Book Supplement: Three Hours North

Through the Glass

Suicide in the West End

Orpheus in Vancouver

Convergence Zone

Bordering on the Dream World

Vancouver, BC

Book Reviews


The poet Lisa Robertson picked us up at the train station. My traveling companion, Rich Jensen, and I had been riding in car number eight of Amtrak's Cascades line, which runs north from Eugene, Oregon, and terminates in Vancouver, BC. We watched A Streetcar Named Desire and the passing landscape of rural backyards, a sparkling Puget Sound, and finally, the butt-end of Vancouver: an industrial area overgrown with blackberries holding windblown objects and shrouding unfinished construction projects. The passengers gasped in wonder at the presence of a Costco. "They have it too," the teenagers intoned in the seat behind us.

Incorporated in 1886, Vancouver is the youngest of the seven major cities that erupt along the west side of the Cascades and share a common landscape, weather, and history, but rarely exchange ideas. They are isolated from each other in petri dishes of their own circumstances and ego. Rich wants to create Cascades trading cards: When was Olympia founded? What kind of public transportation is available in Portland? Who is the mayor of Eugene?

As a data collector for the Office for Soft Architecture, Lisa Robertson has surveyed this locale--the place where Vancouver was founded--with the precision of a field biologist. An abandoned factory slouches on the west side of the park; huge slabs of granite lie like horizontal tombs; there is a pool, but it is not inviting. Lisa takes us to a commemorative plaque underneath a maple tree: "Here Vancouver began, all was forest towering to the skies...." A family plunges fishing lines into the water, despite posted contamination warnings. There is something aching about this place of beginnings. Lisa writes in her report, "Soft Architects believe that this site demonstrates the best possible use of an urban origin: Change its name repeatedly. Burn it down. From the rubble confect a prosthetic pleasureground; with fluent obliviousness, picnic there."

A comfortable room with wood floors and a strange iron door. Rich and I browse the Charles Watts Memorial Library. Tim, a Kootenay volunteer, passes us fliers about upcoming readings and classes offered through the school.

Founded in 1984, Kootenay is run as a collective by an ever-changing pool of practicing writers. It has no administrative director. We note that writing classes, taught by people like Alice Notely, last six hours but cost only $30. Compare that to the University of Washington extension program or the Hugo House in Seattle. The work, too, is more radical, abstract, playful, and rigorous. Lectures are entitled "Stupidity: A Group Discussion" or "Obsolescence and Newness in Method" or "The Poetics of Impossibility." We flee, jealous, cramming the fliers into our coat pockets.

We had no intention of riding on the dreamy monorail, going to Stanley Park, or visiting Vancouver's giant Chinatown. But we did have one item on our agenda that was undoubtedly touristy: marijuana. Featured in magazines like High Times, Vancouver's pot cafes seemed fantastical. Rich and I dragged Lisa to so-called Little Amsterdam.

Blunt Bros. throbbed with the music and vibe that surround the pastime of pot smoking. That is, Jimi Hendrix, black lights, and penis art. I scanned the signage behind the bar. Would I get to try the famous BC bud? Or something more exotic--New York white perhaps? Sadly, the beverage board featured only juice. Our entourage purchased these drinks and moved to a counter with stools. We tried to understand the customs of this strange place, the air redolent with skunky smell. Even Lisa, not being a marijuana smoker--except in her distant teenage Toronto days when she smoked thin joints and raked her shag carpet--was unsure. We had to catch a train. We were desperate.

The man who finally provided us with smoke was American--from Seattle. His face had a thousand small scars on it and his manner was that of a fugitive. No matter, we would smoke his blunt. But before that could happen, we watched an amazing, tortuous display of pot geek culture. It took him over 30 minutes to remove the cigar's tobacco, insert the dope, and seal it with his saliva and the remaining cigar paper's glue, then carefully trim both ends--twice!

Before we rushed to the train station, Rich slipped our provider, now in a deep conversation with a couple from Chicago, a crumpled copy of the list of classes and lectures at the Kootenay school. A good trade.