Recreation is inescapable in Vancouver. It's a paradise of activity. It's a living Patagonia commercial. People bike everywhere. They sail in the bay. They even climb rock faces for fun. As a member of the fattest nation in the world I find it unappealing. But here's a good deal if you're into this sort of thing: 25 cents for a peep show. If there's one thing North American cities have become good at it's catering to the wants of youth: caffeine, greasy food, entertainment, sex and alcohol. Vancouver isn't any different. What makes the city different is the beauty of the area, or so it seems.
I headed West drinking some type of mocha-frappe-latte trying to figure out how steamed milk and some crushed beans, picked for less than five cents, cost me over four bucks. The mountains over the water appeared like apparitions from the gray light of the morning and by the time I came to Stanley Park a slight drizzle had begun to fall and catch the mist between the pines letting it dance for awhile and then disappear as if it had never been there and didn't exist. There was the smell of wet bark and the sound of dead spruce needles crunching under my feet. A canopy of branches split overhead by knives of light cutting down along the paths running like arteries over the green heart of the park and open fields of grass ran down to the bay where sea planes buzzed the tree tops above my head and settled into the still waters as lightly as a leaf into a puddle. The snow capped mountains careened out beyond the lighthouse on the point. The Lions Gate Bridge stretched like a spinal cord linking the land as one. The smiling people jogged along the paths and said "Good morning" and meant it. It was gorgeous and then I came through the forest to the Aquarium and the mist cleared and though the sun was out by then it was still dark where I stood. In front of me, there was an unlocked and empty enclosure reading "Don't Touch the Bears" and I decided I was late for work.
I need to have knowledge of the city and where the hotspots and Olympic venues are in Vancouver for my job, which means searching around. I've been told the fish and chips on Granville Island are the best on the West Coast and who wouldn't check that out? The island sits along False Creek under the Granville Bridge and when entering under the steel web of support beams it is as if you've stumbled upon your own personal hideaway.
It is a speakeasy of shops and eateries lined up along the water in tall sheet metal barns. The type of places girls call "cute" and "adorable". The people say 'thank you' and 'please' getting off the bus and on a sunny morning it's like Santa Monica Boulevard condensed into an old manufacturing park. When the Swiss and French decided to put their team houses there they hit the mark. As did the Russians at the Science World building only a little bit away where the observatory rises out of the apex of the creek; a shining observatory of light and angles for the Russian to play in. Amongst all this, the Olympic Village sits beside a lot full of donated Chevy cars in a newly erected apartment complex that will be sold as condos once vacated.
And there is the B.C. Place where the opening ceremonies will be held indoors for the first time and the Hockey Place adjacent to it where every heart in Canada will thrive or die by the actions of a rubber puck over a plane of ice and the men with blades skating on it. The Richmond Olympic Oval I was told won an architecture prize and is better than the Bird's Nest in China. And there is the crown jewel of everything: Whistler Mountain. Past Lion's and Horseshoe Bay and Black Tusk where cliffs puncture the landscape thousands of feet into the air like jutting teeth and islands grow in mounds among the boats idling quietly in a prairie of water, there is the snowy escape of Whistler with it's coffee houses and ski bums waiting for you to find it and be lost forever in the majesty.
God didn't rest on the seventh day. He went to Vancouver and made his sanctuary among the bays and mountain ranges above the city. So, when the hotel prices sky rocket and I'm on my computer trying to find the best deals and thinking William Shatner is lying to me on the TV because nothing that has a bed in it is under two hundred bucks, I will think of Whistler and when I can go back and I'll try not to think that it's a lie.
The Olympics have become mass-produced, arriving in a city and setting up shop as one resident said like "a Tim Hortons' or McDonald's chain." They care for themselves and many times it means the city will be cared for as well. There has been no snow and warm weather here for the past couple weeks but the Olympics hasn't missed a beat. No snow? Not a problem. At the Cypress skiing venue they have laid hay down and imported tons of snow from the center of the country to dust over the land because the weather has been too warm. What if the torch goes out on the relay? Won't happen. Canadian scientists designed the torches never to blow out and to withstand temperatures of 40 degrees below zero. And security? Well, I saw a diver bobbing up and down under the docks at Canada Place where the networks broadcasting the games have established a small city of fake walls and cameras. He was part of the security forces looking for explosive devices, which is what every security team, a conglomerate of police from all over Canada, will do under each car with giant dentist mirrors when anything with four wheels gets close to a venue. Even the city conforms. The route to Whistler was renovated and widened per Olympic Committee requests and a billion dollars was spent ripping up Cambie Street to put the Canada Line subway into action which takes people to the airport and that beauty of an Olympic Village. When I think of Whistler and Canada Line, the beauty and the pageantry, sometimes I forget what I don't see.
Not too long ago in Vancouver a woman burned alive. She was trying to warm herself next to a trashcan fire and her blanket caught fire and the flame engulfed her. Before she died, she probably stood in line along East Hastings Street or East Powell Street where soup kitchens have lines stretching beyond that block and the next and down the corner. She probably spent many nights sleeping with the thousands of the other homeless who are as prevalent on those streets as the lampposts lining the sidewalks along the West End. She might have even walked through the historic Gastown area with its family atmosphere only a block away from East Hastings. Or maybe, she even got to Robson Street, the Georgetown of Canada, with its Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, Banana Republic, GNC stores and the two Starbucks on both sides of an intersection only to be turned away at one of the recreational centers and return to her fire to roast alive. Blocks and blocks of disheveled people in greasy beards, torn clothing, pushing broken shopping carts and resting on pieces of cardboard on the East Side. A former social worker told me, "East Hastings is maybe the only place in Western Canada---maybe all Canada--where if you're down and out you can feel comfortable." He meant comfortable amongst the many other people with drug addictions and social disorders who came to a place with a temperate winter and a cool summer to be forgotten.
