Friday, May 6, 2011

Tribeca, Oasis

Initially when I first moved to Vancouver to embark on a year of film school, I found a tiny closet apartment in a high rise on Seymour and Pender, across from a sports bar called Malones that apparently had really miserable restroom facilities considering the lineup of men that would come outside to pee in the alley on any given weekend or hockey game night, lined up as though posing for an album cover. The high rise was surrounded by a cluster of ESL schools, a bunch of lunchtime food options that would all be closed by 5pm, a couple sketchy / shady looking hostels, one appeared to be licensed judging by all the student travelers stoop squatting sipping suds. A Chinese or Vietnamese owned and operated sushi joint, a Tim Hortons where bread bowls of chili and ham & Swiss sandwiches became far to frequently procured, an A & B sound with a solid CD and DVD selection, OK prices, and well stocked listening stations, at least until I discovered Kits and Zulu Records with their upstairs oasis of used CDs.

The one cool spot around the high rise on Seymour and Pender would be Tribeca. By “cool” I mean friendly, off kilter, inexpensive, generally sparsely populated during the week, and open late, or even later unofficially if the owner Regis knew you. Tribeca was an artist friendly bar, a restaurant with dishes far more sophisticated than they had right to be or that patron’s probably could appreciate fully. Regis had been a fairly big deal chef up around the Whistler area, either second in command or the head honcho, I was never completely sure, though the frames newspaper articles near the door supported his claims and anecdotes, so I have no doubts. I wish I’d had more of the indoctrination to the culinary arts I’ve garnered in more recent years from Lindz, Cliff & Brenda, and the Food Porn Channel, I might have better appreciated the dishes he plated for Shotaro and I when we’d stop by after a long day of film school to claim a table, do some drawings, and get something to eat other than Tim Hortons or Coffee Crisps from the vending machine in the VFS basement, down by the Editing Labs.

After a few visits, solo and with Shotaro, we found ourselves the only people there, at least in the front room. Regis and one of his staff had been there, however since we were low maintenance and had full pints at hand, they’d gotten about the maintenance, prep, and clean up tasks you do when it’s a slow weeknight, because in a place like this in the downtown core, it’s the weekends that pay the rent, and the new DJ set up Regis had invested in definitely drew a delighted crowd. When a figure walked past us and behind the bar, neither Shotaro or I really paid attention, as the staff member guy had been going back and forth from there most of the evening. We heard the clink clank of bottles being moved around, the clunk of some being set down on the surface of the wide wooden bar. Again, nothing remarkable to look up at, since the staff guy had been replacing, rearranging, and restocking the gins, tequilas, and other spirits earlier as well.

Then we heard a shout at an octave I wouldn’t have guessed the normally pleasant and utterly sociable Regis Chung capable of. At this, Shotaro and I both looked up to discover a haggard man with a jacket several sizes too large for his well weathered frame attempting to snatch and stash as much booze as he could manage into his baggy duds. Shotaro’s jaw simply dropped open. I stood and began to come around the table with absolutel no Idea what I would actually do. I didn’t grow up in downtown Vancouver, or around meth clinics and needle trees and junkies scratching at the sky or doing the spider fight dance through frustrated traffic on the Hastings artery. I knew I didn’t want to touch him, my slight Mysophobia had blossomed mightily during my first year living downtown like an overwatered lawn, so I put a hand on the back of a wooden chair and heft it only to discover how deceptively heavy it was so I recovered and put some more back into it, got the thing a few inches off the ground and made a loud wood on wood scraping noise in the process, clearly giving the thief some pause.

Before I could pretend to be macho a moment more, Regis like a culinary Jet Lee had the man pinned to the inside of the bar and began extracting bottles from the man’s jacket, and the one pinned between a ratty belt and a tarnished panty line. I don’t remember seeing Regis punch the guy, but Regis has a split knuckle and the blood on it is glistening from the tea lights dangling over the bar.

