Friday, November 18, 2016

A TARNISHED JEWEL


I picked this place. Not once but twice. And it’s not a wholly irrational decision. After all, Vancouver is beautiful. It consistently makes top ten lists for world’s best cities. Usually it’s number one in North America unless you count affordability. A trivial factor, right? Just peek out from under your umbrella and look at the mountains as you amble along the seaside walkways and get passed by Lululemon-uniformed joggers pretending sun is overrated. Our license plates say, “Beautiful British Columbia,” an intentional act of brainwashing as we wait through a succession of ill-timed red lights in a city that refused to build a highway.

And when I returned to Vancouver, I specifically chose my neighborhood. It was a matter of convenience in that I still faced a major commute and needed to be near a particular transit line. I’m in a central location, mere blocks from the sports arenas, parks, the water and the oldest parts of the city in Chinatown and Gastown. It’s a vibrant scene, peppered with trendy businesses. But even at surface level, all is not bliss. I am adjacent to the poorest part of Vancouver and the most troubled place in the country, an area bursting with people struggling with homelessness, drug addiction and untreated (or undertreated) mental health issues.

A block from home
Most of the time, that’s a part I like. Reality in Pleasantville. I chose this area because I’m a do-gooder by nature, a naïve liberal who has in the past spouted off all sorts of cures for the struggles of the less fortunate based on a reading of a few newspaper articles, a free lecture at the library and some documentary downloaded online. I’m done with being naïve. I know there is much more that I don’t know than that thimble of insight I’ve gained from hearing a few interviews and digesting statistics in colorful pie charts.

This morning, as I walked to a local café to write, I cut through an alley littered with the discards from a shooting up session. Heroin? FentanyI? I confess, I don’t have a clue how you consume either. And I still have no idea when to call for medical attention. Is it when I pass a person who is semi-catatonic? Because I see that an awful lot and everyone just steps around them.

I emerged onto a sidewalk where a young woman berated a pigeon. Seriously. It was all-out harassment as she ridiculed its “rude voicebox” and followed as it pattered in semicircles on the concrete. The bird appeared unflappable but it must have wondered how much more of a dance it had to do for a handful of breadcrumbs. A half-block later, a man seized on the opportunity to manipulate some premature festive goodwill, wishing me “Happy holidays” as an icebreaker to “Spare some change?” I walked on and overheard a brief exchange between a customer exiting a Chinese bakery and a man sprawled on the sidewalk. Was the patron ridiculing the man? Or was this some sort of happy banter after the patron had perhaps done better than me and parted with a quarter or two?   

In a year and a half in this neighborhood, I confess that I haven’t learned much. I’ve gained a clear sense that there is absolutely nothing to fear here. We coexist. Parallel societies. Aside from the gentle requests for money, we don’t interact. I’m a Have here. The Have-Nots don’t even see me. I’m not prey. I am nothing. There is a social fabric amongst the Have-Nots. It’s genuine. In fact, they seem better connected than the rest of us in this pristine city which is routinely regarded as a tough place to connect. (Maybe we’re too busy staring at mountains.)

I don’t have any clearer idea for how to foster positive change. Only a few surface-level improvements. More trash cans, emptied more often. The Give a hoot, don’t pollute message never made it here. There are too many more pressing needs. Social and environmental responsibility are not the focus of day-to-day survival. Of course, the garbage improvement makes things better for me, not them.

But I think everyone can agree on more bathrooms. I smell urine as I pass alleys. At this very moment as I type, a man is pissing against a wall behind a telephone pole across the street from the café. The restrooms are locked in many of the local establishments. You have to be a paying customer. You have to ask for a key or a combination. (I hate handling these keys. I know too well that there are many soap-averse paying folks.) I’ve seen arguments between shop owners and the downtrodden. And I get it. I’ve heard two homeless people having sex in a café bathroom—sex should be a basic right, shouldn’t it?—before employees and an apparently bloated customer started banging on the door. I’ve seen another person doing an impromptu laundry load with liquid soap in another café sink. And, yes, I’ve noticed syringes on the bathroom floor.

But where do they go? Can’t there be a shred of dignity in a blatantly undignified existence? Whoops, that’s my naïve liberal voice creeping back in. All I know is the few public bathrooms that do exist cannot meet the needs of all the people here who have no other options. Don’t we all deserve a few private moments for whatever reason? Despite our progressive-sounding mayor, this city, the provincial government and the federal government don’t have the will to handle the influx of desperate people, many of whom migrated to the West Coast from colder, even less hospitable environments. So much time gets sucked up by jurisdictional buck passing.

And I continue to spin in place, ever aware of my ignorance, ever hopeful that I should come upon an epiphany. I’m fortunate that it’s in my backyard. There is no chance for change if we strive for NIMBY-thinking—out of sight, out of mind. Please don’t let me ever come to accept things as they are. This too is Vancouver.




