Friday, February 2, 2018

8. The Fraser River Cannery

Tom Carlisle had planned an easy training day, a chance day for the interpreters to experience a similar but different world: Heritage Interpretation.  All, including Tom, were going to the Fraser River Cannery National Historic Site in south Richmond to learn about the history of the old village called Steveston, about the growth, heyday and demise of the salmon-canning industry at the mouth of the Fraser River.  William didn’t think Tom truly had any expectation they would benefit professionally from this excursion.  He thought he wanted an excuse for a day away from the office and from Ed Daddle.

Alan met William at the busy corner of Oak and 41st in central Vancouver.  William was happy to see Alan’s new Mazda pull up.  It was a nice car, much more comfortable than jFooj’s Pinto.  The passenger door had yet to fly open during a left turn.  "Still has new car smell," William said as he climbed in, wondering how long that would last if Alan continued to drive on the daily excursions to the muddy places involved in programs and field work.

"Not exactly what we used to ride, but it’ll do," Alan said.  He was referring to his 1972 sunfire-yellow Plymouth Roadrunner, the car of that summer.  William remembered it well, and what had almost happened in it—Alan trying to pass a car pulling a trailer across a solid yellow line on Highway 35 in northern Ontario, in a deep rock-cut with evenly-spaced dynamite drill-lines along the sides, a green, wood-sided station wagon oncoming, and a black jeep in front of the car-trailer combo not visible until they were near the point of no return.   He didn’t back off.  William remembered his own words.  He remembered his voice hanging in the air like a stark white subtitle streaming across the rear-view mirror.   His last words would have been, "Uh, Alan..."

They should have died the next second, but Alan accelerated and somehow blasted through the closing gap between the station wagon and jeep.  William didn’t see how he did it.  His eyes were clamped shut.  Alan threaded the needle, not in a canoe, but in a muscle car.  That was on July 12, 1989.  

For the rest of the summer they were inseparable.  They had faced death head-on and won.  A different passenger, having almost been killed by Alan’s recklessness, might have chosen to have nothing more to do with him after the incident.  But William forgave him, or didn’t even register that Alan had been responsible for a dangerous brush with death, a head-on collision that could easily have killed them, not to mention the occupants of the oncoming vehicle.  It was only now, at this much later date, that William also contemplated the driver of the station wagon.  It must have been a memorable day for that person as well.

Once they were half-way through the grid-pattern of the City of Richmond, Alan said, “There sure are a lot of Asians here.”  They were stopped at a traffic light.  William had a street map unfolded, unsure exactly where they were going.  Alan was looking at a teen-aged girl waiting at a bus stop.

“Welcome to Richmond,” William said.  “The population is about 50 percent Chinese.”        

“Lots of Becky Pangs,” Alan said.  Then he repeated, almost a song, to himself, “Becky Pang, Becky Pang.”

“It would be okay with me if you stopped saying that,” William said.

"It’s an evocative name," Alan said, a combination of sweet-young-thing, and pain.  You wrote to her so fervently.  The second you told me her full name, I expected you would end up heartbroken.  I feared you were doomed."

"Well, good call, on both counts,” William said.  “I ended up heartbroken.  I was doomed." 

“What happened?”

Once William had the navigation to the cannery more or less straightened out, a diagonal zig-zag to the south-west corner of this island city, he told Alan about Becky.  “We broke up soon after that summer, soon after camp ended.  Her mother was giving her endless grief about me.  Becky had two younger sisters and her mother didn’t want her setting a dangerous white-boy precedent.  Her parents had long ago decided whom she should marry, a particular Chinese boy five years older than us, and I’d always known this.  It had been the worrying, unspoken background to our relationship, that this other thing, this thing other than us being together, was actually the real situation, predestined, and there was nothing we could do about it.  So we tried to ignore it as best we could, and lived a happy but short-sighted dream. Then suddenly it happened. One evening we were walking through the neighborhood and a car pulled up beside us.  It was one of Becky’s aunts, Auntie Yvonne.  She started yelling out the window at Becky in Chinese.  As always, Becky answered in English.  I remember her saying, ‘No, go away, leave us alone, mind your own business!’ getting angrier and angrier.  Yvonne, who seemed to be the scary family enforcer, got out of her car and yelled like hell at Becky, as if I weren’t even there. I have no idea what she said, but it must have been cruel, because Becky just crumbled.  She wasn’t one for crying, but burst into tears and before I knew it I was standing alone on a street corner, watching the car drive away with Becky sobbing inside.

