Toronto in April is grey, cold, flat and hard. Vancouver in April is green, blue, pink and delicious. You’re going to love Vancouver, one of my classmates promises. It’s so you.
It’s opening night of The Matchmaker. We’re in the dressing room getting ready when I ask the Mistress of Speech and Dialects if I may borrow her John Barton videos for the week. I want to brush up on my Shakespeare before heading to Vancouver. She coolly refuses me. Wow, she really doesn’t like you, says the actor playing Dolly, eyes wide.
It’s closing night. Our last performance as student actors. As we take our final bow I notice a tear sail from my eye, catching the light as it arcs into the audience. It’s relief, not sentiment. Get stuffed. I made it through.
At the after-party, the Poet asks if he can write once I get settled. He says he is going to miss me. He tells me there is a lot he needs to say.
Four days after finishing theatre school I pack my life into a duffle bag. What’s left fits into a few boxes that will squat indefinitely in my dad’s storage locker. I decide to leave all my music behind. An experiment: new life, new tunes. But I pack ten postcards that connect me to the past. I’ve been collecting them since high school, favourite paintings from the NSW Art Gallery. Sydney Long’s Pan, a few from the Heidelberg School, a Brett Whiteley landscape of Sydney Harbour. They can decorate wherever I end up living. It’s still up for grabs. The Grandfather has wangled me a one-way ticket to Vancouver as part of my contract, but accommodation is my responsibility.
I am picked up at the airport by the sister of a friend of my dad. Her daughter has just bought a new condo in Surrey, and needs a roommate. My eyes pop as we drive from the airport past lush pine trees and rolling green meadows. This is Vancouver, my dad’s friend’s sister says smugly. We try to keep it a secret. The air is sweet and warm. I can feel my sap running. Springtime comes to Vancouver weeks earlier than it does to Toronto. It hasn’t been blanketed in slush and frozen, dirty snow for months – a lumbering cold carrying depression on its back. Vancouver has slept in damp, chilly darkness, but always holds the promise of green. March tulips nudging the moist earth are the first hint of spring in Vancouver. Thawing dog turds are its herald in Toronto.
I stick my postcards up in my empty bedroom, careful not to mar the fresh paint. It’s my first experience of condo living. The whole building smells like new carpet and silicone sealant. I attempt a trial run of getting into to town for work. A forty minute walk to the Skytrain station, and another forty five minutes into Vancouver. I can shave fifteen minutes off the walk if I cut through a large, wooded plot of undeveloped land. I only have to do it once to realise that Surrey is a tough town. Going off the beaten track might not be a good idea. I’ll be rehearsing six days a week and then performing till eleven at night. I need to find a place to live in the city, fast.
One of my classmates from theatre school has moved to Vancouver as well. She doesn’t have a gig, but the weed in Lotusland is cheap and plentiful. My postcards come down and I decamp to her couch in Kitsilano. After my first day of rehearsal, I walk across the Burrard Street Bridge and marvel at my good fortune. It’s a miniature version of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I claim it as my own. Cyclists whizz past me through the warm sweet night. Sail boats babble softly in their sleep. Oil tankers glitter on the horizon under the diamonds sparks of North Van. My own mini harbour bridge. This city is all mine. I have no relatives, no friends, no knowledge of this place. But I have a job acting Shakespeare for the next five months.
I find a basement apartment just north of Broadway. The young couple who own the house have converted the basement into an illegal flat to help cover their mortgage. I’m on a non-Equity contract and extremely conscious of the fact that I’m on my own. There isn’t anyone here to bail me out. The flat is the cheapest place I can find. They seem like a nice couple – very eager to have me live beneath them. It’s not until I move in that I realise that the kitchen they have constructed lacks a sink. I have to do all my washing in the laundry basin tucked behind the monstrous furnace. Instead of an oven, there’s a hotplate. The second-hand fridge leaks coolant, contaminating my first load of groceries. My landlady is rake thin. She’s just given birth to their first baby. She is a long-distance runner, but she ignored her doctor’s advice to stop training in the last stage of her pregnancy. While going for a jog in her thirty-sixth week, the baby’s skull cracked her pelvis. She has to use a rolling office chair to move around the house while her bones knit together again. I lie on my air mattress listening to her roll back and forth above me on my days off. They have a huge German Shepherd that likes to paw the basement door open and crouch in the doorway, watching me silently with huge, glittering eyes. I break the lease after three weeks and demand they return my bond, threatening to report them for operating an illegal suite. I have discovered self-righteousness. They give me my money back, shame-faced and abashed.
My postcards come down again. I find another apartment in the back of a huge old boarding house off Denman Street. All my worldly goods fit into the boot of a taxi-cab. The driver arrives at my new home, but won’t let me have my belongings. He wants to take photos of me first. He pulls out a camera with a telephoto lens and demands that I pose for him in front of his cab. I refuse. He has all my stuff. I don’t know what to do. A man in his early thirties with a goatee and bright blue eyes approaches. Is there a problem here? Yeah, this asshole won’t give me my stuff. His blue eyes go very hard as he stares at the driver. A twinkle of crazy behind them. Give the lady her stuff, pal. I’ve been rescued. The man helps me carry my bags to the tiny furnished apartment at the back of the building. He’s an actor who lives in the garret of the same boarding house. An American who has moved to Vancouver because the film industry is booming. Big fish in a friendly Canadian pond. He’s writing a screenplay and shlocking another film he has already written, produced and starred in. Rescued by an actor who makes a living playing crazy bad guys. Welcome to Vancouver.
My apartment is so small that I can carry my telephone on its extension cord from the bedroom, through the kitchen and into my bathroom. I could talk in the bath tub, if I had anyone to call. I paint one wall salmon pink because the apartment is mine, all mine, and way out my budget but I love it. I become friends with a squirrel who leaves nuts for me on the windowsill. I feel like Cinderella until he starts wandering into the kitchen when I leave my door open. He’s cute when he’s outside, but indoors, he starts to look like a really big rat. My postcards are up, and I even have a little TV that came with the furnished apartment, but I realise that leaving my music behind was a big mistake. I have never thought of myself as a muso, but suddenly realise that familiar tunes can make anywhere feel a little more like home. I am lonely. I have never lived on my own before. I didn’t know there were so many hours of silence available to a person. I buy a cheap guitar and that helps. I write my first song.
Ode to Joni Mitchell
I’m not a writer,
But I wish I were.
To be quite honest,
I’m more of an editor.
I could tell you I’m a painter,
But I’m afraid you’d scoff.
I can do a nice liking
But it won’t be to your liking, cuz
I’m no Van Gogh.
Do you think you could love me?
There’s not much to see.
I try to be so enigmatic and pretend that I’m an addict, but,
It’s just not me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my share of troubles too.
But they’re not anything that could make a record like ‘Blue’.
I’ve never given up a baby
I’ve never even had one
But you know when you’re sensible and sexually responsible,
It’s just not done.
I’m a product of the 90’s
I’m really so PC
The only thing left to fight for
Is saving the CBC
Do you think you could love me?
There’s not much to see
I try to be so enigmatic and pretend that I’m an addict but
It’s just not me.