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“Never take candy from strangers…”
My mother’s words echo through my head as I climb onto the #15 Cambie, by myself, for the first time. Ever.
I’m twenty-one years old and I’m terrified.
Small-town B.C. doesn’t have public transit. We have bikes. Legs. Trucks, cars, dualies (or is it doolies?). Either way, any system for communal travel involves little more than folding down the deathtrap seats in the back of a truck’s cab on your way to Timmy’s (if your small town even has a Timmy’s; McDonald’s also works in a pinch).
I spend the first two months of my Vancouver emigration walking everywhere. She’s not a small town. Burnaby to Langara is a long walk; Langara to downtown, not so bad. I reach the inevitable moment, though, when I can’t physically get where I need to go by the time I need to get there via leg power. It’s too far, too soon, and I have no money for a cab. I have to brave the bus.
I call my mom. She lived in Vancouver before I was born. She would have some advice.
“Never take candy from strangers.”
That’s all I get. Twenty-one, and she’s still telling me to avoid strangers. Everyone we meet is a stranger. The whole concept of a consumer-based economy is interaction with strangers, every day, all day long. Eventually, I’m going to have to take candy from somebody.
16th and Cambie. I’m a block or two past Cracktown. Up to this point, the entire Lower Mainland has been Cracktown. To Small-town B.C., Chilliwack onwards is Cracktown. Sit around a Legion table in Terrace, and they’ll tell you that everyone in Vancouver is on crack. Golden will tell you the same thing. And don’t even think about stopping in Prince George.
Ten o’clock on a Friday night, heading uptown to a party. The bus is sparsely populated, with me, another guy about my age and an elderly Asian fellow enjoying each other’s company (and, when I say ‘enjoying each other’s company’, I mean ‘avoiding eye contact and staring out the window’). These aren’t school chums. I don’t work with these men. These men, in the esteemed words of my sweet mother, are strangers. We don’t talk to strangers.
But we can’t stop strangers from talking to us.
I stare out the window. Someone spoke to me. I don’t think it was Old Asian Dude. He’s asleep, or at least faking it well.
I should have walked. Or not gone to the party. Stayed home. Read a book. This bus ride was a mistake. I can’t afford the bus. $2.50 a trip is way too expensive, and I’m running out of student loan money as it is. I’ll walk next time. Maybe I should get off and try to get my money back. What would Mom do? If only she was here. I shouldn’t have gone to school so far away. Why couldn’t I have just stayed in Small-town B.C? Vancouver really is Cracktown, and I’m riding the chariot straight to Hell.
“Hey, man, you want some cake?”
Cake. On a bus.
“It’s good cake.”
I turn to my addressor. He is well-dressed. Stylish, well mannered and smooth. Fresh haircut, judging by the length. A silver-domed tray rests in his lap. He must be hitting on me. Strange men don’t talk to each other unless they’re hitting on each other, right? Small-town B.C. hasn’t prepared me for this sort of interaction. He’s friendly. I think he might be stoned. You don’t go bus-riding stoned in Small-Town B.C. You drive your gigantic truck up the side of a mountain drunk, but never stoned. That’s for hippies. I can’t ignore him any longer. He isn’t letting up, and I was raised better than that. I have to say something.
“What kind of cake?”
It has to be chocolate. I love chocolate. He turns to face me and lifts the lid off the tray. A moist, thick-frosted chocolate gateau is revealed, filling the bus with the rich aroma of dark chocolate. My mouth waters, and I lick my lips.
“Looks good, doesn’t it?”
“Go on, have a piece.”
Don’t take candy from strangers. Don’t take candy from strangers. Don’t take candy from strangers. Mom, why can’t you be here right now? I knew this kid in Grade Five that got kidnapped from my schoolyard during recess, right in the middle of the day. I didn’t know him that well, but Small-town B.C. went nuts. It wasn’t as big as Michael Dunahee, but I wasn’t allowed to go to sleepovers for years. And here I am, ten years later, seriously considering taking a piece of cake.
“No, I shouldn’t.”
“What? Come on, man, it’s good.”
“It looks very good, but I shouldn’t.”
“Why? You on a diet?”
“No, I just…”
I don’t know what I just. All I can hear is my mother’s voice, Old Asian Dude snoring, and the bus’s sticks zipping along the rails above. The cake is right there; tantalizing, delicious, everything wrong about the city. Small-Town B.C. cakes are served in squares. Plastic plates, a square of cake and a slice of pie, dollop of ice cream to go with your Pilsner and 100% all-weiner hot-dog. Vancouver has a Little India. A Chinatown. The world. Here.
“Just a little one.”
Cake Man reaches into his pocket, smiles, and pulls out a paper napkin and a fork. Of course he’s come equipped. He wraps a thick slice of cake in the napkin and passes it over. I cradle the bundle, and he hands me the fork.
“Enjoy, man. You look like you need it.”
“I am a little hungry.”
He just smiles, and pops the lid back on his tray. He pulls the bell cord and stands to get off the bus. I open my napkin of cake and inhale deeply. I have never smelled cake so perfect. The fork dives in, and I plunge the first mouthful deep into my mouth. It crumbles, melts, and dissolves on my tongue, chocolate explosion overwhelming my every sense. I have another bite, then another, then another. I finish the cake before Cake Man gets off the bus. We stop, and Cake Man smiles my way as he slides out the door.
My head starts to swim, and I feel really, really good. Warm, dizzy, and happy.
They don’t make cake like this in Small-town BC.