Reprise: A human wreck at ‘Wreck Beach’

It was my first visit to the west coast, that summer of 1996, and – given my fragile health – I was determined to make it the trip of a lifetime. I would fly to Vancouver and then take the train across Canada to return home.

My purpose in being out there was to attend the XI International Conference on AIDS. As a “scholarship” recipient, with registration and basic expenses covered, I stayed with others on similarly limited budgets in the residences at the University of British Columbia. A more beautiful university campus I have not seen, built on a large, elevated point of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the city’s west end.

Campus maps clearly showed several beaches nearby. They did not, however, indicate changes in elevation. So it was that I set out to find Wreck Beach, a place of some considerable legend, in Canada anyway, that I knew to be “clothing optional”. I left my room, at the Gage Residence and Conference Centre, in the early morning of my first full day there, skipping breakfast – as was my habit back then – even though it was already close to noon by my jet-lagged body clock.

I took my time, walking around the campus to establish some landmarks in my mind, being admittedly wasteful of physical energy which was at a premium. I continued to recover from a serious AIDS-related illness, cryptosporidiosis, a parasite which gives understated meaning to the expression “feeling shitty”.

Crossing NW Marine Drive, loosely wrapping its way around the tip of the campus, I found myself in  which, for what I mistook to be a more urban park, did not seem to have a lot of signs. Looking for a path to the ocean, which I could unmistakably hear through the sky-high Douglas fir trees, I came upon a trail I would only later discover had been created by nothing more than rain run-off. It seemed like a path to me. I could forgive the Parks Department for such a primitive trail, given the unspoiled nature evident everywhere the eye could see.

I began my hike downward, stepping over fallen branches, carefully walking around patches of mud, all the while trying to absorb the sheer beauty of the lush plant-life; the unfamiliar songs of the coastal birds. The terrain was becoming progressively steeper and this path I had found did not zigzag across the hillside the way I would have expected. It soon became necessary to grab hold of trees just to keep my footing. I was glad to be wearing comfortable sneakers, although hiking boots would not have been an overly cautious choice to have made. As the grade of the slope increased – calculating such things has never been my strong suit – I began to let myself slide from tree to tree, grabbing on for dear life. Then I fell – still upright, such was the steepness – and began a precipitous plunge. As alarmed as I was, and I cannot overstate my initial sense of panic, I kept my wits about me and watched for obstacles that might injure me. I don’t recall how long this took but I don’t think twenty or thirty seconds would be an exaggeration. Finally I felt my back brush lightly over a patch of rock and I landed in a thicket of ferns, small twigs, coming to a stop with sand kicking up between my legs and spraying my face. I lay there quickly doing a mental checklist of any injuries and, finding none, I stood up only to realize that – somewhere between standing upright and falling upright – I had let go of more than a few trees. To my horror my pants were, uh, soiled.

After quickly forgiving myself, given my health and the excitement of the last few moments, it seemed quite fitting that I should need to wash my clothes on this clothing optional beach even if my very first walk in to the Pacific was to do laundry! I cleaned myself up, using the clothes as I peeled them off, and then tip-toed in to the pounding surf, scrubbing as I went. Now, completely naked and with no dry clothes to wear, I claimed an isolated part of the beach and draped my jeans and shirt across a couple of large rocks. It would be a few more minutes before the sun would come from back behind the trees I had just fallen through. It would be some time more before my clothes were dry. That’s how I got one of the worst sunburns of my life, on parts of me which had not seen the sun for an extended period of time, and how I learned – later from another delegate to the conference (who did not get the whole story of my first day at Wreck Beach) – that vinegar works wonders on taking the sting out of a sunburn!

Much more could be written on the time travel-esque atmosphere created by some of the Wreck Beach regulars. 



A most memorable trip to London long, long ago

I have been scanning some photos stored in shoe-boxes and managed to touch up several from a class trip to London which took place during March Break in 1976.  (How fortunate I was – what a privilege – to have been able to go on such a voyage as a high school student!)

It was just a few months before Montreal was to host the Olympic Games, as London is preparing to do in 2012.

This will take you to the collection, taken from the point-of-view of a teenager, mind you!  Should any former classmates spot themselves, feel free to tag the photos.  I have not done so, other than those of my sixteen-year-old self!

A Stranger in New York

A misadventure in 2001 I’m still ribbed about today! The 40th anniversary of Stonewall has me thinking back to this vacation.

“Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep.” A garbage truck tipped a dumpster’s contents into the truck’s bin.

Gray light peeked through the curtains.

Behind me, in the next bed, I heard snoring.

“Oh, right,” I remembered, “I’m in New York with my friend David; here at the Hilton.” It was Memorial Day weekend, 2001.

I got up and peered between the drapes. The streetscape below was shrouded in gray, but I suspected it was too early to tell whether that was due to the weather or the hour. I checked my watch. It was 5:10.

“Well I’m up,” I thought “and this is my first full day in New York so I might as well get to it!”

I had read that the best time to go to the Brooklyn Bridge for pictures was at sunrise. I quickly got dressed, left David a note, then set off for the subway. (I remembered that Rockefeller Center Station was just down the street.)

The pink neon of Radio City Music Hall quickened my pace as did every turn of the head where another legendary landmark came into view.

“Oh my God, I am really in New York,” I nearly yelled out loud with excitement.

I got my bearings quickly as I looked around, recalling the previous night’s long walk through the light drizzle to Times Square, down to the library, over to the Chrysler Building, then into Grand Central Station. I could hardly wait to get my films printed. I was particularly interested in seeing how the ones I tried to discreetly take of all the sailors, in town for Fleet Week, turned out!

