What makes a real city real?
On the afternoon of September 11, 2004, in a Lebanese café on Hastings Street near Victory Square in Vancouver, a heavy-set older man in a windbreaker and baseball cap who had been chatting quietly with the proprietor began to speak up in a remarkable gravelly voice on the subject of what was wrong with this city; or, to put it another way, he said to the proprietor in measured tones, I can tell you what this city needs, what this town doesn’t have nearly enough of, he said, is more shots fired. He paused with these words and it was clear now that he was addressing not only the proprietor, an amiable man in an embroidered flat-topped cap who was standing behind the counter, but everyone in the café, young women and men sitting alone or in pairs at tiny tables and along the tiny counter, students from the downtown university campus and the film school at the end of the block, with their books and magazines and hushed conversations, all of whom ceased talking or reading or staring out the window to look over at the proprietor and the gravelly-voiced man in the windbreaker, who seemed, to me at least, to be an unlikely connoisseur of baba ghanouj, tabbouleh, hummus or the falafel wrapped in pita that lay on the plate before him; he held a folded newspaper in his hand as if it were a pointer or a wand; he was forceful but not unfriendly; in fact he was smiling.
The proprietor remained attentive but uncommitted; he seemed to be a man of considerable equanimity. Earlier when I had asked for a bowl of lentil soup, for example, from my stool at the other end of the counter, he met my gaze solemnly with a nod that seemed to seal a pact between us that would never be broken. Perhaps it was his trusting and at the same time conspiratorial manner that encouraged the gravelly-voiced man in the windbreaker to speak so forthrightly to a room full of strangers, all of whom had fallen silent at the words more shots fired, and remained silent as he went on to describe a recent journey in a pickup truck along the coastal highway through California, Oregon and Washington, accompanied by his faithful dog Alf, whom he referred to as his best living friend. Now in this city here, he said, as he returned to his theme in the same measured tones, you got a fine city here, don’t get me wrong, a good city, a good-looking city, but you can’t call it a real city. You go to L.A. to get real, he said. As much as I admire this city, he said, but this city is not real like L.A. is real. That’s where what you need is more shots fired. Say what you want about L.A., but you go to L.A., you get shots fired, lots of shots fired.
None of the other diners offered to contradict or to affirm these remarks delivered with such authority by the gravelly-voiced man, who now looked confidently along the counter toward me and toward the other diners, inviting a response from any who wished to speak. But no one spoke; perhaps, being young film students and university students, and a marijuana advocate or two from the paraphernalia shop across the street, they felt that the gravelly-voiced man in the windbreaker was in some disquieting way right in his call for more shots fired; but to agree with him would be to collude in an unpleasant truth about ideas of urbanity and the city, and to argue with him would be to expose oneself as naïve and foolish. Eventually a young man at the front of the café spoke up, only to ask the gravelly-voiced man in the windbreaker if the truck parked outside was the one he had been speaking of, and if so, would it be cool for him to go out and say hello to the dog? Better than that, I’ll introduce you personally, said the gravelly-voiced man, and he and the young man stepped out onto the sidewalk and no more was heard, during the remainder of my time in the Lebanese café, of L.A., shots fired and/or the more general question of the real in cities. In another moment all was nearly as it had been when I entered the Lebanese café, low conversations, occasional eye contact, falafels and lentils, baba ghanouj, but one could still feel an after-effect lingering in the air, a continuing reverberation, the consequence and the promise or the possibility of needing more, more shots perhaps, more shots fired.
The lentil soup was, unsurprisingly, superb, thick and savoury, possibly the best lentil soup I had ever tasted. I slipped along the counter and scooped the newspaper left behind by the gravelly-voiced man and read on the arts page an account of the International 3-Day Novel Writing Contest, which had been founded thirty-four years earlier, shortly before closing time in the Piccadilly Bar, three blocks from where I was sitting, followed by a report of the City of Vancouver Book Award, which had been won by Maggie de Vries for Missing Sarah, a biography of her sister, one of the twenty-seven or possibly fifty-six or even sixty-five women taken from the streets a few blocks away from the Lebanese café and possibly murdered on the pig farm in Coquitlam or somewhere nearby over a period of years while the police failed to investigate or even to keep an accurate tally of the missing or the dead.
The question of what made a real city real, as implied by the remarks of the gravelly-voiced man in the windbreaker, had coloured my attention, which I could feel seeking signs of the real in the news of the day. The front page carried a so-called exposé of the business holdings of the Hell’s Angels, which included nightclubs, coffee shops, a travel company, trucking firm, supermarket and chocolate factory, but clearly the business dealings of the Hell’s Angels were not an element of the real in the sense that the man in the windbreaker had intended and as I think all of us in the café, fellow diners, the proprietor and myself, had understood it while he was speaking; and in fact the Hell’s Angels story in the newspaper was so long and so boring that no one, not me and certainly not the gravelly-voiced man who had been flourishing the same newspaper like a wand during his address, and who, as I left the café and turned down Hastings Street toward Victory Square, was out on the sidewalk looking into the passenger window of his pickup truck with the young man who wanted to say hello to the dog Alf, would be likely to read it to the end.
