A Grizzly Bear on Columbia Street
At nine in the evening on the twelfth of October, the junkies, dealers, pimps, and prostitutes were only just beginning to congregate in full force in front of the Carnegie Center on Main and Hastings, catty-corner to the Vancouver Police Museum.
Many locals—the ones with addictions more manageable, hidden, and socially acceptable (like, say, shoes)—believed this ironic juxtaposition of law and disorder was a sure sign that the rag-tag denizens of this corner were thumbing their chafed and dripping noses at all that was good and decent in This Great City. It proved, at the very least, that this human blight was at some basic level the direct consequence of the deliberate, asocial choices of the streetwalkers. These were not animals, after all. They were there across from a symbol of law, order, and civic responsibility by choice.
To demonstrate they were aware and disapproved of this fact, the upstanding citizens of the city of Vancouver made it a point to drive their vehicles straight through this intersection (doors locked, of course), even when it would have been significantly less repulsive to go around. They were realists, after all, and this was part of the reality of living in a city ranked by The Economist magazine as the "World's Most Livable City of 2011." You cannot expect to have such superb living conditions—lovely natural surroundings, exceptional infrastructure, beautiful people, and a relatively low population density—without a bit of fraying at the edges.
Nicole remembered this as she reached up with her left hand to pull her black, crushed-wool pea coat a little more tightly to her neck. She drove slowly across the intersection; pausing briefly to avoid coming too close to a heavily bearded man who was zig-zagging in the general direction of the opposite curb. Nicole was a beautiful, talented, well-educated young woman. This was her night (well, one of them, anyways) and she wasn’t about to let anything get in the way of a fabulous time with her likewise fabulous friends.
The broad concrete sidewalk expanses on each of the four corners of this intersection were crawling with people now, so thick that the iron railing next to the basement stairs in front of the Carnegie Center was almost completely obscured by their thronging bodies: walking, sitting, stumbling or just lying on the ground, shaking.
Nicole shuddered and suppressed a mental image of hundreds of cockroaches teeming endlessly out of a small black hole. Then she permitted herself to wonder if perhaps the sight of her—fully coiffed and radiant in her daddy’s new roadster as she headed a few blocks over to dine with friends in the brightly-lit, upscale Vallarta Grill in Gastown—might possibly inspire some of these poor wretches to rise above their sad circumstances and once again become functioning members of society.
She was still smiling at this thought when a loud BANG sounded off so close she could feel it, and she wondered if she had been shot. But before she had time to locate the wound, she realized that her car was wobbling and careening drunkenly, its front-right tire blown.
"OH-GOD-NO-NOT-HERE-GOD-NO-SHIT-NO," she said. For she was by then only just half a block past that God-forsaken corner, and she felt fear rising up as bile in her stomach.
She took three calm breaths (like her therapist taught her) and recited the thing about being powerful and in control. She decided she could turn right and limp two blocks down Columbia, which would put her on the wrong end of Gastown for the parking she’d wanted, but at least she'd be where there would be people (if you know what I mean).
As she took her right turn, however, Nicole heard the scrape-squeak of the front-right rim on the pavement, and she remembered her father telling her the last time she'd driven on the rim that, no, it was not just a second wheel on the inside. Most of all, though, she remembered his threat and the look on his face as he'd breathed it, so she ground her way to the curb, stopped, and screamed "SHIIIIT!" as she smacked her forehead hard against the steering wheel, blasting her horn in a way that almost startled off the Grizzly Bear that was hunched over, fifteen feet in front of her car.
The Grizzly had been gnawing on a vaguely eastern-looking man's lower leg, and neither the man’s screams nor his puny, ineffectual blows had made much of an impact. Normally, the massive beast would have simply silenced the man with one, lazy swipe of its massive paw. But winter was, by now, just around the corner. The bear was sluggish, having for some time been enjoying a steady diet of easy meat as it fattened itself up for the impending winter. It was bored now, and eating not so much for sustenance as to put off the inevitable slogging march back up out of the city to the nearby forested mountains. So it chose to gnaw on, ignoring the horn blast and the screams.
Nicole knew about the Grizzly, of course—everyone did.
It had been all over the news, facebook and twitter when it first showed up, and simply everybody had been talking about it for, oh, days. They'd even run a piece on it in the Vancouver Sun, in which an editor had echoed the sentiments of the general population in writing that if it was, in fact, a problem, then it was the sort of problem that would most likely sort itself out.
The Grizzly didn't eat much, after all, and it only caught the very weakest—the ones who couldn't muster the willpower to get out of its way. Besides, any bear foolish enough to eat such diseased flesh was not likely to survive all that long, anyway. Why risk an incident with an animal that was practically a symbol of the Canadian wilderness, the editor mused, when the bear had just as much a right as they—if not more—to be there? “Better to let nature run its course,” he argued, “and be grateful to live in a city that is snugged so closely and harmoniously into the forest that it's sometimes difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins."