The East Side was not a hotspot and not a venue. It was hardly marked on my Olympic Map. And if you don't like the recreation or peep shows than maybe you'll like to buy fresh peppers for only 59 cents a pound at Sunrise Produce on East Powell Street. But you won't like the atmosphere or the scenery because if God made Whistler for himself than he left the East side for something entirely different. But, hey, the Olympics and Vancouver didn't create the problem. They didn't make these people homeless and they didn't ask them to live here anymore than they ask for there not to be snow, or a torch to blow out or a lack of security. They came here because the weather is nice and because the city helps them out more than most. So the Olympics will go on because it can while shuffling the hope of others under the rug. It's nothing new. Every city with the Olympics has had black eyes. In fact, everything, no matter how good it may appear or how beautiful it is, at some point shows an opposite side. Gandhi was probably a real pain in the ass at dinner parties and at some point Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that was boring. Perfection is a lie and I keep that in mind when I turn away from Robson.
I don't want to disturb Adam. He has his hands cupped on the wrought iron fence outside the First Baptist Church a block up from the stores of Robson, praying. He has a ripped sweatshirt and when he sits down he takes off his boot and scratches his swollen leg. He looks around sixty but is probably closer to forty. He likes the Olympics. "It gets better every year," he says, "because of the new train." He asks me if I'm going to finish my sandwich and when I say no he takes it. "The Salvation Army has a cafeteria but you got to be on time," he warns and says that the Church has a soup kitchen every Tuesday and Thursday which isn't bad. A couple of people pass with teal Olympic jackets. They are volunteers for the games and are probably the nicest people in Vancouver, which is tough because it seems everyone here is kind. It truly makes me look like a jerk, which isn't tough. They pass by and Adam tells me he's excited for his welfare check to come on Wednesday and if he doesn't get it or isn't able to buy anything because the prices have risen too high he says, "Than I'll do the best I can." He grins and gives me the peace sign. He tells me he'll keep me in his prayers as I leave.
"They're the fuckin' best," Mike says.
Mike loves popcorn chicken. "Oh yeah, they're the fuckin' best," he says. He really loves it. He also loves the Olympics. He says this is his rehab. Mike just got out of a treatment center in Ontario and came here for a job the Bottle Depot gave him cleaning the streets down in East Hastings on a twelve-hour shift starting February 11th. The Beacon Shelter gave him a room while he has the job too and he tells me if he can live off $20 dollars a day than he's going back to Ontario to try to see his twelve-year old daughter though he admits he's "never been a part of her life." He came here like many for the Olympics and wants to leave right after like many. He says, "Hastings is too crazy for me." He doesn't have the job now though so he has to ask for the two dollars and fifty cents it costs from people. He doesn't have the room yet either so he has to sleep in an alley. He loves the Olympics though because it means he can clean streets. But, he wants me to leave because when I'm around he doesn't get change and he loves his popcorn chicken. Fucking loves it.
I left without giving him anything. I had some change but I was thirsty and wanted a coke. I thought about the radiance of Vancouver when everyone is out jogging and biking and hiking the trails covering the city so there wasn't any guilt. Because I'm the same as everyone else, I avoid eye contact with the bum on the street asking for change while rolling a couple quarters through my fingers I'll use to buy that coke. I'll drink half and throw the rest out. It's my money and I can do what I want with it. It's a rough economy.
The Olympics know what they want to do with their money just like me and it doesn't involve solving a cities plight even if they were handed it unfairly. I understand it completely. It wants pageantry and beauty. It wants a great time in the city. It wants people to come to Vancouver for the games and see the beauty and remember the phrase etched in stone at the entrance of Stanley Park, "To the use and enjoyment of people of all colours and customs for all time." And that's the way every visitor and viewer wants to see it. And there is beautiful Vancouver. And there is the Olympic way to give it to us.
The people in the city are ready to explode. The whole city is about to catch fire. And there is Adam. And there is Mike. And there is the burnt woman with a glowing heart. The Olympics hold promise to them too. Not a promise of gold but a promise of hope for more. I walk down the street and see a man on the street playing a violin next to a dog with a sign propped against an empty bucket that reads, "Watch out for your hot dogs, my dog is quick." A few blocks past that is a kid about my age who doesn't want to work and only wants money, he says, holding a piece of cardboard reading, "Need money for a penis extension. I'm a little short." The girl on the other side of the road has one that says "One dollar short of taking care of the world."
But, I walk past to the live music and light array in Robson Square shining into the sky. Vancouver is a shining example compared to most. Ride a gondola thousands of feet up Grouse Mountain and look over the city as the sun melts into the Pacific leaving the mountains as shaded green monsters lurking over the gleaming gem of Vancouver and try to say it's not the best venue for the games in the last twenty years.
The Olympics in Vancouver will be gorgeous. The stunning area, avant-garde architecture and the general kindness of the people will ensure that. But, when the athletes walk through the opening ceremony smiling and waving and the torch is lit and the whole city becomes enflamed in the games there will be the edge of town. It's still there through the beauty and the Olympics have made the warning clear, "Don't Touch the Inhabitants".
Colin Barnicle is working as an associate producer covering the Winter Olympics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University.