Craig Davidson's Precious Cargo

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Calgary school buses at rest. (Photo: Calgary Sun)

Calgary school buses at rest. (Photo: Calgary Sun)

Craig Davidson’s year of a driving a special needs school bus in Calgary is almost over. He has come to love the six children on his route at the southern edge of the city. “A bus full of nerds,” he calls them: people as quirky as he is. Driving a school bus has changed him. When he started the job, he was facing failure as an aspiring writer and despair. Now he finds himself at the centre of a small, astonishing community. On his last week on the job, he wakes to the spring cawing of magpies. He drives up MacLeod Trail to the impound lot to pick up his bus, and, settled behind the wheel, joins the convoy of school buses, “a stately yellow flotilla, dispersing into the urban grid.” At his first stop, he picks up Jake, a wheel-chair-bound kid with cerebral palsy: a storyteller like Davidson, and a kindred spirit. As Davidson continues along his familiar route of “sleepy thorough-fares and cul-de-sacs,” he reflects on the kids on his Calgary school bus and his remarkable year.

 

They rode because their parents told them to and they obeyed. But, I thought: the odd moment may persist.

Maybe it would be that afternoon in January when I had to get the bus inspected, which made me late. Darkness was falling by the time everyone was on board. A flash squall touched down. Snow curled over the Rockies on a bone-searching wind that screamed through seams in the airframe, rocking the bus on its axles. We charted a path on roads frozen to black glass. Snowflakes glittered in the headlights like a million airborne razor blades. I’d merged with a rural highway on the city’s southernmost scrim. The glow of car headlights pooled up and across the night rises. The moisture of six bodies fogged the windshield; I’d rolled down the window and wind howled with such force that the tears forced out of my eyes were vaporized before they touched my ears. The tires lost traction on a strip of black ice and hit the rumble strips before returning to the tarmac. My fists were gripped fierce to the wheel – which was when Jake began to sing.

It’s cold outside, there’s no kind of atmosphere

I’m all alone, more or less…

Darkness wrapped tight to the bus, snow pelted the windows, and Jake belted out the theme song to Red Dwarf in a high clear British-accented contralto.

…Let me fly, far away from here

Fun, fun, fun, in the sun, sun, sun…

 

Craig Davidson, Precious Cargo: My Years Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077 (Toronto: Alfred A Knopf, 2016)


Ali Bryan's "The Rink"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Calgarians skating on the Elbow River, circa 1913. (Photo:  Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past )

Calgarians skating on the Elbow River, circa 1913. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Postcards from the Past)

All winter, Ali Bryan watches her husband build a skating rink in their Calgary backyard. Hoses take over the kitchen; the back gate is frozen shut. She wonders what he is thinking as he stands night after night in the cold adding a new layer of water on top of a plastic tarp. When the rink is ready, Bryan marvels at what her husband has constructed. In spring, the ice thaws but the dream of his rink endures.

 

It is April and the un-bungeed part of the tarp blows in the wind, at one point folding itself in half over the portion of the rink that has not yet melted. Along the fence, the ice is still eight inches thick. From the neighboring road it’s an eyesore. I pull back the tarp; anchor it down with rocks like it’s a picnic blanket. Methodically, I chip away at the remaining ice. Assaulting it with a shovel, then flinging the blocks into the green space beyond the yard. It is both therapeutic and exhausting. I work alone in the quiet of the afternoon, undoing the layers. Stripping away the hours of time my husband spent in the darkness of winter building the rink. I can’t tell if the ice looks negative or positive, beautiful or deformed. It is just heavy. Weighed down by the private thoughts of its maker, those profound and those superficial. Him. I debate whether to stop because it feels like I’m dismantling something sacred. Like I’m cutting down a tree. But I keep working because it’s almost May and the grass beneath the tarp has been buried for almost six months. I suspect it craves sunlight and air the way we all do after a long winter. I detach the tarp, fold it into a shapeless heap by the edge of the fence and stand ankle deep in the yard. The remains of the rink, now a watery graveyard of thoughts, from which summer will emerge.