“The next day she phoned and said we had to meet.  I was waiting at the edge of the horse pastures out beyond the subdivision, our usual spot, and the same car drove up.  I walked into the field, away from the car because I didn’t want anything to do with Auntie Yvonne.  Becky got out and followed me. She called to me to wait.

“I could tell she’d been crying.  She looked exhausted, as if they’d been tormenting her all night.  She plucked a piece of Timothy grass and nervously chewed on its stalk.  I asked her what was going on.  She put her hands over her face and said, ‘They made me promise to break up with you.  They made me promise to marry Tony.’  She dropped her hands, and said, ‘I hate my family.’  That’s the last thing she said to me while looking at my eyes.  She pulled the Timothy grass from her mouth and tossed it aside.   She said we should keep in touch.   I said, ‘Yes,’ but I knew the door had slammed shut.  She gave me a sad little wave as she walked away, back to the car.  She had long, long black hair and it shone in the sun.  After she was gone I picked up the piece of grass she had been chewing on, pinched off the seed head, and ate the stalk.”

Alan asked, “Why did you do that?"                       

“Because it had her spit on it.”

“I see,” he said.

“She got married the next year to the boy her parents wanted her to marry.  She was only nineteen, but I guess they didn’t want to risk her meeting another white boy.  I heard of the wedding through a mutual friend who didn’t know how much hearing about it would hurt me.  I was crushed.  I felt as though I’d been erased."

“But eventually you got over it,” he said.

“Sure I did,” William said.  “We were just kids.”

“Which is why you wrote her name on a bathroom mirror ten years later.”

They pulled into the gravel parking lot at the cannery, which was an enormous barn of a building with a steeply pitched, cedar-shingled roof.  Ed Daddle’s most recent hires, the “way above-average young women” Alan had remarked upon were already there, standing next to a beige Volkswagen Golf.  It was the only the second time William had encountered them.  They looked very attractive in their crisp robin’s-egg blue Parks shirts. 

“Ooh, look.  There’s Blondie,” said Alan.

“I think that’s Stacey,” said William.  “The other one is Tracy.  Someone should have told them we didn’t need to wear our uniforms today.”

“You should go tell them.  Tell Stacey.  Also tell her she’s pretty,” said Alan.

“You go tell her that.  Young women love it when old guys like us tell them they’re pretty.”

“We’re not old.  Well, maybe you are, you always were, but I’m not.”

Stacey and Tracy had seen them drive in and were looking at Alan’s car.  Stacey waved.

“Coming?” William asked.  “You can go on the tour with us.”

“I’d rather not.  I’ll stroll around this little seaside village and absorb the ambience.  What time should I meet you?”  Then he said, “You better hurry, they’re coming.”

Stacey and Tracy were approaching the car.

“Go on,” said Alan.  He started the engine, but would have to wait before reversing out of his parking spot.  A pickup truck paused behind him, blocking the way.  The truck was blocked by another vehicle struggling to back into a space.

“Shit,” he said, and he turned off the engine.

Tracy and Stacey arrived at Alan’s window as William opened his door stepped out.

“See, that’s him.  It’s Alan Lennox,” Stacey was saying.  She looked across the hood of the car at William, who had yet to close the door.  “You know Alan Lennox?”

“I just might,” he said.  He looked back into the car and said, “Sorry Elvis, you’ve been made.” 

Alan got out and acted reasonably friendly with his fans.  He shook their hands and allowed them to breathlessly introduce themselves.

“Very nice to meet you,” he said.  He looked at William for help, an escape.

William decided to be unhelpful. “Why don’t you come with us on the tour?  Learn all about salmon canning.”

“Yes, come on,” said Stacey or Tracy.

“Sure,” Alan said to the young women.  “That sounds like a great idea, William.”

Fooj and Monique arrived with Tom.  Neither Stacey nor Tracy had met Fooj before.  He had been in Cancun modeling swimwear and had added exquisite skin tone to his other perfections.  His torso would soon loom above Times Square.  Stacey and Tracy rushed to meet him, but got "Back-Off" vibes from Monique, and quickly went back to Alan.

William stood with his hands in his pockets as Alan and the girls walked away.  "Hi, Tom," he said.

"Don’t worry.  Someday your prince will come," said Tom.  Then he hustled the interpreters into a group, and into the cannery they went.  They were greeted by a young woman named Amy.  She had long brown hair and a red vest.  She started talking as if someone had pulled a string in her back.  William wondered if that’s how he seemed when he led programs.  Some degree of dissociation was needed to keep you from going mad, repeating the same dumbed-down spiel to strangers day after day, secretly hoping and praying for that big Monty Python foot to end it all.

