A Vancouver Christmas Story

In late December many years ago I found myself stranded in Vancouver. My passport was on the verge of expiring and I was temporarily between countries so I had flown back to Canada to take refuge with my parents for Christmas. My parents lived in the Gulf Islands and I was all set for the long ferry ride before I discovered that they weren’t even home. My parents were on holiday in Hawaii, something that I would have known if I kept in touch. My mother, house-proud and unapologetic, refused to let her errant daughter stay in the house until they returned. Among other features, it had a varnished blonde wood floor the size of a squash court which, my mother worried, I would scratch simply by walking on it. Besides that, I drank too much coffee and I would certainly leave marks by putting my real life coffee cup on the so-called coffee table. These were the concerns voiced long distance over the telephone. I’m sure there were others.

Once informed of my plight, my old friends Nina and Bill took me in for a few days. They lived in Vancouver and worked at the university. With their more down-to-earth standards of housekeeping they did not perceive me as a hazard to their home. I slept on a fold-out couch that once opened, stretched from wall to wall in the living room of their tiny one bedroom apartment on Great Northern Way. Each night in the dark, I was observed at unnervingly close quarters by their gregarious Siamese cat who walked back and forth over my head before settling down to stare at me in fascination. The cat had never seen the couch disgorge itself before and my presence and this nightly world-shaking metamorphosis were inextricably linked in his mind.

By day, armed with maps, I explored the city while Nina and Bill were at work. I roamed and loitered, browsed and investigated, killing time and pondering my rootless, uncertain future. December was very cold but clear and frosty. My peregrinations were oriented by the sunlit snow-capped landmarks that appeared suddenly out of nowhere between grey buildings. These were the triangular peaks of the Coastal Mountains, distant, mysterious, monumental and as omnipresent in the life of Vancouver as the Great Pyramids of Egypt are in Cairo.

On a Wednesday morning I was working my way along Broadway headed for Commercial Drive. Nina and Bill had recommended that I check out Commercial Drive for a number of reasons but at the rate I was going I’d never get there. Broadway was very long and home to a great many questionable attractions. It had everything: ten dollar shops filled with sweatshirts and yoga pants guaranteed to fall apart in the first laundry cycle, pool halls, Chinese take-aways, a shop selling tango shoes, army surplus stores and outdoor sports gear emporiums with fleets of red and yellow kayaks suspended from the ceiling. I found the Mogadishu Restaurant and then the unbelievably named Uranus Exotic Lounge and Karaoke Bar flanked by a print shop on one side and a courier office on the other.

There were also several pawnshops and I was looking in the window of one when something caught my eye. The window displayed a plethora of articles that could be had for a bargain price. There was a moldy looking clarinet lying in a case of moth-eaten blue velvet, a snow blower, a chainsaw and several guitars all chained and padlocked to a steel pipe. One guitar was a large common looking chestnut acoustic of raw-boned build and another was a skeletal blue and silver electric guitar that looked more like a surgical instrument that aliens might use to dissect you after they abducted you in their spaceship. Uncomfortably squeezed between them was a small elegant Spanish guitar. Wasp waisted and romantically curved, its sound hole was fringed with an ornate inlay of mother-of-pearl. This guitar was clearly in the wrong place, a guitar in distress. The iridescent mother-of-pearl shimmered like teardrops clinging to the lashes of a startled eye perfectly round with alarm. How had this exquisite creation ended up here, herded and chained together with these other guitars like a princess in a slave market.

I had never been much interested in the guitar as an instrument. Neither the wild cat scream of an electric guitar nor the monotonous background strum of a tuneless Bob Dylan wannabee provoked anything other than contempt from me. The guitar seemed the ultimate cop-out option for those with delusions of musical grandeur.

