Frances Backhouse's Once They Were Hats

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Employees at Smithbilt Hats in circa 1958 at its factory on 1208-1st Street SW. The site is now marked by a historical plaque at Hotel Arts. In 1946, Smithbilt produced its first white cowboy hat for city oilman Bill Herron. Two years later, it supplied Calgary's delegation with white hats to wear during Grey Cup festivities in Toronto, and a tradition was born. (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

Employees at Smithbilt Hats in circa 1958 at its factory on 1208-1st Street SW. The site is now marked by a historical plaque at Hotel Arts. In 1946, Smithbilt produced its first white cowboy hat for city oilman Bill Herron. Two years later, it supplied Calgary's delegation with white hats to wear during Grey Cup festivities in Toronto, and a tradition was born. (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

A week before Stampede, Frances Backhouse tours the Smithbilt Hats factory, a non-descript, one-storey building in Ramsay – an unassuming shrine to “one of the West’s most beloved symbols,” the cowboy hat. Standing in the gravel parking lot, Backhouse can almost smell the livestock pens at the Stampede grounds a few blocks away. Inside, she learns about Morris Shumiatcher, the 27-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant who, in 1919, bought Calgary Hat Works. He changed his surname to Smith, and the company’s to Smithbilt. The business quickly became known for making all manner of hats, including those for working cowboys. In the shop, Backhouse watches a woman tie black ribbons around the crowns of white cowboy hats, and feels a twinge of nostalgia. Her first cowboy hat was a white straw model supplied by her parents as a “key to the city” when the family moved to Calgary from Montreal in 1972. Twelve years old, she avoided wearing the hat for fear of looking “uncool.”

 

Before I left Smithbilt, I lingered for a while in the showroom and tried on some of the inventory. The elegant dress hats seemed full of possibilities, transforming me in the mirror as I switched from bowler to Prince Albert to fedora. But the allure of the western hats, with their soft, sensuous beaver felt, was even stronger. Unlike the straw cowboy hat of my adolescence, the midnight-black 100x Cattleman I tried on sat extremely comfortably on my head. I would have cheerfully worn it out of the store, if not for $895 price tag. Reluctantly, I set it back on its hook, said my goodbyes and set the cowbell clinking again as I departed.

 

Frances Backhouse, Once They Were Hats (ECW Press, 2015)


Taylor Lambert's Rising

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

In the weeks following the 2013 flood, a Windsor-based artist collective visited the city as part of Calgary's public art program, Watershed+. The result? A series of signs exhibited at a local gallery and later installed along the city's river pathways. (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

In the weeks following the 2013 flood, a Windsor-based artist collective visited the city as part of Calgary's public art program, Watershed+. The result? A series of signs exhibited at a local gallery and later installed along the city's river pathways. (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

In the days following the 2013 flood, Calgary journalist Taylor Lambert set out to tell the story of the disaster through the eyes of those who had experienced it. He interviewed people who lost their homes, emergency workers and volunteers. One day, Lambert received a 10,000-word email from a homeless man named Gary. As the floodwaters rose on the evening of June 20, 2013, Gary was at a friend’s place in Brentwood. He watched a news story about the mandatory evacuation order forcing more than 75,000 Calgarians from their homes. Untroubled by the news, he made his way on foot to the East Village and the Salvation Army hostel where he was living. That night was the beginning of Gary’s long walk for shelter as the city flooded.

 

As Gary approached Memorial Drive – the scenic boulevard that traces the north shore of the Bow River across from downtown – he noticed red lights flashing off the concrete and asphalt. There were fire trucks parked there, but he couldn’t see any firefighters working.

The roar of the river grew louder and louder as he passed over Memorial and continued on the Mewata Bridge over the river. Once over top of the water, the sound was deafening. The normally placid Bow was nearly invisible in the dark, but the mere sound of the water rushing past with incredible force was enough to frighten Gary…

Walking east along the pathway of the river’s south shore, the water became gradually more visible between the lights of Memorial on one side and the residential towers of the Downtown West End on the other. It was very high and very fast, and it would get much worse in the coming hours. It was already so high that the pathway under the Louise Bridge and 10th Street was entirely underwater. As Gary went to cross the road at bridge level, he saw a police car parked sideways in the centre of the span: the bridge was already closed.

