Spring came stampeding down Vancouver’s Robson Street like a flock of flamingos this week. To be sure, we’ve had a fair share of sunny days here on the Wet Coast over the past two months, but often grudgingly, and never terribly warm. This week though, ah, sun and summery highs in the mid to high 20’s. (That sound you hear now is the collective grating of teeth from every inhabitant of Ontario and Quebec still slogging through spring rains, with nothing to look forward to afterwards but a summer forecast of brutal record heat and the usual psychosis-inducing humidity)
The point here is not to gush about how great I think Vancouver is (if I wanted to do that, I’d strap on a kilt, doff my drawers and launch into a rendition of that old Scottish chestnut “These are my mountains and this is my home!” – which would probably drive off every other resident of the Lower Mainland and insure that it was my home and no-one else’s), or to thumb my nose at easterners (as fun as that is – and I say that as someone born and raised in Ontario). No, the point is to illustrate how a stray thought can transform the mundane into the surreal.
-Which is not to say I see parts of the ordinary world in a Charles De Lint sort of way, as a fusion of the normal and the supernatural, rather in a Bradburian sense: as a loam to grow metaphor.
Grasping my hand as though she were holding a dog’s leash, my wife dragged me on an afternoon odyssey of shoe-hunting (for herself, naturally – I get brought along because she’s short and the store bags hang too low and get too heavy after she’s made 7 or 8 purchases – not an unusual sight: pushy little Chinese women dragging lumbering white guys behind them is par for the course in this town) and I glanced around: at the usual horde of women with pink tank-tops plastered across boobs propped up by every conceivable means to look like twin zeppelins at dock and white pants tight enough to see not only the panty line but the colour of the knickers in question as they ride up into the unknown and dye jobs in every shade of blonde (frequently on the same head), at the exasperated American tourists dragging their portly children along wondering where all the igloos are and why their dollar isn’t going so far, at the occasional dude with a dog and the mandatory shit bag hanging at his side, at the juice monkeys in their tight white T-shirts who’ve pumped weights until their chests and arms would put a gorilla to shame but who’ve left their legs in the same sparrow condition they were born with, the teenage girls pillaging yoga stores for the fashions more than any real desire to contort their bodies and achieve clarity of mind and soul, the matrons who are long on money and short on class parading around displaying all of their jewels and brand-names and botox work with their noses elevated above their eye level and leading harried Filipino nannies suffering under the squalls of their mistresses’ pampered larvae, the Goths, the sporty college boys with their retro-80’s mesh-backed ballcaps mounted at every conceivable angle, frazzled store clerks in the black and white uniforms of their caste just coming off shift, and every other type of rabble to stalk The Scene.
Watching the tide of bodies ebb and flow around the Starbucks, the gelato place, the Milestones, Fogg ‘N Suds, Zin, Shinnanigans, and even A Taste Of India, my attention was drawn not as much to the faces and bodies on the street, as it was to the faces and bodies on the patios abutting the street. And I wasn’t the only one. No-one could pass the fenced-off patches of concrete without looking at the denizens ensconced within.
I was reminded of a similar moment last year, when seeing the gaggle of people seated out into the sidewalk hit me with a japanimation flashback – it made me think of one sentence in particular, in fact. I’ve been chewing on an idea about our society ever since that Macross moment.
Remember that scene in Macross: Superdimensional Fortress where Breetai and the other fleet commanders are getting a history lecture from Supreme Commander Dolza? Breetai haltingly asks “What… is… pro-to-cul-ture?”
That’s what hit me looking at the outdoor seating. “What… is… pro-to-culture?”
You may wonder what the hell a term from an early 80’s anime classic has to do with drinking or dining out-of-doors.
Nothing. It was the turn of phrase.
I found myself twisting it and asking: “What is patio culture?”
Thinking about it a little longer (yes, there was steam coming out of my hairy ears and sweat beading on my bespectacled face with the effort), it occurred to me that our varieties of modern patio culture are more than just accommodations for smokers or platforms for dining al-fresco. They’re metaphors for types of religion.
Start with the easiest: restaurant patios on Robson - The Scene (pick your city, the attitudes of the people in the cool places to be – as officially sanctioned by local pop culture outlets – are all the same). People on the patios – especially the street-level patios – are self-styled gods from some ancient pantheon. That gaggle of university girls there nursing their grande caramel lattes are Aphrodite, Diana and the Muses. The ballcapped gym rats leering at them from the next table are really Thor and Baldur tearing into 10-cent wings and quaffing pints of Gastown Amber Ale. Notice how rare it is for you to see a non-hipster on the patios in the heart of The Scene? That’s the job of the hostess, the ultimate gatekeeper and judge of cool to keep the human advertisements for good times in full view in the outdoor sweet spot, and the rest of us schmucks safely tucked away in the dark inner recesses where we can’t be seen amongst the kitsch. Nightclub doormen have got nothin’ on her. You can ask all you want, be as nice as you want, make comments about the great weather until the cows come home, or even dangle a 20, but you ain’t getting in unless the girl in black with a tasteful amount of cleavage showing judges you to by worthy. She is the gatekeeper. The new Hades or Osiris. Sending you to your final eating and drinking destination, with the decision having already been made before you’ve even opened your mouth.