 

Ali Bryan, “The Rink,” 40 Below: Alberta’s Winter Anthology, Volume 2 (Edmonton: Wufniks Press, 2015)


Glenn Dixon's Juliet's Answer

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Another pair of storied Calgary lovers: Florence Ladue & Guy Weadick (Photo:  Calgary Stampede )

Another pair of storied Calgary lovers: Florence Ladue & Guy Weadick (Photo: Calgary Stampede)

In a Calgary high school, Glenn Dixon introduces his students to Shakespeare’s timeless love story, Romeo and Juliet. At home, he struggles with his own story of unrequited love – a story he tells in his memoir, Juliet's Answer (Simon and Schuster, 2017). He fell for Claire when they were both working on their graduate degrees at the University of Calgary. As the years pass, Dixon waits for Claire to fall in love with him. That love story ends on a pathway beside the Bow River, but it sends Dixon to Romeo and Juliet's Verona where a new love awaits.

 

A pathway runs along the riverbank where I live. You can walk across a footbridge and off into a forest of Douglas fir trees. Claire and I walked there dozens of times, maybe hundreds of times over the years. She always had cold hands. Her fingertips would go white and then purple. Even on the brightest spring days, her fingers lost their color. She’d hold them up for me to see, shaking her head, surprised at their hue. On the far side of the river, train tracks run along a ridge. Long trains thumped through, carrying wheat and canola to the Pacific markets of China and Japan and India. Claire always waved to the conductors. They leaned out of their tiny windows above the roaring engines to make sure the tracks were clear ahead. She raised a hand with fingertips the color of amethyst and the conductors waved back at her. Once, after a long train had passed, she turned to me, glowing. “You’re my best friend,” she said, and I didn’t know what to say in return. So I said nothing at all.

 

Glenn Dixon, Juliet’s Answer (Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2017)


Natalie Meisner's Double Pregnant

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Memorable encounters on Calgary's Stephen Avenue, this one at First Street East where Milestone's now stands.  (Photo:  Calgary Public Library Community Heritage & Family History Collection )

Memorable encounters on Calgary's Stephen Avenue, this one at First Street East where Milestone's now stands.  (Photo: Calgary Public Library Community Heritage & Family History Collection)

Natalie Meisner and her wife Viviën have decided to start a family. Now, they need to find some sperm. One of their first meetings with potential donors takes place at a tapas restaurant on Stephen Avenue. On paper, Natalie and Viviën have everything in common with this gay couple from Vancouver – travel, cooking, sports, culture. But when they meet them outside the restaurant, Natalie is taken by surprise.

 

As we are introducing ourselves in a four-square formation, I can feel them craning their necks to look up at Viviën, and I register her own surprise as she looks down.

Height alone is no reason to count them out. There’s no call to go discriminating against the less-tall of the world. And besides, height isn’t always passed down biologically, is it? And even if it is, so what? Have we let our overactive imaginations about our future daughter or son the basketball star run away with us? Are we height bigots? I already feel that a wholesale interrogation of my heretofore unexamined prejudice against the vertically challenged is in order when suddenly I am rescued.

These two cannot be our donors, it becomes clear before the appetizers arrive, and it has nothing to do with their height. It isn’t their shortness that disqualifies this couple. No, it is the foodie blogger treatise we are bludgeoned with on the art of the vinaigrette before the menus come. It is the rehearsal of each and every entry for each and every restaurant the slightly taller one wrote in the past six months. The excoriation he gave the Italian restaurant for serving herb-infused bread. The wrath he has for the new French place on Fourth that served something they call a pissaladière when it was clearly a tourtière. And on and on.

 

Natalie Meisner, Double Pregnant: Two Lesbians Make a Family (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2014)


Margaret Gilkes' Ladies of the Night

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Calgary's old police headquarters at 323 - 7th Ave SE, taken in the 1920s. The building was demolished in 1962 to make way for an addition to old City Hall. (Photo:  Calgary Public Library Community Heritage and Family History Collection )

Calgary's old police headquarters at 323 - 7th Ave SE, taken in the 1920s. The building was demolished in 1962 to make way for an addition to old City Hall. (Photo: Calgary Public Library Community Heritage and Family History Collection)

After the war, 29-year-old Margaret Sadler returns to Calgary to begin a career as one of the city’s three female beat cops. Her territory will centre around “The Drag” – a stretch of Ninth Avenue East frequented by prostitutes and their pimps. She’ll frequent the rundown hotels, ladies’ beer parlours and seedy apartment blocks of the city’s East End, and visit a smoky den above a hardware store her colleagues call the Gonorrhea Race Track. She will quickly come to know the people who haunt these streets by name. But here she is on her first day in February 1946, reporting for duty at the “glowering old police station” behind City Hall.

 

It was six o’clock on Saturday night. Swirling pebbles of dirty snow stung my face and a biting February wind sliced through my newly purchased civilian cloth coat. I pulled my light felt hat further down over my eyes and shivered as I stood hesitating at the foot of the worn concrete steps leading to the small entrance porch of the City Police Station.

The old tight feeling hit my stomach. I’d thought I was through with that quick stab of fear when I left England and the V-bombs behind. “It’s watching me,” I muttered, looking from the pale-eyed, barred basement windows of the jail glowering up at me, to the narrow leering ones above.

The city police station had done a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde about-face since two days ago when I had come to be sworn in at an old four-story brick building sitting solidly on its sandstone foundation. Now it was a living breathing thing in the gloom of the street, daring me with hostile eyes to step inside.

 

Margaret Gilkes, Ladies of the Night: The Recollections of a Pioneer Canadian Policewoman (Hannah, AB: Gorman & Gorman, 1989)


Lynette Loeppky's Cease

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

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     In the 1960s, the backroom of the historic Cecil Hotel was  known as a lesbian hangout . The Cecil was  demolished in December 2015 , but the iconic neon sign graces a wall not far away from its original East Village site, inside the refurbished St Louis Hotel.    (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

In the 1960s, the backroom of the historic Cecil Hotel was known as a lesbian hangout. The Cecil was demolished in December 2015, but the iconic neon sign graces a wall not far away from its original East Village site, inside the refurbished St Louis Hotel.  (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

In early 2005, Lynnette Loeppky’s partner Cec lies in hospital in Calgary, her pain, severe and undiagnosed. Lyn travels back and forth from their hobby farm an hour’s drive northeast of the city. She wrestles with her decision to leave their eight-year relationship. She hasn’t told Cec about her intentions, and now, it’s too late. She remembers the day she met Cec, a petite executive several years older than her. Lyn was late for the meeting: it was not the last time she would feel Cec’s appraising eyes upon her. Now, as Cec’s life hangs in the balance, Lyn considers the many constraints her lover has imposed upon her over the course of their relationship. The first one? That they live their lives as a lesbian couple in secret.

 

I called work and left a message for Euphemia who tracked vacation and sick days. I said that my husband had been taken to Emergency and I wouldn’t be coming in.

My husband.

Because I wore the ring Cec had given me on the fourth finger of my left hand, Euphemia assumed I was married. I didn’t want to lie but Cec was insistent.

“The minute I quit my job, I won’t care,” she said. “But the business world in Calgary is small. Someone will figure it out. I’m the only woman at my level in management and I have enough to deal with, without adding that.

“But it comes up. They ask.”

“You don’t have to answer. It’s none of their business.”

Easy for her to say. She was mistress of the side step, the master of evasion. She could redirect a conversation with a wrinkle of her nose and a blink of her eyes.

I, on the other hand, was a horrible liar, a fumbling evader. Cec said she was afraid to send me out into the world because I wore my feelings so plainly on my face, anyone could read me like an open book.

Which was my point exactly. How did she think they wouldn’t know?

 

Lynette Loeppky, Cease: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Desire (Fernie, BC: Oolichan Books, 2014) 


Cathy Ostlere's Lost

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

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    Calgary's River Park. In 1956, shortly after city oilman and philanthropist, Eric Harvie established the Glenbow Foundation, he gave Calgarians a parcel of land. Harvie’s 20 acres of riverside property across the Elbow River from Britannia were designated as “a park for rest and relaxation in a natural setting.” Since then, some would say River Park has gone to the dogs: in recent years, it has become a popular off-leash park.   (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

Calgary's River Park. In 1956, shortly after city oilman and philanthropist, Eric Harvie established the Glenbow Foundation, he gave Calgarians a parcel of land. Harvie’s 20 acres of riverside property across the Elbow River from Britannia were designated as “a park for rest and relaxation in a natural setting.” Since then, some would say River Park has gone to the dogs: in recent years, it has become a popular off-leash park.  (Photo: Shaun Hunter)

Cathy Ostlere sits at her kitchen table in Calgary with her family. It is her younger brother, David’s birthday and they are waiting for his call from abroad. Only Cathy knows that he has embarked on another of his grand adventures: sailing with his girlfriend from Ireland to the Azores across the open Atlantic. The voyage is risky, and the phone call never comes. Weeks after David goes missing, Cathy travels to Madeira, the islands where her brother may have landed. The trip stirs up memories of her own youthful travels, and the sharp criticism her brother delivered in her Calgary living room. “Everyone here is wasting their lives. Everyone is the same. No one daring to think that there may be an entire world to move through, not just this sprawling grid of land scraped of all reminders of geography.” When she returns from Madeira, Cathy drops her children off at school on a dull November morning. In River Park, she considers the landscape of her Calgary life.

