City of Small Havens

We live in trying times. Even though I’m more connected with my local community than ever before, my otherness keeps increasing. It’s the media, politics, economics, and the many -isms that falter but just won’t die. I fortunately am not directly affected by the international spectacle currently unfolding, but the resulting injustices along with the reactions to them that I see (especially the negative ones), replay constantly in my mind.

I feel helpless. I get incredibly frustrated, angry, jealous, and then I despair. When I’m feeling really low, I go to inclusive spaces that are welcoming, providing respite from the dark clouds I imagine gathering on the horizon. These places sustain me, allow me to regroup, to rise up another day. I’m lucky I can name three such spots right off the bat, all in New Westminster. Disclaimer – none of these places know that I love them this hard or that I decided to write about them.

How to recover from a long weekend ☝🏼

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  1. Old Crow Coffee – 655 Front Street

I’ve heard the coffee at Old Crow is exemplary, but I cannot confirm that myself. The tea I’ve had here is the perfect temperature and brew, but what really blows me away is how sheltered I feel. I’m already at a disadvantage being a furtive tea-drinker in a coffee shop, but the atmosphere at Old Crow makes me feel like I’m part of the rainbow of their tapestry. The pared-down space, their accommodation of the needs of patrons with two or four-legged companions, how unhurried yet deliberate the pace inside is, it’s like an insulating bubble from the world outside. I savour my time at Old Crow; it’s a bit of a hidden gem out on Front Street but every time I’ve gone inside, my instant regret is the amount of time I’ve let lapse between my visits.

These guys make some of the best sandwiches in town #newwest #leosfavorite

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  1. Greens and Beans Deli – 143 East Columbia Street

The feeling of belonging at Green’s and Beans is of a decidedly different nature than Old Crow. When I first started going here, I was incredibly intimidated. I’d be fumbling for my glasses and the Jeopardy theme would be playing, and finally I’d order one or three of a panicked-pick of a sandwich. Eventually I found my groove and my favourite sandwich, and relaxed enough to actually appreciate this place.

It’s unassuming, open early and some Fridays they make burgers. Their soups are divine. Leona, the owner, makes them from scratch and she probably has a dresser full of heirloom recipes somewhere. Her Thai-inspired chicken soup is worth fighting over; I’m sure people do, once the batch runs out but I’ve been lucky not to go there too late in the day. There’s also a scalloped potato soup, that has hits all the right comfort food notes, that has cured me of the blues more than once. I had a rough pregnancy last year, and a bad grief-inducing experience the year before, and Leona’s food, her ability to know when to play transit music and when to give peoples space to float by, really makes this place exceptional. Too often, I have felt like a faceless untethered nobody looking for a warm lunch, and that feeling evaporates when I’m at Greens and Beans. They know their clientele here, often by name, and they know their sandwiches.

I’m serious about the Jeopardy music though. Keep your glasses handy.

  1. Royal Columbian Hospital – 330 East Columbia Street

A hospital is not normally a place to recommend as a haven. In exceptional circumstances, however, if you do find yourself here, RCH, in my experience, is the most welcoming and inclusive hospital in the Lower Mainland.

A few years back, my father got incredibly sick. Once we had confirmed his diagnosis, he lived barely past the few months medical literature predicted he would. In the process of navigating the health care system during his illness, I got to sit and steep in a few different hospitals. The best one was RCH.

Don’t get me wrong, the standard of care in all the hospitals we visited was very high. Something about RCH sets it apart. I keep thinking back critically to my experience, and part of what makes RCH so good at what they do is the diversity of their staff itself. The doctors, nurses and social workers come from a large spectrum of backgrounds, and they connected from a place of compassion and respect regardless of who or what they perceived us to be. We weren’t just inconveniently ill strangers being ushered through a system; we were people going through a scary and tough time and they provided us the information, the tools and the support to come to terms with what was happening. Their ability to see us and embrace us as one of their own community, mattered a lot to us, and really makes a difference during a stressful hospital experience.

 

As I write this, bad news come to us from within our province’s borders as well as outside it. These are indeed trying times, but I feel so incredibly fortunate to be weathering this strange year in the inclusive supportive corners of this city, our city, New Westminster, the city of small havens.

Ten Year Love Affair

Ten years.

I remember vividly apartment hunting in New Westminster. It was the fall of 2006, I was fresh out of grad school and had just lucked into a dream job in downtown Vancouver. But I was decidedly not a downtown Vancouver person – it’s frenetic energy and prohibitive rent was not practical. I needed a place far enough away so I could leave work to recharge, with bonus points for affordability, transit access and walkability. New Westminster fit the bill perfectly.

