Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Man On Fire

I have never forgotten the man in the black suit.

In May 2000, I made my second trip out to Vancouver to visit my mother, who was living and working there at the time.  As part of the trip, I spent a weekend with my friend Mario in nearby Surrey.  On a steamy Sunday morning, we hit the road on Mario's motorcycle, starting the day on the famous pier at White Rock.

White Rock, if you've never been, is postcard-perfect... or at least it was, back then.  A sleepy little town rolled down to tranquil Semiahmoo Bay, where it spilled out onto the Promenade, a sun-drenched tourist zone built along eight kilometres of sandy beach.  We arrived well before noon, and strolled the boardwalk, grabbed some ice cream, checked out the shops.  As the area became flooded with young people out for a day on the shore, we were in full people-watching mode.  It was just a very laid-back place.

In the midst of all this, one figure stood out, no matter how he tried not to.  It must have been 40+ degrees C on the sand.  Back toward one of the pavilions, near to where we found ourselves at one point, a fellow stood in the shade, staring out across the water.  And unlike every other person along the coast that morning, he was dressed in what must have been his Sunday suit... black wool, white shirt, dark tie fully knotted.  He was of indeterminate origin, definitely Asian but from which country I could not say.  With one hand he would intermittently wipe his head and neck with a handkerchief, understandable given the day's heat.

His presence was so unexpected that I pointed it out to Mario.  "Oh my god, check out the guy's neck!" he replied.  As the fellow wiped the back of his neck again, I saw, just over the top of his collar, a burn mark that encircled his throat.  "That guy must have been hanged!" Mario thought.  One never knows.  Perhaps hanged... perhaps tortured... what country was he from, anyway?  How far away was his home?  What had they done to him back there?

One never knows.  One man on a beach, in a black suit.  I was in my mid-thirties, in t-shirts, shorts and sandals, checking out women on a hot day.  What had that guy been through?  What might being on that beach on that day have cost him?  What did it mean to him?

No matter what you go through in your life, the next person you meet may have their own thing to live with that you can't imagine.  You learn to understand it, and to respect the miles they can only walk alone.  It's a lesson I've observed many times since... but I have never forgotten the man in the black suit.  It's funny.  I went to White Rock that day to look at the girls.

I don't remember a single thing about a single one of them.

I'm done now.