 

Taylor Lambert, Rising (2014)


Miji Campbell's Separation Anxiety

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

In the late 1950s, three Calgary businessmen set out to turn the site of the Chinook Drive-In theatre into a shopping mall, with Vancouver-based Woodward's department store as the anchor. The rest is retail history.  (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

In the late 1950s, three Calgary businessmen set out to turn the site of the Chinook Drive-In theatre into a shopping mall, with Vancouver-based Woodward's department store as the anchor. The rest is retail history.  (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

For the young Miji Campbell, 1960s Kingsland was her kingdom, and Chinook Centre was “the sweetest place on earth.” On Saturdays, her family drove to the mall to “witness the passage of seasons indoors.” The Woodward’s sporting goods department in spring, the Stampede parking lot breakfast in summer, the sanctuary of the library on the lower level in the fall, and Santa’s Toyland castle at Christmas. Built during the city’s postwar boom and described as a “city within a city,” Chinook Centre is not only the largest enclosed mall in Calgary, but a palace of memories.

 

I remember when my mother took me to the Woodward’s foundations department to be fitted for a training bra. Together, we walked through the baby department and into the underworld of underwear, located discreetly between the beauty salon and the high racks of housecoats. I muttered a quick “Please God, don’t let any boys I know see me.”

I don’t think men were even allowed in the foundations department at Woodward’s. The ladies – capable, no-nonsense matrons – patrolled the department in their clinical white coats with tape measures draped around their necks. Lapel pins identified them as brassiere professionals. After all, Playtex had just revolutionized the world with cross-your-heart technology. We relied on these women to guide and support us – or at least our mothers did.

 

Miji Campbell, Separation Anxiety (Writinerant Press, 2014)


Rona Altrows' "Rouleauville"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

"Hanging Out" by Peter Smith (1994). Three frogs used to sit on this bench on the corner of Fourth Street and 21st Avenue SW. The day I visited, there was only one. Anyone know what happened to the others? (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

"Hanging Out" by Peter Smith (1994). Three frogs used to sit on this bench on the corner of Fourth Street and 21st Avenue SW. The day I visited, there was only one. Anyone know what happened to the others? (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

Trina, a mentally challenged woman, her guardian and their cat are on the move. In a few weeks, they’ll be evicted from their modest rental in the Mission. Trina is anxious. The cat has a skin problem. Their guardian snatches time to look for a new place to rent, but affordable apartments are few and far between. She braces herself against the noise of change in this historic neighbourhood once known as Rouleauville – the pounding of pile drivers, the roar of excavators. Around them, houses tumble down “like so many wooden dominoes.”

 

Fourth Street, what’s become of you? No more Mission Pizza, no more Franzl’s Gasthaus or Four Brothers or video shop or used book store. Now it’s all cheap link fencing, traffic cones, cranes, sawhorses, cherrypickers, half-built condo highrises. Billboards at construction sites yell about spa-like ensuites. And here I thought all we needed in a washroom was a toilet, a tub, a sink. Even the big metal frogs on the bench look stunned, like they don’t recognize their own neighbourhood.

 

Rona Altrows, “Rouleauville” (Lofton8th, 2016)


Shirley Black's "Under the Bridge"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the eyes of writers

The historic Alexandra School in Inglewood, a stone's throw from the Bow River pathway evoked in Shirley Black's personal essay. Since 1981, this building has been home to the Alexandra Writers' Centre Society, a pillar of the local writing scene. Calgary writer and lifelong Inglewood resident, Shirley Black, along with Michael Fay, was one of its founders. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

The historic Alexandra School in Inglewood, a stone's throw from the Bow River pathway evoked in Shirley Black's personal essay. Since 1981, this building has been home to the Alexandra Writers' Centre Society, a pillar of the local writing scene. Calgary writer and lifelong Inglewood resident, Shirley Black, along with Michael Fay, was one of its founders. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

Sophie is a fixture on the Inglewood pathway. She collects empties from her regular customers and loads them into a Safeway cart, along with the occasional discarded treasure people put out with the trash. Sophie always stops to talk.

 

There is the rattle of her cart coming down the lane. I kneel lower, dig deeper, trying to make a hole big enough to crawl into although I’m just transplanting perennials.

It’s not that I don’t like Sophie. She simply talks so much. I know nothing of her life in Calgary, where she lives, whether she’s married. Yet I know all about her former life in New York City. The big apple, she calls it, where she and her ex-husband, the rat, performed magic shows.

