Friday, 31 October 2014



Dead Air


Ann Fatale was at the spa getting silky smooth and sexy for our evening plans. We intended to step out, step it up and dance steps like Fred and Ginger. Me? I was just killing time in my office, sipping single malt from the bottle, smoking and listening to Eartha Kitt and cataloguing my collection of jazz 78s on a pad of graph paper. The phone rang. This did not please me. Long distance from the centre of the universe, Toronto.


I picked up. There was an annoying amount of hemming and hawing at the other end of the line. Finally, ‘Is this Geoff Danger I’m speaking to?’


‘Could be,’ I allowed. ‘Then again, I could be his buxom secretary.’


‘You’ve got to help me. I understand you’re known as the fixer.’


I am. And if you require my services you’re at the end of your rope with no place left to turn. It’s best not to know a man like me. ‘And who and what are you?’ I demanded.


A celebrity radio presenter, indeed. Nobody’s ever asked me but Canada’s only ever produced one celebrity and that would be Oscar Peterson the brilliant jazz pianist. If you pushed me, I might add Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe, rough, noble men who shone in the world’s greatest game during its most brutal era. This fellow on the phone was nothing to me.


I tore a sheet from my pad in order to take notes on a pristine surface. I wrote questions mostly: Punching and choking constitutes a date? Why no criminal complaints? Consensual? Teddy bear? Escalate? Why no remorse? Sociopath? What is Facebook?


I reviewed my jottings. ‘So,’ I said, ‘you want me to whack a stuffed animal?’


‘No, no! He always looked away. He never saw anything.’


‘I see. So no witnesses then.’


‘Just these troublesome six or eight women or whatever…’


‘My son,’ I said, ‘I’ve beaten men to death with my fists. I’ve bludgeoned them to death with whatever happened to be handy. I’ve stabbed men. I’ve shot men. They all deserved what they got but I never once felt good about it even though I got away with it.’ I lit a cigarette. ‘Men,’ I affirmed, ‘men, do you get that part?’


‘But my PR firm has fired me! Do you realize how humiliating that is? The damage to my personal brand is immense!’


I leaned back in my chair. I blew a smoke ring at the ceiling. I noticed a cobweb dangling from the light fixture. ‘I can’t help you,’ I said. I took a swig of whiskey. ‘I’m not a marketing expert, no savvy here, but you could always change your name.’


‘To what?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied. I stood up and stared out the window. The sky and the city alternated shades of grey. Maybe forty or fifty ashen tones. Everything was dead or dying. Winter was coming to strangle what life was left in this dirty town. I tasted the earth in my cigarette and in my Scotch. ‘I don’t know,’ I repeated. ‘Norman Bates is taken.’ I placed the phone back in its cradle. It was time to shut the lights and play taxi for my baby; I like to treat her right.

Thursday, 30 October 2014



Happy Halloween

Last night I had a visitation from an overly chatty ghost:
Of all the folk I’ve haunted, he said, it’s you I hate the most
I’m here to bump the night and smash your crockery
I’m your darkest nightmare, your fear, your misery
All the skeletons in your closet, things you can’t accept
They’re alive and well, and busy getting prepped
To invade your sweet dreams with ugly evil threats
To terrify and swamp you in clammy night sweats
To remind you of the hell beyond your ancient cellar door
Go down and meet your demons who’ll inter you in the floor
Excuse me now, I’ve another victim waiting up the street
Time to fly, ta-ta, and good luck getting back to sleep

Wednesday, 29 October 2014



An Indicator of the End of Days

The reason for Kim Kardashian’s fame and celebrity is a minor mystery because there are more interesting things to ponder, even within the realm of pop culture. Today’s Globe and Mail and Edmonton Journal both printed her recent quote: ‘I love my BlackBerry,’ in their business sections. In their fucking business sections. God help us all.



Cause for Alarm


Everything’s fine until it isn’t. One of the household’s alarms went off this morning. A single BEEP! We look at each other, What’s that? Ah, the smoke detector at the top of the basement stairs. The battery must be getting low. Down it came.


BEEP! Eh? All right, it’s not the one down the hall on the ceiling between the bedrooms either. Okay, it’s the newly installed hardwired combination smoke and carbon monoxide detector downstairs by the entry to the furnace room. Ann gets up on a stepstool and tries to read the circle of embossed type. ‘If LED light blinks after 1 second…’ She gives up. She twists the unit off its anchor. She nearly tumbles from her perch when the machine speaks to us in both official languages. CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTED. MOVE TO FRESH AIR. CALL 9-1-1.


