Way back in 2008, I popped into Cafe Roma on Commercial Drive in Vancouver – a cafe that has more than a little history for this old part of Vancouver and for me, a big piece of childhood memory too!
One sunny mid-week Spring day, Dave, a contributor to the CoffeeCrew.com website, and I sample the espressos and cappuccinos and taste some delightful locally baked treats.
It reminded me of a unseasonably hot June of 1968, some 40 years earlier, as I walked down East 6th Avenue, Vancouver, towards Commercial Drive.
This was the first trip off of Vancouver Island and the first trip on the fairly new B.C. Ferries and what started as a day trip turned into an overnight adventure as mom decided to hook up with some cousins in the big city.
Mom, who grew up in a multicultural enclave in Montreal, Quebec and spoke 3 languages, including conversational Italian, had brought me over to Vancouver for the weekend to visit the Pacific National Exhibition and to see a piece of the big city. And what a cultural shock it was for a 11 year old to see something so different than sleepy small town Victoria B.C.
Mom’s cousins lived on East 6th Avenue around 2 or 3 blocks from Commercial Drive – a big old character house the likes of which I had never seen before. The original block of houses remain in Vancouver to this day and walking the tree lined sidewalks in 2018 is like a trip through a time tunnel.
On a Saturday morning in June 1968 I started the day with my cousin Dennis by heading out for an exploration. Only in the late 60’s would it seem perfectly normal for a couple of 11 year olds to head out into the urban jungle for a look see.
Turning onto Commercial Drive on this sunny Saturday late morning, Dennis and I walked down wide sidewalks past Italian delis, corner grocers and bustling cafes.
The street had a life of its own. From a child’s perspective, everything seemed brighter, louder, busier and decidedly more fragrant. For a naive kid from small town Victoria, I might as well have been on another planet.
The aroma of strong coffee, cured ham and fresh fruit drifted over the concrete beneath my feet. I stopped for a moment in front of a busy cafe. It seemed to be packed with men, young, old, mostly old men entangled in a circle of loud conversation and broad hand gestures. They spoke Italian, a language my Montreal raised mother used with me when she was displeased.
A young couple caught my eye. They seemed disconnected from this humming umbilical of community.
A girl, likely in her twenties, wore a canary yellow sun-dress and her male friend a wool suit. The suit seems softened by a few years worth of wear and somewhat sticky considering that it was a hotter than usual summer. Between his sips of strong looking coffee from an impossibly small cup and her demurely drawing from something that looked like a milkshake, they talked in a musical banter – words only they appeared to understand.
Dennis grabbed my shoulder and pulled me along. I looked back at the couple nodding and laughing. The girls hair moved up and down held in place by a daisy-yellow hair broach. Now walking again, Dennis steered me into a green grocers hardly a door away from the cafe. With 90 cents in my pocket, a lot of money for 1968, I bought a Butter-finger chocolate bar, some pixie-sticks (fizzy candy in a paper tube) and a cola.
We exited the store and turned left towards the cafe again.
Caffe Roma is now buzzing louder as we strode towards my cousin’s avenue. The table where the young couple sat was now empty save for a cup and a glass. I spot them exiting onto the boulevard, hand in hand, her dress burning a permanent image into my mind, the itchy smell of his suit offering contrast. They vanished into a pulsating hive of urban humanity – a Saturday morning blend of shoppers, smokers, the odd smattering of fashionably clad hipsters and one wide-eyed child – me.
I look in the cafe window again flashing forward to the present. I stand outside of Caffe Roma on Commercial Drive and time has stood still just for me. The reflection in the window looks alternately young and slightly older.
Clouds pass by offering a broad selection of flattering light. CoffeeCrew contributing member Dave watches me for a moment before holding the door.
“Colin, let’s get some coffee…” he says.
The smells and sounds of the the Cafe and the street envelope me like an old gloved hand. For a moment I hold in my palm the paper tubes of fizzy candy and a half-eaten chocolate bar. Dave asks again, “What are you going to have, Colin?”
I order my usual when I am in a cafe for the first time – double espresso and a snack. In this case, they have very tasty looking apple turnovers. I get one.
The intensity of the Italian coffee and the tangy sweetness of the pastry are the perfect match. As I sip the beverage and feel the caffeine perking within me, I can almost hear the whispered conversations of the young lovers from so long ago at a nearby table. Where are they now? Have the years been kind? Most likely, their grandchildren are half-grown up, much as I was in 1968. I think about my marriage, now almost 2 decades in length, and how in places like these, time just stands still.
In the final moments before we leave for our next stop on the drive, the owner pops by to gather up our spent cups. I tell him the coffee is fabulous. His expression is priceless and without words – a combination of ‘of course it is son…’ and ‘I have a cafe to run today…’
As we step onto the still vibrant sidewalk of Commercial Drive, two ten year old boys approach on skate boards. One sails past me like a low flying seagull.
The other swishes to a stop and is immediately hypnotized by the activity in the cafe, the noise, the smells, the starling chatter of the old men.
The cycle continues season by season, year by year through the generations. We are thankful for our memories and the time we have ahead of us. Thanks for the memories Vancouver!
A few months later in 1968, Jimi Hendrix would play a stellar concert at the Pacific Coliseum and a couple of weeks before I arrived in Vancouver Robert Kennedy would be assassinated in Los Angeles during his presidential bid. Here in 2018, Caffe Roma is now part of the history books – but while in Vancouver, you can visit The Drive – Do so. You will be glad you did.