“We were so good we entertained in all the big venues,” she said. “Even Carnegie Hall.”

 

Shirley Black, “Under the Bridge,” Freshwater Pearls: Thirty Years of Inspiring Writers (Recliner Books, 2011)

 

 


Clem and Olivier Martini's Bitter Medicine

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Heritage Park billboard, 1966. On the southeast edge of Glenmore Reservoir, Calgary's historical theme park is part of the legacy of Calgary oilman and philanthropist, Eric Harvie. The park opened on July 1, 1964 with two dozen historical buildings and a vintage train. (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

Heritage Park billboard, 1966. On the southeast edge of Glenmore Reservoir, Calgary's historical theme park is part of the legacy of Calgary oilman and philanthropist, Eric Harvie. The park opened on July 1, 1964 with two dozen historical buildings and a vintage train. (Photo: Glenbow Archives)

Diagnosed with schizophrenia in the mid-1980s, Olivier Martini struggles with the side effects of antipsychotic drugs, depression and paranoia. Eventually, he finds work as a night watchman at Heritage Park. The training for security work of this kind, his brother Clem notes, is scant – “boiled down to its essence, was something like ‘be vigilant’ and ‘never permit anyone to bite you.’” 

 

At night the lights winked out in the log cabins, one-room schoolhouses, Old Tyme candy stores, smithies, barns, and storage sheds as the park was abandoned. Darkness quickly transformed the site into an eerie prairie ghost town. Strong winds swept off the reservoir and rattled bent cottonwoods. My brother crept through the brush at the perimeter of the park, flashlight in hand. On various occasions he stumbled upon drunks, vandals, would-be thieves, delinquents, couples messing around, discarded clothing, caches of drugs, and the occasional scared stray mule deer bursting from cover in an explosion of hooves and clattering antlers. Terrified that he might be confronted, Liv would often shout random warnings as he waded into the brush.

 

Clem and Olivier Martini, Bitter Medicine (Freehand Books, 2010)


Anne Sorbie's Memoir of a Good Death

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

In 1911, developer John Hextall built this bridge across the Bow River to connect his planned garden suburb on the old Bowness Ranch with the city of Calgary. His plans for the suburb fell through, but the town of Bowness took root, as did Bowness Park. Hextall’s bridge was replaced in 1985 and officially named after the man who built it.  (Photo: bigdoer.com)

In 1911, developer John Hextall built this bridge across the Bow River to connect his planned garden suburb on the old Bowness Ranch with the city of Calgary. His plans for the suburb fell through, but the town of Bowness took root, as did Bowness Park. Hextall’s bridge was replaced in 1985 and officially named after the man who built it.  (Photo: bigdoer.com)

Forty years ago, Ed Flett rescued Sarah from a life of domestic service in a Millarville rooming house. Now, her husband is dead. Furious, Sarah drags Ed’s golf bag from their garage to the back yard at the edge of the Bow River, where they have lived their entire married lives. She drives Ed’s golf balls into the river, then tosses his clubs into the current. As Sarah’s grief takes hold, the river rises. 

 

A train trundles past, across the river on the far side of Bowness Road. You recall the old streetcar that used to cross the John Hextall Bridge and then follow the river to Calgary when Bowness was a village. The river is swollen at the bottom of your property. Especially near the whirlpool, which forms a small vortex that makes a sucking noise as it flattens out and repeats itself. The willow bushes seem to reach out to the sound.

 

Anne Sorbie, Memoir of A Good Death (Thistledown, 2010)


Marina Endicott's The Little Shadows

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Calgary's Starland Theatre in 1909 (116a-8th Avenue SW). "The Starland itself," Marina Endicott writes in The Little Shadows, "was a plain box on 8th Avenue, not near as grand as many of the other theatres." (Photo: Glenbow Museum)  

Calgary's Starland Theatre in 1909 (116a-8th Avenue SW). "The Starland itself," Marina Endicott writes in The Little Shadows, "was a plain box on 8th Avenue, not near as grand as many of the other theatres." (Photo: Glenbow Museum)
 

A May wedding at Calgary’s elegant Palliser Hotel. The groom – the renowned vaudeville impresario Fitz Mayhew, decades older than his young starlet bride – has made all the arrangements. A spring menu in the Maple Leaf Room of turtle soup, roast capon and hot-house peas. A band and a parquet dance floor. A jeroboam of champagne and a layered wedding cake. To fill the dozen tables, Mayhew has invited every pressman he can find with an eye to promoting his new show at the Starland Theatre on Stephen Avenue. But hours before the wedding, the bride’s sister wakes up to find the city’s weather has changed overnight.

