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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Editorial


It is funny where a person finds himself sometimes, speaking both physically, mentally, and spiritually, too, I suppose.

Life has put me in many strange places. On Friday afternoon a week ago, it was at a bus stop in North Vancouver. I’d just left a gymnasium full of about 300 elementary school kids going nuts dancing to Quebequois folk songs. Quite the spectacle, I tell you. A real Tylenol 3 moment.

Work put me there.

And as I was waiting, a car pulls up, the window rolls down, and a heavily-accented voice calls out to me, “What are you doing here?” It was Oscar, the ever-smiling owner of the Latin Quarter. He was taking his teenaged son to Bikrim Yoga for the first time. Not something I would have expected, but cool.

He offered me a lift down to the drive, and with snow starting to fall on that damp, off-the-beaten-path street, I could hardly say no to the offer. Besides, it was a good opportunity to get to know the man who’s business had been such a strong Arts supporter for so long.

We chatted a little bit about his business. The session at yoga was just one of about 3 other items he hoped to cross off his checklist before opening the restaurant doors later that night.

“Owning a restaurant is hard work,” he sighed. Being my own boss, I could commiserate. There were a thousand other things I needed to do too. But an afternoon like that, watching a talented kid’s performer like Marian Rose do her thing, was all part of it. I think of it as field work.

He mentioned his other endeavour, down in Seattle, Kirkland actually, www.mixtura.biz, another restaurant specialising in Andean cuisine.

Rent and overhead was bringing the monthly bill for the place down south up to almost $50,000 (not sure if that is in CDN or US pesos). Yikes! It feels good when I compare it to my measly $10,000 debt load. Life could be worse.

Then we talked about rents on the Drive. As expected, they are cropping up, too, but traffic into the restaurant hasn’t necessarily kept in step.

He complained about returns being tight. They are thinking about trying a lunch menu, but in that business, every thing you experiment with is a financial drain and a risk because of the upfront cost of ingredients, labour and utilities.

So as the story usually goes, the artist suffers. Oscar’s having to cut live music a couple of nights a week. It’s not a decision he likes to make but inevitable. Something has to go.

It’s hard to hear this story when one thinks of all the new businesses cropping up and re-evolving. It makes me wonder how many of them have done any market research. Do they know what they’re getting into? Or maybe we just don’t know what’s coming.

“Life is difficult,” is the line that starts M. Scott Peck’s famous book, The Road Less Traveled. As North Americans, more specifically, as Canadians, most of us have not really had to learn this lesson. If you are reading this article, it means you have access to a computer and the internet, and that puts you at a level beyond most people in the world.

And yet these days, more and more, we are seeing and hearing stories of friends, neighbours and relatives finding life difficult. And while the latent causes for this despair tend to be things beyond our mortal control, like death and sickness, one can’t help but think that economics is playing a subtle role in the sadness we are experiencing.

The Drive has always been considered working class, although working poor is probably a more accurate description – a catch-all for artists, musicians, shift workers and small business people, etc.. This area attracted two types of visitors – the rich and the poor. The rich came for the food and atmosphere, the poor for the compassion. Both seemed to disappear when the businesses closed shop for the night.

These days those visitors are becoming the new residents. The poor are taking up residence in doorways while the rich are buying up houses and pushing property values to levels which were unimaginable just a few years ago.

The high cost of living is in contradiction with the fallen minimum wage. People are working more for less. And those not able to work are looking leaner and longer in the tooth. Relying on the kindness of strangers is its own kind of work. The problem is that many of us in this neighbourhood are only a paycheque or two away from being on the street corner beside them.

Most of the postings I put on this blog and in the email blasts I send out are for benefits or fundraisers of some sort. Has it always been like this?

I know dropping live music is not a decision Oscar takes lightly. He’s a big supporter of the arts. The Latin Quarter threw us a great wrap-up party after last year’s ANU, the multi-disciplinary event which happened at the Roundhouse (and which I was lucky to direct). Another option besides paying performers directly might be to start charging a cover, but the risk there is customers turning away at the door. Some places let performers pass a hat after their set. Personally, I find this a little hard to swallow. Frankly, I'm often stepping into a place to seek refuge from outstretched hands.

The Campbell government and the mainstream media keep telling us that unemployment is lower than it has been in years and that there are more jobs than people to fill them. I guess that all depends on what you want to do for a living. I don’t see many job postings that do much more than cover the bare basics.

I was at the Latin Quarter last Tuesday. Lache Cercel was playing. In my opinion, he’s one of Commercial’s best kept secrets. A classically trained Romanian violinist, he plays with incredible passion and versatility. The audience loved it. So did I. The day had been a tough one Lache’s music was the perfect tonic.

Lets hope that this new economy somehow finds a place for music and for art to not just exist, but thrive, and that, as a society, we find a way to always respect each other and the work each of us does.

Until next week.

Keep up your good work and stay in touch!

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