So where were we? Oh yeah, hanging with Kenney Dale Johnson in Seattle.
I’ve done a fair amount of lollygagging on this leg of the trip, more than I expected. The plan, more or less, had been to go up the Pacific Coast, cross into Canada, drive the Alaska Highway through British Columbia and The Yukon and make it to the Arctic Ocean by early September, at the latest.
But summer was slipping away and I hadn’t even left the lower 48. Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean was another 2700 miles north, a good chunk of the route over dirt roads and less-than-ideal mountain passes. I needed to get my ass in gear.
But first, I had actual pseudo-journalism work to do. One of the rationalizations for my headlong leap into homelessness was that I could surely find more stories to write on the road than by staying in Los Angeles. This would almost certainly be true if I were on constant lookout for those little off-the-beaten-path stories that Charles Kuralt used to do (in between lying to one or both of his simultaneous wives. Mostly though, I’ve been drinking beer, visiting friends and, uh, drinking beer.
This has not been, professionally speaking, the most effective of strategies. Although, if anyone ever wants to publish a comprehensive list of the best bar parking lots for overnight sleeping, I’m going to make a fortune. (Quick Tip: The Trumpeter Public House in Mount Vernon, Washington is on a side street, right by the Skagit River. Very quiet. Very level. Good place to pass out.)
Until then, I need to make do with whatever assignments I can find. So I look for television shows that are filming in places other than Los Angeles and pitch my services to editors who couldn’t otherwise afford to dispatch a plane-riding, hotel-sleeping correspondent to faraway locales. If nothing else, I’m cheap.
This is how I got assigned to write about the new ABC series, “Once Upon A Time” (about fairy tale characters living in the real world, kind of) which is filming in Vancouver, and the new AMC series , “Hell on Wheels” (about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad) which filmed in Calgary. The Arctic Ocean would have to wait.
Vancouver is my favorite city in North America, the place I’d probably live if I could live anywhere (oh, wait. I can!) It’s stunningly scenic with a waterfront skyline and mountain range views that are better than Seattle or San Francisco, moderate weather (less rain than Seattle or Portland, not much snow, not hot in the summer), an international cosmopolitan feel, great restaurants and readily-available Cuban cigars. And also there’s the Sylvia Hotel.
When I first stayed there, in the mid 1980’s, it was kind of run down, but in a perfect sort of way. The bar felt very English, like what I imagined a real English pub to be, with bitters on tap and an old grumpy bartender who had clearly been there for decades. It was dark, stank a little (but not too much) of cigarette smoke and, most importantly, had a gorgeous view of English Bay. The food was mediocre. The rooms were small. The elevator was appallingly slow. But, not unlike the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, the seediness had a charm to it, a sense that the place had seen the comings and goings of all sorts of interesting rogues, the kind of hotel frequented by mystery writers and spies. If it had been just a tad seedier, it might have seemed dangerous. If it had been pricier, or nicer, it would have seemed dull. The Sylvia, as far as I was concerned, was exactly right.
It’s also adjacent to Stanley Park, the single greatest thing about Vancouver. It’s like having a National Forest inside a major metropolitan city, this massive green space with bike paths winding around and through it, views of the waterfront, the mountains in the distance, an old growth forest surrounded by cityscape. I used to rent bicycles and spend the day riding around, stopping on the English Bay side, just up from the Sylvia, to watch the sunset, smoking one of those Cuban cigars, watching the locals take their evening strolls and the sea lions and occasional otters bobbing up in the water.
They film a lot of movies and tv shows in Vancouver, which is why I used to go up there a lot (the only good thing, really, about that dreadful year in Portland). I’d take one of those little 12-seater planes up from PDX, flying low over Mt. St. Helens (which still looks like a giant lanced boil) and, in barely an hour, be in Vancouver. I went up there to write about The X-Files, and Stargate and The Chris Isaak Show. I went up there, believe it or not, for the remake of Bye Bye Birdie, where I hung out in a pastry shop with George Wendt (who quite enjoys a pastry) and saw possibly the coolest live on-set performance I’ve ever seen.
Tyne Daley was doing a musical scene in a suburban alleyway at 2 in the morning, supposedly singing as she took out the trash. She’d already recorded the song, which is how they have to do it for musical numbers, and was only supposed to lip synch along with the track. But Tyne’s got too much Merman in her for that kind of shit. She belted out the song, full volume, over and over again. The crew was clearly stunned by this. It was great. And none of the neighbors complained.
“Once Upon A Time” was filming at Riverview, former mental hospital in Coquitlam, about 30 miles west of Vancouver. Except,, it turns out, there are still a number of full-time “residents” on the grounds, apparently grandfathered in when the facility became a popular shooting location (in fact the most filmed non-studio location in Canada). So you’ve got actors and mental patients wandering around the same property. It is, as you’d imagine, hard to tell which is which. One woman walked around the grounds all day, apparently listening to an Ipod, and moaning. It had a serious “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” vibe.
Especially because, not surprisingly, the location is usually used for hospital scenes, so you’ve got lots of extras dressed as doctors and patients, all of them scurrying outside for cigarette breaks, in their slippers and robes and thus indistinguishable from the people who never get to leave. There used to be a lobotomy ward there. And an “Acute Psychopathic Unit.” There may be ghosts. In the basement. Which used to be a morgue. I haven’t been on a set this creepy since the last time I wrote about Jerry Springer. There was yanked-out floozy hair on the carpet. Those fights were REAL. Back then, anyway.
But let’s get back to Vancouver, where I hung around for another couple of days after I’d done all my “Once Upon A Time” interviews (soon to be appearing in a TV Guide near you). As many times as I’d been there, this was the first time I ‘d driven up in my own vehicle. I didn’t expect that to be a big deal, but it was.
Flying in, clearing customs at the airport, getting that first wad of multi-colored Canadian money, taking a cab or a rental car towards that water-reflected skyline, always seemed exotic, for a moment anyway. Vancouver has, for years, been my idealized, romanticized, faraway favorite place. I felt about it the way some people feel about Paris or Venice or, I don’t know, Green Bay. It became this idyllic dreamscape kind of place in memory, not quite real. When I had fantasies about where I would be if I could be anywhere in the world, I almost always conjured up those benches by English Bay, the sun setting, smoking a cigar.
They’ve spruced up the Sylvia Hotel, re-painted the bar and the restaurant, made it all bright and inviting and not run-down at all. There’s no smoking any more, not in the Sylvia and not in Stanley Park. You can’t smoke a cigar at sunset, not legally anyway. I’m sure it’s healthier for everyone, especially the joggers who used to glare at me when they ran through a cloud of my smoke. But, still . . .
As much as I love Vancouver – and I do — driving there in the Traipsemobile, hanging out in my very own bedroom right there in Stanley Park, seemed weirdly kind of wrong. I have to be careful about this, this new ability to take my whole world with me wherever I go. Not that Vancouver wasn’t still beautiful . But it seemed less exotic this time around, too easily attainable. There were moments where I found myself treating it as just another place on the way to somewhere else. Which is not what I had in mind.