 

On the night before the wedding it snowed. Silent, constant, nickel-sized snowflakes fell all night, in no wind, and in the morning when Clover awoke the light in the room was blue.

Mama gasped when Clover pulled open the curtain to show snow heaped halfway up the window. Snow covered the entire landscape like fondant on a wedding cake, smoothing definition of curbs and corners. The street was deserted, and snow was still falling, fifteen inches already on the ground – late May, and the worst blizzard of the year. A shell of ice waited on the water jug…

The girls and Mama spent the morning washing and putting up their hair; in the afternoon they dressed in their wedding clothes – an all the time the snow fell.

The draycart’s wheels shrieked and the snow squealed as they lurched along, but it was a pretty drive, through slow-falling flakes that dazzled in occasional spears of sun. Mama raised her white lawn parasol to shield Aurora’s veil. When the wedding party disembarked at the Grain Exchange building, where the justice of the peace had his office, it was to silence. No streetcars were running, nor carriages or cars rolled through the streets.

 

Marina Endicott, The Little Shadows (Anchor Canada, 2012)


Norman Ravvin's Café des Westens

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

The Wales Hotel (709 2nd Street SW) was demolished in March 1974 to make way for TD Square. The building was the first in Canada to be destroyed by dynamite. The plan went awry and the 43-year-old building came down off its target. Debris scattered into the intersection of 7th Avenue and 2nd Street and smashed windows at a nearby Royal Bank. (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

The Wales Hotel (709 2nd Street SW) was demolished in March 1974 to make way for TD Square. The building was the first in Canada to be destroyed by dynamite. The plan went awry and the 43-year-old building came down off its target. Debris scattered into the intersection of 7th Avenue and 2nd Street and smashed windows at a nearby Royal Bank. (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

Funeral-home owner Martin Binder is a Calgary old-timer. He arrived as a young boy with his Polish parents during the Depression, and has watched the city reinvent itself over the decades. He remembers the day that “marked the beginning of the end of the city he’d grown up in.” On a Sunday in March 1974, Martin settled into a viewing spot not far from the site on 2nd Street and 7th Avenue. As he read his weekend Herald, he heard “a sound, like the ripping of a piece of canvas” as the hotel’s brick walls collapsed.

 

Over the next few years, exploding buildings caught on the way dances caught on in the old jazz clubs in Harlem. It was happening on every block. People came out to watch. There was the odd casualty as stray pieces of plywood and cinder blocks came rocketing out of nowhere onto pedestrians’ heads. No conservation groups challenged the carnage. The city was making history – as the wisdom of the day went – so it didn’t have to worry about preserving its heritage. As the town boomed and money was made, Martin set aside his sentimental attachment to buildings like the Wales. The city’s population grew by tens of thousands each year, and his accountant made a very impressive effort at reporting the funeral home’s rising revenue, without adding any snide remarks about the rising death rate that went with the emigration of over-excited fortune-hunting crowds from across the country. People brought their hard luck and illnesses and bad habits with them and, chasing the big time, died under the soft breath of the Chinook.

 

Norman Ravvin, Café Des Westens (Red Deer College Press, 1991)


Robert E. Gard's Johnny Chinook

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

“You know how it is,” the folklorist Robert Gard writes. “You can’t exactly explain the way you feel except to say, ‘this place is different from any place on earth.”

In the early 1940s, Gard came to Alberta from the US to teach playwriting at the Banff School of Fine Arts. The next year, he toured the province, gathering stories – the first time Alberta folklore had been captured in book form. He invents Johnny Chinook as his Alberta muse. On a crisp fall day, he stands with Johnny on a rise above Calgary. “This is it,” says Johnny Chinook, “this is my town. This is Calgary!” Gard begins his exploration of Johnny’s hometown on Eighth Avenue with Bob Needham, a columnist at the Calgary Herald.

 

We walked slowly, enjoying the mild November night and the hundreds of service men and women who crowded the movie house doors or just walked along the street, glad for a little holiday and looking for a good time.

