Excerpt from ‘Uranium City Return’: Edmonton
by Tim Beckett
I hadn’t been back to Edmonton in nearly 20 years, not since I’d passed through with my parents at age 15 on my way back to Vancouver. I took the airport shuttle downtown to the bus station then checked in at the Grand Hotel across the street. The hotel looked rundown, but the wooden awning out front and the cowboy bar on the ground floor lent it a frontier feel, made it an apt jumping off point for the journey that would take me to Fort McMurray and beyond to a North I hadn’t seen since just before I’d last seen Edmonton.
Except for a guy who tried to bum five bucks off me in the hallway, the hotel was empty and quiet. I was tired from getting up at dawn and catching the flight from Montreal, but when I lay down on the bed, I was too agitated to rest. I felt my childhood all around me in the quiet streets stretching out beyond the window, the brilliant blue sky directly in front of my line of vision that just seemed to go on and on. It was more a shock than I’d expected to be back. For most of the time I’d been away, I’d suppressed my memories of Edmonton. Or lost them, I’ve never been sure which. I’d been thinking about Edmonton in a roundabout way, as part of that whole first 15 years of my life that involved the North, rebuilding it all piece by piece in my mind until I felt like I could enter it at will. Now here it was, memory made life. If I shifted position, I could just see the neon red CN logo, atop the hi-rise with the vertical black and white lines running down its sides. The CN Tower had been my favorite hi-rise when we’d lived in the city, and just seeing it again felt like a minor miracle and made me as anxious to walk Edmonton’s afternoon streets as I’d once been, in my drinking days, to hit the bars as soon as possible whenever I arrived somewhere new.
At first I was disappointed. The city had seen a few changes since I’d been there last. More than a few. An oil boom had come and gone, leaving behind a plethora of mismatched, not very attractive buildings marooned in an ocean of parking lots, and the West Edmonton Mall had taken whatever life was left over after the boom. At any given time, there seemed to be no more than a dozen people on the sidewalk. That’s what startled me most: the emptiness. Not just the absence of people, but the sense of depletion. Even the office towers, the sprawling malls, seemed deserted.
Yet a stroll down Jasper Avenue inspired a few memories, made me glad I’d come back. The air was cool, with just a hint of winter to come. A breeze swept up from the river valley that divides the northern and southern halves of the city, scattering leaves across the pavement. I located a few landmarks. The John A. MacDonald hotel, perched like a chateau on the riverbank. The Birks building, displaying the jewelry in the window like it had when I was a kid. The office building with the art deco griffins by the entrance where my father’s boss, Gilford Labine, had had his office. The old Hudson’s Bay with its black marble walls, company coat of arms on each corner; the imprints of sailing ships, Indians on horseback, and Prairie Schooners carved into the stone walls.
The city began to assume a personality, like a face coming into focus in the middle of a dream. It was time to visit my old neighborhood.
We’d lived across from the Provincial Legislature, in a little bungalow just below a squat blue and purple office building that was tied to the Legislature in some way. Our house, like all the houses in our neighborhood, was owned by the Alberta government. It was a nice neighborhood. Next door to us were an old Dutchman and his wife, the Jaegers. Mr. Jaeger had been a concert violinist with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, but things must have been pretty bad after the war, because he’d given it all up to come to Canada to give his two sons a fresh start and a good education. One son dropped out and became a dope-smoking hippie, and the other a Jehovah’s Witness and a supermarket manager while the only job the old man could find was as a janitor. The hippie was a nice kid who’d take me up to Jasper Avenue to get ice cream but the other, the JW, was a cold fish who barely ever came to see his own parents. The Jaegers, whatever their disappointment, were sweet people, my surrogate grandparents. Mr. Jaeger grew flowering trees in his front yard and played the violin in his basement on the weekends and his wife baked Dutch savories and fed them to me by the tray. Their house was filled with books, portraits, with musical instruments mounted on the walls, dark from all the trees in the front yard, rich with the smell of the fresh bread Mrs. Jaeger baked on the weekends.
