Dancing in Vancouver

    Remembering visiting to Vancouver BC, then and now - how long ago was it? Exactly ten years. Ten years ago, my oldest/best friend David Hoff and I were traveling to Campbell river for salmon fishing when we stopped, wide-eyed, in Vancouver. But that's another story.

    The city has changed - large new construction at the harbourfront--a cruise ship dock is enormous, and attempts to look itself like a ship. One can walk to the prow of this dock for a lovely view of the harbour; Across the street from the old and beautiful Hotel Vancouver a new building towers. The new building's architect has echoed the roof lines of the old neighbor, and art-deco sculpturing echoes the gargoyles whose age-blackened backs hunch and tremble while stone eyes peer from corners of the Vancouver hotel rooftop.

    Opposite Granville Island multiple condos stairstep back from the water in silver glass facades. At sunset the silver becomes warm gold over the Southern harbor. Granville Island has more shops and places to eat than a decade ago, but many fewer sailboats and less access to walk among them; and there's not much wood; most hulls are plastic.

    Like a decade ago, trying to get onto the island there is still a car jamup so we exit our taxi and walk the remaining way--the taxi driver is thrilled that he doesn't have to waste half an hour taking us the last two blocks; we walk into the Granville brewery where I make my only purchase of the trip, a blue tshirt. Across the street we shop for kid toys in a lovely store that has a special low door through which kids enter to admire stuffed animals and games.

    The Granville market is a huge assortment of stalls selling fruit, vegetables, kitchen wares, wooden game puzzles (including Piet Hein's SOMA cube with a special solution that will let the cube stand on a wood peg), tourist trinkets, and Polish stuffed cabbage.

    As it nears 6PM the food stalls in the Granville market have "specials" on food that they otherwise have to throw away. I dine on a huge plate of fried rice and vegetables and have a drink for the staggering price of $4.12.

    I walk with Mark Cramer and Tom Kraeutler. It's Sunday and we've esacped from the board meeting to steal whatever sunlight and sense of the city we can before we all fly back East. We move on to a fancier restaurant overlooking the water, sit for a beer, and order a plate of nachos which no one wants. The restaurant can only serve liquor if food is ordered, and I ask the waitress to give our food to someone who looks hungry. No one does, and she doesn't. Three girls at the next table are talking. One is particularly lovely. She lights a cigarette. She talks with her friend whose back is to the water. The friend is smoking as well, and she says "... and he said 'I was so glad when I saw that you were smoking'..." We lose any interest. They are babies.

    Later we rent an outboard and toured the harbour for about an hour - really fun to zoom around from one inlet to another, check out the freighters and luxury liner dock; We leave at 8:45PM, the sun is setting over a western peak; it's still light at 10PM when we return the boat to its dock. Nearing dark I walk over to an absolutely beautiful wood-hulled ChrisCraft in dry dock. Its owner is painting the hull, and one side is a gleaming white. The boat looks as if it's waiting to leap forward into the water. It's a 1957 model, shipped from the factory to Vancouver--a long way from home. Owner tells us charming anecdotes of locating one of the previous owners. He had a photo of the boat in his shop. A customer walked in and admired it. "I know someone who owned this boat!" The woman is still in Vancouver, now she's in her eighties. She's thrilled to have a visit from present yachtsman, and she regales him with stories. In its day, this was the yachtman's "cigarette boat" equivalent, he explains. I think he claims 27 knots. Or was it 37? Two 460(?)hp Ford engines (now long replaced).

    At the Tourist information centre a girl who looks too young to work there tells me that Wreck Beach continues to be nude bathing but in the opinion of some locals it's gotten a bit rough of character - didn't attempt a visit there. We discuss some places to visit or possible dinner cruises. "That one sucks," she says. We're charmed at her candor and surprised at this technical use of language to describe city tourist attractions.

    Escaping at every opportunity from my conference, I must have walked 50 miles around the city centre, and one measure of a successful trip, didn't buy anything - well almost nothing - I did pick up a solid blue tshirt, since my clearwater collection has nearly rotted away. Stan Harbuck is a Mormon from Utah (where else?) who has five kids. I usher him to a huge tourist junkstore at the edge of Gastown. While Stan buys kidgifts a round-faced young woman clerk explains that she's from Greenland, and is possibly the only one in town from there, except for two exchange students last year. I tell her of wishing I'd had time to ferry across to Greenland when I toured by motorcycle on Cape Breton Nova Scotia. Greenland doesn't want tourists, she explains, but they're getting a bit more used to the idea of having strangers walking about. They don't trust outsiders. She shows me jade carvings in the display case. Many of them are of drummers, standing leaning back, feet widespread, arms spreadeagled, with a bone stick in one hand and a "drum" in the other. The drum looks alot to me like a tennis racquet. "I'm a drum dancer," she continues. That's something they do in Greenland. These carvings are all wrong. The drummer stands like this--she shows me as she hunches over, feet close together, back nearly parallel to the ground, hands holding drum and stick, close together in front of her body. I wasn't going to buy one of these statues anyway, but it strikes me as funny that carved from BC jade, replicating drummers who could hail from Greenland, they are, themselves cut from green stone. I admire the frogs, also green jade. They don't seem to be a likely subject for inuit carvers. "We make them for the Japanese tourists, she explains. They have some attraction to frogs."

    Alone I circle and stare at the world's only steam-powered clock, a Gastown landmark designed and built by Raymond L. Saunders and dedicated in 1977. I wander in Saunders' clock repair shop which is on a nearby corner, wander back to the clock, and am interested to see that its 2300 pound outside bronze case has had one side panel propped open.

