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My Suburban Summer

An East Van kid sends a postcard from the edge.

By Charles Demers 29 Aug 2007 |

Charles Demers is a regular Tyee contributor and comedian. He hosts a new weekly show at the Shark Club in Vancouver, Mondays at 9:30 p.m.

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And after the lawn, the ants.

Consider these casual observations on life in the suburbs as an olive branch from a recovered Vancouver chauvinist. See, one of the pitfalls that The Tyee, as a B.C.-based publication, tries -- and to a great extent manages -- to avoid is being too Vancouver-centric. After all, the preoccupations, predilections and prejudices of the 604 metropolis aren't necessarily those of the 250 hinterlands; to be perfectly anthropomorphic about it, if we were to personify the varied and sundry hamlets that make up our beautiful province, Vancouver would be a swishy, half-Asian yoga enthusiast in a room full of burger-eating cowboys with sullen, wounded views on abortion.

For my part, I've been a staunch municipal flag-waver for some years. (For instance, I love Vancouver's coat of arms, the picket sign.) Naively, though, I never fully understood the Vancouver-versus-B.C. polarity until an old man in Peachland asked me how it felt to be "so far away from the centre of the universe." Can you believe that? The guy thought I was from Toronto.

My civic solipsism, though, is probably just a manifestation of the immigrant's xenophobia; like the boys who, immediately upon arriving at Ellis Island, turned and cursed the next boatload of arrivals just to prove how American they already were. Having been born in Surrey (cards on the table: Newton, to be precise -- so back off or I'll cut you) and raised in South, then West, Burnaby (that's roughly the same trajectory as the Jeffersons), I've belly-crawled across the Lower Mainland, reaching our West Coast utopia in my very early twenties, just as the premier and his capitalist patrons geared the city up for an Olympian eviction of po' folk like me. Gordon's real estate boom has squeezed low rent types out in a process fuelled by a Coleridgian construction industry: In Vanadu did Campbell Khan a sporty pleasure dome decree.

Of course, the point might be moot anyway, if the globalizing border-erasers behind TILMA get their way, blowing away the distinctions between burgs like so many trade-impeding town-father monuments. Nevertheless, I still eye Boundary Road like an Italian does the American "colour line": having been the last to cross it, I'll be the first one manning the drawbridge to keep my place. Sad, isn't it?

East of Boundary

In a bit of consciousness-expanding, I have spent this summer in the suburbs, well east of Boundary, east even of Burquitlam. My aunt and uncle have gone away to spend five weeks trotting through England, France and Portugal, not to mention basking in the Spanish sun. My fiancée and I have left the relative comfort and barred windows of our shared East Vancouver home for the Costco-fed comfort of Coquitlam, in order to keep the lawn watered and the dog walked. Leaving behind the tiny ecological footprint of our bus-dependent Commercial Drive world, we've temporarily embraced the car-driven, flat-screen TV universe, which leaves something less like an ecological footprint and more like a lawn-donut bequeathed by an SUV with tire chains. Just picking up after doggy's droppings puts us through more synthetic material than Wilt Chamberlain's condom guy.

The dog, a beautiful six-year-old black Lab, is a good place to start my suburban diary. One of the myths we nurse in the urban epicentre is that we are more cosmopolitan than our less tolerant, lesbian-book-banning neighbours. As such, I am more than a little sensitive about the name of my aunt and uncle's dog. Though no malice was involved in his christening (they let their young children, who were maybe six and four at the time, name him), I cringe whenever I have to call him... "Jackson."

When we're at the park and he's in trouble, I'm self-conscious that it looks like some antebellum cracker is angry at his butler: the white figure yells "Jackson!" and the black figure comes lumbering over, head cowed. My friends keep making faces when I tell them the dog's name -- "It's not... because he's black, is it?" --- and so I've tried to figure out some way to explain it, some public figure after whom he could be named, but it just keeps making it worse. Maynard Jackson? LaToya Jackson? Somehow it seems wrong to call him Andrew Jackson, invoking the genocidal decimator of Indians in the name of racial sensitivity. Outside the dog park, though, Coquitlam seems a thriving, multi-cultural community.

Problem solver

The most noticeable change this summer, of course, is that civic workers in Vancouver are on the picket lines, whilst those in Coquitlam are on the job. And to drive the point home, "the job" is right outside my aunt and uncle's bedroom window, where a team of bipedal alarm clocks begin ripping up the road every morning at seven o'clock. The road workers are a friendly bunch, kind, and one of them with positively gigantic breasts. I'm not usually the sort of sexist, (just-above-the-) navel gazer who points something like that out. But the large-breasted road-worker is one of those strange apparitions, half-gazelle, half-lion, recalling Vancouver comedian Aubrey Tennant's observation that "you could never have gay construction workers, because all they'd do is whistle at each other all day."

What else can I say? Oh, well -- you know how in East Van we have to keep our eyes on the ground in case of syringes? Out here it's ants; the principal difference being that syringes rarely make it into your kitchen unless you want them there. Within a few days of arriving, our floors and counters were covered in them and, like a good suburban, I took pest control into my own hands. I headed off to the local grocery stores, and packed up on liquid ant-killer. Cradling the overflowing haul in my arms, I responded to the raised eyebrows of the cashier with an explanation:

"Taking care of a big problem over at my uncle's."

So it turns out that perhaps I'm not the best ambassador for Vancouver to the world. Turns out that when you buy a boatload of "ant-killer" for "taking care of a big problem" at your uncle's, they assume that not only are you a potential murderer, but your spelling must be terrible. To be frank, in East Van, they wouldn't be far off.

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