Legends of Myself 122

Posted on October 31, 2019


122. Vancouver, 1964-65. Main Street: The Broken Boy

832 main streetI think it was November, and we moved to Main Street. My father was working for the CNR in the railway yard just a few streets over, and the address was convenient. We had a room in a rooming house with their entrance fronting on Union Street—photographic evidence from the time suggests it was called Sun Dog Hotel—with our window overlooking Main. Leaning into the window and looking right, you could see, through and behind the two-story London Drugs sign, the sign for Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, on the opposite corner of Union Street. In fact, we had moved to the entrance of Hogan’s Alley, to what was the closest Vancouver ever came to a Black community. (A community within a community within a community.)

yellow kidHogan’s Alley got its name from an almost forgotten cartoon from the 1890s—the surest candidate for the description, “the original comic strip”—which famously introduced the idea of speech balloons, and was first published in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World (yes, that Pulitzer) and later and concurrently in William Randolph Hearst’s New York American Journal (Hearst was later fictionalized as Citizen Kane.) It was a crowded single panel cartoon drawn by Richard Outcault—who also invented Buster Brown—and featured a gawky, shave-headed kid in a yellow nightshirt known as the Yellow Kid. Again, like the strip in which he was featured, today the Yellow Kid is largely forgotten, but he’s referred to every time anyone mentions yellow journalism, a brand of journalism which Pulitzer and Hearst specialized in. The original term was “Yellow-Kid journalism”, and it referenced Pulitzer and Hearst’s competing New York tabloids, and the cartoon they both published.

So, how did there come to be a Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver? Well, the Yellow Kid was a slum kid from a slum neighbourhood. His eternally-shaved head had likely been shaved as a treatment for lice. Hogan’s Alley had thus entered the parlance as a synonym for any similarly lower-class neighbourhood. And up until the 1930s, the rain-coast version of Hogan’s Alley fully qualified. It was then Vancouver’s red light district. The first time the district was actually called Hogan’s Alley in print was apparently 1914, but, since the original comic strip stopped short in 1898, it probably acquired the nickname earlier than that.

As to the concentration of Blacks in the district, it had long been the kind of neighbourhood where, in the midst of endemic racial discrimination, a Black person could actually find housing. Also, the railway depot was conveniently close (for them and us) significant because Pullman porters—sleeping car porters—were traditionally Black. Such was true in the United States and Canada well into the 1960s, and began with George Pullman himself, who, after developing a railway sleeping car back in the 1860s, began by hiring newly-freed slaves to service them. (White folk liked Black servants.)

Hogan’s Alley had Black institutions, a Black church, and businesses like Vie’s, but it was really a multicultural neighbourhood with a Black concentration, not a Black neighbourhood per se, because discrimination in immigration meant that there weren’t that many Blacks in Vancouver in the first place. This, despite being part of BC history from before BC was established as a province. A special arrangement meant that for a long time practically only Pullman porter candidates were allowed to immigrate to Canada while other Blacks were systematically turned away.

The sparseness of the Black population in Vancouver meant that, unless you were looking for it, the Black concentration in Hogan’s Alley was easy to miss. I know that my father, a lifetime fan of Louis Armstrong, would have been flabbergasted to learn that Louis dined at Vie’s Chicken and Steaks when he was in town. We walked by there every day and never once went in. And though Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother cooked at Vie’s, that’s an after-the-fact famous connection, since Hendrix himself was yet to become famous (in 1964-65 he was still working as a sideman with Little Richard.) So the significance of Hogan’s Alley was invisible to me while I lived there, and the existence of the neighbourhood was wiped away forever at the beginning of the 70s when Tom Terrific’s (Mayor Tom Campbell’s) urban renewal and highway plan tore it down and replaced it with the new Georgia Viaduct. The viaduct, so far as I can estimate, passes directly through the space my and my father’s room used to occupy.

It was during that chilly winter stay on Main Street that my father began to notice that there was maybe something wrong with me. It wasn’t at first. At first, it was just the two of us at a new address, a single large room with a curtain around my bed for privacy, and, with my father’s railroad job, relative prosperity. My allowance was $5 a week. I had a camera. I developed the film downstairs at London Drugs, because a free roll of film came every time I developed a roll. Yes, Main Street was a little bleak. I took a picture of the lawn surrounding the power station across the street because it was the only green in view.

But I didn’t mind living there.

goldfinger posterThat part of Main Street I remember for the army surplus store we shared the block with, the second hand shops, the greasy spoons, the occasional derelict store fronts with no discernible business, and a particular used bookstore where you could trade two books for one, meaning that after your first two books, every book purchased gave you two to read. I associate that store with Ian Fleming because the movie Goldfinger had been released about that time with its provocative Jill-Masterson-painted-gold advertising, and, though I didn’t actually see the movie at the time, I read as much James Bond as I was ever going to read sourced from that store alone.

A block from our corner was the beginning of the original Georgia Viaduct, and somewhere around there my Dad and I spent Christmas in a restaurant owned by a man who’d immigrated from the Azores. We knew that because of my father’s way of socializing with and getting to know the owners of the humble places where we sometimes ate, just like he often knew the owners of the hotels we stayed in. I don’t think it was a particularly good turkey dinner that Christmas, but somehow we had it almost among friends.

A little further north still, turning left on Hastings, past the Carnegie Library building, past the Pantages Theatre, was a newsstand called, I think, International News, where I remember buying puzzle books, and studying their racks of newspapers from around the world. In their girlie mag section towards the back I learned, through spying and peeping, that women lacked nipples and pubic hair, something, naive as I was and operating on intuition alone, I suspected as untrue even then. Though what the truth was, I didn’t suspect, either.

Hastings Street, much more than it has been since, was then a place for shopping. I scouted in a Hastings Street housewares store a portable record player which could play both albums and 45s, and which cost almost exactly $20. I petitioned my father to advance me a month’s allowance to buy it. I then brought it home, and, of course, didn’t have any money left over to buy records.

A month before my next allowance.

“I knew that was going to happen,” my father said. He was a little sour by the expression on his face.

But he gave me my bit extra that I had asked him for, and I went down to Hastings Street again and bought “All Day and All of the Night” by The Kinks, my first 45 purchase ever. Marylou said, as I remember from the time, “You’ll get tired of that song after awhile.” She was wrong.

All of which was life as usual to me. To my father, however, it was something different. It was something wrong. He looked at me and he was worried. I didn’t know what it was, but then I couldn’t see myself from outside of myself. Had I changed? I don’t know. I think that sometimes you know something like that, sometimes you don’t, like a train. On a train, sometimes it jerks when it starts, and you know you’re moving. Sometimes it starts so imperceptibly that, passing another train going the other way, you can’t tell whether you or they are moving. I think my father saw a change in me, and he was the world’s leading expert on me outside of me, and maybe he had a perspective I lacked. I don’t know.

Whatever the truth of it, my father thought that he had to do something, something to wake me up, to revive me. So he picked up a map of Canada. He reached out and touched a place. Where his hand landed was St. Catharines, Ontario.

We’re going there, he said.