Sunday, November 20, 2011

Turnng the Lights On

The title testifies that turning the lights on is not an act of passivity. What we give our attention to activates and animates not only the object but also something intrinsic within us -- Koki Tanaka

They wouldn’t come here on their own. They ended up here, pushed into an abyss. The corner of Carrall and Hastings is the darkest intersection in Vancouver. Ironically, on one corner sits a building that was the city’s first utility headquarters. Instead of being torn down like so many historic buildings in the city, it’s now the Centre A gallery. The intersection is a place where the nefarious meets the neglected on most nights. People here don’t cast shadows when they’re standing in the dark. Drug deals go bad here and people die, but their light has gone out long before they arrive in town. Decades of futile bureaucratic responses from the city, rough tactics by police and sporadic attention by well meaning government agencies haven’t provided much of a fix. If anything, the corner of Carrall and Hastings became renown as one of several locations where Pickton in his pick-up truck came to solicit prostitutes over a decade before he was caught. He confessed to killing 49 women at his pig farm, but there are many more women still missing. Pickton said he lost count. What continues unabated is Vancouver’s East Side shame, along with rampant drug abuse, prostitution and grinding poverty. All this happens in a city where the net worth of people living downtown could be about the highest on the continent.

The night I came to the intersection it was bitterly cold, a few weeks before Christmas. The  glass towers overhead look like vultures. These edifices funnel the winds down dark canyons blowing so fierce that they tear  umbrellas apart and blow debris for blocks.  In the bus shelters the homeless huddle out of the wind to share something from a pipe. People move about in clusters to keep warm. The street lights are dim if working at all. A bus stops but we are the only ones who get off. 

People don’t make eye contact, standing with their backs to the wind in lightweight raincoats. My friend and I stand at the intersection waiting to see a contemporary artist who has set up an installation that casts light out of three ground level windows and a double glass door. We observe and take notes. We peer into the windows of the gallery exhibit space. On occasion someone asks us what we are looking at. We tell them we are there to look at the lights and they smile in the way local residents smile at tourists. Some of the local people are inspired by the exhibit to put lights in their tenement rooms. Others smile and enjoy having regular people coming to the area as if it were a destination. Now there is light where there was none before.  It brings its own warmth. A few people ask us why the lights are on. It involves art, we say, which really doesn’t mean anything to people who are cold, hungry and ill most of the time. One thing for certain, we are as much the audience for the exhibition on the sidewalk as they are. We share a moment in space that now has light.

Titled, Turning The Lights On, the exhibit was the creation of Koki Tanaka,  a young Japanese artist and was held at Centre A Gallery in November 2007. Amarie Bergman, a visual and conceptual artist,wrote a compelling review of the exhibit for Whitehot Magazine Vancouver.  - M.S.

 Bustling Carrall and Hastings, 1933

Friday, June 17, 2011

At a crossroads

One night, I was walking along a stretch of Drake Street this winter. It is a dark street, but the shortest distance to Choices on Richards and I was hungry.

I stood waiting for the light to change as a figure approached and spoke to me from the darkness. He took me by surprise and I stepped back guarded. “Tell me something, Mister,” he said with a South Asian accent. “Why are people so mean?”

I expected him to ask for change. I answered because I could feel his pain.

“Well maybe it’s because we’ve forgotten how to love each other,” I said.

The figure continued across the crosswalk, then turned around and stopped.

“That’s the most fucked up thing I’ve ever heard.”

Monday, May 9, 2011

Conservatives win a majority: American Style

This blog was written in May 2011, when Jack Layton had just become opposition leader, bringing with him the promise of a Canadian Spring, a new era in which Layton would lead a movement to wipe away the criminal abuses and corruption of the Harper minority government.

Then two things happened; Jack Layton died in August of that year, followed by a Conservative majority win in the federal election. Only 40 percent of the Canadian electorate even voted, most of them were signed up to vote in new immigrant cabals organized by the Conservatives in key ridings. 

