Knee-jerk Jerk

22 12 2014

A few days ago I went to collect number one child from the airport. She was returning for the Christmas holidays from university out East. I bumped into an old colleague from a previous company, and he was keen to make sure I was going to attend a get-together the next night to celebrate the arrival in town of a mutual friend who now lived with his wife in Toronto. We arranged to meet at his new place in Gastown first to have a couple of warm-up drinks before heading off for dinner. I fully expected to arrive a bit later than the arranged 6pm kick-off, but as it happened I managed to finish off my tasks at the office and was actually slightly early as I set off from the SkyTrain station to try and locate his place in Gastown.

For those of you not familiar with Vancouver, Gastown is named after “Gassy Jack” who arguably founded what became today’s Vancouver. It’s a bit of a tourist trap with its steam-powered clock (which was shrouded when I was there) and purveyors of made-in-China baubles and trinkets. It’s also home to many amazing eateries and watering holes, and borders on the less salubrious “Downtown Eastside” or DTES. This is a less touristy place which is “home” to the homeless and many of Vancouver’s less fortunate residents. Inevitably there’s a little “leakage” and it’s not uncommon to be accosted by several homeless people whilst walking in Gastown. The vast majority are polite and will wish you a good day whether or not they receive anything from an encounter. A few, as in any large town, are a little brusque, but it is a rare exception in my experience.

That said, it is patently true that most such people have issues related to substance abuse, though some are merely struggling to get back on their feet and could benefit from a decent meal and a permanent place to stay. A typical request might be “could you spare me the price of a cup of coffee/burger” or potentially the price of a Transit ticket. In my more naive days I have been known to give a ticket-less would-be transit rider the price of a ticket and watch them march directly away from the SkyTrain station. I know of several people who have offered hot food to people pan-handling “for the price of a meal” and literally had it thrown at them… presumably because it does not provide the high that they really seek.

It was with this somewhat jaundiced background that I stiffened myself as I headed through Gastown. Shuffling towards me was a shabby looking guy. As predicted, he asked me if I would buy him a coffee. I gave my knee-jerk response of “sorry mate, I don’t have any change” (which is conveniently usually true – being primarily a credit card user), I was wished a pleasant evening which is often the case in Vancouver, and I marched on without a break in my stride. It was probably 25 metres further on that my mind replayed the brief interchange. I had not – as assumed – been asked for the price of a cup of coffee, but an actual cup of coffee. My lack of willingness to support self-harm through illicit drugs, and my in-built prejudice towards “the typical homeless guy from the DTES” had blinded me to the simplest of human requests for help – a warm drink on what promised to be a rather chilly evening. Suddenly feeling sick to my stomach at the blasé manner in which I’d brushed off this gentleman, I quite literally spun on my heel. The exchange had taken place directly outside a Starbucks café (which I’d not even noticed in my determined march to my evening of conviviality). The man was nowhere to be seen, and I do not exaggerate when I felt a little shiver of cold and something of the “visitation of Christmases Past” vibe.

My reflex response to the usual request for cash had proved my self-righteous self-deceit for what it was. Pure hypocrisy. The man had asked me quite plainly for a physical cup of coffee. Something that I tell myself I would be willing to offer, but not cash, which could be used to buy less savoury substances. My judgemental expectation that he would ask for money had deafened me to a simple human request for a warm drink. Something that my comfortable existence had withheld so trivially.

I am not at peace with myself at present.

Speechless in Seattle

12 10 2013

OK – maybe not entirely speechless. It would take a most serious dose of laryngitis to render the Quieter Elephant completely silent. And let’s face it – the written word is more my medium than the spoken word at any time. My alter ego in real life… less so.

And maybe it was really more Bellingham than Seattle.

But that’s not the point! The point is, I couldn’t believe my ears, and was momentarily stunned.

This is the 21st Century!

