Born in the USA

September 2, 2007

It was the year Elvis died. Maybe you weren’t around. Or maybe you were the one who told me you’d heard it that August day, and we’d agreed: He was, yeh, too young to die. Or maybe that wasn’t you. It’s hard remembering that far back. The drugs, the love affairs, the helter-skelter. Vancouver then?  It was a sleepy—almost comatose—place where, at night, downtown was emptier than Jimmy Hoffa’s casket, and signs above pub entrances read MEN over one set of doors, LADIES AND ESCORTS over the other. Yaletown was a rat-filled train marshalling yard. Granville Island an industrial place that few without union cards would visit. If you used the word “gay” around the West End then, people would think of Christmas apparel. The Chinese, they lived in Chinatown. You’d go to the Orange Door in a Pender Street back alley if you were poor and liked chop suey; and, if you felt flush, to the more upmarket On On—in hopes of seeing Pierre Trudeau and his gorgeous young wife. (Trudeau made his famous pirouette behind the Queen’s back at Buckingham Palace that year.) The Italians owned Commercial Drive. The WASPs ran the rest of town, including City Council, the mining and forestry corporations, the universities and the media. If there wasn’t a mutton-chopped Anglican or Presbyterian in the family album, you’d better learn to kiss ass. Only the beleaguered Greeks of Kitsilano had to contend with intruders, with the Hippies, with, well…people like me.

Like 100,000 other Americans of that era, I’d come to Canada at the end of a pointy stick. I’d argued with the U.S. Army that—in the vernacular of those times—killing people wasn’t my thing. The Army had argued it was theirs. The FBI adjudicated. Faced with the choice of a couple of years in Vietnam or a couple of years in the slammer, I chose Vancouver. I was lured here by the seductive words of a Canadian woman I’d met earlier who’d assured me Vancouver was practically tropical. Palm trees, she said, grew in her Nanaimo hometown.

My arrival here coincided, sadly, with the biggest blizzard—to that time—in the city’s history. I’d sought escape from the pointy stick, and found, instead, a tuque-topped, grey, Siberian gulag. I felt duped. And when I finally saw the palm trees, they were dead. Like every refugee since the days of Adam, I knew I could mourn this loss of innocence or…I could accept my diminished horizons, and—in time—try to make the place a little bit more congenial to the values of healthy irreverence, social action and creative energy that marked the best of the Hippie generation. By 1977, the city was, in fact, crawling with scheming—sometimes quixotic—Yanks filled with the desire to do unto Vancouver what couldn’t be done unto their defeated brethren to the south. Vancouver was a sort of ingénue then. It had…potential. It just needed some loosening up.  

I had three sorts of friends then, all mavericks of one kind or another, all chaffing against Vancouver’s visceral complacency, its Eagle Scout propriety and good looks. There were the ones who smuggled dope in shiploads, and later did serious time in Williams Head. Closely linked to them were the long-suffering idealists—the poets, Maoists, nudists, vegetarians, feminists, performance artists, and the congenitally lazy—who stubbornly believed that, even as stiff-backed and gold-chain-draped Jack Volrich became Vancouver’s mayor that year, revolution was still possible. And linked to them was a third group—composed of less dreamy political malcontents and writers (often one in the same)—who’d likely been part of Jericho Park’s celebrated Habitat Forum in 1976, had touched the hem of glory, and had decided to trudge up the stairs of Vancouver magazine on Hornby Street to one of the regular Monday night boozathons there—in the hope of schmoozing the boss, Mac Parry (or, at least, flirting with the fashion models in attendance).

In fact, I first climbed the stairs to one of the Vancouver magazine beer-bashes in the fall of 1977, foolishly enamoured by the prospect of becoming a writer. Mac had gathered around him a group of thoughtful freelance writers and artists—several of them American draft resistors—and had tasked them to record the city’s emergence as Vancouver moved away from its hoary, century-old moniker as Terminal City (with all that implied) and toward the cusp of something very different. 

Who knew in 1977 that the little organization recently founded by a few local peace and anti-whaling activists (including, again, several Americans) would, in time, become synonymous with environmentalism worldwide? That a Port Coquitlam kid who lost his leg to cancer that year would later become a global symbol of courage—provoking millions to follow in his footsteps? That a newly appointed planner (an American) would begin laying the groundwork for a city that—30 years later—would become the international model of urban liveability? Or what would become of the federal government’s seemingly misguided redevelopment of grimy Granville Island? Who could have anticipated in 1977 the way Vancouver would be altered when Uganda’s Idi Amin kicked out tens of thousands of his South Asian citizens, or when thousands of Vietnamese boat-people arrived slightly later? Who’d heard the word “multiculturalism”? Or “ecology”? Or “densification”? Or “megabytes”?  The world’s first home computer—named, suspiciously, after a fruit—had recently been announced. An advance over the IBM Selectric? Puuu-leeeze!  

Nineteen seventy-seven was the year of The Eagles singing “Hotel California”; of Star Wars before it became a franchise; of girls with long, brown legs who’d ask, “What’s your sign?” and you’d say, “Capricorn…born on January 18th,” and they’d always reply, “You’re on the cusp with Aquarius!” and you’d smile as if you, too, attributed some great import to the observation.

Although we didn’t know it then, we were on the cusp. In 30 years, maybe, we would understand.

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