Monday, 29 December 2014



Not Even a House


I was upstairs drinking alone, swishing four neat fingers of Irish around in a tumbler. Miles was spinning on the hi-fi and I was feeling kind of blue myself. Reflecting upon the past year, I realized I was a mad, obsessive artist of some sort: I’d created a lot of widows and fatherless children. Wide teary eyes dripping on velvet draped coffins and ash urns. Well, you don’t get to choose your old man, do you? Nobody does.


Murder is a strong word for what I do. I’d suggest retribution or justice. Each and every one of the dearly deceased sons of bitches got their due. And I wouldn’t hesitate to waste them again. Still, it gets to you, the toll. It eats me up inside so I try not to dwell too much on violent death. The name’s Danger, Geoff Danger. I suppose you could describe me as a fixer. I walk your streets because I’m here to help but it’s best you never need nor even know of a man like me.


Outside the snow fell in the low, chilly northern light, the dreadful sky darkening like a pulsing, bloody wound under white cotton. I sipped my whiskey and mused about retirement, about Freedom 55. Maybe the old ways had passed and it was time for me to drop my guns. Maybe Ann Fatale and I could emigrate to some Caribbean clime. Serve up rum punches and bebop to tourists from some shack on a beach. I lit a cigarette and sighed: my baby’s still struck by the bright lights in our big city, enamoured of the glorious, blinding glamour of Edmonton’s ballrooms and her glittering ball gowns with slits up the thigh and plunging necklines.


Oh, melancholy me. Truth was I needed a job, a caper, a lark, action. None of our neighbours needed to be threatened nor beaten half to death. The fellow who tended to deposit his dog’s dirt in our waste bins is still recovering in hospital; best not to ingest fecal matter, my son, however difficult it is to refuse what with two broken arms and missing teeth. There’ve been no heists since we lifted the lavender plant from the old lady’s back alley garden two doors down. And funnily enough, the good folk from the community league don’t come around much anymore since I threw a beer bottle and brandished a gat at the children’s Halloween pumpkin carving festival. I lost to a nine-year-old. The judges did not impress me, they’d been bought and the fix was in.


My bitter reverie was shattered when Ann Fatale came up the basement stairs sans her typical drop dead aplomb. Her miniskirt was a-twirl. I scoped every inch of her fishnetted gams. ‘Something’s skittering in the ceiling, oh, Geoff!’ she breathed huskily.


‘Hmm,’ I grunted. ‘Weather’s getting cold. Mice.’ I crushed out my cigarette and finished my drink. I stood up. ‘Go get even more beautiful,’ I instructed her. ‘I’ll deal with this. I was looking for something to do anyway.’


I adjusted the angle of my fedora to something a little jauntier and pulled out my 9mm automatic before descending the stairs. The basement was dark and cool. I could hear critter noises above my head, creeping like my darkest thoughts. I fired a few shots through the panels of the drop ceiling and then ventilated the spaghetti system of furnace ducts. The rodent sounds, like the thrum of my rogue conscience, did not abate. The cloudy smell of cordite was thick like cigarette funk and haze. The smoke detector went off. I emptied what was left in my clip into it and holstered my weapon.


Ann called from the top of the stairs, ‘Are you okay down there, baby?’


‘Everything’s twenty-three ski-doo,’ I grunted.


‘It’s just that some of the rounds have ruined the Persian rugs up here.’


‘I hate vermin,’ I muttered.


‘What’s that?’


I ignored my baby, something I don’t often do. I remembered that I still had a few pounds of Semtex 10 in the workroom leftover from a job well done a few years ago. I was a kinder and gentler man in those days; being eviscerated into a pink mist is a pretty painless way to meet your maker. Anyway, I set the putty cubes of plastic explosive strategically around the basement and then ran the wires and detonator up to the main floor. The mice had no chance.

In retrospect it’s probably best not to act out of rage. It’s important to breathe, to inhale, to consider, to exhale. My baby and me will be able to rebuild our love-nest on what’s left of the foundation provided the blasts didn’t compromise the integrity of the original concrete. The ensuing work will qualify as a renovation under existing government regulations so we’ll avoid a significant amount of tax and perhaps even qualify for certain green subsidies and rebates. Ann Fatale will get the new kitchen cupboards and the new granite counters she’s been breathlessly wanting. A whole new wardrobe awaits her at Holt’s and we’ll ring in the New Year from a penthouse suite in the best hotel in town. It’s all good.

Friday, 26 December 2014



Boxing Day and Time Machines


December 26th. It’s one of those perfect Edmonton winter days, pristine freshly fallen snow, a blindingly blue sky and a low pale sun struggling to be as yellow as an egg yolk. If every winter’s day was like this one I could sell the season to the good emirs of King Abdullah Economic City, and they can afford to fake the weather. Inside the house there are leftovers, a mild hangover and the Rolling Stones turned way up loud.


