The long and the short of it

Scott Lansdowne

Ten months into the First World War, on May 7, 1915, German U-boats torpedoed the British luxury cruiser RMS Lusitania en route from New York to Liverpool.  The boat eventually sunk just south of the Irish coast in only 18 minutes and killed over 1,100 civilian passengers.  At the time, the Lusitania was the largest ship in the world.  Its destruction ignited a world-wide wave of anti-German sentiment.

Meanwhile, on the southwest corner of Blanshard and Johnson Streets in downtown Victoria, BC, the German-run Kaiserhof Hotel, a four-storey building with 15 suites (featuring Murphy beds, kitchens, and private bathrooms) and a restaurant on the main floor remained open.  Incensed by the news of the Lusitania’s fate, a crowd of Victorians descended upon The Kaiserhof. They rioted, smashing many of the hotel’s windows and destroying the dining room.

Photographs of the day depict a pleasant-looking, well-dressed crowd of about 200 rioters, mostly middle-aged men in wool suits and bowler hats.  These men face the camera with the neutral expressions often associated with old pictures—from all appearances, there’s not a bad conscience or criminal motive in the bunch.  A British cruise shipsunk by a German sub provoked these cosmopolitanVictorians to destroy The Kaiserhof; The Kaiserhof has since been serially renovated and turned into The Kent, an apartment building named for one of Shakespeare’s most unimpeachable characters.

In 2005 I moved into a bachelor suite on The Kent’s third floor, My apartment was the smallest in a building of tiny bachelors suites, but there were no noise or smoking restrictions, and the lobby was decorated with pictures and facts about the 1915 riot: I liked it there.  Further, the building contained an old elevator one could ride in the dark simply by switching out the lights. Residents periodically got stuck in the elevator for a few minutes or a few hours, depending on the door’s inherent mechanical whimsy.

Since the building overlooks a major downtown intersection, my favorite pastime was feeding seagulls from my window during afternoon rush hour.  It would start slowly enough: four or five of the large birds came at first, but soon their squawking chorus attracted more and more.  After ten minutes of effort, I was rewarded with thirty or forty seagulls dive-bombing cars and pedestrians at the crowded intersection, fighting over bread scraps, screaming and shitting with impunity.

After a year and a half, I moved into a larger, second floor corner suite.  One night some friends and I threw a Volkswagen tire from my window.  The tire bounced sublimely across the empty road in perfect Archimedean arcs, producing a comical boing! every few seconds. A minute later, we were surprised to see the tire hovering at the window for a moment, before dropping away again.  Down on the street a man was trying to throw the abandoned tire back to us, drunkenly shouting, “Hey! You guys dropped your tire!”

Suite 15 was eventually burgled, allegedly at the inclination or behest of the tenant from Suite 14. Suite 15 was occupied by a breakfast server, whose hobbies included fashion photography, kickboxing, and cocaine, and I had once helped him charitably disable the crosswalk sensor that beeped outside our windows all night.  The resident of Suite 14, aside from being a supposed thief, was also an alleged drug dealer. He rode an electric scooter and maintained a bitter animosity toward his nearest neighbours. The  man from Suite 15 let it be known that should his burgled possessions be returned immediately, there would be no further consequences. Not even week later, at some point in the early morning hour, the tenant of Suite 14 drove his scooter into the fourth-floor elevator door with enough velocity to cause the door to swing into the shaft, even though the elevator car was still parked at the ground floor.

While the precise physics of this scenario remain a mystery, even to physicists, this man managed to hang at the top of the shaft, his wrist pinned between the floor and bottom edge of the door, looking on as his scooter dropped through the top of the elevator car thirty-five feet below.  The woman from Suite 9 heard his bellowing, and the High-Angle Rescue Team arrived to lower him down the shaft as a news crew interviewed other residents of the building.

While the man was indeed preserved, the building required significant structural improvements to replace its blighted elevator.  During the first summer of that 18-month repair, a small hatch in the ceiling of the fourth-floor garbage room was left open for the workers to access the roof during the day; we preferred to access the roof by night.

And so began a glorious period of ascending the ladder to secret rooftop parties and pelting transport trucks with potatoes.  Moreover, the building’s keyless access code to the front door, which started as the exclusive purview of contractors and engineers soon became widely available in certain Victoria communities.  The rooftop developed into a public amenity; I remember coming across a virtually anonymous message scrawled in sidewalk chalk on Yates Street: “ALISON: COME OVER AFTER WORK—THE CODE IS 1958—FROM JAMES.” In an ironic historical twist, the woman from Suite 9 enjoyed none of these benefits.  She had broken her ankle during an unrelated incident—just days after saving the life of Suite 14, in fact. She now had to crutch up three flights of stairs  and falling asleep to the deafening chorus of rooftop caterwauling and toasts to the two brave crews of the Lusitania and The Kaiserhof.

words by Scott Lansdowne
Scott Lansdowne