The Kindness of Strangers

1 June 2020 – The kindness of strangers did not, in the end, protect Blanche DuBois from the rest of her Streetcar Named Desire realities, but it did give her many moments of joy. Nor does it protect me and others in my Vancouver neighbourhood from pandemic realities, or from reverberations of the fury currently sweeping the entire nation to our south.

Even so. Each walk reveals to me tangible acts of kindness by people I don’t know, by strangers, deliberately carried out for my pleasure and that of everyone else passing by on the street.

Kindness is also real. And more important right now than ever.

It may be a bench, placed in tended gravel under a tree at road’s edge, so that we may sit a moment and enjoy someone’s garden …

or a planter also at road’s edge, bright with ornaments, kept company by painted stones beside a utility pole …

or a fabric toy perched on a tree-trunk bole, the bole itself decorated.

It may be a block-long sweep of garden outside a property owner’s fence — this one on Quebec Street, for example — meant to delight passers-by on the sidewalk. In this case the fence itself is rich with ornamentation, something I celebrated in a May 2019 post and still celebrate every time I walk by.

Or, the act of kindness may be the explanatory sign on a fence that entirely fails to contain that yard’s explosion of monster leaves. The leaves are a good two feet in diameter on stalks some four feet high, so an explanation does seem called for.

Not that the explanation helps a lot. Unless you are adept at deciphering young-child printing, or are a taxonomy fiend yourself.

I am neither, but I have an impressively credentialed, taxonomy-fiend friend, who sent me to a link for Petasites hybridus (aka Butterbur, Devil’s Hat, Bog Rhubarb). It is a member of the Daisy family, can you believe it, and described as “aggressive.” That last part is easy to believe.

I am entirely charmed by the child, who wants us to learn all this, and by the kindness of the adult who encouraged the child and facilitated the signage.

Then there are the local traffic circles.

Not just concrete relics of a disappearing form of regulation but, under Vancouver’s Green Streets Program, a place where volunteers can indulge their green thumbs and make the rest of us happy at the same time.

Often these anonymous gardeners tuck in extras along with the plants. A birdbath, for example …

or two bright red chairs, socially distanced across a freshly bark-chipped path, and affording a splendid view on north into Dude Chilling Park.

On the subject of chairs! Anonymous donors are leaving gifts of chairs in parks and by sidewalks, providing additional places for isolation-weary pedestrians to sit a moment and enjoy being outside.

Here is just one example. True, here as elsewhere, these are clearly chairs the original owners no longer want, but this is a thoughtful way to dispose of them.

Two more chairs offered through the kindness of strangers — but nothing ready-for-a-thrift-shop about these.

They are splendid examples of what I know as Muskoka chairs, tucked beneath lantern-adorned tree boughs in this peaceful nook next to Sahali Community Garden, itself adjacent to Sahali Park.

The gentleman looks up from his book long enough to say this space is open to all, courtesy of the Community Garden, and adds that the chairs were made by a woodworker who lives right across the street.

I am delighted to hear this nook is an initiative of the Community Garden, and tell him my own story of one member’s kindness to a stranger.

Just last week, I say, I was walking through the park, and admired the arm-load of Bee balm (Monarda didyma) being carried by a woman going the other way. She thrust it into my arms, saying she was just trying to clear a path in the Community Garden, where the plant was running riot.

So I took it home, where it looked absolutely wonderful, next to my very own Muskoka chair.

Jalan-Jalan

27 June 2018 – It’s one of my favourite remembered scraps of Indonesian: literally “street-street,” meaning “out & about” or “wandering around” or — channelling 1980s British dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse — “Walkies!”

The day is breezy-sunny, perfect for a nice long street-street. Feet-feet, come to that, because I really am just following my feet, seeing where they’d like to go and tagging along after them.

My feet & I, we head under the south-side ramps for the Cambie Street bridge …

plonk ourselves into one of the Muskoka chairs at Spyglass Dock for a bit, to listen to the current passing pianist …

and then trot off eastward along False Creek.

We walk the stone labyrinth at water’s edge opposite Hinge Park. While my feet are busy tracing the path …

my mind is busy chanting a graffito I once saw on a Toronto wall, the words neatly spiralled inward, with the final word at the centre.

Trace your sources to their roots

and they will find you laughing.

My old copy-editor self has always fretted about the ambiguous “they” reference. Your sources? Or your roots? And then I always shrug, because it doesn’t matter, does it? Whatever it is, I love that, at its heart, it will reward you with laughter.

Off the eastern end of False Creek, over to the Pacific Central Station for a (premature, it turns out) query about train service, and then I find myself not heading for the north side of False Creek, as I thought I had intended. Nope! I’m all street-street / feet-feet into Chinatown. Well, there’s a surprise, but I’m happy to follow my feet.

First a half-block along Station Street, to get a bit closer to those murals opposite the park, high over the back side of Campagnolo Restaurant. (Rustic Italian, its website later tells me, and once a Condé Nast Traveller choice as a hot new restaurant worth noting.)

