108 Steps

21 March 2020 – It all starts with a query-by-text. The Much-Loved-Relative tapping out the message has just seen a sculpture he can’t account for, on Kingsway near Gladstone, a ladder soaring to the skies. A tribute to firefighters, perhaps?

He trusts that Iceland Penny will know the answer.

Well, she doesn’t. But she now knows where she will go walking, this very day. She feels a particular need to solve the mystery because MLR is the person who gave her the “Iceland Penny” nickname, all those years ago.

I’m on it.

Good grief, that ladder does indeed soar. I’m still more than a block away, and look at it.

Right up to it, on the median.

Encased and locked down at the bottom …

against any fool who might be tempted to climb up.

Very, very up.

No signage.

I retreat to Kings Café just opposite, in the hopes of (a) information, and (b) a latte. I get both.

The café fits our new-normal: tables stacked, take-out only, and a young masked & gloved man swabbing an already-sparkling floor as I walk in. We nod, and swerve apart as I pass.

The young woman behind the counter, also masked & gloved, takes my order. When I ask about the ladder, she slips down the mask long enough to answer, revealing a warm smile and great enthusiasm for my question.

The artist’s name is Khan Lee, she tells me; also originally from Korea, just like her. The ladder has 108 rungs, symbolizing the 108 — here her already-impressive English doesn’t quite meet the need, and she mimes a bow, an obeisance — of spiritual practice.

I ask if I may take her picture, because I am delighted by her respect for the work of art and her eagerness to share what she knows, and I want you to feel this human connection as well.

So, please meet Hailey (her chosen English name). But note: she has pulled off mask & gloves and loosened her hair for the shot; immediately afterward, she reties her hair, washes her hands, and replaces mask & gloves.

Later, online, I learn Hailey got it right.  In his artist’s statement for this 40-metre installation, Khan Lee explains:

108 Steps is a steel sculpture of a free-standing ladder with 108 rungs. The ladder is one of the oldest and simplest tools. The number 108 has significance for a variety of cultures, and is considered sacred within many Dharmic faiths. There are approximately 108 blocks on Kingsway.

I take my latte outside, place gloves & sunglasses on the little table, take one more photo …

and then drink my coffee, more attuned to the ladder’s calm majesty than the traffic all around.

Later, walking back west along Kingsway, a printed message in keeping with the benign mood of that earlier visual.

Kindness, reaching out, even as we practice social distance.

I think of that the next day, walking past Rogers Park.

Social distance, with friends, in the sunshine!

We can do this.

 

 

And Then … the Sun Came Out

9 February 2020 – The sun is out, and so am I.

And so are spring blossoms. Look – snowdrops!

My feet scamper me north on Main St., under the Skytrain overhead tracks, under the Viaduct, and a smart right turn onto Union Street.

With an almost immediate left turn into Hogan’s Alley. You need the plaque to tell you this was once home to many homes and businesses of the city’s Black community, because mid-20th c. urban renewal demolished them. (How much destruction is done, in the name of renewal…)

So it’s fitting I am pulled into the alley by the sight of more destruction, its lines austerely geometric, but the human story so poignant, ghost lives pressed into those remaining interior walls.

But then my eyes are pulled past that wall to the mural beyond, moving from ghosts to immortals: “Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea” by the Bagua Artists Association.

And beyond that, to the delightfully named Fat Mao noodle parlour, right up there on East Georgia Street. I don’t go in, but I eye it, and store the possibility in my mind, even as I head east on Georgia and see all the other possibilities on offer, everything from hair extensions to tooth implants to woks and rice cookers.

Left on Gore, heading north again, and I know it’s north because, see?, there’s the moss on the tree pointing north.

Not urban legend at all, it seems, though only mostly true and only in the northern hemisphere. (In the southern hemisphere, the moss grows mostly on the south side, but for the same reason — moss favours the shadier side of the tree.)

Eyes left, though not feet, into this alley on the other side of the street.

If you happen to like the image on that wooden hydro pole by the sidewalk, or the purple lettering on the white wall farther back, treasure this photo: hose-wielding guy works for Goodbye Graffiti, and he’s about to live up to the company name.

