The 99

“Her dad’s a playwright, her mom’s a painter,” my daughter said, referring to a friend whom I hadn’t yet met. “But everyone in Vancouver’s an artist. Even the bums are artists.”

“Then how do you tell the difference?” My daughter liked when I asked theoretical questions, and I liked to encourage her critical thinking.

She turned her nose to the window.

We had just sat down on the number 99 bus at the University of British Columbia. Over the previous five years, she had studied painting, and then photography, and then film, and then art history. I flew in from Chicago every few months to help out, and now the end was in view. She was going to graduate at the end of the semester.

As a professor of literature, I knew more than I wanted to about her prospects. Each year at our department retreat, we argued about what marketable skills we imparted to our students. Invariably, one professor said, “Google and Facebook hire mostly people in the arts and humanities,” and another shot back: “We’re here to give students an education, not a job.” I usually sided with the “education, not a job” point of view, but now that so many of my students were without jobs, and my daughter was about to graduate with an arts degree, I didn’t know what to think. Maybe she could get a job at Google.

We were sitting on a long blue bench just past the middle of the bus, which gave us a view of all the bus activity: four or five students dressed in monochromatic tans and pewters were plugged into their iPods and reading at the same time. Outside, the soupy October sky threatened rain. Vancouver weather: everything drenched and emitting the clammy sense that it would never dry out. Vancouverites armed themselves for rain as a matter of course. Even on the clearest days, the streets were ablaze with people in fuchsia or teal rubber boots, umbrellas the size of patio tables, and Gortex coats, pants, hats, wallets, socks, and underwear.

“You sure you don’t want to take another year and try getting a minor in computer science?” I said to my daughter in a fake-humorous tone. “Or engineering?” She grimaced and I instantly wished I could take it back. Of course, she would see through any attempt at a joke. I was learning, as all parents must, that I would only drive her away by meddling.

At Alma Street, the bus swung to the curb, and the doors squeaked open. A gull cried and a heavyset older woman lumbered on. Dressed in an orange smock top and tattered jeans, she plopped down on the bench opposite ours, but closer to the front. Her ragged black hair looked as if she’d cut it herself. Her eyes glistened and she kept her unblinking stare for a good twenty seconds on one person and then the next.

She fixed her eyes on my daughter, and suddenly started shouting: “Don’t get me to tell your yoga instructor you like her.” She turned her gaze from my daughter and gawked at a waifish young man who had boarded the bus with us at the university. He sank into his seat as the woman continued to shout: “If you like her, you tell her yourself. Don’t make me do it for you.”

“This is just so typical of Vancouver,” my daughter said in a voice just low enough for me to hear. The bus lurched forward, and she went on to describe the homeless artists she’d seen on Commercial Drive. “One guy, oh my god, you should see him, he draws smiley faces all over the sidewalks in colored chalk, and tourists just love it. They pay to get their pictures taken with him,” she said.

“Don’t get me to tell your yoga instructor you like her,” the woman said, her voice raised to a high screech. I looked her way, but I scootched closer to my daughter at the same time. No one except me seemed to be paying attention.

“Another guy,” my daughter said, “he put this thing in my hand and said ‘give me a loonie,’ and it happened so fast that I did. It was just a piece of paper bag with a quote from Baudelaire on it, and I kept it anyway and hung it on the fridge, and now I kind of like it.”

“If you like her, you tell her yourself.” The woman no longer addressed the young man but the empty air. “Don’t make me do it for you.” Then she grew quiet and the sadness of her situation fell over the bus, or so it seemed to me.

“Yeah,” my daughter sighed in my ear. “Every bum you meet has been to art school.”

She might not have been far off. I could quit worrying about my daughter’s job prospects by remembering that around eight thousand Vancouverites work in the arts, one of the highest per capita of any city in North America and certainly in Canada. People call the film industry there “Hollywood North,” and the city is bursting with museums, sculpture gardens, festivals, foundations and community-based projects. Vancouver is not without its opportunities, I told myself.

The driver stopped at Cambie. An older couple got on, and the lunatic woman limped down the aisle and stood next to my seat. She smelled of something old, and I don’t mean stale or unlaundered. I mean historically old, the whiff you get when a sterile museum displays anything with fabric—“Hemingway’s living room with the original furniture” or “Wordsworth’s nightcap.”

Holding onto one of the shiny stainless-steel poles, the woman caught my eye and spoke at me in a stringent, accusatory manner. “If you’re not gonna eat your blueberry muffin, don’t let it sit on your plate,” she said. Foam had started to gather at the corners of her mouth. “Don’t give people the wrong idea. People think I want that blueberry muffin, since you’re not even eating it. You could get a doggie bag. But No! You let it sit for everyone to see.” I was mortified. She drilled her eyes into me, repeating the scenario with such intensity that I wondered if I had left a perfectly good muffin on a café table where the woman had spotted it. I recalled no such incident, but still, I felt the intended guilt.

It wasn’t like we were traveling through Vancouver’s Skid Road, the 100 block of East Hastings Street. One time, my daughter posted on Facebook a photo of herself on East Hastings standing next to a heroin addict. The addict leaned over a metal grocery cart, pants sagging down her legs. The white, marbly skin of her large buttocks filled the photo, but the woman was so junked out she didn’t know how exposed she was. When I saw the photo, I called my daughter right away, and asked how often she and her friends went to East Hastings in the middle of the night. “It’s safe,” she said, and I tried to imagine Burger Kings and McDonalds and 24-hour Shoppers Drug Marts just outside the frame of the photo, waiting with open doors for middle-class college kids to rush in from their encounters with the crazy homeless.

I snuck glances at the woman as she continued ranting about the muffin. In my literature courses, my students—who, like my daughter, also see the edge approaching—like to discuss how true artists are insane and vulnerable. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a favorite in my classes, writes about the artist figure in “Kubla Khan”: “His flashing eyes, his floating hair!/ Weave a circle round him thrice, / And close your eyes with holy dread,/ For he on honey-dew hath fed,/ And drunk the milk of Paradise.”

If the woman on the bus was an artist, what did her art communicate? That I had no right to worry about my daughter when there were people like her surviving? Or, was she having a conversation in her head with her own daughter, someone lost to her, as I sat so close to mine that I could feel the warmth of her body? Was filling the bus with narratives of desire and hunger the essence her art? Or was she just crazy?

When the bus stopped at Granville, the woman stopped shouting and people turned to the windows where the clouds had dissipated and a luminous aqua light ignited the city’s green glass buildings.

One aspect of Vancouver you can’t recall fully or describe accurately is the movement of the sun and clouds across the mountains and ocean. It always seems like a surprise, a revelation, no matter how many times you see it. This light lifted me into a state where I glimpsed for a moment a long philosophical perspective on things. I thought: I am with my daughter and we are going somewhere together. Not just across town, but to a destination neither of us can see.

At Commercial Drive, the woman gathered the large plastic bags that she had brought on with her and stumbled down the stairs. My daughter and I got off too and, as the light heightened, walked to the yoga studio, our pale pink mats tucked under our arms.

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