Vancouver Specials. Normally it is a term referring to a style of home constructed in the city in the 60s, most often found in the east-end. They are generally very well-made of concrete with peaked roofs in contrasting colours. Very utilitarian balconies with metal railings separate the two floors and stretch across the entire structure. There are usually two front doors with tiny yellow or red glass windows situated at each end of the house or side by side in the middle of the first floor.
However you have to live here for a while to get to know the second reference, to the special folk, the eccentric ones, not necessarily the homeless ones, just the plain strange people that proliferate our city. I refer to them as Vancouver Specials. Unlike a lot of us, I quite enjoy the spectacle that seems to surround them. It happens because the spectacle is their reason d’etre, and so to create one wherever they go is a lot of fun for them I believe. This is partly why they are special. The are a sort of tour de force of various styles, visually and their antics are unique to each and every one of them.
I had been sitting watching a game of tennis in a park one afternoon with a friend and we both noticed an older fellow sitting on the sidelines who had appeared and started yelling out comments to cheer on the players of a foursome on the first court.
Once in a while he’d reach into his bag and pull out a bottle and he’d take a long drink. Wiping his mouth he’d yell out: “Watch your backhand. He knows your weakness.” to this one player. About to receive the serve he looked over at the old fellow. “Watch it, he knows!”
This must have unnerved him for the serve came to his backhand and he returned it against the net.
“What did I tell ya,” the old guy shouted. slapping his knee.
Another fellow rode up on his bike. He parked it by the fence near the commentator. He didn’t come inside the court. He took off his bike gloves and helmet and reaching inside his pack he pulled out a tallboy Kokanee and cracked it. He must of said something to the other guy from behind the fence. Perhaps they knew each other but I had the feeling not. They probably had that special relationship. They watched the game together, nodding or shaking their heads in debate about all of the rallies at hand.
They clapped at the good shots. The old fellow shouted out some more pointers and I could see it was getting to the players. Then the biker drank up and left, tucking his empty into his pack. The old fellow finished his bottle and he wrestled to get up to leave too. But not without the last instruction for his tennis students, who were clearly frustrated with him and trying hard not to acknowledge his existence.
“Try to keep to the back base line,’ he said to one. ‘It’ll give you more time to hit the ball, kid. You gotta work on that backhand, for Christ sake!” he said to the other shaking his head in disapproval.
Standing there on the court speechless, the players watched in disbelief as the old guy left. They had had enough and now walked off the court. My friend and I just chuckled.
“You can either laugh or let it ruin your game.” I said.
So he was special in my mind.
I was glad the other day to see the little Italian who sings opera in the streets. He walks around the city for miles, singing at the top of his lungs, Puccini, Verdi and he isn’t too bad at that. He reminds me a little of Roberto Benini in the look about him, in the film Down by Law during the ice cream scenes, if you know it. Characters, these people are all characters. They are their own works of art, as Bukowski once said. It is true, they exist in this strange vacuum and apply their own rules to their existence in an increasingly alienating world, seemingly unaware of the rest of it or perhaps disinclined to care – they function apart.
How free they must feel. To not give a damn about convention. Free to express themselves with little or no repercussions because people are afraid. To me this is why they are special. They just happen to live in Vancouver, as do I.