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facts & arguments

All it takes is tight jeans, a plastic bag and a laptop to give you a new perspective.

Upon completing an out-of-town business conference in Vancouver, I made last-minute plans to visit my family on Vancouver Island. After booking a flight on a seaplane, I stored my luggage at the conference hotel in an attempt to travel light. I carried only a small overnight kit and my trusty laptop on the short walk to the harbour from my hotel. The waterfront was a mass of construction in various stages of completion. Amid the maze of fencing and temporary walkways, I finally found a small gate that led to the harbour.

After my weekend visit with family, my sister noted I was still wearing my business suit and offered to lend me more comfortable clothes for the trip home. My well-meaning sister is a slender size two on her worst days, a zero on her best days. I, on the other hand, am the "stocky one" in the family, historically counted on for activities such as heavy lifting and restraining horses. My mother graciously calls me "healthy and athletic."

My sister obligingly offered me her fat jeans, which I managed to squeeze into by sucking in my breath to the fainting point. My doting mother put my suit into a plastic grocery bag, just in case I dropped it in the water while boarding the seaplane. Not only am I stocky but apparently clumsy, too.

I boarded the seaplane without incident, arriving shortly back at the harbour. Carrying my grocery bag and laptop, I headed toward the gate I had found on Friday afternoon.

The problem was it was Sunday now, nobody was around and the gate was locked. I considered climbing the fence to get to my hotel (remember, I'm healthy and athletic) but I was severely constrained by my sister's jeans, which made even shallow breathing difficult. I backtracked to the now-deserted seaplane harbour. I scanned the empty streets lined with fencing and finally decided to walk along the waterfront, hoping I would eventually come across an opening in the fence or some kind of overpass.

I began to walk, looking back over my shoulder as my hotel grew smaller in the distance. The street was deserted and I suppressed a tinge of worry. To my left was the ocean, to my right a rail yard with high fencing. I continued on as dusk settled, finally coming upon an overpass that took me over to the next street. Now I could begin my walk back toward the hotel.

My relief was short-lived as I looked down the dark road ahead of me. Cardboard shelters and shopping carts lined the littered sidewalks. I stood and stared, beginning to feel self-aware as people turned toward me. I glanced over my shoulder hoping they were looking at something much more interesting behind me. I realized with growing horror that they were trying to determine whether I was a hooker (the tight jeans), a hobo (the plastic bag) or a thief (the laptop).

I built confidence by silently talking to myself, starting with the usual: "You are such an idiot - how do you get yourself into these messes?" Next was the perennial self-pitying: "How come this kind of stuff never happens to other people?" Finally, the more uplifting: "You can do this - you're stocky, remember?"

I approached the sidewalk in my fastest, most confident walk, attempting to look like I was late for an important meeting and had no time to stop and chat.

I power-walked along the sidewalk, imploring myself, "Think, think - what would an intelligent woman do?" "An intelligent woman wouldn't get herself into this mess," I thought.

Suddenly, I was rewarded by the sight of a cab coming in my direction, No. 268 blazed on its side. I jump off the curb, waving my arms madly. The cabbie gave me one look and sped up.

Discouraged, I continued on and I saw another "out-of-place" person up ahead - a glimmer of hope. He was neatly dressed and my ingenious idea was to walk as if I was with him. I hurried to catch up and followed just slightly behind him, kind of like drafting a cyclist.

He glanced back and, to my dismay, began to show signs of distress - walking faster, looking anxiously over his shoulder at me. He hastened his step, then broke into a jog. Moments later he was at a full run, fearful of the hooker/hobo/thief (and now stalker) close on his heels. He was too fast for me (stocky is no substitute for speed) and I gave up in despair.

The upside was that I had travelled quite a distance. I looked up and within one block the city had changed radically. My hotel loomed before me, surrounded by brilliant glass office buildings.

Slightly dazed, I made my way over to the hotel. The doorman greeted me warmly, gave me my luggage and called a taxi. The cab arrived - No. 268, the same one that had sped by me earlier. The driver opened the car door politely. Thirty minutes ago I was someone to run from because I was on the "wrong" side of the street - now I was someone to open a door for?

As we drove away, I looked back at the street behind me. There seemed to be an invisible border dividing those who spend their lives on the sidewalks from those in the office towers. Is there an unspoken rule that the two societies don't cross the imaginary line? If we all took a walk down each other's street we might learn how to remove those borders and understand more about the people who live there. If we are less quick to judge, instead of fearing each other, maybe we can figure out how to help one another.

Bonnie Elliot lives in Lethbridge, Alta.