Sunday, 30 August 2015


The Nowhere Road

We live a few hundred metres from a recent ruin in the river valley everybody around here knows as the End of the World. A useful, poorly engineered connector called Keillor Road slid into the North Saskatchewan River, the casualty of a steep and swiftly eroding river bank. The mini disaster occurred in 2003. And good riddance, uphill it was a bastard of a bicycle climb. Fortunately, City of Edmonton engineers were savvy enough to listen to the warning tremors. Keillor was closed to traffic long before it dropped off the face of the Earth.

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look upon my works, ye Mighty and despair!” There’s something compelling about “vast, trunkless legs of stone,” ruins, whether they date from antiquity or these times. All human structures (indeed our institutions and every single one of us as well) must eventually decay and collapse. Perhaps counter-intuitively, we tend to preserve remains because mortal wreckage possesses its own eerie beauty and, anyway, we seem to value our touchstones and reminders.

The End of the World as I know it consists of a concrete ledge, graffiti tagged cement pilings, a treacherous slope and an incredible vista of the great meandering river which eventually empties into Hudson’s Bay. The area has been fenced off and NO TRESPASSING signs are abundant. Unsurprisingly, the site, with its whiff of illegality and danger, became a magnet for young people after dark. And honestly, if I was 35 years younger, I’d probably be hanging out on this spectacular precipice with a six-pack and a bag of pot albeit wearing sensible shoes with their laces tied and double-knotted.

Congregating kids create community concerns. Whether they were reared by Baptists or educated by Jesuits, unleashed teens are more destructive than house pets. As the gang grows, so does the lack of good manners and common sense. The trouble with bush parties isn’t young people having frowned upon fun so much as the aftermath of ecological damage, vandalism and, particularly galling to me, littering a parks area.

Thanks to the efforts of our community league members, End of the World has become bigger than our neighbourhood. The City is now actively engaged in determining the future of the site rather than just ticketing trespassers. To me, the most sensible solution of those floated is to safely exploit the uniqueness of a modern urban ruin. Transform End of the World into a modest attraction in a river valley trail system already rife with modest attractions, opening the site to all would virtually eliminate its existing illicit lure.

The fundamental flaw of any community is that it must necessarily be made up of people, some of whom can be incredibly petty. It’s impossible to please everybody; the greater good becomes an abstract sticking point. The impending irony is that the uptight folk who agitated about a localized and extraordinarily minor social problem may yet gripe about the fallout from a potentially visionary and elegant civic action: an increased influx of visitors to our neighbourhood and a lack of parking. I suspect that these are the same sad souls who moan about the happy, lively noises that emanate from the outdoor amphitheatre and the university athletic field in our district. While the process is far from concluded and there are no guarantees that the correct course of action will be taken, there is one fragment of advice to impart to a cohort of my concerned neighbours: When you contemplate the End of the World, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

Monday, 24 August 2015


Tube Steak Boogie

Up until about 1:45 last Saturday afternoon I could’ve told you that I will always eat a hot dog or any type of wiener or sausage nestled in a bun. I have consumed hot dogs from the 7-11 and enjoyed them, okay? And up until about 1:45 last Saturday afternoon I’d had a pretty good five decades-long graze at the tube steak table because, well, it’s not easy to botch a hot dog.

August’s glorious glut of one of my favourite foods began earlier this month in Kensington, Prince Edward Island. A little beyond the town’s sole set of traffic lights along the highway to Summerside is a seasonal, roadside dairy bar called Frosty Treat Est. 1973). Ann ordered a cone of vanilla soft ice cream dipped in chocolate and covered with crushed nuts. I had an exquisite whistle dog, the one I’d been aching for since the one I’d had there last summer. Both bun and wiener were grilled to perfection, the orange cheese gooey just so and the bacon freshly fried. Sitting at a picnic table munching a whistle dog on the sunny side of life in PEI was nothing short of sublime.