Right turn onto Keefer — which always, always, makes me think of “Keef” Richards and the Rolling Stones, even though I know there is no connection. The association leaves my mind as quickly as it arrives, for there’s always something right there on the street to reclaim my attention.

Like the PTT Buddhist Society, just east of Jackson. I watch people come and go, light incense, spin a large prayer wheel.

A little farther east, two icons in a row, each telling its own story of this Strathcona community. On the left, a Vancouver Special, the city’s mid-century contribution to vernacular architecture that served so many immigrant families so well …

and on the right, a 1902 example of the Queen Anne style beloved in the day. This one was built for an Irish immigrant who rose from labourer to foreman at the Hastings sawmill and was later sold to the Italian immigrant family that honoured and restored its features, and caused it to be known as the Bezzasso House.

Close by, a former chapel of some sort, or so its architecture suggests, but it is hidden behind this bamboo fencing and — in case you haven’t taken the hint — the front gate bears a large notice warning it is now a private residence with 24/7 video surveillance.

And a dog. “Beware of dog.”

I am perhaps captured on their camera, but, hey, they are captured on mine.

From former chapel to former synagogue, just north from Keefer on Heatley Avenue. The city’s first synagogue, in fact, Schara Tzedeck, built early in the 20th century when Strathcona had a large Jewish community. (It is now condos, so I am not welcome here either — though here the exclusion is silken rather than churlish.)

I walk the building’s elegant length, but first nip into the alley just to the south, drawn by this enormous tree, blasting its way through the fence.

Another tree, okay, a shrub, right at the alley corner — full bloom!

Some sort of early-blooming rhododendron, I think, but that’s only a guess. Look carefully and you may make out, in that sliver of front door, a Christmas wreath still hanging and still handsome. Two seasons in one.

Some more wandering around, coat wide open, 8-9 degrees, full sun. More snowdrops, more crocus, more mahonia with buds ready to unfurl — and cats. Cats as good a sign of spring as blossoms. Cats unfurling their winter bodies into the sunshine, one here tall on his front porch, one there writhing happily on the sidewalk.

Even houses, I swear, are stretching into the sunshine, this one with a mural gleaming in the noon-time light.

Noon-time also means lunch-time, and I’m happy to be so close to the Wilder Snail, at Keefer & Hawks, across the street from MacLean Park.

A few posts back, I told you about watching a little girl play chess here with her dad; today I overhear an excited young man describe his up-coming one-man show to a supportive friend. It’s that kind of place.

Fed and caffeinated, at peace with the world, I emerge from the café, salute Paneficio Studios diagonally opposite …

and continue east, yet again on Keefer.

Where, over at Campbell, I am given one more snapshot of neighbourhood history, a sidewalk mosaic entitled “The Militant Mothers of Raymur.”

It commemorates the women who, upon moving into the new Raymur Housing Project in 1971 with their families, realized their children had to cross busy railway tracks to get to school. They wanted remedial action, and therefore took on the school board, the city council and the railway company, wielding the usual civic weapons of phone calls, petitions and speeches.

When all that had no effect, they began physically blocking the train tracks.

Again and again.

And they won. The city erected the the Keefer Street Pedestrian Overpass.

Last year, it renamed the structure. It is now, officially, The Militant Mothers of Raymur Overpass.

 

Unintended Consequences

23 January 2020 – The Law of Unintended Consequences usually comes at us with a negative tilt: Your action will have consequences you cannot anticipate, and won’t much like.

But, sometimes, you just look around and think, Well, isn’t this fun?

As in, the moment I find myself at Venables St. & Clark Drive.

My intended action took me to an espresso machines specialty store on Clark, seeking new gaskets for the screen in my moka pot. Nice Young Man said they didn’t have the ones I needed, and softened the blow with a complimentary latte and directions to a shop over on Victoria Drive — east on Venables, on past Commercial, north on Victoria, there you are.

And so, unintended consequence, I am about to walk a route that had, until then, never even crossed my mind.