In a supposedly well-educated, open-minded location too. (Washington State has to be up there in the “most liberal” listings. It’s just made marijuana legal after all. Even BC hasn’t managed to go there yet!)

From a student no less! Generally the most open-minded and progressive of thinkers.

A very obviously gay one to-boot!

So what’s riled me up so much? Well since you ask…

We went to REI near Bellingham today. We get a 20% discount this week, and we are in need of some new hiking boots and snow-shoes. The prices at REI are dollar for dollar the same as MEC, but they carry some different brands, the WA taxes are a little lower which offsets the no longer quite at parity Canadian dollar, and the 20% discount more than makes up for the fuel. So we enjoyed a little ferkle around the store and spent far too much despite the discount.

As a reward for this exertion, we piled en masse into Starbucks, across the car-park. Now this shopping area also hosts an outpost of the University of Western Washington, so the layout in Starbucks is a little more austere than usual and provides bench tables and wooden chairs in the assumption that most people will be there to use the free WiFi and there’s slightly less chance of them staying all day on the price of a single drip coffee if the chairs give you a numb bum. There were a couple of more Starbucks-esque comfy chairs, but these too seemed to have been re-purposed as temporary housing for student bodies.

No problem – we were only there for the duration of a London Fog and in the case of last-born, a sticky item of baked goods. We found three adjacent chairs at the refectory table and broke out the mobile phones to update the interwebs on our latest movements. [How lame…]

So I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed last night at the VIFF festival and seen That Burning Feeling – do go and watch it when it comes out on general release next year. Excellent stuff. A rom-com about gonorrhoea. Or Vancouver. Or unscrupulous property developers. Or what’s really important in relationships. Or something…

Always being one to make sure people are aware when I appreciate something, I’d posted my enjoyment of the film on the FB page of one of the actresses who had also taken part in a Q&A in the cinema after the screening. I mentioned to my son that she’d been gracious enough to acknowledge my remark and I was surprised. He asked where she was from, and I’d said that I believed she was from Vancouver. “Oo – those Canadians” he remarked in an ironic tone that I freely admit could be taken a million other ways by those not deeply steeped in British humour, irony, sarcasm and other subtleties.

If you need more convincing, check out the example translation matrix here:


But then, this pimply youth sitting next to us chirped in “Yeah – we hate them too!”

Mrs E, last-born and myself looked aghast at each other in turn. Had he just (i) been ear-wigging at our private conversation and worse… (ii) interjected a comment?!

We were horrified. On a number of levels. Firstly, there is the obvious misinterpretation of my son’s ironic remark as being negative. I could actually forgive that as I know very well that English humour can flummox even the most sophisticated follower. My son was actually implying – for humorous effect – that said actress had somehow flirted with me. (Itself highly amusing, given its improbability).  But that some random stranger should cross that invisible social barrier necessary in public spaces that allows us to pretend that our conversations are simply between ourselves! To a Brit, that is unforgivable.

Hell – we barely communicate with each other except through minuscule signals and complex innuendos. I’m sure that the total horror of Halloween is not realised for the non-English immigrant to North America. Imagine a continuous stream of random strangers knocking on your door – invading your privacy no less – and then actually expecting you to give them something before they leave! Incredible!! That, my dear reader, is called extortion! 😉

Worst for me though… this student had demonstrated his narrow-mindedness in assuming that just because we sounded English we could not be Canadian or take offence at his remark.

I was really pleased with myself for not pointing out that we at least had an operating government, but decided he likely wouldn’t get the sarcasm since linguistic subtlety seemed beyond his ken. Nor would he realise that the open-mindedness that allowed him, as a very obvious gay, to sit unmolested in complete safety and acceptance was the very same tolerance that should not permit such blatant racism.

And then I took a deep breath.

All those times I’ve poked fun at Americans… they just came home to bite, didn’t they?