    Mr. Saunders, paunchy with greying beard, opens a step ladder and begins adjusting his clock. He explains to the curious that it sounds steam whistles (later I hear this offkey rendition of the Westminster chimes) every fifteen minutes. A local boy, with tone of an in-the-know expert, exclaims: "It sounds on the hour, too!" "It sounds every fifteen minutes," Saunders says. "It sounds on the hour, too," the boy repeats. "It sounds every fifteen minutes," Saunders says again, glaring at the boy. "It sounds on the hour, too," the boy repeats again. Saunders looks at him hard. He pauses. Slowly he says, "Yesss, it sounds every fifteen minutes. That would mean it sounds on the hour, too."

    He has visions of dropping the heavy brass side panel to flatten the kid's head. "Step back, please, you're too close." He continues his adjustments, and the steam whistles sound. I'm too close, and I suddenly I am sprayed with water from the steam pipes. Japanese tourists pose for photographs and the bronze clock gleams in the Sunday morning light.

    The clock's mechanism was built by Gillett & Johnston, in Croydon, England. The movement is newly built from an 1875 vintage design, and has a pin-wheel escapement which drives a 42 pound gold-plated pendulum. The drive device, which powers the clockworks by a "unique chain" (which looks to me suspiciously like a bicycle chain), is loaded with round steel ball weights.

    The chain moves vertically between two sprockets, and it carries little round hoops, each of which holds a steel ball weight. It's not unlike a dangerous elevator arrangement I once saw in a parking garage where car-parks lept onto and off of little platforms in order to move from floor to floor in the garage. The elevator in the clock places a ball onto a track where it rolls across to be captured and carried back up again by a hoop coming on the rising chain side. The weights drive the clock mechanism. The sprockets are driven by a tiny steam engine, a one cylinder Stewart Turner Model #4 which is described as "jet aged" by being fitted with a plastic piston and slide valve. All moving parts have sealed bearings to minimize maintenance.

    The clock is fascinating, an old design, odd steam whistle chimes, movement which attractes kids and old folks. The plastic piston and hidden electronic switch panel behind the maintenance door, produce a wonderful anachronism. I wipe Mr. Saunders' steamy spit off my forehead and walk uphill towards my hotel.

    The city continues to feel very friendly, there were still lots of lovely women walking around, in fact, one amazing moment: Mark Cramer and I were sitting for lunch at a sidewalk cafe. Crowds walked by. An attractive young woman, with her fellow, passed by and I admired her, perhaps because of a clingy short dress; she stepped off the curb and a gust of wind blew up her dress from the back. She was, underneath, completely naked. More remarkable, she did not make the typical ladylike attempt to push down her dress against the wind. It was your typical derriere, but bare. More an amusing surprise than anything so titillating, but that's because I'm getting old. Anyway, it was a sweet and funny moment. I guess if you walk in public naked below a short dress you're probably not concerned if strangers see your buttsky.

    Even walking down the trashiest street (Gerard, towards Granville Island) the town is more comfortable than NYC, and cleaner. However it had its seamy side which we never saw on our trip - Gerard has its share of low-class sex-stores and nudie bars, along with two blues-jazz clubs from which music blares into the warm night air. Another visit I'd be inclined to check out the two blues clubs. The sex-stores, while a subject of gawking, have never really been my cuppa tea. Huge signs in windows: "Special price on wet-personal-lubricants" - good grief. Not too many bums, mostly kids, students, tourists. Lots of street performers. We looked in one store. Amused by double-headed devices, most of the paraphanelia was not recognizeable. None of us asked for explanations.

    On Granville Island we stopped to watch a folk singer, followed by a bossa-nova band playing at a local square. Mostly white young to middle-aged locals and tourists, and three inuits. They really looked like derelicts - dirty, tousled, staggering - exactly the type who'd be reviled in most big cities.

    One fellow, the youngest, maybe 25, greasy hair, with tar and dirt on his clothes, began dancing. He leaps into the air, sombersaults, falling on his right shoulder, rolling to his feet, staggering into a pirouette. He walks over to a young girl, she's four today and sits on a bench with her mother, surrounded by bags of perhaps birthday purchases -- and extends his hand in an offer for him to dance. She does so, with her own little girl leaps and turns, and a wide smile as the music continues. The crowd smiles and somehow we all see that this "wierd" young man is not only harmless, but that he's exceedingly gentle, and probably drunk only with the music (or so I fantasize).

    They dance apart, circling one another, the little girl spinning close to her mother, her dress flies out in that way that little girls love to see when they spin to music. The song ends and everyone claps, less for the music than the dancers. College kids are playing with a hackeysack, and two of the inuits stand with them and want to join in. The hackysack owner walks to the young dancer and shows him how to mash the hacksack onto his shoe for a foot-toss. The hackey flies through the air to the expert who keeps it aloft for several kicks, passes it to his girlfriend who makes one hit, and it returns to the other inuit. Handlebar moustache extends below his mouth, waxed perhaps with weeks of grime -- do they live in the streets?--and he heads the hackeysack like a soccer player. The group cheers, really, I'm not making this up, they cheered, and play continues haltingly.

    People put money into the performers' hats. I show the birthday girl how a dollar can disappear when she blows on my hand.The coin reappears from her ear and she takes it and skips to the center hat where we contribute it. Someone has put in a ten dollar bill, and we're all impressed. I'm too old and cynical to make more of the scene, yet, with embarrassment I have to say that if I were to be totally honest with you I'd admit that I was actually teary at the scene.

    It's really a moment of fantasy. It happened.

    Daniel Friedman's Poetry & Short Stories
    Daniel Friedman's bio

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    This article series contains poetry, prose, short fiction by Daniel Friedman. For more of Daniel's writing see this link: Daniel Friedman's Poetry & Short Stories. Any relationship of text in these materials to persons living or dead is probably not a coincidence.


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