I don’t know what it is but the cars in Vancouver seem more angry these days. Petulant. Looking for a fight. Eager to run somebody over. To prove their superiority over lowly pedestrians maybe. I mention this not because it’s so different here from any other large city in Canada but because it was so different the last time I spent any significant time in Vancouver.
That was 1969–71. Back then, pedestrians in Vancouver boasted of the ability to simply stick out their arm, hold it out in front of themselves, and cross any street they felt like crossing—whether at a stop sign or in the middle of two intersections. And no matter how busy the street was. Even one like Granville.
Of course, once in a while, a car failed to stop on cue and the damage done to the signaling pedestrian could be fatal. But, hey, c’est la vie. Otherwise known as the culling of the herd.
Why do I mention this curious fact? I’m trying to come up with a balance sheet of positives and negatives, the similarities and differences, between the almost 50 years that separate that stay from this one.
In 1969, I came to Vancouver on a youthful whim, having been accepting in UBC’s then less-than-a-decade-old MFA in Creative Writing Program on the basis of a one-act play I had written titled Snails. I sent it out after seeing a poster in the McGill University Arts Building advertising the graduate creative writing program, at the time the only one of its kind in Canada. Was I expecting to get accepted? Not in a million years. But then, just as I was preparing to head to Teachers’ College (Plan B), a letter arrived from a Professor Doug Bankson (who incidentally passed away in 2015 at the age of 95) inviting me out. It even offered a small monthly stipend. Obviously, Snails had done its job. Slowly but surely. Other members of the department at the time included Robert Harlow, J. Michael Yates, Jacob Zilber, and Michael Bullock—an incredible array of creative writing talent. Even if, in keeping with the times, they were all of the male persuasion, as we used to say.
The three-day train ride cost $60 if I recall correctly. But, of course, that meant sleeping sitting up in your seat for three nights. I remember stepping out in the area around Gastown all dazed and confused. It may be a national historic site today but, when I arrived in September 1969, I had to make my way through mounds of sleepers clutching bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. Much like parts of East Hastings now.
This time, 50 years later, I came again by invitation. But on a swift five-hour flight with a lift waiting to take me to my abode. By train, I looked up at mountain goats standing tilted on rocky ledges, as if posing for National Geographic; by plane, I looked down at mountain tops covered in scraggly white as if they had paint splashed on them from a giant paint can.
Fifty years ago, after I was joined by my future wife in the second year of my stay, we could only afford the damp comforts of a semi-finished basement. There were noises coming from within the walls and I swear that the mould in the bathroom was alive, occupying a different spot each time we entered. The kitchen seating consisted of a wobbly-legged card table and the door between our part of the basement and the other half, the unfinished part, had a nice little gap at the bottom for all sorts of many-legged creatures to come and go at their leisure. Our bed was a pull-out sofa that also held various critters, causing us to beat it furiously each time before sliding between the sheets. And, throughout the summer and fall, an enormous and spectacularly-coloured spider spun a steel-like web on the outside of the kitchen window. I had nightmares that it was just waiting for us to fall asleep before wrapping us up for future meals.
It’s a little different this time around. The Historic Joy Kogawa House is a palace compared to those digs. It has everything a writer could ask for: from a choice of computer desks, sleeping quarters, kitchen appliances, and spotless bathrooms (two of them with not the least hint of mould, moving or otherwise), to wall hangings, nostalgic paintings and family photos, well-stocked bookshelves, and numerous awards—and even two typewriters for the nascent Luddites among us (in all of us). It is comfortable, warm, inviting. There’s a gracefulness about the house that, despite some of the painful history associated with it, creates an aura of forgiveness, a meeting place where the buds of emotional well-being and feelings of safety can blossom without fear of being cut off prematurely. Like the street traffic-calming zones, this house is a shout-calming zone. The loudest thing is the New Wave music I like listening to. Nothing like Love Will Tear Us Apart to help a meal go down!
Fifty years ago: today. Then: now. It’s easy to make comparisons and perhaps even choices. But if I had to choose, I would say: Give me both! Yes and yes! No need for a zero-sum game, is there?
After all, who am I to complain or find fault?
I got a novel out of that half-finished basement 50 years ago and I’m hoping to get a novel out of the palace I’m in right now.
As long as I remember that it’s no longer safe to simply stick an arm out and cross Granville!
Michael Mirolla is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, playwright, and poet. His fiction is a mix of magic realism, surrealism, speculative fiction, and meta-fiction. He won the 2016 Bressani Literary Prize for his short story collection Lessons in Relationship Dyads (Red Hen Press, 2015). In 2010, with business partner Connie McParland, Michael took the reins at Guernica Editions, one of Canada’s thriving independent presses. Born in Italy and raised in Montreal, Michael now makes his home in Hamilton, Ontario.Michael is writer-in-residence at Historic Joy Kogawa House from November 1 to January 31, 2020.
On Wednesday, December 4, 7 to 9pm, Michael talks about the ABCs of publishing at the Dante Alighieri Society of BC, in Room 4, Creekside Community Centre, Olympic Village, 1 Athletes Way, Vancouver.
On Thursday, December 5, 8 to 9:30pm, Michael joins SFU’s Wrters’ Studio Reading Series with Stella Harvey, at Hood 29 (formerly Cottage Bistro), 4470 Main Street, Vancouver.
In January, he will host two public events at Historic Joy Kogawa House.