Casting Coins

IMG_0900It is one of the coldest days of the year.  I station my car by Kerry Park, and skirt the lake toward The Sails where I will champion the urban poor.  When I arrive at the giant icon four people huddle against a steely wind.  Three are leaders while the fourth, come to ask questions, is soon driven away by the freeze.   When others do not join us I privately wonder if it is only the cold that keeps the city away.

We dissolve, and my car takes me on a tour of five supermarkets where I solicit flowers for the deprived who will come to a portrait event later in the week.  At the entrance of my first attempt, a cluster of people in Santa hats jingles its bells and asks for a donation.  I no longer carry cash, but the lady thrusts a brown bag at me with the intent that I fill it.  I appreciate their hearts, but I do not like their hats; Santa is the patron saint of consumption, and lives in shopping malls bursting with excess.

I enter the bountiful market and ask for the manager amid the bleeps of registers and the clichéd numb of muzak.  My request pinches him and he discourages flowers for the homeless because outside they would freeze quickly.  I explain further, and coax a promise of some blossoms for the event.  The second manager also stints, with a manner that seems to question the effect of donation on profit.  But he too offers some blooms.  My success is short-lived by the remaining three who, among the abundant produce of the season, state their conditions for benevolence.

20131207_125414 (3)On my way home a bearded man in tattered clothes stands on a median and holds a sign for motorists: TRAVELLING BROKE AND HUNGRY ANYTHING HELPS xxx GOD BLESS AND THANK YOU.  He is surrounded by giant shopping malls that encircle him like parentheses enclose a dot.  I give him a parking dollar found in a compartment, and when I explain my mission for the poor he generously allows his photo to be taken.  While waiting for a green light I find another dollar but traffic pushes, so I cast it hopefully at his knapsack where it bounces and lands amid traffic too hurried to help.

Home enfolds me with the warmth of an orange tabby.  My wife is glad to see me, and as we prepare dinner a stereo plays the anthems of the season.  I eat two bowls of home-made soup, a plate of broccoli, potatoes and salmon steak; a fresh garden salad and a glass of cabernet.  Here, the man on the median has become a being from a far off country.  But as I enjoy the flavours of earth and sea, the image of a coin cast on a busy street spreads like ink through my bubble of satisfaction.



People of the Cart

My hand, chapped from protective washing, holds my wife’s hand on our journey down Bernard to the theatre.  It’s her birthday, and she wants to see a romantic comedy.  Our hoods are tucked neatly around our heads, and the street leads us through the cutting wind to the ticket queue.

Before eating popcorn, I again wash my hands; the movie begins, and twenty minutes later my wife and I look at each other with disappointment.  The actors cuss, simulate sex and display values that we do not share.  The manager is affable, he offers complimentary tickets and we emerge back into the wind.

We are in a huddled hurry to get to our car when a young man in a parka, pulling a shopping cart asks, “Hey, can you guys give me a quarter?”  He solicits our favour through a cigarette which blooms between his lips.  When we reply that we have only plastic, he expels a rill of smoke and asks, “Can you spare a dime?”

Ahead I see another buggy parked around the corner of a coffee shop.  The cart is filled with plastic, odds and ends, and a pillow stashed beneath an upraised parasol in battered white.  I capture this unusual juxtaposition of poverty and genteel society with my cell camera.  But it feels like I am taking from the poor.  My wife notices that this cart displays what seems to be a license plate; number 42 on a white background.  She adds that the previous cart sported one too; number 35.  And we bemusedly wonder if Bylaw has issued them.

Shopping Cart @ Starbucks

Cold flails our pace to a car that welcomes us with streams of hot air.  Driving upstreet I see pictures of Santa, the patron saint of shoppers, calling his disciples to the temple mall for worship.  I satirically wonder what gifts Saint Nick has for owners of carts who do not possess credit cards.  But from the steering wheel my dry-dry hands accuse me of complicity.

Next day we go for a cold afternoon walk in the neighbourhood.  We meet a man who says that his spaniel, whom we pet with affection, is timid. It has sad eyes and long melancholy ears but he is friendly and accepts our attentions with restrained delight.  The man has a departing conversation with us when my wife says, “For being timid, your dog is sure friendly.”

“He’s not my dog,” The man replies over his shoulder, “I’m just taking care of him.  I don’t like dogs…or cats…………….or people.”  His honesty forces me to consider that in my hurry to bypass the street-person I wash my hands of what is more important than objecting to carnal movies.  Later I telephone Bylaw but they know nothing about license plates on shopping buggies.  I wonder where people of the cart will sleep tonight.