There’s something about the old songs. I’m convinced you pretty much stake your place in pop culture before you’ve shed the awkwardness of your early, icky teens. And so a welcome gift from yesterday resonates in more ways than one. I’m listening to ‘Hampton Coliseum (Live in 1981),’ a new release from the Stones’ From the Vault series. The group or corporate entity is following the lead of Dylan’s magical, oxymoronic official bootlegs. Springsteen’s on board; you can now purchase E Street’s ’78 Cleveland show at These aren’t barrel scrapings although these ancient gifts will scour your wallet.


Earlier this year saxophonist Bobby Keys and former Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan passed away within weeks of each other (somehow Keith lives). Both men were in the band for the Stones’ ’81 American tour.


I caught two dates of their 50 continental bookings; both were long bus rides from Quebec. One particular gig presented a dilemma for a 21-year-old rocker: the Kinks were playing the Montreal Forum one night but the Stones bus to the States departed at midnight from a long way’s away – what to miss? I now regret not seeing the Kinks. It’s possible we could’ve done both but I fretted about getting west to east through cross-town traffic. I chewed a gram of hash before we crossed the New York border for their Syracuse Carrier Dome Show. Praise the Lord, there were two opening acts before I came to. I slept through Molly Hatchet and somebody else, too wasted to flirt with disaster.


It’s curiously life-affirming to hear these particular renditions of the old songs again. I’ve come a long hard way since ‘81. We all have. Perhaps that’s when the Stones should’ve packed it in. They were riding high on two decent, recent releases - provided you overlook ‘Emotional Rescue,’ that thinly sliced, bland deli meat in the ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Tattoo You’ sandwich. That year gave us their last great set list: a couple of well-chosen covers, material that was fresh since their ’78 tour and enthusiastic runs through of just a few of their war horses, songs people demand from the Stones.


For me the Stones were all about kicking backing, questioning authority and doubting the teachings of the Catholic Church. You grow, you learn. Eventually you realize that rebellion doesn’t pay off unless you’re being compensated like Mick Jagger. Ooh la la, if I’d only known then what I know now. They looked gorgeous back then and I wasn’t half-bad. Time waits for no one but it’s nice to go back and revisit old friends in their heyday.

Happy New Year. Don’t look back.

Sunday, 21 December 2014



An Insomniac’s Nightmare


The winter solstice is upon us, high times for pagans and prowlers. Overtime on the nightshift. And as I lie awake I’ll wonder, wa-wa-wonder about maybe having a beef and bean burrito later on in Sinatra’s wee small hours. Read what I haven’t already read in the latest Economist. Look out the window and spot the camouflaged hares in the snow. Listen to the coyotes yipping in the river valley.


The skip of the curling squad we sub for wants to bring his Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen album over since I revealed that we’d bought the ‘house’ a new turntable. There’s enough casual interest among our circle of friends to form a vinyl club, play the old songs once a month or so. We did that all the time back in high school and beyond. Maybe, in a way, you can go back again.


What’s become of my old friend Daniel with whom I shared a subscription to Musician magazine? We spent hours together record shopping, recording mix tapes and arguing about music. I’d like him to know that there are now Eno CDs in the house. There was Peter from Westmount High who turned me on to Peter Gabriel and pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd. We lost touch. I will never forget hearing ‘Careful with That Axe, Eugene’ for the first time in Peter’s parents’ basement.


My black leather address book is 25-years-old. The penciled entries have smudged. Corrections are in various colours of ink. A lot of the information in its pages is hopelessly out of date. It is an alphabetical listing of people who have long since moved on, or people I have moved on from. It is a diary of mistakes and good intentions, of relief and regrets, of sorrow and joy. It is, increasingly, a roll of the dead.

So many departed to wonder and worry about during the longest night of the year. Perhaps they are the ghosts lurking in the closet or underneath the bed. But Christmas is coming, which means the days will lengthen soon enough. And anyway, there’s Mexican food in the freezer.

Thursday, 18 December 2014



The Platonic Ideal of Maple Syrup


Canadian maple syrup is as American as apple pie. This country produces some 84-per-cent of the world’s supply. Our good friends south of 49 are responsible for the balance. The sickly sweet goo might be our national condiment. There are worse things, some nations’ signature delicacies are buried or left to rot before serving.


The Edmonton Journal this week reported that the International Maple Syrup Institute and Agriculture Canada have agreed to replicate the United States’ product descriptors on Canadian maple syrup labels. These discussions took a decade to reach a semantic consensus. Essentially, the existing grades of Canada No. 1 and Canada No. 2 will now read instead something like ‘golden’ and ‘amber’ respectively. It doesn't get any sweeter.


Federal grading and labeling regulations serve a higher purpose, the country’s citizens. Red tape is there for our protection and to ensure the producers of certain commodities are recognized for the quality of their wares. Rules are the bane of marketers which is why snake oil is now described as lite, homeopathic, gluten-free or organic. If you examine your shampoo bottle in the shower tomorrow, you’ll note that the main ingredient is listed as aqua – it reads so much better than water.

Still, not all marketers are oily. And nobody except Avis really wants to sell anything branded number two. It’s all about perception. Already there is trickle down from the maple syrup lobby’s victory. Canadian poultry farmers are petitioning Ottawa to rebrand the Canada Utility grade rating. Insiders say they’re flying on a wing and a prayer because they haven’t a leg to stand on.

