Reflections of passersby glisten and slant as they scoot past sheer cliffs of glass and steel. The tall buildings stand with arms crossed glaring down at us, and I feel like a mouse. On another morning, though, when the sun peeks through the gray net of clouds overhead, I think “All this silver reminds me of a great river,” and I marvel at the way the glass glints like gold atop splashing waves.
It’s my first time in Vancouver, British Columbia and we’re staying at a hostel on Granville Street, the main artery of the city center. Outside our little room, the streets pulse and thump with activity. Fashionistas strut their catwalks, and us Oregonians watch wide-eyed. I find myself trying on a purple designer dress and tall heels, imagining life on the fancy side.
We eat sushi and crepes, explore the various neighborhoods and chit-chat with a young shop owner. It becomes clear there is a gap in the city between the wealthy Vancouverites and the large population of homeless, who wander blurry-eyed and desperate, grinding their teeth in unnatural directions, jaw bones jutting out of concave cheeks. They ask for money at the crosswalks and weave through the crowds with palms outstretched. We spend a lot of time dodging these grimy and heartbreaking characters, but they seem to be everywhere: tucked under eaves of decrepit buildings and lying in bundles of blankets on the sidewalk. They’re mostly harmless, but I find myself uneasy when they approach. It’s clear many are under the influence of hard drugs, and it makes me feel sad.
On another day, we take a hike through Stanley Park and are dazzled by views of misted mountains hovering above steel-blue sea, while the city’s montage of glass condos stand stoically to our right. The colors – blues, greens, silvers and grays are stunning like the scales of a fish under sunlight. The air is fresh and the breeze smells like salt and rain. We both agree it’s quite beautiful outside the city center.
The hostel we stay in is outfitted like a hotel with white crisp towels and starched sheets. We sleep in a bunk bed and brush our teeth over a little sink in our room. The shared bathroom is up the hall. I hear a strange cooing sound and look out our second-story window. There, beneath a tiny awning, is a family of pudgy pigeons sitting in a row. Out beyond their stoop is a grimy apartment building that looks like it might collapse if there were a strung gust of wind. Directly to the right of it stands a tall, upscale building made out of modern brown and black bricks. Each morning when I pull back the curtain and look up, I see a young woman with long black hair wrapped in a red-checkered blanket smoking a cigarette on her brick bordered balcony, gazing off into the gray, misty distance.
The nightlife on Granville Street is international, and the clubs are swanky. We hear a handful of languages on the dance floor and truly feel like we’re outside the U.S. It’s a matter of minutes until we’re surrounded by young gyrating men wearing button-down shirts and hair gel. It smells like cologne and booze, and everyone is a little too handsy. I close my eyes to listen to the music and tune out the unwanted attention. When I open them again, I’m surprised to see an exotic dancer on stage. My friend and I give each other the look and head to a different room in the club. We end up meeting a friendly and raucous group of twenty-somethings visiting the big city for a night on the town. We decide to join forces and the festivities continue until dawn.
In all, Vancouver is a wonderful city, and I enjoyed my visit. At the same time, I can’t shake the feeling that beneath all its glitz and glam lies a sizable bruise, like a black and blue shiner glistening in the bathroom mirror.
But that won’t keep me from coming back. After all, what’s a city without a little underbelly?