Anatomy of A Neighbourhood


Beneath the burning trees of autumn my wife and I walk arm in arm through the exit of our community.  The broken gateway pretends to keep us secure and releases within me a bubble of memory that bursts: because I forget to shut the garage door, my son’s high-fidelity speakers are stolen.  He is angry; I am grievous.  And the event slides back into the mud of remembrance with a grin that promises to return.

Through the innocent chatter of home bound children conversation about how safe we feel in a nervous world is belied when we arrive at a house where a mother has been murdered.  Here, memory returns like a cat with a dead mouse:  A boy of about four plays with his dog.  When he sees me, he rushes to the chain link fence that separates him from strangers.  I do not know him but he cries out, “Hey!  Have you seen my dad?”  And I now imagine that it is his mother who has been taken.

Arm and arm we go, along the tree-lined roadway where amber leaves fall to join their brothers.  We make comments about the colour and disposition of homes, and wonder about the people who live in them.  An older woman emerges from hers, and hails us with words understood only when she reaches the curb.  Her accented voice arrests our momentum and talks as if she has known us for a thousand years.  Without introduction she wants to bestow blessings upon us.  And we are dumbfounded as four cascade from her mouth in rapid succession.  When benedictions are succeeded by intimate questions we find a way to leave without offense.

A couple of days later we walk the same route, but this time my wife wants to avoid the street on which the woman lives.  We head elsewhere and find a shortcut to Glenmore Boulevard.  A plasticized sign is taped to the post which ushers the entrance.  It warns people that cars have been robbed three times of valuable belongings, and to be cautious.  The warning exhumes the grief caused by my son’s stolen speakers and returns to grin at me.

Glenmore Boulevard is a rush of vehicles.  The din of autos combines with the belching roar of motorcycles racing into an uncertain future.  And in the distance I see an old orchard home on Garden Valley Drive waiting for demolition.  The marsh from which a choir of mating frogs has seasonally exulted is no more.  It is a casualty in the collision between nature and development.

When we arrive home, our kitty of eight weeks asks us where we have been, and why we have left him alone.  I tuck him snuggly into the cleft of my jacket where he purrs with a song of placid contentment.  He does not understand that in exchange for his ministry to humans he will spend his life confined to the walls of their home.  He is oblivious to the perils of coyotes, disease and the tires of unforgiving vehicles.  And when television news interrupts the communion of animal and man I wonder where all the frogs have gone.

The Wisdom of Generations

Bronze AppleI walk with the crowd toward the giant apple at the centre of Orchard Park Mall. Around the bronze monolith we are a storm swirling, unmindful of the morphing face of a valley on fire with harvest.  I am a leaf in the stream of milling thousands who have passed this way, caught for a moment against this capsule of time.  In the sealed darkness memories wait to be judged and woven imperceptibly into the fabric of an unknown generation.  Without memory we do not know who we are.  And I wonder how well we have listened to those who have come before us.

The babble of shoppers fades while memories of a northern kid on summer vacation surface.  Sun-kissed beaches flood my brain.  And my smile remembers holidays stuffed to the gills with fresh fruit and the freedom to be outside without a jacket.  It is 1962, and my Regatta-stoked family is parked at the Restmore Motel.  Across the street my sister and I play in a parched field where the Capri will rise like a forerunner of the changes to come.  Regatta and motel now live in my memory like fruit-bits suspended in aspic.  And I search for their threads within the fabric of who we have become.

I drive the thronged highway to the centre of town, and walk past brick buildings crowned with dates from early past century.  How would our ancestors counsel a city threatened with becoming a party town fueled by drugs and biker gangs?  In the hurly-burly to become a four season’s destination we must bend an ear to their voices.  If we do not listen we will lose our way, and the forgotten souls inscribed on the fire-hall cenotaph will haunt us in our misery.

Several days later I am waiting for a movie to begin, and catch a glimpse of the future.  A family of four children sits in front of me.  The father is Caucasian, the mother East Indian.  Their children are Chinese, Caucasian, African, and Native Canadian. It is their hands that will open the vault in the apple.  And from the past I watch, with anxious uncertainty, a rainbow of fingers sifting the threads we have suggested for their vision of a people.

There is a story of a young hunter who was fascinated by a beautiful tweed coat.  He did not have the money to pay for it so he gave the salesman his rifle.  The hunter’s wife was very distressed, but he paraded himself before the village believing he had gotten the better part of the deal.  When night came, the hunter and his wife were awakened by a hungry bear who wanted to eat them.  “What shall we do?!  Oh what shall we do?!”  The hunter cried out.  His wife looked at him and said, “Why don’t you shoot him with your new jacket!”

Let us not trade our rifle for a sport coat.  The wisdom of generations waits.

