It is one of the coldest days of the year. I station my car by Kerry Park, and skirt the lake toward The Sails where I will champion the urban poor. When I arrive at the giant icon four people huddle against a steely wind. Three are leaders while the fourth, come to ask questions, is soon driven away by the freeze. When others do not join us I privately wonder if it is only the cold that keeps the city away.
We dissolve, and my car takes me on a tour of five supermarkets where I solicit flowers for the deprived who will come to a portrait event later in the week. At the entrance of my first attempt, a cluster of people in Santa hats jingles its bells and asks for a donation. I no longer carry cash, but the lady thrusts a brown bag at me with the intent that I fill it. I appreciate their hearts, but I do not like their hats; Santa is the patron saint of consumption, and lives in shopping malls bursting with excess.
I enter the bountiful market and ask for the manager amid the bleeps of registers and the clichéd numb of muzak. My request pinches him and he discourages flowers for the homeless because outside they would freeze quickly. I explain further, and coax a promise of some blossoms for the event. The second manager also stints, with a manner that seems to question the effect of donation on profit. But he too offers some blooms. My success is short-lived by the remaining three who, among the abundant produce of the season, state their conditions for benevolence.
On my way home a bearded man in tattered clothes stands on a median and holds a sign for motorists: TRAVELLING BROKE AND HUNGRY ANYTHING HELPS xxx GOD BLESS AND THANK YOU. He is surrounded by giant shopping malls that encircle him like parentheses enclose a dot. I give him a parking dollar found in a compartment, and when I explain my mission for the poor he generously allows his photo to be taken. While waiting for a green light I find another dollar but traffic pushes, so I cast it hopefully at his knapsack where it bounces and lands amid traffic too hurried to help.
Home enfolds me with the warmth of an orange tabby. My wife is glad to see me, and as we prepare dinner a stereo plays the anthems of the season. I eat two bowls of home-made soup, a plate of broccoli, potatoes and salmon steak; a fresh garden salad and a glass of cabernet. Here, the man on the median has become a being from a far off country. But as I enjoy the flavours of earth and sea, the image of a coin cast on a busy street spreads like ink through my bubble of satisfaction.
My hand, chapped from protective washing, holds my wife’s hand on our journey down Bernard to the theatre. It’s her birthday, and she wants to see a romantic comedy. Our hoods are tucked neatly around our heads, and the street leads us through the cutting wind to the ticket queue.
Before eating popcorn, I again wash my hands; the movie begins, and twenty minutes later my wife and I look at each other with disappointment. The actors cuss, simulate sex and display values that we do not share. The manager is affable, he offers complimentary tickets and we emerge back into the wind.
We are in a huddled hurry to get to our car when a young man in a parka, pulling a shopping cart asks, “Hey, can you guys give me a quarter?” He solicits our favour through a cigarette which blooms between his lips. When we reply that we have only plastic, he expels a rill of smoke and asks, “Can you spare a dime?”
Ahead I see another buggy parked around the corner of a coffee shop. The cart is filled with plastic, odds and ends, and a pillow stashed beneath an upraised parasol in battered white. I capture this unusual juxtaposition of poverty and genteel society with my cell camera. But it feels like I am taking from the poor. My wife notices that this cart displays what seems to be a license plate; number 42 on a white background. She adds that the previous cart sported one too; number 35. And we bemusedly wonder if Bylaw has issued them.
Cold flails our pace to a car that welcomes us with streams of hot air. Driving upstreet I see pictures of Santa, the patron saint of shoppers, calling his disciples to the temple mall for worship. I satirically wonder what gifts Saint Nick has for owners of carts who do not possess credit cards. But on the steering wheel my dry-dry hands accuse me of complicity.
Next day we go for a cold afternoon walk in the neighbourhood. We meet a man who says that his spaniel, which we pet with affection, is timid. The dog has sad eyes and long melancholy ears but he is friendly with us and accepts our attentions with restrained delight. The man has a departing conversation with us when my wife says, “For being timid, your dog is sure friendly.”
“He’s not my dog,” The man replies over his shoulder, “I’m just taking care of him. I don’t like dogs…or cats…………….or people.” His honesty forces me to consider that in my hurry to bypass the street-person I wash my hands of what is more important than objecting to carnal movies. Later I telephone Bylaw but they know nothing about license plates on shopping buggies. I wonder where people of the cart will sleep tonight.
Beneath the burning trees of autumn my wife and I walk arm in arm through the exit of our community. The broken gateway pretends to keep us secure and releases within me a bubble of memory that bursts: because I forget to shut the garage door, my son’s high-fidelity speakers are stolen. He is angry; I am grievous. And the event slides back into the mud of remembrance with a grin that promises to return.