Looking back, apathy of the Canadian electorate won the election for Harper.  Harper has since used his majority to undercut the very idea of Canadian liberalism. Sadly, an entire generation will have come to age in a Canada completely unaware of the concept of a free and open society that had made Canada so special throughout the world. 


Entering the elections last week, the Canadian Government was one of the last countres on the globe with roots in Social Liberalism. Canada retained a left of center politics spread across the country in a variety of political parties, even some with roots in Socialism. Canada had been a leader in social and economic justice, an idea that in retrospect seems quaint.

What is evident from the results of this election is that Conservatives, who have proven to be adroit with unchecked powers in a minority position, may surpass everyone’s expectations. Imagine them with a majority for the next four years.

Collecting just 40 percent of the popular vote, the Conservatives aimed low  using gutter tactics to polarize what previously had been pretty tame politics. The Conservatives chose to target new immigrants, who are more prone to vote conservative in order to fit in. Many had never voted in a democratic election before and most spoke neither official language. Yet it was their votes that turned the tide in key ridings in Ontario and British Columbia, where conservatives won some 50 seats by fewer than one hundred-vote margins. 

 Jack Layton, NDP leader

The hero of the day looks like a Mountie from central casting. He is handsome and sturdy Jack Layton. Layton will replace the outgoing Michael Ignatieff as opposition leader. As leader of the federal New Democratic Party since 2003, Layton is the redeemer of the average Canadian.

Layton is a fiery plain talking guy who has been around the block punching bullies in the stomach his whole life. Fighting cancer, he ran a robust campaign with the tenacity of a bull terrier. He has taken on protecting the rights of the little guy, the middle class and the disadvantaged – in other words, those voters who don’t have a voice in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s world of corporations, big oil and the wealthy. The oligarchs, like hungry wolves, are licking their chops waiting to pounce on every loophole they can find in the new Conservative government.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

What Harper lacks in charisma he makes up in arrogance. He isn’t the least apologetic about the fact that he had lost a vote of no confidence for contempt of Parliament that forced this expensive election. After all, he deftly used some treachery to suspend Parliament on two previous occasions when he didn’t want to risk losing a vote.

Harper laughs at repeated attempts by regulators to access his records and look into allegations of wrong doing. He chides any attempt from reporters to clarify murky on-going investigations involving bribes and scandal. For seven years he has refused to play by the rules of government and for this he gets top marks among conservative voters, who have finally gotten what they wanted all along: a villain who is a tyrant, a gangster and a cowboy.

An acolyte of Dick Cheney and George Bush, who are frequent visitors to Harper’s home province in Alberta, Harper is already courting Rupert Murdoch to set up a FOX-like news channel as his mouth piece. At the same time he is openly cutting the budget of Canada’s national broadcasting company, the CBC.

Harper is pledged to stall any action on climate change while promoting off-shore drilling. He wants the provinces to build more prisons while suspending gun laws, allowing many more guns on the street. You get the picture: it’s the Republican\FOX News playbook.

The deposed Michael Ignatieff will go back to the classroom to teach and write  a book about his five-year stint in federal politics. Yet, he may have the last word about this election. When asked about the future for the Liberal Party, he said: “After four years of a federal government of the far right, opposed by a party of the far left, Canadian voters will finally understand why they need a party in the center.”

Stay tuned. One week after the Conservatives win the Canadian economy takes a dive.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sold Out

Some years ago I wrote a short play inspired by the Homer Café. It was acted by professional actors in a cold read series on stage at the Anza Club

In Fat Jack's several regulars are having their coffee on one particularly dark and rainy night. Their routine and their futures are interrupted by a stranger, who changes their lives.

The first time I saw the Homer Café I knew its time was over. The last rays of rare sunlight shone on the graying plaster walls. The café had not yielded to all the crummy weather and all the bad food served over the years, where it had stood at Smithe and Homer. One day with a friend I ordered a coffee and a Denver sandwich there. I savored every bite and now believe every Denver sandwich should be eaten in a doomed building.

The Homer Café is the ground floor of ultra-luxury condos built by The Beasley.
The space will be the new home for those with luck and financial prudence. This is in sharp contrast to the luckless who once dined here. It was a dark corner, lit by the lights from the inside of the café , a refuge for those who came here with pocket change to enjoy the cheapest coffee in town and a place to stay warm. It was a place for people to restore some dignity in a city that had moved on without them.

