A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES
Small Town Saturday Night
East and south of Edmonton Highway 21 was black, wet but bare. Blowing snow scoured both lanes, white snakes as hypnotic as that ever-distant shimmering asphalt on long, hot summer drives. Beyond the shoulders, the white rolling fields melded indistinctly with the low winter sky. Maybe nine Elvis Costello songs to go before the junction with Highway 13 and the green Camrose City Limit sign.
The road into town does not go on forever. The left side is lined with retail signs and logos we’ve all seen, set on commonplace buildings with cheap architectural flourishes meant to evoke something other than cinderblock. Mirror Lake is frozen over and its legendary clipped-winged swans must have gone walkabout. On the right is a one-storey mall without stores, a dead colossus; an ugly utilitarian Soviet structure with two lame, horizontal decorative red stripes about nine feet up from the parking lot pavement which itself is pimpled with big boxes, a Bulk Barn and a Mark’s. There’s a 24-hour McDonald’s too and it seems unnaturally busy for a population of some 17,000 souls, so the highway must be paved with franchisee gold.
The inn is adequate. Clean. The $13.95 Daily Movie Deal offers three Hollywood blockbusters and unlimited porn. Trouble is the room’s television set was brand new in 1991. The complimentary newspapers are The Camrose Booster and The Camrose Canadian. The dented newspaper box beneath the port cochiere is a lurid Pierre Karl Peladeau red. The on-site micro-brewery’s swill may be best utilized for alcohol aversion therapy. That’s irony you can actually taste through copper lines.
Small places established in an earlier century exist for what were once important reasons. Even though CPR and CNR tracks crisscross the town site, the Rose City is no longer a railway hub. A solitary Alberta Wheat Pool grain elevator remains, it could use a fresh coat of paint; there used to be five others. ‘Historic’ Main Street (50th) is bookended by a Liquidation World trumpeting a going out of business sale and the Monte Carlo – Dining With Personality! Inside the restaurant are linen tablecloths and $11 club sandwiches. There’s also a murder of Christian women discussing the ‘good wife’ in Proverbs. They convene monthly. Their particular sect remained elusive as Camrose is littered with competing houses of worship.
Main Street itself has little to offer. There’s a Chinese restaurant that naturally serves Western Food, the bunker-like Provincial building, a Party Maxx, a beautifully refurbished art deco theatre that hosts live music, a precious purveyor of adorable tourist trinkets, a shoe store, a tattoo parlour and a used book shop which is directly across the street from Wisemen’s, a Bible seller. Highway 13 has killed downtown but at least there’s neither Goodwill store frontage nor a payday loans joint on 50th Street yet. However, it’s of prurient interest to note that the front desk of the rundown Windsor Hotel is behind a cage. God knows what sort of creatures may enjoy glasses of draught in its singularly uninviting beer parlour as the glass on its front door has been replaced with something a little more solid and the single window is opaque with filth.
As nightfall bleeds out the twilight, the tiny core sandwiched between 51st and 46th Streets becomes horror movie eerie. There are vehicles in the angled slots on Main but no people on the sidewalk. No moving traffic. The three-piece band at the Alice Hotel is playing too loudly for an empty room. Figure skating, hockey and football are on the TVs but nobody’s watching. No need to reserve your lucky VLT even though you know the win cycle’s bound to come around again. Everybody knows the machines are fixed. The lights are on at the Masonic Temple but the Elks Hall is shuttered. The liquor store’s open but there are no customers. Scallywag’s Pub is locked. The flour mill looms like a steampunk industrial installation on a barren planet. Around the corner from the Windsor, the residents (not mere guests) of the Cam-Rest Motel seem to be crashed out in their rooms as only one decorated window is lit.
It’s going to be a long and quiet Saturday night downtown. Meanwhile Highway 13 is alive with activity, the parking spaces surrounding the quick service restaurants and chain bars are full and the McDonald’s drive-thru is lined with trucks and cars.