Friday, 12 December 2014



CKUA: Alberta Public Radio


Radio and me, we’ve been together through life. A fusty reminder of old ways, like subscriptions to a magazine’s print edition or the ringing of a telephone landline, I never imagined falling in love again with an apparently exhausted medium in the digitized 21st century.


Our early days together were wonderful. I frolicked on a seashore awash with station breaking invisible waves. Les Canadiens skated left to right on the transistor dial. I boogied down with Eddie Kendricks or the Rolling Stones on AM Top Forty. Montreal Expos baseball broadcasts were even better during rain delays, colour man and Brooklyn Dodgers legend Duke Snider related stories about teammate Jackie Robinson: ‘I remember once in Japan, the Dodgers were on a tour, Jackie and me…’ Over on FM where there was no static at all: just a high deejay giggling underneath ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ or ‘No Woman No Cry.’ There was magic on the air.


Modern commercial radio suffers from the malady of all traditional media: corporate congestion and increasing generic content, the quality of which slides ever downhill. Seemingly overnight it became a strictly formatted wasteland of rabid talk and zany morning zoo crews. And c’mon, are Creed and Limp Bizkit the best you got? God help me if I ever hear another twee Vinyl Café story about Morley and Dave.


Soul salvation has come from a station that’s been on the air since November 21, 1927. The genesis of CKUA was the University of Alberta (note the call letters) attempting to utilize this new-fangled technology known as radio as an educational tool; early distance learning, if you will. The CKUA network now blankets the province and, as they are fond of telling listeners, may be heard around the world at (I urge you to tune in). In this house, provided we’re home and not asleep or not playing albums, CKUA is on.


The landline rang earlier this week. After some consternation and confusion we realized what the sound was. CKUA was on the line: a follow up call to say thanks again to Ann for contributing toward another year of programming. Touched, for a dollar a day and touched to be part of an incredibly interesting and special community that loves music as much as Ann and I do. At CKUA the hosts matter. They pick their own tracks. Each is fully immersed in hers or his genre. Enlightenment lives on the FM dial.


My favourite show is Dead Ends and Detours which comes on Saturday mornings at 10 (MT). Host Peter North’s jumping off point is the Grateful Dead. The ripples widen into the sounds of the various offshoot bands and into the catalogues of the hundreds of musicians who have swum within the circles of the Dead. It softens me up for the next program, Allison Brock’s Wide Cut Country and, well, we may get a gunfighter ballad or Steve Earle or Gram Parsons. The safe bet is a helping of Guy Clark and a scoop of everything else.


To me, Dead Ends and Detours should be on Fridays after dark, but there are only so many hours in the night. We would miss the wee Celtic Show; everything is wee to the host: the songs, albums, conversations with fiddlers. I said once to Ann, ‘He’s probably a Jewish guy from Brooklyn, I mean, can an Irish brogue really be that thick?’ The wee show is followed by the Friday Night Blues Party, essential listening. And if the Deadheads moved to Saturdays we’d lose Lionel’s Vinyls which is not acceptable.

CKUA drives us to the record store. We’ve been listening to rhythm and blues, rock, reggae, bluegrass, jazz, blues, classical, country, God knows what else and some admittedly very cacophonic hybrids. CKUA has opened my ears again. I’m reminded of myself, the teenager who gambled on albums on the strength of a review in CREEM or Trouser Press because he couldn’t hear a single song from them on the radio anyway. The other morning, Baba, the cosmically connected host of Mid-Morning Mojo, played a track from Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue. You didn’t hear it when it was released and you don’t hear stuff like that on the radio today. Except on CKUA.

Monday, 8 December 2014



$5.2 Billion: Ain't That a Punch in the Head


Perhaps only bookies perceive a relationship between pro sports and logic. Fans certainly don’t because passion and devotion combine to create their core essence. Logic is always the first victim of blind faith. That’s the nature of the game. However, when corporations act like loaded fans (drunk and rich), you have to sit back, scratch your head and look askance. Do not try this while smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer.


Chevrolet paid British football team Manchester United $559 million (US) for the right to place its ‘bowtie’ logo on the Red Devils’ jerseys for seven Premiership seasons. Europeans cannot buy a Chevrolet vehicle, the brand does not exist on that continent. The strategy according to Detroit is deviously clever: by piggybacking on a fading international sports brand which plays its home games in the north of England, Chevrolet will garner unprecedented exposure in the massive and untapped Asian market. Makes perfect sense provided convergence converges as conceptualized; Wile E. Coyote might whisper, ‘Genius.’


Closer to home we must quizzically consider Canada’s Rogers Communications, a media conglomerate that may have made the same expensive mistake twice.


Rogers mistook the red, white and blue National Football League shield for gold. The Buffalo Bills recently gassed a long-term, lucrative deal with Rogers to play one meaningful regular season home game in Toronto. Football fans shrugged. Spenders in Canada’s largest market were not seduced by the presence of the legendary NFL brand. Beyond the curious and Rob Ford there was little demand for a bad foreign team with tenuous regional ties to Ontario’s capital city playing lousy American football.