The café was short on charm even on its best days and nights. Today, the remains of the Homer Café are shielded by construction scaffolding. There are large billboards claiming the suites are “Sold Out”.

A different class of citizen dwells here. Instead of more light at the end of the day we only see more shadows.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

What Silence Is: A poem

This is a poem I wrote about what silence is.  This was my way of contributing to poetry as art in a tribute to John Cage, called Silent Series, story number fifty-six. 

Silence is simply the beat between the words. Drum roll. beat, cymbals.

Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!

I have written other poetry, often in small reading circles. Bur one night I decided to read this poem in a small café on Commercialized Drive, where it was cool to be hip and hot enough that evening to melt plastic. I opened a window to let the air out.

A poetry lady asked me if I was a poet. I said I’d be in the wrong place if I wasn’t. Anyway, her calling me a poet sounded too much like a job.

This night, the poets mostly read about people who lived under bridges. I doubted if any of them ever had themselves and I suspect they drove there in nice cars.

In the middle of the reading some anti-war people came into the restaurant and took over the room. They said there was a scheduling problem. There was some friction: Poets versus anti-war types.  After a lot of talk, both sides pulled back from the brink. The poets would lend the microphone and amplifier to the anti-war guys. The anti-war people said: “Okay, we’ll let you read for another half-hour, but you have to read anti-war poetry.”  The poetry lady agreed to donate some money to the anti-war cause, while the anti-war people agreed to be quiet during the reading. The poets even bought the anti-war people beer and bought some anti-war t-shirts for sale. The anti-war people shared the food they brought to the rally. The moment was calm, but robbed of its irony.

I was up to read next. The poetry lady asked me: “Do you have any anti-war poems? I said: “Yes, all my poems are anti-war.”

I sat down at the microphone and read the Cage poem. The anti-war people in the audience were not amused.  I explained. “It’s war between the sexes,” I said vacating the stage.

I had overstayed my welcome.  I walked to the bus stop under a full moon. A young man in torn jeans limped on one crutch across the street, shouting at someone who owed him money. I missed my bus and began walking, enjoying the moonlight, happy to be the silence.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Speed dating a literary agent

I was in the library a few weeks ago and put my name on a waiting list for a chance to brainstorm my novel idea. I was told there was a waiting list, so I put my name down and forgot about it.  A day before the event I got a call from a librarian telling me all the others had dropped out and they had a slot open. This meant that I now had to describe my idea, then create three-pages of excellent writing.  The idea had been germinating for months. It was not the product of a well planned effort created in the bowels of a literature course from an esteemed instructor in a prestigious writing program. It was an idea based on old notes I had written on a beach in Rio, the writing blurred from the seawater and sand still in the pages. To prepare for my session I got up extra early to correct any spelling mistakes. When I signed up for this I had no idea I would be talking to the only literary agent of some repute in the room. Yet, I persisted. The odds of actually meeting a literary agent are about the same as having an encounter with aliens, being struck by lightning twice or winning the lottery. For the record, I have written two unpublished novels, neither of which has been seen by an agent.

The room is spacious with tables set around the room. Various PUBLISHED AUTHORS talk to nervous NEOPHYTE WRITERS.

CUT TO: MICHAEL sits down on a metal chair. The agent looks at a one-pager describing the story. She looks confused.


No. I am Michael.

I don't have a Michael.

Twelve-ten. I was on a wait list. The others dropped out.

She taps her pencil on the paper. 

Soft focus as POV centers on the agent. She is attractive, wears a black sweater over a black blouse and every accent supports the look of a literary agent sent by Central Casting. She has black hair and penetrating dark eyes, behind glasses half way down her nose.

Do you know that you have the eyes of a Falcon?

I wasn't aware of that. And what kind of eyes are those?

A falcon's eyes are capable of seeing a small animal from a mile away. The animal scurries to its hole but the falcon pounces on the furry creature at 200 miles an hour. The bird picks it up by the neck with its talons.

