“911…emergency…emergency…” The butterball bashes my shoulder as he bawls past, loose backpack pounding in rhythm with his panicked run, almost reaching the backward-set visor of his baseball cap as the young man’s thick distress scrambles to new heights halfway across the crowded crosswalk. “Clear the runway… clear the runway.” His bus is just over there, just out of reach, and the last of the passengers are stepping on board.
Before Vancouver’s Main Street became a Portlandia branch plant there really wasn’t much reason to spend any time on its sidewalks. There were no single-origin coffee shops, craft-beer meccas or faux rec-room restaurants. With the noble exception of Neptoon records, and a couple of places along Antiques Row, it wasn’t much of a shopping destination either. No shops trumpeting local designers, organic materials, locally sourced handicrafts and oddball wares. Twee was pretty much absent on Main back then. Irony too.
Main Street wasn’t so much dangerous, but trudging and downtrodden, distinguished by low expectations and a grimy indifference to appearance. It was a place of fruit-on-the-verge produce shops, dusty-blind drycleaners, endless-refill refill greasy spoons and the most robbed bank in the lower mainland. It was a heads-down avenue, where eye contact was unknown, and you never let on you were lost.
Which I was. Or at least well out of my usual milieu and pretty damn disoriented. I’ve never navigated well, and the half-gallon or so of cough syrup I chugged down before heading out to find subTerrain’s office didn’t help much. I’d been in the fevered midst of my annual flu when I got the message, the summons, to come on down, finally meet the crew at the magazine and “maybe pick up a few submissions” and I’d hoped the medicine might at least make me ambulatory—if not presentable—for the next hour or two.
I plod across the crosswalk keeping an amused eye on Butterball’s doomed attempt to participate in public transit. Watch him bleat out a half-hearted “open sesame” to firmly closed doors, then slump back into the shadow of the cement awning of the building beside the bus stop, disconsolate in the squealing wake of air brakes and a determined commitment to schedule.
Look up at the lettering on the building above the failed commuter. The Lee Building. I’m here.
I snuffle for the thousandth time today as I scan the buzzer panel and find the slightly confusing Anvil Press/sub-Terrain Magazine listing just as the beaten doors open unbidden. A bleeding man stands before me.
Cat-whisker tufts of white hair poke out from a blood-soaked shirt—buttons torn down to the navel. Belly lines smile through matted gore. His nose is oozing and my own clogged sinuses cringe in sympathy as one particularly fat and dogged drop clings to a battered nostril. We stare at each other for a moment, and the old man seems about to speak.
“If you say ‘911’,” I think, “I am getting right the fuck out of here.” Instead the man draws to the side, gives a slightly raffish nod to usher me in, then pads out to the sidewalk as I head towards the elevator. I step inside and find myself encased in what appears to be a mobile coffin, its walls a shade of green you’d normally find inside a dead man’s eyelids. The elevator grunts and clacks its way up, then slowly disgorges me into a nondescript hallway. I immediately head towards what turns out to be a vaguely suspicious toupee shop. I turn, try again and finally find myself on subTerrain’s doorstep.
The door is open and I peek inside. The office is small, narrow and unbelievably crowded with every desk, every table, every single piece of office furniture pressed into dual service as publication stand. Hundreds of books and magazines, bills and letters clump all available surfaces and in the back, just before the cloudy double-hung window hulks a virtual Himalaya of manila envelopes: recent submissions waiting to join their hopeful brethren way into careful stacks marked First Read, Second, Third, and Return.
I cough and a man emerges from an unnoticed side door. He peeks at me from behind roundrimmed glasses, warily curious, head and arms held slightly back, as if gathering himself to spring. “Yes, can I help you?” he says.
“I’m Jim…uh…Oaten, I say. “Are you Brian? I think I was supposed to see you today.”
“Yes, Jim, of course. Is it really one o’clock already? Anyhow, come on in, don’t stand out there.”
As I move forward, the man smiles, holds out his arm and I immediately sneeze into the hand of welcome. »