But Dallas Road is all the way out in James Bay, and just the view isn’t worth the 45-minute walk from city hall when one has the glory of downtown to explore. I walk down to Chinatown past the condemned apartment building and the charming self-contained Victoria house, past the construction pit that will be the parking lot for the swank shops going in at the bottom level of the redone Hudson Bay building. The chirping ‘walk’ sign signals me, the two business-women in pumps and skirts, and the meth-head waiting on the corner to cross. I duck into the old brick yarn shop on the corner and browse for a minute, enjoying the air-conditioning and half-heartedly contemplating Christmas presents. It’s July, but if I’m going to make anything, now’s the time to start. But the sheer range in the knitting store makes it hard to choose, and intimidating; what if they judge me for using the wrong kind of yarn for the pattern I’ll inevitably have to buy? They’ve always been nice to me, but I’ve heard rumors about what led to the local knitting societies splitting in two.
Most of the local arts scene is like that, though; the two straight literary magazines are only on speaking terms because of shared editorial staff; the University-managed one is much pickier, and charges more for each copy (but also gives away more free copies), and they can, because they get government sponsorship. The community issue has an acceptance rate of an obscene twenty percent because, without the government sponsorship, they don’t have nearly the advertising budget, and so rarely sell out a print run. And neither of the straight literary magazines so much as acknowledges the Science Fiction magazine unless it’s winning another award; genre fiction makes both editorial boards uneasy and faintly afraid. They are more comfortable with poetry, and would publish their magazines entirely as chapbooks if they weren’t so much work and there was some clear way to pay the bills. And if Munro’s, the largest independent bookstore in the city, whose facade looks somewhere between a Greek temple and a Georgian bank, carried chapbooks. But Munro’s hallowed halls only carry things which have been machine-bound, and so the literary magazines continue contracting with the printers.
The yarn store doesn’t hold me long – people are trouping in for some class or other. I continue towards the harbour and Chinatown, and pass the Chinese school and the Lee Club and the city-commissioned mural which faces the building with the aged and faded “7-up: the Un-cola” ad taking up the upper storey and a half.
I’m in luck; the Chinese bakery is still open. I go in and jostle with four other customers in the shopfront the size of my bathroom to get my hands – separated by medium of tongs – on pineapple buns and melon bread and an egg tart and a Korean barbecue roll. The barbecue roll is still warm, probably fresh from the kitchen in the back, where the owner bakes everything on display. I buy my goods in cash from the owner’s wife in a nearly silent transaction; I speak Mandarin, not Cantonese, which in hindsight seems a silly choice. At the time I was planning things that were utterly derailed by Nanna’s Alzheimers. As I put my change away she goes back to an animated conversation with an old Chinese woman sipping a Tim Horton’s coffee. When people around me are speaking a language I don’t understand, I always have a sneaking suspicion they’re talking about me. Which I know is silly, but, well, I’ve caught some of the French-speakers here at it a few times. The best part is the looks on their faces when I spew Parisian gutter-French at them in retaliation.
I hurry past the tattoo parlor next door, where I can see some aging biker getting something on his bicep, and round the corner to Chinatown proper. It’s the second-oldest Chinatown in North America, and some locals will argue that it’s really the oldest, since San Francisco burned down in 1906 and therefore shouldn’t count anymore. Dragon Alley, which used to be one of the main housing projects in Chinatown, has been turned into upscale shops. It was first designed as a way to pack as many Chinese immigrants into one place as possible, according to the plaque on one wall, but it’s been ‘reclaimed’ by designer dog treats, an exclusive hair studio, and what I’ve heard is an upscale brothel, which has a lovely little water feature in front of it.
But Dragon Alley leads away from my destination, so after I’ve bought Ramune at the crowded Asian grocery store I jaywalk across the main drag of Chinatown (a sleepy two-lane cobbled street) and turn down what looks like a dingy access passage. It opens quickly into Fan Tan alley, the spinster sister of Dragon Alley. There are two resale shops, a used record store, and Triple Spiral, a shop that sells mostly jewelry and Tarot cards. All of the shopfronts are painted bright colors, even though the shopfronts themselves are just the strips of wood outlining windows and doors in the red brick of the colossal building they are all carved out of.
I could cut over to Wharf Street here, avoid all the foot traffic of the end of the work day, but I head to Government Street instead. It’s Thursday, which means that the chalk artist whose name I’ve never learned will have recreated another masterpiece on the sidewalk. I’ve only recognized two so far – Girl With A Pearl Earring and Mona Lisa – but they’re gorgeous, and I love that we have someone here who can do that. He’s done a detail from Waterhouse, this week. I stop in the middle of the sidewalk and juggle my bakery box to dig out a notebook and pen. I want to look up the full painting when I get home (I, unlike everyone even on this island out of time, don’t have a smartphone). I garner a couple annoyed looks from passerby forced to step around me, but other people are slowing to look at the chalk, too.
Past the gargantuan Bay building, which dominates arguably between one and four city blocks, depending how you divvy up the warren of downtown into “blocks,” it’s an easy slope downhill to the Inner Harbour. Darth Vader, a local violinist, is just packing up for the day at his corner across from Visitor Information. I smile at him as I go past, though I can’t see whether he smiles back behind the mask. There’s always some kind of knot of tourists in front of Visitor Information, and I slip through them on my way to the stairs. The stairs hug the seawall on the way down, and are wide and shallow and a little uneven, since they’ve been part of the promenade for something like a century. As usual there’s a mix of homeless artists under patio umbrellas obviously nicked from the seafood grill just up the stairs and around the corner and professionals doing caricatures and selling art cards from small tables. I meander down the promenade to the dock for the bum boats, those tiny little water taxis roughly the size of minivans. If it weren’t for the ocean kayakers, they’d be the smallest thing on the Inner Harbour.
Jeremy finishes his shift, and the bum boat tours for the day, in about twenty minutes, so I park on one of the oversized steps of the promenade, tucking my skirt around me. A quick glance at the Visitor Information clock tower affirms that, yes, I haven’t been able to magically skip ten minutes in the walk down the stairs. I open the bakery box and dig out one of the melon breads to pick at while I wait for him. It’s a far cry from the high tea being served above me and across the street at the Empress Hotel; iconic finger sandwiches in a formal English garden that now hosts a statue of Emily Carr, our homegrown leading light in art. I did tea there once, when I was visiting Nanna a few years ago. When Nanna would think of things like that, and still had the wherewithal to plan them. We’d done a tour of the Legislature, too; the center of government that also served as building-shaped art framing a third of the harbour. The Empress, by the same architect in the same sweeping and gothic style, makes up the center third. And on the left as you entered the harbour is Visitor Information with its useful but entirely unimpressive Art Deco clock tower.
Jeremy is finally done, and I rise to meet him, brushing off the back of my skirt. I snag his arm, and we walk companionably back to his condo in James Bay for dinner and my own personal escape from the obligations that lurk in the heart of downtown.