Upon our return to Edmonton we made the first of our three visits to the annual Fringe theatre festival. We had time to kill before a lunch hour performance and so wandered over to the Fat Franks food truck (Gourmet fun in a bun… since 1995!). We ordered two jumbo dogs on whole wheat buns. The beer mustard had a nice kick and a mellow after-burn which did not overpower the crunchy brine of the sauerkraut and sliced dill pickles.

The next day we drove out to Costco. We didn’t really need anything aside from cat litter and coffee, however we had two coupons for a free hot dog and soda which were due to expire. My companion and I opted for Polish sausages. Ann waited in line while I hunted unsuccessfully for a clean, unoccupied table. We enjoyed our meal by a garbage can and the woefully inadequate condiment area which featured mere yellow mustard, sweet green relish and ketchup. As Dirty Harry growled to one of his doomed partners in one of the films: ‘Nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog.’ It was no small gift to belch and then inhale clouds of Polish sausage gas for the balance of the afternoon.

Because there’s generally just the two of us at home and because Costco only sells goods in grotesquely large amounts, we went to our local grocer the next day. The specials were good last week. Buy one package of Schneiders All Beef Wieners and get the second one free; we love buy one, get one (BOGO) deals and this one was prime, I’m talking about The official hot dog of the Toronto Blue Jays here, their logo is on the packaging and everything! Because we were going to meet friends early on in the evening in the Fringe beer tent, I opened a package of wieners and fired up the barbecue. ‘When did they starting putting just 10 in a package?’ I wondered. We enjoyed the major league taste on lightly toasted buns garnished with whole grain mustard, dill relish, sauerkraut and kosher dill pickle slices.

So far, so good. Alas, the trouble with appetite is that too much isn’t enough until suddenly, for whatever reason, it is. We met our mutual Waterloo about 1:45 last Saturday afternoon near the corner of 109th Street and 87th Avenue. On previous excursions I’d been intrigued by a new joint called IT’ DOG and although I couldn’t account for the stray apostrophe, I hoped that it might measure up to the haute cuisine of PEI’s Frosty Treat or at least Fat Franks.

We’d walked the tram tracks tracing a gently meandering bluff overlooking the North Saskatchewan River from a Fringe performance in a jazz club in Old Strathcona into the heart of the university district, Garneau. We were hungry and we had about 25 minutes to grab a bite before our next show. A trendy café with palatable food was too densely lined up and there was nobody next door in IT’ DOG. No warning sirens sounded because a couple of Edmonton police constables followed us into the store for their lunches. ‘Let’s change it up,’ I said to Ann, ‘let’s have bratwurst.’

‘Two brats, please.’ ‘Bread is extra.’ ‘No, brats. Two bratwurst, please. In buns.’ ‘Okay, but bread is extra.’ ‘Whatever.’ ‘My second day.’ ‘That’s nice.’

We sat down in a booth to await our order. On the wall behind Ann distracting Korean pop music videos played on a flat screen television. Pre-teen girls acting like strippers made me squirm; I felt like a composite perv, someone named, I don’t know, maybe Jared Duggar? Our bratwursts were served in incredibly fresh pretzel style buns even as this particular sandwich rage has faded into last year. The condiment selection was better than Costco’s. Our main worry was a simple question: Was it possible to undercook what we dearly hoped and prayed was precooked pork sausage?

The men’s room was immaculate. Given what I’d attempted to gag down, this came as no small relief.

Sunday, 23 August 2015


Combing the Fringe

Edmonton has its share of problems, big and small. The simultaneous replacement of two bridges, both of which provide critical access to downtown, is a year behind schedule. A simple light rail spur line from Central Station to a nearby university and a neighbouring technical college is slated to perhaps commence operations some 16 months later than projected. Apparently that train will be safe to ride when the fall semester begins although savvy transit users may not wish to be beta testing guinea pigs.

