Dancing with Dynamite

Stephen Osborne

Cities are invariably changed by public bombs, whether they are "an infernal machine hurled by Gangdom's hand" or "an ordinary coconut filled with beans and peas."

Last November on a Friday evening in Vancouver a member of the bomb squad encased in an armoured bomb suit could be seen on the television news moving stolidly, intrepidly, along a stretch of elevated SkyTrain track, toward an object that from the distant helicopter view intercut into the news item seemed to consist of a bomb-like arrangement of cylinders and coiled wire lying in the guideway beside the track; it was later described by a police spokesperson as an “explosive device” that may or may not have been viable.

The object was detonated off camera, and its status as a bomb or a near-bomb was never clarified precisely. “It may have had to have been lit in some way before it went off,” said the police spokesperson, whose verb tenses tended to get mixed up as she strove to balance the known state of the world and the possible states implied by the existence of a bomb or near-bomb on the SkyTrain track. “It certainly has the potential to be a pipe bomb,” she said; “at this point we are treating it as if it was real.” This might have been a time, grammatically speaking, for the subjunctive mood, good for expressing that which can be imagined, wished for or thought possible—in a word, to express hopes and fears—but the subjunctive is no longer in favour in public discourse, which couches itself these days entirely in the indicative, as if the world consisted only of facts.

In the hours and days following the incident, bomb squad members in armoured suits were called out to more stations along the elevated SkyTrain line as bomb-like items were discovered lying on the guideway or near the track: at New Westminster Station, a piece of pipe wrapped in black tape; at Gilmore Station, “a metal can containing tar”; at Metrotown Station, a “dodgy-looking” chunk of drainage pipe; at Main Street–Science World Station, a handbag with a wrist watch dangling from its strap—later reported by police to have been thrown there in the course of “a domestic dispute between a man and his wife.” With each of these reports the sense of imminent danger to SkyTrain passengers was re-invoked and then quickly dissipated, and the story began to resemble a dream that repeats as it descends into goofier versions of itself. But even as elements of farce crept into the story, the spectre remained: SkyTrain, perhaps the only structure in the city to carry any symbolic weight, was revealed to be vulnerable, an object of attention for pranksters, hoaxsters, bomb-watchers, bomb-finders and bomb-throwers.

The history of public bombing in Vancouver now extends to three episodes, none of them solved, all of which retain a certain dreamlike quality. At six o’clock on a Monday morning on March 2, 1933, a bomb thrown into the Royal Theatre on Hastings Street tore away the front of the building, shattered dozens of windows in nearby hotels and blew the proprietor and his wife from their bed in the apartment above the lobby. The lead item in the evening news said that the bomb, which it named an “infernal machine,” had been hurled by Gangdom’s hand, and imputed the incident to a factional struggle within the projectionists’ union, although the manager of the theatre told police and reporters that a meeting of the Workers’ Unity League had celebrated the anniversary of the rising of the Paris Commune on March 19, 1871, in the theatre on the night before the explosion. The same edition of the paper reported a bomb-like device found six hours after the Royal Theatre explosion, in a streetcar on the No. 2 line; the City Analyst J.F.C.B. Vance, the item said, “found it to be an ordinary coconut filled with beans and peas that rattles like a time bomb when moved. This ‘infernal machine,’ painted with a skull and crossbones, a wooden peg being driven tightly into one end giving a convincing bomb-like appearance, created no little excitement.”

In 1942, on a Tuesday in November, one of the twin stone lions on the steps of the courthouse (now the Vancouver Art Gallery), described in the news report as majestic ten-ton symbols of British justice, was blown up with two “dynamite time-bombs” that sent granite fragments into the plaza and knocked out windows in all of the neighbouring hotels; hotel patrons and employees thought the city had come under attack by Japan (with whom Canada was at war). The bombing was attributed to a “short man” seen running from the scene by a sergeant, who said in the item: “I saw a short man dash from the steps. I saw him in the light of the explosion as he started to run across the grounds.” The short man was never apprehended, and no motive for the attack was ever adduced. “A lengthy piece of fuse and another length of wire found near the shattered granite lion,” said the item, “are to be examined by Inspector J.F.C.B. Vance,” the same man who had examined the coconut bomb in 1933, since promoted, and understandably the only expert in town. A piece on the op-ed page expressing an optimistic view of the explosion suggested that the courthouse lions were an eyesore whose time had come, and went on to recommend, as targets suitable for more bombs, the fountain in Lost Lagoon, the statue of Captain Vancouver at City Hall, the statue of Robbie Burns in Stanley Park, the stuffed sea lion in the city museum and the 16th Avenue streetcar. (Three years later, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of World War II, a “radical plan” to deepen Vancouver Harbour by means of an atomic bomb “was considered,” according to an unfootnoted caption in Vancouver: A History in Photographs, “and then rejected.”)