In a small way it was like 9/11. You don’t really understand racism, terrorism, sexism or indeed any other attack, until it’s aimed at you. I had never, in my nearly 50 years felt anything like a racist attack. I’m white, male, middle class. Yet this careless remark from a kid who probably thought nothing of it had really struck home.

I suddenly understood why with the best intentions, my support of feminist ideals was hollow. I could never truly understand what it felt like to be passed over simply for my gender. Or my colour, race, (lack of) religion, and a thousand other traits that I was currently classed as “normal” or “dominant” in.

Yet here, in a very small way, I had felt the sting of racism. And I realised something very important in that brief moment…

I was very proud to call myself Canadian.

Slept quite well in Seattle

22 05 2013

We just had a long weekend here in BC. Queen Victoria had a birthday conveniently close to my own, so plus or minus a week I get an extra day off to enjoy my encroaching dotage.

This year Mrs E and I went for an overnight visit to Seattle. It’s probably about a decade since we last visited, and I was keen to take some photos of the MV Kalakala. On our last visit we’d taken one of the tours on the ex-WWII Ducks – amphibian trucks – and had seen the Kalakala when it was still on Lake Union. As it turned out, that was too ambitious a goal and we never got to Tacoma to see the old tub in its current moorage.

As we drove down, we stopped off at the outlet stores near Tulalip in the hope of snagging some wacky Converse high tops or cheap skinny Levi’s 511s. Not quite sure how, but somehow we only ended up with a Le Creuset casserole dish. Moral of the story being never take Mrs E when you’re out bargain hunting.

We pulled off the motorway at Everett to find the Starbucks promised by a siren road sign. As we came to the junction at the end of the slip-road we were met with a blind choice. No hint of which direction would lead to the beverage emporium. For no particular reason I selected the innocent sounding “20th St SE” to the left, and almost immediately regretted it as the road became a long bridge and then a highway promising Wenatchee as a potential destination. Thankfully it emerged in a rural hamlet called Lake Stevens (sans café, incidentally) which at least offered a few residential turnings and therefore the means of salvaging the mistake before too much drinking time was lost.

No matter, we’d just head back the other way and no doubt be enjoying a “London Fog” before we knew it. No such luck. One block past the motorway, and we were in Deadsville, USA.

Now, in fairness, sitting here at home with the full power of Google Maps at my fingertips, I can see lots of cafés and places we could have stopped in Everett. I’ll remember that in the extremely unlikely event I ever again feel the urge to visit.  At the time though, it seemed deader than an engineering student’s potted plant. On the other hand, we were also spared “Seattle Reptiles” on Hewitt Ave, so on balance, I think we were ahead.

Deciding that the Starbucks road sign was in fact simply lying, we tried to find the entrance back to the motorway and to test our luck elsewhere. At this point I began to realise that road signage in the US is a matter left in the hands of the local village idiot rather than treated with the reverence it is rightly due. I swear we did three laps underneath the I5 before we zeroed in on an unlikely junction that thankfully, if a little unexpectedly, launched us back on our Southern journey. Mrs E made several remarks about “turning into your dad” and pantomime shooting me with loaded fingers, but we were back in familiar territory and heading once more in the right direction.

Our next attempt at refreshment was somewhat better signed, but in return lead us straight into a block-long traffic jam. Eventually we pulled into the Walmart carpark in Martha Lake and walked around the corner to Starbucks. Here I enjoyed an outrageously expensive “panino” (but not as you know it Jim) with my London Fog.

Searching for that last link, I finally discovered why Starbucks are so rabid about echoing “Earl Grey Tea Latte” when you ask for a London Fog. It seems London Fog is a proprietary name for a tea blended exclusively by Carnelian Rose Tea Co. of Vancouver, WA. Starbucks no longer used the name after being informed of the potential trade name conflict. Doesn’t seem to bother Murchies, JJ Bean or any other tea shop I’ve frequented in the Lower Mainland.