It’s a drizzly, splattery day, and the streetscape is endless low-rise clutter, so I’m not sure why I’m so good-humoured about it — except that I’ve never walked here before, an adventure all in itself, and there may even be new gaskets to reward me at the other end.

And I can’t resist those praying mantises, swaying over that building toward the right …  Then I prod myself past the dreariness of the architecture, and notice the wonderful juxtaposition of shops: Buddy Walks doggie spa, Mr. Mattress (never flip your mattress again), Kon Auto Service, and A&B Tool Rentals. Well! This is going to be fun.

And it is, look, the juxtapositions just keep coming …

A mini-cluster of transportation options: janitor carts, motorcycles, and shared bicycles.

The wonderfully named Vancouver Hack Space Community Workshop (“share ideas, tools and know-how…”) …

rainbow stripes …

and, down there at the corner, a bamboo grove.

South side of the street, a store specializing in vintage Scandinavian Modern …

and, here on my side, The Wallace — the cogs on the building’s façade honouring its former life as a machine shop.

It is now home to Alternatives Gallery and Studio, and to …

East Van Brewing Company.

There are other banners in their windows, a snarling cobra among them, but of course I choose to show you the crow.

On a bit, past a wallpaper/paint store and an auto body shop, and after that some new construction, just beyond this auto-aftermarket store with a big Junkyard Angel truck (great name!) in its parking lot.

And on some more, across Commercial Drive, past the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (aka The Cultch), into less-industrial, less collective, and more individually artistic territory.

Victoria Drive, left turn.

And this front-yard display up near East Georgia.

I find I am slightly unnerved by that declaration of love. Not too sure I’d want to be on the receiving end.

Then I forget all about it, because I see my destination food shop, a little farther north and over on the east side of the street.

YES! they have the gaskets.

 

 

Omens, One-Two-Three

4 January 2020 – I’m not superstitious, black cats & ladders are safe with me, so I don’t get all jumpy about a possible bad omen — but I’m quick to call something a good omen and get all gleeful about it.

So please join me in the Historical Present Tense, jump back to 1 January, and get all gleeful with me about my walk that day.

We’re having lots of rain this winter, but here in downtown Vancouver, this first morning of a brand new decade, the sun is blazing down.

First good omen: sunshine.

It bounces crisp shadows off richly warmed walls …

and highlights just a riffle of cloud in that Alberta-blue (still my criterion) sky.

Which brings us to my second good omen: feet overrule brain, and it pays off.

Brain thought that we (the whole mind/spirit/body collective it thinks it controls) would head north-then-west. Feet abruptly veered east instead, into the South Flatz.

With a zed. Because this once-grotty stretch of reclaimed lowland — from the current artificial end of False Creek on east to its former natural end near Clark Drive — is becoming an artistic and intellectual magnet, thanks to the relocation here of Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

But the train tracks still run along the north side of all this redevelopment, and graffiti, murals and boxcars are as much part of the scene as the snazzy newcomers.

I peer through chainlink fence, using boxcar ribs to frame images on the walls beyond. I smirk at this neatly lettered graffito: “art is pain.”

I have visions of an Emily Carr student bursting out of that handsome building right behind me …

to leap the fence and take out his/her frustrations on that wall beyond the tracks.

Next door, another handsome building, this one the Centre for Digital Media, a post-grad collaboration among various universities. More art, but this time 3-D, official and not at all painful.

No need for that umbrella today!

The work brings to mind the Love In The Rain sculptures by Bruce Voyce in Queen Elizabeth Park, but I can’t find confirmation.

I’m up by Great Northern Way by now, once train tracks and now home to cars, bikes, pedestrians, and even a Little Free Library box. Of course I peer in.

Oh, New Year’s is so ten hours ago!

Across the broad street, an imposing & equally broad staircase. Lined with statuary.

I’m glad it’s there, but I don’t quite know what I’m looking at.

Over at Clark Drive, though, I know exactly what I’m looking at.

As in: “I’ll see your padlock and raise you a pair of clippers.”