As we went east on Eighth, the noise quieted down, the crowds thinned out, and the buildings diminished in height. The shops were smaller. The darkness closed slowly around us.

“This is a street of ghosts,” Needham said. “Back the street there – is today. Along here there’s still a faint memory of yesterday.”

 

Robert E. Gard, Johnny Chinook: Tall Tales and True from the Canadian West (M. G. Hurtig Ltd, 1967, 2nd edition)


Caroline Adderson's Ellen in Pieces

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Cumulous clouds above Calgary's Sunnyside neighbourhood, circa 1912. What do you see? (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

Cumulous clouds above Calgary's Sunnyside neighbourhood, circa 1912. What do you see? (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

Ellen McGinty’s adolescent memories of Calgary consist of sneaking off to bush parties and bonfires, “girls swilling pink gin then puking in the woods.” She has since moved from her father’s house near Nose Hill to the Gulf Islands, where she lives a hippie lifestyle with her playwright husband, washing diapers on a corrugated washboard, milking a goat, and throwing clay pots. Seven-and-a-half months pregnant, Ellen is flying back to Calgary for her father’s 50th birthday. She’s nervous about the trip: she’s in “the most frustrating phase of pregnancy, when desire supplanted nausea.” A time when anything can happen.

 

Even after they touched down at the Calgary airport, Southern Alberta seemed one vast cloud-piled sky. Ellen could see things in those clouds like she used to as a child. Now though, instead of elephants and ducks, there were clefted buttocks, pillowy vulvas.

 

Cocks.

 

Caroline Adderson, Ellen in Pieces (HarperCollins, 2014)


Arthur Stringer's The Prairie Child

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Calgary's Coste House, 2208 Amherst Street SW. Ontario-born Eugene Coste, known as the father of the natural gas industry, bought the land for his 28-room Mount Royal mansion in 1911. The price of ten lots in Calgary's nouveau riche neighbourhood? $10,000. After the 1913 crash, Coste fell on hard times. The city turned down his offer to use the house as a children's hospital and the mansion sat empty until 1935. After the war, the now city-owned Coste House became the heart of the city's arts scene as home to the Calgary Allied Arts Centre.  (Photo: Glenbow Museum. Facts: Harry Sanders' Historic Walks of Calgary.)

Calgary's Coste House, 2208 Amherst Street SW. Ontario-born Eugene Coste, known as the father of the natural gas industry, bought the land for his 28-room Mount Royal mansion in 1911. The price of ten lots in Calgary's nouveau riche neighbourhood? $10,000. After the 1913 crash, Coste fell on hard times. The city turned down his offer to use the house as a children's hospital and the mansion sat empty until 1935. After the war, the now city-owned Coste House became the heart of the city's arts scene as home to the Calgary Allied Arts Centre.  (Photo: Glenbow Museum. Facts: Harry Sanders' Historic Walks of Calgary.)

In a last-ditch attempt to save her marriage, the one-time New England socialite, Mrs. Duncan Argyll McKail leaves behind her beloved ranch in southern Alberta and moves to Calgary with her two small children in tow. She’s not sure how her speculator husband has turned their dismal economic fortunes around, but he has promised her a comfortable new life in one of Mount Royal’s finest brick mansions, with “cobble-stone walls” and “high-shouldered French cornices,” grounds, gardens and a household staff of three. As she begins her life in the city, Mrs. McKail is struck by the “stubborn optimism” in the Calgary air.  When her attention turns to the new social circle she’s been parachuted into, she sees something else at play.

 

It’s the women, and the women alone, who seem left out of the procession. They impress me as having no big interests of their own, so they are compelled to playtend with make-believe interests. They race like mad in the social squirrel-cage, or drug themselves with bridge and golf and the country club, or take to culture with a capital C and read papers culled from the Encyclopedias; or spend their husbands’ money on year-old Paris gowns and make love to other women’s mates. The altitude, I imagine, has quite a little to do with the febrile pace of things here. Or perhaps it’s merely because I’m an old frump from a back-township ranch!

But I have no intention of trying to keep up with them, for I have a constitutional liking for quietness in my old age. And I can’t engross myself in their social aspirations, for I’ve seen a bit too much of the world to be greatly taken with the internecine jealousies of a twenty-year-old foot-hill town…

The women of this town remind me more and more of mice in an oxygen bell; they race round and round, drunk with an excitement they can’t quite understand, until they burn up their little lives the same as the mice burn up their little lungs.