Where was I? Oh yes – Martha Lake. So, refortified with the requisite caffeine injection and over-mustardised sarnie, we set about sorting out accommodation for when we reached Seattle. It turned out there was some conference on that weekend, and gave dire warnings of the lack of cheap offerings. In the end we went for the “sight unseen” alternative at, and after signing away $200 including tax, we were informed we were booked in the Red Lion hotel on 5th Avenue – nice and central. Described as a boutique hotel, we reminded ourselves that if it was REALLY bad, we could always drive home again.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, and 5th Ave turned out to be trivial to find once we left the motorway on reaching Seattle. I almost missed the underground parking because I was looking at the old British red phone box at the Elephant & Castle pub that is in the basement of the Red Lion. An anonymous block of a building, it didn’t look particularly inspiring from the outside, but once we were in the lobby I began to get more impressed. It immediately began to demonstrate its 3.5 stars as we were very politely welcomed and checked in. I couldn’t help but smile as a couple walked in off the street looking for a room and were offered their cheapest at $100 more than we had just signed up for. We were in a king size room, but the young lady on the desk asked if we’d mind sitting for a while whilst she checked if the room was in fact ready. We were a good 30 minutes ahead of the official check-in time, so a curt “come back at 4pm” wouldn’t have been out of order. Instead though, she returned in a few minutes most apologetic for making us wait and gave us the keys and a smile.

Round about this time I began to notice that Seattle service staff are at least as polite (and probably more so) than Vancouver’s. I also noticed a lot of openly gay couples (which indicated to me a very embracing, open city culture), and no litter whatsoever. When I arrived in the Lower Mainland from the UK, I was in awe at how clean Greater Vancouver was. Seattle makes it look like a rubbish tip. To be sure it has its grungy bits, and I noticed myself taking a particularly firm grip on my camera once or twice, but on balance it felt pretty safe.

Our room was lovely. This is where the “boutique” comes in. It’s a large faceless hotel on the outside – just like a Marriott or a Holiday Inn anywhere in the world. On the inside though, it felt individual. It had everything any other hotel room might have – TV, tea making facilities, chairs, desk, bed. But the decor was smart and modern. Not that neutral beige I always dread so much in big name hotels. The rooms were wheelchair accessible, and though I don’t need to make use of it just yet, it was nice to know that if I did, there was a folding seat in the shower, as well as a detachable shower head for those hard to reach places…

Dumping our clobber, we headed off to REI, replete with the map given to us by the friendly desk-wallah. A large biro X marked our destination, just in case we missed the giant REI logo right next to it. Once there time (and money) drifted away, and before long it was almost tea time. We headed to the Space Needle, and took the monorail back to Nordstrom’s just a block or so away from the hotel. The Seattle Center (sic – it’s a proper name, so I can’t spell it “properly”) had a large outdoor Chihuly collection, but it was cleverly hidden behind large hedges and I wasn’t going to pay money to see it.

Back at the hotel we dumped our purchases, freshened up, and headed out once more. Having grown quite attached to the young lady on the desk, I asked for her recommendation for a fish restaurant and she steered us to Blueacre on 7th and Olive. It was already filling up as we arrived, and the greeter met us with a disdaining eye. Plainly she wasn’t local as she was not in possession of the hitherto ubiquitous warm friendly smile. Having asked for a table for two, I honestly thought she was about to grunt that without a reservation we were SOL. Instead she reluctantly admitted that there were tables to be had in the bar area, and she could follow us with menus. Novel idea I thought. Menus in a restaurant.

Thankfully this turned out to be a minor aberration in my theory of the friendliness of Seattlites, and the waitress was attentiveness personified. We started with cocktails, and I couldn’t resist the Bond-inspired Vesper. I was disappointed to not be asked if I’d like it shaken or stirred, but one can’t have everything I suppose. Mrs E partook of a “Victimless Crime” which appeared to consist of gin, various citrus things, aniseed and “bubbles”.

