the Vancouver mother riot

by dm gillis

Vancouver 1969

It was a long time ago so I don’t expect you to remember. It happened on a Saturday in the autumn of ’69 and began with the Broadway 9 incident. The Broadway 9 was a Brill trolley bus that brought down the electrical trolley lines from above and let them lay across and around it as though it wanted to end its own existence, and the existence of all who rode her.

It happened right out front of my house. The neighbourhood watched as the riders and the operator sat statue stiff so as not to touch the metal inside, waiting for rescue. Stay away, someone’s mother called frantically, out in her curlers and floral apron. A tea-towel in her worried, wringing hands. How could such a thing happen? It was better than TV. Oh, the anguish of those men and women in their hats, overcoats and 1960s sensible shoes. Their technological tomorrow-today viciously turning against them, appointments missed and promises broken.

The fire trucks were slow as parade floats. We heard their sirens for five minutes before they arrived. On arrival, the firemen dashed and hurried, then stopped and stared. There was no fire, only an unsolvable equation of distraught faces behind glass. I believed the bus would have to remain there forever, as the occupants aged and perished or succumbed to cannibalism. No one could touch the snapping, sparking lines or the bus that lay beneath them.

Word was that Broadway had been blocked off by police barricades. Traffic on the busy street was being rerouted, much to the annoyance of exasperated drivers.

I was eight years old and I crouched next to a newsstand to watch. A traffic cop on a Harley pulled up to the curb and gave me a smile as he dismounted and removed his gauntlet gloves.

“Bit of excitement, eh?” he said.

I shrugged, as was my habit then. I was close to the ground, surrounded by cigarette butts and candy wrappers. I looked at the toes of his polished boots. The reflection was a blurred and blackened spherical rendering of me. Then I looked up and saw his gun belt and the sunglasses he wore. He removed his helmet and his thinning Brylcreem hair remained still and in place despite the wind.

By then, a BC Hydro crew had arrived. They, along with the Fire Department, formed a huddle in the middle of the roadway. They consulted with the traffic cop. They all nodded and laughed and slapped one another on the back as the trapped occupants of the Broadway 9 look on helplessly.

Then, as the fallen trolley wires continued to arc and snap, a frail old woman on the bus stood up and called out of her open window, “Hey, you men. It’s 2:15 p.m. When are you going to do something to get us off of this bus? My kitty is home alone.”

The traffic cop walked over and talked to her. It was a brief exchange and at the end of it, the frail old woman slammed her cane against her window. She remained standing and turned to address the other Broadway 9 occupants. She was excitedly telling them what the traffic cop had told her, waving her cane in the air and pointing out the window. In a moment, the entire population of the Broadway 9 was on its feet, yelling out of their windows while the bus driver stood to try to restore order.

“Hey, you can’t talk to an old lady like that,” one yelled.

“You men get to work or I’ll contact your superiors,” yelled another.

“My ice cream has melted completely,” yelled an elderly World War 1 veteran, though not very loudly.

The huddle of firemen, BC Hydro workers and the traffic cop laughed louder and waved off the stranded occupants of the Broadway 9. They brought out cigarettes and cigars and began to smoke as a worksite catering truck arrived and commenced selling them coffee and tuna fish and egg salad sandwiches.

Shortly after that, two cars arrived. They were shiny, deluxe models. One sporting the seal of the Vancouver Fire Department; the other, that of the Vancouver Police Department. It was the Fire and Police Chiefs. They joined the huddle and began to smoke and laugh. The Fire Chief bought an egg salad sandwich from the catering truck and chewed heartily between eggy guffaws.

Not long after the press arrived, Mayor Tom Campbell pulled up in his chauffer driven limousine. His driver got out and opened the Mayor’s door. Tom Campbell emerged wearing a snazzy suit under an equally snazzy overcoat. His shoes were even shinier than the traffic cop’s boots. His limousine driver joined him in the huddle of Chiefs, firemen, hydro workers, the traffic cop and reporters with a thermos bottle and a china cup and saucer. The driver poured out whatever liquid was in the thermos for the Mayor and the Mayor drank, smoked and laughed along with others.

“This is outrageous,” shouted the elderly World War 1 veteran from his open window, though not very loudly. “I was in the Second Battle of Ypres. I lost my spleen there, and now all I have to show for it is melted ice cream.”

It was at about this time that my mother came down to the curb and stood next to me. She’d been watching from the porch, hair in curlers and wearing a floral housedress and bedroom slippers.

“What’s up?” she said. “This is sure going nowhere fast.”

I remained crouched and shrugged.

“It all better be cleaned up before your father comes home and wants to park in the garage.” She looked at her Timex. “He’ll be home in a few hours.”

Once again, I shrugged.

“Those people on board don’t look very happy,” she said.

