Once every month or so, on a Saturday morning, my daughter Jessie and I get up early and head off to Commercial Drive for coffee, orange juice and a shared Spanish Omelette with Portuguese sausage at The Havana Restaurant. The Drive, as it’s known, is Vancouver’s funkiest street; a vibrant, truly multicultural neighbourhood filled with ethnic eateries and populated by a much higher percentage of people who “march to the beat of a different drummer” than you would find in any other part of the city. It’s also the sort of place where the grimmer realities of life are often close to the surface, like the used hypodermic needles that can occasionally be seen lying around.
After breakfast, we wander up and down the street, checking out the used clothing stores and boho bric-a-brac shops. We go window shopping at the toy store and pick up some coffee beans, some good parmesan and pancetta from one of the delicatessens. Weather permitting, we head across the street to the park playground, where Jessie hangs out with the other kids on the swings and I take my place along with the other parents on the nearby benches.
For some reason, there’s something about this particular place that lends itself to striking up conversations with complete strangers. It’s an activity that I rarely engaged in when I was younger, and that always puts me in mind of my own father, a man never at a loss for words, able to coax the life story out of just about anybody on a moment’s notice. Coffee shops, museums, train stations, libraries, waiting rooms of every kind were, and still are, places where he would quickly and inevitably become involved in long, laughter-filled conversations with even the most unapproachable-looking people. It would never have occurred to him that anybody would just want to be left alone, and as far as I know he has never once failed to win anybody over. For the longest time, I just assumed he knew pretty well everybody in the world.
Not long ago I sat on my favourite bench beside a woman named Thora, a classical cellist who was visiting from London for a new music festival. We talked about chamber music and Glenn Gould, and she warned me never to buy tea that comes in tea bags. A little later, our conversation was joined by a woman named Suzy who teaches fabric arts at a community college. She showed us a beautiful Norwegian-style knit sweater she was working on, and a sketchbook filled with amazingly detailed pencil sketches of various types of ferns and herbs. When it was time to go, we wished each other well, and I left with a feeling of having been just slightly enriched.
Perhaps it’s another one of those transitions that occurs as you reach a certain age, this need to form fleeting connections with the people about you, to rub elbows with the fellow travellers on this amazing journey through life. Another one of the good lessons I’ve subconsciously learned from my father.