The City with the Photoshopped Sky

The server says she’d come out from Ottawa to work in Whistler. A ski bum. A bit of working in the winter and then some travel in the summer. But it didn’t work out. It lasted two weeks, she says. Now here she is in Vancouver, landed in a shift job serving discount ale on a Sunday at this particular iteration of whatever bourgeois chain of gastro-sameness we were in at the time. She’ll be going home soon enough, back to Ontario and back to university, most likely. Back to the city of bureaucrats and big mouths resting on tired, leftover big suits. It’s an interesting story, but not half as interesting as it would be if it weren’t the same one being re-told by a thousand different faces with a million words describing the same basic plot, with only the return destination slightly changed. This time it’s the East, next time somewhere with a more antipodean feel.

Saturday morning, and an American couple are buying breakfast at a Gastown coffee shop, kitty corner to a youth hostel that specializes in cheap rooms and cheaper beer at the pub on the main floor, served in copious amounts to the blabbering throngs sitting at the long wooden tables exercising the communal desire for whatever night it is to be the best night of the trip. That time we got wasted in Vancouver. That night we all lost our minds by the Pacific Ocean. Just to have the story. Just to have the experience. Just to have one more memory to fight off the endless string of days to come, circling the drain in some over-padded office chair face-to-face with a screen that reflects your proletarian depression. Just to have a story to tell the other softening parents at the water park this weekend. Just to change the subject from your mortgage or how many miles to the gallon you get in your goddamned crossover SUV that you know drinks fuel but is just too freaking practical to not have, you know? I mean, where is the dog going to go in anything smaller? Nowhere, I’m telling you. We looked at that wagon, but it just wasn’t practical. Especially with another one on the way. Just not practical.

These Americans drinking coffee are already past those chats and into the golden years and twilight hours of the kind of boomer retirement that their kids and grandkids will talk about in thirty years like it was some decadent myth from a fantasy age of blissful consumer gorging. The afternoon is for Seeing The City and will probably at some point deposit the American couple at the steam clock, a ten minute walk in 23-degree heat under partial clouds. Maybe they’ll get there in time to hear it chime its tune. If not, they’ll have to wait for the quarter hour mark, lingering a bit with the rest of the crowd who all read the same sentence in the guidebook and duly showed up, taking in the recent gentrification, waiting and hoping for something more or less authentic to happen.

The clock will chime out, on schedule. It’s a success again and again, a crowd pleaser for the whole family – Vancouver’s addition to its own projected persona, the figment of the not-so-distant past when it appeared as a necessary piece of city lore, conjured up and put in place for that true authentic old tyme harbour feel sometime in the 1970s; a bit of transplanted history for the cameras clicking from the sightseeing busses rumbling past on the cobblestones, their loudspeakers projecting the incoherent fuzz of amplified script, read six times daily for a special discount rate when bundled with a pass to the aquarium in Stanley Park. And just in case you missed it, there’s a postcard booklet waiting in the shop at the next stop with all the clouds photoshopped out. Hop off. Hop on.

The new Wes Anderson movie draws the hipster mob to the 9pm showing on Cambie Street – a shuffling mass of aging American Apparel tees and battered Converse about to take in the self-derivative, high-cuffed world of a re-imagined 1965. This particular crowd has foregone the corporate theatre downtown, the monolith on Burrard where the kids from West Van temporarily store their BMWs on parking level One Thousand, safely stowed away in the earth until they need them to race down Georgia and back across the Lion’s Gate in a couple hours after a few drinks under the neon glow of Granville Street. Back to the houses their parents bought when they moved from abroad for a better life.

The Cambie crowd doesn’t want any part of that Vancouver. They’re more at home in the gluten-free world of Commercial Drive – one so different than the suburban stucco neighbourhood they left back in Kamloops eight months ago before they made it here and swore to only leave when they have enough money to travel the Asian subcontinent for like maybe a year or something to have their minds freed and their faces melted on Ko Pha Ngan. Before they came here for something real, for a community they can really feel, for a sense of belonging, away from all the nothingness of the Interior or the corporate world of the East or the oil world of Alberta. They’re the poster children for the mental photographs and verbal marketing that disseminates around the continent, spreading the vision and the rumour of a Vancouver For Anyone, the kind of ultra-cool city on the edge of everything where your job description should always reflect what kind of artist you happen to be either imitating or representing at that very second. Where the drugs are cheap and the rent is high and the junkies are ghettoized. And where everyone gets to call it all world-class because there’s some mountains and an inlet.

It’s the city state at the shores of Canada where nobody can hear you over the mountains and where the voices of the rest of the country are only a faint whisper below the crashing surf. A geographical isolation chamber. You come here to escape and to bask in the reflected physical beauty as if it were a symbol for your own refreshed and rediscovered personality. If it’s beautiful here and you are here then you are all part of something beautiful. All part of the stuff of postcards and photographs and Gastown shops. The aesthetic runoff of the tourist city.

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