The good old hockey game is the best game you can name and the best game you can name is the good old hockey game.’ Rogers went all in on Stompin’ Tom’s sentiments. Perhaps there was a stray elbow to the head. The biggest ongoing business story in Canada is Rogers paying the National Hockey League $5.2 billion dollars for 12 years of exclusive broadcast rights (with some exceptions). For a media provider in a winter country seeking content for its various outlets and devices, the deal seemed a dream come true. NHL hockey! Platforms! Convergence!


While it is still early in the first period for Rogers, the Globe and Mail Saturday reported that the eyeballs promised to sponsors are myopic; they’re not seeing as much as Rogers previously advertised despite the ref cam. This is troubling news if you’ve chosen hockey as your designated convergence agent, cross-platform driver and subsequently inflated your ad rates accordingly.


What shines on the NHL shield is just silver paint. Fans live and die with their teams; the league itself and its 29 other clubs, especially the bad ones, do not matter. The league’s expansion into non-traditional markets does not equate to the growth of the game. It remains a regional sport, albeit a popular one in a big, empty, regionalized country like Canada. Rogers is broadcasting more games on more channels on more nights than ever before. Yet Rogers may have overestimated the sport’s blanket national demand. The fact is that a Mountain Time Saturday night game between Edmonton and Calgary doesn’t matter to anybody outside of Alberta; the tilt's not an NHL game so much as it is the Oilers versus the Flames. A Canadiens fan will not watch the Leafs unless they’re playing one another. Sidney Crosby cannot appear simultaneously in all seven Canadian markets seven nights a week. Very few folk watch hockey just because there happens to be a game on, some element of any particular game has to matter to the viewer.


Rogers’ other sports property is the Toronto Blue Jays. Historically the company has been loathe to spend to compete in the stacked American League East. The company has failed to transform Canada’s sole Major League Baseball club into a beloved national brand. Maybe it’s not so difficult to botch a monopoly after all.

Despite its heavy investment in games, the company seems blind to the nuances of sport in general, those ethereal things that enthrall students of a game and enhance the small joys of fandom. The sense is that Rogers doesn’t quite get it. The company’s cable and wireless customers complain that Rogers doesn’t quite get those aspects of its business either. Of course, it’s impossible to be all things to all fans.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014



Jean Beliveau 1931-2014


In February 1969 my French Canadian Nana (nee Leblanc) took me to my first-ever Montreal Canadiens hockey game at the Montreal Forum. Dear God, Nana loved hockey; her favourite player was Rocket Richard who retired the year I was born but Gros Bill was a fine substitute for her passion. The expansion Los Angeles Kings were the visitors. The game was played a day or two before or a day or two after my ninth birthday. I was a big man in the schoolyard that week, going to see the Canadiens. We sat suspended in the rafters over one end, in seats known as the greys; great seats, impossible seats, were known as the reds. Blues were not as good as reds, there were whites in between. Greys were better than standing room, especially for fans pushing four feet tall.


I want to tell you that I wore my red Montreal Canadiens woolen sweater to the game with number 4 on the back, white felt cut out and sewn on by my British Nana (nee Toms), but I cannot remember. Nor can I remember what the final score was although the Canadiens prevailed. I do remember worrying if the running game commentary at the rink would be in French or English and was shocked to learn that there wasn’t any, that commentary was done for radio and TV broadcasts only. I do remember being beyond beside myself at the prospect of seeing my hero, number 4, Jean Beliveau, the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, play hockey live and in person.


It’s passing strange to weep over the passing of a stranger. Mine is a selfish grief, a lament for a half-forgotten childhood not often revisited.


Eighteen seasons. Ten Stanley Cups. Thirteen all-star appearances; 1395 points in 1287 NHL career games. The enduring friendship and respect of equally gifted rivals Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. To be the greatest Montreal Canadien ever is to be one of the best there ever was. And Beliveau’s stature only grew following his retirement in 1971: a gentleman, philanthropist and humanitarian, the classiest Canadian citizen in our country’s history.

I don’t go to many NHL games anymore. I’ve paid my money and I’ve done my time and anyway, the Canadiens come west only once a year. But every time I’m in an arena, I look for that kid who may be at his or her first game. Not the dozy infant, but someone too young to understand the crystal frailty of human heroes and goofy artificial economics yet old enough to be entranced by the magic and the wonder of the game played at its highest level. I envy them their wide-eyed experience because it will never be quite the same ever again. And I am smug too: My first game, I saw Beliveau with my Nana and I will never forget that night. Ever.

Saturday, 29 November 2014



Stick a Fork in Them


Winters in Edmonton are long. They are dark. They are freezing. Yesterday and Thursday the city was crushed beneath a near-record snowfall. The snow-packed roads are now the same height as the sidewalks. Plunging temperatures and the weight of vehicles make the streets squeak. The powder in our yard goes over the tops of my knee-high boots. The calendar insists it’s autumn for another three weeks.


The hardy souls in this northern town require distraction. While the local arts scene is always vibrant, the lead husky in this provincial capital during the winter months is the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. Finding a pub or bar in the city without any Oilers-related décor is next to impossible. The team is on the TVs. The hockey club lost its ninth straight game last night in St. Louis. November’s not yet done, but they are.