A plate of oysters casbarian turned out to be baked with bacon bits, stuff, things and whatnots. Actually, it was apple smoked bacon, spinach, fennel and anise. By the time I’d finished my pan blackened Alaskan rock fish in blue cheese sauce I was fit to burst. I think it was the exquisitely done (not at all greasy) onion rings it came with.

Full menu is here if you want to torture yourself more.

The walk back to the hotel was much needed, and though still quite early, sleep came quickly.

Sunday morning came early and was announced by the rhythmic pounding of the next door neighbour. Nothing saucy… we were right next to the hotel gym, and some eager beaver was hammering away on the treadmill. Rather than being grumpy, I got up and went and did 30 minutes on the elliptical machine myself. I worked up quite the sweat – to the extent that two days later as I write this, my calves are still a bit sore. Parking was good until 4pm, so we checked out, loaded our stuff into the car, and went exploring. Naturally we headed for Pike Place Market, which was vibrant and colourful.

We dined on sticky buns (I found some “healthy” seed and nut biscuit thing. It might have been healthier if it wasn’t large enough to feed a platoon), and managed to find a coffee establishment without the green mermaid on it. A swift amble along the waterfront, and back around to the hotel via Nordstrom’s Rack to appease Mrs E’s shopping urge, and we were done.

Coming back through the border was a little bit of pantomime. We have Nexus, and I’m not totally sure what the rules are for duty free, as I usually only get asked “did you buy alcohol or tobacco?” to which the answer is always “no”.

This time though, this was the transcript:

Nice customs lady: Did you buy anything, or were you given anything?

Me: I’m sorry, what? (I was thrown by the “given anything” part)

Less nice customs lady: I said – did you buy anything, or were you given anything?

Me: Yes – we spent about $450

Sighing customs lady (plainly this was potentially a form-filling occasion for her): How long were you gone for?

Me: Overnight

More heavily sighing customs lady (plainly the wrong answer, and forms and pens were beckoning): And what did you buy?

Me: We bought some clothes and a casserole pan.

Raised eyebrow customs lady: Was any item more than $200?

Me: No

Relieved customs lady (this was a pen-pushing event deftly averted, it seems): Thank-you. Goodbye.

Seattle – not bad for a weekend

29 03 2012

Have you ever been to Seattle? I know it’s in the US, but it’s really worth the effort if you’re in the neighbourhood.

We had an unusual tour around the city and actually ON the lake in a converted WWII DUKW. They give you a plastic bill-shaped duck caller, and encourage you to “quack” the public at every red light. Very non-British behaviour, but fun if you have young kids or are slightly drunk and don’t give a fig.

Duck trips

Other things of note are the Space Needle obviously, which has a disconcertingly large gap between the lift and the main viewing platform (at least it seems that way if you suffer from vertigo), and la piece de resistance… Pike Place Market. This is a piece of pure theatre and well worth a few frames if you’re carrying a camera, or are comfortable stealing one from a passing tourist.

They delight their public by literally throwing fish around (the fish didn’t seem to mind when I was there), as well as the cash in payment and any subsequent change. The transfer of the latter was rendered more efficient by placing the same in a tennis ball with a slit, to limit the chance of it taking a non-optimal trajectory. When I last visited, they were tormenting young children, by having the large mouth of some particularly ugly flat fish rigged with a fine filament, so that when a child was looking at the fish, it could be made to gape in response. All good clean, well-iced fun, and worth a short stop-over in anyone’s itinerary.

World Famous Fish Market in Seattle, WA | Pike Place Fish Market · Fresh, Sustainable Seafood Shipped Straight to Your Door!.

Just up the street is REI for the more active amongst my ever-expanding readership, as well as street music outside one of the many Starbucks emporiums.

Last time I was there I got to stay in the Hyatt, but I see there are actually a number of them in the city, so I couldn’t swear which it was.

Of course, it’s not a patch on Vancouver BC, but it’s not bad in a post-colonial, wannabe, kind of way!  😉