I ran down the stairs into the subway, bought a weekly Metro Card, then stopped and turned around to ask the station attendant for directions.

“Where in Brooklyn?” was her first response, amplified through the speaker like some announcement at Yankee Stadium.

“Well I want to take the pedestrian path on the bridge back over to this side,” I said.

She pulled out a map, passed it part way through the slot then pointed with her pen.

“Take any train to West Fourth, here,” she circled in the air over the map.

“Any train?” I double-checked.

“Uh huh,” she nodded, “then take either the ‘A’ or ‘C’ train to High Street,” she said, again tracing the route in the air above the map.

Satisfied that I could follow those directions, and not wanting to seem like too much of a tourist, I thanked her, then walked downstairs to the train platform.

It was very quiet. I was the only person waiting.

A train soon rumbled, squealed and banged its way into the station. I walked on, then sat down. Across from me was a woman sleeping, I supposed, her face hidden in her bosom. At the far end of the car a young man listened to music through headphones, tapping his shoes on the seat in front of him.

Changing trains at 4th Street, this turned out to be less than the halfway point of the trip, I began to wonder if walking back to the hotel might not have been an overly ambitious goal. “Oh well,” I thought, “I can always change my mind later.”

Thinking I wanted every possible angle of photograph I went past High Street to Jay. Once off the second train I again asked for directions and was told to follow signs out on the street. It took me a few moments to figure out that most of the signs were for cars, not pedestrians, but I eventually saw the familiar stone arches of the bridge and watched to see how an in-line skater came down to street level.

Brooklyn Bridge 001

My head was spinning as my eyes took in the rough edges of Brooklyn. The drumbeats of “NYPD Blue” (coming back from commercials) ran through my mind. Before I knew I was on the bridge, above the traffic, looking toward Manhattan.

Brooklyn Bridge 002

What I had hoped would be a picture-perfect view was, instead, quite gray and foggy. I was not deterred, snapping pictures wastefully the way a newspaper photographer might – first of those impressive stone arches on the bridge, then of the cityscape ahead. The music in my head had changed to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as I thought of any number of scenes from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”

I asked someone if the only skyscraper I could see, just because it was closest, was the Empire State Building. Chalk that up to being a dumb tourist.

“Naw”, the man scoffed. “Dat dere is just the Woolworth’s headquarters.”

The World Trade Center towers, which I did recognize, were almost completely shrouded in mist and fog. I couldn’t see much above ten storeys.

I followed the signs to City Hall, where I took a few more pictures, walked up Broadway, through Soho, and found myself around some familiar street names or at least streets I had read about like Canal and Bleecker.

Greenwich Village - Bleecker Street

I snapped a shot at a building as close to 85 Bleecker as I could find, that being my address back home. Another corner caught my fancy – Christopher and Gay Streets. Again, I took a picture.

Greenwich Village - Christopher and Gay

I walked up Christopher and found the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop. (I had ordered a few things from there back in my “coming out” days so, of course, needed a picture of that.)

Greenwich Village_Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop

Nearby I came upon Christopher Park where a plaque commemorated the Stonewall Riots and where there’s what I would call a living sculpture depicting two men standing and talking, one’s hand on the other’s shoulder, and two women sitting on a park bench, the loving hand of one on the thigh of the other. I took several photos.

Greenwich Village - West 4th at Stonewall

As I plucked a new cartridge into the camera, a voice called out, “Would you like me to take your picture there?”

“Oh,” I said, glancing around to see the man who was calling, “Sure” I said, “that would be great!” appreciating the karmic return of a favour I had often offered tourists across Canada.

“You’re from out of town?” the man asked rhetorically, as I stood there with a red, white and blue cotton image of “Lady Liberty” covering my chest.

“Yes, Toronto” I replied, handing him my camera. I sat down on the bench beside the concrete lesbians.

Greenwich Village - Sheridan Square

“Really?” asked the man, by this time snapping the first of several pictures. “So you’re just out taking a few pictures of the Village, huh?”

“You been to any of the clubs around here yet?” he asked. He paused. “You are gay, right?” He lined up another shot.

“Yep, I’m gay,” I said. “But, no, I haven’t been to any of the bars yet. I just got into town yesterday.”

“Well I’d be glad to show you around,” the guy said.

I began to suspect he was a hustler.

“Oh, that’s fine, thanks. I’ve got a pretty busy weekend planned with friends,” I said.

“Cool” the man said. “Say,” he began, “how much will you give me for doing this?”

The guy seemed high-strung and his fingers were dirty, too, although he was dressed in clean, casual clothes.

Suddenly recalling that – even after all that walking – it was still quite early in the morning, on a holiday weekend with very few people around, my heart sank as I realized the guy was looking for money and was probably a drug addict “player”.

“Oh,” I said, “well,” I paused again, “all I have is this five,” I lied, pulling a bill out of my pocket, hoping that would get rid of him.

“You’ll have to do better than that,” he said, plucking the five from between my fingers, and backing up rather quickly as he took some more pictures.

“No, now come on,” I said, half begging, “please give me my camera!”

It was too late. He turned on his heel and raced up towards Sixth Avenue.

I yelled after him but he was already out of sight.

Thanks to David, and other friends I was with that weekend, I’m often reminded of this incident. All that needs to be said is, “Kenn, let me take your picture!” (The one with me at the sculpture was a do-over taken the next day!)

© Copyright 2001 Kenn Chaplin. All rights reserved.