Amy led them through sliding doors into the main workspace.  The cannery was like a barn on the inside too, but with a vast overhead loft containing thousands of brassy, unlabeled cans, created to contain salmon that would never arrive.  The message was, “We ran out of fish, but we never ran out of cans.”

Amy described the process.  The cans rolled down a series of wire tracks to the very end of the assembly line, where long ago women in kerchiefs would cut the rendered salmon into appropriately-sized chunks.  Those women were usually Caucasian.  Prominently displayed was a very daunting and embarrassingly named piece of machinery — the Iron Chink.  It had a rotating blade that could behead, eviscerate, de-fin, and, just before expelling what remained, lop the tail off a fish.  Amy referred to the machine as the iron butcher, but the odious real name was conspicuously forged onto its brutal frame.  The Iron Chink had replaced a lot of Chinese workers, whose job had been to butcher the fish.  They had been the second-highest paid workers at the canneries, after the Japanese boat builders.  A single Iron Chink could process 60 to 80 salmon a minute.  Be gone, Chinese butchers.  We will recognize your contribution to the economy by naming the machine that replaced you with a suitable racist slur.  William understood that the people who ran the canneries evidently thought as much of their Chinese workers as Becky Pang’s family thought of him.  Nothing personal.

At the far end of the building, large wooden doors opened onto the wharf, overlooking rows of docks where scores of salmon boats were tied up.  They didn’t go anywhere anymore because there were no more salmon.  Just inside the doors was a strange exhibit, wooden bins containing foam rubber fish with wire loops where real fish would have had gill covers.  Long-handled hooks were available for visitors to snag the faux fish and fling them from one bin to another.  William gave it a try.  It wasn’t very rewarding.

Overall William liked the sense of history of the place, the old wood and the oily smells, but also found it ironic that the reason this old building had been designated a national heritage site was because it was associated with an exhausted natural resource, plus the simple fact that unlike the dozen or more other former canneries it hadn’t yet burned down or collapsed under its own weight.  In a way, if anything, the place seemed a monument to human short-sightedness.  Greed too, but that was implicit in all human activities of this scale.  

Alan was standing with Fooj, Monique and Tom, scrutinizing a large mural on the far wall, an image enlarged from a black and white photograph taken shortly before World War II.  As William approached, he heard unsuspecting Amy ask if there were any questions.

Alan turned to face her, obviously bothered about something.  He asked why there was no account of the eviction and imprisonment of the Japanese Canadian cannery workers during the war, who were a vital part of the enterprise, and why, when they were mentioned, it was only said that they ‘left.’  He stabbed his finger hard at the mural, at the image of a young Japanese woman holding a toddler, happy, unaware that her livelihood would soon disappear and that the life of her family would soon be ruined, that she and all her relatives, including her child, were about to become enemy aliens in the country in which they were born.  "Maybe that’s your granny!" he said to Fooj.  "Maybe that’s your mother!" he stabbed the child.   He stabbed the woman again.  "Maybe she’s the great-granny of that one!"  He whirled and almost poked Monique in the gut, scaring her backward into Fooj’s magnificent torso.     

"It’s okay, Alan," said Fooj.

Alan’s face when blank, and then turned angry.  "No, Martin, it isn’t okay."

Fooj was confused, as were they all.  "Alan..."

Alan sighed, exasperated, and asked, "Why am I the only one upset about this?"

Fooj looked at Alan with an expression that in retrospect William recognized as pity.  At that moment William thought Fooj was simply stumped, unable to explain why something he had known about his entire life that had happened decades before he was born, which had been formally redressed by the Canadian government, was not something he could be angry or bitter about.  Alan was alone in anger, and was getting angrier.  William didn’t understand why he was angry about it either.  Had Hiroe inherited a sense of outrage from her parents and grandparents, and Alan, as supportive spouse, adopted her anger?  This didn’t jibe with Camp Ohmeemaw Alan.  Empathy had not been a feature of that one.  Besides, wasn’t his relationship with Hiroe on the rocks?  Isn’t that why he was here?  He looked at Alan again.  His frustration seemed genuine, and thinking of camp, William remembered how Alan had expected loyalty.  William said to Amy, who was slowly backing away, "Yes, you really should have an exhibit about the Japanese Canadians.”  William looked at Alan. He appeared to almost be about to sneer, as if he thought William might be mocking him, and so William said more angrily, "Really!  Everyone should know about what happened."

