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Peripatetic Postcards

Yellow Hack Lost

Habib ought not to have rolled down his window.

His yellow cab was stopped at a red light behind a bus in the tar-dark Queens night when I approached. But roll down his window Habib did. And from there Habib’s immediate future was sealed.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, for us all.

Habib is a Manhattan hack who had the misfortune of dumping a fare over the river. Or actually, the misfortune of rolling down his window after dumping his fare over the river and entertaining my pitch. Misfortune because Habib had no business thinking that he could negotiate the streets of Queens efficiently (and if not efficiently, then efficaciously). And no business because Habib couldn't have found an intersection even if he rolled right through it -- which, it turned out he did with great frequency, if not alacrity.

All of this became immediately apparent when I hopped into the front seat and announced my crew's intended destination. There, flashing through Habib’s eyes were two thoughts: “perhaps you’d better step back out of this cab, Sir” and “I can do this! I’m sure I can.”

In the battle of voices -– we might label Habib's contending thoughts "red" versus "green". Red being “stop this nonsense (right now!)” and green being “for the love of money (let's jump on it!)”. Unfortunately for our side, green prevailed. And after muttering our destination, “Rockaway Boulevard” to himself three times, Habib shifted into Drive and away we did.


"Oh, I know, I know, I know . . . from here. I know where to go . . . " Habib continually repeated, as if reassuring himself. He certainly didn't reassure me -- as, with each next turn, Habib delivered us into the lap of the next inevitable, quizzical dead-end.

First north, then west, then south, then east we drove -- Habib being an equal opportunity geographer; followed by northeast, then southwest, then north-south, then east-west, as we retraced our tracks. Habib being a flexible -- though far from systematic (not to mention unsuccessful!)-- explorer.

Unfortunately, Habib was also a man with a modicum of pride. Or else that might simply have been a fetish for profit. For he refused -- for minutes, as the meter relentlessly ticked higher -- to call the hotel and fix our ever-shifting destination.

In time, though, “I can do this, I can do this” and "Oh, I know, I know, I know" became replaced by “. . . the fuck!” (muttered under his breath so as not to offend the [already steamingly offended] clientele, of course). And then, when Habib finally relented and did place the call, we had probably surveyed three quarters of Long Island and burned most of the cash in my wallet.

Ultimately, Habib and I had a discussion about retiring the meter. But any money I ultimately handed over was much too many for my daughter’s taste. Which might have been worth the price of this entire escapade. For, that was the moment that I spied the world's future: wherein my seventeen year old angel became transformed into a 35 year-old dragon. A formidible beast seething righteous smoke and hissing moral indignation. Well, good for her! But, woe is be the person on the receiving end of whatever injustice they might have the misfortune of directing her way in that faraway future.

The world has been forewarned.


Habib might have been lost, but unfortunately -- so were we! Having arrived from Boston with a car rented a week before in Manhattan, this had been the day that we had to return our ride back to Alamo at West 40th and 7th Avenue. So, why were we out in Queens this glorious (though fast-fading) evening? Because the next day’s flight to LA was an eight-thirty jobbie and the 7 minute complimentary shuttle ride that the HoJo in Queens offered to JFK was preferable to a 80 dollar, 45 minute limo from the city. Besides, the hotels out in Queens ran for half -– easy -– what a Manhattan hotel would have cost. So this was a no-brainer -- at least when it comes to the economic factors tipping the balance in the peripatetic's calculus.

Stay in Queens, cut the hotel rates by half. Only problem: if you venture into the city, good luck trying to make your way back to your luggage in time for your 6:15 shutlle to JFK tomorrow morn. Unless you happen to luck into a yellow cab meandering through the Queens streets.

HA!


"Oh, I know, I know, I know . . . from here."

The only problem there was that we were returning from Manhattan -– where we’d dined at a glorious Italian restaurant (what else is there?) next to Rockefeller Center –- and now had to make our way back to a hotel we’d only driven to (and away from) once, staying long enough to drop our bags, and from which we'd received a calling card, but no dependable map. Armed only with a street address and phone number we now had to make our way back to our digs -- and with Habib, alone, as our savior.

