Civics & Civility At City Hall With Sam SullivanTuesday, September 23, 2008
I consider myself to be lucky to be Sam Sullivan's , friend. A couple of years ago he came to an opening of a show of mine and I introduced him to my granddaughter Rebecca. "Rebecca this is the big cheese in Vancouver." Sullivan retorted, "People do what I tell them to do and if I ask your grandfather to do 50 pushups right now, he will." Rebecca was impressed but her opinion and my opinion of our mayor was clouded by differing ones from some of her other relatives. It was at that first meeting with Rebecca that Sullivan mentioned to her face that she reminded him of a Botticelli portrait.
With Sam Sullivan's waning days as mayor I had the idea that going to city hall with Rebecca and our friend Abraham Rogatnick (a friend and unofficial adviser to Sullivan) and visit him at his office would offer Rebecca and excellent lesson in civics.
When I was 16 I had one teacher at St. Edward's High School (a Roman Catholic boarding school in Austin, Texas) who was not a Brother of the Holy Cross. He was our baseball coach and his name was Forrest Wright. He had flaming red hair and we had a great respect for him. Part of this respect came from seeing his face match the colour of his hair when he got angry. Not that he ever did. We just knew. Besides teaching us English he taught us civics. I remember him explaining the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor and going into great detail on the difference between first degree murder and second degree murder. I learned a lot in his class. I felt in the last few weeks that Rebecca was perhaps ready for a jolt of civics. I should have known better and taken myself as an example.
When I was 15 our freshman class took to a trip (in a rented Greyhound Scenicruiser) to Washington DC. We visited the Capitol and had a chat with our Texas senator. The large man with very big ears shook each of our hands and gave us advice on being good citizens. He gave us each a card, signed by him, that certified we had been present at a US Senate proceeding. The moment I was outside I chucked the card, signed by Lyndon B. Johnson into the pavement. That's what I though of politics. They were a bore. Being four years older than Rebecca I should have thought twice about my idea of going to city hall.
In the time that Sam Sullivan has been mayor, while being my friend, I have never lobbied for any favours or special privileges. Except for this time when I emailed Anna Luccarino, the mayor's assistant requesting an audience with the mayor. The response to my request was quick and we were given an appointment for yesterday at 3:30.
Besides our audience with Sullivan, Rogatnick was going to give Rebecca a quick tour and explanation of Art Deco. I mentioned to Rebecca the beautiful elevators that would take us to the mayor's office.
Outside the mayor's office we met up with Rogatnick. "Abraham," said Rebecca, "You and Obama have something in common." "What's that asked Rogatnick?" "Both of you went to Harvard, "explained Rebecca. "There is a difference between us"," insisted Rogatnick. "What's that?" Rebecca asked. "He has one degree from Harvard and I have two."
We were ushered into Sullivan's office and the mayor was warm and friendly. I took my photograph of the three with window lighting with my camera on a tripod. The office had changed since the last time I had been there. There was no more desk. Vancouver mayors in the past have sat behind this imposing desk at the end of the room. In small sort of like having an audience with Benito Mussolini. Sullivan did away with the desk and placed a long table instead. We sat down and Rogatnick removed a pile of books on Art Deco from a plastic bag. "I went to the library to find these." By that point Rebecca was using body language to reflect her boredom. There was a lot of open-mouth yawning. Rogatnick explained the Art Deco obsession with sky scrapers and the Empire State Building. He told us that City Hall looks exactly like a truncated Empire State Building. This I was able to confirm when we left and looked back on City Hall from 12th Avenue. He told us of the symbolism of rising suns, steam ships, airplanes and dirigibles.
Rebecca wanted to see the clothing of the period. We found out that the exquisite shoes of the Art Deco age where a result of the paving of streets the advent of cars. There was no more mud. There were no more horse droppings to soil people's feet. That is why they had worn ankle boots. The short skirts were a protest to the long dresses (you must not gaze on my ankles!) of the Victorian age. At this point Rebecca said, "And they strapped their breasts so they would look flat chested." And then she added, "I don't wear dresses. My friends don't wear dresses. My mom does sometimes." Rogatnick tried again. "This is a cloche hat. Women in the 20s wore them. Cloche means bell in French." She yawned.
While this was going on Sullivan was looking in my direction. He seemed to understand my comment, "Abraham we are going through temporary dark ages. We will have a Renaissance some time soon." Abraham countered with, "I love to teach but I expect my students to pay attention."
Sullivan offered Rebecca a moon cake. When Rebecca saw that the packaging was Chinese she said, "It is probably poison." I whispered in her ear, "Take it anyway and then you can throw it away at home." I added, out loud, "Perhaps your mother who loves sweets will eat them." Rebecca firmly and loudly said, "She won't." Sullivan then suggested (in jest), "Rebecca offer them to your friends and watch them. If they survive then it's all right for you to eat them." By this point I wanted to hide under the table. Sullivan whispered in his inimitable way, "One day you will impress people with your knowledge of Art Deco."
From the mayor's office Sullivan took us to the Council Chambers. It was locked and dark. Sullivan had it opened and the lights were turned on. He instructed the attendant to ring the bell under the doorway. Rogatnick pointed out the Art Deco ornaments on the doors and around the room. Sullivan explained to Rebecca how democracy worked in the room and how decisions were made. Rebecca yawned.
We managed to leave with some sort of decorum while I thought that the lesson to be learned came mostly from our Mayor. Civics is important but civility perhaps more. And Mayor Sam Sullivan has it in spades. I will never forget that and his kindness towards Rebecca.
Perhaps not. "Do you understand that Abraham went to the library to get all those heavy books for you?" I told Rebecca on the bus home. "They weren't that heavy," she answered back.
And Abraham Rogatnick? "I don't know why I am laughing. This is serious," he said over the phone when we talked this morning. But Rebecca did learn something". At the dinner table she said, "I know what a cloche hat is."
And Sam, I appreciate what you did and I am sure that someday, Rebecca who was born, in this your city and her city, will come to understand and will be perfectly thrilled that you gave her that opportunity to get a glimpse of civics and civility.