 

In the front foyer of the school I wave off invitations for coffee at Bell’s. I can no longer sustain a conversation. I hear only the echo, not the speaker’s voice. Sometimes I catch the conjunctions –the, and, or – the connecting words, but to what? The sentences are unrecognizable, like a foreign language I’ve never bothered to learn. Someone asks a question, a reply is expected, but I don’t know what we’re talking about.

I park the car at the end of 14th Street, dodge the unleashed dogs running like greyhounds and head for the ravine. I walk as close to the edge as I dare. My feet slide. Clumps of crumbled earth slide down to the river.

I have returned to a land with three horizons. The first is a line of stubbled earth – the prairie fields broken and turned, lying fallow until spring. The second is the ragged bit of mountains, the stately wall of rock running north and south. But the third line is made of air: A Chinook arch – purple and grey clouds smudged across the upper half of a clear sky, the underside marked with a dark band as blue as a vein under the tongue. It reminds me of another demarcation not visible here – the sea-darkened curve where sailors fall off and women stare over the edge.

I still look for you. Keep my eye out for a boat with red and white sails, hovering along ahorizon.

A magpie flies over my head, mocking my despair with a piercing tongue. I pick up a stone and fling it at the plump black body. I miss but the bird leaves, crying. The colour blue flashes under its wing.

 

Cathy Ostlere, Lost: A Memoir (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2008)


Cheryl Foggo's Pourin' Down Rain

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

The landmark twin railway bridges in Bowness, looking west from Bowmont Park, with Stoney Trail in the distance (Photo: Blair Carbert)

The landmark twin railway bridges in Bowness, looking west from Bowmont Park, with Stoney Trail in the distance (Photo: Blair Carbert)

The descendant of African-American prairie pioneers, Cheryl Foggo grew up on a street in Bowness that “contained the closest thing to a Black community that one would find in Calgary in 1961.” As a girl, she was barely aware of racism. “There was nothing amiss,” Foggo writes, “nothing lacking in Bowness.”

 

Across the street from our house was another field which we had to cross to reach the railroad tracks leading to the twin bridges, the Bow River, and ultimately, to the paths that took us “up in the hills.”

Most summer days we spent meandering along the tracks to the river, the usual goal being a picnic in the hills. The picnic, however, was not really the point. The point was the adventure we would sometimes encounter along the way.

On a very warm day, if there was no breeze, the heat from the iron rails and sharp smell of oil and metal bouncing up into our faces would drive us down from the tracks to walk through the high grasses. This meant slower going, but it was good to sniff the flowers instead of the heat and to dig around what someone would insist was a badger hole.

From the first time my brothers pronounced me old enough to go along with them, until I was sixteen and we moved from Bowness, the journey along the tracks to the river, across the bridges and up into the hills was real life. It was the meeting place, it was where we went to talk and light campfires, it was something we did that our parents did not do.

 

Cheryl Foggo, Pourin’ Down Rain (Detselig, 1990)


Lily MacKenzie's "Soul of the City"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Central United Church on 7 Avenue & 1st Street West. Future prime minister, R. B. Bennett helped choose the site for this then-Methodist church. When the building was completed in 1905, it was the largest in the city, seating 1,975 people. (Photo: Calgary Public Library,  Postcards from the Past )

Central United Church on 7 Avenue & 1st Street West. Future prime minister, R. B. Bennett helped choose the site for this then-Methodist church. When the building was completed in 1905, it was the largest in the city, seating 1,975 people. (Photo: Calgary Public Library, Postcards from the Past)

Lily MacKenzie left Calgary in 1963 as a young woman. Then, fewer than 250,000 people called the city home, twenty-story Elveden House was the only skyscraper, and Prince’s Island was overgrown and neglected, “a wild place in the heart of the city.” Decades later, when MacKenzie returns to visit, many of the landmarks of her childhood are gone. In their stead, she finds a city transformed, a place that “slips away, constantly revising itself.” But what of the city’s soul, she wonders, the “places that touch us at the deepest core of our being”? At Central United Church, the caretaker lets her into the place where she learned to play piano as a girl and attended holiday services with her family. Her visit points to something that has resisted the city’s incessant change, the intangible essence MacKenzie is looking for. 

 

Central United, a stable downtown fixture like The Bay, smells old, unlike the glitz that surrounds it. The same dark wood pews that I sat on as a girl face the altar and the stained glass windows… The church has seen better days, paint peeling off the walls in places, red carpet fraying.

