Tuesday, 29 August 2017


Here Comes a Regular

When Ann and I cross the river to go downtown, we always take the same bridge. When we emerge from the valley, we’re close to Oliver, a neighbourhood I lived in 25 years ago. Sometimes we drive past a bar on 114th Street called the Gas Pump. Ann says, “That was your old hangout.” “Yeah, it’s still going, amazing.” “We should drop in one day.” “God, I’m afraid I might know somebody.”

In the spring of 1990 I moved from Montreal to Edmonton. I wanted a career that involved a tie and a tweed jacket instead of a tie and an A&P apron. I had limited success in my hometown after university. I did some freelance writing. I’d published a couple of short stories. I hated myself and was profoundly dissatisfied with the life I’d forged. I wanted to be closer to my brother who had moved to Edmonton in 1973. I suppose I needed him to direct me, push me, the way he had when we were growing up in the same house. Trouble was I was married. I did not consult my wife about my plans so much as deliver her a fait accompli; my intent was that she should not be dragged down too.

I rented a one-bedroom in a high rise located on 113th Street near Jasper Avenue, lovely concrete the Wimbledon. There was a living room and a dining area off the galley kitchen, a surprisingly large storage closet and a lengthy hallway to the bathroom that suited my bookshelves. I was finally working in advertising. I began to daydream about writing a novel that would unfold over the course of a Triple A baseball season, bleachers, rain delays, peanut shells and beer cups.

The apartment came with a flaw that was not addressed in any clause of the lease. When I stepped off the bus and took the elevator up to my new home, there I was, just me, my regrets and my flaws. I couldn’t tolerate my company. When you can’t bear to go home, you’ve got a problem. Pacing around my lair after smoking in the bathroom with the fan on, I’d pause to look out the window. Across the alley was a red building which resembled a giant brick. There were business awnings at the bottom and five or six storeys of residential above. There was a place that looked like a refuge to me from me, the Gas Pump.

Ann and I went into the Gas Pump one recent Saturday. It sort of looked the same but it didn’t. The bar was still intact. The tables by the windows with the bonus sill seats were still there. The paint colours had changed and seemed relatively fresh. We quizzed the bartender though she probably wasn’t born when I did my time in the joint. And out of the mouth of a babe: “Todd still works here. He’s on days now.” “Todd? Todd! Does he still weigh 90 pounds?” “Eighty-five now.” “Jesus.”

One day after work I skipped the elevator ride to the tenth floor of the Wimbledon. I went straight to the Gas Pump with a folded Edmonton Journal under my arm. I picked an empty stool at the bar and made a beeline for it every day thereafter. I’d nod to the faces that were slowly becoming familiar. I’d peruse the newspaper and then begin work on the crossword puzzle. Sometimes I’d ask the regulars about a clue. If there was a game on TV, sometimes I’d chime in with a remark. Todd became attuned to my old Montreal habit of ordering two draught beers at a time. Before too long I was deemed reliable enough to be allowed to run a tab as I made new, flimsy friends.

Russ and Vance worked in the oil patch in some capacity. Sometimes they’d talk about going to Saudi Arabia together to force themselves to quit drinking. Russ reminded me of the actor William Holden, a little past his prime. Vance was prematurely grey and balding, his flushed face fast food heat lamp red. Vance got married while I was working on a down crossword clue but never left his barstool and so it didn’t last.

Steve, his younger brother Denis and their friend Morris published News for Seniors, a monthly tabloid. They played cribbage constantly. Together we formed a disastrous curling team one winter and an equally disastrous slo-pitch team one summer. Nadine was an attractive redhead who worked for those guys, a single mother, willing to do everything required to prop up a teetering small business operated by gamblers and drinkers for a paycheque that wouldn’t bounce. Administration? Ad sales? Distribution?

Kate was a talk radio host with no off switch, ON AIR all the time. Her friend Barb was a school teacher who sipped white wine and read Victorian novels amid the din. Terry managed the bakery department of a Safeway grocery store. Ted, a retired lawyer, would arrive every Saturday at exactly noon for his weekly two-ounce tipple before going home, everything on his wife’s errands list neatly crossed out. The Cowboy was Edmonton’s literal incarnation of the Marlboro Man, a regular who didn’t talk much and the only murder victim with whom I have ever been acquainted.

