculation. Once again, we can talk a good game about community...
But when a city becomes, essentially, a bank where wealth is stored beyond long driveways and behind locked doors lining endless corridors...
A home can be an investment; it shouldn’t be a vault.
Vancouver is becoming like the crowd at a Canucks game. The season ticket holders — millionaires cheering multimillionaires. Complaining about the slow service and the price of a beer.
Elsewhere the sports bars full of data analysts being served by actors and artists wishing they could quit this lunacy. Or English majors wishing they could be on-call teachers. Twenty-somethings giving up on careers in nursing; wondering if they’ll ever find a family doctor.
Vancouver is the lover I could sometimes call my own so long as I had a decent salary and dental insurance and a credit card to pay for parking.
But a man astride a bicycle? A guy who occasionally strums a little guitar? Whose pension couldn’t even cover one good weekend on the town?
Nevertheless, part of me wants the city to notice me.
To remark: You’re looking good!
And ask: Have you lost a little weight?
And: Oh! You wrote a novel…
A part of me wants to see my city, my community, my ex, so that I can say:
Hello. I’m doing fine without you. I think of you from time to time. I hope we can still be friends. Why yes, I did just cycle more than 4000 kilometres. Not to see you, really. Maybe just to let the wind and the sun burn off the last vestiges of the hurt. So I can tangibly feel the distance that has grown between us. To tell you that I’ve met someone else. A city that still knows how to love and be loved.
Hello Vancouver. And so long.