Tuesday, 24 February 2015



A Sort of Homecoming


Calgary was a 20-year layover. My time in The Heart of the New West was great, good, bad and horrible. The same as it is for anybody anywhere else. The energy capital of Canada was the backdrop for a lot of the latter half of the prime of my life. But I never grew attached to her even as I made my way, established myself and then repeatedly made a mess of things. But I made a lot of friends who have stuck by me.


Six or seven years ago I was sitting with a local in a Liverpool pub called The Baltic Fleet. We were four minutes’ walk from the gussied up Albert Docks and the Mersey. My pint glass was half full and the rest was history. ‘I’ve heard of the Calgary Stampede,’ my companion said, ‘but other than that, is there any reason for me to go there?’


‘There are some absolutely spectacular national and provincial parks in the vicinity,’ I replied, ‘gorgeous. Do you enjoy hiking or skiing?’


‘But the city itself, mate?’


‘Ah, no.’


That was not an entirely fair remark. The archeological record suggests that the human footprint at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers is at least 10,000 years-old. Permanent settlement coincided with the erection of a North-West Mounted Police fort and the establishment of a Canadian Pacific Railroad depot. Calgary has since spilled across the prairie like the viscous cargo of a ruptured tanker car, the sprawl barely contained by the lines of adjacent counties. It is a young city, poorly planned around the automobile and it lurches in and out of gear, wedded to the boom-and-bust cycle of the energy industry. She needs another couple of generations at least to foster the eclectic neighbourhoods that characterize Canada’s older and more seductive urban centres. Perhaps she will find her funk and soul in the 22nd century. A city is never finished.


I’m gone already and I will most certainly be a goner by then.


The salt-white highway into town is as straight as a Roman iter. The surrounding landscape is a wrinkled, leathery and scrubby tan scabbed with patches of snow. Ann’s driving and concentrating on three ever-shifting lanes of crud encrusted pickup trucks, wild rose Alberta plates obscured by mud. She asks me if there’s anything special I’d like to do while we’re here. We’ve driven south listening to John Hiatt to attend two parties thrown by old friends whom I’ve missed since I moved back north.


I know that the first house I ever bought, a sturdy 1905 bungalow at 1312 Gladstone Road has since been demolished and replaced by a strikingly ugly cubist condominium. There’s no absolution to be had at the other four addresses although there are some former neighbours whose company I enjoyed and whose fates I wonder about from time to time. The old work places don’t matter much to me anymore. I’ve haunted indie record shops from Halifax to Victoria and every proprietor I’ve chatted with knows about Recordland, that musty, dusty rat’s nest of music across the Elbow from the hind end of the Calgary Zoo. Ann and I have our own vinyl walkabout in Edmonton, so, no, a stop in Inglewood is not essential. My two favourite pubs in Calgary, the Unicorn on the Stephen Avenue Walk and Bottlescrew Bill’s behind the Palliser Hotel, underneath and beyond the CPR tracks, are both downtown and therefore immediate victims of extortionist parking rates. We’re not there.


The puny pang of pain in the passenger’s seat springs from a surprising source. Not the pike teeth Rockies on the western skyline but rather, what has become of Amin Donair & Subs? Later that evening as we ride the train through the Seventh Avenue downtown transit corridor, I cross to the left side of the carriage and attempt to peer into the darkness. There’s the Canadian Bible Society block. Beside that, Amin’s dangling wooden sign has sort of been painted over: apparently he only serves samosas now. The steel shutters are secured though the night is too young to display amateur graffiti. The old Coroplast promise of 50-cent coffees “Take Out Only” is still there beneath the armoured sliding order window.


That stretch of Seventh, constrained by a brick furniture store (a shabby relic from the days when signs were painted onto buildings) and a lovely grey stone United church, used to be nasty. I began to buy my cigarettes three weekday mornings every working week from Amin. I walked a gauntlet of crackheads between the bus and the train to get to him. The desperate and the walking dead in their hoodies and track pants weren’t fearsome, they were too wasted and useless to be a threat, annoying wraiths in the freezing dark. I got to know Amin slightly over the course of a decade; I think he liked me because I was a marginally better class of customer.


Amin was a slight, brown-skinned gentleman. He always wore a long white butcher’s coat in his tiny restaurant. I do know that he was a devoted follower of the Aga Khan which makes me guess he was a Sunni Muslim. The various sects are mysteries to me. Every year at Christmastime he would present me with a Bic lighter, a gift. He often described his annual holidays which zigged to Toronto or Ottawa and then zagged to Cairo or Cape Town. If the price of cigarettes was going to rise, I got advance stock up warning.


Back home in Edmonton, I was so pleased to see that Amin Donair & Sub warranted five stars at urbanspoon.com and then distressed that the site indicated Amin’s had closed. The place was a dump, but the food was good and the sad lone toilet in the back was not overly disgusting. When Amin was cooking chicken on the spit I always lingered to inhale the aroma, contemplating skipping work to savour a decent sandwich drizzled with a sweet or hot sauce to be followed by a carefree, roaming day on the streets of Calgary.

Calgary cannot come of age without people like Amin presiding over their quirky little shops. He may not remember me but I remember him. A city needs its special places because not every visitor from Liverpool will be lucky enough to hang out and laugh with my old friends. Every place in the world, wherever it may be, is fundamentally us: ordinary, average, everyday people. Doesn’t matter where we are; doesn’t matter if a city’s builders have got it drastically wrong so far.