Well, this is a little inconvenient as I haven’t yet showered or dressed. I know carbon monoxide is colourless and odourless. I can’t remember if the gas is lighter or heavier than air. What should we do? She asks me, ‘Are you feeling sleepy and light-headed?’ Yes, I just woke up. ‘What should we do?’


I cannot abide being spoken to by machines. The only recorded voices I want to hear are in our record collection. My first thought is to just rip the wires from the dangling device. My second thought is a little darker. If we were found dead with the detector disconnected, that would be cause for an embarrassing albeit posthumous Darwin Awards nomination. Equally humiliating would be summoning a fleet of emergency services to a false alarm. I realize we can defer a potential life and death decision by locking our pair of fraternal tabbies Scamp and Mungo in the basement and waiting to see what happens to the boys.


Ann points out the obvious flaw in my canary in a coal mine logic: ‘They’re cats. They’ll go to sleep anyway.’

Maybe it’s time to have the furnace maintained what with winter coming on. Feeling strangely sluggish, think I’ll have a nap.

Sunday, 26 October 2014



A Fine State of Affairs


Snow water flowing through my downspouts

I’m annoyed enough to be just a little put out

Headed down the street to the end of the world

Drinking and smoking, my head in a whirl

A lost soul rampaged in the streets of Ottawa

Chopped down by a modern Big Joe Mufferwa

Ebola may now be loose in New York City

All you sneezing subway riders have my pity

And is IS a new FaceBook acronym for hell

Because at first they Tweeted ISIS, or was it ISIL

Activist investors short their third world airlines

Death makes for profitable, high-five times

While the oil trains keep running off their track

The engineer radios, There’s no turning back

American blue chips swirling down the drain

Driving cocaine market mad bulls half insane

As Coca-Cola bottles joy, diabetes and obesity

And McDonald’s purveys Pablum to the needy

I turned around and trudged my snowy way home

Got inside, listened to the Beatles and the Stones

Gimme shelter

Thursday, 23 October 2014



The National News, Oh Boy


There was an extraordinarily awkward press conference staged in Ottawa yesterday. Four men, representing the Ottawa Police Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Armed Forces and the City of Ottawa, were crammed together behind a table meant for two. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was there to cover it. The speakers had no information to impart to the nation. When they switched to Canada’s other official language to say nothing, CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge intoned something like, They’re speaking in French now.


Thanks for that insight.


Hours earlier a Canadian soldier on ceremonial guard duty at the National War Memorial had been shot to death in cold blood. Shortly thereafter the murderer was swiftly ventilated inside the halls of Parliament.


Canadian iconography is generally associated with the great outdoors: fishing boats against a crazy mosaic of garishly painted maritime homes, endless wheat fields, kids playing pond shinny, glaciers in Rocky Mountain ranges. Considering what we have built or erected throughout nearly 150 years of Confederation, nothing is as close to our hearts as the cenotaph and the Peace Tower. The murderous attacks in the capital hit home, hit everybody where it hurts.


And so with downtown Ottawa in lockdown, foreign embassies secured and our capital's famous and familiar streets swarming with armed and masked police, somebody had to tell us everything was under control. We were left instead with a split screen of endless, repetitive video loops described and re-described by sputtering commentary; has Mansbridge taken elocution lessons from Jian Ghomeshi?


Initial reports cited two other possible instances of gunfire along the Rideau Canal: one at the swank Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel and the other in the always crowded Rideau Centre, a core shopping mall. These two rumours were duly reported. Why? To fill airtime? Viewers were agape; were we witnessing some sort of orchestrated commando assault? News is about facts. It’s okay to keep a lid on unsubstantiated events that may require an hour or two to either confirm or shoot down: better for all – better for the heart rates of the transfixed audience and better for the journalistic reputation of the news provider. Yesterday’s events suggest a realistic role for traditional media in this digital age: don’t just regurgitate the torrent of social media cacophony, filter it, be its gatekeeper. Take on the role of Canada’s Upper House, give us sober second thought.


In an instance of inane irony our only assurance of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s health and well-being was a picture Tweeted by the Prime Minister’s Office. Ten hours of silence from the top combined with inept reporting from the Mother Corporation made for a mildly uncomfortable afternoon and evening in this time zone. Is our government still functioning? Members of the Canadian Armed Forces were advised not to go out in public wearing their fatigues. One suspects that this order was not welcomed; pride in uniform is paramount and now more than ever is the time to display the colours, the camouflage, the epaulettes and the shoulder patch flashes. Cowering is not an option, walk tall.