Since the oil strike at Leduc No. 1 in February of 1947, Alberta’s economy has been overly reliant on the energy sector. These days your semantics will betray your beliefs and leanings; do you refer to the oil sands or the tar sands? Yesterday heavy crude was trading at $48.40 per barrel according to Western Canada Select, the Canadian commodity gauge. West Texas Intermediate has the refined product priced a few dollars below $70. Suffice to say, a city like Edmonton understands the cycle of boom and bust, high times and hard times.


The Oilers have been dismal for eight going on nine consecutive seasons and when the tally of their wins and losses ceases to matter before December folks seeking distraction from the freezing dark in a winter city get pissed off. And rightly so, because everybody knows even the worst economic downturns last about four years. The fan-base has been prickly for at least a year, ever since President Kevin Lowe uttered an unbelievably stupid public statement which essentially degraded Oilers supporters into two pathetic camps: the loyal and reliable sheep who pony up for season’s tickets year after losing year versus those passionate poor ones who can only afford a rare ducat yet buy the merchandise and live and die with the team as they soak up each advertising-riddled broadcast. This is the big dog hubris of the only game in town, as rancid as the play has been for so long now.


Public undertakings are a constant of good times and bad times. A civic dream becomes affordable or people need to be put to work. We don’t build cathedrals or great vaulted train stations anymore. Stadia and hockey rinks now constitute our major public works. The crater has been dug for a new Edmonton Oilers downtown arena. The city’s core needs to be revitalized; it is dead, devoid of people, a legacy of a young city’s lack of forethought and inept long term planning. Development deals are complicated, but anyone who lives within city limits and pays taxes is on the hook for a portion of the cost of this welcome initiative. Whatever Kevin Lowe’s opinion of his organization’s fans, they’re all vested as the rink’s iron skeleton rises.

What the people want now is neither a glittering ice palace two years hence nor another high draft pick next summer: what the people want this winter is good goaltending and a decent fourth line. The Oilers are barely capable of delivering cold comfort and so winter nights in this burg will seem longer than ever for both tiers of their fans.

Thursday, 27 November 2014



Lurid! Sex! Scandal! Maybe.


There may or not be a sex scandal on Parliament Hill. Since this is Canada, we can’t compete with the Profumo Affair or Italy’s happy days of bunga-bunga – or was it oingo boingo?


Two Liberal Members of Parliament have each been accused of sexual harassment by two rival New Democratic Party MPs. The two Reds have been identified and pilloried in the traditional press and on social media. The Orange accusers remain anonymous and the allegations of misconduct are vague. Neither one has filed a complaint with the Ottawa Police Service. One complainant is happily granting our national media outlets detailed interviews provided her name is not used. Apparently she’d provided a condom to one Liberal member.


People should not act like dicks. Perhaps we’re all hardwired that way? Still, every dog, even the most despicable cur, deserves their day in court or the opportunity to defend themselves before some other quasi-official body. In these early days of the Information Age a digital mob will tear you up as surely as an old fashioned, physical one before you can get a word in. A Tweet can wreck your life.


Yesterday things got really surreal. Peter Goldring, a Progressive Conservative MP from Edmonton, issued a press release to an anxious Canadian public stating that he sports, and I quote from the Edmonton Journal, ‘body-worn video recording equipment.’ He advised that MPs who ‘consort with others’ would be wise to do likewise. The press release was retracted after the Prime Minister’s Office issued a one sentence e-mail: ‘Mr. Goldring’s comments reflect his own personal position.’

Now, our Prime Minister is an uptight and paranoid autocrat. However if you consider the clowns in the back rows of Stephen Harper’s Tory caucus you can almost empathize with him; his methods control madness. And so, as bipartisan affairs on the Hill continue to unfurl in a murky manner (see Justice Minister Peter MacKay for some  historic background), we are left with another burning question: In which body cavity would an honourable gentleman such as Peter Goldring choose to secret his audio/video recording device?

Wednesday, 26 November 2014



This Won’t Do


There’s a Dunn’s delicatessen on the perimeter of Ottawa’s Byward Market. It’s the best smoked meat sandwich in the capital by default since Nate’s, lovely, glorious Nate’s on Rideau Street pulled its shutters down over its window display of briskets and gallon jars of pickles and peppers forever.


The baseball jersey cursive Dunn’s wordmark is embedded into the brick above the door. What follows reads OPen 24 hrs. The p descender aligns with the bottoms of the balance of the letters giving the appearance of a stray cap. This typographic crime has always annoyed me. Also, my last visit to this restaurant had been infuriating. My waitress was in a tizzy, distracted equally by a visiting male suitor and her iPhone. Am I so difficult? Was it wrong of me to expect at least an iota of service and the correct order? And saints preserve us, if the kitchen resembled the toilets…


While contemplating a late meal at Dunn’s I recalled the oft-sputtered adage of a former colleague, an advertising account executive: ‘Go pound sand. Just fucking ram it.’ And anyway, we were due in Montreal in two days’ time; better smoked meat there and I had big plans for the Main Delicatessen. I elected to go next door to a place called Milano which I since understand to be a modest chain operation and based mostly in eastern Ontario. Something new.