The patio is the place to see and be seen. It is the new Olympus. The godlings can bask in the sun, watch the breeze waft away their cigarette clouds, and feel the cool night air caress their alcohol-fired cheeks. More importantly, the diners can gaze aloofly out at the world and judge the beauty of the passers-by (or equally likely the inadequacy of their couture). They are satisfied in knowing that their comments to this effect can probably be heard by the same pedestrian. Zeus thundering his wrath above a temple never had it so good. The patio also elevates their egos – their need to be worshipped (anybody thinking about Apollo’s pathetic speech to Captain Kirk in the classic Star Trek series?) - by allowing them to see those on the outside gazing at them with envy – they know you’re thinking “Wow, She/He’s got it all! That place looks happening! Must be hard to get a table on that patio! Wouldn’t it be great to cozy up to that hottie there and down a wobblypop or five?” It abuts into the sidewalk, thrusting the cool people into the midst of the marching throng, but keeping them safely separated from the great unwashed by the unbreachable line of the waist-high iron fence. And yet, it allows for interaction. The old gods walk in the world and take part in it, even though they are protected by their divinity. Any one of the patio loungers can wave to someone on the street and say “Hey, why don’t you come and sit with us and have a few drinks?!” and that lucky soul will be admitted onto the hallowed ground, where he will have a napkin bestowed upon him which will then blow away in the breeze. In this, it’s like the woodland abodes of the ancient gods – places where Bacchus and his cronies could party it up while mere mortals trembled in the bushes at the sight, until they were invited to partake in the festivities.
It’s also like the home of ancient gods because nearly everyone wants onto the patio – it’s where the good times are! You can see those good times right there in front of you, just a metre or two away! People will queue up for hours just to get a patio seat – unless you know the hostess or look cool enough, then you’re in right away. It’s like a host of antsy Vikings petitioning to get into the mead-halls of Valhalla.
And like any home of the gods, it’s perfectly manicured and controlled in its attempt to create a precise image of the kind of cool it wants to generate. Plants only in pots where they should be. Heat lamps standing tastefully at attention at strategic distances from the restaurant door or suspended like red suns of Krypton from the eaves to gently bake the bar nymphs as they daintily sip their ambrosiac bellinis on otherwise chill late spring or early fall nights.
Ultimately, the patio is also like a pantheon because it is doomed. As the Norse gods knew Fenrir the wolf waited for the dinnerbell of Ragnarok, so those-who-would-be-gods who assume mastery of the patio know that it’s only for a span of a few months before the onslaught of winter forces the chairs and tables off the sidewalk.
And we can see other types of patio culture as illustrations of other kinds of ancient religions.
Take settin’ out on the front porch (your choice of open or mosquito-mesh-enclosed) on a sticky summer’s night. Something you see more in Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and maybe some neighbourhoods in parts of Manitoba, than here out West. This laid-back patio lifestyle is the perfect analogy for aboriginal shamanism.
The porch on a summer’s eve is the crossroads of the worlds of man, nature, and spirit – or rather, it is the illustration that they’re not separate worlds, but intertwining facets of the same existence.
The porch, though man’s creation, is side-by-side with the yard, but neither is mutually exclusive. The grass or weeds from the lawn may spill over onto parts of the porch. The leaves, flower petals, grass clippings and dandylion down all blow freely onto the porch. Bird crap is often allowed to fossilize onto the railings. And man’s creations spill into nature: splinters from the railings, coins, cigarette butts, ice cubes, broken glass, marbles, toys and all manner of snacks may slip, blow or be kicked off the edge and into the grass or flower beds or fall through the cracks between the boards to the dark places beneath. The porch itself, while man-made, is often weathered. Even on the most fastidiously maintained front stoops, there’s bound to be faded or peeling paint, warped or cracked boards or concrete, and possibly old furniture, maybe rusting, maybe bleached by the sun and smelling faintly of mildew from the rain making it past the awning.
It’s a place of levels, where one can sit on a chair, slightly lower on a step, lean on a railing, in some cases crawl into the dark spider-and-worm cavern underneath, hang from rafters, step through a creaking screen door into the house or tumble down onto the lawn. It is the manifestation of the idea that a man or spirit can freely move from the village to the dreamtime and back to the forest.
And just as shamanism acknowledges that man shares the world on an equal footing with the animals and spirits – all moving freely into and out of the world, that life and death are intertwined and that power relations can shift, so too does the porch. Grandpa may sit on the steps, the family dog gnawing a sheep’s kneebone on the porch as both watch the kids running around the maple tree in the middle of the lawn; a sparrow roosts on one of the beams above; Gramma knits in the rocking chair, a cat on her lap; the afternoon’s lazy flies give way to the evening’s more determined mosquitos; Dad leans over the railing to inspect the moss crawling up the concrete on the foundation of the house; a spider inspects the day’s catch in her web in the corner; Mom puts down her book and goes into the house to get a jacket; a neighbour comes ambling over from the sidewalk to say “hi”; an owl alights on top of the awning as twilight deepens; and two teenagers cuddle on an old couch against the side of the house after everyone else has gone inside.