Then my feet double me around to Main Street again. I start north, past the resto’s invitation to come on in for lunch.

I don’t. I keep walking, curious to see what I’ll see. Even a scruffy wall glitters in the sunlight, a kind of exercise in found colour blocking.

Bold advertising as I turn east on Keefer from Main …

and for an establishment NOT to be confused with the much classier Keefer Suites, same street but several polite blocks farther west.

My feet & I, we just keep ambling around. On Gore now, approaching East Pender, I blink at these bright emerald doors.

Marked “E” for Emerald Supper Club, I discover. Later, I see the website promises “a mix of old school vegas glamour with a little bit of anything goes attitude,” not that I can vouch for it personally.

Turn my head left, and there’s something I can vouch for — yet another of Chinatown’s sidewalk cornucopias of foodstuffs. Texture, colour, aroma, variety! Splendid.

I pivot around the lamp standard at the street corner, admiring the embedded brass lettering as I turn west onto East Pender …

and then, before I get to Main Street again, I stop in some confusion.

Does that sign really say Klaus Koffee Haus? Here in the heart of Chinatown?

I peer through its long front window, thrown open to the street. A young waiter smiles back out at me — as cosmopolitan as the restaurant, I later discover, with his Cajun/Cherokee/African American/Caucasian ancestry — and confirms that yes, this is an Austrian restaurant. With Italian and other comfort-food standards thrown in.

Who could resist? I go in, take a stool at the window ledge, and have myself a bowl of goulash while I consider the street’s array of other offerings, one after another, all the way down the block.

Continental Herbal, Kam Tong Enterprises, Kiu Yick Books, the Dollar Meat Store, Tinland Cooking, Care Home Mart. And just beyond all that, Vegan Supplies and frozen Dim Sum.

Truth is, I don’t visit any of them. But I am very happy they exist.

Back on Main, still heading north, almost at Powell, it’s street-art time. Can’t admire the barrel’s contents, namely a dead tree, but I am quite taken by the artwork.

The animals, I decide, have a semi-feral edge that I respect.

Westward on Powell now, getting closer to Gastown and entertainment/tourist territory. A wowzer of a mural, large enough to admire from afar and a good thing too, since I’d have to leap barricades and construction workers to get any closer.

A bit farther west, and this time it’s a good thing I can admire close up, because I need to read the words.

Very odd. I like it a lot.

Then I’m into Gastown and the shops and services are upmarket, and I go all reverse-snob and put away my camera.

My feet & I decide to hop a bus and ride back home.

 

 

“Everything talks…”

16 July 2017 – Apparently mum used to waltz toddler-me around the place, crying “Everything talks, in our house!” and inventing dialogue among assorted inanimate objects to prove her point. It surely amused me, seems to have imprinted me: I have a vaguely animist view of the world, and now amuse myself with multi-stream messages as I go about my day.

A row of Muskoka chairs at Spyglass Dock on False Creek, for example.

Happy messages, starting with the visual — bright & cheery on a bright, cheerful day. A slew of memory-messages as well: Muskoka chairs by lakes in Muskoka itself; more of them in Toronto parks bordering Lake Ontario; now here by tidal False Creek in Vancouver; all of them an invitation to relax & enjoy. And so an emotional message of gratitude: how lucky I am, to live where public space offers such enjoyment, and it may safely be enjoyed.

Walk-walk eastward along False Creek — my Tuesday walking ritual appears reborn, here on the Left Coast — and eventually we run out of water, continue along East 1st Av. into a once-grungy part of town being reborn with art galleries, studios, housing & (surely the magnet) relocated Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Another message, a wall mural, talks to us. Or, perhaps, at us. We are befuddled.

It is large, in clear text, and in English. What’s our problem?

I am still befuddled about the word-message, but I like the Look-At-Me message. Something well-executed, provoking (best sense of the word) and in public space? All good.

Into a gallery, where there are some painting-paintings, and then there is … well… another example of a message delivered large, in clear text, and in English.

We are not befuddled. But we do break our museum-cool sufficiently long enough to giggle.

Don’t answer that.

Jump forward a day. This time I’m on my own. I’d planned to walk back up to the VanDusen Botanical Garden (worth many visits), but get diverted. As I often do.

I find myself in Shaughnessy Park, a small and simple lozenge of tree-hung space on a height of land near Granville Street. No amenities except benches, under the trees.

I lean back on a bench, relax into the bench, look overhead.

What talks here? Eye and ear messages, both. Sun shimmering through the trees, dancing green air, occasional background rattles of crow or squirrel. Occasional car-whooshes, too, but dialled ‘way down to insignificance by my calmed & peaceful brain.

A different sound claims my ear, when, eventually, I pick myself up to head home.

Do-mi-la.

Not a human whistle, definitely mechanical, but still sweet not harsh. (And so much more interesting than do-mi-so would have been!) Again. Do-mi-la. And again …

My eyes follow my ears to a young City Maintenance worker at an open sewer grating. The three tones die away yet again as she reads the instrument in her hand & calls out, “Got it.”