How did more shots fired represent what we miss in life, in city life, I wondered: during our lives in cities, I mean, in this city. What can we mean by more shots fired, words never spoken in cafés or restaurants, or on public transit, but nevertheless words to conjure with, words that conjure a world of dark passages and lurid behaviours; a matter of aesthetics, I wanted to say as I walked down Hastings from the Lebanese café on my birthday, although I had forgotten that it was my birthday, a cloudy Saturday, a day well suited to walking along with nothing much on one’s mind. Who, after all, yearns for shots fired, I wanted to ask or to have asked, in the Lebanese café. Surely, had I thought of it in time, I would have or could have pointed out to the gravelly-voiced man in the wind- breaker that an apparent lack of shots fired, encountered after a journey along the winding, scenic, bucolic highway up from L.A. along the Pacific coast and over the border, was in fact a lack of reports of shots fired; and doesn’t the phrase shots fired refer to shots not heard by those who read or hear reports of shots fired, a phrase that itself emerges from textures woven by journalists, photographers, novelists, movie makers, news reporters and the like, whose trade is to wrap a veil of the real around the unreal ordinary city, so to speak, always with one proviso: that the real remain at a distance, just around the corner or over on another side of town, a darker place of mysterious byways and elusive histories, such as the Downtown Eastside, which lay beyond Hamilton Street at the Hastings Street intersection where I paused and looked over into Victory Square at the cenotaph rising up and the grounds around it recently terraced in such a way as to render them unsuitable for the tents of the homeless.
I felt confounded by this question of the real, and no matter what I imagined myself saying to the gravelly-voiced man in the windbreaker, or to the other diners in the Lebanese café, I couldn’t shake the feeling that indeed what cities needed, in order to fill an obscure but real requirement, lay in the requirement more shots fired.
The facade of the cenotaph in Victory Square bears a text carved in gleaming capital letters coated with gold paint that I often recited to myself when I was in the neighbourhood: IS IT NOTHING TO YOV ALL YE THAT PASS BY. Now I said it aloud: YOV. What kind of city says YOV when rebuking its citizens? Beside me, on the wall of an empty bank building, hung a bronze plaque memorializing the land commissioner for the CPR, a man named Hamilton, who, in 1885, according to the plaque-writer, IN THE SILENT SOLITUDE OF the Primeval Forest drove a wooden stake in the earth and commenced to measure an empty land into the streets of Vancouver. Here was an urbanity that denied the gravelly-voiced man, a vision of the city emerging from silence, from an unpeopled vastness, inoculated with a wooden stake against the lurid, the criminal, the world of shots fired, of reality, of any reality at all.
I crossed Hamilton Street and Victory Square and went up to the entrance to the six-storey building on the corner that had been head office of the daily newspaper, to read another, smaller plaque memorializing the Reading of the Riot Act by the Mayor, in 1935, on the steps of the cenotaph, before a thousand or more unemployed men who were refusing to work in labour camps for ten cents a day. The photograph on the front page of the newspaper shows the mayor from above, brandishing a sheet of paper, presumably the Act itself, on the cenotaph steps surrounded by police officers armed with tear-gas canisters and truncheons; junior reporters and photographers had merely to hang out of the windows in the six-storey building to get their materials for the big story. The senior reporters were with the chief of police over in the courthouse on Georgia Street, attending the even bigger story of his trial for corruption and conspiracy, a lurid tale of high-level cops in low-level dives, joyrides in the police boat with notorious procurers and known white-slavers, late-night feasts of chicken, rolls, whisky, beer, champagne, and the bagpipe-playing of a constable named Johnson—sensational events for a city born in empty silence; for some weeks traces of the lurid, alluring world implied by more shots fired can be found in the newspapers of the day, but not on the memorial plaques.
Since that Saturday in September, I am often reminded of the gravelly- voiced man in the Lebanese café by newspaper headlines and radio newscasts. A few days ago the local CBC news described a jewellery store robbery as a brazen heist, a phrase that belongs with shots fired in a certain lexicon, and indeed, the announcer went on to report both a shot fired and then more shots fired. Closer to my home, during the first week of September 2010, several headlines reported a murdered man found stuffed in trunk in a parking lot miles away from the murder scene identified by police as a warehouse on Victoria Diversion, around the corner from where I live on the east side. Stuffed in trunk: were there shots fired as well, I wondered.
On Saturday, the 11th of September, I went for a birthday walk along Victoria Diversion, a two-block stretch of cinder-block and wood-frame warehouses, and found the crime scene, a crumbling single-storey structure housing a liquidation centre identified by hand-painted signs offering bicycles, cans of paint, decorations, tables, chairs and other liquidation items for sale wholesale to the public, at enormous discounts.
I approached the entrance and peered into a dark interior lined with wooden shelving and cardboard boxes spilling over onto the floor, and felt my neighbourhood enjoined in the texture of urbanity revealed briefly in the Lebanese café: a world of shots fired, bodies stuffed in trunks, decrepit warehouses, empty bank buildings, corrupt police chiefs; as well as the distant scream of sirens, helicopters throbbing overhead late at night, signs of the real that the gravelly-voiced man in the windbreaker, having emerged from the wilderness accompanied by the dog Alf, had prophesied on my birthday in the Lebanese café.
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