This Ottawa affront, this national crime, this breakdown between the Prime Minister and the people who elected him, this inarticulate bilingual mumbling from the authorities to the people they are sworn to protect, this laughably inept news reportage by an organization dedicated to the people and funded by the people, was wrought by a single disenfranchised loser with a rifle. Another fellow in an Internet line who may have joined the Moonies or drunk the grape Kool-Aid with Jim Jones had he been born sooner. This is the type of little fucker who stalled the country for an entire day.

Yesterday was a day of chaos and confusion. The Harper Government and the CBC tangoed at the botching ball. Canadians will fight, bring it anytime; but we need proper information even as we drop our gloves and taunt, Is that the best you’ve got?

Monday, 20 October 2014



The Audacity of Hard Ground


A strange man came to the front door early on Saturday. I was working at the dining room table and watched him walk up the drive. A disease marketer, I thought. Which one? I wondered. Every natural cause that must necessarily kill us seems to be one donation away from being eradicated or beaten (Ebola being the latest exception). I was staggered when he announced he represented the federal Liberal Party.


Our next national election is scheduled to be contested almost exactly one year from now. In 2006 the Harper Government amended the Canada Elections Act dictating that every seat in parliament was up for grabs once more on the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year since the last time our three major parties hit the hustings. Of course the governor general upon the advice of the prime minister may call an election at any time before the hard deadline. Prior to 2006 a sitting government could linger into the fifth year of its mandate before summoning citizens to the polls. This delaying tactic was rarely utilized as it was consider bad form. So, we’re left with a firm election date tempered by a snap election option. This weird Canadian-American electoral hybrid speaks to the country’s endless and futile struggle to define national identity beyond the scope of hockey and donuts: are we us or them? 


‘Christ,’ I said to the Liberal canvasser, ‘you’re out of the gate early.’ Our riding is Edmonton-Strathcona: we’re hip pinkos as New Democrat Linda Duncan has represented us in parliament since 2008; every other federal seat in the province is shat upon by a Harper Conservative. He handed me a laminated bookmark. CHANGE IS HAPPENING. There’s a mug shot of our October 2015 Liberal candidate, glasses, a bobbed pageboy ‘do. Her given name is Eleanor. Her surname is On the reverse side there’s a shot of Eleanor standing beside party leader Justin Trudeau. Big grins, the future looks bright. The significance of the bookmark format did not strike me until today.


Last week a magically charismatic Canadian and something of a stoned savant published a memoir. We made a special trip to the bookstore to buy ‘Special Deluxe,’ Neil Young’s companion volume to ‘Waging Heavy Peace.’ Bookstores are beginning to creep me out. I can’t turn around without seeing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s frozen chipmunk smile. ‘Hard Choices’ is stacked in hardcover, ‘Living History’ in towers of trade paper editions. She’s staring at me as she and Bubba gird to get the White House back even if they have to stay married to do it. Her books are manifest destiny lessons learned from Barrack Obama’s ‘The Audacity of Hope.’


The Liberal bookmark can only take us to one place, ‘Common Ground,’ the advance election little red book manifesto and memoir of Justin Trudeau, now available (I confess to scanning the exclusive excerpt in Saturday’s National Post for dope on his mum hanging out with the Rolling Stones in 1977). Perhaps it’s no surprise that an evolving American technique has been imported north of 49 in this age of digitized information. A memoir should come with experience, such as leading the official opposition or learning the political ropes in a cabinet post. The writer pauses and reflects only after there is something worthwhile to write down. Neil Young may not remember that ‘southern man don’t need him around anyhow,’ but he’s left his own distinctive mark upon this planet – even if some of it was a haze of reverb and feedback or lo-fi meowing.


Anyone who’s ever held a job knows that the most dangerous person in the workplace is the imbecile with power. This is the dilemma of Justin Trudeau. Is he off-the-cuff witty (I laugh at his remarks but it’s not as if we’re enjoying a beer together) or just a media-manipulating photogenic moron? Normally I ask for five dollars and a mickey of gin in exchange for my vote when a Liberal worker comes to the door. If they get the old Quebec price we grin, if they don’t they look at me as if I’m crazy. This time I said, ‘Keep that boy off Twitter. The kid’s got nothing to say.’