In softer news, the developers of the city’s new hockey arena and its adjacent sister real estate projects hired and paid a Calgary public relations firm to dub the area in question Ice District, articles like ‘the’ strictly verboten. This instant branding tactic is unfortunate on at least two levels. Cities age and evolve. Locals here were pre-empted in providing a colourful and colloquial phrase for the shining jungle rising in their concrete core. Also, social media wags quickly affirmed Edmonton as the crystal meth capital of Canada, and that stung a little bit as City Hall had recently and rightfully disavowed the puerile ‘City of Champions’ civic slogan. (There’s no denying that people are clever. I want to meet the chemist who contemplated the cleansers in the cupboard beneath his kitchen sink and thought, ‘Hey, I can synthesize an incredibly destructive and highly addictive drug out of this stuff!’)

One of the more reliable and viable things in this town is the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. The 10-day event is celebrating its 34th summer. To date, the Edmonton Journal has reviewed and rated 108 plays, musicals, improvs, one-person shows and God knows what else from an advertised slate of 203. Most of the 43 performance venues are concentrated on the south side of the North Saskatchewan River hard by the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s end-of-steel. The festival’s main grounds teem with buskers and street performers looking to lighten theatre lovers’ wallets.

There is, thank Christ, a beer tent because I am my mother’s son and I can spend hours just people watching, and ‘Oh! Mary Riley!’ how some folk choose to dress down for hot weather can be waay too much to bare. The trouble with beer as an antidote, of course, is that one may eventually start seeing double.

Real life is theatre. Daily we don our costumes and play our roles at work and at home. The Internet allows one to assume a new identity, a new persona. All of us are actors a lot of the time, but it takes a type of courage I’ve never possessed to trod the boards for a living. My theatrical experience is limited; I know that bad theatre makes it impossible for me to suspend my sense of disbelief. I played juror number six in Twelve Angry High School Boys. The most memorable first run play I ever saw was David Fennario’s Balconville, a bilingual comedy set in the Point, a working class neighbourhood in Montreal. I’ve endured A Christmas Carol. I dated an actress once, a nice, stable woman. I think ‘On Broadway’ by the Drifters is a great song.

Cultural mavens that we are, Ann and I took in four 2015 Fringe shows, none of which lasted longer than an hour nor cost more than a movie. Meanwhile, veteran attendees mutter that the Fringe is following the path of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, that it’s becoming too big and too impersonal.

2 Ruby Knockers, 1 Jaded Dick: A Dirk Darrow Investigation was a cornball detective noir spoof involving stand-up, storytelling, magic and sleight-of-hand. Afterward Ann complained about soreness in her cheeks, who knew she could hurt herself laughing.

Mike Delamont: Mama’s Boy allowed an actor to step out of his comedic comfort zone (God Is a Scottish Drag Queen III) to relate a bittersweet and affectionate portrait of his late, adoptive mother who was both a widow and a troubled alcoholic. At one point in his youth he engineered his own entry into foster care. Deft handling of such harrowing material, perhaps a form of therapy for Delamont, drew misty-eyed smiles.

A frantically paced multi-media show entitled The No Bull$#!% History of Canada easily trumped Conrad Black’s recently published Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present for brevity. Humour and history can make for complicated bedfellows; this mildly amusing amalgamation of factoids and punch lines was incapable of offending anybody at all.

The Garneau is the last art deco cinema left in Edmonton. Saturday afternoon it revisited its roots in vaudeville, hosting a one-man musical revue called Six Guitars. The actor/musician/comedian alternated playing the role of one of six clichéd archetypes: a head-banger, a folkie, a jazz cat, a bluesman… The theatre was dark and close… The seats up in the balcony were comfortable… We dozed off, middle-aged victims of a late night last night. A full house standing ovation at the finale woke us up.

Whether or not any of the four shows Ann and I caught or any of the other 199 we missed will endure is moot; the Fringe was here. It leaves tonight. Traffic patterns in Old Strathcona will return to normal. The festival is the unofficial sayonara to summer; Labour Day is just around the corner and Edmontonians will start dressing properly again. What lingers is the festering recrimination of the gut bombs, the artery-clogging and heart-stopping consumption of fair food: green onion cakes, samosas, donairs, jumbo hot dogs and lamb sausage in pita. Hot sauce on everything! Here’s hoping Fringe delicacies don’t hurt me twice; I’ve no wish to collapse shovelling snow next winter.

