Sometimes an easy life can seem a little shallow; too protected, no sharp edges and just a little too insulated from the real world. I have worked and saved a long time to add security and an illusion of padding against hardship, yet, too good an exterior can create a hollowness. Imagine a beautifully decorated Easter egg perched behind glass on a museum shelf. A person could starve to death looking at that painted shell. Sometimes I crave the yokey goodness of sunny side up and to hell with the shell.
Walter Mitty was on to something. I needed a nighttime outing to be around real people who were escaping their own brands of day-trouble. Then I remembered the recommendation of my friend Woody who said the Princeton was the real deal when he played there— an old bar with a live band, cheap wings and an utter lack of pretense.
The Princeton Hotel, in old downtown Vancouver is a few blocks from my guitar-building friend Warren’s place. It is wedged into East Village (East Vancouver) between the realm of hungry homeless ghosts, the Burrard Inlet shipping docks and the railroad yards. The music has to be loud to be heard over the graffiti-clad boxcars gliding by six meters from the windows behind the band stand. It ain’t going anywhere and nothing is coming to get it.
The brick 20-room building was built in 1912 by an aged but wealthy real estate man who promptly fell off a streetcar and died of his head injuries — an auspicious start. It went through a derelict period of abandonment until it was dusted off as a pub and bar and its hotel rooms were leased for long term residences. You want grit? This is the exact sort of place that will throw a handful of sand into a life of vanilla custard.
I am not a cultural voyeur but I do appreciate standing in the presence of lives, loves and troubles that are strikingly different from the life of privilege so easily available to us overly educated white male North Americans. While I appreciate winning that birth lottery, it is not an excuse to pull away from those who have other things to offer. Not wanting to stick out like a sore thumb, I didn’t bother changing out of my slightly dirty gray sweatshirt and pottered down there on my 15-year old motorcycle for ease of parking. Once there, I slipped into the music thrum of the Princeton with a backdrop of pool balls clacking, a rolling Keno game and a few sports screens up high.
I took a table out of the direct speaker blast to preserve what hearing I have left. I checked out the tattooed customers and eventually even the waitress lifted her shirt to show the gamblers her newest back tattoo. She wasn’t above doing a little impromptu dancing with the regular patrons either. Her name was Ellen, if tattooed names are to be believed, but more likely it was her daughter’s, lovers’ or mother’s name. She took my order as my butt hit the chair — Princeton burger, fries, a side salad and a. . . wait for it . . . a diet Coke. I know, I know, but moderation becomes me if I am to survive a motorcycle ride home on this boisterous Saturday night. Still, she double-checked that I didn’t really want a beer — Paralyzer IPA on tap you know?? Nope, I have learned my boundaries.
I really wanted to be a fly on the wall, let my ball cap pulled low, moto helmet on the seat beside me, and silence render me present but invisible. Then engagement came my way unbidden. Donella, a thin 60-something with gray pigtails stopped talking up the band members and brushed behind my chair with an “Excuse me darling”. I just commented, “Hey, that’s what they say in the South”. As a former phone operator, she picked up on my accent and plopped down to query my origins and talk about music. A character had found me; so much for invisibility and a fine old conversation ensued between us, two of the oldest patrons in the bar trying to chat over the way loud music.
Donella’s retirement plan was to eat 1200 calories per day, roll her own cigarettes, follow the best rock and roll bands through a trap line of East Van pubs. She also had a rationale for drinking Tequila and soda (the best, lowest calorie buzz available) which was it helped quiet the mild autism that prompted her to stutter otherwise.. I learned of her volunteerism with the hard done-by crowd dealing with addictions, and a North Dakota upbringing that had propelled her into catering, switchboarding, music production, a decade of heroin and cocaine addiction.
Now I was under the impression that long-term opiate addiction was almost impossible to recover from given a re-mapping of the brain’s pleasure and pain connections. She proved me wrong but admitted, living on the street had her close to going on a one-way trip over the edge of darkness. Her story was quite touching though; a pregnancy prompted her to check into hospital where she basically said “I am addicted to heroine, please save me and my child” and they began the 3-week de-tox cold turkey that very night. She never went back and now has a successful 30-year-old daughter in the world. Inheriting (and selling) a deceased parent’s home allows her to live cheaply and work just 2 days per week. This leaves abundant time to chase music around the East Village.
She has a presence though and the band knew her and were nervously congenial. Initially I had her pegged as a Vancouver music critic, but no. Later, when a table full of boisterous and well-lubricated bikers started shouting at the band for a song, she invoked the celestial power of a raging granny and shut them all down the way a kindergarden teacher might stop a spitball fight. I suspected that had I tried that I would be writing this from a hospital bed.
A big shout out to the Randy Swallow Trio band. Apparently Randy only owns one electric guitar that he built himself, and lays down the best of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Andrew Collins, Jeff Beck, and an occasional original. Clean, spare and generous with extended guitar slinger solos all tastefully done on top of a great drum and bass backbeat. Rock trios bring their own kind of parsimony –think Rush, Sonny Landreth, and of course Stevie Ray. If one can sing (and he can) the music has all the elements needed.
Periodically, people stood up at their table and did a little un-self-conscious dancing with each other or with strangers. The unenforced dress code was ummm . . . casual. Flip flops and baggy shorts or blue jeans for the men, the women tended toward cleavage and cut-off jeans though a few flower print summer dresses were sprinkled in. Comfort reigned and strangely, I was neither under or over dressed. At the break I stepped outside to rest my speaker-pounded ears which made the bus and train traffic seem positively quiet in contrast.
The smokers took up curbside residence and Donella came over to talk about accents, her time with motorcycles, the things she seen being part of the homeless street community etc. As part of my invisibility attempt, I dredged a broken cigar out of my motorcycle case and proceeded to make smoke. Girls on bicycles stopped to ask for cigarettes, and drunk men hugged each other. A city bus driver indulged a comical trio of attempts by a soused rider to mount the bus steps until someone provided the would-be rider a butt shove up the platform, and strangers raved about the wing and beer special on tonight.
It was just a nice night of pub food and rock and roll. I needed that.