But then I had seen and heard the great classical guitar master John Williams play at London’s Royal Albert Hall. He had played Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with an ease and simplicity that made time stand still. Now as I looked at this exquisite guitar I saw myself playing with the same delicate finesse. Caught in its spell, visions streamed through my mind. I had no idea what the Spanish gardens of the Palacio Real de Aranjuez looked like that had so inspired Rodrigo. Neither did he. Rodrigo never saw them; he was blind. But because of Rodrigo I knew what they sounded like. A breath of sun-baked evening breeze played in the fountains scattering their cool droplets on to the beating wings of songbirds. Magnolia trees ringing with the hum of cicadas….

I pushed on the greasy glass and sticky aluminum frame of the pawnshop door. A bell rang as the door opened and I came in. The shop was long and narrow. At the far end an Asian man sat on a bar stool watching a television mounted on the wall. On one side ran a long glass counter holding iPods, bling-bling men’s jewelry and watches. On the other side of the shop, stacked to the ceiling were sound systems, control boards, speakers, microphones, amplifiers, drum sets in cases and God knows what else. The shop was a testament to the financial unviability of the music business. It was the last stop, the end of the road, the graveyard of broken dreams for a never-ending procession of rock musicians, singers and DJ’s who never made it. When bands died, now I knew where they went. They didn’t go to heaven; they went to the pawnshop.

“Something you like?” called the man from the other end of the shop, tearing his eyes from his ten a.m. soap opera to watch me look up and down at this wailing wall of equipment.

“Could I see one of the guitars in the window please?” I asked.

“Prices you see already,” he said, reluctant to leave his soap at a gripping climax. “Fixed price, no bargaining.”

I pointed to the Spanish guitar languishing in its chains. “I can’t see the price on this one,” I countered.

Pulling out a bunch of keys, the man climbed off his bar stool and came down the narrow strip of dingy carpet to the front window. He reached through the dusty snake’s nest of tangled electric cords and multiple sockets that powered the window lighting, unlocked the chain and yanked out the guitar.

"You buy?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I answered as I took the guitar in my hands. I turned it over inspecting it from every angle although in truth I didn’t know a thing about guitars. I had no idea what was the difference between a good one and a bad one. All I could see was that it appeared in perfect condition, not even a scratch on its satin polish. But just holding it told me that this guitar was something special. To touch it made me feel … powerful. Not powerful like a dictator or some captain of industry, but powerful in myself, the kind of confidence that comes from that feeling that you have all it takes to make your dreams come true.

I flicked up the paper tag tied to the neck and looked at it. Two hundred dollars.

“Two hundred dollars,” said the man leaning over my shoulder to read it too. “Cash only.” He turned and pointed to official evidence of store policy: a yellowing handwritten sign behind the jewelry counter stuck on the wall with peeling cello tape.

I looked at the guitar. In my current financial situation I needed to spend money on a guitar like I needed a hole in my head. I didn’t have two hundred dollars on me anyway. True, but I could leave a deposit and come back tomorrow with the rest.

Just as I was thinking these fiscally imprudent thoughts, the front door flew open so forcefully that it hit the towering wall of music equipment opposite and bounced off again. The whole pile swayed dangerously for a moment and I held my breath anticipating an avalanche.

“Stop! Put that guitar down.”

My attention shifted from the equipment, which mercifully regained its delicate equilibrium, to the person speaking who had caused this near disaster and was now inside the shop. He was a twenty-something guy with blue eyes and the kind of thick, longish, wavy hair that made a girl want to run her hands through it. He certainly did justice to the jeans and the navy V-necked sweater that he wore under a caramel colored shearling coat. He was anybody’s idea of a dreamboat – but not mine, at least not these days, although all his attention was trained on me, which should have thrilled any girl.

“Put that guitar down,” he repeated slowly and clearly, taking a tentative step closer, moving in on me like a detective on a bad TV show trying to convince some mixed-up kid to give up a loaded gun.

“What’s your problem?” I said, annoyed. “Are you the guitar police or what?”

He ignored that question. “Give it to me.”

He looked me in the eye and I almost melted. Then I snapped out of it. It wasn’t going to be that easy.

“No,” I said. “I’m buying it and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”

Instinctively my hands tightened around the guitar until its strings bit into my palms.