Still, it’s like visiting an elderly uncle or aunt, the interior shabby and somehow more authentic, things basically unchanged.

 

Lily MacKenzie, “Soul of the City,” Alberta Views (July/August 2004)


Barry Callaghan's "After the Fall: A Sadness at the Heart of Calgary"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

"Why not here, in this balloon, in a moment of blessing close to the morning sun, begin a love story?" -- Barry Callaghan (Photo: Rainbow Balloons)

"Why not here, in this balloon, in a moment of blessing close to the morning sun, begin a love story?" -- Barry Callaghan (Photo: Rainbow Balloons)

It’s 1983, and the city is in a deep economic slump. Toronto writer, Barry Callaghan arrives to search the city’s soul. He scavenges for stories at the city’s edges. The prostitute stroll on 2nd Avenue. A gay bar on 17th Avenue called Dick’s. The hockey arena on the Tsuut’ina reserve. In the Devonian Gardens, he reads John Ballem’s 1981 novel, Alberta Alone. This best-selling political thriller is the only fiction he can find set in Calgary. He meets Ballem in his law office on the 36th floor of the Scotia Centre. Disturbed by the “fierce violence” he senses in the city, Callaghan asks Ballem, “If you were writing a love story in Calgary and were looking for the image of tenderness, where would you locate two lovers in this city?” Ballem’s suggestions (a ranch outside of town, an office tower, the Glenbow Museum) are not what the Toronto novelist has in mind. On a cool, clear morning, Callaghan takes a ride in a hot-air balloon. High above the city, he finds what he is looking for.

 

The tall glass-and-concrete towers of the city caught the sun below a band of dun-coloured smog, a city in contention with itself: caustic and yet courtly, prickly and yet polite and pliable, and impervious to collapse. There is a strange vacancy at the core of the city, and a money-meanness that goes with it – but around the edges, people are filled with an often loony love of life, a celebration of the self, a desire to be someone, to create themselves, to exist in the imagination. As the chef served pears with coffee and Grand Marnier, as the silence over the city filled me with ease and wellbeing, I thought, “Why not here, in this balloon, in a moment of blessing close to the morning sun, begin a love story?”

 

Barry Callaghan, “After the Fall: A Sadness at the Heart of Calgary,” Saturday Night (November, 1983)


Ruth Scalplock's My Name is Shield Woman

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

Postcard of the Indian Village at the Calgary Stampede, date unknown. (Photo:  Calgary Public Library )

Postcard of the Indian Village at the Calgary Stampede, date unknown. (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

In her memoir, Siksika elder Ruth Scalplock writes of her childhood in the 1950s on the reserve east of Calgary. From the age of six, Scalplock lived away from her family at residential school. In the summers, she returned home. Her father would cut hay for Stampede money, and when he was paid, the family would catch the train into town.

 

Calgary’s wasn’t a big city then. Where 50th avenue and MacLeod Trail is, this, to my knowledge was the edge of town, and 16th avenue to the north. Forest Lawn wasn’t even part of Calgary. We camped right in the Indian Village for a few days with my Dad’s cousin and her husband – Betsy and James One Gun. In the Blackfoot way, they were like my Grandparents. They had a campsite, One Gun and his wife, where the Calgary Stampede Corral is, where the Indian Village used to be. We stayed in their tipi…

Sometimes we had a tent and camped down in Manchester, around 50th avenue. That is where some of the Siksika had their tents. There was a street car that we used to take… Later we stayed at another place, over by where the Zoo is now, by Nose Creek… There were lots of people from all over the world at the Stampede. They used to come around and take pictures. There was no drinking in the Village. It was so nice, so good when there was no drinking.

 

Ruth Scalplock, My Name is Shield Woman (DayTimeMoon, 2014) 


Nancy Huston's "A Bucking Nightmare"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

"Waiting for the Parade" by Calgary artist Stan Phelps (Photo:  Arcadja Auctions )

"Waiting for the Parade" by Calgary artist Stan Phelps (Photo: Arcadja Auctions)

In the summer of 1993, Paris-based, Calgary-born novelist Nancy Huston returns to her hometown. She's been away for 25 years, and is about to see her first Alberta novel, Plainsong, published. On Stampede parade day, she and her young family head downtown. After the first band marches past, Huston bursts into tears. As a girl, she dreamed of being in such a marching band, wearing a short pleated skirt and twirling a baton. In an instant, she pulls herself together. “Roland Barthes, I tell myself (using French theory to protect myself from Albertan emotion), could have written a ‘mythology’ about this strange event.”