“Someone’s ice cream melted,” I said, deciding then against more shrugging.

“And I bet they need a toilet break, too,” said my mother, who was always more practical than me.

Now the Mayor was telling a joke. I could tell by how the men in the huddle had gone silent and hung on each of his words. He gesticulated extravagantly as his eyes rolled in his head for emphasis. Then he went silent for a beat and delivered the punch line. The men in the huddle started laughing and couldn’t stop. They convulsed and bent over, their guts aching from the arduous abdominal workout. The Mayor stood there triumphantly, surrounded by his wowed audience. The laughing continued for a minute or two more and then one of the men stood up straight and began to clap his hands. The others began to do the same. Soon they were all applauding. A few of them shouted, bravo! bravo! Others shouted, more! more! But Mayor Tom Campbell had told his one and only joke for the day. He held up his hands and shook his head. No, no, no, he humbly said.

The people trapped on the Broadway 9 were now livid. A previously docile housewife, on board, picked up a bottle of dill pickles from her grocery bag and threw it through her open window. The bottle landed on the pavement, exploded and deposited dill pickles, juice and shrapnel onto the shoes, boots and pant cuffs of the men in the huddle.

“Well,” said the Mayor, “that’s it for me.” He returned to his limousine with his driver and they drove away.

“Okay,” said the traffic cop, looking up at the faces of the Broadway 9 occupants, each being careful not to touch anything metal. “Which one of you mugs threw the pickles?”

“I’d throw a grenade, if I could,” said the World War 1 veteran. “I love my ice cream.”

“I’d throw the lot of you off a cliff, given a chance,” said someone else.

“You call yourselves public servants?” my mother yelled from the curb. I looked up at her. This was unexpected.

Another of the local mothers joined mine and yelled, “You’re useless as the tits on a bull, you are!” This was a favourite of local mothers.

“Better be careful with that,” the traffic cop said, pulling a nightstick from his belt and pointing it.

“Or what?” my mother said with a laugh. “You’re gonna round us up and put us in the hoosegow? Us with children to feed and husbands coming home from work? Just because we’re pointing out the obvious, that you’re an ineffectual bunch of overpriced lollygaggers?”

“That’ll do,” the cop told my mother.

Now there were dozens of neighbourhood mothers backing up my mother. Where had they all come from? It was a sea of curlers, floral housedresses and bedroom slippers.

“Screw you, porky,” said someone behind my mother. I recognised it as the voice of shy Mrs Jensen from a few doors down. The women around her began to grumble in agreement.

The traffic cop began to walk toward his motorcycle. Suspecting that he might be calling in reinforcements, one of the mothers cut his two-way radio microphone cord with a pair of poultry scissors she had concealed in her butterfly-print apron.

“Hey,” said the traffic cop. “That’s city property. I’m afraid it’s ticket time, ladies.”

As the traffic cop reached around and grabbed the citation pad from his belt, my mother yelled, “Let’s get him, girls.”

The trolley lines continued to jump and spark as a wall of east end mothers attacked. The cop and the huddle of men stood stunned as the women quickly approached. The women used rolling pins and broom handles to beat the men down.

“Not laughing now, are you?” yelled the World War 1 veteran, but not too loudly.

The people on the bus watched as more and more of the neighbourhood mothers and housewives emerged from their homes to join the fray. There were hundreds of them now. It was a full-on riot and after rescuing the occupants of the Broadway 9, the riot progressed across the city. A vast onslaught of feminine humanity filling the streets. Thousands of mothers and housewives smashing shop windows, looting and setting fire to automobiles – but being very careful so as not to make too much of a mess.

Soon they were ten thousand and they rushed City Hall. The Mayor looked down on them from his top floor office.

“Where are the police,” he said. “I’ll read the Riot Act. I’ll have the police break their heads.”

“The police aren’t answering the phone,” said an aide. “Seems they have mothers of their own in that crowd out there. And there’s a contingent of equally incensed grandmothers on their way. We have your limousine waiting in the underground parking but it’s unlikely you’d make it through the throng alive.”

“Then what shall I do?”

Eventually, after several distressed telephone calls, the army dispatched a helicopter and retrieved Tom Campbell from the roof of Vancouver City Hall.

In a press briefing later, he praised the mothers, grandmother and the women of Vancouver in general as great defenders of human rights. And since an election is always just around the corner, he promised the women of Vancouver greater privileges and more flowers in public spaces.

On Monday, I returned to school and everyone was talking about the Vancouver Mother Riot. One kid came over to me at the swings and said, “It was your mom. She started it, didn’t she?”

I shrugged and was soon surrounded by a mass of adoring classmates.

Lunch that day was a peanut butter and apple jelly sandwich followed by nice piece of chocolate cake.

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