At this point the man began to squeal, and I winced as I had a sudden, vivid recollection of a mouse caught in a glue trap at the drive in theater, one the manager had to euthanize with a cinderblock. I know, with my brick welding tendencies, you’d have thought I’d have been the bringer of death that hot summer day in Cincinnati, but alas no, I have an odd fondness for mice, and seeing one trying to keep its nose up out of glue and shrieking when it saw us peering in trying to see where that sound was coming from, when I lift it out from beneath the pop dispenser counter on its bed lethal taffy gunk water bed with white plastic to go plate, held fast by glue so strong that to try to pry the mouse loose would literally shatter its forearms and rip its paws off, as well as belly scalping the fur from the form as more and more of the rodent touched the merciless blob as it struggled and gasped.

Don’t tell that manager I spent the rest of the afternoon finding and removing every glue trap I could find. Kill them before they get into the foodstuffs, fine. Just do it humanely, well, at least as abruptly, the Pink Floyd “Short, sharp shock.” Slowly succumbing to a glue bath is only shocking, and like bad hack horror cinema, the charm of that aspect alone wears off fast. I hid the traps in an oil drum out along the gravel path that ran behind the towering screen, somewhere I didn’t think any mice or anything else would encounter them.

The man squealed and pleaded and actually had the audacity to claim he didn’t mean to do it, this had to be some misunderstanding, he promised he had planned to pay, it’s for a friend outside, that friend is who Regis should be hassling, why you have to be so mean, oh, that was mine, I had that with me before I came in here, don’t take that, ow you’re hurting me! Regis finished getting the bottles wrangled free from the man’s clothing, a bottle of Bombay Gin bounding away on the rubber mat behind the bar and rolling awkwardly out on flat sides to slide to a stop still intact on the hardwood floor beyond the mat. I noticed I’d set the chair down, but I still felt like Regis could use a hand. I asked as much, and to my surprise, and admittedly relief, he waved us off, strangely trying to smile as though he was only stopping a hyperactive child from plugging a fork into a power socket. He held the guy with one of the man’s arms folded up behind the guy’s back; clearly Regis knew how to handle himself.

I would have helped if he needed it, I’m pretty sure. I certainly prefer walking away or talking out of a situation over getting into fisticuffs. For one, despite my military background, I have little idea how to fight. My methods begin and end with the bear hug, like the one exhausted boxers use to tie up their opponents when they need a break from all the pummeling. Seeing a mountain of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michelle Yeuh, Sonny Chiba, Chow Yun Fat, and Stephen Chau flicks doesn’t give you the Matrix plug ‘n play gift of kung-fu or action star antics.  

What I did have was a primal urge to do something, anything, just get in there and mix it up. The adrenalin had begun earnestly coursing through my system, had begun to chemically con my brain into believing I have superpowers of unimaginable magnitude. Hulk angry magnitude. Every insecurity and foundationless fear and farm boy suburbanite small town social anxiety rushed like waters to a punctured dike, like a nitro boost primed by reserves well filled with months’ worth of impotent rage and unfulfilled ambitions, internal chorus seizing this opportunity to get primal and take out all of my fear and anger and anxiety on this idiot wino that wanted to pilfer a brave restaurateur’s high proof pantry.

All of this emotional rush in fractions of seconds, as the back door to the place clangs open and Regis’s staff guy comes rushing up; he’d been outside taking the trash to the dumpster, heard the shriek and come running.

Startled by violence, my system ramped up ready to act should I need too. I could have run away, or stood numb with shock, or just kept my seat and acted like nothing was happening. I got up and asked if Regis needed help. A bit passive aggressive, literally, however better than rushing into the fray and making things worse. The guy wasn’t brandishing a knife or gun, he wasn’t gaining the upper hand on Regis, smelled like he might be pissing himself, though hard to tell over the general smell of him, pushed towards where Shotaro and I were stationed as the man began to sweat, his fear evident.