The Cowboy’s girlfriend was a Filipina beauty. Word around the Gas Pump was that she was mail order. She’d march in from time to time to scream at him. He’d just look over at Vance and shrug. The rest of us would stare into our drinks, so nothing different unless a game was on. The Cowboy ditched her. She withheld a second key to his apartment and the knives were in the kitchen. There were whispers too about goings-on in the back of the Gas Pump, bookmaking and cocaine dealings. And that girl over there with the shaved chemotherapy head? Rumour had it that she’d do anything for anybody in the underground garage and she read Tarot cards too.

Everybody smoked.

Last Saturday Ann and I returned to the Gas Pump for a second time. Standing behind the bar dressed entirely in black was a wraith with longish, blondish, grayish wispy hair. “Todd,” I said. I took off my cap and held out my hand. I could see by his eyes that he was scrolling through the years. I introduced myself. Maybe he really did remember and recognize me because I haven’t changed one iota.

There wasn’t much news. Steve had died of cancer. Vance had passed just a year or so ago. As for everybody else, they had moved on. Maybe some of them were dead too. He blinked at me. “I just started working days, man, can’t get used to the sun.” He mumbled something about retirement not being a viable option yet.

I said, “Jesus. Your vampire days are over.”

He smiled. “I’ve got something to show you.” He pulled out his phone, pressed an icon and began to swipe. “My granddaughter.” Todd showed us a picture of himself with an infant, the pair of them in matching Rolling Stones t-shirts. We laughed. “Man, I didn’t even know you could get Stones stuff for babies.”

“Mick’ll sell you anything,” I replied. I paid for my pint. Ann’s club soda was on the house. “All right, thanks,” I said, “good to see you again. Are the toilets still in the back?”

“No, man, other end. You’ve got to walk all the way to Jasper now. Hey, I work Tuesdays through Saturdays, days, come back and see me.”

I said, “Maybe.” I don’t hang around much anymore. I don’t need to, and that took too long to figure out.

Saturday, 19 August 2017


The Absurd Banality of Evil

In the wake of the deadly insanity that was Charlottesville last weekend, I’ve been contemplating the existence of the little twerp who inadvertently became social media’s white supremacist poster boy for America’s Crystal Night. Amaze balls, bro, LOL! You know the image, the cherubic kid, mouth agape, shouting out something obscene. He sports a Hitler haircut but is without the testosterone to complete the look on his upper lip. He lied to his mommy, telling her he was attending a rally in support of their country’s 45th president.

His family name begins with the letter C and is followed by many consonants. This tells me that some of his forebears came from parts of Europe that were tragically intimate with Nazi and Soviet jackboots. This may constitute irony, like rain on a Nuremberg parade. His surname also suggests to me that his family never had a stake in the Confederate States of America’s rebellion against a duly elected federal government in Washington in the guise of states’ rights, code for the free and coerced labour that sustained an agrarian economy: slavery.

He’s a college boy and obviously bright enough not to enroll in the orange, odious vulgarian’s matchbook version of a university. He must be a big man on campus because he’s a member of Vanguard America, a sort of crypto-fascist ROTC. Like the Nazi Brown Shirts of old, they have uniforms too, but preppier: white polos matched with khaki chinos. Other than a JC Penny changing room, I suppose its members have to fit in somewhere.

These days everybody holds a grudge, has a complaint. Some are even valid. The cliché goes that winners write history, though the result is not always fair. Yet there are those in the rich pageant of humanity who deserved defeat, decimation. I can’t fathom how crazy a supposedly educated kid must be to align himself with the likes of Johnny Reb and Adolf Hitler, an in-crowd of two of history’s biggest losers who promoted ignoble and revolting causes. How could anyone, anyone, aspire to associate themselves with the likes of them? Well, this clean cut, contemptible little monster, a scrotum swollen with bilious hatred, has, and he’s going to grow up, get older and get more set in his ways. Right now, his future’s looking bright. And, as the president tweeted today, violent protests which include murder can help the United States “heel.” (The ultimate Freudian slip has since been corrected.)

Friday, 18 August 2017


Gasoline Alley and a Visitation from the Spirit of Elvis

Around this time of the month in 2012 Ann and I travelled to Lethbridge, AB to catch Bob Dylan IN SHOW & CONCERT! Part of the attraction was using those proper nouns in the same sentence without it sounding like brown acid babble. I was reminded of that little escapade Wednesday because we hit the road again this week for an intimate performance that didn’t quite compute.

Modern Nashville icon Rodney Crowell, performer, writer, producer and friend of the late and legendary Guy Clark, has been omnipresent in Alberta this August, playing any music festival anywhere. If you’re not familiar with him, you’re familiar with his songs as sung by others and they include Roseanne Cash, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Bob Seger; he’s a bit like John Hiatt in that anonymous hit-maker sense. Crowell’s two latest releases are masterful collaborations with the utterly sublime Emmylou Harris. A tour scheduling quirk placed him in a pub situated in the only place in the country named after a Rod Stewart album.

In terms of growth, the Edmonton-Calgary corridor has been one of the most explosive areas in Canada over the past decade. It is always rush hour on the Queen Elizabeth II Highway, every county, town, city, provincial park, tourist attraction, golf course and federal jail is connected. Smack dab in the psychological middle, where bus riders and drivers pause for cigarettes, snacks, gas and parking lot beers on the outskirts of Red Deer, Alberta’s third largest city, is Gasoline Alley, a seemingly endless strip of signs, services and recreational vehicle dealerships.

Ann and I drove south over the rolling parkland. The fields were green. The stands of trees, windbreaks, always in distance, were blue. The sun was invisible in the ashen sky, there was heat and the smell of wildfire smoke blown east over the Rockies by prevailing winds. Ann always does the driving because I could never be bothered to get a proper license. My father drove if he absolutely had to. My mother was a hazard, no matter what she says now in her dotage. Driving just wasn’t an expected Chuck Berry, Beach Boys or Bruce Springsteen rite of passage for me growing up. My passenger job with Ann is to be of service: I punch her gum out from its blister pack; I light her cigarettes; I open her sparkling water; I change the music; I fish her sunglasses out of the glove box.

I didn’t need to do any navigation on this particular trip because both of us have been down this road a thousand times before.  Neither one of us has ever contemplated dawdling for longer than three-quarters of an hour in Gasoline Alley, let alone booking a room for the night. Pulling into the strip from the highway we realized that there were infant Gasoline Alleys behind the original, newly paved back streets and parking lots cluttered with more restaurants, hotels and big box retailers all nurtured by development. There was a there there now, a micro-city near the county line, a colossal outdoor mall haphazardly designed to purvey services and stuff, born again Bibles too, Jesus knows.

The Hideout is a thrown up building dating back to the chain restaurant school of architecture, rustic industrial. There are wood and stone decorative accents inside. The ceiling is high and open, exposing ducts, joists and trusses. The dinner special was prime rib which cost two dollars less than the price of admission. Ann’s $30 concert ticket was numbered 002, mine was 003. Ann and I opted for sandwiches to split and share, a Cuban for a Reuben and tastier fare than the nearby Donut Mill. Our attentive waitress thought we were clever. There were plywood panels laid on the pool tables for extra seating. To our right four fat guys with ten years on me stared at their drinks as their impossibly thin, leathery wives talked too much and too loudly.

The warm up act was a shy local kid with chops, the brim of his ballcap could not have been tugged any lower. Next came the announcement from the stage every road-tripping concertgoer dreads: Rodney wasn’t feeling well; he was suffering from hypertension. The update was worse: Rodney had gone to the hospital. Ann and I know all about emergency wait times in Alberta. Ann said, “That’s it.” I said, “In the old days it used to be drug busts or overdoses.” She said, “We might as well stay.” I said, “There’s nothing else to do here.” We agreed together to forego the proffered refunds.

An acoustic guitarist and a fiddler came out, the other members of the Rodney Crowell Trio. They were unused to vamping. They billed themselves as Two Guys on Stage. They thanked the audience for selling out their debut. Regrettably they had no merchandise for sale. People began to file out. The duo handled the crisis with witty aplomb. Their set included a stellar version of Elvis’s ‘Mystery Train.’ Maybe it was the summoned ghost of Elvis playing puppet-master, but Ann and I soon experienced the Miracle of Gasoline Alley.

Rodney had been released from Red Deer General. Rodney was in the building. Ann and I changed tables, moving closer to the stage and acquiring better sightlines. Crowell made his entrance with an electric guitar. Even the leather ladies shut up for a moment. He was apologetic and somewhat perplexed by his own health, “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I’m fit. Doctors can’t tell me what’s wrong with me.” During the ensuing applause I thought, “Elvis left us 40 years ago this week. Don’t rush to join him, we’re not worth it.” Crowell performed an abridged, audience-friendly set, filled with songs everybody knew. Perhaps fittingly, the highlight for me was a raucous cover of ‘That’s All Right,’ Elvis’s first single. Ann and I danced in Gasoline Alley. We never once imagined that that could ever happen.

Friday, 11 August 2017


Bryan Ferry Live in Enoch, Alberta

The year was 1982. Roxy Music had hit the North American big time with Avalon which would prove to be their final, full-length studio swan song. I remember walking along de Maisonneuve Boulevard, tickets for the group’s Montreal Forum show tucked into the pocket of my leather jacket, maybe my brown one, maybe my black one, I can’t remember. I was wearing Levi’s. There was no snow on the ground. I fell in behind a group of guys with elaborate hairdos, each resplendent in a solid pastel suit, the colours accentuating, complementing their mates'.

Roxy Music was glam, avant-garde, ground-breaking, sultry, louche, manic. Out there, Bowie in a permanent Berlin phase. Following the glamour boys I thought, “Wow, hardcore fans, dressing up like that.” An hour later they were on stage as Modern English performing ‘I Melt with You.’ And then Bryan Ferry fronting Roxy Music came on.

Wednesday afternoon Ann and I drove the sports car westbound on the Whitemud. We passed Edmonton’s ring road and then the freeway frittered itself away into a maze of concrete barriers and NO ENTRY signs. A hard left and we arrived at the River Cree Resort, a well-appointed and curiously cheerful casino attached to a Marriott Courtyard on Treaty Six land. This time I was wearing L.L. Bean jeans and some sort of Costco retro-vintage, three-button t-shirt.

In the rear of the complex and out of sight is a permanent, temporary structure, The Venue at River Cree. A taut pavilion on a concrete pad supported by steel studs and fed with as much electricity and alcohol as required. Folding chairs, with section letters and row numbers taped to the smooth floor. Bryan Ferry was to perform beyond our city’s limits this night in a place an occupying army might erect.

Nineteen eighty-two to 2017, 35 years, that’s the longest I’ve gone between a hero’s gigs. Ferry’s support act this time was Judith Owen. Witty and dramatic, she would slay headlining a club where the patrons had paid to see her and her band. On before Ferry, she was doomed to be seen as just another delay before the legend’s entrance. There was an indifferent drinkers’ din in the back of the room.

Prior to the concert, I had big plans. I would bump into Ferry somewhere in the hotel or casino and then be helpful, writing out his set list for him. I’d tell him to perform a show of mixed thirds, solo, Roxy and covers. He would thank me for my valued input.

Ferry walked on stage sporting a black suit jacket and a white dress shirt with the top two or three buttons undone. There was some grey in that famous black haircut. I imagined James Bond gone slightly to seed, intent on killing audiences rather than enemy agents. Ann leaned over, “He just drips cool.” And a charisma enhanced by dramatic poses and flourishing, emotive arms and hands, much communication in a motion. And sweat. The human heat and the lights made the tent a little closer. There was a smell. Usually backlit by a wall of uniform colour, the suave silhouette seductively led his audience up the stairs to his Dorian Gray attic. I consciously averted my eyes from the video screens to the left and right of the stage. Ferry was right there before us, actual human-sized, to scale, and I wanted the illusion to be real.

Walking onto the stage Ferry immediately switched to glide with ‘The Main Thing’ and ‘Slave to Love.’ I guessed there had to be a Dylan cover since Ferry has recorded an entire album and more of His Bobness. ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ proved me right. The middle portion featured the welcome surprise of ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’ from For Your Pleasure, Roxy’s second release dating back to 1973. I’d read (falsely) that Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera was part of Ferry’s band for this tour. His substitute was the equally legendary Chris Spedding who shredded a searing version of Neil Young’s ‘Like a Hurricane,’ another left field song in the set I didn’t dare hope to hear.

Ann and I matched the crowd demographic, mostly middle-aged couples. She noted something I didn’t pick up on, that one partner was hardcore while their mate was more of an incidental fan, a taste gap that’s rare at a rock concert. The climax of the concert was sustained as Ferry fed off the frenzy of an audience trying to remember how to rush the stage, cognizant of dodgy knees and bad hips. ‘Can’t Let Go’ quickly led into ‘More Than This’ and ‘Avalon.’ ‘Love Is the Drug’ preceded ‘Virginia Plain.’ Tucked somewhere within the assault was Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy.’ The evening ended with the frantic, stone soul classic ‘Hold On (I’m Coming)’ by Sam and Dave.   

