Thursday, December 17, 2009

There is an alley I visit when I want to change my mind about something. The alley runs just north of Kingsway, and the portion I walk along stretches from Clark to 16th.

In the middle of the last block (west) there is a six-foot section of fence. To the east, a garage; to the west, a laurel hedge. The fence is composed of different woods, different formats in various states of decay, and is held together with wire and nails and, at one time, a bicycle inner-tube stretched so tight it had gone from black to grey.

If the fence was not vertical, if it had fallen over before I had discovered it, I might have thought it was a raft, built in advance of a flood, or the kind a hobo might take en route to a place I used to sing about while busking the post-Expo streets of Vancouver: The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain is the story of a hobo paradise where “little streams of alky-hol” flow past “soda fountain waters”; where “hand-outs grow on bushes,” “the box cars are all empty,” “cops have wooden legs” and “the jails are made of tin.” Like the fence (or the raft), the song is composed of odd and often contrasting elements.

When I first learned The Big Rock Candy Mountain, I thought it strange that a paradise would retain the conditions that lead to its imagining: where people were still homeless and living near railroad tracks; where life would be better if “railroad bulls [were] blind” and “bull dogs all [had] rubber teeth.” Seems if you were imagining a better place, why would it have a police force at all? It was only after performing the song a few times that I realized a better world would only be agreeable if it retained the impulse that brought it into being, and that the song was less about a better world than the moment in which it was written: when utopias were as open to satire as the political programs that offered to lead you to them. Not a profound thought, but one that occurred to me at a time when ideas were many and examples were few.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain was on my mind the last time I visited the fence. A kind of swirling thought collage that soon enough had me thinking less of the fence’s composition than its dual purpose: a fence, yes, but also a raft -- and how different the two are: the fence being to cops what the raft was to arriving at a better place.

It was while thinking of this, just now, that I found myself entertaining a thought that I have been trying to change my mind about for some time, a thought I have had more than once the past while, and now, just like that, I have forgotten.

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