 

Arthur Stringer, The Prairie Child, (A. L. Burt & Company, 1922)


Yasmin Ladha's Blue Sunflower Startle

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Prairie crocus in Calgary's Charleswood, not far from Yasmin Ladha's Nose Hill as the crow flies (Photo: Karen Gummo)

Prairie crocus in Calgary's Charleswood, not far from Yasmin Ladha's Nose Hill as the crow flies (Photo: Karen Gummo)

A woman writes a love letter to the prairies. “Dear Prairies, Can loving you be more than an act of imagination? Can one love a place like a lover?” Teaching English in Chonju, South Korea, she thinks of the house she shares with her mother and brother near Calgary’s Nose Hill.

 

This snowy evening in Chonju, restaurants are full of ochre with the heat of candles and eye nuzzle. I am happy that my friend is in one of those restaurants sharing a meal with her boss and her husband. I make my own boot prints in the snow. Then, soft as a kiss, home grazes my nape, and I see in my mind’s eye the two familiar patio chairs in our backyard that remain toppled all through winter. But I see them at the end of the season, when it is no longer winter, when the first crocuses jut out and I sit the patio chairs upright and wipe them with a wet tea cloth, then put a lemon-coconut square in the oven. The season for company has arrived. Mixing bowl washed and the square cooling on the kitchen table, I nip across the bald, brown fields for a bunch of tulips from Safeway.

 

Yasmin Ladha, Blue Sunflower Startle (Freehand Books, 2010)


Lori Hahnel's "Good Friday, at the Westward"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

The Westward Inn at 119-12th Ave SW, in its previous incarnation as the New Noble Motor Hotel, circa 1950s. As the Westward, the bar was a hot-spot for touring bands like The Tragically Hip and Nirvana in the 1980s and early 1990s. These days as Hotel Arts, the place attracts a chic but no less hip clientele. (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

The Westward Inn at 119-12th Ave SW, in its previous incarnation as the New Noble Motor Hotel, circa 1950s. As the Westward, the bar was a hot-spot for touring bands like The Tragically Hip and Nirvana in the 1980s and early 1990s. These days as Hotel Arts, the place attracts a chic but no less hip clientele. (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

Cheryl and her friends start the night out with magic mushrooms in a dingy bar at the Westward Inn, their usual weekend hangout. Cheryl is anxious ­– “Mushrooms. A bar. On Good Friday.” Catholic guilt nags at the back of her mind. The bar at the Westward is dead. Her friend Will suggests they head over to the Bowness Hotel to see his friend’s band. Cheryl’s anxious about that, too. Vancouver has changed Will. Longer hair, a sparse beard he strokes obsessively, “a snob all of a sudden. If he didn’t still make my heart beat faster, I’d be mad at him.”

 

Before I know what’s happening we’re crammed in a cab, got a ticket for our destination, and the anxiety creeps back up again. This isn’t what we’d planned at all. We’d planned to take the mushrooms at Tess’ and my place, walk a few blocks to the Westward and see some bands. Now we’re on our way to the Bowness Hotel. It’s far away. And I’ve never been there before. Isn’t it scary, creepy, run-down, full of bikers and career drinkers? But the others seem calm, unworried. Of course, that’s not unusual for Will. Nothing ever ruffles him. He’s stubborn in his refusal to worry, or maybe that’s how he wants to come off. Sometimes I think he does it just to aggravate me. But. No point in being upset now. The Bowness Hotel it is. Big, wet snowflakes swirl out of a dull purple sky and I take a deep breath as we pull into the parking lot.

 

Lori Hahnel, “Good Friday, at the Westward,” The Prairie Journal (Fall 2012)

 


Stuart Ian McKay's "Weaselhead Variations"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

A downy woodpecker in Calgary's Weaselhead flats. Said to be named after a Tsuut'ina chief, this 237-hectare park borders the west end of Glenmore Reservoir.  Between 1908 and 1998 the Canadian Armed Forces used the area for military training. The park is now a haven for wildlife, birders and poets. (Photo: Dan Arndt, Birds Calgary)

A downy woodpecker in Calgary's Weaselhead flats. Said to be named after a Tsuut'ina chief, this 237-hectare park borders the west end of Glenmore Reservoir.  Between 1908 and 1998 the Canadian Armed Forces used the area for military training. The park is now a haven for wildlife, birders and poets. (Photo: Dan Arndt, Birds Calgary)

On a March morning, the poet opens his senses to the Weaselhead flats along the Elbow River at the southwest edge of the city. He observes flora and fauna, mud, breeze, and “the waking river.” A landscape caught in the slow motion of a Calgary spring.

