An Ode to Surrey, Wasteland of My Youth

What does it mean to wish to preserve something you never liked much in the first place?

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Jun 12 2016, 5:35pm

OK, I have a fucked up sense of nostalgia. Photo via Flickr user waferboard

The mural featured several beefy tigers slinking down a cascade of grand steps flanked by classical marble columns. Their cartoonish eyes seemed to follow you no matter where you stood. It struck me as something one might find on the wall of a drug dealer's rec room. Not an especially successful drug dealer, but one with enough coin for a white Camaro and a purebred dog ("He's a big softy," he'd say as the animal's jaws clamped around your thigh). Fortunately, I was not standing in a drug dealer's rec room—which would have been especially awkward as I was wearing a nametag. The mural was painted along the length of my high school gymnasium, a site of misplaced ambitions and broken noses in its own right.

It was the 75th anniversary of the founding of Queen Elizabeth Secondary in the infamous city of Surrey, BC. I'd received the invite on Facebook from a much-loved teacher and, with the same naïve optimism that had guided many of my poorer decisions as an adolescent, I'd thought it would be funny to go.

Now, imagine returning to a place you glibly referred to as a suburban mud pit, and then feeling betrayed when you find they've hosed off much of the mud, and maybe built a decent pub and some of those pervasive glass towers all over it. I visit my hometown like its jealous ex-girlfriend who, though it was a dysfunctional and loveless relationship, finds the need to call it a hypocrite, kick a bit of dirt in its freshly cleaned face before huffing off to catch the train back to Vancouver. Every time I go there, I realize I have a fucked up sense of nostalgia.

You don't get to pick your hometown. You can leave, but it sticks with you, part of your narrative, your stats. "So where did you grow up?" How unfair that such a question is considered small talk when the answer, not of your choosing, might carry with it enough baggage to fill a bar, a boardroom, a dinner table, a train car. I've learned to say it fast, just whip it out. Everything the asker associates with that place suddenly hangs on you like a costume. I look down and I'm in cut-offs and a crop top.

If you've never been to Surrey, you might know it by the headlines: gang shootings, grow-ops, crack dens, assaults in the night. But despite retaining its appeal as the go-to source of horror stories for the news dailies, Surrey has spent the last decade aggressively building and rebranding. In 2008, it exchanged the tagline 'City of Parks' (many of which have been a little too stabby), for one more reminiscent of atomic age idealism: 'The Future Lives Here.' A perfect title for my dystopian YA novel.

Dystopia in the making? Photo via Flickr user Reg Natarajan

In high school, if someone were to ask, I would not have hesitated to say that Surrey was a slum. A soggy wasteland of McDonald's drive-thru windows and hash oil; of tanning salons smelling like fetid coconut, and thrift stores smelling like lonely death. We wandered strip mall sidewalks with Slurpees that burned with vodka. There were the street kids who sold acid at the bus loop and the girls in my class who worked the ring in bikinis holding up scorecards for amateur wrestling. In high school, hometown pride was out of fashion anyway. Surrey was not extraordinary, just a suburb that burst into a city; it was constant construction and commuter traffic, low income and high crime. Class struggle, racism, homophobia, and misogyny. For all the ways I found it mundane, it was also notorious. I might have lied and said I was from somewhere else.

Urban Dictionary offers several definitions of the term "Surrey girl." None of them are flattering. Then there were the jokes.

How does a Surrey girl turn on the light in the morning?
She kicks open the car door.

Let me explain it this way: in the 1990s and well into the 2000s, if all the cities in British Columbia's Lower Mainland were to get together at a family picnic, Surrey would be the drunken uncle. Surrey would be the divorcee with addiction problems and a bad wig, or the high school dropout who lives in the basement painting figurines, or the infant with the weird rash in the corner eating crayons. Maybe the aunts would say Surrey could be pretty if she didn't wear all that black eyeliner—and the dog collar! What was she thinking? Surrey was the fool, the screw-up, the whore.

What do Surrey girls use for protection during sex?
A bus shelter.

Surrey's future 'Yaletown.' Photo via the author

Earlier this year, CBC ran a story on plans for the development of the historic Whalley's Corner at the intersection of King George Highway and 108th Avenue, less than three kilometres from my childhood home. The developer, Charan Sethi, described his vision for the seedy stretch as creating the "Yaletown of Surrey." Yaletown, an affluent area of Vancouver's downtown not dissimilar from Toronto's Yorkville, is a crowd of glass condos surrounding several pedestrian-friendly alleyways once used for industry, and now lined with upscale restaurants, hot-yoga-day-spa-juice-bars, and boutiques where you can buy designer clothes for both you and your Cockapoo. Accompanying the story was a photograph of the development site showing the current resident, The Byrd hotel, a beacon of sleaze outfitted in flamingo pink and signage advertising "Live Nude Girls."

One block South, another soon-to-be-demolished complex once included a bowling alley, a run-down supermarket where everything was lit in a sickly yellow, and a Value Village thrift store where I spent countless afternoons adrift in polyester, searching for irreverence. I remember pouncing on a tight blue T-shirt reading "Surrey Beavers" across the chest, the official uniform of little boys in the local Beaver Scouts. I wore it to a punk show, gifting it a new life of perversion. In that parking lot, I waited in the stench of exhaust and secondhand smoke for my friend, a cashier at the grocery store where people bought cart-loads of off-brand Hamburger Helper and a guy tried to tickle the inside of her palm when she handed him back his change. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a nice place. But will I miss it?

I stood aimlessly in the gym of the high school, with my nametag and bad attitude. Opposite the mural of tigers, stray millennials, gen-Xers and boomers nested amongst their discarded coats along a wall of bleachers. They chatted, clutching smartphones and absently marking Styrofoam coffee cups with their nails. The event had attracted hundreds, the parking lots overloaded. People had brought their spouses with the delusion that listening to gossip about people you've never met is somehow interesting. They were all here for the memories.

But here, in Surrey, I am in the wrong place. The high school I knew was an ocean of mud. I had never before been in this building since it was under construction during my attendance. In my memory, high school was a network of portables, a blackbox theatre, the mechanics shop, and a smoke pit, all connected by mud as the field would flood in the rainy season (which seemed to be most of the year). For me, there is no nostalgia to be found in new construction, in safely lit manicured parks, or marble floored shopping malls with plush living walls and functional recycling programs. I will not find it in the Yaletown of Surrey. Sites of my memory have been dislodged; they have become the disappeared, the imagined. My memories are buried in a mess of gravel and scaffolding, in the unstable matter, in the mud.

Dear Surrey, you've changed, man. Maybe it's for the best.

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