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When I was a teenager, my friends and I would road trip to Vancouver to visit a friend from Summer camp. She lived on Southwest Marine just off Dunbar. To us, then, it was the rural centre of the city. Her mom would take us Downtown to see concerts by our favourite bands; groups that didn’t come to small town Kelowna. During the day, we’d stalk the streets of Dunbar, Kerrisdale, and the Southlands. We’d visit her horse, Shadow, and do stupid stuff in the park.
Years later, I studied theatre in Victoria. Many of my old road-trip pals inhabited the city across the water. I’d hop on a ferry and visit. They lived near Commercial in the cheapest rent they could find; off Prior and deep into Renfrew-Collingwood. They could’ve found cheaper spots in Burnaby but then they wouldn’t be in the city. And that’s where we had to be. We’d drown beers in crappy living rooms and stumble to Pat’s Pub or the Astoria for concerts. We went to see our friends play; metal bands, hardcore groups, Southern rockers, everyone looking for a foothold in the blistering city full of competition. The city was where you went to ‘make it.’
And I wanted to make it too. So I finished school and made the move. Finding a house was hard. I scoured Craigslist but no one was interested in renting to an unemployed theatre grad with tiny heart-filled hopes of one day being a paid actor.
So I looked to the newspaper. I searched the classifieds and finally found an attic off 7th Ave on Bayswater. Kitsilano was my new centre of the city.
No longer a visitor, I sped the streets on my bicycle, wondering where the Vancouver of my memory fit. I couldn’t put my mental pictures of Kerrisdale and East Van into the puzzle. I had to construct Vancouver anew. So I did.
I navigated the Asian Groceries on Broadway. I signed up for a library card Downtown. I ran the gauntlet of buck-a-slice pizza on Commercial. I fell in love in Kitsilano, got married in Steveston, and moved to Mt. Pleasant. I drank coffee at JJ Bean and bought beers at Brewery Creek. I browsed records anywhere I could find them and bought used-books if they were under ten dollars. I auditioned at the film studios near Science World. I saw plays on Granville Island. The city was mine.
Most of my friends’ bands broke up but new ones always formed. I miss most of their shows, now a thirty-year old with a family. But every month or so I get to the Biltmore and I still know the words. Yukon Blonde and Bend Sinister, Baptists and Ladyhawk; with their songs that make me young again; lyrics about knowing a town by heart and never getting lost, even if you close your eyes.
A year after I moved to Vancouver, I got cast in a play at the Firehall near Hastings and Main. I walked to rehearsal every day, refusing to be afraid of suspicious people on corners or in alleys. This was my city. Even though I’ve only lived here six years, the architecture has been brewing in my blood since I was a boy. I know the maps by heart even though I’ve had to relearn them so many times.