The strange man nodded, turned around and walked away. I watched him go. Thing is, the Liberals under Justin have a chance next year, maybe even Eleanor too here in Edmonton-Strathcona. The ‘natural governing party’ could be back in the saddle again. I put on ‘A Letter Home,’ the latest Neil Young album. This voice has the hard-won timbre of experience. This guy’s seen a little bit; this guy knows a little bit. There is substance and substance abuse, and some fried, high-flying rhetoric. Neil would make for one bizarre prime minister. But at least he’s been around the block a few times.

Monday, 13 October 2014



The Habs by the Numbers


The 2014-15 Montreal Canadiens have roared out of October’s gate with an undeniably spectacular 3-0 record. Already there is talk of the rebirth of a dynasty in Canada’s First City of Hockey, a return to quicksilver glory. Provided my analytics are sound, the club will realize 95 victories over the course of the 82-game regular season.


Veteran centre Tomas Plekanec is on fire and on pace to become the first Hab to tally 100 goals in a season. Defensive stalwarts Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban both boast stratospheric plus/minus ratings. Starting goaltender Carey Price and backup Dustin Tokarski have yet to lose a game. My projections show that if this trend continues, each goalie will finish the campaign undefeated. The most telling statistic was aptly displayed Saturday night during the Canadiens’ dramatic come from behind victory over Philadelphia. The squad’s PPWOTDHPPINL (puck possession when the other team doesn’t have possession and the puck is not loose) was practically perfect.

Heading into tonight’s match-up versus Tampa Bay there are concerns that the Stanley Cup parade will not follow its usual route due to the decrepit state of Montreal’s infrastructure. City officials insist however that closing off streets which are already closed presents no logistical challenges whatsoever.

Sunday, 12 October 2014





The finish on the trim beneath our coffee and beer mug cupboard has evapourated. The oak is bare. The strip of wood is directly above the place on the kitchen counter where the kettle boils and steams. The top rims of the doors beneath the sink are equally grey from shaken dishwater hands, slopping pots and damp tea towels. The minor maintenance can wait until it’s too cold to go outside for any reason other than a quick cigarette.


The city is awash in shades of green and gold with warmer accents of burgundy and the iron oranges of rust and decay. You suspect most of Alberta looks this way today. The growing season is over and here’s hoping a healthy harvest is all in despite September snows. The sky is the idealistic blue of song, too perfect to be real. The sun feels hotter on your skin than you’d expect. The wind is up and whatever is being carried on it smells good.

Perhaps it’s patently absurd to be raking leaves in an ever-shifting breeze; maybe this is the nature of existence. A single leaf is seemingly weightless, but it doesn’t float or fall upward. An oversized clear yard bag crammed full of birch leaves with the spaces between them compressed packs a deceptive amount of weight. After the knot is tied it appears as if no work has been done. The lawn’s already dappled again with crinkled gold. Yet a bag today means one less tomorrow. Anyway, it’s no puny gift to be pottering around outdoors wearing jeans and just a t-shirt in mid-October.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014





Way, way back in 1998 Quebecor Media Inc. forked over $1 billion to acquire the tabloid newspapers of the Sun Media chain. News broke Monday that these diminishing print assets will be sold (pending federal approval) for $316 million to Postmedia Network Canada Corp. which publishes competing broadsheet newspapers in the same markets. Postmedia already competes against itself in B.C.’s Lower Mainland as it owns both the Province and the Sun (which is not a Sun Media paper). The proposed deal is being financed by U.S. investors, vulture bonds and stolen credit card numbers.


Former Sun Media chief and current Postmedia president and CEO Paul Godfrey (this guy’s been recycled more times than an NHL coach) told a group of his business reporters, ‘In fact, I don’t consider other newspapers competitors at all, because everything is going digital.’ The rival Globe and Mail had the same quote this way: ‘I think the world is different now. I don’t consider the other newspapers competitors at all.’


While the difference is subtle, it is there and that’s why any engaged reader should always seek alternative points of view of major events. Both reports agree Mr. Godfrey perceives his competition to be Internet entities such as Google, Yahoo! and FaceBook. And he doesn’t mean well crafted editorial content, he means advertising revenue. A quarter page full colour General Motors ad matters more than the news of G.M.’s absurdly escalating, never ending vehicle recall; partnership is paramount.


Both Postmedia and Sun Media have taken giant steps to eliminate jobs, centralize production and streamline content across their suites of titles. If this deal goes down, debt-ridden Postmedia will have essentially doubled its workforce, doubled its print presence in major Canadian centres, doubled its real estate holdings and doubled its digital platforms. Despite the usual assurances of business as usual, you can write the story’s ending. In Calgary the Herald/National Post plant is up for sale.