I follow my feet north on Clark for a bunch of boring blocks, be grateful I’m skipping this bit in the re-telling. Just south of Prior, I head west again, with no particular plan in mind except to escape Clark, and wander willy-nilly through industrial park territory — everything from tool manufacturers to “integrated media solutions” studios to something called Flüff (with the umlaut) and the Vancouver International Marathon Society.

Some okay murals, plus this imaginative use of (I think) a glue gun to create a runic cameo on one corner of a nondescript wall.

I wander on, feet doing the work, mind along for the ride. Then eyes see three spur-line train tracks, and brain & feet agree we should all turn left and follow the tracks.

Which brings us to my third good omen: serendipity. Sometimes you rediscover by accident a place you could never find again on purpose.

I am so pleased. I recognize this mishmash of brick and wood and out-buildings, covered in murals. Complete with alley-ways (dungarees optional) …

and plant growth as much part of the total effect as the artwork.

By sheer, happy, welcome-to-2020 good luck, I have once again found myself at 1000 Parker Street. I am behind the Parker Street Studios, which houses some 200 artists in its four sprawling floors of space.

Every alcove and doorway an explosion.

Its spirit? Look closer, up above the top-left corner of the door.

“People are having too much fun,” it says.

I laugh.

The guy standing nearby, having himself a smoke, turns at the sound and nods. We talk. He is one of the building managers. “Oh, it’s a great place. Lot of really good artists here, you know — all kinds.” I say yes, I know; I came here once on an art tour. “Come back any time,” he says.

We beam at each other, wish each other happy new year, and go our separate ways.

2020

30 December 2019 – Oh 2020, you are almost here.

We know you want to treat us right, so here are some suggestions.

Please be the kind of year in which, for example, a functional utility box is also a bright-eyed owl …

an equally functional bike stand becomes a work of wool art …

a derelict houseboat is transformed into a floating artists’ haven …

and grubby old car tires turn into safe, bright playground pads.

Put your mind to it, 2020.

Be a year in which padlocks denote love …

tent cities are full of joy and magic …

and the downtown core offers us abundant public benches …

recycling locations …

and bike rental stands.

C’mon, 2020! Accept the challenge.

Be a year in which the graffito underfoot is a coffee cup, not an F-bomb …

even a 93-year-old monarch tries to stay current …

crows feel free to offer editorial opinion …

and the humble little sparrow dares to dream big, and succeeds.

Happy new year, everyone.

May we all have a year in which we dare to dream big, and succeed.

(I feel I must add: I do know this is just the pretty stuff, and there is much that is dark, dangerous and disgraceful. But I believe we must also recognize and celebrate everything that is wonderful. It restores balance to our vision, and it gives us the energy and motivation to get out there and help make things better.)

Off-Main

24 December 2019 – I’m weaving around that Main St. axis, mostly not on it but orienting with it even so…

“Palimpsest!” I think as I pause at this E. Pender alley corner, always happy to use the word (it’s such a wonderfully crunchy mouthful).

Look closer, and no, it’s not some one-time iconic brand. It is, well it says here, “Good Company Lager.” It also says, “What’s Up Fool,” but let’s ignore that.

just below it, a graffito correction for the old-fashioned washroom signs also painted on the wall. “Non binary” it scolds, the lettering faded but the 21st-c. message clear.

Right, shame on you, there are more gender options than male & female.

(My personal “WTF?” is all about the signage convention that men get to be men, while women have to be ladies, but each to their own obsession.)

Another message, this time full of beauty and spirituality, at E. Hastings and Gore — no. 21 of the 31 mosaics embedded in downtown sidewalks, especially here in the Downtown East Side.

I love this series, love discovering the squares at random. I’m always amazed that people can walk right over them unheeding, but stubbornly confident that many other people do notice, do enjoy, do feel energized by the civic display of beauty.

I especially like this particular mosaic, of course, for the raven…

 

… and for that message of survival, still defiantly there despite the beating inflicted on this explanatory sign by time and vandals.

From underfoot to overhead, as I veer back along E. Hastings to Main.

