My second immersion was in the business district on a busy, commercial evening. My wife and I headed down to Robson Street, sure that the principalities and powers would show themselves here if we spent enough time looking. We made our way slowly down the sidewalk with no particular purpose. This seemed to cause troubles for the folks around us. Apparently, Robson street is not a good place for strolling. People walk Robson Street with a purpose.
After a block or two we ducked into a clothing shop and began to browse. The saleswoman turned her attention to a customer and asked if she could help. The woman pointed to an attractive camisole and asked if she could get it in size small. The saleswoman sized her up and said – a little to loudly and a lot too brashly – “Oh, I don’t think you’re a size small.” Not long after, the woman slipped out of the store and disappeared into the crowd. We’d lost our appetite for shopping – at least here – and so we slipped back into the flow ourselves.
The tide of people surged us down the sidewalk even as we dug our heels in and deliberately slowed our pace. As I looked down the street, I noticed how streamlined this system was. Once you are on Robson Street (or any downtown street for that matter) it is visually very difficult to get off. Storefronts and advertisements assault the senses from either side. The flow of people keeps you moving ever forward at a pace that resists thought and encourages quick movements. Looking ahead or up, one gets the sense that the streets are closing over you and that the only way to move is forward. The only respite a traveler has on these streets is to retreat into the open doors of waiting storefronts. Were the streets designed this way or have the businesses simply taken advantage of the visual effect? Maybe neither is true and streets like Robson simply evolve under the influence of our systems into consumer labyrinths.
Eventually we retreated into the relative calm of a Starbucks, ordered lattes and situated ourselves in the window elevated up above the chaos on the street. Night was slowly falling as the clock turned to 8:00. It seemed like most of the high rises were still entirely lit. Were people still at work way up there? Where they in any way connected to the incessant flow down here? Is there any link between this place of pavement and people and those elevated factories that never seem to shut down? Don’t the people behind those lights have lives or families?
On the street in front of us, an older Asian couple, clearly tourists, were trying to weave their way carefully against the flow of walkers. They clearly were either disoriented or oblivious to the momentum opposing their easy stroll. They looked so odd and out of place, almost stationary as people brushed and bumped past them. But these two were not the only stationary folk. The closer I looked, I realized that the only folks that were completely stationary were the panhandlers – the panhandlers and the shopkeepers – the only people who seemed to understand what makes this street run: insatiable hunger.
I wasn’t sure what to expect to learn from my immersions. I suppose I had a good idea of what I would encounter in the inner city. I’ve been to the streets before and the realities there are nothing new to me. But I was surprised by my desire to retreat and to take full advantage of my status as an observer “on assignment”. Also, without the power of my voice to distract me and engage my thoughts, each new scenario demanded my attention in a way that could not be avoided. My encounters that morning became driving images in the remainder of my otherwise calm prayer walk. I had hoped that the powers and principalities would be more obvious, but business and finance do not appear evil. It took a while of observing to begin to discern that our very infrastructure can become a force that drives us, and Robson was definitely driven. In both experiences, I was especially struck with a sense of being assaulted. Who in either situation had the space, the time, the money or the dignity to simply “be”? Whether we’re there to eke out an existence on the streets or to thrust ourselves into the flow of spenders, the city is a place that is under a multi-frontal assault.