|My time here is drawing to a close. It’s been fun, but it’s time to go home. I miss my wife, and I’m getting tired of wearing the same four shirts over and over again.|
Coming up only once a year is an interesting experience, sort of like time-lapse photography. Even when I lived here the pace of change seemed excessive sometimes. Now it’s quite startling to see huge swaths of the city utterly transformed from what they were only ten months ago. It’s even more startling since I live in a city where change happens at a glacial pace, if at all. In New Orleans, a ‘pre-war’ house means pre-civil-war, and a ‘heritage’ building in Vancouver would be new construction there.
The other day I noticed that Portland Al’s Confectionary at third and main has now been replaced by something trendy, an antique shop, I think. When I lived in that neighborhood in the seventies I spent a lot of time poking through Al’s stock of jazz and r&b LPs, which he had stashed in amongst the canned beans and Kraft Dinner. His was the kind of business (a combination independent grocery and record store) that contemporary Vancouver, in all it’s excruciatingly hip, ‘world class’ splendour, is utterly incapable of supporting. Somehow the city has gone from jumped-up lumber town to sterile megalopolis without passing through bohemian-cosmopolitanism in between. A sad, sad state of affairs.
On Friday I took a long, long walk around the downtown core, a place I lived for many years and in all kinds of circumstances, from penniless street person to credentialed educator. It was an inventory taking of sorts, to see how many of the homes and businesses that formed the fabric of my life had survived. Starting at the south end, right by the Granville bridge, the Yale Hotel( last abode of my pal the late, great Robbie King is still there. The club on the main floor is a blues bar I played many, many times. They’ve spiffed the façade up recently with the addition of a blue, neon saxophone. Further down the street there were more bars; the Cecil (now a strip bar) was the 'intellectual' gin-mill, populated by UBC students, profs, and professional students still plugging away at various graduate degrees well into their 30s and 40s. There was also that strange breed of cat who only seemed to survive by academic osmosis, maybe not enrolled in any classes, but still hanging out with the university set.
Further down still was a working man's bar called the St. Helen's where my friend Gordie Bertram and I once got into a minor scuffle because we had the temerity to walk in there with our outrageously gay pal Bruce Russell. We decamped further down the street to a gay bar called the Castle (now an empty lot) where we could drink unmolested.
Between Drake and Georgia streets were a whole slew of bars, many of which had live music policies. These places (the Blackstone, the Dufferin, the Nelson Place) were real bottom of the barrel gigs, low money, unpleasant ambience, and a very good chance you'd witness a stabbing or a shooting sooner or later. One of the scariest things I ever saw involved no bloodshed at all. We were sitting around by the pool table between sets when a guy with long biker hair and a knee-lenghth leather car coat on walked in. The staff immediately became agitated and began whispering among themselves. The cat kept sweeping the room with his eyes like he was looking for someone, he had the coldest, deadest eyes I'd ever seen on a human being, more like a great white shark. One of the waitresses stage-whispered "He's got something! I know he's got something!" and sure enough, he opened up his coat and pulled out a sawed-off double barrelled shotgun looped to his wrist by a leather cord. He swept the room with it, creating a kind of reverse-wave effect as everybody hit the floor, including waiters with full trays. But that was it. He didn't pull the trigger. Just smiled,put the gun up, and walked out.
Across the street from the Blackstone was a club called the Anvil. Because it had a cabaret licence it could stay open later that the bar next door (the Royal, a Native Indian bar that later became a gay bar when the Castle was demolished). This was how the owner made his money. We'd play all night to 10 or 15 people, then at 1:00a.m. when the joint next door closed, the place would be suddenly jam packed with Indians.
A liitle bit north of here was a hotel I lived in for a while. Can't remember the name of it, but it was over Granville Optical.
Except for the Yale and the Dufferin (now another gay bar), all of these places are gone now. The whole strip has become a kind of theme park for college kids and youngish hipsters. Most of the old residential hotels, home to the out-of-work loggers, junkies, pimps, hookers,hipsters, lunatics, and just plain poor people that patronized a lot of the music bars (where 'welfare wednesday' was always our busiest night) have been reno'd into condos and upscale hotel rooms, or torn down. A lot of the residents have been pushed further east to the Downtown Eastside, but, amazingly, a few remain. The last time I played the strip (at the Royal in it's gay bar phase, and at a jazz club called Raffel's that flourished briefly in the lounge of the now vanished Austin Hotel) I'd occasionally be hanging in front of the club, and a vaguely familiar, ruined face would float by, especially if the needle exchange van was in the neighborhood. The ensuing conversations were always delicate for me, since I didn't want to embarrass anyone by crowing too much about recent accomplishments, or get too nosy about what they had been up to lately.
Still, it does me good, in a perverse way, to see remnants of the old crowd mixed in with the preppies and sweater girls, pissing in doorways, shouting in the street, and just generally reminding us that life isn't a J. Press catalogue after all