The Mystery of the Rose

Red RoseI emerge from the RCA building to spritzes of rain that mist the railings, the benches and the yawning waste bins.  Droplets hang on the underbelly of giant, silver rings emerging from the concrete like Olympic hoops.  But no bikes are tethered there, and they entreat my camera’s eye.  Through them it blinks in time to capture the intrusive strut of skinny jeans.

The monitor opens and relieves my disappointment with a perfect image: silver studded, black stilettos uplift broad shoulders and a honey-blonde mane to what I imagine is six feet.  A large black purse hangs from a naked shoulder tattooed with the image of a heart entwined in thorns.  My camera wants more of this now welcome intruder.  But the lady walks the tiled pathway with clicking purpose, so I store my boldness for another occasion.

When I return from the bore of misty webs and wet autumnal shapes, I see that she has paused beneath a spreading plane tree. Boldness arises anew, withdraws a card and impels me toward her.  She removes music pods when I arrive, but one gets stuck in a burnished ear-ring that hangs like a spangled chandelier.  I introduce myself and confidently ask if she is willing to be photographed, saying that I will share the photos. She slowly untangles, and with sad surprise says, “Okay…why not.”

The rain stops, clouds mute the afternoon sun and nature collaborates to create a perfect light.  Her bare shoulders are thinly strapped with a revealing scarlet camisole.  It disappears into a black knitted skirt through which descends the duo of jeans and elevator pumps.

When I notice the red rose pinned to her hair she turns a stifled smile away from me and remarks that some guy gives her one every day.  “Sounds like he’s in love with you,” I venture.  “Yeah…” she replies, “I guess.”  And says it like a woman who has given a man a tender refusal.

My camera captures several images but I notice that there are moments when her eyes shut as if she cannot help it.  And when I ask her to look directly at me, they roll upward and eyelids flutter as if obeying an impulse that is not hers.  When she sees the photos she likes them and says she will e-mail me for copies; but the request never comes.

As I type, the lady’s image appears and a thought reasons that a rose is only a heart entwined with thorns.  Is that her suitor’s heart tattooed upon her arm, or is he the knot of thorns entwined around hers?  Flower and thorn cannot be torn apart.  The mystery of the rose is that two come as one.

Confessions of A Street Photographer

I meet a friend at our favourite coffee shop on Water Street.  He is writing a book about Foncie Pulice, Vancouver street photographer, an iconic 45-year veteran of the candid image.  I feel a kinship with Foncie.  But in this age of stolen identities, paparazzi and the ubiquitous presence of cameras, the quest to capture souls is an uncertain passion.

Street PhotographerOne sunlit evening finds me at Stuart Park where mostly women dance, alone or together in a festival of motion.  With camera, bag and cards I approach the heel-toe-stepping figures and focus on a young woman who licks an ice-cream cone.  She is clearly aware that my camera is poised, but does not move.  Her tongue flicks slowly, once, twice, giving 18 million pixels a perfect moment completed by a coy smile.

I skirt the lakeshore, past Ogopogo and the Sails, that leads to City Park.  On the emerald grass a man fiercely tattooed and pierced like an urban tribesman releases a burst from my camera. Like Foncie I approach, and extend my card to a face framed by dreads and a goatee.  His black eyes are not amused.  And a Spanish accent protests photography without consent.  My apology is proffered without explaining that seeking permission misses the moment.  And when I volunteer to delete, red lips draw on a cigarette and surprise me by allowing my camera more.

I am intrigued by a pixied woman seated on a wooden bench.  Her tanned arms are broom-sticks loosely covered by wrinkled skin.  Wrists are crossed one over the other and posed ladylike on bronzed bare knees.  And when I ask for her portrait a tight smile graciously approves and is followed by a strong scent of spirits.  My viewfinder sees a weary movie star in a fox-fur vest, eyes hidden behind dark glasses.  “Thank you!” She says, “God bless you!” She blows little kisses to a friend seated by tall sandy grasses, and when I leave, her voice casts pink petals of blessing toward me.

Night fills the day, and my camera, hungry for light, conveys me to Kerry Park where photons fall unevenly upon bands and spectators. A woman in faded blue-jeans dances alone; wild hair flailing the darkness; limbs telling stories to which only she is privy.  I boldly ask, “Miss, I wonder if I could take some photos while you’re dancing?” And with surprise she says, “Sure!” So I snap freely until a young man approaches from behind.  “I’m gonna say this only once,” He exclaims, “Stop taking pictures of her!”  When she informs him, he is embarrassed and shakes my hand.