My parents, and then-fiancé, presently known as Envirospouse, walked with me around the Columbia Skytrain station. We walked on the grassy boulevards, and came upon two tall high-rises. The buildings were concrete and when we tried the phone number, the manager, a gentleman named Rob, was still in. I jumped up and down ecstatically, while Envirospouse… whacked his shoe against a telephone pole.

Envirospouse had stepped in something fresh, just as my call to Rob had gone through. After he whacked out most of the detritus stuck on the soles of his skater shoes (how young we were! We wore skater shoes!), he informed me this was a good omen. Like when birds leave you a gift on your shoulder, I had been blessed with dog doo.

Minutes later, we were sitting in Rob’s office. He was working through a standard series of questions. I had my nerdy Tina Fey glasses on. I remember he asked me quite seriously if I smoked. I looked at him, eye contact not wavering, “it’s a filthy habit”. He snorted, asked me to fax over a confirmation of employment, and there we were.

****

The distance between my apartment and the skytrain was a mere 0.707 km. I mapped it. I clocked it. I never ran it, as I used to carry my whole life in my messenger bag. Flash lights, cell phone, keys, a sewing kit, a first aid kit, some powder, an old eye liner, lip balm, a wallet, a notebook, a fancy pen, a water proof pen, three hats, something to read, something to eat, and a watch-maker-sized tool kit (in case the Tina Fey glasses took a hit). One rainy day as I was hiking up the hill on Fourth, I realized that not one but two community buses went right by our apartment. Soon, I was zipping home on those buses.

I have such fond memories of the community bus drivers. They encapsulated all the things I love about New Westminster. They didn’t know me by name, but they knew all my habits. They knew when I’d worked late, and sympathized about the never-ending rain. They waited longer at the stops on snowy days, when tackling the hill appeared foolhardy. They nudged the bus slightly closer to the curb when I was carrying groceries home from 6th and 6th. They even ribbed Envirospouse when he was guiltily bringing home flowers, or wearing his big red parka (which is hideous, and he still wears it so if you see a friendly bearded man in ancient red parka with his children at Hume park, please say hello).

*****

Photo by Scott Adolph, Sculptures of Light Photography
Photo by Scott Adolph, Sculptures of Light Photography

We lived in that apartment for almost 7 years. The last of those years, we started looking around and wondering if/how we could raise a family there. I had this inkling that the care of a newborn required an ensuite washer and dryer. And maybe a spot to put the child in. Envirospouse wanted a yard to plant fruit trees, (he was having a community gardening adventure that you can ask him about), and so, we started house-hunting for a permanent address.

Initially we looked on both sides of the Fraser River. Then we moved over to just this side of the river. We circled spots in Burnaby, in Coquitlam; we balked at Port Moody and Port Coquitlam as this whole time, we didn’t even have a car so going so far away from the Skytrain was lunacy to our minds. I counted that we saw somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 places (Envirospouse claims it was less), and the first place we both agreed on was in Sapperton.

Oh Sapperton. It was the intersection of all our interests. I barely remember examining the insides of the place, but just by virtue of the neighborhood’s atmosphere, felt like we’d hit the jackpot. I swear the neighbors smiled as we walked to the front door. Envirospouse admired the back yard and the wood stove at the heart of the house. The street was a designated bike route. Two skytrain stations and two parks were within walking distance. A Thrifty’s was nearby, and quaint store fronts, including a bakery, were a few streets over. An enormous cherry tree shaded us as we stood outside drinking it all in.

Photo by Scott Adolph, Sculptures of Light Photography
Photo by Scott Adolph, Sculptures of Light Photography

When we moved in, the charm of the area kept on coming. One of the neighbours ran over and invited me to a get-together they were planning on for the next evening. Another neighbour offered us a fresh strawberry smoothie as we sweltered while unloading the truck. At the end of the day, when we’d gotten everything in the house, we sat down and breathed it in.

Photo by Abby from Abigail Quigley Photography
Photo by Abby from Abigail Quigley Photography

Sapperton anchors me to New Westminster. It’s tree-lined streets, friendly neighbourhoods and accessibility has tamed wild wanderers like me. So many of us are part of a diaspora, walkers from different cities and countries, looking for a place to belong to, looking for that feeling that you get when it’s pouring out and you walk inside and the house smells like the best pasta you have yet to eat, and your partner helps you out of your raincoat while seamlessly handing you a steaming plate, as you shrug off your boots and hang your umbrella up. That feeling of comfort, of homecoming, of warmth, of belonging, that’s what New Westminster is to me.

It’s been ten years Royal City, and I never want to leave.