I follow her to her truck. “?????” I ask.

One worker sends the tone from one open grating, she explains; the other waits to receive it at the next. If, when and how the tone arrives tells them if there is any blockage in the water line, where, and how much. No need to drop cameras into the system any more. (Let alone small children with goggles & fins, as my Dickensian imagination would have it.)

Music is the message. It talks. I love it.

I am in a seriously up-market residential neighbourhood, I suddenly realize. All subdued anglo-elegance. Complete with a sense of civic responsibility.

I admire, as I am surely meant to do.

Next sign? Not so friendly. But delivering an equally clear message.

Right. Got it.

The rare gate (locked, of course) that doesn’t have a dog-warning sign to go with its intercom system has this kind of sign instead:

Right. Got that, too.

It is a relief, some blocks later, to find myself in less-elevated — all senses of the word — terrain. Where a sidewalk offers me quite a different message.

I hop my way through it. Of course I do. Thank you, chalk-on-sidewalk! Good humour is restored.

And then, ooooo, another dog-related message. Except this time it is to the dogs, not about them.

As I get up from my photo-taking crouch, I see an approaching woman sink to her own crouch at a companion sign at the other end of the garden. I wait for her to read it. She gets up. We grin at each other. Nice.

I turn left at the playhouse at the corner (itself a kid-happy message) …

and think: “That’s it.”

I put away the camera, lengthen my stride.

And stop short for one more message.

‘Cause any time someone wants to love the whole world, I’m happy to help them spread the message.

POP! Go the Chairs

22 January 2017 – It is a totally pissy day (dull, damp, raw, intermittent rain-spittle), & I march out into it anyway.

And I am rewarded.

If waterfront summertime chairs can be this cheerful, if they can go POP! despite the weather, who am I not to join in?

chairs in Harbour Square Park, lakefront & Bay St

I’m in Harbour Square Park, by Lake Ontario just opposite the ferry terminal, starting to walk west along the lake and thinking how my attitude has changed to out-of-season accessories. Such as these Muskoka chairs, for example.

I used to sneer — yes, peaceful broadminded me — when confronted by public facilities designed, so I thought, for one season only. And for summer at that. When we inhabit, in fact, a primarily not-summer environment.

Now I delight in them — the chairs, the huge umbrellas at HTO Park and Sugar Beach, the lot. Why? Because so many others delight in them, and enjoy them year-round. So I am now an old dog with a new attitude. (Woof woof.)

More of those chairs keep popping at me through the drizzle as I walk along.

For example, when I meet Leeward Fleet in Canada Square. Background, but still definitely a presence.

2 of 3 components, Leeward Fleet, Canada Square

I read the signboard, and learn these pivoting structures (by RAW Design) were inspired by iceboat & sailboat technology. “Ancient fleet, blowing in the wind,” says the slogan.

The signboard also excuses me for not having noticed this installation before: it is one of five along Queen’s Quay West that together make up Ice Breakers, an exhibition that only opened yesterday and runs until 26 February.

A little farther west through Harbourfront Park, and my eyes follow my ears, to discover the source of the shrill squeal that fills the air …

marina along Harbourfront Park

Oh, I know, not a Muskoka chair in sight. But we can’t let ourselves be hamstrung by a theme, can we? And the sight does support my “out-of-season” sub-theme. All these little boats in the basin, tucked away for winter, and one man out there anyway — in a T-shirt! — power-drilling his way through an off-season project.

North side of Queen’s Quay, down by the Peter Street Basin, I spot giant hands. And jaywalk to check them out.

Tailored Twins, Queen's Quay W at the Peter Street Basin

Wouldn’t you?

It’s Tailored Twins (Ferris + Associates), another of the Ice Breakers installations, 3-metre-high faceted wooden hands, their golden palms glinting, even on a dark day. “Put your hands where my eyes can see,” says the slogan, and my eyes say thank you.

the west-end of the two hands

Well, that’s fun, and I head back east full of bounce.

Another of the installations, this one Incognito (Curio Art Consultancy and Jaspal Riyait), with — yes — a POP! factor.

Incognito, Queen's Quay W at Rees Street

This time the chairs, highly visible as they are, counter-balance a theme of invisibility. “An invisible city inside a park, can you see it?” The design, the signboard tells me, copies the same camouflaging technique used by World War I warships.

And on east I go, and on, and short winter days mean that by 6 p.m. it is already dark.

I turn north up Jarvis, and at King West see one final chair. This time it is just part of a tableau, and it is the tableau as a whole that goes POP!

through the Second Cup window, Jarvis & King West

I like everything about this scene: a warm, dry refuge glowing into the rainy night; a man ensconced in that refuge, head bent over his acoustic guitar, coffee near to hand.

I pick up the pace, walking on to home. The sooner I am there, the sooner I, too, will have coffee near to hand!

  • 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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