Saturday, November 12, 2016

ET TU?


What now?

Yes, I was wholly disturbed and disheartened by Tuesday’s election result in the U.S. What seemed a novelty to the press and the public sixteen months ago actually came to be. Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. How did a country that endorsed Barack Obama for two terms turn to Trump as his successor? How did a hate-spewing and hate-sanctioning egotistical billionaire become the answer for people who felt they didn’t have a voice in government? As a Trump presidency looked more and more like a reality on Tuesday night, I tweeted, “I can’t cope.” Still can’t.

But something more personally disheartening came to light Wednesday morning. I scrolled through Facebook posts, knowing that many of my American friends would be despondent. I wanted to commiserate and perhaps offer something hopeful. At least you’re in a blue state. Hillary got more votes. Red cups are coming to Starbucks. To be sure, there were many people to try to console.

There was the predictable post from my Baptist sister-in-law, praising God for the Republican triumph. I do my best to ignore whatever she writes. She’s too far gone. (She’d say the same of me.) And my mother, a self-declared “independent” who has never voted Democrat but sat out the vote for the first time ever, expressed relief that Hillary would not have a national stage to bash cookie-baking, stay-at-home moms. Apparently some anti-cookie Clinton comment made two decades ago is the closest my mother has ever come to having her identity bashed.

But then I glimpsed a post from a friend in Dallas. I had to read it three times, certain that I’d misread it due to my sleepless night.

Living through amazing history. A beautiful day and warmth in my heart.

America you continue to surprise. Here we go. About to Make America

Great Again!

I do have a few friends from my days in Texas who are clearly Republican. We went to high school or university together. We have the past, if not the future, in common. But I got to know Ben while working in a department store part-time as I had to supplement a then-paltry teacher’s salary from a private school (since I couldn’t work in public school without declaring an intent to become an American citizen). Ben was far more social than I was and he invited me along with other “sales associates” to restaurants after work. Eventually, Ben got me to join him and a smaller group of his friends at clubs. Gay clubs. Yes, despite my being firmly settled in the closet—it seemed the safer option in Texas—Ben figured me out. He was one of my first gay friends.

And now this. How did my eternally optimistic, treat-everyone-with-kindness pal become an apparently rabid Trump fan? It’s more baffling, given that he is Mexican-American and has an immigrant boyfriend from Vietnam. I’m stumped.

I’m aware that people can have differing views, on religion, on politics, on whether pineapple belongs on pizza. (It doesn’t.) I’ve known about Log Cabin Republicans, gay men who align with The Other Side. Okay, I’ve at least heard they exist, like alien life forms, Rob Schneider fans and The Great Pumpkin. And I thought this was the year that even gay Republicans couldn’t endorse their party’s candidate.

So what did Ben see that the rest of us didn’t? How can anyone whose identity has been bashed by hate while growing up set aside the vile Trump so easily spewed and condoned? How can any other issue trump human dignity? I’m not ready to ask. Frankly, there was a moment when I thought I’d have to “unfriend” Ben. I don’t seem to know him anymore. And, really, I don’t. Haven’t seen him since he flew from Dallas and I flew from L.A. to meet in Seattle in 1992. Time passes but what about core values? I may never understand Ben’s thinking. This is not something to be hashed out on Facebook. For now, I’ll continue to “Like” his photos from his world travels as part of his job and I’ll politely take in his comments that I don’t seem to age—I do get to choose which pics I post, after all.

Despite my dismay, I’m coming to accept the fact that Trump happens. Sometimes even to truly good people.




Sunday, November 6, 2016

FURNITURE VOWS


I suppose it’s fitting that the first thing I write on my laptop while stretched out on my new sofa is about the sofa itself. After all, it took nineteen months to arrive.

That’s not the fault of a delivery truck driver. They only made me wait four and a half hours. And it’s not because a furniture warehouse burned or a vendor went bankrupt or some temperamental maker kept fussing over the fluffiness of the seat cushions. The delay was entirely my doing…by not doing.

When I moved back to Vancouver after an ill-spent decade in Nowhereland, I gave away all my furniture other than my bed. Technically, a little cash changed hands for a few items—fifty bucks for the six-month-old $900 chair, a twenty for a $500 mirror. (Perhaps the best decision I ever made was against pursuing a business degree. I’d have flunked out of college.) I just wanted everything gone. Moving from a three-bedroom, two-level house to a 570-square foot condominium, I knew things wouldn’t fit and, besides, the size and scale would be off. (Or, at least, I think that’s what home décor folks would say.)

