Backyard Tourist: Commercial Drive

Interior wall of Cafe Havana on Commercial Drive, featuring a photo of Fidel Castro smoking a cigar.

Cafe Havana: it would be more authentically Cuban if the light were burnt out.

The rare appearance of the sun in winter tends to bring Vancouverites out of their cramped cocoons, and today is no exception. Despite the crisp wind that serves as a reminder that spring has not yet arrived, Commercial Drive is abuzz and living up to its name — though here the commerce is artfully masked by an array of fair trade coffeehouses and gift shops, alternative music, movies and book stores, and enough organic offerings to satisfy even a vegan hypochondriac. At its heart the Drive belongs to the Italians, with a hodgepodge of Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and South American immigrants allowed to nip at the heels of the Europeans, themselves once also refugees from poverty, war, or family squabbles. A trendsetter in the sandalwood crowd — who buy last season’s street banners as converted shopping bags — Commercial Drive is so hip it even has its own website.

In Grandview Park, across from a row of Victorian homes, some restored, most not, a group of twenty-something men are playing bicycle polo on the tennis courts, a large black banner with “bikepolo.ca” on it announcing the obvious. I notice there are no women among the few spectators gathered to watch the game, no doubt the consequence of a disappointing lack of buff men in tight clothing commanding a thousand pounds of raw animal power and grace between their legs. I move on.

On the other side of the bathroom shack the playground is a cacophony of gleeful squeals and parents in conversation. Nearby, two Native men are strumming guitars and singing, their earnest musical camaraderie drowned out somewhat by the steel drumming busker trying to earn a few bucks on the northeast corner of Charles and Commercial. The park is vibrant yet tranquil, and I’m grateful for the lack of anarchists that once assembled on the lawn to make a point nobody else was interested in as police stood quietly by and smirked in derision. When I had asked the identically clad street urchins carrying “the individual is king” and “anarchy rules” placards whether they realised the latter was an oxymoron, there followed a pregnant pause before they all turned expectantly to their leader for direction. He looked confounded. It was uncertain whether this was because he didn’t know what an oxymoron is or because he didn’t see the irony in his politics, and all that he managed as a retort was to yell “rich bitch” at me as I moved on, a slur that was glaringly ridiculous to those who witnessed me loading my Santa Barbara market groceries into my weather-beaten ’87 Toyota Tercel.

But that was then and this is now, and now it’s three o’clock and I’m hungry. I head across the street and briefly consider lunch at Fets before landing next door at Havana so I can check out the gallery nestled in the back. I appreciate the support of local artists the gallery provides but today, alas, with the exception of two pieces the paintings on show are painfully pedestrian, and I find myself more attracted to the flyers arrayed across the corner table. I look for something interesting and settle on a festival ad featuring the South Asian band En Karma: six men trying ineffectively to look like gangsters, their uniform white shirts and tan chinos making a mockery of their collective steely gaze. Their Bollywood bravado is a hoot and makes me wish the real gangsters that haunt south Main were as benign.

I ask to be seated. Despite the empty tables at this hour, frenetic music and kitchen chatter create a ambience of urgency which makes the slow service appear slower still. I’m not here to review the restaurant, however, so I fall into step with the pace and let my eyes wander. The graffiti-etched plaster walls of Havana are littered with old photos of Cuba and its inhabitants, both famous and obscure, immortalizing and romanticizing a country that no longer exists except in the minds of an aged proletariat. A light fixture casts a warm yellow glow on a close-up of Castro smoking his ubiquitous cigar, and the voice in my head wryly suggests the restaurant would be more authentically Cuban if the light were burnt out.

My waitress (when she finally arrives) is a youthful, pretty blond, the kind one imagines was a high school cheerleader in Victoria before heading to its big sister to find fame and fortune. Blondie strikes me as eager to please and no doubt lacking in the street smarts her colleague with the cropped hair, facial piercings and body art most likely possesses. The latter is wearing a black short-sleeved, scooped neckline T-shirt that reveals a plethora of tattoos, including one inked across her back of an Orthodox Virgin Mary and Christ child, a paradox of punk evangelism that I wickedly wished I had a photo of to annoy my born-again sisters back in Edmonton.

As for the crowd, it is, like The Drive itself, a smorgasbord of race and age, though today yuppie couples predominate. Many appear to be on dates, none of which seem to be going overly well: a few tables down an Asian woman is earnestly trying to appear interested as her date expounds on the virtues of the chipotle Tabasco sauce that graces every table, while across from me a young waif has ended her meal with an ankle rub from her obliging paramour, and though her foot is resting comfortably in his crotch this amounts to no more than a tease without the benefit of a tablecloth. I feel sorry for the guy, and worse for the Tabasco lady.

My salmon burger finally arrives, and moments later so does lunch for the real tourists sitting nearby. Before they dig in, though, the woman pulls out a digital SLR and photographs their plates, an act that makes me recall with horror evenings held hostage at my grandfather’s house, subjected to hours of his Kodachrome recollection of Our Trip Through the Rocky Mountains, my grandmother in front of the sign for Banff National Park looking self-conscious and squinting from the sun. I think it lucky for the friends and family of this snap-happy traveller that Our Trip to Vancouver will likely only ever grace a Facebook or MySpace page, easily ignored or viewed while watching YouTube in a separate window.

One forgettable meal later, I head back out across the park. I’m accosted by a man who begins his spiel with “I know that I’ll never be able to pay you back as I go through this crazy thing called life, but if you could find it in your heart to help me I will do my best to try to help another.” It’s panhandling as pay-it-forward, with a caveat of possible non-compliance, and I have to give him points if not money for originality. I say no and as I walk away he calls out after me, “Have a nice day—unless you have other plans.”

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