The message is clear. Canadians will be left with a media monolith, albeit one that is a shell of itself, intent on being all things to all people anywhere, anyhow. It’s about siphoning mouse clicks from Twitter. A cynic or a realist may argue that advertising is the true backbone of democracy because its monies are the traditional means of support for our beleaguered fourth estate. Mr. Godfrey sure gets that part; his company will be able to provide media buyers a multitude of attractive options among numerous platforms across the country. You worry about the other part of the equation. The primary function of the free press, whichever form it may take, is to gather and disseminate news, provide diverse and informed opinion and hold society’s leaders to account. This role, this ability to provide meaningful content has already been diminished in both chains, sacrificed to operational efficiencies.


Admittedly things have changed since we began to browse the World Wide Web with a certain ease back in 1993. Classified ads, a cash king for newspapers, migrated to the Internet; the market adjusted prices for this service accordingly. Morning newspapers became fusty and staid, readership dropped off the face of the Earth as the world kept turning online. Savvy governments, politicians, special interest groups, companies and sports teams quickly realized they could speak around the hardboiled cynicism of veteran beat reporters. We lick the mucous from the palms of our hands.

Mr. Godfrey has misinterpreted Postmedia’s place in the Digital Age. Now more than ever we need a sober filter for everything which put Postmedia up against the wall in the first place. The decision here should have been to fight. Fight back with quality content while being patient enough to wait for the long term payoff, for enlightened readers and advertisers to return. Tell that to a hedge fund. A once trusted source has surrendered its integrity. A lot of us will be left a lot less informed. We will glean that wherever we may live by the prettily sliced pie chart on page two.

Monday, 6 October 2014



Big Sky Sketches: Butte and Missoula


Visitors to Butte, Montana tend to depart the decidedly depressed and dying city with a very firm impression. They call it Butt. The scars of open pit copper mining are all around. A tourist ‘Discovery’ map suggests a visit to Bowman Appliance. Butte is the epitome of a western busted boomtown. Better days were a century ago and they’re not returning any time soon. However history is not entirely mean spirited and there are certain charms to be found along downtown streets named Platinum, Mercury and Quartz.


The core feels like an incredibly elaborate Hollywood back lot. Most of the buildings are brick and feature elegant entrances and facades. Black iron fire escapes dangle at crazy angles. Alas, many of the window panes are plywood. Although it’s a National Historic District Butte needs a little maintenance and a fresh coat of paint. And yet, from the Copper King mansions on the hill down to the Old City Jail, you can picture a film being shot here, likely set between the world wars. One version of the American Dream was found and lost here; and Our Lady of the Rockies, a blindingly white 90-foot statue of the Virgin perched atop a mountain peak, looked on but didn’t hear the prayers.


Friday night the Montana Tech Orediggers commence their hockey season against Utah State. Twenty-two players are listed on the ’Diggers roster. Sixteen are Canadian. Nine of those 16 are Albertans and every single one them majors in petroleum engineering. There’s seating on just one side of the ice, wooden accordion benches you generally see in high school gyms. They’re packed with students, there’s no bad seat and the hockey is superb. Up close to the game, Ann’s taken aback by its velocity and violence; scheduling and geography dictate a matinee rematch some 18 hours from tonight’s opening puck drop. The rink itself is akin to a Quonset hut; we’re fatigued from driving and shiver in the crowd’s Budweiser body heat.


After the first period we head outside to warm up. The girl at the entrance, selling tickets, handing out programs and stamping hands, an Edmontonian, tells me it’s okay to bring my American flag tin of Bud into the parking lot. ‘This is Butte! Anything goes!’ A pretty blonde girl half my age who’s already had one too many needs to know if I’m having a good time. I enjoy the moment up until she calls me ‘Sir.’ The incident is accompanied by a mind flash. I suddenly remember a story about my late brother impersonating a plastic surgeon specializing in breast augmentation one late night in a bar. ‘I suppose I could examine them here if you’d like.’


Saturday morning we drive through the rain to a Walgreen’s pharmacy. Ann has a hankering for a rare snack, something we can’t get in Canada, maybe a Hershey Mr. Goodbar. The clerk practically pays us to saunter out with a case of beer and two packages of cigarettes; God bless America.