Regis’s staff guy asked if Regis wanted to call the cops. Regis shook his head and told the kid to go next door, get the owner there, have him meet Regis out back. I began to wonder if some wild west action were afoot. Regis began to steer thewould be thief towards the back door. I sat down on the chair I’d moments earlier tried to heft. Regis must have sensed how this looked to us, and explained without breaking stride. He suspected the man he had in hand had also robbed his neighbor the same way the night before. Once his neighbor came out to see if it was the same guy, they’d call the cops and have the guy red handed for two crimes instead of just one.

Sure enough, the cops met Regis and the shop owner from next door back behind Tribeca, we could see the lights and hear muffled voices from the open door back by the bathrooms. Soon Regis came in, washed up, looked at his shirt, disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a different shirt on. He gave us pints and apologized for the ruckus, as if  he’d were responsible for some homeless guy trying to take advantage of the slow business on a weeknight to slip in and strip the liquor cabinet. We chat a while, wound down, finished our pints and assured one another everything was all right, no big deal, see you all again soon.

After that, Tribeca went from being a once in a while place to being a regular hang out spot. We hosted Draw Jams there, dragged all our film school classmates there, were able to reserve the best long table on the covered foyer patio where smokers could smoke and artists could draw without being deafened by the DJs practicing inside at maximum volume and minimal expertise.

One evening, I believe a Friday, a group of us were drawing and occupying the prime table, and Regis asked if he could hang up some of our pieces for a spell, like a sign of welcome to other artistically inclined folks. Pretty much everyone created something for Regis to hang up that night, taped and pinned up to one wall like the front of a massive refrigerator. More pieces were added after that on subsequent days and weeks, the welcome worked, more and better art appeared from artists I’d probably never personally meet, just witness and enjoy their works, and wonder if they sat along the same choice table we’d preferred.

The night Regis asked us to contribute doodles for his wall, he did something cool I had never been around for before, something that remind me of a story my Mom told me once.

My Mom went to see Jerry Lee Lewis in her wild and crazy youth, and the curfew then was early, 9 or 10pm. When the curfew time drew nigh, Jerry stopped his piano playing and told the audience that the management wanted folks to know curfew time was coming up, but he still felt like he had a lot of playing left to do, so if they wanted to hang about and listen, why, he’d sure certainly appreciate an audience. And from what my Mom can remember, didn’t seem like a soul left before the venues staff closed the outside doors and pulled big heavy curtains closed across all those windows and put out all the big lights so the place would look closed up tight, and Jerry Lee Lewis kept on playing and the kids kept on dancing until well past 2 in the morning.   

As last call came around Regis stopped by our table, looked at the art we were making like a drunk summer camp crafts group, and encouraged us to keep going, that last call didn’t apply to us. Then he drew heavy black blankets across the windows, and after most of the patrons left, anyone Regis didn’t consider a regular or someone a regular could vouch for, he threw the bolt on the front doors and turned to us and said that we needed to settle our tabs because at this point, if anyone asks, this is now a private party and all refreshments are on the house.

The sun wasn’t up yet when we all finally pulled open the curtain and slipped out through the door, but you could smell it coming. I had a stack of drawings under one arm, my ears still ringing from the music and conversations, and a need for sleep so heavy I needed cartoon toothpicks to hold up my eyelids. I don’t have a lot of after parties to compare that night to, but it set the bar pretty high, and as I’m too old for all night jam sessions now, not a bad bar to leave intact. Pardon the pun.

Since then Regis has gone on to open other venues, and to continue to cater to and help artistic types get their feet wet in a safe social scene. Further, he has opened storefronts in areas that haven't been smoothed over or revitalized quite yet, like a wild west saloon builder, his establishments might not be on the razors edge of revitalization (or what some call gentrification), but he can certainly see it from there with front row seat vantage. 

I respect all of that, and wish I had the gumption to take on challenges of that magnitude. Tip of the pint to all the adventurous restauranteurs, from the Diamond, Au Petit Chavignol, Les Faux Bourgeois, Greedy Pig, Salt House, The Wallflower, Deacon's Corner, and all the rest of the joints brave enough to hang a shingle in areas still rough around the edges, and afford food, drink, and social interaction you won't find in the chain joints.

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