Monday, August 20, 2012

The Pacific National Exhibition

Every year I hear the call of the Pacific National Exhibition, or the PNE. This year the call came early. Admission from 9 a.m. to noon was free -- and it wasn't raining. How could I refuse?

After meandering through East Vancouver I arrive at the Renfrew and Hastings entrance, lock my bike and stroll through the unmanned turnstiles. To my immediate left is The Market, where as a child I marvelled at men in starched white shirts and bow ties demonstrating the latest in food prep. Only now these men have been replaced by twenty-something women in low-cut blouses. Every time one of them leans forward, attention shifts from the product to the process.

I step outside and purchase a handful of popcorn ($3.50). Suddenly I hear the voice of Dal Richards booming from the concert stage. Dal is 94-years-old and continues to lead a big band. I have to see this.

After the second song I turn around, to take in the crowd (Who else had to see this?). Leaning against a guard rail is Jean Smith. Despite her sunglasses I know it's Jean because of her mouth, which is tight and full. She is staring right through me. I don't take this personally because I have been in this situation before: she knows it's me, just as she knows there are other things going on besides those who know her.

We talk about writing, and I mention a piece of hers I read in a recent issue of West Coast Line. I have always liked Jean's writing and I tell her why -- not so much the content, in this case, but the construction of her paragraphs, which often begin with intriguing lines followed by a mix of deduction and derive. The early Kathy Acker had that quality, as do a number of writers who come to fiction through poetry. Or in Jean's case -- song.

I want to spend the rest of the day with Jean, but I don't want to push my luck, either.

My favorite thing about the PNE are the animals. This year they seem sadder than ever, especially the bulls, who are on short leashes and face the wall. One bull in particular looks very unhappy. And no wonder -- someone has named him Cashflow.

It is hard to carry on after that, but I do. A quick walk through Playland, past kids screaming from rides, extended families (one dowager was being carried in a sedan chair), a toddler going through sugar withdrawal, beehives of cotton candy, over-inflated basketballs, Whale's Tails, camel toes, before doubling back, first to the Agridome, where a cowboy is mounting a bull (not Cashflow), and then the Pacific Coliseum for the Peking Acrobats, where the sign reads, appropriately enough, FULL HOUSE.

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