Alan glanced at Fooj, and then back at William.  "Damn right," he said.  He wasn’t sneering, but also didn’t seem convinced that William was with him.  He walked out onto the dock, to the sunshine and languishing fishing boats.  Tom followed him.  Stacey and Tracy were over at the Freshness Test Table, tapping the sealed cans with little metal bars. 

Amy the heritage interpreter was relieved there were no more questions.  She thanked the remaining group for coming, and looked at her watch. “Uh oh,” she said, and fled through the canning line.

Fooj said, "I guess he’s still in pretty rough shape."

"I don’t get what’s with him," William said.

"Because of my cousin.  Because she died."  

"Which cousin?”

"Alan’s wife."

"Hiroe?  Hiroe’s dead?"

"Who’s Hiroe?"

"His wife!  She’s your cousin!"

Fooj and Monique looked to each other.

"Non, William, Elle s’appellait ‘Anna," said Monique. William missed the tense of the verb.

"Anna is his sister," William said. 

"No, not ‘Anna, Hannah," Fooj said.

"What?"

Fooj said, "Alan was married to my cousin Hannah, who died.  She died about a year ago here, in Vancouver, in False Creek, in an accident."

"God," William said. 

"It was so terrible, she was only been here for two weeks," said Monique.  "They were going to live here.  Hannah was about t’ree months…”  She swirled her hand over the space her belly would soon be filling.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” William asked.  “You didn’t tell me your cousin died?”

Fooj shrugged.  “I did tell you, but maybe you forgot.  It was sort of a matter-of-fact thing.  It didn’t really affect me.  I wasn’t close to her at all.  I didn’t take time off to go to Ontario for her funeral or anything.  I’d only met her once in my life, when we were little kids, during a family vacation.  After World War Two, our parents’ families got spread all over the place.  Lots went back east.  My mom only keeps in touch with the ones who are still here.  I didn’t even know she’d been in Vancouver until several days after it happened.”

“But then you didn’t t know Alan,” William said. 

Fooj said, “That’s right.  I didn’t know my cousin was married to him. I probably would’ve told you if I’d known my cousin was married to Alan Lennox.  This is the first time I ever met Alan.”

“You don’t know Alan?” William repeated, trying to shore up his scenario explaining Alan’s return to his life — which was falling to pieces.

“Nope,” said Fooj.  He phoned me a month ago, out of the blue, and asked if he could visit. He told me he had been married to my cousin, and said he wanted to come here, where she had been.  I felt sorry for him, so told him he could stay at my house.”

William asked how on earth Alan knew to call Fooj, since Fooj and his cousin were so disconnected.

“A coincidence,” Fooj said.  “Remember that stupid program I was on?”  He
was referring to an episode of CBC Fashion World, in which Fooj was a featured model.  He was portrayed as a hot new face who was also an environmental educator.  There was footage of Fooj on the runway interspliced with stills of him in a Parks uniform in mountainous terrain and paddling a canoe.  Alan and his wife had seen it.  She said, “I think that guy is my cousin.  I have a cousin named Martin Fujiwara who is about that age who lives in Vancouver.”  Alan remembered the name.  After the accident, he had at least one name in Vancouver to contact, and Fooj was in the phone book.

William asked, “Did you tell him I was here?”

“I did,” said Fooj.  “Remember one time in the Nature House we were looking at a calendar of his pictures and you told me you used to know him?  When he phoned, I told him I worked with an old friend of his.  I said your name.”

“What did he say?” William asked.

“He said, ‘No shit.’  And then he asked me not to tell you he was coming to town.  It was to be a surprise.  I realized what an opportunity this was.  I asked him if he would be able to drive you around, because I wouldn’t be able to.” 

"It was in the news, when she died," Monique said, helpfully.

William wondered, would he have made the connection anyway?  In a city this size, people died in accidents every week.  You heard about the accident, rarely about the person.  Hannah Lennox, or Hannah Fujiwara — those names in a flash of unfortunate news wouldn’t have meant anything to him.  Heck, they often don’t even give the name: “A 30-year-old woman was struck down crossing Cambie Street… died in hospital of her injuries…charges yet to be laid.”

Stacey and Tracy came skipping over.  "What’s over here?" they asked.

"Funny fish you can throw around," said Monique.  And so they did, seeming to enjoy it more than William had.

William said, "I wonder, who is Hiroe?  Did Alan make her up?"

"It might have been Hannah’s middle name," said Fooj.  "Some of our generation have Japanese second names.  Some use them as first names – it’s considered hip."

William didn’t tell Fooj that Alan said Hiroe would soon be here.  Alan had asked him not to reveal this secret, which William now knew to be untrue.  