In the absence of light I am impelled by the wisdom of cameras to go home.  My car drives Clement Street and pauses at a traffic light where I remember a story:  A group of explorers makes first contact with an Amazonian tribe.  In haste to capture the event, the photographer takes a ream of photos.  And when he displays the images the natives think he has stolen their souls…which they redeem by killing and eating him.  I wonder what Foncie would have said about this story?

The Priest Was Right

Priest BaptismMy cat is sitting on my lap; I type, he snoozes.  He is fourteen, and like the immortal he believes himself to be, he boasts many names like Garfield, Radar and Kitty…snapshots that capture aspects of who he is, and of the sensibilities of those who tagged him.

Bestowing a name captures the spirit of a being.  And through this holy and dangerous ability wisdom sometimes moves imperfectly like a misstep in a beautiful dance.  We never name ourselves, this activity belongs to others who either bless or curse us with their designations.

Mine begins beneath a shady tree in the Veneto region of Northern Italy.  Long before I am born an Italian youth reads the exploits of Gianni (Johnny), a lad who travels the world with dog and horse in search of adventure.  The young man, my father, is enthralled with the stories of this courageous wanderer and decides that if he should have a son, he will call him by that name.  And through it, give his son what he cherishes most in himself.

In 1949 I squeal into the world with two middle names: Eugenio and Max.  The first is a tribute to my paternal grandfather, but the second is American and exudes adventure, opportunity and the promise of a new life on the other side of the ocean.  At the baptismal font my father is resolved to have the priest christen me ‘Gianni Eugenio Max’.  But this is not to be.

As the priest tips water onto my forehead he repeats an incantation that is two thousand years old:  “I baptize you,” he intones, “Gianni Eugenio Ma…Max?” He asks, puzzled and somewhat distressed.  “Max is not an Italian name…Marco…Marco is better.”  And thus he inscribes my baptismal certificate.  But Max will not be denied.  He lies warm and curled in my father’s heart, and sails with him to the new world to prepare a better life for us.

In 1955 I am five and a half years old and live in a rainforest of ravens and eagles that glide over a primordial canopy of emerald.  I am in the first grade and sit in my row of blonde wooden desks and inkwells where with effort I practice writing my name.  Our teacher wears a black and white-winged habit.  She smells like a mother, and on my scribbler her thick red pencil prints JOHNNY and she tells me to copy it.  I am puzzled, but she is teacher, and I do not resist.

In the second grade another Italian JOHNNY comes to class.  And our friends distinguish us as Little Johnny and Big Johnny.  I am the former and am secretly chafed by that diminutive throughout the lower grades.  No kid raised on a diet of John Wayne, Garry Cooper and Elvis wants to be called ‘little’, although I am always the shortest, skinniest guy in the class.  But such is the Adamic power of naming.  It captures the soul of a person, and forever pins him like an insect on display.

I am now in seventh grade.  I wear horn-rimmed glasses and Sister Mary Albert, Superior of the convent, assails us with information.  She is rake thin, face like a hatchet, and fingers of bone.  She points to my notebook and says, “Johnny’s a name for a child. You’re too old for that now…write JOHN.”  I feel uneasy, but in those days teachers are not contradicted.

Years pass…I am seventeen and have morphed into John Eugene Mark, all vestiges of my heritage erased from my name.  My girlfriend playfully transforms Venice into Vienna, and thereafter my friends affectionately call me The Vienna Kid.  I call her Stevie after Steve Reeves an actor who portrays Hercules, while my roommate is Animal and two others are called Basil and Miguel.

The Sixties drive by in a roar of psychedelia, protests and hitchhike tours through Europe.  And 1973 finds me teaching high school in a northern pulp mill town.  “So…what’s your name in Italian?”  My girlfriend asks.  When I tell her why it changed she challenges me with the obvious: “Why don’t you take it back?”  And when I do, society makes great attempts at pronouncing ‘Gianni’ correctly.  But it requires effort, and acquaintances betray a secret resentment in their attempt to always shorten it.

For years I persist, educating all newcomers to the correct pronunciation.  And when I leave the North for the Sonoran desert of Tucson I find that Americans are worse with what is unfamiliar.  My American girlfriend whose name has inexplicably morphed into Minga wants to call me Gian, no matter how much I protest.  We part and I meet my wife who faithfully pronounces my name.  And my frustration with the pronunciation of others is resolved when we discover that my maternal grandfather’s name, Giovanni (John), is easier on the articulation of Anglophones.

Thereafter, when I introduce myself, strangers are charmed and females coo with the romantic associations ‘Giovanni’ conjures for them.  I am unaccustomed to this response, but despite the occasional detractor people catch on and they are comfortable.  And so am I – at least until I die.  I have left instructions that my tombstone must read, ‘Gianni Eugenio Marco’.  Max be damned – the priest was right!