Vintage neon! There since this café opened its doors in 1942.  (Brings to mind “The Goof” in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood…)

More neon in the doorway, a cup presumably brimming with Ovaltine.

I waver, I do, I confess to a long-standing fondness for chocolate Ovaltine … but… naaah.

I go home for coffee.

 

 

Grand Chain

18 December 2019 – All those decades ago, and only for a while, I was pretty nifty at square dancing. Practically every step has now left memory, but I still recall a few basics. Including “Grand Chain” — a sequence in which you leave your original position, weave your way among other participants, and end up back where you began.

I think of this, the other day, on a very crowded bus. Not for the first tine, either, because a Grand Chain often takes place on Vancouver public transit.

It is set off by a combination of (a), official signage …

and, (b), human kindness. (Though not always the full square-dance choreography: there’s no guarantee, not even the likelihood, that people will end up where they began.)

Signage reminds us that Vancouver busses are not only fully accessible, they reserve front-of-bus priority for certain categories of passenger.

Which means that I, all these decades later and all by myself, can be enough to trigger a Grand Chain of seat redistribution.

And so it is, this very crowded day.

  • I, visibly a Senior, pay my fare & slalom my way into the knot of youthful standees immediately past the driver.
  • Middle-Aged Lady smiles and stands up; I smile and sit down.
  • MIddle-Aged Lady in turn slaloms into the congested aisle.
  • Young Man smiles and stands up; she smiles and sits down.

Driver, next stop, calls out: “Stroller coming on!”

  • People vacate the side-facing front seats.
  • Stroller Mother smiles and locks in the stroller.

  • Now-Standing-People slalom along the aisle.
  • Middle-Aged Lady spots someone Now-Standing whom she judges older than she is; she once again smiles and stands up.
  • Somewhat-Older-Person smiles and sits down.

My stop!

  • I get up, smile at Middle-Aged Lady, and wave at my seat.
  • She smiles and sits down.

Grand Chain.

“Please notice …”

15 December 2019 – The quotation hangs in a bookstore window up Main Street near 20th or so — large, neat, nicely framed, and from an author I haven’t thought of in a while but am pleased to remember.

Good advice, and easy to follow a day or two later as I find myself very happy indeed, having an unplanned but discovery-rich walk around Strathcona. It’s the city’s oldest residential neighbourhood, east of downtown, east of Main Street, echoing past lives as well as today’s demographic mix.

What I had planned was a direct trip home, but, right there at Gore & East Pender, curiosity throws me off-piste.

It leads me across Gore to read the Project Bookmark sign …

which is physically next to Christ Church of China, but in literary imagination pinpoints Gee Sook’s laundry & dry cleaning shop as portrayed by Wayson Choy in The Jade Peony.

Now that I’m facing east on Pender, I might as well continue, hmmm? So I do, and that Bookmark sign proves prophetic. There is a lot of art, culture and history to come.

A Literary Landmark, for example, just a bit farther east on Pender. This one connects Paul Yee, winner of the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature in 1999 (among other honours) …

with the Mau Dan Gardens Co-operative, right across the street. He lived with his Aunt Lillian in her home at this address in the 1960s, a location to which his aunt returned decades later …

not to her old house, which had been demolished, but to the co-operative that now stood in its place.

I loop around for a while, drop slightly south to Keefer Street and follow it east.

Yes! another of these crow-with-paintbrush doorways that I remember from previous walks.

But this time, I know what it means. Eastside Culture Crawl artists identify their locations and, back in 2009, this was the symbol. (The door also announces, in neat letters: “Entrée des artistes.”) I love it, I love it.

Not to be outdone, MacLean Park, also bordering Keefer, is home to one of City Park’s Artist Fieldhouse Studio projects, all of them housed in now-disused caretaker suites. I don’t know which artist (or community group) is currently in residence, and anyway …

I’m more taken with these spears of birch, rising from the glossy hedge that leads to the fieldhouse door.

Speaking of glossy, speaking of happy-tree, how about this towering evergreen that marks the entrance to Angiolina Court?

Not just towering, but laden with Christmas ornaments, right out there on a public street. Trusting people to admire, but to keep their hands to themselves.