If you were a person with money to wager . . . would you even chance it?


Well, sure. Knowing what you know now. But how about then? Waiting at a pitch-dark bus stop in an alien city at 10:30 the night before you have to make your getaway? With a yellow cab waiting -- tantalizingly vacant -- at a red light right beneath your nose?

Think about it. Then try to argue against notions of fate, fortune, serendipity, luck, opportunity, uncertain outcome, entitlement, blessed existence.

Exactly.


The subway was the easy part, thanks to a nephew who helped us score four tickets and usher us through the turnstiles in the right direction. But from there it was all inspiration and guess work. Oh, and our friend, Habib.

As a rule, yellow cabs don’t operate outside the city. At least that was what we were told by our nephew; and also by the kindly (!) middle-aged librarian type who ventured over to our bench on the subway to ask whether we might require some assistance. Who says Nyu Yawkahs are all gruff and unhelpful? This one, at least, was great -- only, she had never been out as far as we were heading and hadn't any kind of clue what we ought to do once we got to the last stop on the "E" line. Rockaway was nowhere close to that stop, she said.

"Just make sure to fix the price before you hop in the car-for-hires" was her parting advice.

And then, spying Habib's rig, I thought we had made out even better than we had fretted about. As you now know, it turned out far, far worse.


Habib was a man of Asian extraction. Slightly-built, darkly-complected, balding, thin mustache, inflected speech. An immigrant, clearly. Like nearly every other cabbie we had encountered in our 5 days in the city. But, as we learned during those 5 days, among the cabbies there is a wide variation. From the NPR-listening gent with the philosopher's beard, and granny-glasses, taking evening classes at NYU, to the political refugee from Lebanon who sells real estate on the side and exclaims in the midst of an unsolicited anti-Bush harangue: "America is a free country . . . oh yes, sure. . . for those with power! Now that I am an American citizen, I am free to have an opinion . . . but only if I have the money to back it up!"


For Habb's part, there were few harangues forthcoming. He being unassuming and undemonstrative (except fot the occasional “. . . the fuck!” muttered under his breath so as not to offend the [already steamingly offended] clientele). Watching Habib in action one senses that he is used to screwing up. After all, he didn't even know that the streets in Queens are numbered so as to reflect the three digit street one might be traveling on and the 2 digit avenue that crosses it. That much I had gleaned from the kindly librarian gal on the train. Nor did Habib understand that numbers tend to run consecutively in directions: for instance, 151 would follow 150 in one direction, which would be preceded by 149 in the other. Amazing how clever a system that is. Only Habib was having a heck of a time grasping the pattern. Thus was it that, by the time we had moved from 145 to 131, I had to chime up and inform him that perhaps we were moving in a counter-intuitive direction.

Of course, I didn't use that word. After driving only 2 or 3 minutes it was pretty clear that Habib wasn't much of a vocabulary-kind-of-guy. Nor did it appear that he could really handle much math. "Oh, I know, I know, I know . . . from here . . . " notwithstanding.


Well, after 3 phone calls to readjust our uncertain progress, we finally did get to the HoJo. Habib's geographic (mathmatical and linguistic) deficiencies, notwithstanding. My daughter's opinionated recommendations also (heavily) discounted.

As for Habib, he looked at the twenty I placed on the armrest between us in the front seat and didn't put up any sort of fuss. In fact, he seemed rather embarrassed by the whole affair. Besides, at that point he was more engrossed in pointing out the numbers stenciled on the fence cross the street. "See! See that over there? Now how can one be expected to find a place like this? With numbers like that? I ask you, now, sir. I ask you?"

What I spied when I looked was 153 96 -- the even-numbered counterpart to the 153 95 we had been searching for.

But maybe that is just me. Seeing coincidental logic where there may not have been any intention for it.

Besides, who needs logic when they have been treated to Habib's touring skills? Thank you, Habib. Thank you much for the impromptu automotive and residential survey of half of Long Island. A short hop back to HoJo's on Rockaway Boulevard would have been preferable, but I have found in life that one has to be thankful for the gifts one receives.

Even when it comes in the form of a yellow hack, lost in the heart of Queens, the (late) night before one's (early morning) departure from New York.

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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