Alan didn’t return from the dock.  William went to look for him, but he was missing, not out in the sunshine among the boats.  William looked below, in the water too.  The barnacles on the pilings were coated with filmy green algae, and most were empty, like sockets in toothless jaw bones.  There was a grim underside to this place. 
                                                                                               
William eventually found Alan back in the parking lot, waiting against his Mazda with his arms crossed.  He clearly hated the cannery and its critical failure to fully inform the public of its full history.  Alan said, "That place gives me the creeps.  To turn such a place into an amusement park…it should be burned down and plowed into the ocean.  It should drift out to sea like so much sewage.”

William felt like glass.  He had unwanted x-ray vision into Alan and by the simple equation that Alan could always read him, his transparency turned backward onto him too.  So William curled into a ball and said nothing.  Nothing of Hiroe, of Hannah.       It was loyalty again, which could be the disguise of cowardice.

They didn’t talk until they were traveling north out of Richmond, up Number 1 Road.   Dead ahead the north shore mountains gleamed with late spring snow.  "Voila," William said.

Alan said, “They’re just an illusion.” 

A pretty nice illusion, William thought.   

That’s when Alan told William he had had Milt over for pizza the other night, and that later the two of them patrolled Lost Lagoon, protecting the beaver.  “It’s true,” said Alan.  “There are these park employees trying to kill it.”

“So what do you do?” William asked.  How does one protect a beaver?

“Stay in between,” he said.  

William wondered if Alan was not so different from Milt.  Here were two damaged men on a shared, strange mission.  Milt’s damage was apparent the first time you met him.  In fact, he would make a point of reminding you of it every subsequent meeting.  Alan’s damage was more subtle, and of the two was worse. 

“I have a good idea of where to set the traps,” Alan said.  “Will they fit in the trunk of this car?”

William didn’t know what to say.  “Probably, if you can put the back seat down.”  In a way William was cheered Alan was still cocksure enough to assume he could use William’s belongings to do something he knew he opposed.  What to give a wealthy man who has everything except his wife?  Two beaver-sized cage traps.

Stopped at a light, watching as another Asian teen crossed the road, Alan revived a conversation from earlier in the day, before things got bumpy for him.  He asked, "So did you ever see Becky Pang again?"

William said, “Once, about seven years later in downtown Toronto, on Bloor Street, in front of the Church of the Redeemer.  It was just before I went off to Washington.  She didn’t see me.  It was raining and she was crossing to my side of the street.  I was holding an umbrella, standing on the curb, petrified, and she didn’t see me, or maybe pretended not to.  Maybe she didn’t even recognize me.  She walked right past.  I could have stuck my cold finger in her warm ear.  That’s when I saw she was six or seven months pregnant.  Seeing that, how firmly and irrevocably separate her life had become from mine, I was again overwhelmed by that feeling of being erased — of being demoted to something insignificant.  At one time I had been a chapter in her life.  Now I was a footnote.  No, not even that.  I was forgotten.” 

Alan said, “I really think you should have stuck your cold finger in her warm ear.  Then you would have at least always been a footnote.” 

They were somewhere along Westminster Highway, which was a road, not a highway.    William searched for a cross-street sign, and then looked at the map in his lap.  It made as little sense as the entirety of his life thus far, these jigsaw-puzzle, deltaic islands, weakly held together by scattered bridges and tunnels.  It was a snakes and ladders game, and trying to connect where they were with where they wanted to go presented difficulties beyond the immediate navigational task. 

Alan said, in what seemed an almost tender way, “Maybe the reason you haven’t married is because you never did get over it.”

William disputed.  “No. I got over it.  I just never met the right person, or if I did meet her, she was already married to someone else.”

“But that didn’t stop you from sleeping with her.”  Alan said this snippishly, in sharp contrast to his previous comment.

“What?”

“Eventually you slept with some other guy’s wife, right?” 

In fact William had, but how would Alan have known that, and why would he have cared? It had been an isolated, rare moment of spontaneous bad behavior many years earlier.  William wasn’t proud of it and had never told a soul.  He said to Alan, “You’ve lost me,” but was probably unnerved enough that Alan knew he had him, but on what William wasn’t sure.  Alan shouldn’t have cared who William’s lovers had been since they last met.  By his reckoning, Alan had had more lovers that summer long ago at Camp Ohmeemaw than William had had, period.                             

Alan hit the nail on the head when he said, “Like when you were away at a scientific conference where everyone drinks too much and the rules all disappear.”   

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