Sunday, 16 August 2015



Alex Colville Could’ve Been a Friend of Mine


Does it seem strange to describe a musician as visionary? Ornette Coleman died in June. Yeah, he could be discordant, but like all great jazzmen he was searching for that one note, seeking the connective magic in the ether, striving for the transcendental grace that may yet peacefully unite every living thing on this filthy, infected planet. Ornette’s obit hit me hard. We’re losing the greats with increasing frequency and nobody else is stepping up to fill the gaping gaps.


I sat outside on an aluminum framed strap lawn chair underneath the Ohio buckeye. I methodically cleaned and oiled my weapons, just for something to do. I smoked. I sipped from a bottle of single malt, a decade old and peaty. I was in a deep blue funk.


I heard the telephone ring inside the house. Ann Fatale, my gorgeous buxom moll, sashayed outside with the handset. ‘A call for you, big fella,’ she breathed huskily. ‘Are you here?’ I pondered over a mouthful of Scotch and then I nodded, sure. A man whom I’ll call ‘Steve’ was on the line from Ottawa. He had a couple of problems codenamed ‘Nigel’ and ‘Duffy’ that required permanent solutions. Though I knew I would refuse the wet work – I simply was too mood indigo for bloodshed, I agreed to meet with him; the capital is nice this time of year. My name’s Danger, Geoff Danger. I’m a freelance fixer. If you need my services, you’re in big trouble and if I’m coming after you, you’re in bigger trouble; sometimes I maim, but mostly I just kill. Some days I even enjoy my work.


Ann’s Vuitton luggage set was pre-packed. I threw a change of clothes into a battered leather overnight bag. Outside the National Arts Centre is a statue of Oscar Peterson. I sat down beside the great man as there’s room for two on the bronze piano bench. Ann Fatale snapped Oscar and me with a Kodak Instamatic 124. I then beckoned our indiscreet tails over to join me for a confab. Both the Mountie and the CSIS agent looked sheepish. I said, ‘You boys should talk to each other, you’re doubling up and wasting resources. You can shadow us all you want, but I’ll tell you straight up: I’m not here on business.’ I gazed at the new copper roofing on Parliament; in a few more years it would ripen into a Reardon metal green. ‘I could shake you both in the Byward Market, but I’m not going to do that. My baby and me are going to stroll along Sussex Drive to the National Gallery. You can walk with us or meet us there, I don’t care.’


The four of us paused at the guarded cenotaph to bow our heads and then continued on our away. We passed the American embassy and its ornamental car bomb barricades. I wasn’t surprised by the lack of razor wire; Uncle Sam can’t seem to get anything done internally or externally these days. A good friend has lost her way in a partisan maze and anyway, making nice with a Third World shithole like Cuba ain’t exactly détente with China or winning the Cold War, a baby step by a retarded titan. I will tell you in confidence that I’ve had more than a few beers and cigarettes with a senior American official whom I’ll call ‘Barry.’ He is frustrated because his country has lost its unifying sense of self. I offered my services gratis, neighbour to neighbor as it were, maybe I could crush some nuts for him? Seems he’s too decent a man to employ my kind. So it goes.


The National Gallery’s feature exhibition was an extensive retrospective of the works of Alex Colville, a realist whose art I find somewhat unsettling, as if Norman Bates attempted to emulate Norman Rockwell. For too many years this country has celebrated mediocrity simply because it was Canadian and that was the best we could do inside our borders at the time. Colville, like Peterson, was a giant in his field who happened to be Canadian; they were that good. The distinction is important.


Colville began his career as a war artist and then evolved, heightening his view of reality, producing precise geometric noir Hitchcock stills that suggest something bad will happen in the next moment or two. These are portraits of us, the mundane and the hanging threat, our faces obscured, or worse, turned away. I was particularly entranced by his images of naked women holding revolvers; they struck me kind of funny as that’s just my average Friday night with Ann Fatale.


