Monday, 16 June 2014



Saturday in Little Italy

The street party is on! Beyond the road-spanning brick and iron welcoming arch, 95th Street and Giovanni Caboto Square are awash in the royal blue of Gli Azzurri, Italy’s national soccer side. In a couple of hours the Blues will play their first match of Brazil 2014 against Group D rival England. A massive screen has been erected in the park, fittingly along a sideline of the community soccer field. While some supporters have already staked their places on the midfield grass, there’s plenty to do as 120 minutes tick down to kick off.

The Italian Centre Shop, the other focal point of the neighbourhood gathering, is cannily celebrating its 55th year in business as a prelude to the big game. If you find eating little more than a mundane chore to be repeated as necessary, this Edmonton institution is not for you. The shelves lining its narrow aisles are crammed with unfamiliar foreign brands and products. Compared to the prices in our many chain grocery stores the produce is almost free. If I’ve played my cards wrong and there actually is an afterlife, I dearly hope the Italian Centre delicatessen will be a major part of my eternal future – provided I am forgiven my many trespasses made these past 54 years.

Outside the storefront the sidewalk is overflowing with sagging tables of displayed goods, elaborate gift baskets, and café tables and chairs. There is no space for Ann nor me. We dance or swivel sideways only to bump into somebody else full-on. Ensconced in the shade of the awning at one tiny round table is a brazen lunatic sporting a white Three Lions jersey. Then again, there’s nothing quite like experiencing a sporting event amongst people for whom the game and its ensuing result really really matters. FC Edmonton, our city’s North American Soccer League club, has wisely erected a marketing booth in the square to trawl new fans for their version of our planet's beautiful game.


Sandwiches wrapped in butcher’s paper, Italian cold cuts and provolone cheese packed into freshly baked torpedo buns slathered with a spicy red vegetable condiment are available for $5, a bottle of water included. I’m relieved that I don’t operate a Quizno’s franchise; there ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby. In the parking lot elderly men are making pizzas, hot wedges free to all, baking them in a portable oven. One just like it is on display and on sale for some $3000.00 and change. I’m tempted; it would look all right in the living room. But we learn something. The chefs roll the balls of risen dough in yellow corn meal before they stretch and toss them. When we make our own at home we merely sprinkle some token meal on the pan before the pie crust hits it. This will change.


Uncle Sid takes a seat at the head of the spaghetti eating contest table. His receding hair and sculpted beard are closely cropped. His black t-shirt is skintight. His white shoes have Velcro fasteners. His jeans are that modern type of fashion denim I dislike. His nephews and nieces crawl all over him. When a heaping silver tray of pasta from a nearby vat is placed before of him sans utensils, he asks, ‘Is that all there is?’ He tells the kids he’s going to win. A popular trash talker from the neighbourhood. He does win, his smug face glistening with sauce. One of the young ones wants to know what he’s just won. He says, ‘The respect of my family.’ For some reason a Journey song plays in my head.

It’s hot on the pavement beneath the big, hot sun. We retire to a joint in an adjacent strip mall a friend had recommended and described as ‘unusual.’ The sign reads GAMING. I expect a bank of VLTs. Instead we encounter a room wired with closed circuit televisions. Grey characters trying to grind out a profit on remote nags. Races from Northlands, Alberta Downs and other tracks around the continent are live, the odds highlighted. The barroom floor is littered with crumpled bettors’ slips. The other TVs show Costa Rica versus Uruguay and that shocker of a score. Salt and pepper wings are on special. The draft beer selection is limited. The toilets are for customers only which works for me: the price of a cold pint of Bud in exchange for a clean men’s room is a fair trade.

Inside here we are not locals. Patrons ignore us but they sneak glances. The handsome gambler hobbling about in a walking cast and wearing an Algeria World Cup cap (probably purchased at the Italian Centre) doesn’t warrant a raised an eyebrow. He must be a regular. Two blocks up 95th we are loyal customers at our favourite store. Merely dependable debit card holders to be thanked after our groceries have been packed. Out on the street we are rubbernecked tourists in our own town. I’ve never seen so many churches concentrated in such a small area. Dear God, You’re almost oppressive. We pass a modest albeit attractive timber faced seniors’ lodge. I’m glad I’m not in one yet though I worry how the rules might apply if you’re demented and insist on playing the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen over and over turned up to 11. A man associated with the street mission around the corner on 96th stops us to reveal that the line of cars parked along the curb all smell like Chinese food. I wonder if he’s crazy or just crazy about Chinese food? Anyway, he’s in the wrong neighbourhood today. I know this much.

Meanwhile parallel columns of blue and white stride onto the vast green. Gli Azzurri is set to play live on screen in Giovanni Caboto Square - or the English navigator John Cabot according to the Canadian history books I studied in school so many years ago in Montreal. I recall Cabot Square in Montreal at the corner of Ste-Catherine and Atwater across the street from the old Forum and how the entire park became a thriving bazaar rampant with soft drug peddlers and ticket scalpers before the house lights dimmed at the start of a concert. But I was a long way from Edmonton back then and a long way from this hitherto unimagined Saturday afternoon in a unique district of my adopted city. The road home is never straight. If you ever get there, it makes an interesting place for a short holiday.

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