Oh, I see. Metaphor.

The agent writes something on a piece of paper.

SFX: Sound of Michael's heartbeat THUMPING wildly.
Is it biographical fiction?

Michael watches as she marks out a word on the paper with a pencil. And writes something.

It's a novel.
A BELL rings.

What is that noise?

UP CLOSE on clock on the wall, the second hand moves quickly.

We have two minutes left.

Her eyes look across the paper and she looks at the three-pager Michael has given her. She folds her arms on the desk as if she were getting ready to pray.

I don't know what draft this is.


It needs work.

The agent does all the talking. 
Michael writes down her words.

UP CLOSE on author's lips.
Read the back cover a book similar to what you propose to write. Study the author's voice. Make us care in the first two chapters, and give the reader questions they want answered throughout the book. All readers want really is fabulous writing.
Bell Rings.


The agent’s eyes move on to the next writer. Her eyes have washed over thousands of hopefuls  Each sat across from her with an idea of getting a story published. The agent is but one step in years of personal exploration for a story before the novel takes shape. Now I find myself taking smaller steps until the story is mastered. Then I get to do this all over again. I will be ready.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hockey Mom Stuns Crowd

 Christy Clark Becomes B.C's New Premier

I stood among well heeled superbly coiffed Liberal Party members wearing flash turbans and downtown Harry Rosen suits. We were waiting in the middle of Vancouver’s new convention centre for the third ballot to be read. Several media crews roamed the hall like seagulls after chum. The convention comprised a portion of the 95,000 registered Liberal voters, many of whom were at home watching on television. Then the winner of the leadership election was announced on the big screens. There were some scattered cheers but mostly it was a sound of stunned gasps. A divorced hockey mom had just become the Premier of the province.  

No one from the Cabinet had backed her candidacy, and only a backbencher from the inside caucus had crossed the line for her. The new Premier had Pamela Martin, a former television news anchorwoman, as the lone public figure endorsement.

A tony Liberal stood in front of me and spoke to no one in particular. “Now watch their faces. All these people will have to pretend they are pleased.”

Indeed, the losers in the election put on a happy face at centre stage, checking their anguish at the door. The hockey mom who ran on a ticket of making life better for families will move to Victoria with her young son. She’ll be only the second female who has served as Premier.

The Liberal Party and the province is in the hands of someone whose previous government experience as an MLA was her biggest weakness. After she left government under a cloud, she lost a bid for mayor of Vancouver and her most recent job was working as a radio talk host. Going into the race for Liberal Party leader her advantage was that she was not tainted by Victoria.

She replaces a Premier who was sent packing after the insiders decided he had crossed a bridge too far. He ran the government from a cloister then barricaded himself inside a vault from which to rule by secret authority. His minions ran errands and did the dirty work while the former real estate developer posed as an environmentalist running a transparent government. Then he began creating policy from press releases and a palace revolt broke out.

As one gentleman in his 80s told me, the previous Premier was enabled by all his cohorts in government and should have left government after he was caught driving drunk. “You can blame everything on the people who surrounded the former premier, because he was delusional. Drink does that to a person, yet these people made it all happen for him. Some of the people running for Party leader were little more than errand boys for a man who was out of his mind. Christy doesn’t carry any of that baggage.”

With the vacancy in the Premier’s office four men and a woman put their names in the hat as candidates in what was to be a brief wink-wink campaign. But when the hockey mom decided to run for the job the election turned into a horse race she won by a nose.

At the convention and again at the victory party at the Wall Centre she gave everyone the speech they came to hear: “Change Begins Tonight”. Then she turned toward a long line of people who would remind her that they had helped turn certain defeat into a narrow victory. Some had been volunteers and others lent their sizable reputations to turn heads and open doors to the candidate. Now everybody wanted their pound of flesh. A guy next to me watched the faithful lining up for a handshake.  “All Opportunists.”

This week Christy Clark will be among the first to open the books and witness what went on in Victoria over the past decade. After she gets a few briefings on house cleaning she will be a different person by the end of the day.