In downtown Butte an entire block of Park Street is closed to traffic to accommodate the weekly farmer’s market which runs May through September. The rain is cold and there are no customers. Sellers are breaking down their stalls, packing up. Ann makes a pity purchase of baked goods but the prices keep dropping and our mound of pies, loaves and cookies on the table beneath the vinyl pavilion keeps expanding. I wander around sipping a Miller Lite because I can; this is my kind of open carry. Montana, like most U.S. states, has no bottle bill so I can simply toss my worthless empty tin into the trash. Beverage manufacturers, distributors and liquor, grocery and convenience stores refuse to be responsible for collecting the containers they sell; perhaps there are recycling elves I don’t know about.


This morning Ann handed me a capsule filled with fish oil. ‘What’s this for?’ She was scrambling eggs in a frying pan. ‘Brain function, memory… I forget what else.’ Um. Last night I did promise to make our Sunday breakfast. Uh-oh. And if I’d been thinking at all about our trip to Montana, we’d’ve gotten our heads out of Butt and turned up in Missoula one day sooner. Our Sunday arrival there was the day after the University of Montana’s Homecoming football game against Montana State. In these parts the Grizzlies are gridiron gods; there is the Big Sky Conference and then the NFL. Weekends consist of two days, praise the Lord.


The U of M operates its own team store downtown. The range of maroon and silver gear and merchandise is astounding. A visiting alumnus in a Grizzlies sweatshirt tells me, ‘That’s nothing. You should see what they sell on campus in the bookstore.’ The fellow follows Canadian football. He’s hoping former Stampeders and Lions quarterback and current Calgary offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson will return to his alma mater as head coach some day soon. An enlarged, framed full colour action shot of Dickenson as Grizzly QB hangs in the corridor near our hotel room door. In fact, the entire Holiday Inn is decorated with images of U of M athletes. A tired looking desk clerk informs us that we missed one hell of a party here last night following Saturday afternoon’s big game. Rumpled fraternity and sorority banners still hang in the atrium. GO GRIZZ!


Too much football just ain’t enough. The sidewalk sandwich board outside the stylish Top Hat Lounge reads: BEARS VS PACKERS. THAT’S IT. No daily specials needed today. Around the corner at Red’s Bar, a football-themed dive with remarkably tolerable bathrooms, every NFL game underway at the moment is being shown across a multitude of flat screens. Focusing attention on one single tilt is near impossible. Expensive team apparel aside, the kids are all dressed like delinquent hippies with random lanyards hanging from the pockets of pants belted below the crotch. However they are all disconcertingly polite when not yelling at the TVs and insist on calling me ‘Sir.’ Granted, Ann and I were the only folk in the joint trying to enjoy the Sunday New York Times amid the din and the crunched peanut shells underfoot.

There’s nothing like the daily news to ground you when a holiday becomes a tad surreal. You try to tune the world out when you’re away from home but it keeps spinning and seemingly more often out of your personal control than not. We order another round and conclude that it’s time to turn around, re-cross the Continental Divide and head north back to our reality. But hasn’t it been fun being tucked into a picturesque city of football fanatics? For a while at least nothing else mattered.

Saturday, 4 October 2014



I Saw the Mermaids Swimming


Ancient roads mainly served trade and troops, easing the movement of goods and men. Miles from nowhere with the smooth, painted asphalt both receding and stretching out ahead you think about that and how times have changed. America’s highways system is the unforeseen legacy of Henry Ford and the advent of mass production. A vast and radically regionalized country became accessible to nearly every citizen. The highway is a central component of the great, undefined American Myth, imagery ingrained in the canons of Kerouac or Springsteen.


These roads of freedom come with many costs, some hidden, some painfully apparent. The Interstate system makes this very clear. Small, interesting places become bypassed backwaters. In larger centres the pre-fab freeway exit clusters cater to all: comforting fast food outlets, chain hotels and gasoline. Why visit a downtown slowly dying of strangulation by international brands? If you decide to snub Main Street or Central Avenue for polyester you will miss character; you will miss humanity in all of its delightful insanity.


I want to tell you about the O’Haire Motor Inn smack in the middle of Great Falls, Montana. I need to tell you about the Sip n’ Dip Lounge, the Sip-N-Dip Lounge or possibly the Mermaid Lounge – it all depends upon whether you read the awning, O’Haire’s literature or the sign inside beside the one that welcomes you to a grassy, aquatic paradise. The elbow rest tracing the line of the curved Arborite bar is turquoise Naugahyde or some other sort of pleather, padded. The standard altar of hard liquor lines the rear of the bar. Behind the bottles mermaids cavort; mermaids young enough to make you feel middle-aged and slightly creepy. The inn’s swimming pool has a clear side, a direct view into its depths from happy hour. Would-be strippers wearing bikini tops and elaborate fishtails don’t quite do the back-stroke or the crawl, nor do they tread water; they are sunken sirens. They pout and move so languidly that time itself has stopped. This is 60s glitz on the eve of 2015.


