Life, at least life as we live it in North America right now, is lived on the razor's edge of hope and fear. There are many places in the world, many places here in fact, where hope is a whimsical notion and fear is so constantly present it's actually hard to recognize, kind of like trying to recognize the oxygen in the air we breathe.
Having temporarily traded the peaceful gardens and crystal clear water of Smilin' Dog Manor and the frantic pace and crisp air of Whistler for the vertical streets of San Francisco, that stark dichotomy between the uplift of hope and the ever-present undertow of fear is overwhelming, made even more so by the ebb of the recent coronation of Donald Trump and the gong show the Democrats are mounting right now.
And this is a city with good reason to fear. It was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the country — riding the wave of population growth and vast riches that gushed from the Comstock lode gold rush in the middle of the 19th century — when the ground started to shake on an early April morning in 1906. With collapsing wooden buildings, broken gas lines and water oozing onto the ground from ruptured mains, three-quarters of the city burned to the ground over the next three days. What didn't burn was largely saved by the military dynamiting a huge swath of buildings, creating an effective fire break.
One of buildings destroyed by fire was The Palace Hotel. But hope prevailed and The Palace was rebuilt, opening in 1909 as a luxury confection of Austrian chandeliers, Italian marble, soaring stained glass, opulent carved wood and outstanding service. While it has played host to countless notables, it currently provides a refuge for the one per cent...and at least one interloper.
Brightest of all its many gems is a 1.8-by-4.8-metre painting spanning the impressive bar in the Pied Piper lounge, so named because, well, it's a painting of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, painted in his saturated hues and fantasy style by Maxfield Parrish.
The Pied Piper, as we all recall from childhood, promised to rid the Saxon town of Hamelin of a plague-carrying infestation of rats. He and the mayor struck a deal for his services. He lured the rats into following the mellifluous song of his magic pipe to their doom. But when he went to collect his payment, the mayor stiffed him, claiming he may have even brought the rats with him to scam the town. In retaliation, the Piper blew his pipe and mesmerized the town's children to follow him out of town. What happened next is a little unclear but why spoil a good fairy tale with details.
As tempting as it is, I'm going to refrain from drawing parallels to the current state of politics.
If you walk out of the Pied Piper, basking in the warm glow of a fine whisky, walk out any door of The Palace hotel into a warm evening and walk around the block it largely occupies in the heart of San Francisco's financial district, hope and fear scroll out before you in a pageant of contradictions. The olfactory soup of San Francisco is comprised of urine, salt air, auto and building exhaust, deeply layered unwashed human filth and every cuisine in the world. The soundtrack is honking horns, sirens, one-sided conversations of people studiously avoiding your gaze while speaking into their phones, one-sided conversations of delusional people shouting at aliens, ghosts, invisible friends and historical plotters, all mixed with a background din of music, clanging pots and pans and light conversation oozing from every open doorway.
In that square block, on a Monday evening, there are no fewer than one dozen homeless men staking their claim to a couple of square feet of sidewalk, doorways and grates. There are also several dozen bewildered tourists, a handful of well-heeled office workers, a constant parade of shiny, expensive cars crawling past with windows up and air conditioners working. Many of the homeless are engaged in rambling conversation, some have signs explaining their plight and asking for money, and at least one demands money on the threat of voting for Donald Trump if you don't pay up.
And it's that way all over town. The homeless, hopeless and mentally ill exist side-by-side with worker bees, middle-class tourists, street hustlers, prostitutes and the terminally curious. I don't know for certain whether they live in hope or fear or some nebulous netherworld where it's impossible to tell the difference.
The parallels between San Francisco and Vancouver and, yes, even Whistler are striking. Foreign money seeking a safe haven and outstanding wealth of those who somehow made it into the investment class have conspired to drive the price of homes, condos and apartments to crippling levels. The so-called 'sharing' economy has nudged many rentals into the less onerous, more lucrative world of temporary shelter via Airbnb, thus helping financially overstretched homeowners chip away at their mountainous mortgages. Hipsters slip discreetly into Uber cars while taxi drivers wait in lines for a fare and a paycheque.
And everyone waits to see how the presidential drama plays out, knowing the chances are good their hope will never outweigh their fear no matter what happens.
And so it goes. The world revolves on the engines of hope and fear. In Tiny Town we hope the tourists will continue to come. We fear whether they do or not we won't be able to stay in town because we're tired of scraping by on wages that don't begin to dent the cost of living here. We hope the prosperous summer season we're enjoying will be followed by an epic winter season but we fear that good luck will just mean we'll continue to live in a crowded village with a gridlocked highway. We hope our landlord won't boot us out so he/she can either sell the house and cash out or surreptitiously make more in a few nights in the sharing economy than they make in a month from us, but we fear that card will be played any day now.
Last October, we chose hope over fear in the federal election. We're looking south and wondering where the hope is in the choice presented. We're still hoping JT will follow through on some of his many high-profile promises — reining in the excesses of Bill C-51 for example — but we fear we were, once again, duped.
Personally, having feared the U.S. Customs and Immigration folk wouldn't let me across the border, I'm hoping for a safe return later this week. Now if I could just figure out where being a hopeless romantic fits into this dichotomy I'd call it a day.
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