Friday, May 13, 2005

Just a bit more about nostalgia…

That Youth hostel I wrote about yesterday was called the Backpackers hostel and was run by an Italian immigrant named Vince, I forget his last name. Vince had this remarkable accent that probably would be identical to any old east coast comedians version of old school, fresh from the boat ‘wop’ lingo. But Vince was a pretty shrewd operator nevertheless and had several other languages at his disposal (along with several other hostel properties) to go along with his pigeon. Our stock in trade was ostensibly the European travelers who came crashing and stumbling in looking either for the cheapest room possible or anything that might be available because all the others were full. And despite being the cheapest bed in town, Vince had a good deal going.

If you have never been to Vancouver BC, I will tell you that it still sits in my mind as being probably the most attractive cities in North America. I speak here of the park and the waterfront of English Bay. The great green apartment buildings and the cultural festival season that comes through every fall. The place is gorgeous and lively and sweet. However, Vancouver also has one of the most gruesome sections that any big city might ever have. And we were located right on the border.

The Backpackers hostel was on Pender St. and was just around the corner from the edge of Gastown and the Hastings Street Ghetto. At the time, and I don’t know if this is still true, a touristy “red light” district was allowed to be a la Amsterdam and as almost anything was allowed to be inside the district. So day in and day out the area was packed with a mixture of amused and bemused tourists sitting at the overpriced outdoor cafe’s (when the rains would allow) and also with “skels”, a phrase coined by a friend of mine from New York that describes walking skeletons. Those walking skeletons were of course drug casualties who were grinding out their meager lives fix to fix and feeding off the excess from the Gastown crowd. All very bawdy I am sure.

But our proximity to all of this, as well as to the Blunt Bros. ‘coffee house’ (bring your own weed) also gave out house its reputation as the dive of dives in BC. It was a party house and also home to an interesting group of permanent residents. I am not going to describe them that much here. Perhaps at another time.

How did I get there? I had been dealing with what had happened to my life since I had visited Belarus for the first time a few years earlier, and I thought that putting pen to paper would turn out to be the answer. Well, you know I am cheap and at the time was on a fixed income from an injury and wanted to do some writing. Pender Street was only $6 a night Canadian at the time, about $4 US, and so for me, it allowed me some time to deal with my life and with a literary projects I had been wanting to flesh out. This project was of course, The Delicate Task of Listening.

So I stayed there to write and after I was there for about a month or so, Vince came to me and asked if I was interested in running the desk. I guess Vince saw in me some sort of… Well, I think that he saw that the hostlers, especially the permanent ones seemed to take to me as being someone they wanted to talk to. A place of arrival as I said yesterday. And I suppose that I was still at that time insisting on allowing respect for all people regardless of economic, social or intellectual status. This of course, one of the tricks I had picked up from the Belarus excursion back in ’97.

Anyway, Vince saw that I seemed to make a pretty good dad to the lost souls tossing their tourist dollars around in the hope of finding some hope and meaning for their own lives and so he offered me the job of Managing the place when the current manager left to return to Africa. And you now I took the job, again because it was a job I could do easily, would in theory allow me to finish the theatre project, paid a little money and came with a free bed. But I had one stipulation though: I needed to know from the beginning if Vince wanted me to run the place as he ran it, or as I would see fit. Now to me, this was a big question because a lot of Vinces low end practices seemed a little exploitative or cheap to me and I thought that we could retain the bottom line bed theme while raising our standards insofar as how we sold the place. Namely, I though we could introduce just the slightest hint to our customers that even though we were poor, we were not without dignity. I really don’t think Vince listened very hard to what I was saying, or maybe he really never gave much of a crap about anything, but he told me to do with the place what I wanted and so I took the job.

Now I should say here, for the record, that I enjoyed the job at first very much. And, I thought that the minor changes I brought in made the place a bit better right from the start. The first thing I did of course was make it hard for Canadians, specifically Hastings Street Canadians from coming in. This is not an original Hostel practice I assure you and is included in quite a few “rules of the House” around the world. Secondly I made it an absolute rule about paying the bill on time or checking out. And lastly I insisted on make a short speech about the place to all guests. The speech had to do with my intended reality of our place, that though we were the cheapest place, we also nevertheless felt it was out job to remain in business for tomorrow’s travelers. Therefore there was no reason to party here at anything more than 90% of the guests capacity. That little reserve I was asking for would allow for our feminine guests to feel welcome and would diminish our necessity for having either the police or the hospital on the speed dial.

And you know it did work out pretty well. I mean, In my mind the place seemed over-all to be happier, the money we ended up making turned out to be a little better (About 15%) and our guests were staying on a little longer and in the end seemed to like the place a bit better. And, I made a pretty good bouncer even if I do say so myself and I think people liked that as well. And so all of this, plus my prattling on about Belarus and socialism and such gained me my name: The Bear. And like I said, I did like it.

But in the end, this approach went against Vince’s go-for-the-jugular approach. Vince liked Pender Street as a hard-edged slaughterhouse and he liked the live it up, drink it up, smoke it up attitude. He always felt that he had come from the streets and that is how he had had made his way and any such intellectual make-up that I was offering went against his tried and true methods. Or, he didn’t like my stature. But in any case, what could I do? It was his place after all, wasn’t it? And in the end I was only a short-term hired hand. And under the table at that. I had no hand with which to fight. So when the time came, I moved on and I haven’t been back since.

There is a lot of Pender Street in that play. A lot more than I had intended when I started. There is a lot of Belarus in there too. Belarus is there and Pender Street and some bitterness over how that injury I sustained in Georgia was handled by the Workman’s comp people and also Oregon and some stuff that happened in the Czech Republic… There was a lot of stuff that went into that play about a down and out carpenter with a broken back and an opera singer from Ukraine who have fallen from grace from a stone cold world.

And I think more than anything, the play was about a general complaint I had about the world at the time in that we seem to want to forget each other so quickly. And there was a line from the play, more a theme really:

Why can’t we allow for the existence of even one beautiful thing? Why is it so impossible for the world to simply allow for the voice of life, for its song, its music, to simply exist and be?

At least this is what I was trying to say. And I think this is what I was trying to say when I came here in early to Belarus in early 2002 as well. I mean, I saw what was happening to the place; what had happened and I thought that I wanted to be a voice here and that I could help soften the blow, or at least add a little thoughtfulness to the transition that seemed so mercilessly inevitable. You know, I wanted to help. But what happened to me was pretty much exactly like what happened at Pender Street. Pretty much exactly the same actually. I had great acceptance, people liked me, there were results from my work that seemed to indicate that people liked what I was saying and then a bunch of greedy assholes decided to fleece the created opportunity for the easiest, fastest and cheapest money they could.

And of course this is the way of the world, isn’t it?

Anyway, it is cold as hell here today so I have postponed my trip to the farm for a few hours to take care of some local business I was going to put off till Monday. It is also raining, which is great for what is already in the ground, but makes for rotten working conditions for what isn’t.

I tried to load the latest version of the book yesterday but the sever kept jumping and after a while, I felt like I wasting money so I stopped trying. I’ll give it another try when I have access to a different computer. Other than this there isn’t a lot of news to report on. Well, that’s not true: there was one thing that happened to Tatyana yesterday, a remarkable story that has to do with the Belarussian tax organization. But I think I will leave that till next time, which will be either Sunday or Monday.

Click here to return to the HOMEPAGE

Or contact me by e-mail at

More soon.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home