SALT SPRING ISLAND, BRITISH COLUMBIA – You were promised a field report this week from our continent’s west coast, otherwise known as the zone of the woke, where I suppose the politically correct might say we’re having ourselves an endangered whale of a time. I’ve had my very own I Ching hexagram thrown on Hornby Island with a change line in the fifth place which means that I am proudly transitioning from ‘#33 Retreat’ to ‘#56 The Wanderer’. I’ve wolfed down a gluten-free muffin on Salt Spring Island while standing outside a public washroom designated “Universal” and have charted the transit of Venus (she was perched right on the lower tip of a waxing crescent moon) from an observation tower in the northern Washington seaport of Westport while chugging a can of sugar-free Fanta Orange.
In short, I’ve done it all while simultaneously traumatizing my firstborn daughter and grandkids with my astringently unprogressive ideological observations. It’s only part of the natural order that there should be tears of rage before bedtime as our ever-bickering familial caravan gads its way about the Pacific Northwest; indeed it’s only really worthy of note when I spout wisdom with sufficient vigour as to provoke those tears before lunch.
In our pre-trip research on the interwebs, we were alarmed by reports of human poo and discarded needles turning up in the streets of certain west coast cities where they make a point of celebrating a suicidal commitment to diversity and tolerance regardless of whatever odious behavioral forms those might happen to inspire in the populace at large. We knew enough to avoid the real shitholes like San Francisco and Seattle but – worryingly enough – Portland and Vancouver were also on our itinerary. Our son Hugh in full avuncular games-master mode, provided each grandkid with one disposable camera for the trip and challenged them to take the best photograph of a human turd steaming away on a city sidewalk and thus earn an unspecified prize.
If I were to award the prize for most desolating cityscape we have so far seen, it would go hands down to that two miles-long stretch of Hastings Street in the heart of old Vancouver where drug-addled zombies who look like they’ve wandered off the set of The Walking Dead stagger and stumble along the sidewalk in front of block after block of boarded-up businesses, conducting the various desperate transactions that will enable their open air opium naps which apparently constitute the highlight of such singularly squalid days. The only sober human beings that regularly and deliberately walk this zone are the emergency workers, outfitted with special equipment and antidote drugs. Their special mission it is to pull these poor souls back from the brink of the fatal overdose they seem so recklessly determined to take.
I recognize that it’s a horrible thing to say – but we live in horrible times – and I can’t help noticing our society’s rather jarring inconsistency when it comes to what those of a more religious persuasion quaintly regard as the sanctity of life. Consider how we do everything we can to facilitate the extinguishing of unborn babies when a host mother decides she does not want to go through with giving birth to the life she has helped to conceive.
And then look at how we increasingly encourage the elderly and the disabled to cut their losses and call it a day (indeed, call it a life) with full state assistance if they determine (or are persuaded) that their existence is no longer animated by sufficient zing or ardour as to justify its continuance. “Sure, we’ll put you down, old sport, just like we do with Towser when he develops incontinence or the mange. And the money we save on a retirement home and Depends can be put toward Junior’s college fund or a helicopter pad for the cottage.”
But let some wretched junkie inject a little too much chemical oblivion into his veins, and representatives of that very same death-dealing state will rush to his side, calling out, “This cannot be, my friend; you have so very much to live for.” So what’s that all about, I wonder? Why do we insist on the innate value of the junkie’s life but not the unborn baby’s or the senior citizen’s? What kind of priorities do we see in play here?
But Portland, Oregon, I’m relieved to say, was nowhere near as bad as advertised. The rowdy immigration control protests had been squelched a week or so before. And ditto the Antifa louts who had run screaming out of town after Gavin McInnes’ Proud Boys punched out their lights, inspiring one internet genius to give them a new name and a slogan to live down: “Pantifa: Always in a bunch”. So except for one slightly desperate art gallery featuring decapitated images of Donald Trump in its front window, Portlandia was on its best behaviour during our three day visit.
Yes, the grandkids did take snaps of one human turd on a Chinatown sidewalk. My wife and I did share a cup of cappuccino on a bench beside a splash-pad full of kids in a Pearl District park about 60 feet away from a couple of vagrants quietly fornicating in a sleeping bag. And on my first of four extended visits to Powell’s Books store I did have to step over the form of a ravaged-looking hipster who decided to have a little snooze in the middle of an 11th Avenue sidewalk. But I brush aside all such harbingers of urban decay as utterly immaterial because Powell’s Books – housed in an older, charmingly ramshackle four-storey building which takes up an entire downtown block and contains more than a million used and new books – just might be the most magnificent bookstore on Planet Earth.
With well over a hundred different categorical sections arranged in nine different colour-coded rooms or areas, a large foldout map of the shop is essential for first-time visitors. Powell’s stays open until 11 every night. The staff is plenteous, helpful and well-informed. They supply wheeled grocery-style carts for the weighted-down shopper and just when you think you’re about to pass out because you’ve been combing through stacks of books for nine hours straight and have forgotten at least two meals, you can make your way to the in-store World Cup coffee and tea shop where they’ll soon put you on the comeback trail with a fortifying sandwich and a beverage to see you through the next leg of your bibliophilic expedition.
I take a back seat to no one in my allegiance and love for London’s Attic Books. I believe it to be the finest used book shop in the country (20 years ago it had some contenders; in particular, Toronto’s Abelard Books) and I consider myself seriously blessed to live in its near vicinity. On my twice-a-week visits – Tuesday and Thursday when they put out the new arrivals carts – I rarely come away empty-handed. I have almost as deep a regard for another shop that I only get to visit once every few years (except in dreams), St. Philip’s Books on St. Aldates Street in Oxford. It’s a smallish shop specializing in theology and religion . . . but just the good stuff. No twaddle. Every nook and cranny in that over-packed space is worth your attention.
And now to that very select list I would add Powell’s – a book emporium of such staggering breadth and scope that it amply rewards a trip for even the most traditional of book hounds into the zone of the woke.
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