A Container for Life

We’ve lived in our condo since October of 1995, which, as I write this, brings us close to twenty-five years of home-making. My wife has lived in our East Vancouver neighbourhood since she was a toddler. This easterly edge of East Vancouver has been her home for most of her life, and I’ve called various East Van neighbourhoods my home since 1975.

Before our building existed, it had been an IGA grocery store where my wife’s mother had shopped, and at the end of our block where now sits the Continental Sausage and Deli shop, had once been the Maple Leaf Drugstore, where her Dad bought the family meds.

I found out that when the IGA was torn down, it made many rats homeless. While I’m not a big fan of rats per se, I feel for the many critters that hunker down to nest in gardens or under stairs, and who creep out of impossibly tiny bushes at night to forage. In our neighbourhood, and even in our backyard, we’ve seen all kinds of ground-dwellers, like mice, rats, skunks, raccoons, and coyotes, not to mention the odd feral cat.

We bought our condo months before a shovel broke ground, and as construction gradually took shape, we’d drive by the site each week to score a peek at the progress of our future home. Once, we even had a chance to enter our suite while it was still an open wood frame, before the plumbing and electrical was in, and before the drywall was up. It was like having x-ray vision, seeing through multiple rooms at once, but it was also an exciting preview of our eventual new home.

When the day finally came to take possession, we signed the dotted line and got our keys along with a round of applause from the realtors. I had become a home-owner at 29. We were only the second owners to take possession by that point, and the building’s 41 units were still being guarded by a private security guard (thieves love to try sneaking in with the trades, or finding a door that’s been propped open while a Builder has nipped out to their truck).

When a building is just finished construction, it still smells of fresh paint and new carpet – the condo equivalent of “new car smell”. It’s character seems to still be one of dreamy brochures and breathless real estate hyperbole. It won’t truly become a home until people have lived in it for a while, until the building’s joints have flexed and creaked, until the foundation has settled into the lot from the transit of feet and the placement of furniture, until the newly-laid grass has started to take root and grow on its own, and until a few dozen hearts, human or animal, have beaten beneath its eaves for a while, resting in bed listening to the rain pound the roof.

I was still holding onto this idea of our building’s relative sterility during our first weeks of occupation, when all the owners were invited to gather in our tiny communal meeting room. We were joined by the building manager from the property management company, who laid out a big platter of fruits, biscuits and cheeses on a table near the windowed wall facing the building’s inner courtyard. The tiny room was filled to capacity, and to offset the heat and claustrophobia of having so many humans packed into a small space, the door that faced the courtyard was propped open as wide as it would go.

As I enjoyed the early evening breeze, the dusk outside looked dark as night. I was still getting used to the idea of being “an owner”, and took mental note of my neighbours who were cloistered around the room in little groups. Always the daydreamer, as the property manager talked about us forming a strata council, my brain was preoccupied by the piece of cheddar I was still chewing, and my eyes looked out the door into the courtyard. There, I spied a little mouse sitting upright on the edge of a retaining wall looking in at us. His little nose twitched as he smelled the heat from the room and the scent of our Eldorado-like cheese platter just a few feet away. I decided to not draw any attention to him, as his attendance would not have been appreciated by the others. I was happy to see him though, since it meant that displaced life was starting to re-establish itself on our site. I pictured a ton of bugs crawling in the soil under our bushes, and birds nesting up in our newly-planted trees, and I felt pretty good about it all.

Our neighbours up on the fourth floor were the son and daughter-in-law of the building’s developer. Their ownership felt like a little signal of confidence in the project, and their youthful enthusiasm around the building was a breath of fresh air. When it happened that the building’s flower beds needed a load of topsoil, this young couple encouraged the coucil that if the owners worked together, we could all distribute it ourselves and save on labour costs. I’d never been much for team spirit up to that point, but we did rally, and so one day, a giant five foot tall block of dirt appeared on the street out front. We commenced to bust it up, grab buckets and wheelbarrows, and hike our new dirt around back into the courtyard, where it would be dumped for other residents to smooth into place in the flowerbeds. It was nice to see the cooperation that came about: two Chinese sisters who lived together in one unit shared the lifting of a big ice cream pail of soil, one hand each on the single handle as they walked in unison. Around back, an old Chinese gent whom I ‘d never heard a word from was singing loudly and happily as he smoothed out soil using a rake. We all worked together that afternoon until all the dirt was in place. It was really a cheerful scene and a happy memory.

The courtyard garden also became a small place of peacefulness. I used to like exiting through the courtyard on my way to work, and one morning as I came out the door, I saw the old Chinese gent quietly doing his morning Tai Chi on the courtyard’s bricked ground, while a little orange tabby named Simba watching him in fascination from the edge of the walkway. My arrival broke their communing. A startled Simba ran off, but the old man just chuckled and said hi.

Life wasn’t always a bed of roses though. When we had our first building-wide fire alarm, a resident named Katherine, who lived near us on the first floor, had a small emotional breakdown. Admittedly, we all were a little slow to exit the building and go across the street like the law requires, and it was all too much for her. She was in tears and yelled at us to get moving. It was a false alarm, but still very upsetting, especially for her. I’ve wondered if she had been hurt in a house fire in the past. About half a year later, Katherine passed away. Not too long after that, the couple from the top floor, who’d encouraged us all to lay down the soil as a team, gave birth to their baby in a home birth, right in their suite. We’d seen the first death in our little community, and also our first birth. Since then, we’ve seen more than a few babies become toddlers, and then school kids.

In the twenty five years that we’ve lived here, our building has been a typical Vancouver leaky condo, with broken pipes, leaky roofs, and rotten, mouldy walls. We’ve had white mould, black mould, and mushrooms growing in the walls, and sections of wall rotted right through. Poor construction and no rain screening were the main factors. Finally, after twenty years of minimal repairs and envelope maintenance, the entire exterior was finally replaced and improved at a cost of over two million dollars. The cost and disruption of the project took a big toll on all of us in terms of money, stress, and uncertainty, but after over a year of work, today our building looks better than new, and has the best rain screening and windows on the market. The grass is green again, and everything is clean, new, and seems in perfect repair.

A few months ago, we lost another neighbour, a sweet old lady who’s heart finally wore out. She had lost her husband a few years back, and had to endure lonliness along with the cost and uncertainty of our building’s renovation all on her own. It can be hard to live alone without the person you loved most of all, and the lady’s daughter told us that it had been especially hard on her mother. The day after the lady’s passing, I walked by her suite, and as I came down the hall towards our own door, I heard the cries of the newborn baby from the young couple across the hall from us. They’ve been there for a few years now. Their newborn’s cries sounded like music to me that day. That kid’s going to grow up to be a singer, I thought.

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