VANCOUVER used to have a nudist colony called Wreck Beach. At the time I frequented it in the early 1990s (with my girlfriend, OK?) it felt like the freest place on earth. The approach was a steep log staircase descending through a bluff of trees near the university campus. Once down there you could be sure that no police would be patrolling to punish people drinking beer, like they would in the rest of Canada. In fact there was even an old guy there, a regular, who sold drugs, mostly weed and LSD. He didn’t try to disguise himself but wore a baseball cap with fake moose antlers attached, a fanny pack for his merchandise, and nothing else. One of his favourite jokes was to run away from prospective clients. They would be advancing with money in hand, he would start backpedalling, and the chase would be on. Eventually he would stop, choking on his mirth. He was lucky no cops ever came down there – he sagged in places that old men tend to, and if he had been chased in earnest he might have entangled himself.
I haven’t felt the urge to visit a nude beach since. Nor have drugs seemed like such an inevitable part of life. But there was no getting away from them then. I had arrived in the city after 18 years of uninterrupted school, and I wasn’t looking for a desk job. With my Ontario truck driver’s license I was hired by a start-up water cooler company called Polaris. I had to make up to 90 drops a day, but once I was done the rest of the time was mine. Each jug of water weighed 25 kilos, and the drivers competed silently with each other in the mornings to see who could carry them to the trucks betraying the least effort.
After a few months I was given a new driver to train. Even in 1992 he was still wearing the Canadian peasant haircut – short on the top and sides, long at the back. My route took us near his house, and he asked if we could stop in for a minute. When he got back in the truck he had with him a large bag of skunk, Vancouver’s home-grown marijuana. If we were going to be driving around, he figured, he might as well make some money on the side.
In that truck I saw a lot of Vancouver: huge houses on the Chinese side of town where no one answered the door; equally large mansions in the Indian district where everyone answered to the father; decaying houses in East Vancouver where all the water I delivered went to water the skunk, grown in fluorescent rows in the basement; the suburbs of Surrey and Richmond, as close as Canada gets to Petržalka for soul-destroying sameness; and the thrilling drive over Lion’s Gate Bridge to North and West Vancouver, with their big homes and even bigger trees, a reminder that this was all bush just a few decades ago.
And also the streets of hippy-happy Kitsilano, a 20-minute walk from downtown over the Granville Street Bridge. Even in February, the alternating pink and white cherry trees on those streets would drop petals under my tires as I growled the birds awake.
Closer to the ocean were sequoias covered in dark green moss. Looking back I wonder how anyone got the idea this would be an ideal place for the winter Olympics. Because there was never any snow, just fog and rain.
Of course there were still the mountains. Driving back downtown in the blue of late evening I would keep looking up at the lights on Cedar Mountain, and the way they seemed to float between sky and sea. But Vancouver was always more about water. Even in winter we would take a bottle of wine after supper down to English Beach, below our flat, or make a fire near the waves and talk into the night. Once or twice we even slept there, and walked back stiffly in the morning past the raccoons picking through the garbage cans.
When I see Vancouver now, televised in the Olympics, it looks a lot brighter, richer, and more organised than it did 20 years ago. Even accounting for the water-into-wine power of TV, I wouldn’t want to live there. Because I’m still in love with the city I knew, one of intoxicating beauty and freedom, where the police were neither welcome nor needed.
22. Feb 2010 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson