Thursday, 23 February 2017


What Matters

During the late 80s I lived on the ground floor of an apartment tower in downtown Montreal, close to McGill University and Mount Royal. However the view from my suite wasn’t much to look at, my windows faced the rear, down slope into a rectangular well of dead space formed by adjacent high-rises. One warm May evening every tenant had their balcony doors and windows open. And every single one of us sequestered in hundreds of units must’ve been watching the Montreal Canadiens playoff game because when the Habs scored the roar that echoed through that canyon was unlike anything I’d ever heard in my life emanating from a city block.

The New York Rangers are routinely rated by Fortune magazine as the National Hockey League’s most valuable franchise. Ann and I were in New York City on the evening of February 9th. The Rangers had a home game against the Nashville Predators. The event did not appeal to us because the admission price for an experience that did not matter was too high. At game time I was bemused by our fellow patrons in a Manhattan pub who preferred to be engaged by a repeated loop of golf and basketball highlights rather than a live hockey game.

Two nights later in Montreal we tried to enjoy a late casual dinner in a west end neighbourhood pub on Sherbrooke Street called Next Door. The St. Louis Blues were the Canadiens’ visitors. There were more televisions than tables and every one had the game on. The sound was up, cranked to a Spinal Tap level. Having lived away from my hometown for 27 years and following the Habs from a distance, I’d forgotten the insane level to which they matter to the city: they are the alpha dogs in a global metropolis and they’ve been embarrassing to middling since 1993. True, the Edmonton Oilers exert a similar influence on Alberta’s capital, but their mythology is comparatively young and they’ve yet to infiltrate the literature of the region or inspire a university undergraduate comparative theology course.

It’s difficult to mistake the 21st century NHL as the world’s finest purveyor of the greatest game on Earth. Hockey at its highest level has become tactical, specialized, uncreative and often boring. The stars rarely shine. The modern NHL trumpets league parity; that is 15 teams are decent and three of those are elite, and 15 teams are bad and three of those are dismal. The Canadiens ping pong around the median and you cannot help but summon Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contenda.” The Canadiens organization, catering to a fan base nurtured on at least the legend of fire wagon hockey moves in mysterious ways. The executive is as opaque as “the company” in any thriller or science fiction story and is as inscrutable as North Korea’s hair-raising regime. They know what’s best for the team and its followers.

The club’s strategies to revive its dynastic eras, its glory days, are frequently perplexing. Last summer the general manager traded away the team’s attraction, the most dynamic hockey player in decades to have worn the CH crest on his chest. And a miraculous, latter round draft pick who panned out to boot. The message was clear: the organization would not or could alter its ingrained culture and on ice system to accommodate a creative skater. Last week the slumping Habs fired their inflexible coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with Claude Julien. This exact same scenario unfolded more than a decade ago in Montreal. This current course of action may be the only ever actual documented case of déjà vu all over again.

Goaltender Carey Price came down from a higher league to mind the net. The team has relied too heavily on him for too many winters. When his other-worldly skills are on display it simply means that the puck is in the wrong end of the rink. The Canadiens opened the NHL’s meat puppet grinding schedule with a deceptively hot start, going 13-1-1, victorious against teams they were supposed to defeat. Three quarters of the way through the regular season, the Habs hover around .500 at 32-20-8. Reality bites when you can’t beat anybody on any given night. Montreal is still atop the Atlantic Division but only because the other clubs in the grouping are worse. By contrast, the Rangers are 38-19-2, clinging to a mere wild card spot in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, turned on its head this year by Columbus’s discovery of hockey.

The Canadiens lost to the Blues that Saturday night in Montreal. They lost again the next afternoon against the Boston Bruins. The coaching change was made. Following their bye week they lost to the Winnipeg Jets. They then eked out a win against the Rangers at Madison Square Gardens – now that was a game Ann and I would’ve paid to attend!

Spending time on our penultimate day in Montreal, we retired to Ziggy’s Pub on Crescent Street, my home away from home in my hometown. Ten years ago I took my aged mother there for a couple of gin and sodas before we went to watch the Habs versus the Preds. Mom had dolled herself up as if she was attending a game at the Forum in the 70s with her second husband, lipstick and fur, prime seats in the reds, glory days; Ziggy was so gracious and attentive to her. I was so appreciative of the smarm. I love the guitar signed by Keith Richards on the ceiling near the men’s room whose door features a portrait of Canadiens’ legend Ken Dryden in full repose. I love the jukebox. But most of all I love the pub’s proximity to the Canadiens’ home ice and the team memorabilia on the walls, that nearness to greatness. I asked the owner for his pub’s wi-fi password. The secret phrase included “24cups.”

Montreal’s 25th Stanley Cup championship remains ever elusive. My sense is that time has run out for this edition of the team, this incomplete configuration. One step up and two steps back. Still, provided the Habs hang on long enough to qualify for the playoffs, anything can happen. My hunch is that Ziggy won’t be changing his wi-fi password anytime soon though I dearly wish he will have to suffer that nit-pick, deal with that one minuscule inconvenience.

Saturday, 18 February 2017


Long Twin Silver Line

I’m unsure why I love trains as much as I do. There is no railroad tradition in our family, three generations of engineers but nary a Casey Jones. One hundred and fifty years ago this newborn country was stitched together with rails and ties; maybe locomotives, coaches, freight cars and cabooses just chug through Canadian blood. Maybe because we kids gleefully flattened pennies beneath steel wheels in places we weren’t supposed to be. Maybe because when Dad took me downtown for a Saturday adventure we rode the train through Mount Royal seated backward and looking at history in a way. And don’t the mystery trains, the love trains, the peace trains always run on time all down the line in music, literature, film and art? People, get ready.

Manhattan and Montreal, islands, are 600 kilometres apart, a short flight or a six hour drive. The least efficient yet most civilized way to traverse the distance is aboard Amtrak’s silver Adirondack, ten and a half hours from station to station, Penn north to Central. Two fares on Train 69 totaled $178 (US). Travellers to Canada were sequestered in the last coach. My hasty and imprecise headcount indicated about 18 of us. There were plenty of seats and room to move. The luggage racks were more spacious and accommodating than an airplane’s cabin, so like some assholes who fly but don’t quite get the geometry of confined, common spaces, you could’ve perhaps hauled a steamer trunk into the car without checking it. The wi-fi was free although I’m uncertain as to why anyone would want to stare at a screen rather than a big window of rolling landscape; the views even in bleak February were spectacular. This ride is about the journey. And you can get up and move around.

Before the wheel, the introduction of the horse to the continent by the Spanish, and before the great railway boom of the 19th century, there was water. Leaving New York City the Adirondack hugs the eastern bank of the Hudson River. New Jersey is on its other side. The train then traces the western shore of Lake Champlain, a 200-kilometre-long natural boundary between New York State and Vermont. The tracks then parallel the course of the Richelieu River which drains from the lake into the Saint Lawrence near Montreal. Amtrak’s lengthy right of way is essentially the primitive technological enhancement of a natural and ancient highway.

Train 69 had barely departed the dank, subterranean maze of Penn Station before its first stop in Yonkers. This is the problem with the Adirondack, it stops everywhere, seemingly every 25 minutes or so; there’s never an opportunity to build up a good head of steam. In Albany the locomotive and the crew were changed, nicotine addicted passengers gathered on the platform underneath the NO SMOKING sign and lit up. The café car sold food that wouldn’t warrant inclusion in a gas station snack cooler. Unbelievably, the toilets were not breeding grounds for pestilence and disease. The Canadian border authorities at Lacolle were SWAT uniformed, terse and very obviously armed – a disconcerting sign of the times. The inspection delay ran about 45 minutes. The Adirondack left New York one minute behind schedule and arrived in Montreal half an hour early.

Thursday, 16 February 2017


First, We’ll Take Manhattan

Winter travel is a crapshoot, tumbling dice. Ann thought we were overdue for a trip to Montreal to visit with my mother and my sister’s family. And Ann thought it might be fun to preface a return to my hometown with a couple of days in New York City because she’d never been, I hadn’t been there for 35 years and she knew I was busting to experience the Rolling Stones Exhibitionism show, and anyway, what better way to spend an ageing Stones freak’s birthday? Inclement weather chased us along the continent’s eastern seaboard and though we fumed through flight delays and missed connections, we were never stranded by cancellations thanks to the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin.

Last Wednesday night we touched down at LaGuardia hours overdue. The rundown, shabby airport in Queens was deserted. We may’ve been on the last plane in before the weather warnings demanded a cessation of incoming air traffic. We took a black town car to the Ameritania Hotel at West 54th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Our driver was pregnant and her boyfriend had left her because she was pregnant. She said he was only 21 and not ready for the responsibilities inherent in raising a child. She’d quit smoking ‘Like that!’ snapping her fingers. She wondered why women were so upset with President Trump because she really didn’t pay attention to the news. I glanced at Ann and looked out the window, Central Park: yeah, I took a long territorial piss there once a long time ago.

When you change the backdrop you change the conversation. Around midnight Ann and I left our hotel and went next door to a pub called The 3 Monkeys. The joint was long and narrow. The walls were white subway or bathroom tile. The ceiling was stamped tin. Judging from the flags and pennants, The 3 Monkeys is a midtown haven for New York’s NFL Packers and Patriots fans. We were too tired to sleep. It was officially my 57th birthday. We discussed the digital human condition, global politics, our present and our future plans – from a new coat of paint in the laundry room to travel to somehow getting my third novel out there for readers. I am reminded of my only other trip to New York in that I can’t remember much as we both drank four pints of Old Speckled Hen English ale. I do know that Ann and I agreed that we love each other.

We awoke in a fog; the snow had fallen all through the night but we couldn’t gauge its depth peering down from our tenth floor room into a window well of leaky air conditioner rust stained white washed brick. New York is an old New World city, its streets are narrow and if they ran two-way the carnage would be horrifying. There’s a hole in every street surrounded by heavy vehicles and attended to by work crews decked out in florescent vests. We staggered out of our hotel into a honking car jam exacerbated by a cordoned off vented sewer, double stacked rows of garbage bags, driving sleet and windrows of heavy, wet snow. Chaos.

We negotiated Broadway as best we could, mindful of our footing, the foot speed of the locals, the pointy parts of their umbrellas and our eyes. We gazed upon the Disney grotesque that is Times Square and admired the marquees in the Theatre District. We passed Lindy’s deli which is Mindy’s in Damon Runyon’s delightful Jazz Age short stories of New York’s gamblers and gangsters; Arnold Rothstein the New Yorker who fixed the 1919 World Series and who is mentioned in passing in ‘The Great Gatsby’ appears as criminal genius Sky Masterson. I was most struck by the shuttered Brill Building, symbolic of an entirely different era of music. If you consider the music industry perpetually troubled, you need not think beyond the fate of the Brill. Initially, player pianos, phonographs and radio were perceived threats to a business that thrived on the sales of sheet music. Ultimately its three chord death knell was sounded by Bob Dylan and the Beatles, performers who wrote their own material. Songwriters associated with Brill such as Carole King, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon and Lou Reed (!) moved on to do other things.

We caught a Yellow cab to the West Village to go through Exhibitionism. We could’ve ridden the subway but you can’t see much underground. It was closed for the day due to weather conditions. Ann and I looked at each other and started to laugh. There was nothing else to do and where were we stranded anyway? Keeping the Hudson River to our backs we wended our way through the snow and dog shit to Eighth Avenue and flagged another Yellow cab to take us back uptown. We ate dinner at a pizzeria on Broadway called Angelo’s. A decade-old New York Times story in the window announced that one of New York’s great pizza families was back in the game. However, a food critic in a recent issue of The New Yorker sniffed that while Angelo’s was fine for tourists there were better pies to be had in the Big Apple. Fuck it; we were hungry and needed something in our stomachs for a return engagement at The 3 Monkeys. ‘Beast of Burden’ played as we enjoyed our first pint of Old Speckled Hen. ‘Cheers, baby, I love you.’

The Rolling Stones are a seminal band. Beyond the music and the live performances is another layer of cultural depth. They explored other media. In their heyday they drove fashion. Mick Jagger, a London School of Economics dropout, and drummer Charlie Watts, a commercial artist, understand the importance of branding, graphic design, promotion and advertising. All of these jigsaw pieces, stage costumes, Andy Warhol Polaroids, enlarged printer’s proofs, lyrics on hotel courtesy notepaper, assemble into a somewhat complete though obviously orchestrated picture. Keith’s used syringes were not on display.

For us Manhattan was essentially a commando raid or a heist, in and out. When we eventually exited the Exhibitionism merchandise emporium the sun was out and the sky was blue. The time was around noon on Friday, February 10th, our second and last day in the city. We had a sense of Manhattan’s grid now. We wandered from the Meat Packing District and strolled through a portion of Greenwich Village, zigging and zagging between Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Avenues. We explored the Chelsea Market for too short of a time because the frenetic crush of people made me uncomfortable. We were hungry and thirsty but the crowd just didn’t suit. Ann said, ‘We’ll know it when we find it.’ We did. We pried open a 7-Up screen door and ducked through some plastic meat freezer curtain strips into the Trailer Park Lounge and Grill on West 23rd Street; black velvet Elvis was in the building as was every other item of kitsch you’ll find in a dusty low rent antique store. The tikki bar was open. The beer was cold. The food was basic but delicious: tater tots.

Following our respite we walked on past Madison Square Garden and Penn Station back to the Ameritania, or more precisely, The 3 Monkeys. My loose calculation is that we covered some 50 to 60 New York blocks on foot with pauses to peer up at the flourishes in the stone architecture and the chuckling gargoyles: rubes. Ann noted that the blocks got smaller around Times Square. Still, all in all, not an insignificant hike on a sloppy winter’s day. We plan to do it all again for a longer time in better conditions.

Sunday, 5 February 2017


Adventures in the Land of Meat and Dough

Last Thursday was our day of supporting dying craftsmanship. We dropped a two-shoulder hide off with a stout, bearded man who repairs and refurbishes chairs, and only chairs for his living. The leather we bought was supple but scarred with a ranch brand and barbed wire scrapes. So what. Our reclaimed chairs will be tucked under the dining room table or sat upon, and possibly sat upon by somebody with idiotically sharp metal decorations on the ass pockets of their jeans. The crowded space was a workshop, not a showroom. It was not pristine but it smelled good: wood, oil, polish, wax, glue, solvents, fabric and leather.

It was around lunchtime and we were north, across the river and up 124th Street at its intersection with Stony Plain Road. Ann said there was a good pub in the vicinity but she couldn’t remember its name or where it was exactly. We did not find the joint. We continued west along Stony and I watched the reel of commercial signs degrade into payday loans, pawning, rent-to-own, used cars and second-hand vacuum cleaner sales.

We turned back south when we reached the abutting neighbourhoods of Jasper Place and Meadowlark. On 87th Avenue Ann pointed out the Flamingo Restaurant and Lounge, ‘I’ve eaten there.’ I said, ‘Let’s go. There’s parking.’ God help me, the laminated menu shone with possibilities, there were pizzas, calzones, perogies, souvlakia, donairs, submarines, hamburgers… As Ann once observed, ‘Every culture seems to have its signature sandwich or dumpling.’ Flamingo serves up a goodly selection of them at a reasonable price. I was in meat and dough Eden. I said, ‘We’ll have to return soon. I want to try at least half the items on the menu.’

Normally when Ann and I go for lunch we split a dish or forego the sides. Our appetites aren’t what they once were. This becomes problematic in a place like Flamingo because you’re tempted to try pretty much everything. I eventually settled on a donair because I’ve been trying to taste test every single one available in Edmonton. Ann had calzone stuffed with pepperoni and green pepper. Both of us had salad. We shared portions.

Our next chore was back on the south side, the cobbler and more intoxicating smells of wood, oil, polish, wax, glue, solvents, fabric and leather. I calculated that we were about an hour from home, so I thought I’d better try to use the men’s room as icky as it may be. Because I’d had a pint of Keith’s with my spicy meat and dough it suddenly became uncomfortably apparent that I’d no choice. I graciously excused myself to Ann. ‘I have to wash my hands.’ Splayed sticky fingers, ‘Sloppy donair.’

I bent and did the feet check in front of the stall. Empty, however the door was locked. There was no OUT OF ORDER sign. I wiggled and jiggled the bolt and latch. Nothing. I addressed myself in the mirror over the twin sinks, ‘Oh, crap.’ I was too embarrassed to approach any staff back in the restaurant. I briefly considered the ladies’ room but decided that since all of the other guests in the Flamingo were women older than me crossing the quaint gender boundary even in an emergency would just frame me as a masher. I studied the tile floor. The urinal was a few feet from the stall door and there were no shaken dick piss stains that I could see. I took a moment to breathe. I took another moment to pray that nobody else would enter the men’s room. I sat down on the floor with my back to the stall door and shim-sham-shimmied through the gap on my back.

In that instant I should have been imagining myself as any actor who ever played an Allied POW in a Nazi prison camp movie. Instead, I thought about my mother: There is a story in the family canon of her doing exactly the same thing because she did not have a dime for the pay toilet. After Ann and I got home and once I’d showered and changed my clothes, I phoned my mother to tell her what I’d done in Edmonton. Mom laughed. Mom said, ‘I’d forgotten. How do you know about that? Your father and I were in the bar of the Mount Royal Hotel.’

Fifty years between desperate actions. A fine hotel in Montreal’s days of post-war boom or a mundane family business in a strip mall on the west side of Alberta’s capital city, urgent dilemmas aren’t particular. They just run in the family. I am my mother’s son.