“No you’re not.” He turned to the pawnbroker. “Two hundred, right?’

The dreamboat reached into his pocket and slapped the money down on the glass counter so hard that I thought it would crack.

“That’s not fair,” I protested. “I was here first.”

“She was here first,” the pawnbroker nodded, a referee between the two of us. He turned to me. “OK, two hundred dollars.”

My heart sank. I felt through all my pockets, playing for time but it was all a bluff. I knew I didn’t have two hundred dollars. In the end I had sixty-one dollars and fourteen cents.

“Ha,” said the dreamboat triumphantly as he removed the guitar from my grasp. He had to pry my fingers off one by one.

The pawnbroker shrugged. “Sorry lady. Maybe you like some other guitar. Plenty here, all sizes, all colors. What about this one? Only one hundred dollars but I give it to you at a big discount, no problem.”

“No,” I said, tears pricking behind my eyes. “I don’t want a different guitar. I want that one.”

“Trust me, I know you don’t really want this stupid guitar so no hard feelings, alright?” said the dreamboat. His voice was cajoling, conciliatory.

I could see that I was expected to be gracious in my defeat. I didn’t feel in the mood to be gracious.

“How about I make it up to you by buying you coffee,” the dreamboat persisted. “Hey, I’ll even sweeten the deal by throwing in a muffin or two. I know a coffee shop on Commercial Drive that has great pumpkin muffins. It’s not too far from here. What do you say?”

“OK,” I said grudgingly.

“By the way, my name is Nicholas, Nick to my friends. Pumpkin muffins are my favorite.”

Funnily enough, they were my favorite too. The pawnbroker put the guitar in its case for Nick and we left the shop together.

From its junction with Broadway, Commercial Drive slopes down toward the sea. With its monotonous line of boring buildings, it didn’t seem very interesting at first, but as we walked down the sunny side of the street, its personality revealed itself. Organic grocers, Italian bakeries, vintage clothes stores and leftist bookshops were already swarming with activity. Christmas lights in all their candy coloured luminosity were strung in random abandon all over the place. According to Nina and Bill, Commercial Drive was famous for its collection of outlandish characters who made the place their second home, but on this cold December morning the natives seemed pretty tame. Maybe they were still sleepy. To me Commercial Drive was the Notting Hill of Vancouver only better.

Nick led me into a café with big glass windows. Around a scratched up bar, a group of men with backpacks watched the sidewalk, thoughtfully sipping from chipped mugs. “The Cars” played over the radio and we ordered from a redhead in cowboy boots and a brocade cocktail dress. When she turned to the coffee machine we got a view of her freckled back through the broken zipper.

All the best tables had been commandeered by a single design student who had staked out her graph papered territory with Tupperware boxes of pens and geometry sets. I chose a table between a woman typing on her laptop with one hand and applying lip-gloss with the other and two apparently hung-over Rastafarians wearing sunglasses.

“Here, take this,” Nick handed me the guitar while he went to round up the various coffee accoutrements. I put the guitar near the wall and pulled off my scarf. Nick returned fully loaded and soon I was biting into my promised muffin.

“They’re good aren’t they,” he said as he sat down.

Delicious,” I agreed.

“So tell me about yourself,” said Nick. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like that?”

“The pawnshop? Just killing time I guess.”

“Killing time because…?” he prompted.

“It’s a long story,” I said. I didn’t want to get into it.

“Well, what do you do? What are you?”

“Until ten minutes ago I was a would-be guitar player,” I said, eyeing the guitar case a little bitterly.

“That’s a very special guitar,” said Nick, “And it is going to a very special thirteen year old girl for Christmas. It’s just what she needs.”

“That guitar is too nice for some teenager who is going to leave it in the closet collecting dust,” I said.

“It won’t collect dust. In a few years she’ll set the world on fire. You’ll see. You should thank me,” he added casually. “I just saved you from wasting two hundred bucks.”

“It wasn’t going to be wasted,” I bristled. “I was going to play that guitar.”