Next door to the Jaeger’s was a house full of Chinese kids, university students, who gave me my first taste of Chinese food, and around the corner from them was a French-Canadian nursing student from somewhere north of the city who talked to me in French and bought me crystals, the kind that turn color as you drop them in water, and form miniature coral gardens. Behind all of us was a colossal house with what seemed like a half-dozen levels, where an American construction worker lived with his six daughters. Maybe he got rich in the oil patch because, along with his big house, he drove a big Cadillac. I never found out what happened to his wife, whether he was widowed, or she’d left him, but I used to hang around with the youngest daughter, who was my age, running free in the Legislature grounds across the road when it was warm, showing each other our privates in the bushes behind her house. We ran together for quite awhile: I guess it could have been called a relationship.
Before we’d moved to the neighborhood we’d been up North for a few years, having moved there shortly after I was born. My father is a geologist, my mother a nurse and we followed my father to the bush camps where he spent most of his time in the summer, spending the colder months in one of a couple of mining towns in or near the Northwest Territories where my mother could find work. My first memories are of flying – by transport plane, bush plane, even helicopter. For awhile, we’d lived near a seaplane base, and even long after I’d left Canada, I could still vividly recall the steady drone of the float planes taking off and landing: the sound of the North. It was a good life for a kid. A magical life. Though we moved around a lot, we were surrounded by a community of people, all of whom seemed to show up in the same places we did. There was Tony Aria, the pilot, old Sam the prospector and blacksmith, Rosie the cook and my father’s boss, Gilford Labine, who’d risen from miner to mine manager to head of his own company. Outside each town were abandoned mines, mostly abandoned after the first great uranium rush of the ‘50s had come and gone, enormous pale white structures as immense as city skyscrapers, rising abruptly out the bush. They seemed fantastic, like abandoned cities; the mine heads, in particular, looked like church steeples. To a child, these mines were like magical cities in a land that was not quite of this Earth and, being a child, I rarely glimpsed the hardships behind the lives of the people we knew: the long hours, the heavy drinking, the loneliness, even amongst people we counted amongst our closest friends, and this likely deepened the shock of how things turned out later.
Even down south, the North continued to flow through our lives, and in my mind there was no separation between the two. Figures like Sam or Tony Aria showed up at our house, staying an afternoon or an evening before disappearing for what I realize now were week-long benders before they were dragged back to the bush to work and sober up. Gilford had a ranch house outside the city limits with a glassed-in swimming pool where I went for swimming lessons; and when he was in town, we went to his office down Jasper Ave where I’d hang out for an hour or so, sitting in a chair while Gilford wrote at his desk. Gilford was a small, wiry man with one blue eye, one green. He’d grown up on a farm, poor and tough, fought in WWII and even if, looking back, I knew that he drank – he kept a bottle or rye whiskey below his desk, filling up a coffee cup regularly through the afternoon – and that his drinking was a problem, he had a calm about him, as if the North had followed him into the south, right into the office. When school was out for the year, my mother and I went North again, riding out to the Edmonton Municipal Airport for the four or five hour journey back to some familiar town, where old friends would greet us and we’d take a plane or a helicopter out to the bush. There we’d find my father, dressed like a caricature of a British explorer in short pants with a sturdy canvas rucksack on his back, and Rosie the cook and her mechanic husband Albert. I’d spend the summer fishing in the lake, hiking through the woods with my mother or my father, or playing gin rummy in the cook shack with Rosie. Sometimes I’d be allowed to go up in the helicopter, and fly around for the day with my old man while he went on his rounds.
The best times were when we went to the abandoned mines. My old man was fascinated by them, and he’d lead me through the cavernous buildings, explaining what had been the function of each building. Though I shared his fascination, I hardly listened: I had started reading science fiction and comic books, and in my imagination the mines had become abandoned cities, left behind by some superior civilization, places that one day I might go back to inhabit. Even more than the towns we passed through, these forbidding, mysterious buildings seemed like the real capitals of the North.