In truth, there was a darker reason to chuck everything I’d amassed by the age of fifty-one. I wasn’t set on staying in Vancouver. I wasn’t set on staying anywhere. I remained firmly uncommitted to life, ready to succumb to the undertow of a persistent, profound depression. I held off buying furniture in case I mustered up the guts to jump off the Second Narrows Bridge, leap from the roof of my 28-storey building or swallow a bottle of whatever pill I could track down at the recommendation of a savage Internet troll. I wanted any aftermath to be with minimal inconveniences. My parents live 2,200 miles away. Why task them with posting my wares on Craigslist? They’d first want to figure out who the hell “Craig” is and what happened to the apostrophe and space in his business name. (I wonder myself.)

But sometime in the spring, I had my own reawakening. There were breaks between lows. Sometimes I’d go a whole day without thinking about suicide. I didn’t feel good, but feeling ambivalent was several rungs above where I’d been. I started to believe I might stick around. And that’s when I dared to walk into a Crate & Barrel. Didn’t buy anything—too soon—but I found myself drifting into other furniture stores in the months that followed. Sometimes I’d get sidetracked by funky credenzas or bold prints on pillows, but I knew it all had to start with a sofa. I still wasn’t sure if I could commit.

How long do people stick with a sofa? Longer than any of my past relationships, no doubt. A decade? Two? And still that nagging thought: Who will have to get rid of it?

I put off the couch quandary throughout the summer, instead pouring any extra funds into trips—the Oregon Coast, Ottawa, Dublin. If I spent recklessly, I wouldn’t have to think again about furniture possibilities until 2017. 

But somehow, in changing jobs, I came upon a small cash windfall. I still had money in my bank account by summer’s end. And then I walked into another furniture store with a friend as we waited for a Ramen noodle place to open for dinner. I looked. I touched fabric. I surprised myself by liking two models. My friend sat on one and noted it felt comfy. I tried it out. Was orange too kitschy? Then he waved the ring of other fabric options in my face. The sales guy swooped in and mentioned a half price three-day sale later in the week. That was our ticket out the door. It wasn’t quite the right time to buy. I had time to talk myself out of it. Surely I’d have second thoughts. Maybe even dark ones. My condo could retain its open space character indefinitely. I could go longer with a clunky plastic office chair and a stool that doubled as my dinner table. The sofa was too big a decision. It had come to represent too much.

Over the course of that week, I lowered my expectations. Happiness was too lofty a goal. Feeling stable was good enough. I celebrated by going off both my meds. And then on Friday night, the last day of the sale, my workload seemed to increase as quitting time neared. My co-workers gleefully filed out while I tapped away on my computer, with the finish line for my must-do project pulling farther and farther away. I eyed the salesman’s business card and chucked it in the recycling bin.

Slowly I began to make progress with my work. I solved the snags or found ways around them. Hours after everyone else had left the building, it was my turn to begin the weekend. No plans. Just me and all that condo emptiness. Driving home, I thought of the one that got away. Sleek, clean lines, steel gray. So much better than a wooden stool. And with rush hour over, I made better time as I crossed bridges and darted by drivers with too fixed mindsets of speed limits. (Merely suggestions, right?) I began to feel that sense of elation that comes after running two yellowish lights in a row. I set my sights on getting to the department store before closing.

Yes, I wanted that sofa.

And so, just like in the movies where the doubtful bride or groom makes a mad dash to the altar, I raced to The Bay. I arrived fifteen minutes before closing. (What was the rush?!) I clomped up five escalators and marched straight to one sofa, then the other. Both decent home companions, by the decision became clear.

I choose you.

And so here I sit on my new sofa. Ironically, it’s not the one I thought I chose. Did the salesman err or did I? This is what happens when a year and a half decision gets crammed into the final moments before, “Attention shoppers, the store is now closed.” It seems fitting that I should end up with the bridesmaid. I’m not about to send it back. We were made for each other.

This extended time sitting feels right. My butt and my back feel pampered. I can even feel a nap coming on. A future day home with the flu seems like something to look forward to. But it’s more than the obvious comfort that comes with what some of us in Canada refer to as a chesterfield. From my sofa, I see things differently. I have stopped several times while writing to gaze out my window and marvel at my water view. (It’ll go away with pending condo development, but so what? This is now.) I’ve watched the November sky change countless times in the past hour. The clouds darken and then seemingly softer, white ones drift into the mix. There have even been blinding moments of sunlight, a rare sighting at this time of year in Vancouver.

I see the walls of my living room differently. I glance at the empty floating shelves and realize they should come down. I don’t need them. I don’t want them. It’s exhilarating to have an opinion. I’ll have to Google how to get wallpaper off the wall the sofa rests against. The previous owner proudly told me he ordered it from Belgium and it is classy, but it clashes. (What does that say about my style choices?) I’m wondering about my next purchase. Coffee table? Desk? Maybe I can still find those flashy pillows. It’s a lot to take in. There is so much more to do.

Seems like I might be here for a while.