A few days after the SkyTrain near-bombing, the spokesperson for the Transit Police appeared in the news to announce a program called TOMS, for Transit Order Maintenance Sweeps, which she said was the name of a protocol developed in New York. Officers wait on the platform until a train arrives, she said. When the train doors open, the officers step inside and take a quick look around, then step back onto the platform.

And so New York City provides the template and the protocols for world-class disaster: for months after the Twin Towers came down in 21, I recall many times stopping or hesitating on the sidewalk whenever I perceived an airliner passing overhead to be somewhat off the usual flight path; I had to stave off an impulse to scuttle for cover in a doorway or under an awning; I suspect that I was not alone in feeling a kind of naked vulnerability, a sensation that has returned, however faintly, when I ride the SkyTrain these days, and happen to remember the near-bomb event of November, while peering down into the city.

Behind the shadow of the hoax or the near-bomb, the false alarm, lies the history of bomb-throwing in cities, which begins in Europe with the birth of dynamite (in the laboratories of Alfred Nobel), and its celebration in song and deed by self-styled anarchists in Barcelona, Vienna, Rome and Paris (the best known of the songs of the French anarchists is “Danse Dynamite”), and with it the spectre of mangled bodies, smouldering ruins and, in this century, the collapse of the towers in New York—or, in the subjunctive, on a Friday night in Vancouver, the collapse of the pylons of the SkyTrain elevated railway. The figure of the bomb-wielder, invisible in the crowd (or in the aircraft overhead) was first postulated by Joseph Conrad in 199, in the malignant figure of the Professor in The Secret Agent, strapped to his bomb, “lost in the crowd, miserable… his hand in the left hand pocket of his trousers, grasping lightly the India-rubber ball.”

SkyTrain is a legacy of Expo 86, the world’s fair opened by Prince Charles and Princess Di and intended to advance Vancouver to so-called world-class status by giving its citizens the right to drink alcohol on Sundays and to lose money in casinos twenty-four hours a day. SkyTrain, with its streamlined coaches and swooping roadbed and sleek pylons, was an expression of the future as dreamt of in the 195s, and on a clear day continues to offer the pleasure of a family amusement ride: gliding at speed twenty feet in the air above sidewalks and streets, sweeping along curved trackways, above parks and parking lots and used car lots and vast acres of condominiums and across the Fraser River on a spectacular suspension bridge toward the end of the line in Surrey. At times you can look straight across through apartment windows into living rooms and dining rooms, and down into backyards, patios, balconies and decks: life goes on everywhere SkyTrain goes, which is not a quality of the so-called world class, where daily life has no purchase, so to speak; SkyTrain remains a modest symbol of the modern if not the post-modern, and thereby perhaps becomes a target for the disaffected and the near-bombers among us.

From my dining table four storeys above the street in a small apartment, I can look out and see, at eye level, the cream-coloured viaduct that carries the SkyTrain in and out of the city from west to east and back again, and I can hear the distant scraping-whistling sound of wheels on metal growing nearer, and then a moment of urgency and a dragging sound of friction growing fainter, every few minutes a reassuring sign of urbanity, of there being a city out there in its dailiness, its patterns of destination and departure, its manifold lives. In the evening the cars of SkyTrain glow from within, emitting warm light, and the shadows of the commuters standing and looking back at you glow as well; one never tires of the SkyTrain passing back and forth. During stoppages there is silence, which is ominous; has there been an incident, a jumper, a stumbler, someone pushed onto the tracks, the third rail perhaps?—you have never seen that happen, but you imagine it from time to time—and now you have more to imagine.

And then the music of SkyTrain after hours on cool summer nights: here comes one of those mysterious slow-moving cars with many lights, a ghost train not at all like the familiar transit cars; the sound of metal wheels, a distant rasping on metal, rising and falling, and then silence: it is 2:3 a.m. Then the slow approach along the viaduct of men on foot, bearing flashlights and metal bars, testing the track: theirs is a sullen, mysterious work, enormous shadows appear against the walls of the buildings on the other side of the track, the silhouette of a man swinging a bar and then the clang of metal on metal; you feel the allure and mystery of cities that you have yearned to know and rarely experienced; again you are reminded that we are wooed by cities, they tempt us away from ourselves; they draw us from the light into shadow.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.



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