Through the innocent chatter of home bound children conversation about how safe we feel in a nervous world is belied when we arrive at a house where a mother has been murdered. Here, memory returns like a cat with a dead mouse: A boy of about four plays with his dog. When he sees me, he rushes to the chain link fence that separates him from strangers. I do not know him but he cries out, “Hey! Have you seen my dad?” And I now imagine that it is his mother who has been taken.
Arm and arm we go, along the tree-lined roadway where amber leaves fall to join their brothers. We make comments about the colour and disposition of homes, and wonder about the people who live in them. An older woman emerges from hers, and hails us with words understood only when she reaches the curb. Her accented voice arrests our momentum and talks as if she has known us for a thousand years. Without introduction she wants to bestow blessings upon us. And we are dumbfounded as four cascade from her mouth in rapid succession. When benedictions are succeeded by intimate questions we find a way to leave without offense.
A couple of days later we walk the same route, but this time my wife wants to avoid the street on which the woman lives. We head elsewhere and find a shortcut to Glenmore Boulevard. A plasticized sign is taped to the post which ushers the entrance. It warns people that cars have been robbed three times of valuable belongings, and to be cautious. The warning exhumes the grief caused by my son’s stolen speakers and returns to grin at me.
Glenmore Boulevard is a rush of vehicles. The din of autos combines with the belching roar of motorcycles racing into an uncertain future. And in the distance I see an old orchard home on Garden Valley Drive waiting for demolition. The marsh from which a choir of mating frogs has seasonally exulted is no more. It is a casualty in the collision between nature and development.
When we arrive home, our kitty of eight weeks asks us where we have been, and why we have left him alone. I tuck him snuggly into the cleft of my jacket where he purrs with a song of placid contentment. He does not understand that in exchange for his ministry to humans he will spend his life confined to the walls of their home. He is oblivious to the perils of coyotes, disease and the tires of unforgiving vehicles. And when television news interrupts the communion of animal and man I wonder where all the frogs have gone.
I walk with the crowd toward the giant apple at the center of Orchard Park Mall. Around the bronze monolith we are a storm swirling, unmindful of the morphing face of a valley on fire with harvest. I am a leaf in the stream of milling thousands who have passed this way, caught for a moment against this capsule of time. In the sealed darkness memories wait to be judged and woven imperceptibly into the fabric of an unknown generation. Without memory we do not know who we are. And I wonder how well we have listened to those who have come before us.
The babble of shoppers fades while memories of a northern kid on summer vacation surface. Sun-kissed beaches flood my brain. And my smile remembers holidays stuffed to the gills with fresh fruit and the freedom to be outside without a jacket. It is 1962, and my Regatta-stoked family is parked at the Restmore Motel. Across the street my sister and I play in a parched field where the Capri will rise like a forerunner of the changes to come. Regatta and motel now live in my memory like fruit-bits suspended in aspic. And I search for their threads within the fabric of who we have become.
I drive the thronged highway to the center of town, and walk past brick buildings crowned with dates from early past century. How would our ancestors counsel a city threatened with becoming a party town fuelled by drugs and biker gangs? In the hurly-burly to become a four season’s destination we must bend an ear to their voices. If we do not listen we will lose our way, and the forgotten souls inscribed on the fire-hall cenotaph will haunt us in our misery.
Several days later I am waiting for a movie to begin, and catch a glimpse of the future. A family of four children sits in front of me. The father is Caucasian, the mother East Indian. Their children are Chinese, Caucasian, African, and Native Canadian. It is their hands that will open the vault in the apple. And from the past I watch, with anxious uncertainty, a rainbow of fingers sifting the threads we have suggested for their vision of a people.
There is a story of a young hunter who was fascinated by a beautiful tweed coat. He did not have the money to pay for it so he gave the salesman his rifle. The hunter’s wife was very distressed, but he paraded himself before the village believing he had gotten the better part of the deal. When night came, the hunter and his wife were awakened by a hungry bear who wanted to eat them. “What shall we do?! Oh what shall we do?!” The hunter cried out. His wife looked at him and said, “Why don’t you shoot him with your new jacket!”
Let us not trade our rifle for a sport coat. The wisdom of generations waits.
More Finding Kelowna articles
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- Confessions of a street photographer Sep 3
- In praise of summer's umbrellas Aug 20
- The priest was right Aug 6
- Men without chests Jul 9
- Running man Jun 11
- Brains leaking May 14
- The Age of Oakley Apr 16
- Kissed by spiders Mar 19
- Like a serpent in the belly Mar 5
- A pettiness to expiate Feb 19
- In praise of older women Feb 5