When I got back from my last stretch of road-gigs there was a message blinking on my brand new landline. This was unusual. I’m on the road so much that my friends have my cell phone number programmed into their speed dials. The only person I had given the new number to was my grandmother, and she doesn’t believe in leaving messages.
The voice belonged to a stranger. “Hullo. My name is Pauline, and I’m calling on behalf of the Welcome Wagon. We heard you are new to Squamish, so if you would like us to drop by for a visit, call me back and let me know.”
I called her back immediately. Of course I would love a visit from the Welcome Wagon. It was just this kind of small-town hospitality that I left the big city for, I told her, and sure, Friday morning at 10 would be perfect.
I spent most of Thursday scouring my house. I mopped, washed the windows and coerced my girlfriend into baking a fruit crumble. She seemed to think I was over-doing things a bit.
“Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? I thought the Welcome Wagon was supposed to bake you a fruit crumble. I thought that was the whole point.”
“We’ll pop it back into the oven just before she gets here, so the house smells like baking, as if I cook in here all the time.”
She shook her head at me and I resumed hand-scrubbing the grout between the tiles on the kitchen floor.
By 9:00 on Friday morning my mood had shifted. I woke up worrying that the Welcome Wagon lady was rich and lived in a spotless mansion at the top of the mountain. I woke up thinking she would notice that my apartment building needed a paint job and that the hallways smelled like someone else’s supper. I woke up embarrassed that I had hardly any furniture yet and only owned two towels.
By 9:30 I was convinced the Welcome Wagon’s job wasn’t to welcome people at all, it was actually a covert tool of social control; an organized posse of judgmental socialites sent in to survey the homes of newcomers. Pauline was going to show up, look around, drop off some muffins, and then report back to head office that a self-employed homosexual artist had somehow infiltrated the town’s perimeter, and that my dishcloth didn’t even match my tea towels. How could I have fallen for a transparent scam like this?
Pauline turned out to be a soft-spoken slender woman with the remnants of an English accent. She was on a diet and turned down a piece of fruit crumble. She took her coffee black and got right down to business. And it really was business.
Her basket wasn’t full of muffins, like I imagined it. It was full of gift certificates and small gifts from various businesses in town. I was welcomed to Squamish with a bag of cat treats, a bottle of vitamin C, a funeral parlor pen and an Extra Value Meal from McDonald’s.
I had to sign a form saying I received the aforementioned merchandise from Pauline on behalf of the Welcome Wagon, to ensure that Pauline had indeed welcomed me properly and not shirked her duties and just kept all the key chains and cat treats for herself.
“So how long have you lived in Squamish?” I asked her, once all the paperwork had been filled out.
“Just since June.” Pauline had a way of breathing out when she talked, which made it sound like everything she said was accompanied by a little sigh.
I raised my eyebrows. “And you’re already working for the Welcome Wagon?” I guess I was expecting a longer term resident.
“I resurrected it myself after we had been here for three months, and none of the neighbours had come around yet to introduce themselves. I was out of my mind with loneliness, and I thought it would be a good way to meet people.”
I sat up straight in one of my two kitchen chairs. “So you don’t find this place all that friendly either, huh?” I found it oddly comforting to know it wasn’t just me.
Pauline stared down into her coffee, trying to hide the tears that threatened to spill over her bottom lashes. “I’ve almost stopped crying whenever my friends from home ring me up. It’s not like this in Nova Scotia. People there know how to be neighbours.”
We chatted a bit more, and when Pauline left she pressed her phone number into my hand, saying maybe we could go hiking together sometime.
“What does it mean when the Welcome Wagon lady is crying from the lack of new friends?” I asked my sweetheart. She agreed that it wasn’t a good sign, and served me up some warm fruit crumble.
The next day we packed up and headed into Vancouver. “Notice how the air smells all smoggy?” I commented as we crossed the bridge. “Listen to how loud it is here; all the traffic, and the sirens. There is never anywhere to park. It’s not like this in Squamish.”
I spent the day on The Drive, picking up my mail, doing some banking, drinking too much coffee, running into people I know, people who were glad to see me. Wendy from the credit union smiled wide as she stamped the backs of my cheques. I almost leaned across the counter and kissed her. It was so nice to be known, so great to not be asked to see some identification.
“So how are things in Squamish?” she asked me.
“Great, great. It’s really beautiful, and quiet. It’s so quiet out there.” I said, like a mantra. I said the same thing to everyone who asked me that question, over and over, all day.
I’m hoping that if I repeat it enough, I’ll eventually start believing it myself.