The show cannot go on forever. Concertgoers understand rusty or fading chops. Indeed, Ferry left some of his signature lines to his better equipped hired help. But our memories for an artist like Bryan Ferry are long. So a show can sometimes become about what it was not. I missed ‘Mother of Pearl,’ ‘When She Walks In the Room,’ ‘Oh Yeah,’ ‘To Turn You On’ and ‘Take Me to the River.’ If we’d met at the resort, those are the songs I’d have demanded Ferry play. And as he sauntered away bemused because I’m basically harmless I would have shouted, “And ‘In the Midnight Hour’ too!”

“Staycay” is an abbreviation of the insipid compound neologism “staycation.” Ann and I had decided to spend the night together at the River Cree so we could enjoy a couple of beers after the show and the modern novelty of smoking indoors because the casino is situated on First Nations turf. My newly formulated plan was to meet Ferry in the casino after his show, debrief him and then gently chide him for not fulfilling my fantasy set list. Maybe we’d play baccarat together, roulette or vingt-et-un. “No, Mister Ferry, I expect you to sing.” It was not to be, but Ann and I finished up our evening $67 ahead on the slots. We were flush, flushed, the party was over and we were so tired.

Monday, 7 August 2017


The Ugly Face of War

Our gas barbecue is housed in a brick cabinet on the backyard patio. The countertop is tile. Beneath it is a storage area which also allows access to the gas line. Early last spring I took the unit apart to clean and prep it for the upcoming grilling season. I was dismayed to discover a squirrel nest made of grass clippings and whatever other debris the critters could scavenge.

During these past couple of months of summer I noticed I had been refilling the four bird feeders on the property at an unprecedented rate. I realized I was not only feeding my flock but a family of squirrels. Our aged tabbies no longer prowl like they once did and are no threat to the neighbourhood varmints anymore. Last week I watched a squirrel climb up into the angled extension of one of our downspouts, slide through it, pop out into the garden and then scamper up and do it again. And again. When the house is still, Ann and I pause periodically and listen for scrabbling in the attic.

Saturday morning Ann and I took our coffee out on the front porch. The air was heavy and humid. Thunderheads were building to the west. Ann saw a squirrel run up a front wheel of our Honda CRV and disappear. She went and got the keys and then started the engine. The rodent emerged through the front grille, a blur of fur, Chip n’ Dale physics. We opened the hood and discovered a nest of grass clippings perched atop the engine. Worse, the hood liner had been chewed through and its insulation torn out.

Our problems are of course the fault of others. The cats are too old to be of any use. The woodpeckers, blue jays and finches aren’t aggressive enough defending their food sources. The City of Edmonton by encouraging me not to collect my grass clippings for ecological reasons has become a supplier of building materials.

Since my territorial pissings have done nothing to dissuade the local skunk population, I figured whipping it out again was not an option. Ann and I declared war. I chose weapons. The garden hose turned on full and set to JET worked for about a minute. The cheeky, rusty red bastards quickly turned the show of force into a game, nattering for more from high tree branches. The straw broom is ineffective. While my form is good, there’s too much drag, like trying to swat a fly with an open newspaper.

Last night it occurred to me that our solution might be leaning up against a bookshelf in the basement: a Daisy Red Rider BB gun. Ann thinks that my patrolling the property or sitting on the front porch in this day and age with something that resembles an actual rifle might not be my most inspired idea. No good could come of it.

I might wing a neighbour; if it’s that old cow with anger management issues to the right of us, twice. That lady in the blue coat who always deposits her dog’s shit in our back alley bins? I’d ambush her. I’d take potshots at speeders zipping down our street, draw a bead on those vandals on trick bikes who rob parked cars after dark. I’d aim at the windows of that black infill three doors down, the one that resembles a Star Trek Borg cube, bust them all.

Vermin. I will eradicate our squirrel infestation. I will shoot them all. I will decapitate their corpses and impale their cute, big-eyed heads on tomato stakes as a warning to others. I will decorate our driveway with ornamental skulls. I will summon my friends the crows and the magpies to feast upon the fruits of my lusty slaughtering, the Crooked 9 will run with blood. Me is Geoff, meGeoff! I swear by the red god Mars to kill everything in sight.

Hang on. I can hear Ann in another room on the phone with Netflix Derek our psychologist friend. Car keys jingling and jangling. She’s packed a suitcase. It’s sitting by the front door. What’s going on here? Door slam! She’ll be back. I’m pretty sure. It’s not as if I’m unhinged or anything. I mean, c’mon, I’m the most stable guy I know. Really. Oh well, best let it ride. Meanwhile, I must find some ammo for that Red Rider. And where did I stash that black balaclava and the camouflage coverall?