We are here because Ann has been here before and she needed to know if the Mermaid Lounge was still a going concern. In 1969 the Judge drove his then 13-year-old daughter and his two sons from Camrose to Drumheller and then kept going all the way to Great Falls. Ann remembers swimming in the O’Haire Motor Inn’s pool with her brothers and making silly faces at their father while he sat in the Mermaid and washed the highway dust from his throat. Relax and keep an eye on your kids? The Sip n’ Dip remains the Platonic ideal.


While the Judge sipped his beer, it’s likely he was seduced by suave and sophisticated sounds of Piano Pat. Her gig at the O’Haire Motor Inn has lasted 50 years to date. The bartender says she’s 79. The desk clerk says she’s 82. They both agree Pat’s been playing the Mermaid Lounge almost forever although she’s recently cut back her schedule to just four nights a week. Pat and the mermaids start at nine.


Pat’s encased in a little Polynesian redoubt. You can have a drink on the perimeter and look down on her triple bank of organ and piano keyboards, a cheesy backbeat machine Charlie Watts could not abide, her red earrings and her dyed perm. While Ann and I are there Piano Pat sort of Leonard Cohen raps Irving Berlin’s ‘Puttin’ On the Ritz.’ ‘Friends In Low Places’ (I’ve always liked this one, good words, so sue me) is slaughtered along with most of Johnny Cash’s greatest hits. Her wretchedness is borderline sublime.

Jesus. Ann’s taking pictures and video with her iPhone, just like everybody else in the joint. When she pauses we look at each other. Is this a joke we’re not in on or is all of this legit? Piano Pat doesn’t so much launch into Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man,’ but teeter. We have to turn away. We order more draft beer. We’re off the Interstate and we don’t have to drive again until sometime tomorrow morning. And anyway, tonight there are hot mermaids to look at.

Thursday, 2 October 2014



Tell Tale Signs, Highways and Hotels


We motored south with maps and music and wound up in Missoula, Montana before turning north and heading home to Alberta’s capital. There was fanciful talk beforehand of maybe visiting Yellowstone and the Little Bighorn battlefield. The road led us elsewhere. We drove a portion of the Great Northern Plains. We crossed and re-crossed the Continental Divide of the Americas. We crossed the great Missouri River more times than Lewis and Clark combined, at least it felt that way. We travelled with only a couple of reservations but there were many more stops.


Before the kilometres turn into miles at Sweet Grass, some signs along the four divided lanes of Queen Elizabeth II foreshadow the mentality in America’s fourth largest state. KNOW JESUS KNOW HOPE; NO JESUS NO HOPE - although maybe I’d feel that way too if I lived outside of Red Deer with winter coming on. Another homemade sign, spray painted on the flank of a rusted and ancient piece of farm machinery, reads GOD IS. Some sort of game show quiz. Dead? Bored? Indifferent? Fill in the blank. MORE ALBERTA LESS OTTAWA hangs from a fence facing the highway south of Calgary. In Montana, well, it just got weird.


‘Mary, Mary, you’re on my mind, folks are gone and the place is going to be mine.’ We saw Our Lady radiant and holy in blue and white on billboards. Since the miracle of the virgin birth is dodgy dogma to anyone other than Catholics, the type trumpets BLESSED MOTHER MARY WAS PRO-LIFE, THANK HEAVENS or THE MOST SACRED GIFT FROM GOD IS A CHILD. In a valley between Butte and Missoula that belongs to Jesus, a pictured infant urges drivers to TAKE MY HAND AND NOT MY LIFE. In the Alias Smith & Jones pawnshop in Great Falls, a used, clunky matte black Colt .45 automatic is retailing for $495.


We exited the Interstate seeking gasoline and toilets. We’re in Lewis and Clark County and we’ve ended up in Craig, an unincorporated place that seems too tiny to warrant a map dot, let alone a name. There are train tracks and half an acre of gravel. The lawyer and the real estate agent share the same shack or trailer. Maybe they are one and the same. There is a bar of course. At noon there were a few hungover hard guys with bad teeth slouched, leaning on their forearms, sipping Mountain Dew or Pepsi. The ceiling’s tacked with Erma Bombeck witticisms scrawled on sheets of dry cleaners’ shirt cardboard; somewhere a retired cherry red Reader’s Digest editor beams ‘Life’s Like That!’ Isn’t alcoholism just the pits!