I opted for a very manly 13-inch, pizza oven toasted sub. The layered meats were ham, turkey and salami. The sandwich was topped with grated cheese, crisp romaine lettuce, ripe tomato slices, pickles and a light, mayonnaise dressing. I returned late the next night for a massive wedge of Milano Chicago-style pizza. The quarter-pie slice was liberally sprinkled with hot Italian sausage and a reggae trio of hot pepper rings: red, gold and green. It was to die for, especially once my intestinal cramps kicked in about four hours later.


Globalization and international branding have lead to an insidious First World uniformity. There’s no escaping golden arches and green mermaids. You wonder about the ambitions of regional operations like that of our friends at Milano and Dunn’s. (Dunn’s has already failed in Alberta, the company bizarrely electing to open stores in three star hotels noted only for their proximities to the Calgary and Edmonton international airports despite an unbroken business model and legacy of downtown delis.) The micro level isn’t all that different. If you’re from somewhere else, a place noted for a signature dish, chances are there’s somebody from your old hometown trying to approximate it where you live now. Your taste buds are never too far from where you grew up. Still, everything tastes better at source.


Things got weird in Montreal. Three blind mice struggled along boulevard St-Laurent. Ann, me and my sister Anne made our way uphill into the wind and snow of one of those Montreal storms that turn the sidewalks and gutters into a sea of muck. Our destination was the Main Deli, just beyond Pine Avenue and across the street from the Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, better known as Schwartz’s. When we got there, there was no there there (apologies to Gertrude Stein). Had it closed? Had it moved? Was this some kind of twisted cosmic joke? We trekked another block north. I peered around in consternation. I wished I was a movie star so I could scream ‘Noooo!’ in slow motion.


My sister said, ‘Well, there’s always Schwartz’s.’ And I thought, Well, technically yes, there is and it’s better than Dunn’s and it’s a Montreal institution, but they cram you in there like future veal cutlets and, quite frankly, I’ve always found their brisket a little dry, even a bit stringy and I used to get a kick out of sitting in the window of the Main Deli and watching the sheep line up to get into Schwartz’s when the better sandwich was just a quick traffic dodge away and anyway, apparently the new ownership group involves Celine Dion’s husband, so, no, it just won’t do. I said, ‘You said you liked a place along here called Coco Rico’s?’ ‘Portuguese rotisserie,’ Anne affirmed. ‘We’re standing in front of it.’ We were indeed, just two doors down from Schwartz’s.


There are no tables in this joint. The room is long and narrow. The right-hand wall features a counter with just enough space for your elbows and a paper plate, high stools are lined up beneath it. There’s a cafeteria barrier on the left side and behind that is an array of stainless steel barbecues pierced with spinning spits. The smell of the roasting potatoes, chicken, pork and ham is deliciously overpowering.


Ann and Anne both ordered pork chop sandwiches served on fresh, white, flour-dusted rolls. I chose a ham sandwich because I worry about the amount of salt in my diet. These are basic delights: meat and bread. There are no other options, no cheese, no garnish, no chain sandwich artist in polyester - just a carver with a sharp, glistening knife. The Coco key is their condiment, a spicy, rich sauce quite unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before in my life. It is red flavour. As Coco Rico’s menu is not extensive, the sides are naturally limited. We shared a massive, crunchy dill pickle and a Styrofoam bowl of what seemed to be scratch macaroni salad. The miniscule unisex toilet was immaculate.

Strange. I’ve been going home to Montreal intermittently for a quarter century. I’ve kept eating the same foods every visit, doing the same circuit to eat what’s never tasted quite right out west. Now there’s something new to go back for and maybe someone here in Edmonton is working on a decent approximation. I’ll try almost anything these days.

Sunday, 23 November 2014



Fashion Victims


It’s rather unlikely that a burka constitutes anyone’s idea of haute mode. But the biohazard tent-like garments sure enough discourage skirt chasing and suggestive leering. It’s impossible to guess who’s concealed underneath. It could be Elvis, it could be a supermodel, it could be a jewel thief; you just don’t know, you never can tell.


Crime, as everybody knows, is a scourge on society. No argument here. Yet in the darkness of the cinema we’ve been seduced by elegant, charming and witty thieves and grifters: Cary Grant, David Niven, Robert Wagner, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, George Clooney and Brad Pitt. And there’s no denying that certain genuine criminals and certain real-life capers captivate the public’s imagination in something of a romantic way. Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs died a folk hero. Ned Kelly’s violent legacy in the Australian state of Victoria is that of a tourist magnet.


The neighbourhood of York Mills constitutes a substantial part of Toronto’s Millionaires’ Row. When you breathe in the rare air you smell money. It was the scene last week of a spectacular and audacious jewelry heist. Two armed robbers carrying purses and draped in burkas lifted half a million dollars’ worth of ice from a local jewelry store. One of the suspects is believed to be male. A CCTV security image reproduced in the newspaper shows a sci-fi figure clad entirely in black brandishing a black automatic pistol. ISIS couldn’t touch this Islam glam. The getaway driver was idling in the back alley.