Outside the gallery on the plaza beneath the giant spider sculpture Ann Fatale and I lit cigarettes. Our minders kept their distance. I said, ‘A man can never truly know himself until he examines the darkness in his soul, the pain that came from the cradle. I don’t know how Alex Colville managed to look into mine. I would’ve liked to have met him. We might’ve been friends.’


‘Oh, baby,’ Ann sighed. She rubbed my left forearm. ‘Hey,’ she chirped grinning, ‘how many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?’


‘Don’t know,’ I grunted.


“Fish!’ she giggled.

‘My little honey pot,’ I chuckled, ‘you’re so hilarious as to be illegal.’ I summoned our spooks. ‘All right, boys,’ I whispered hoarsely, ‘now my baby and me are going to walk back along Sussex to the Highlander pub where there are over 200 whiskeys to be had. Ann and I intend to start at A. So, you’ve got to question yourselves because one of you, one of your secret services, will be paying our tab.’

Saturday, 15 August 2015



The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker


Dodos are an extinct species of birds. Rocs and phoenixes are mythical birds. Baseball’s 1934 Gashouse Gang and basketball’s Larry are examples of legendary birds (and if the 2015 Blue Jays stay hotter than a $2 gat, they may yet join the club). Albatrosses, eagles, ravens and rockin’ robins have been celebrated in fable, poetry and song. Woody Woodpecker, Heckle and Jeckle, and Foghorn Leghorn all made good livings starring in classic cartoons. My bird, the one I never flipped, is the yellow-bellied sapsucker.


My father’s parents were English. Provided I took the shortcut through the back alleys, they lived exactly halfway between my house and my elementary school. Nana made the best toasted cheese sandwiches in the world so I would often have lunch in their apartment instead of going home to peanut butter, Campbell’s soup and my frazzled, psychotic mother. My grandparents of course drank tea and it wasn’t just a beverage but a ritual – as were the daily episodes of Coronation Street. Their preferred brand of tea was Lipton. In the late 60s packages of Lipton tea included colour collector cards of North American birds. My never forgotten favourite was the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a musical mouthful of a handle for such a tiny, beaked creature.


My sister and her husband own a relatively remote retreat in Prince County, Prince Edward Island. The nearest town is Kensington, which is near Summerside, which reminds me of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Summer Side of Life,’ which reminds me that he did not play ‘Early Morning Rain’ when Ann and I saw him last November and that irked me at the time though I’ve since gotten over it, but not really, because I was reminded of Gord’s inadequate set list once again while Ann and I spent eight or nine quietly lovely days with Anne and Al on the Island.


The faces of my sister’s two elderly black cats are featureless in most lights, so the eyes have it. Two Marvin the Martians slunk about the old farmhouse, one looking permanently surprised and the other very, very angry. They ventured outside from time to time to eat grass so they could retch inside a little later on. Foxes, raccoons, skunks and rabbits roam the property, but it was the birds that intrigued me.


In Edmonton we keep three birdfeeders stocked and I informally track our various visitors with the aid of an illustrated guide: I can spot the difference between a purple finch and a common redpoll if I cheat and peek in our book. On the Island I was delighted to learn that my brother-in-law is like-minded, seed and suet hang from the trees. A bird book and a pair of binoculars were always close at hand on the front porch.


Hummingbirds thrummed and hovered at pistils and stamens like green garden hallucinations. Plump and astonishingly vibrant American goldfinches frolicked in the two birdbaths my sister tops up daily with captured rainwater. There was a splashy disturbance in one of them, at the cement pedestal bath closest to the crimson maple tree Anne had recently planted in memory of our Dad, an RCAF veteran who, perhaps fittingly, passed peacefully last Remembrance Day, aged 90. Al snatched up his binoculars and zoomed in.


‘That’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker,’ he said.


I said, ‘What? I’ve been waiting my whole life to see one.’


‘Your whole life?’

‘Well, at least since 1968. Gimme those.’ I peered through the lenses. Sure enough, there was an actual yellow-bellied sapsucker. I swear the bird was the exact same one rendered on the Lipton tea card. Well, well, well, I thought, and so we meet at last; I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.