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Archive for January, 2014

SkyTrain

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Whenever I need to go to downtown Vancouver as part of my work, I use the SkyTrain from Scott Road, where there is plenty of parking for $3 a day, and that is where I found myself last Thursday.

I joined the long queue to buy a parking ticket at one of the 3 machines, one of which, it seems, always fails to read your credit card, and who carries cash anymore?

One elderly gentleman was tying up a machine with his struggles to understand what to do and how to get his card read, and a nice young woman was tying up the next machine while she looked over to help him. She ended up buying him his ticket, since the machines do not read debit cards. Rather than getting crabby and impatient, people in the queue seemed genuinely interested in the little scene ahead, and were equally as impressed as me by the generosity of the young woman.

Last Thursday started with quite a lot of fog, but by the time I was on the train it was lifting along the Fraser River and as we traveled west through the suburbs.

There was something about the day: it wasn’t raining for starters, and was shaping up to be bright and sunny and warm. It was a time of day when most of the passengers were clearly heading into work in the city: they were all freshly scrubbed, quiet, polite, immersed in books and mobile devices, but also aware of others, stepping out of the way as needed etc. Many people had headphones on, but none so loud that you get that bothersome tinny racket that spills out, so it really was quite peaceful and…well…civilized.

As the train wound its way through New West, Burnaby and East Vancouver, I got a good view of the variety of neighbourhoods, commercial and residential, some richer than others, but all (it seemed on this day) to be at peace, and although even the nicest gardens can look a bit scruffy at this time of year, everywhere seemed to be in order, and calm.

It reminded of Japan, or Germany, and I would imagine Scandinavia: countries where the culture and circumstances always seem to lean towards higher expectations for order and a personal sense of responsibility for looking after what you have. “Conservative” in the original sense of the word, a sense now sadly lost.

(I don’t often think of Canada as being neat and tidy: there is so much space that things spread and sprawl so easily, and city planning has been non-existent until quite recently. I always chuckle when Americans talk fondly about Canada as being so clean and safe and well-organized, even when they have only been to Toronto! And when the planners do get involved you can end up with contrived and sterile spaces like much of Coal Harbour, though not so much at False Creek, where more of a balance has been achieved. In East Vancouver, if you are looking out of the right hand window travelling west, there is a neat cob shed in one of the back yards: quintessentially East Van, scruffy but purposeful.)

With the mountains revealing themselves and the great vistas to the south of the Fraser River estuary, I was reminded that most other cities pale in comparison with Metro Vancouver, and on this day, quite out of the blue, it seemed to me to be magical. A wave of contentment came over me: I felt blessed, in the way that W.B. Yeats put it in Vacillation:

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

That such lasts about 20 minutes is about right, because, in sharp contrast to that mood, my mind drifted to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and the astonishing opening sequence where, between the blades of grass in the perfectly manicured lawns of the nicest of neighbourhoods, there exists a continuous life and death struggle in the insect world.

Likewise, when flying into Metro Vancouver, you look down and everything in miniature looks civilized and wonderful, but you know there are heinous crimes and injustices going on between the “blades of grass”: some individual, some societal; some we like to talk about (and which inspire us to dress in gaily-coloured T-shirts as we run for the cause), and some we do not like to dwell upon too much.

The sense of contentment was also dashed by reading a few sensationalist headlines of murders and other local crimes in the free daily rag they hand out at stations closer to the city, and when I arrived at my meeting, I found out that others who were driving in would be late because of a pedestrian fatality at a key intersection.

Still, those moments on the SkyTrain, of happiness and of a sense of community with my fellow passengers and with the region we live in, are what I will remember: the dark stuff we will always have with us.