Luxury accoutrements and shiny baubles mean nothing to me so it’s tempting to write that the job was a brilliant and victimless crime. However, the store owner and an employee were menaced at gunpoint and the store’s insurance provider is on the hook for the loot. Despite those two not insignificant concerns, I must confess an appreciation of the bad guys’ or gals’ scheme. I admire their style.

Saturday, 22 November 2014



Our Fair Share of Abuse


We were back east last week attending to family business. We attended my father’s funeral in Ottawa. We visited my mother in Montreal who enjoys ramming her new tricycle walker into the corridor walls of her residence because she can. Her cancer is in remission and I wonder if she understands the difference between that word and ‘cured.’ One snowy evening found Ann and me in the alley beside my sister’s non-smoking condominium sipping from bottles of Newcastle Brown using a dumpster lid as a table and topping up our nicotine levels. We weren’t at our best.


My sister had already decided for us that our Christmas in Edmonton this year would be an open house and not a formal sit-down. And since neither one of us want anything (although I’ve been hinting strongly about the recent Rolling Stones DVD+CD vault release of their ’75 L.A. Forum show and the ’81 Hampton Coliseum gig and the new Pink Floyd album), we discussed treating the house to a new turntable. Our repaired and re-repaired unit was a fine machine in its time. Now it is full of ghosts. You have to unplug it from the wall to stop it spinning. At the end of a side the tone arm skitters and skates across the label into the spindle. For all we know there could be wow and flutter or motor-boating.


Yesterday we went out to buy some vegetables for a stir-fry. Across the parking lot from the grocery store is Gramophone, a well-regarded audio shop. ‘Let’s poke our heads in just for fun,’ I said to Ann. ‘See what they’re selling for.’ I’d forgotten about Rick the audio snob who greeted us inside; I regretted not packing a beer to shotgun in the Honda in order to gird for an encounter with Rick the audio snob.


I paused to admire one on display, its base done up in a Union Jack motif. ‘That one’s $2400,’ Rick informed me. ‘It looks cool,’ I replied, ‘but a little out of our range.’ Ann ventured that we might like a turntable with an automated tone arm given our existing troubles. ‘That’s just throwing your money away,’ Rick told her. ‘Even if we carried that crap I wouldn’t sell it to you.’ Ann and I both said, ‘Ah.’


Rick turned to me. ‘What kind of speakers do you have?’ ‘Bose,’ I told him. This elicited a sneer. ‘We also have a pair of 30-year-old Missions,’ I hastily added. ‘I had the drivers replaced about ten years ago.’ Rick was dubious. ‘If you’re happy with the sound…’ he allowed. ‘They’re made in China now. We wouldn’t sell them.’ Of course not. ‘What have you got for an amp?’ My advertising copywriting trigger tripped. ‘It’s a dedicated stereo amplifier and tuner,’ I replied. ‘No home theatre or anything like that.’ He seemed to approve. I didn’t dare tell him it’s a Sony. Rick sat down on a white leather couch beside a pair of $48,000 white speakers shaped like Michelin Man treble clefs. ‘Let me think,’ he said. Ann and I stopped breathing; Rick must ponder our hopelessly inadequate system and our current requirements.


Rick got up and went to the back of the store where customers are not allowed to tread. He returned with an elegant black turntable. The brand was unfamiliar to us, Music Hall, the model mmf-2.2. ‘These are designed and manufactured in the Czech Republic. Good, basic machines.’ I joked, ‘I thought the Czechs only made beer.’ Rick did not find this remark funny. ‘The Czech economy is based on manufacturing and energy exports.’ Oh.


Rick’s go-to demo album is Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly with Me. ‘I remember this record in my parents’ collection,’ I said. ‘The production, the musicianship, the songs…’ he replied, ‘it sounds great.’ His next obvious question went unasked, thank God; I dreaded Rick the audio snob telling Ann and me he hated everything we enjoyed listening to. I believe if I’d asked him about the Rolling Stones he would have said something like: They can’t sing, they can’t play, they can’t write and their production is crap.


We bought the Music Hall turntable. Who knew intimidation was a sales tactic?  Perhaps we felt guilty about inflicting moments of our puny, irritating lives upon Rick’s time. Rick assembled the turntable for us in the store and cautioned us to never play it without completely removing the dustcover; perhaps Rick does not keep cats. He showed me where to attach the counterweight knotted to its almost invisible filament. He loaded the unit into our vehicle beside the broccoli and carrots and suggested that our wisest course of action given the weather, the road conditions and our purchase was to go straight home.

Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. We followed orders. We are delighted with our new audio component and I know on some level Rick the audio snob cares about our satisfaction. I suspect too that he set the bait and hook and that we will be looking at upgrading other parts and pieces of our sound system just so we can bask in the harsh glare his approval.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014



Dad 1924 - 2014


Last weekend’s Globe and Mail ran a review of a novel called The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. The reviewer compared the work favourably to Graham Greene’s espionage themed thrillers, works which the author himself described as ‘entertainments’ and distinct from his other novels which he felt were more serious works of literature. Set in modern day West Africa, the reviewer astutely noted that the movements of the protagonist in The Laughing Monsters tend to mirror Marlow’s journey down the Congo River to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.


