I’m twenty years old, living in the basement of a ramshackle pink building in Vancouver’s wild West End. My upstairs neighbour, appropriately named Byron, is about seventy years old, a salty and poetic soul, a former flight attendant for a British airline. His studio apartment is cramped and narrow, but the furnishings are suggestive of an expansive and eclectic soul. There are African masks, jewelled Russian eggs, kitschy rococo figurines, a red ship’s lantern, a grouping of Balinese shadow puppets. Atop a display case filled with a bizarrely byzantine selection of plastic action figures, painted nesting dolls, a Japanese lucky cat, and a large chrome-plated Buddha, there is a gorgeous ivory-handled dagger which he tells me is Burmese in origin, and which has a “complicated and somewhat tragic history attached to it.” Exactly what this history was, I never did discover. It was “a story for another time, when we can both afford to sit down with a decent bottle of brandy.” Sadly, the time never came. Finances and mortality deprive us of so many stories, don’t they?
One of the things I recall most vividly about that strange, wonderful little Hobbit hole of an apartment was a large, very tacky black velvet painting of a bright pink flamingo, nestled in an insanely ornate golden frame. Ever since that time, I have had a deep and abiding love for any image of a flamingo. Not the real things, mind you. For all I know, they are graceful and benevolent creatures. On the other hand, for aught I know, they may well be the world’s most pestilential and irritating creatures. What I most love is the image of them, the idea of them, the audaciously flamboyant beauty of them.
Here’s a fun fact: the feathers of flamingos are naturally grey, and they only turn their signature brilliant pink as a result of chemical pigments contained in their diet, which consists mostly of tiny pink brine shrimp and blue-green algae. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our appearance could be gradually mutated by the ways in which we sustain ourselves? What if my passion for bloody marys gave me a red right hand? How perfect would it be if my obsession with the blues resulted in a cerulean jaundice? If only, by virtue of the countless hours I have spent frittering away my time in discotheques and nightclubs, I could begin to take on the luminosity of neon signs and glitter balls.
Or does this already happen? Do all of our experiences, our encounters, our passions, the interests we pursue, the knowledge we acquire, the symbolic objects we possess and are possessed by, the people who enter and affect our lives, transform us, if not in physical appearance, at the very least in the ways in which we see the colours of our lives? I like to think that might be true. I choose to believe we are all fellow travellers, all flight attendants attending to the needs of our passengers, all poetic souls, collectors of whatever is remarkable, watching clouds and flocks of birds passing by the windows of our eyes.