 

shine toppled trees roots gesturing exposed and worn down

in the intimacy of river, wind, seasons, as the wrinkles

around a woman’s eyes are to the land itself touched

tenderly, even to the formed spaces where anchoring roots

ache in the remembered river bank soil, defying birds,

leaving footsteps venial, as if to say an eternal thing was

 

 

Stuart Ian McKay, “Weaselhead Variations,” in Writing the Land: Alberta Through its Poets (House of Blue Skies, 2007)


Aritha van Herk's Restlessness

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

  Looking west to the Palliser Hotel, also known as the Castle by the Tracks, in what looks to be the 1950s. The old Calgary railway station is in the left foreground and Ninth Avenue is on the right. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

 

Looking west to the Palliser Hotel, also known as the Castle by the Tracks, in what looks to be the 1950s. The old Calgary railway station is in the left foreground and Ninth Avenue is on the right. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

A Calgary woman who travels the globe wants to put an end to her restless life. She hires an assassin and meets him at the Palliser Hotel. They go for a walk, stepping into “Calgary’s sweet weather.” The wind “smells of sage, something green in the back of the chinook’s throat.” As they walk, she explains her hometown to the stranger and the way it has made her restless. She yearns to stay put, but “who lives in such an impossible city, brash, arrogant, indelibly new? Only a few misbegotten cowboys and singers. Oil executives and escape artists.” On this final night of her life, the chinook makes “the city turn wanton." She shows the stranger “the shoulders and flanks” of her city beneath the façade of glass, steel and new concrete. “There are warm spaces here,” she says, “if you know how to find them.” 

 

We cross under the tracks at Fifth, the traffic headlights against us, emerge to the intersection at Ninth. Through the door of Cowboys gusts a riff of guitar, the chortle of chairs and glasses and persistent drinkers. “That’s Calgary,” I gesture. “The assumed identity that becomes real. Be careful how you dress up… It’s why the east won’t take us seriously, because we dress up in cowboy clothes every Friday, like kids who’ve been given a set of cap guns. We’re brash, delighted with our own ability to break rules, to wear blue jeans to work, to ride horses into hotels. We always bounce back from down times, blossom at the oddest moments.”

 

Aritha van Herk, Restlessness (Red Deer College Press, 1998)


Angie Abdou's The Bone Cage

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Students performing in front of the George Norris sculpture (known on campus as The Prairie Chicken) at the University of Calgary in 1977. (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

Students performing in front of the George Norris sculpture (known on campus as The Prairie Chicken) at the University of Calgary in 1977. (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

Swimmer Sadie Jorgenson is training for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She spends her days in the University of Calgary pool, where she “has memorized every line, every crack, every drain, every single wad of gum.” On a March afternoon, Sadie comes up for air. On the lawn in front of the Phys Ed complex, she meets her friend Lucinda.

 

Calgary has started to melt, and the smell of wet soil fills Sadie’s nostrils; a fast chinook wind blows her hair in her eyes. She raised her face into the warm air, breathes deeply, knows it won’t last. It’s not even the end of March. Calgarians will see minus twenty again.

Sadie and Lucinda walk across campus, past the student union building and towards the Phys Ed complex. Undergrads pour out of the buildings into the sun’s warmth, prematurely wearing shorts and pushing their sleeves over their shoulders, splaying their bodies across benches, playing Frisbee on the wet grass, skidding across the patches of snow. Sadie wants to rest in the sunshine too. “Want to stop, Lucinda? Time? I’ve got half an hour before my cage shift.” She slows her pace and points at a green bench were two boys pack books into knapsacks, rushing off to class.

Both boys wear mirrored glasses and have just the slightest hint of sunburn on the tips of their noses. One of them smiles at Sadie and Lucinda, and waves his arm over the abandoned bench as if he’s prepared it just for them. “Enjoy, my ladies.”

In Calgary, everyone is friendlier during a chinook.

