Wednesday, 27 October 2010

a tale of 2 cities

We were sitting in the dining room of the Granville Island Hotel in downtown Vancouver, staring out at the morning. Sun, water, boats, condos, seabirds, mountains. Quite a vista. Ken said something like: Toronto doesn't have anything as beautiful as this.

I drank coffee and grunted something like: Grff?

He chewed a mouthful of hash brown. I go for walks through High Park and along the lake shore, he said, and it's nice. But it doesn't look as beautiful as this. It just doesn't.

We were silent for a moment. Joggers and cyclists hustled along the waterfront path across the bay, the sun glinting on spandex and spokes. I tried to put my thoughts together. On the surface, Ken was right. Few places on earth can match Vancouver's mix of natural and urban beauty. Toronto can't come close. But it has something, darn it. Something that Vancouver lacks. I tried to put it into words.

Outside my back door, I can see the corner of a low-rise industrial place, I said. There's some ivy trailing down the cinder blocks, and it looks kind of nice.

Ken just stared. I tried again.

They've drained the toxic dump site across from us, I said. The body shop parks its wrecks there now, and one of the feral cats likes to sleep on the hoods. Cute, eh?

Ken swallowed some egg, frowning, trying to work out if I was serious.

After a rainstorm there's a stream running down the centre of the laneway, I said, and the styrofoam cups and coloured condoms floating down to Richmond Street are quite cheerful.

Ken stood up and called for the check. Kidding, I said. Just kidding.

But am I? Well, maybe about the condoms. But to my mind there is something truly attractive about a harsh angular urban landscape, concrete and steam and people and noise. Vancouver doesn't have that. I know that it has tough neighborhoods and ugly problems, but to me, if you will forgive the stereotype, Vancouver has a cheerleader's beauty. Toronto is more like the girl who talks too much and laughs too loud. Yes, she can be a pain, but she is more fun to trade lunches with. And darn it, there's something about her ...

Friday, 15 October 2010

suburban idyll

These are the things that Langley BC is not. Surprising. Beautiful. Surprising. Ugly. Quirky. Old. Dirty. Did I say surprising? Langley is almost exactly like New Westminster or Coquitlam, or Pickering or Richmond Hill or West Bloomfield or Lackawana. It is a suburb, a just fine place where lawns are green, cars are washed, and Tim Hortonses are plentiful. Its streets are numbers and tree names. Its pedestrians are well fed and comfortably shod. I remember an ad from the 1970s for a hotel chain that went something like -- The best surprise is no surprise.

I am not crapping on suburbs -- well, maybe a bit. There's not a lot of apparent individuality here. But when you consider how nine tenths of the world lives, just fine is in fact pretty darn good. Anyone who has survived an earthquake flood riot civil war fire invasion pandemic lightning strike tornado (the one in the picture is from Greensburg Kansas, 1915) or other natural or human-made disaster will tell you that surprise is over-rated. May you live in interesting times is not a blessing-- it's a curse.

And the kids are great. They usually are. Bright and not so bright, eager and bored, wriggling and giggling and picking their noses, the kids and I had a lot of fun. And, hey -- there was a surprise after all. In the mall across the street from the library is an Army and Navy store. We don't have them in Ontario. I bought a pair of gloves.

I'm here in Vancouver for another week. Monday I go to Bowen Island. Ferry boat, hippies, and more kids. I hope my voice holds out ...

Thursday, 7 October 2010

boron and on

In case you have forgotten your tenth grade chemistry, boron is the fifth element in the periodic table, between beryllium and carbon. Nothing to do with Niels Bohr (most aptly named of all Danish physicists, as Bart says), it has something to do with borax, which is a kind of cleaning powder. The only other thing I know about boron is that my old squash racket contains some. It was why I bought it -- the slogan was Boron Power Serve! (Ah, they don't write 'em like that any more.)

So I didn't know what to think when I found out that some land down the laneway from me had been condemned because of trace elements of boron. Was this an example of the government worrying about something we all took for granted that was now known to be bad for us, like cigarettes or pregnant martinis? Or was it an example of government stupidity, worrying about something that wasn't harmful but had a bad rep, like marijuana?

I tried asking around, but no one could help me. Excuse me, I said to the lady on the health line, but I wonder if you could tell me anything about the dangers of boron? She couldn't. Excuse me, I said to the man at the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forests, but could you tell me anything about boron? He couldn't. Excuse me, I said to the kid at the Sporting Good Store, but could you tell me anything about anything? She looked up from her i-phone. Huh? she replied. Forget it, I said.

Conspiracy? Ignorance? I keep telling myself not to panic. I have moved my old squash racket to the basement, just in case. I don't know what else I can do.

Monday, 4 October 2010

mixed neighbourhood

My grandfather said that his west end Toronto neighbourhood was getting mixed when a ... Portuguese family (that's the way he put it, with a pause before Portuguese) moved into the old Astor place. I don't know what Grandad would say about our neighbourhood. Mixed puts it mildly. We live in an area bounded by a mental health facility, four auto body shops and a slaughterhouse. There's public housing, decrepit wartime bungalows, shabby Victorians, super-expensive condos, and the best dessert place in the city only it's never open (topic for another day). And in our back laneway, until recently, a toxic dump.

That's right. I noticed the low plywood hoarding a few days after we moved in. On the other side was what looked like a swimming pool of stagnant green sludge. I asked a neighbor about it and he said, Oh, that's the toxic dump site. Real casual, like you'd say, Oh, that's the Rec Centre (see picture --a Connecticut Rec Centre. An ornament to any community, no?) I wanted to show that I was cool too, so I said something like, Oh, ah or Sure, sure. And I kept my eye on it. It didn't bubble or anything. It didn't smell too bad. After a while I stopped noticing it. It became part of the landscape, like the raccoons and orange condoms and graffiti (apparently DAN IS NOT THE MAN). The toxic dump site. It even had its uses, the hoarding being so noticeable. I'd give friends directions to our parking spot by saying, We're four houses up from the toxic dump site.

And then, yesterday, I heard a rhythmic thumping and giant sucking sound. When I went out to check (surely not Dan? I thought) I saw a stream of water flowing down the laneway from underneath the plywood hoarding. Two guys were pumping out the sludge. They told me that the city had removed three feet of topsoil a months ago, after they found traces of boron. And now they were finally getting around to filling in the hole. Boron? I said. What do you mean, boron? They shrugged.

As of this morning, the hoarding is down and the toxic dump is gone. Cars in need of body work are parked there on clean sand. I have been researching boron.

On the whole I am not sad to see the end of the toxic dump site. Sometimes a neighbourhood can be too mixed.