Photo by Mandelbrot
The pedestrian flow on a Friday afternoon
For a few days in June, when the gloom lifted briefly, it was possible to stroll through Vancouver in sunlight, which is what cities are meant for: to steal away and plunge into them, into the pedestrian flow, to dawdle along, to offer oneself to the passing scene. On Robson Street in front of the art gallery, where the sidewalk widens into a plaza, the passing scene on Friday afternoon included shoppers, office workers, tourists in oversized running shoes, joggers, cyclists, mothers with baby carriages, pensioners, police officers, skateboarders, panhandlers, drug dealers, lawyers, judges, court clerks, curators and labourers, possibly even bankers, venture capitalists, clergymen in street clothes, at least one editor—all streaming along in bright sunlight, save for a handful who had been drawn toward a confident young man in shorts and T-shirt and a black porkpie hat who was plunking brass cups down onto a tiny fold-up table and lifting them up to reveal small rubber balls where there had been none moments before. “Now watch closely, everyone,” he said. “My grandfather taught me this in Hong Kong in the old days—when we used to scam the tourists,” and the balls under the cups continued to disappear and reappear as if by magic. The performance seemed nearly to be done, and then the young man began to explain in rapid-fire patter how the trick worked. “You see, people—it’s all an illusion!” he cried out, and he turned up another cup and out popped a big navel orange, and then another and another, and soon there were half a dozen oranges rolling around on the table, in which no trap doors were evident anywhere. In a closing flourish he raised the porkpie hat, which had been sitting on the table, to reveal in the clear light of day an enormous green cantaloupe as big as his head.
A few metres away, under a stand of Japanese maple trees rising from holes cut into the sidewalk, a colony of brooding chess players huddled over chessboards set out on low benches: men wearing cardigan sweaters and windbreakers, padded vests, peaked caps, the occasional fedora or beret. Other similar men stood nearby, closely observing the play. All of them (young and old) bore themselves like grandfathers: at once aficionados and men of the world. Many were smoking intensely, and patted their pockets without looking away from the game when they needed a light. There was a hush in the blue smoky air here in this manly redoubt only a metre from the most crowded stretch of sidewalk in the city. As I lingered among the aficionados awash in secondhand cigarette smoke, waiting out one endgame and then another, I tried and failed to recall the gambits that I had known in the grade 9 chess club. Each player had his own way of grasping the pieces on the board, some with thumb and forefinger, a quick lifting; others taking hold of a pawn, bishop, knight, castle, queen by a kind of sleight of hand—a brief vanishing and then the piece reappears tucked in the palm of the hand, in signature gestures that bestow reality on things and acts. Later I remembered a middle-aged woman in a shabby hooded sweater who appeared briefly beneath the maple trees, holding out a hand for coins. She spoke or whispered to each group in turn, but no one seemed (in my memory) to hear her. Had she even been there?
Eventually I withdrew from the sun-dappled shade, the cigarette smoke, the anachronistic world of men and chess, into a more deeply shaded enclave farther along the side of the art gallery nearly devoid of pedestrians, where between ponderous linden trees sits a monumental fountain dedicated to the memory of Edward VII, the British king who died in 1908. A few years ago, on another bright day in June when I first stepped into this enclosure, which resembles a Greek temple in the open air, a man carrying a bicycle mounted the stairs behind me. He wore bright yellow cycling gear and cleated shoes that clattered on the concrete. He leaned the bicycle against a pillar and stepped up to the basin of the fountain, which held a pool of water filled with life forms swimming in slime, put his hands together as if in prayer, and lifted his gaze to the bronze profile of Edward VII set into the main plinth about a foot above eye level. After a moment he turned to me and said in a disarmingly straightforward way, as if we were already in conversation: “This spot is very peaceful, is it not?” He resembled a brightly coloured grasshopper in his pod-shaped helmet with the black markings, and his spindly legs wrapped in black mesh. “How are you interested in Edward the Seventh?” I said. “No one remembers King Edward any more.” “Oh it’s not Edward the king that interests me,” he said, and he went on to explain that he had been passing by and thinking of a friend who would be departing that night on a dangerous journey. “My friend’s name is Edward,” he said. “The same as the name on this monument inscribed in letters large enough, as you can see, to be read from the street—and so I stopped here to offer a prayer for the well-being of my friend.” He said that he had parted from his friend less than an hour ago, at a meeting of people from many countries engaged, as he put it, in the spiritual practice of Falun Gong. Edward was a schoolteacher, and he was setting out to teach school in the jungles of South America. I asked if his friend was a teacher of Falun Gong. “No, no,” he said. “Edward and I are only practitioners. I myself am of Japanese descent. I was born in Steveston on the Fraser River and now live in Mission, which as you might know is eighty kilometres up the valley.” He said that his family had lost their home when they were interned as enemy aliens during the war, which surprised me—he seemed too young to have been alive in the war—but then it occurred to me that by his family he meant the family of his parents. Neither of us mentioned the continuing effort of the mayor of Vancouver to remove the Falun Gong demonstrators from the sidewalk in front of the Chinese Consulate on Granville Street, where for several years they have been protesting the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners by the Chinese government. He said that he had met his friend Edward at the gathering of Falun Gong that he had just left, and so they had known each other for less than twenty-four hours. “If it weren’t for this monument to Edward VII,” he said, “I probably would not have been moved to offer a prayer for my new friend, and as I think about it now, as we are speaking, I may have overestimated the dangers awaiting him in the jungles of South America. But then had I not had such a fear,” he went on to say, “we would not be having this conversation,” and with those words he offered me his hand. He was wearing half-gloves and I could feel the smooth flesh of his fingers where they emerged from the mesh at the knuckle. He turned away from the pool of light in which we were standing, and clattered down the steps in his cleated shoes and mounted his bicycle, and then he was off, one presumes, on the long road home to Mission.
When Edward VII was the king of England (I learned only recently), he was visited in the summer of 1906 by a Squamish chief who had been organizing resistance to the usurpation of First Nations from their lands in British Columbia. As a token of his rank and a sign of respect for the King, the chief had been given the powerful name of Capilano before he crossed Burrard Inlet in a canoe and, in a procession led by a brass band, walked to the CPR station at the bottom of Granville Street, where he boarded the train to Montreal. Chief Capilano was accompanied on his journey across the country and then across the Atlantic Ocean by David Basil of the Shuswap and Chillihitza of the Okanagan. When the delegation arrived in London (to the distress of the Canadian government), they were given a tour of Westminster Abbey, where they saw the tomb of Edward the Confessor, who founded the Abbey in 1066, and the tomb of his namesake Edward I, who in his turn was the namesake of Edward VII, who, when he received them, expressed sympathy for the First Nations who had lost their homelands without treaty as laid out in detail in the petition they carried with them, and the King suggested that something would be done, eventually. The delegation returned to Canada bearing signed photographs of Edward VII, whose ancestors had passed down their power to him over more than a thousand years. The promise that the delegates received, and word of which bore home (where they were threatened with charges of sedition and disturbing the peace), is the promise of all the Edwards, which a hundred years later are yet to be redeemed. I had been wrong when I said to the cycling man that no one remembers Edward any more.