As shamanistic cultures become sparse as they’re marginalized by “modern” societies and their members are absorbed into the dominant traditions, so too the way of the porch is becoming rare. Suburbs continue to explode into what was once farmland, but the increase in housing has seen a decrease in neighbourhoods. People don’t know their neighbours any more. Horror stories on the news make people distrustful of their neighbours too. How many people stop weeding the garden or mowing the lawn to chat with the guy next door and maybe have a beer? Gone is community parenting. Fading are the impromptu block road-hockey games and baseball games in the empty lot at the end of the street. They’ve been replaced by carpools to organized sports leagues and protracted video game campaigns. Kids don’t go and bang on their friends’ doors anymore. Now they have “play dates” arranged over cellphones with individually-identifying ringtones. Neighbourhood barbeque or block party? Nope. Street garage sale? Can’t – might violate the strata bylaws. Jane Jacobs warned in “Dark Age Ahead” that this growing isolation is a forerunner of societal collapse, and look what’s happened to aboriginal cultures stripped of their heritage by colonization and imposed values. Jacobs’ words might not be so far-fetched. Even if you don’t take this kind of apocalyptic view, even if you take all the nostalgia with a hefty grain of salt, you have to admit those easy-going evenings of only 20 years ago were a lot nicer.
To be sure, there are pockets of resistance, where settin’ out on the porch of a summer’s evenin’ is still a way of life. I hope it’ll see a resurgence.
That brings us to a more modern form of religion: monotheism. That is the apartment/condo balcony.
The Judeo/Christian/Muslim tradition teaches that God is all-seeing, all-powerful, and perched in his distant heaven that’s attainable for mortal man only through strict adherence to certain values. That’s not too removed from the realities of the balcony: it’s owned by one person/family, it’s usually physically high up – mounted on the side of a building with a view either of scenery, other apartments or the city streets below, and if you, as an outsider/non-owner are ever to hope to rise above the crowd on the sidewalk and get up to where the air might be fresher or the view of the fireworks/festival/sunset might be better, complete with drinks and snacks, you’ve got to prove your worth to the Power above (otherwise known as the guy with his name on the lease/deed).
That’s right, merely knowing in your heart that the balcony, complete with its view and beer and barbeque, exists isn’t enough! No, you’ve got to be friends with the owner, which means you have to share the same values (more or less) and spend countless hours in communication (your choice of in person/by phone/over the net) – so, let’s call a spade a spade and say “in prayer”.
Moreover, while anyone can imagine a balcony, not just anyone can see the owner. No, up there he or she can look down at you and see just how much you’re balding on the back of your head or whether you scratch your balls when you think no-one is looking, but if you look up, it’s unlikely you’ll catch a glimpse of the high one unless they want you to. If the Lord works in mysterious ways and appears only to the chosen, we can see the symmetry with the apartment-dweller who chooses when he’ll lean over the railing and wave and call down to you, and when he’ll simply stay away from the edge and appear to not be at home.
And if you, oh lowly one, are deemed worthy, your pleas at the holy call box at the front door (and let’s face it, some building entrances are ornate enough to compete with churches/mosques/synagogues) will be answered, and you will be granted admittance. You’ll rise (in an elevator of course, which may or may not contain cheap advertising panels displaying curious combinations of restaurant brochures, sex service ads and pamphlets offering to help you find true faith and enlightenment – wait a minute, does that make those panels like the grail?) to that “de-lux apartment in the sky-y-y”, far above the great unwashed and mosquitos and the pollen to that perfectly controlled environment hovering in the air where there will be fine whiskeys and sizzling steaks and binoculars and witty conversation and comfortable chairs and all manner of salty snacks. And like heaven, once you’re there, you’ve got to abide by the rules and whims of your host or be judged as wanting, cast out, and forced to descend back into the crowd and the heat and the false light of neon and the danger of mugging and the noise and the fumes of the street, never to return. Were Dante and Milton writing from 19th storey 2-bedroom strata lots?
Lastly, we arrive at agnosticism and atheism – respectively the belief that there might be something out there, but we don’t know its nature, and the denial in any sort of deity. That’s an apartment without a balcony. Nothing outwardly visible up there except windows glittering like stars and nothing beyond your imagination hinting at whether anyone’s behind them, or if there is, if that person’s even bothering to look down at you or cares one whit whether you’re there or not. The apartment dweller in front of his TV isn’t even a part of the world at all to the man on the street.
On the flip side, is the man who may be behind the window like the Buddha, having left the chaos of the world behind for some inner quiet? Or is he merely Narcissus substituting a TV, book, piano, porno mag, computer or stereo for a pool to mirror his own ideas?
So what is patio culture? Well, Commander Breetai, it’s where the mundane world becomes metaphor, where life unwittingly gains spirituality, whether the aspiration (conscious or unconscious) of a hipster toward godhood, the gentle acceptance of coexistence with other elements of the world – both seen and unseen, the desire to rise above the common to a better place, or a great mystery or absence.
Where do you sit when you’re outside?