Tall, tanned, well-groomed and always wearing shorts despite the weather, he strides along the 2.2 kilometer promenade with the air of a man on his way to somewhere important. As the ever-present gulls hover overhead, we say “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon” and Ken returns the greeting briskly in a british-tinged accent. Sometimes we just nod. Sometimes we raise a hand in a casual, regular-beachwalker salute.
This morning was cool, grey and threatening rain. Debbie and I wore sweaters, jackets and, in my case, a knit hat. Ken was wearing his shorts, as usual. We never talk, but each time I see him I’m reminded, as I was this morning, of the night the three of us sat, as strangers, in the White Rock city council chambers with a group of concerned and angry citizens.
The council chambers room is not large. It can seat a sell-out crowd of about fifty. Ken sat behind us, against the back wall, as the mayor and council members debated the merits of a cluster of four high-rise towers being proposed for our small seaside community. Many of us were there to speak out against the development and, in an effort to be seen as unquestionably civil, we were waiting, patiently and quietly, for question period.
By this point my passionately penned “Height and Density” letter-to-the-editor had been re-cast as an article, accompanied by my picture, in the local paper. I had been interviewed by the Globe and Mail about small town development and had faced off against White Rock’s mayor on the CBC. At the public meeting unveiling the towers, Debbie and I had asked two city council members what it would take to stop construction, or at least alter the plan. They advised us, solemn-faced, that if we could convince one thousand people to attend a public meeting and oppose the development, council would “have to turn it down”. So, after falling in with some like-minded old-hand White Rock shit-disturbers, a grassroots campaign began.
The council meeting was not going well. White Rock’s then and current mayor often delivers her surprisingly fragile understanding of the facts with the conviction of a bombastic middle-aged cheerleader. Many residents see this as charming, but her enthusiasm is often coupled with a self-servingly short memory. Promises made at one meeting, opportunistically timed to douse criticism, are (infuriatingly, to the promisees) forgotten by the next. As we sat biting our tongues, a strong baritone voice, with a british accent, broke the silence.
“You’re just full of it. Give it a rest.”
A gavel was hammered and the small crowd was admonished to be more respectful. In the intervening years I have forgotten the details of Ken’s continued loud and disrespectful outbursts, but, had I been in a different frame of mind, I’d like to believe I would have found them funny. At the time, though, I was the one who eventually turned, looked Ken in the eye and said:
“Your not helping us here. Could you please be quiet.”
I do remember that he replied, obviously offended:
“And who asked you for your opinion?”
The next day on the beach as Ken approached us, his perfectly combed hair unruffled by the wind, I decided to say hello. He smiled charmingly and returned the greeting. He either didn’t recognize me or had completely forgiven me overnight. I’m still not sure which.
Our group of concerned citizens succeeded in motivating the community to speak out. Over a thousand people spoke against the Bosa development at two public meetings and by emails to city council. Less than two hundred spoke in favour. Months of painstaking work had brought us a hard-fought victory but, despite this clear message to our elected representatives, we ultimately had no impact at all. Council voted in favor of the development. Two of the four towers now stand at the top of the White Rock hill, and, according to my friend Dave, units are selling slowly.
Debbie and I squandered large chunks of our already precious time trying to influence those in power in our little town. Even though only a few of them had earned our respect, we had risked becoming like them. We had begun speaking their language and using some of their tactics in an attempt to persuade them. We ended our involvement with local politics the day after council voted on the towers. Our friends and former comrades seem to understand.
For two weeks I’ve been glued to the computer screen, reading Huffington Post, Politico and CNN - obsessively following the 2008 US Presidential election. This is the first time I’ve shown an interest in national politics. I think the US election might be the most important political decision made in my lifetime and, as a result I have been careening between elation, when Obama moves forward, and a gut-wrenching disgust when his opponents slash again at my new hero.
Seeing Ken on the beach this morning made me smile. Why today’s encounter was different than others is unclear. Maybe because he reminded me that I’m an observer now, not a participant. Maybe it’s simply because Debbie and I are regular beach walkers again. I made a note to think about this today. What I found myself thinking about, maybe for the first time since that city council meeting, was Ken’s heckling. It was funny, and after all I learned during my political adventure, maybe not such an inappropriate response.