Thursday, September 24, 2009

But What Happened to the Old Men With Their Small Dogs?

There's nothing better than autumn in British Columbia. Ok, "walking without looking like I'm drunk" would be better than autumn in British Columbia, but let's stick with attainable goals. When I was a kid, Fall was my favorite time of year, since it meant getting new school supplies (oh, the joy of selecting the perfect pencil box!) and returning to the classroom. I was one of those kids who sunk into a deep funk when school ended and I would blow off excess mental steam by becoming unhealthily competitive in the library's Summer Reading Competition pool. (No one could accumulate those book stickers like I did and I was determined to out-read anyone in the New Westminster area and win the Library book bag, even if it meant padding my stats by breezing through a dozens of plastic bath books geared towards toddlers). Now that I'm no longer in school, I still love crisp Fall days.

Today, since the weather was perfect, I decided to go for a walk along the New Westminster Quay. When I'm in Illinois, the closest I get to a major body of water is when the intersection of Main and Vine in Urbana floods and I sit in my car and watch whatever moron has driven his vehicle through a few feet of standing water and is now watching his roof disappear below the surface. I therefore will take any chance to get near the water, even the Fraser River, which is likely so polluted that coming into contact with it would help me in my goal of glowing in the dark.

In 2001, I used to do cross-training for wheelchair basketball by pushing my chair along the quay. As I'd push along with my discman wedged between my legs and skipping whenever I went over a bump, I'd pass dozens of very old men walking very small dogs. The older, fatter and more Ed-Asner-ish the man, the smaller the dog. Occasionally, both man and dog would be wearing bright-coloured sweaters. As I'd wheel by, the dogs would yap (and occasionally try to bite my tires, which caused me to nearly kill a rather zealous chihuahua one time) and the old men would say, "Better slow down there, young lady! Don't want to get a speeding ticket, eh!" or "Look out, here comes Speedy Gonzalas!" Sometimes they would stop me to discuss what kind of "fancy machine" I was using and whether or not it had brakes (it didn't) or a seatbelt (it didn't), which was a great source of concern for them. After I'd completed a lap around the Quay, I'd head over to the marketplace and buy a frozen yogurt or some fruit, and then eat out by the water.

Well, things have changed in 8 years. For one, no one's accusing me of going fast enough for a speeding ticket. For another, the marketplace has shut down, so there are no more frozen yogurt stands or bakeries or rubber-stamp shops or bizarre little stores that seemed to sell only T-shirts with sexual slogans relating to Canada on them (mountie jokes abounded), which I always suspected were drug fronts. I'm not sure what they're turning the marketplace into (probably condos), but the whole thing is empty and swarming with construction workers. (The loss of the marketplace, by the way, is more proof for my theory that New Westminster cannot support a business that is not either a waffle house or a Starbucks).

More surprisingly, however, is that all of the old men and their small dogs have disappeared and the boardwalk has been repopulated by elderly women with fancy digital cameras. I must have passed 18 or 20 of these women, all of whom had large fanny packs with camera gear, and most of whom were either loudly lamenting the fact that digital cameras do not have viewfinders ("you have to look at the bloody screen! Like watching a little TV! If I wanted to watch TV, I'd watch TV!") or else having intense discussions about whether a bird sitting on a log boom on the river was a seagull or an eagle (for the record: seagull).

Many of these women also walked with canes, so I blended in to the landscape perfectly. It was strange to go from being the center of attention (the fact that my wheelchair used to make a loud clacking noise as it wheeled over the slats on the boardwalk contributed to this) to the invisible woman. What was even stranger was that the only people who would return my friendly nod were the women with canes, as if we were cane buddies, as if they had taken a brief look at me, seen my cane, and wondered if they'd seen me last week at the Jiffy Wiffy Waffle House (seriously, that's its name) ordering the liver and onions.

If the whole "moving back to Illinois and leading some semblance of a normal life" thing doesn't work out for me, it's good to know that I can always move to the Quay and hang out with my cane friends. I think I would fit in perfectly amongst retirees. Gray hair: check. Cane: check. Love of pancake breakfasts: check. Ability to talk about my cat for extended periods of time: check. Now if only I was actually retired and had the cash to buy a condo by the water.

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