“No you weren’t.” He stirred his coffee. “You’re not a guitar person at all.”

“I am so,” I retorted.

“No you’re not. Think about it.”

Irritated and astounded, I leaned back in my chair and I did think about it.

“That thirteen-year-old girl, she’s very lucky,” I said. “What are you, her father? Her uncle? Her brother?”

“No,” said Nick. “I’m Santa Claus.”

I stared at him, my heart thumping. He looked at me like he could see straight through me. And then he laughed.

“Your kind,” he said shaking his head. “You’re always trouble, the whole bunch of you.”

“Who me? I’m trouble?”

“Yes,” he said. “Especially you. I should have known. You’re one of the worst.”

“Why? What kind am I?” Intrigued and horrified, I knew this might be really dangerous territory.

“Without question one of the worst.” Nick leaned in and gave me a look loaded with the sense of conspiracy. “Because you’re a dreamer, an innocent. Because you still believe in Santa Claus.”

Feeling that I should be insulted without knowing exactly why, I sat back in my creaky chair and sulked silently for several minutes. Was I so obviously gullible? But then I couldn’t resist the temptation.

“So, if you are Santa Claus,” I challenged, “Tell me about yourself. Tell me…everything.”

He smiled and took a long drink of his coffee before he finally said, “OK, if you have time.”

“It so happens that at the moment I’ve got nothing but time.”

And so he did. We sat in the café for hours. The design student left, the staff changed shifts and later it snowed outside.

It was early evening before I made my way back to Bill and Nina’s through the slushy streets, completely wired from so much caffeine. They were curious to know how I had filled my day.

“So did you make it to Commercial Drive?” asked Bill.

“Yup,” I said.

“Meet any interesting…er, characters?” asked Nina.

“Well, I had coffee with Santa Claus.”

“That’s nice,” said Nina.

“Good for you,” said Bill.

A year later I was in France. It was late December and I was shopping, not for Christmas presents but for a few cheap sticks of essential furniture. I was tired of sleeping on an air mattress and of sitting on the stairs with my dinner plate in my lap. So now I was in a depot-vente, one of those huge tin-roofed warehouses full of used furniture where regular French people sell off whatever it is they are trying to get rid of. Depot-ventes are mind-blowing sources of treasure but they are also difficult to unearth. Buried away in the industrial districts, finding one is like striking the mother-lode. To a gauche North American, they are filled with shabby chic articles steeped in history, culture and individuality. To the French, who know better, they are filled with junk, ordinary old furniture quite run-of –the-mill and everything else useless, tatty and hopelessly out of fashion.

There I was trying to stay focused. Outside in the parking lot was an old Peugeot with a trailer hitched on the back and some necessary manpower that had come to do me a favor. I didn’t want to waste other people’s time. It was now or never. Furniture had to be bought, decisions had to be made.

I bypassed billiard tables, chandeliers, copper cooking pots, fire grates, porcelain sinks and made for a pile of dismantled bedsteads. Against the wall was a jumble of headboards and footboards. I threw myself into the fight, sorting them out one by one, pulling each headboard aside and straightening it out. When I got to the very last bed I found a piano behind it.

Something about that piano caught my attention. Perhaps it was the quality of its subtle pin-striped wood that spoke class or its beautiful quotation shaped brass foot pedals, scuffed and in need of a good shine, or the way it had been trapped behind the beds, its back against the wall, so to speak. This was an upright piano, a piano of unbending principle, a piano of integrity being leaned on and leaned on hard by this shifty gang of crooked beds. Clearly, this was a piano looking for an honorable way out. Stuck right on top was the ticket: one hundred euros, same price as a bed. But I was on a budget. A bed was in the budget. I needed a piano like I needed a hole in my head.

As I lifted up the lid, the famous gold lettered name of Erard flashed above the ivory keys and something fell out. I picked it up off the concrete floor. It was an old Christmas card, yellowed and curled with a fairytale winter scene. Glitter that was many decades old came off on my fingers. I flipped it open and read:

Joyeux Noël


I guess it was meant for me.