Trashed Car in Canada ::: photo by Brittney Bush Bollay
I have to admit, there was a moment of excitement when they flipped the first car over.
Several things flashed through my mind at once: “Wow, I guess they’re really going to do this.” “My first riot!” “Should I get out of here?” We were, by chance, less than fifty feet from the car when the crowd set on it; we’d been standing there the whole game, hot in the crowd and the sun, tense with anticipation and the gradual recognition of defeat. We were frustrated too. In some way, I understood the vehicle-flipping.
But what happened next quickly departed from logic. While angry youths in uniform Kesler jerseys set rubbish, and eventually the car, alight, another group began climbing the lamp posts and dismantling street signs and crosswalk signals. Some people were flipping port-a-potties, including one with a very unfortunate fan inside. Soon we heard the sound of breaking glass coming from a sports bar on the corner, a place that less than an hour ago had been happily hosting a packed house to watch the game. The frustration on the streets had turned to something nastier within mere minutes. The mood was changing, a black storm cloud creeping across the formerly sunny sky, and you could feel the temperature drop and the electricity rise.
I won’t give a full account; we left when the batons started swinging, and we’ve all seen the photos of the broken storefronts and the flames rising against the night sky. But I think something tore in me a little that night too, a small rent tucked somewhere inside.
Nine hours before, three friends and I had left my home in Seattle and headed for the northerly border, dressed in blue and green and anxious to watch our not-quite-home team win the Stanley Cup. We had full tank of gas, a hotel reservation, and an eager appetite for Canadian beer. From the speakers, the Constantines sang a song of youth and victory: “Oh, young lions / This is your kingdom.”
I love the Constantines. I love hockey. I love Canada.
Sometimes, the things you love let you down.
We had dinner around ten in a small sushi bar with walls covered in hockey player autographs. Halfway through the meal, our waitress revealed that Boston goalie Tim Thomas had sat in the same booth the last time he was in town. It seemed a bold move, but I guess most people who couldn’t laugh graciously about it were a mile away smashing windows. The sushi was good and the beer arrived quickly, and inside, everything was okay.
Afterwards we returned to wandering downtown. Thanks to the mayhem, there was nothing else to do. My hopes of sharing a commiserative beer with some friendly locals were ruined when bars were ordered closed, and sitting in our hotel room watching the riots on the news seemed vaguely ridiculous when we were close enough to hear them through the open window. Over and over again we found ourselves drawn not quite to, but toward them, stopping when we could see the tear glass clouds or the riot-shielded human barricades.
We found boarded-up windows everywhere. A single mannequin leg in a high-heeled shoe had been abandoned askew across the sidewalk. As I stopped to photograph the barricaded M.A.C store, two young men in Canucks jerseys jumped in to pose.
Nearby, a line of newspaper boxes lay on their backs in the road, red, yellow, green, short stripes against the pavement. I’m not sure why, but impulsively, we picked one up. Then the next. Then the third. Then we went to the next block and did it again. I can’t claim any great moral purpose; it began more as just something to do, like a game. We got a few high-fives from passers-by, and the satisfaction of leaving something a little tidier than we left it. We picked up all of the tipped-over paper boxes on the way back to our hotel, then, out of ideas, retreated inside for a nightcap of Laphroaig and some CBC news.
As I took my first sip, we heard another newspaper box fall.
I know I idealize Canada. I’m certainly not the only person, either from the U.S. or from Canada itself, who’s guilty of this, but I often do it with a greater passion than most. And so maybe that’s why I never really believed that Canadians would actually riot, and why it hit me so hard when they did. I slept poorly that night and woke up the next day with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and “Young Lions” in my head. The lyrics, though, had changed meaning, suddenly turned sinister like last night’s mood. “Choose your crime / Throw the ashes out the window.” Visions of youthful glory had been clouded by tar-black smoke, the shining-faced victors of the hockey rink replaced by fleeing hooligans in jerseys and bandanas.
The television and newspapers were filled with images of people in Canucks gear jumping on cop cars and raising their arms victoriously in front of mountains of flame. The logo on the shirts now seemed poisoned, profaned. Hockey fans were being universally derided as maniacs and criminals, and I suddenly found myself having to defend my love of a sport that the day before had been the pride of a nation.
I also had to re-examine my feelings about that nation, the one I had so earnestly identified with. How did what I had seen in the streets of Vancouver – and the far more intense and alarming violence I read about the next day – reconcile with my image of what Canada was, and what it meant? There was no novelty left, no excitement, no tiny thrill at being there, witnessing history. There was only confusion, and that confusion, honestly, has grown with time. Two days later, every image flickering through the back of my mind is of the red glow of flames through tear gas.
Of course I try to turn to music. Like any ardent music fan, it’s my strongest association, my cultural touchstone, the frame through which we see the world. But now “Young Lions” makes me want to cry. Vancouver’s wonderful Japandroids have been re-interpreted too. “Tell her I’m still alive / Tell her I’m still in love / Tell her to come pick me up / Tell her I’m downtown.” That song, appropriately, is “Darkness on the Edge of Gastown.” Also to be viewed differently: Japandroids’ “To Hell With Good Intentions,” Constantines’ “Hard Feelings.” “My city’s still breathing, though barely it’s true,” sang the Weakerthans, “through buildings gone missing like teeth.” Now my mind changes “buildings” to “windows.”
I’m not giving up on Canada, of course, and I’m certainly not giving up on my favorite bands. The healing started, in fact, the day after the riots, as I was viewing a set of photos of boarded-up shop windows downtown. People had been writing messages on the boards, signing them like a cast on their broken city. The messages were of apology and hope, and one in particular caught my eye: “Noon! And I can’t find any trash to pick up. Vancouverites, you amaze me.” That’s the Canada, and frankly the world, I want to believe in.
But it’s strange, and sad, to have your associations twisted and turned upside down. To have to words to the songs I love turn on me and create bad memories. To suddenly have to defend the things you love. I’m sure I’ll be fine again, I’ll be myself again, I’ll love the things I love again. But it’s going to take time.