I read the review Saturday in Montreal while seated at my sister’s dining room table. I remembered that Dad still had not got around to reading Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris despite my prodding. He'd also promised to read The Innocent by Ian McEwan. I decided to buy two copies of The Laughing Monsters and dispatch one to Dad. Denis Johnson wrote this story for us. After we’d both read it we could compare notes as we’ve always done with every John le Carre novel since I can’t remember when. Alas, this nanosecond of good intention was for naught as we’d buried Dad in Ottawa the previous day.


Dad was born in Montreal, the second child of British immigrants who met and married in Canada. He came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War. He served overseas with the Royal Canadian Air Force as a navigator in a ‘plywood wonder,’ a two-man crew Mosquito night-fighter. Based in Lille, France after the collapse of Fortress Europe, he flew missions over France and Germany as a cold, wet and grumbling member of the KP-409 Nighthawks squadron: Midnight Is Our Noon. He was a good looking kid in uniform, pictures prove it. If hard times and aerial combat don’t kill you, they will certainly imbue you with a particular strength of character.

Fittingly, Dad slipped away peacefully on Remembrance Day with my sister at his bedside. She told him to go and see Robert, his eldest child, our late brother. Ann and I could not make Ottawa in time from Edmonton, however we wrote his obituary together and managed to meet the Ottawa Citizen’s deadline from a different time zone. And anyway, my father and I had a clean slate, no unfinished business other than unread books, nothing needing forgiveness. I was honoured to write and deliver the eulogy of a man whom I not only loved, but really, really liked. Talk about deadlines, Dad would appreciate that the words came together under pressure over a few beers in a bar the night before his memorial service.


Down in the basement here in Edmonton we have a fairly extensive library, the collected works of two families and at least two generations. My own contribution to the shelves of spines was seeded by Dad: Conrad, Forester, Greene, Lardner, le Carre, Maugham, Poe, Orwell… An appreciation of literature and an ongoing intellectual curiosity about nearly any subject are gifts from my father. ‘Our father’ I should say - my sister is a bookworm and our brother was a bookworm. Books have been a bond amongst the four of us, there was always one to lend, recommend or give. I know Dad was pleased when my first novel was published. I know he was even happier when a writer friend of his allowed that Murder Incorporated wasn’t half bad. It hurts me that he will never read my overdue second one. It hurts me that we will not share the experience of reading The Laughing Monsters.

Last Monday in Montreal Ann and I and my sister mucked along rue Ste-Catherine, through the slush and falling snow. We reached the corner of Stanley. The windows of a prime downtown retail space were covered with brown paper. The doors were locked. It was a Chapters. Before that, a Coles. There’d always been a bookstore there. Well, there used to be.

Dad, you were always there. Well, you used to be. Godspeed.

Saturday, 8 November 2014



A Snow Day


There’s never really a first snowfall in Alberta because it can come at any time. I wouldn’t lay a snow bet on July or August although it could happen. What started falling through the night and continues to fall through this afternoon is here to stay. Clearing the walkways and the driveway isn’t about getting rid of it now; we’ve begun the winter toil of merely heaving it from one place to another, laying the foundations for January snow banks and windrows.


November is like a jail sentence, 30 days of mounting melancholy, the nadir of another year. We’ve turned back the clocks. The days will become increasingly shorter and that much colder. There is the blue and guiltily grateful pause of Remembrance Day. A minute of silent reflection seems a small price to pay for decades of freedom and our boundless opportunities to abuse it, or totally botch it from time to time. Democracy and capitalism, though often greased, are not always smooth processes.


I come in from the cold. Nuthatches, woodpeckers and chickadees are swirling and flitting about the feeders hanging from the limbs of the Ohio buckeye. The snow shovel is leaning up against the side of the house, its plastic edge is beginning to curl and peel: maybe one more winter’s scraping is left in it. There’s still coffee in the pot in the kitchen. I can smell the warm toaster. The Saturday New York Times crossword is partially completed. The Dixie Chicks are playing on CKUA, Alberta’s public radio station ( Their version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’ is sublime. If I still recorded mix tapes I’d follow it with ‘Champagne Supernova’ by Oasis, soft regrets being ploughed under. My blue Canadiens cap and grey fleece are white with snow.


Ann says, ‘You’re soaking. You should shake them off.’ So I do. Ann says, ‘I didn’t mean in the kitchen. I meant outside.’ She goes outside on the front porch to smoke a cigarette. I know Ann’s still smarting from having her butt kicked like a soccer ball all around the Scrabble board last night. I tear a couple sheets of paper towels from the roll and get down on my hands and knees and wipe the floor tiles to a clean shine.

Joining Ann outside I tell her, ‘I did that on purpose. Two birds. One stone. You know.’ Her smile says, Sure you did. Ann is right of course: heading into my 55th Canadian winter I should know better. But winter is six months, a long season, and I’m traditionally slow out of the gate. It always takes some getting used to, even after all these years.