Legends of Myself 32

Posted on November 25, 2011

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Continued from Legends of Myself 31

32. Movies and Water Street, 1958

The Butler.  When I stayed with my father in Vancouver the previous summer, I may have lived in the Butler Hotel then.  But 1958 is the first time I’m certain of that address.  The Butler was almost always the place my father checked into when he came into town, and a place of resort when other accommodations failed.  He knew the people who ran it—they were in fact Chinese—and appeared to have a cultivated a relationship with them just as he was accustomed to do with all variety of business folk wherever he happened to go or be.

My father knew how to cultivate conversations with strangers.  And he liked to revisit places that he had patronized on previous visits.  I saw him recognized and welcomed often when I was travelling and going about with him.  People would reach across counter-tops and shake his hand—Hi, George!—inquiring after where he’d been, how long he’d be staying, was that his boy?  With the sense that they were happy to see him back.

Perhaps it’s the skill of a traveller, to maintain a ready-made community wherever you are, here, there or Portland.  But I believe also that my father was respected for who he was and how he carried himself.

The Butler’s address placed it in what is now called Gastown.  In fact its doors were no more than 30 or 40 paces away from where today the statue of Gassy Jack stands in Maple Tree Square.  The address might have been next door to the Captain Jack’s old establishment if that place had survived Vancouver’s Great Fire of 1886.

But in 1958 there was nothing to distinguish Water Street from the rest of Skid Road.  It was then just a grey backstreet of aging hotels, warehouses and occasional storefronts.  It would be decades yet before its painted bricks would be sandblasted, its streets carefully recobbled, its dreariness repackaged as touristy charm, and a monument raised to the unlikely saloon-keeper whose fondness for talk gave the neighbourhood its new/old name.

Skid Road.  The term is now generic.  There are Skid Roads, so-called, all across the continent.  But originally there were only two, places whose meaning defined the term rather than the other way around.  One was in Seattle, another in Vancouver, both claiming priority.

In Seattle they built a row of drinking establishments along a literal skid road, that is, along a road constructed of logs over which other logs were slid to the mill.  In mill town Vancouver—then called Granville—while the positioning of the district along a skid road was not quite as perfect, it was essentially the same story.

Over time, bars, aging, run-down parts of town, and cockroachy single-room rooming houses defined a skid road; in the beginning, the association was with loggers and mill workers.  The latter’s weekend and off-season drinking habits, their proletarian lack of pretension and downtown choice of abode after retirement—unsurprisingly parallel in Seattle and Vancouver—connected the two definitions.

Living as I did in the midst of Skid Road, I might have occasionally encountered a drunk.  I’m sure I did; they were there.  However, their absolute absence from memory I take as evidence they left me pretty much alone.

Of the drinking houses on Hastings Street—the street then and always at the heart of Vancouver’s Skid Road—I remember only the signs which stood over their entrances, Men and Ladies and Escorts.  They genuinely puzzled me.  Even in 1958, I suspect, they represented quaint and old-fashioned attitudes, and I was far too young-fashioned to have any way of understanding them.

I remember glancing into those beer parlour entrances sometimes, trying to discover the difference between the two sides.  But that was as far as my curiosity extended.

Movies.  Much more interesting on Hastings Street were the movie theatres.  There were three theatres operating there then–the Pantages, the Lux and the Majestic–all featuring double-bills showing second-run movies for 15 cents, two bits for adults, all since closed.

My father loved going to movies.  According to family lore, back in 1957 I’d said, “You love going to movies, don’t you, Daddy?”  But it was 1958 before I remember going to a movie with him.

Two in particular lodge in memory, neither of which ironically I saw to the end.  “The Man of a Thousand Faces” had a name that seemed to promise so much.  It was a 1957 bio of Lon Chaney, the silent film star, revolutionary make-up artist and horror film poster boy, whose most memorable roles were in The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  At eight years old, primed by the evocative name, I was sitting in the Lux waiting for some of these faces, but James Cagney, who played Chaney, spent the first half of the movie backstage in clown make-up not being funny, and the rest of the movie looking like James Cagney and still not being funny or in any other way interesting.
I don’t think my father liked the movie either.  I always had the impression that the movie ended with Chaney in his Quasimodo role, up on a platform being whipped.   When I reviewed it most of a lifetime later, I realized that the scene on the platform came two-thirds of the way through the film.  I think my father must have walked out.  –He was right.  It never got better.

The other movie I recall was “X the Unknown”, a 1956 Hammer science fiction/horror flick set in a remote area of Scotland where villagers are being terrorized by radioactive mud from a ravine.  With an unlikely and unpromising premise, a shoestring budget and lacking today’s capabilities for special effects, the film fell back on suggestion, story-telling and pacing.  It was a sufficiently well-crafted b-movie to drive my eight-year-old self out of the theatre in terror.

My father, who was watching the film with me, stayed behind to watch the end.  Home was, after all, only three or four blocks away.  I myself didn’t see the end of the movie until a science fiction club meeting in the early ‘80s.  I realized then that I had only missed perhaps a minute of it.

And the radioactive mud lost.

I can’t recall any other particular movies I can date from this time, but the sense and feeling of going to movies with my father I do remember well.  I always liked looking at the still pictures they had posted outside—sometimes misleading—to lure you in.  I remember the faded theatre lobbies, the walls lined with old movie posters and coming features, with the inevitable popcorn and candy-counters.  And, after you’d watched your double-feature matinee, I recall the odd feeling of emerging from the artificial night of the theatre auditorium into the blazing afternoon daylight you’d somehow forgotten was there.

The occasion of going to movies with my father was important enough to me that I was careful to repeat it with my own daughter.

I don’t think she ever asked me, “You love going to movies, don’t you, Daddy?”  But if she had, it would have been true, and that love began on Hastings Street.

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Continued @ Legends of Myself 33

Posted in: autobiography