 

What unfolds before our eyes for a full three hours, in the freezing rain, is a succession of bands and floats celebrating every ethnic group in this province’s population: Indians of all tribes, proudly decked out in their traditional costumes (“You see, Daddy?” says Sasha. “You told me Indians didn’t wear feathers any more, but you were wrong!”), Ukrainians, Irish, Hungarians, Dutch, Scots, Germans – and the one and only message conveyed to the enthusiastic audience is: “We are here.” On the spectators’ side, the one and only response to this message is the cry of “yahoo!” endlessly reiterated… “Yahoo!” As far as I can tell, this word is my city’s one distinctive contribution to the history of humanity.

 

Nancy Huston, “A Bucking Nightmare,” Saturday Night (June 1997)


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)


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)


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)


Rupert Brooke's Letters From America

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

"The Civic Centre of Calgary as It May Appear Many Years Hence." In 1913, the city commissioned English landscape architect Thomas Mawson to design this plan for Calgary. Never realized, the plan was known as "Vienna on the Bow." (Image:  Archives of Alberta )

"The Civic Centre of Calgary as It May Appear Many Years Hence." In 1913, the city commissioned English landscape architect Thomas Mawson to design this plan for Calgary. Never realized, the plan was known as "Vienna on the Bow." (Image: Archives of Alberta)

In the summer of 1913, the charming young English poet, Rupert Brooke toured Canada by rail. In mid-August, he arrived in Calgary. The city was booming. Population had soared from 4,000 in 1901 to over 63,000, and along with it, civic dreams of a thriving metropolis. Brooke visited one of the newest jewels in the city’s crown: the public library on Second Street West. “Few large English towns,” he wrote to British readers in one of his regular dispatches to the Westminster Gazette, “could show anything as good.” That summer, weeks before the economy crashed and the boom turned to bust, Brooke saw a city hell bent on the future. If he didn’t experience an August heat wave during his visit to Calgary, he clearly felt hot air of another kind.

 

These cities grow in population with unimaginable velocity. From thirty to thirty thousand in fifteen years is the usual rate. Pavements are laid down, stores and bigger stores and still bigger stores spring up. Trams buzz along the streets towards the unregarded horizon that lies across the end of most roads in these flat, geometrically planned prairie-towns. Probably a Chinese quarter appears, and the beginnings of slums. Expensive and pleasant small dwelling-houses fringe the outskirts; and rents beings so high, great edifices of residential flats rival the great stores…

The inhabitants of these cities are proud of them, and envious of each other with a bitter rivalry. They do not love their cities as a Manchester man loves Manchester or a Münchener Munich, for they have probably lately arrived in them, and will surely pass on soon. But while they are there they love them, and with no silent love. They boost. To boost is to commend outrageously. And each cries up his own city, both from pride, it would appear, and for profit. For the fortunes of Newville are very really the fortunes of its inhabitants.

 

Rupert Brooke, Letters From America (Charles Scribner, 1916) 


Dale Lee Kwong's "Overcoming Adoption"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Calgary's original Centre Street Bridge in 1912. Two years before this photo, the city's  Chinatown was relocated  from 10th Avenue and 1st Street West to the southern end of the bridge, where it remains to this day. (Photo:  University of Alberta Libraries )

Calgary's original Centre Street Bridge in 1912. Two years before this photo, the city's Chinatown was relocated from 10th Avenue and 1st Street West to the southern end of the bridge, where it remains to this day. (Photo: University of Alberta Libraries)

As a young woman, writer Dale Lee Kwong set out to discover the facts of her birth in 1960 in Calgary’s small Chinese community. Her search resulted in a few scraps of information. Years later, she receives a letter from her birth mother, Mei Li’an, who tells Kwong she was conceived in a rape in Calgary. I walk up and down Centre Street Bridge, Mei Li’an writes in her letter, contemplating suicide. This news and all its implications traumatize Kwong. Months after the revelation, she goes to the Centre Street Bridge, determined to cross, afraid she, too, might jump.

How many times did Mei Li’an pause here to think of her death? Did those thoughts give her strength while taking away mine? I looked at the passing traffic and nonchalant fellow walkers. Does anyone know about the woman who walked up and down this bridge in 1960? I put one foot in front of the other and kept walking. Can you see my shame?

 

Dale Lee Kwong, “ Overcoming Adoption: From Genesis to Revelations,” Somebody’s Child: Stories About Adoption (Touchwood Editions, 2011)