Highway 101 #1 – Cold Vancouver Days
It was a particularly cold winter in Vancouver. I had just gotten here. In fact, I had never been that far away from home. An urge to leave pulled me away and always has. Thinking back it was one of the best decisions of my life to just pack up and go and not look back. When I arrived in Vancouver, some time early January, massive snow falls and the brutal cold had already killed several homeless people. Vancouver was their desired place in all of Canada. Vancouver was littered with homeless. They all came there because Vancouver was the warmest of all Canadian cities. I stayed at a random house on Granville Street about a 30 minute bus ride from Vancouver Downtown. When I say that Vancouver was cold, it was cold also on another level. It sounds like a cliché but the people in Vancouver were cold. It was easy to make friends for a night, but people quickly forgot about you when another, better opportunity arose – because that’s all you were to them, an opportunity. What I learnt quickly in Vancouver is that when someone says to you “we will do this, for sure,” then that’s the tell. The for sureis the tell, you know it will never happen. After a week of being there I lost count of how many people I had met who wanted to hang out or who knew about a job or who would definitely help you with whatever. Then again, there were others, but it longer. People who really took an interest and were sincere. One of them, and I will tell you about him a bit later, was actually homeless. He approached me because he liked my sweater and I ended up spending the whole day with him talking about life and the meaning of everything and anything.
I guess I was lucky that about a month in I met a guy who was a straight shooter and had enough time on his hands to go on a long trip.
He was from Vancouver Island, some small place outside Victoria, and had moved to Vancouver to work in the Shipyard. His, let’s call him Tom, only goal at the time was to find a girlfriend, or at least a girl. He’d never met someone before. I couldn’t quite figure out why. He was tall, good-looking, but never seemed to close it with the girls. He was not just that, he was kind and warm, for the most part. But a bit unconfident, like me, and less able I suppose than others to veneer his insecurities.
At the time I met Tom, I worked a throwaway job at Uncle Charlie’s Music Shop on Granville Street in Downtown, right across from the grand Sears shopping mall. What I did for the guy? Well, he sold used CDs and DVDs and I cleaned the CDs before he re-sold them. Every day there would be people coming in selling their used CDs. But to be honest, those weren’t their CDs most of the time. They had broken into people’s homes and stolen CDs. Charlie, as he called himself, bought almost everything. And so every day, from 8 to 6, with an hour lunch break that I’d spend on Robson Square in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. I never went inside, but it was one of the few open spaces in Downtown close to the shop. All I did for Charlie was clean CDs using three or four polishing machines. It was monotonic, but I didn’t mind. I was in the back of the store and no one ever bothered me back there. I listened to all the records I had never had the time to listen to, and I listened to a ton of audiobooks during that time, too. Charlie was a gentle man in his fifties. He ran the shop together with his son and his second wife who had come to Vancouver from Hong Kong a few years before me. Charlie’s name wasn’t Charlie. His name was Mohammed. He had fled Persia when the Revolution broke out and made his way to Canada through Paris. I’ll keep calling him Charlie because that is how he called himself. Charlie lived in Paris for about a year cleaning shoes, saving up for a place ticket to Canada. They let him in as a political refugee, he was loyal to the Sha and would have faced prosecution in Iran. I saw a sign in his shop that read “Help needed for 4 weeks.” I walked in and started on the next day. I had been in Vancouver about a week. When Charlie hired me, he asked me for my name and when I said “Johannes,” he replied, “I’m gonna call you John.” And that was that. I was John, he was Charlie. I’ve kept the name and since have had the stage name John Vouloir for my music. It’s all Charlie’s doing and I wrote a song for him. One day Charlie said to me, warning me, I suppose, about Vancouver, well he said: “You know, John, the people, they come to Vancouver, they think the sky is green. But the sky is always blue.”
Now, Charlie called me John because Johannes reminded him of John. But Mohammed has nothing whatsoever to do with Charlie. At first, I didn’t think any further why he would give himself that name. I simply thought he might have wanted to fit in and take friendly sounding ordinary name. And don’t get me wrong Charlie is a perfectly innocent and friendly name. But, turns out, Charlie might have had a deeper meaning. Charlie is, you might have guessed it already, an international code word for Cocaine. And I just leave it at that.
Writing these lines, looking at a map of Vancouver I realise I miss the place. There was something to it. Something extraordinary. Maybe its pointless existence, its historyless erection. It is nothing but a canvas for shallow hopes and desires, surround by wilderness that hasn’t gotten used to human settlement yet. There is a desperation in the air, in all of Canada. A certain void and lack of direction. Perhaps that is what got me thinking in the first place that I need to leave the place behind and see all of Canada as soon as I could.
So I hatched out a plan with Tom to drive all the way from Vancouver to Banff to Toronto and Montreal. In March. When we told one of our one-night friends we met at a bar, who happened to be from Banff, he told us that that’s a suicide mission. Given the intense winter, he said we might just die on the road. If an ice storm were to break out, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, that’s it, you’re done. So here we were, our great plans of the road trip crushed. But I just thought why not go to California, it never rains there, someone sang. So that’s what we did.
I started looking for a car on Craigslist. I looked for an old one, a 1970s Buick. We looked at some of them but then we found the perfect car: a 1977 Dodge Camper Van with a V8 engine. The van was parked on some remote barn in the wilderness outside Vancouver. We paid a whole 800 Dollars Canadian for it. And just drove off to the American border to get on Highway 101 and drive, just drive.