Saturday, July 29, 2006

Back to Vancouver
Reverse Culture Shock, Squeegee Kids and Me

Squeegee Kids. This was a new term for me when I returned to Vancouver. Five years in Japan had left gaping holes in my pop culture lexicon. Over the course of those five years, the landscape and feel-good atmosphere of the city had also changed. It was like Vancouver had been a child when I had left, and when I returned, that child was entering that unknown and often cruel territory called adolescence. Vancouver was growing up fast, and with its growth came a loss of innocence. With the decadence of Asian investors and gen-XY money, came the fallout of the have-nots. The have-nots followed the scent of money and home-grown top-grade weed, certain that Vancouver was Eden by the Sea; a Mecca for those who liked a temperate climate and guaranteed jobs. The promise of cool breezes, sleeping on the beach, and selling home-made jewellery to smiling tourists brought the have-nots in droves seeking the easy life. Why stay in the east and work in a cubicle when paradise was only a one-way economy flight away? Oh, and did I mention the weed?

To the youth who lived east of the Rockies, Vancouver was a beacon, sending out feel-good, nurturing vibes. It was Canada's equivalent of late-sixties, early-seventies San Francisco and 1980’s Amsterdam combined. Turn on! Tune in! Drop out!Vancouver had its very own Timothy Leary in the form of Marc Emery, marijuana advocate par excellence. An already somewhat pot-friendly City Council was being pressured by Marc and his pals at High Times magazine to make the stuff one hundred percent legal. When I returned in 2001, that dream was almost a reality. Pot really seemed to be illegal in name only.

People smoked freely on the streets, in bars, and in the cafes on Hastings Street. Not the really bad part of Hastings. No, the still trendy area, where dreadlocked boys and patchoulli girls hung out in droves. When they weren'’t smoking pot in the cafes, they were hanging out on the sidewalk playing hakisak and talking the deep sort of philosophy that only stoned twenty-five year olds know how to spout. Ask anyone of those nouveau hippies where they were from, and you would get a geographical mosaic of Ontario small towns as your answer; Windsor, New Liskerd, Sudbury, Mississauga, Cobalt, North Bay. Marc Emery was an Ontario boy himself, (London, to be exact) before heeding the call west. I wonder if he fancies himself a latter-day Moses leading the Exodus to the promised land?

While the smoke of this THC fuelled peacenik phenomenon was wafting over the beaches in Kitsalano, drifting into the used clothes shops on Broadway and forming fluffy clouds over the front lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery, a much harsher, meanly aggressive chemical was marching up Granville Street and camping out close to Davie. If THC is another way to spell peace and understanding, crystal meth was its polar opposite, its chemical components comprised a whole alphabet soup of corrosive additives. Its users came from even further east than the pot kids, and they were generally five to ten years younger. Their childhoods were spent in towns named Val d'or, Lac St. Jean, Laval, Lachine, and St. Jerome. The Quebecois.

These were the Squeegee Kids, and they scared the hell out of me.

The squeegee kids are so-called because that is how they make the money to buy the crystal; they carry a bucket of soapy water and a squeegee, waiting at red lights to wash down the windows of stopped cars. They have a punk rock sensibility about them that can be seen not only in the Doc Marten lace-ups and the soaped-up spiked green hair. It's also apparent in the confidence of their swagger. Sid and Nancy moves, right down to the fuck-you sneer are all there as they approach a car to be washed.

Watching the daily pantomime on the corner of Granville and Davie is almost laughable in its predictability. Squeegee in hand, Sid Viscious approaches a Volkswagen hatchback, suburban mom at the helm. She first reacts with a shake of the head and looks straight ahead as her hands grip the steering wheel. This tactic doesn’t work. The squeegee kid dips his tool of the trade in his bucket of water. The driver will then raise her hand, index finger out, gesturing no with a back and forth wag. Sid keeps coming.

And, there it is. The sudden look of horror on the driver's face when she realizes this guy is going to wash her window whether she likes it or not. Then there's the frantic search for the door-lock button and the window-up switch. A trapped animal waiting for the light to change, she looks straight ahead, trying not to aknowledge the sludgy water being splashed on and wiped off her windshield. The light changes, and for the first time ever, the suburban housewife's Volkswagen's tires squeal as she bolts out of the intersection. The reaction from the squeegee kid? Not much of one, except for the occasional "Chalis! Tabernac!" shouted to no one in particular. These aren't really bad words either, when you think about it. Church words, holy words. Uttered on a street corner at a missed chance for a quarter and a snort.

Where were these guys before I left for Japan? I can watch them from my 2nd floor window, as I sit at my kitchen table in my Davie Street apartment. I watch, transfixed, as they twist and jerk down the street, unable to escape the St. Vitus Dance phenomenon particular to speed junkies jonesing for a fix. I watch from my window as they transform from urban punk chic when they first arrive, to scab-covered, homeless addicts, sometimes down on their hands and knees picking at chewing gum and bits of garbage on the street, thinking, in their drug destroyed brains, that those little pieces of crap might be crystal.

I watch, from my 2nd storey window, when they absolutely can'’t score the five bucks necessary for an all-day high and they resort to mixing rubbing alcohol and water into bottles and slugging it back. Average age? Late teens, early twenties. What happened to Mecca and all the opportunities west of the Rockies? Am I just more sensitive because I have returned from "safety country"” Japan? I need to find out. I need to talk to an actual person rather than make assumptions from my cushy 2nd storey vantage point. I pull on my coat, get my notepad and pencil, and go down the flight of stairs to the grittiness of a world I do not know or recognize anymore.


When I wake up the next morning, it dawns on me that letting the speed freak and his German Shepherd spend the night might not have been one of my smarter moves. He's still there, the speed freak, laying splayed on the sofa, one leg stetched ridgedly straight out from his torso, the other bent at an awkward angle, dangling off the couch. The sole of his dirty bare foot is buried into my cream shag carpet. I know I'll need some heavy-duty cleanser to get the heel print grime out, but that isn'’t really the pressing issue at the moment. The speed freak’s German Shepherd is standing guard beside the head of his sleeping owner. He is resting on his haunches with a sentinel’s steadfastness. He is panting practically in time with his owner's quick and shallow breaths.

That's what is grabbing my attention now. That big dog is staring at me, not menacingly, but with very intelligent, all-knowing eyes. What those eyes tell me is to stay the hell away from his Master, and all will be fine. So, I do. I back up, turn around, and return to my bedroom to contemplate my next move. I am beginning to sympathize with that suburban wife in her Volkswagon.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

A great analogy of the youthful and innocent city a few years ago that is now going through the growing pains of adolescence. Some teens turn out alright, others turn inside-out-all-wrong. I am not sure where the finish line will be for this city. I hope it reshapes itself back into the Western Mecca, but from what I have seen, I have my doubts.

Great ideas Sarah! Keep them coming!