 

 

Angie Abdou, The Bone Cage (NeWest Press, 2007)


Katherine Govier's Between Men

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

  The Calgary Herald arrived in the city days before the railway in the summer of 1883. The first issue was published in a canvas tent. In 1887, the paper moved into this purpose-built sandstone block on Stephen Avenue, where the Divino Bistro now stands. (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

 

The Calgary Herald arrived in the city days before the railway in the summer of 1883. The first issue was published in a canvas tent. In 1887, the paper moved into this purpose-built sandstone block on Stephen Avenue, where the Divino Bistro now stands. (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

February 28, 1889. A Calgary blacksmith called “Jumbo” Fisk mutilates and murders a Cree girl named Rosalie New Grass above a seedy downtown bar. A century later, a young historian, Suzanne Vail returns to Calgary, struggling to find her footing in her hometown after a decade in Toronto. She spends hours in the local history collection at the old sandstone library, a few blocks from the scene of that long-ago killing on Scarth Street. Puzzling through the facts and the missing pieces of the city’s Jack the Ripper murder, she decides to tell the story through a man she calls Murphy. He’s an outsider, and a meddler. In the days after the murder, Murphy hangs out downtown, eavesdropping and scheming. As his story about Rosalie New Grass unfolds, Murphy will reveal his own twisted part in her murder.

 

I went down to the little building where the Herald had its offices, east on Stephen Avenue past the Bodega restaurant. It was quiet in there. The editor was out, and the printers elsewhere. I thought an editorial would be the right idea at that point, as opinions were forming and reforming everywhere. But what would I write?

The town was divided on Rosalie’s case. Most of the top men wanted the whole thing hushed up, and quickly… I toyed with the title “Dead is dead, white or red,” on my sheet of paper, but decided against it. This was no time for word play.

The fact that our little murder came on the heels of London’s Jack and his last strike in Whitechapel had fanned the flames of panic; I suppose I didn’t want to encourage them any more. Mine is an academic interest; though some think me ill-willed, I’m just as happy to see right as wrong.

 

Katherine Govier, Between Men (Viking, 1987) 


David Albahari's Snow Man

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

YYC (Photo: Blair Carbert)

YYC (Photo: Blair Carbert)

A writer arrives at the Calgary airport after a turbulent overseas flight. He has left his home in war-torn Yugoslavia to serve as writer-in-residence at the university. From the passport control area, he spots the driver holding a sign with his name. He joins the throng of passengers leaving the transit area, and walks down “the narrow, partitioned passageway like a funnel emptying into the world.”

 

In the beginning, as we left the airport, I tried to follow our route, memorize the sequence of turns, as if I were entering a labyrinth from which I would later have to work to extricate myself, but soon I gave that up. The city was too big, night was descending incredibly swiftly, the street names flitted by too fast, there were no city squares, and to my side the city center swept by, as if on a movie screen, dozens of skyscrapers packed with light like glowing stars. Several times my head slumped to my chest, my eyelids lowered from exhaustion, my jaw went limp and dropped into emptiness, but each time I managed to recover, with a jolt, and with the hope that the driver hadn’t noticed anything. Only later, when I was alone in the house, did my exhaustion catch up with me, and I felt as if I were falling apart, and I thought, “I will grow old here.”

 

David Albahari, Snow Man (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005)


Weyman Chan's "Calgary in February"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

The Plaza Theatre by Calgary artist, Stan Phelps (Photo: Arcadja Auctions)

The Plaza Theatre by Calgary artist, Stan Phelps (Photo: Arcadja Auctions)

For the poet in inner-city Kensington, “pastorally winter sucks.” A “sparrow-thing” offers a small comfort as it dives into a Japanese lilac, “dune frost pampering each blow.” But it is the street that captures his attention. A girl in Hello Kitty western boots skipping with her mother “like fire-eaters/toward the hurdy gurdies at Livingston & Cavell.”  Hipsters in fedoras “chatting up graces of the vexed/and crawly eyed.” The marquee at the Plaza Theatre announcing its latest offering.

 

Across the street the world’s

best commercials are at two

well you can put a price on just about

anyone’s salted butter lavished

over the dark I’m in, thin, screamy,

and now the curtains unfold

to my astigmatism

looking out for itself

 

Weyman Chan, “Calgary in February,” Chinese Blue (Talonbooks, 2012)