Nicole knew all this, yes, but it was still odd to actually see it with her own eyes. Columbia was something of a thoroughfare, and although it was peppered here and there with the pimps, junkies, dealers and whores who occasionally skittered out from their gathering place a half-block away, there were also a number of people walking to the art galleries that were flung out like planets in glorious, cultured suffusion from the nexus of shops, restaurants and clubs that sat like jewels on the crown that was Gastown. These people grew silent and edged to the inside of the broad sidewalk as they passed the bedraggled, olive-skinned man who was being eaten, a little at a time, in the light of one of the antique lamp-posts.
Nicole simply adored those lamp-posts. They were quaint, like part of the nice, pastelly painting she had in her living room, and made any serious crime seem completely unlikely on this well-groomed street in Vancouver, this most livable of cities.
Nicole resolved to ignore the bear. She rummaged around in the clutter of her Prada bag (the tan, leather one with the chic, neo-hippie look that went so well with the sinfully sexy stilettos she'd picked up last year in Milan—god she loved that bag) and found her phone.
It was dead.
And she had left the charger in the other car.
Nicole hit the horn hard again, this time with the flat of her palm. And this time the sharp, sudden blast did get the Grizzly's attention and it noticed for the first time above the acrid scent-deluge of the city, the hot, biting new smell of Nicole's burning tire rubber. So the Grizzly abandoned the now feebly-whimpering man on the sidewalk and ambled the few short steps toward Nicole's car, where it proceeded to snuff curiously at the wrecked, front-right tire. And then, in an almost-human gesture, the bear placed its massive paw on the hood of the gleaming white car as it leaned in to get a better look into the wheel well.
Nicole heard the tips of those immense claws clack ominously down onto the immaculate paint job, and immediately saw her father’s livid face.
Without a thought for her own safety, Nicole's one hundred and twenty pounds of female urbanite fury erupted from the driver's side door. Then she stumbled, as one of her stilettos caught in a pavement crack and snapped right off, an inch up. "Ursine Bitch!" she shrieked, as she reached down to pull the now-useless, snap-heeled shoe off her right foot. She was so pleased at having remembered the Latin for "bear" that without pausing, she threw the shoe at the Grizzly. The bear, in a surprising show of dexterity, stepped down off the car in one fluid motion and caught the shoe in its mouth, crushing it in its slobbery, blood-slathered jaws.
For some reason, this violation of her footwear (her footwear, dammit!) vexed Nicole more even than the scraped hood, so she lurch-limped back around the door for her handbag and pulled out the cute little handgun she'd demanded from her father for her safety. She yanked it out and again rounded the door.
She had not remembered, however, to remove her other shoe, so as she spun with the gun in both hands (like on TV) to point it at the bear her uneven footing threw her out to one side. She turned her ankle, tripped, toppled, and watched out of the corner of her eye as the shiny gunmetal slid-glinted across the pavement and bounced to a stop against the curb, directly next to where the moaning junkie was watching the scene and trying, ineffectually, to staunch the flow of blood from his stump of a leg.
He looked about to pass out, but a wild, drug-fueled fire flared in his eyes. He reached for the gun, raised it, and pointed it at the Grizzly.
For a moment the street grew deadly quiet, as the gallery-goers realized that a junkie had a gun, and was about to fire it.
Then he shot off the first round with an almost comical "pip!" a flash, and a puff of smoke.
The tinny one-two echo had barely died, when guns began to appear out of every handbag, briefcase, backpack and pram on the street. The junkie scarcely had time to fire a second round before his whole body, it seemed, was mushrooming out in little bursts of dark, dark red.
The bear, enraged by the small, stinging blow (which had struck it right below the eye), let out a tremendous roar and leaped onto the hood of the Mercedes, denting it in and scraping the paint badly.
Nicole squealed at the sight of her father's car being mangled, and this aggravated the bear even further. It immediately jumped on top of her, reached down, and bit her head very nearly clean off. What with Nicole's screams, the Grizzly's roars, and the junkie emptying his clip into the sky as he perished, the entire street was in an uproar. Bullets were flying everywhere, and the air filled with smoke.
After the police had arrived to clean up the debris and order had been restored, it was reported that another sixteen people had been killed in the crossfire. It was the worst bloodbath Vancouver had ever seen.
The next day, the editor of the Sun bemoaned the rise in drug-related violence, and the Chief of Police was quoted as promising an immediate crack-down on the problem. "The streets will be cleaned," he proclaimed. "No longer will we stand idly by while our entire city risks losing its sterling reputation to the bad choices of an irresponsible few."
Meanwhile, the grizzly bear ambled its way northward out of the city, grumbling to itself. Its blood had long-since clotted on its fur, but the stinging memory of the experience persisted. The bear resolved that next Fall, it would stay well-clear of that besmirched city.
It had been a lovely smorgasbord, yes, but the Grizzly had a stomachache.
- - -
Once upon a time, I wrote a short story a week for a whole year and posted them to this blog. Although I later removed them from the blog, in light of the ongoing violence in death-gun-culture America, I have decided to re-post this one.
Arguments against violence don't seem to be working.
Perhaps a story will help.