That’s what stops me first, but then there’s everything else: the bike leaning companionably near-by, the fire escape, the red awning & door, the age (1898) of the structure, the rumour that this trim little apartment building housed an illegal still during prohibition, and the certainty that it has housed a corner grocery store since 1905.

The current grocery store is exactly where I want to be. The Wilder Snail is also a café, and I’m ready for a latte. I go in, order my latte, scoop up the very last blueberry scone while I’m at it, and find a seat.

I smirk at the ceiling décor …

and settle back to eavesdrop on the father-daughter combo next to me: dad so dark and bearded, moppet so blonde and pony-tailed, both intent on their chess game.

She is perhaps five or six, and being taken seriously by her father — no baby-talk, just endless loving patience and calm mentoring, helping her see the implications of what’s on the board before her as the game evolves. Finally, inevitably, it’s chess-mate. She nods agreement at her father’s praise — “You’re learning!”– and, together, they pack up the board.

Soon after I move on myself.

South on Hawks, still bordering MacLean Park, where a winter-mossy tree trunk is as vivid as the jacket of the child retrieving an errant soccer ball.

Then, across the street, where … well, I don’t even know what’s going on.

All that comes to mind is that Alice in Wonderland scene where she’s faced with a bottle labelled “Drink Me.”

I share her confusion. Fortunately, there’s nothing visible on the porch to drink.

Soon after, over on Keefer near East Georgia, something I can cope with. It’s another of the City’s Millennium Story Stones, this one, of course, a memory of life on Keefer Street.

Dr. Yurkovich takes us back to 1934, when his father returned from the sanitarium, knowing he was dying and wanting to spend those last days with his wife and children. He died in 1935, his widow spurned public assistance and instead offered room and board in the family home.

More loop-abouts, and finally I’m on Union Street, heading west and homeward bound.

One last treat: a dangling tree ornament, created from horse chestnut “conkers.”

Kurt Vonnegut was right.

I think about my afternoon, and murmur to myself (and now to you as well): “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

 

 

 

Winter Growth

5 December 2019 – “Winter growth” is not quite the oxymoron it sounds, even if some things — daylight hours, for example — definitely contract in this season. Some other things increase.

Cats grow more fur.

And Vancouver trees grow more moss.

Everywhere you see trees packing on the moss, including downtown streets like this one.

Porch Guy is eyeing me, and I spend a nano-second or two wondering if he would be reassured or insulted to learn I am taking a picture of the tree, not him…

Who cares, back to the moss. Moss spreading down tree trunks right to the curb-side ground …

fattening branches to shaggy splendour …

creating mossblots …

snuggling down with other moss-family relations and a lichen or two …

and popping up in emerald bubbles against streaky bark.

The scene is just as luxuriant, and a lot more lyrical, out at the VanDusen Botanical Garden. (It also lets me look like I know what I’m talking about, since most trees are tagged.)

Red Maples compensate with moss for their loss of leaves …

[

and a Black Elder flashes green against the dramatic backdrop of rusty orange across the Garden’s Cypress Pond.

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of Bald Cypress trees in the vicinity, and all that vivid orange is their needlework. They’re no slouch in the moss department either, whether on solid land or growing in the water …

I mean, look closer — even their knobby knees are covered in moss!

In this temperate rainforest climate, winter moss doesn’t just leap all over the trees, it will happily grow on pretty well any wooden surface that presents itself.

Including the shingled rooftop of this temporary Festival of Lights kiosk, in stark contrast to the undulating lines of the Visitor Centre’s permanent rooftop just behind & above.

 

Gore St., Sunday Morning

24 November 2019 – Gore north of Keefer, not the tourist-poster part of town. But no reason not to look about with appreciative eyes.

There’s Madonna of the Crows …

and Wild Rose of the Alley …

and Multi-Roses of the Roller-Door …

and Still Life with Hydro Poles.

And with Crows!

One definitely nature morte, two tiers up …

the other right up top, and just as definitely vivante.

  • WALKING… & SEEING

    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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