Friday, January 2, 2009

armadillo arms

We arrived in Vancouver in the autumn of 1972 to be surprised by the fact there were almost no places to rent. The only place available was a nasty little house with a significant enough tilt that we felt compelled to sit and sleep in the higher corners so our combined weight wouldn't send it sliding down the hill where it had come to a precarious and obviously temporary rest. None of us had planned on continuing the communal living experience we'd begun in Montreal but after a week of fruitless search a young man visited us one evening with a proposition. He told us about the big house he'd leased a couple of blocks away and the fact the people he'd shared it with had moved out to the country. He needed help with the rent and had heard we were looking for a place. With that offer Armadillo Arms was begun.

There are places that exist in space and time that defy the timelines of ordinary experience. Although I remember Armadillo's inception much of the following five years remains in memory as intense vignettes rather than a series of linked episodes. It was a big place, three stories tall at the front and four behind, standing on a huge lot overlooking False Creek, actually a tidal inlet of English Bay, where Vancouver meets the Pacific. Across the water was the city center and beyond that were the mountains that separated us from the rest of Canada. It seemed like a World's End kind of place and was large enough to accommodate us and any number of friends and acquaintances passing through.

The front porch was a gathering place as well as being the local center of the food co-op we started shortly after our arrival. The house became pretty well-known once we got involved in community projects like free clinics, arts and craft centers, park building and generally having fun without burdening the city government. The police only bothered us once when one of our friends decided it was a good idea to grow marijuana in the back row of the garden and two of the boys in blue came by to harvest it. They knocked on the door and said, "Do you know what this is, young woman?" I answered, "Where are you taking our wheat?"

Naturally, there were conflicts and all was not wine, roses, fresh cheese and orgies. In fact, we hardly had any of the latter but cracks in mutual understandings did lead to breakups. That said, there were new people and the beginnings of new relationships.

An artist from Ireland was one of the new house members and on a Christmas Eve, although she was looking forward to the arrival of her brother, she went along with everyone to a party in a house nearby. An hour after they'd left I answered the door to a youngish bearded guy wearing a long coat and a very big smile who made a bee-line to a velvet upholstered tank chair. Returning from the kitchen with snacks I noticed he'd put a lampshade on his head. "Poor Geraldine", I thought, "She has a crazy person for a brother." He sat quietly holding his wine glass and another hour slipped by before everybody returned home. They'd met brother Don on the way to the party so he'd been with them all the time. 'Who's that?' somebody said, pointing to the lampshade man. He left soon after.

We kept a vegetarian household because it made cooking simpler. There were usually eight adults and one child living in the house but evening meals around our huge dining table often fed twice or more that number. We'd got rid of all the post Victorian furniture, sawed down the legs of the table, painted the walls, sanded and finished the floors and had made a project of sewing several dozen large cushions that served as main floor furniture. Things like looms, spinning wheels, dyeing equipment, musical instruments, quilting frames, movie projectors and screens came and went but the creative environment stayed. There was always music.

One morning I was having my usual early soak and read in the bathtub, a time I could usually count on being alone and quiet, when someone tapped at the door and came in. This wasn't in itself unusual since we did share one bathroom and were pretty used to brushing our teeth and peeing while someone else was using the tub but I didn't know the guy who'd entered this time. He was pleasant and said 'good morning'. Somebody else came in right after and before I could start counting there was a steady stream of strangers coming into the bathroom carrying towels and toothbrushes saying 'hellos' and 'how-are-you's' and 'nice day, isn't it's?' and talking and laughing amongst themselves while my bath water cooled and my bubbles popped out of existence. When a guy came in saying he really needed to take a shit I finally put my water logged foot down and asked him to go out, close the door and wait for two more minutes. Quickly drying off and putting my robe on I opened the door to find a group of people I'd never met standing on the landing and lined up all the way down the main stairs. It turned out they were members of a rock band entourage whose buses had arrived outside of Armadillo Arms late the previous night. You just never knew who was going to show up or when.

The few years we spent together passed quickly with people coming, going and returning and the whole seeming as though it would always be. Geraldine married Alan, a sculptor who'd arrived with us from Montreal and their first child was born in the house. I'd never expected to be a midwife but that's another thing that happened and perhaps another story.

Toward the end of the time we lived there an eclipse of the full moon was expected but a week of heavy rains had made it unlikely to be visible in Vancouver. Long past midnight I awoke hearing someone playing guitar. Through the open window I saw the first shadow of the earth touch the moon and heard my friends voices murmuring on the porch roof below. Although I could have gone down to join them time I couldn't look away. Time seemed to have stopped as I stood there entranced. Music played, friends laughed quietly and the heavens danced their eternal waltz.