Our reception in Shelby’s Tap Room WHERE THE BEER’S COLDER THAN YOUR EX-WIFE’S HEART was a little warmer; the owner gave us souvenir coozies and American flag pens. The irony of stoning outsiders in Craig is that the three other businesses on the gravel are trout fishing outfitters reliant on visitors. A river runs through Craig. You can’t help thinking about the prose of Norman Maclean and did Robert Redford direct the film starring Brad Pitt? Other Western writers (because there is an Eastern prejudice) like Wallace Stegner and Ivan Doig spring to mind as do Canadian authors Guy Vanderhaeghe and W.O. Mitchell. You think of Sportsman cigarettes, Hemingway casting a fly and the flat realism of a yellowing Norman Rockwell magazine cover. A black pickup swerves into the lot. Dust and pebbles fly. A pot-bellied man wearing cowboy boots, a vest and a cowboy hat stomps out. He might have a meeting with the lawyer. The computer cut lettering on the rear window of his cab is not up for discussion: OBAMA AND TESTER (Jon, senator, Democrat) ARE SOCIALIST PIGS. He’s probably armed. You stand like a hero with the sun at your back, agape and aware that your last Canadian cigarette is tattooing nicotine onto the inside of your index finger. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, saints preserve us.


American roads have mileposts. You count them up or you count them down. When you’re 20 miles from somewhere the road is interminable, endless. Seems like you’ll never get to where you’re going. Haven becomes a Comfort Inn in Butte. The hotel is shaped like a bent rectangle, not a V so much as a check mark. The main entry along with the reception desk is located at one end. Upon checking in the clerk informs us that the elevator is at the other end of the hotel at Entry E and that we should move our car to the other end of the parking lot. We do as suggested only to find that our third storey room is located directly over the lobby. We have driven and walked the entire length of the Comfort Inn. Two flights of stairs with an overnight bag straight up from the front desk would not have been a deal breaker.


Could be there’s some sort of secret body language only hoteliers can read. Ours apparently asked, Can you put us in the most inconveniently located room possible, please? The inns in Great Falls and Missoula were both laid out as large squares. The centre of one was a sunken, enclosed atrium. The centre of the other was a relic from a bygone era, a disused, second storey exterior concrete motor court. Both reception areas are at one of the 90-degree angles. In both cases our assigned room was diagonally opposite the front desk and inaccessible by a direct and obvious route, in other words, about as far away as you can get from the front doors without leaving the building. Calgary was the ultimate: our room was outside of the building, across the fucking street, situated in a lovely Soviet-modern bunker. Aside from the smell, our suite in Lethbridge wasn’t too bad; I swatted five flies to death with the room service menu.


A chilly dawn and a cold, hard rain last Saturday morning in Butte. From the window there are signs all around us: Super 8, Exxon, Burger King, McDonald’s. The sparkly neon of Lucky Lil’s 24-hour casino across the glistening parking lot is lit up; the draft beer is free if you play the machines and there’s a posted caution about problem gambling beside the ATM. Deadhead tour busses execute extravagant turns through the puddles. It’s possible there’s a more miserable tableau elsewhere on the planet.


The magic comes on MT 200, a state artery author William Least Heat-Moon would describe as a ‘blue highway,’ a secondary road. We crest Rogers Pass (the same A. B. Rogers although in this instance in the employ of the Great Northern Railway) and squiggle down the eastern Rocky slope of the Continental Divide. The yellow signs of crazily patterned arrows and low speed limits are no joke. The mountainsides fold and crumple into scrubby, grassy hills and coulees, buttes rise in the distance. The sky gets really big. You can imagine the past haunting this surreal landscape, bands of riders trailing scouts. You recall a line from Deep In the Heart of Nowhere, Bob Geldof’s first solo album: ‘There’s so much beauty, I wish that I believed enough to pray.’ Suddenly the roiling prairie drops like a killer curve ball and we’re zipping past flat cultivated, irrigated fields, blurs of lovely greens and golds.

There’s a sign along the property line to the left, as there must be. IN OUR COUNTRY WE TRUST BUT NOT OUR GOVERNMENT. This strikes us as a reasonable sentiment provided the sloganeer is a rational being. Still, it’s good to know we’re just an hour from the Canadian border, even if things are not all that different on our side.