City Lectures

Bryan Zandberg

Strangers in the night

The organizers of tonight’s talk have branded it as a “raw exchange”—part of a series of uncensored literary gatherings around the city—and so they’ve invited three biting B.C. writers to get down to brass tacks for a group of strangers in the basement of the Vancouver Public Library.

By some freak of programming, a punk-metal band is slaying the kids in the room down the hall tonight, which means every time a bookish-looking latecomer wades into our midst, a foul-sounding wave of hellish power chords does, too.

But the authors hold their own in the rawness department, thank you very much. Susan Musgrave, for instance, an exquisite Canadian poet-author with a bank-robber husband, reads a non-fiction piece called “You’re in Canada now, motherfucker.”

The panel as a whole—Musgrave, Stan Persky and George Payerle—is really good. They talk about themselves and about the late Peter Gzowski, wounded sparrows, Diderot, drug runners, jail matrimonials, house cats, ferries, Margaret Atwood, mounties, creativity, George W. Bush, notions of truth and of fiction, mothers and daughters, norms, Berlin, the alphabet, the publishing industry, non-writers, order, the Vancouver Sun, the Queen Charlotte Islands and a miracle having to do with the word oddment. From the audience, George Bowering announces that he has little love for the psychological realism genre.

The rest of us, non-laureates, nod our heads each time we hear something we like, to the point where it’s clear that what we chalk up as literary marrow varies greatly from person to person, whereas the raucous bits make everybody laugh all at once.

On the street afterward, the city crawls with activity. A white kid pedals past, a hipster on a low-riding cruiser trolling Georgia Street. Then a black teenager bikes by with the longest, most ostentatious pair of monkey handlebars I’ve seen in my life. He veers left and right along the sidewalk, and his eyes sift and weigh the pedestrians. Both of them advance aimlessly, as if separately searching for the same thing. I imagine them resistant to going home, reluctant to hear the clap of a screen door behind them, even though houses don’t have screen doors in this town.

I catch a bus heading east and scribble down notes from a conversation taking place in the unlit space near the driver.

I don’t believe in anything he’s saying, a man says, before his voice is drowned out by the electric moan of the trolley.

The voice of a woman surfaces. She says she doesn’t go to church any more, and hasn’t for years.

They use each other’s names but it’s clear they just met a few minutes ago.

She tells him she has family down here and that all of them are on drugs. It’s the intention of your heart that matters, all that other stuff just screws you up, she says. I think she’s referring to church. She punctuates each phrase with a nervous laugh.

Take care, God bless, the man says as he clambers off at a stop still pretty close to downtown.

The bus drones on down the street in silence until a voice says, I understand how bad life can get. It’s the woman again, Veronica, talking to a forty-something man, someone she must have met while I was staring out the window at homeless people and thinking about the forum. Is she lonely and looking? Her laughter is getting louder, a piercing, high laugh that the whine of the electric motors can’t mask.

We stop at a red light. Life is damn good she says. In the darkness, I can’t tell if the man agrees.

But it isn’t, I think, not on the other side of the glass, where razor wire runs along the contours of each building and the shops are locked down for the night with battered shutters, iron grilles and steel grates. People resembling gaunt, shaky weeds bob down the sidewalk on East Hastings Street.

Veronica shakes the man’s hand, and now it’s her turn to wish someone God’s blessing as she ducks down the two steps through the folding door and steps onto the street.

I get out a few stops later. On the way down to my house, I get a clear bead on the outline of the city, a glittering form beneath a handful of stars stretched above the roofs and treetops.

What can hold together the scraps of rawness jotted down this evening? My newly adopted city has no physical heart, hub or centre, and tonight it has the aspect of something too diffuse to pin down, a disconnected form with too many loose-end lights, concrete, steel and desires that clamour for attention. It feels late.

Walking down the hill I’m reluctant to go home, almost afraid to hear the two doors close behind me when I get in, as if some voice in me is saying what I need right now is a bike, not a pen.

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Bryan Zandberg

Bryan Zandberg is a reader of French literature living in Providence, Rhode Island.



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