It probably wasn’t as ideal a time as I’m remembering it now. Even then, I was a little scared of my father. His moods were unpredictable, and he was given to flashes of temper that were sudden and frighteningly intense. But I don’t remember him hitting me then, don’t remember hating him like I did later. When I began piecing these years together, what I remembered most was the warmth of the people we knew, the tightness of our communities in both the bush and the city, and the splendor of the North.
I remembered too my bewilderment when we returned south one fall to find the eviction notice half-covered by the leaves gathering in front of our door. Within the next couple of months, I lost both my neighborhood and the North. Gilford had concealed a lot behind that calm. A month after the eviction notice, his company went bankrupt. He lost his house, his ability to control his drinking and, a year later, his life when he collapsed of a heart attack. We moved out of the city, travelling through a succession of Prairie towns. This time the traveling was disorientating, furtive, like we were running from something. My father in work, out of work, my mother working long hours at a rural hospital, leaving me alone with a father who had become both strange and terrifying, malevolent and sadistic, a person I hardly knew or wanted to know. It would be four years before we went back North and by then both I, and the North, had irrevocably changed.
Our neighborhood has been replaced by a park. Concrete paths lead through flowerbeds and stands of planted trees, broadening around two marble pools, one of which spouts a 20 foot geyser. On the spot where our house used to be is a concrete sculpture and two mirrors peering into an underground gangway. The geyser shoots over what had been Mr. Jaeger’s orchard, and the American’s big house has been replaced by a little bridge arching over a cheerfully gurgling brook. The only structure I recognize beyond the Legislature is the blue and purple office tower which, while hideous, is familiar enough that I can use it to find my way back into my old neighborhood.
The Legislature, at least, remains unchanged. The sandstone dome capped by a single, elongated bell. The big windows with the sandstone eaves, staring out over the park, as they’d stared out over our house thirty years before. The same three flagpoles spaced evenly over the blocks-length building, flying the British, Albertan and Canadian flags, just as they had when I’d been a boy. Even if the order to demolish our neighborhood had come from somewhere in that building, I’d been in awe of it as a kid, and it is that awe I remember as I descended into the park.
At least they’d finally made it into a park. After the government had razed every house, every identifiable landmark in the months after we left, they had turned the whole area into a gravel parking lot. For the next few years, I never passed by without feeling angry and deeply wounded, as if I’d been betrayed personally, and when we swept through Edmonton in 1981, I didn’t even return to see it.
But standing in that empty parking lot, looking out on the dome of the Legislature, the North came back to me like whiffs of frost in the late autumn air. I saw myself pressing through the terminal gates to the DC3 waiting on the tarmac to take us on the four or five hour journey north. I saw those beautiful mine heads, rising from a stand of scrubby spruce as I climbed a hill with my father, the steeple-shaped peak gleaming white in the sun, the breeze bending the grasses growing through the cracks in the concrete platform at the mine head’s base. That last image so powerful, it was like the mine head was hovering there at the city’s heart, like I could travel a thousand miles and thirty years into the past just by stepping into the Legislature grounds.
Yet I couldn’t stay long, not in our immediate neighborhood anyway. Remembering with such clarity how it had been, then seeing how completely it had been obliterated was too painful. My neighborhood, my memories of that neighborhood, might never have existed. A couple of kids were doing flips on their skateboards along the edge of the wading pool. Their presence seemed sacrilegious somehow, and I glared at them disapprovingly like some cranky old man before retreating to the garden at the back of the Legislature.
The gardens, at least, were more or less as they had been. The lawn sloped to a stand of spruce and pine, then to the half-shell bandstand where we watched the Indian drummers on Klondike Days. Next to the band shell was a lawn-bowling green, a flower garden, arrangements of trees and plaques, a totem pole donated by the British Columbia government to mark the 1967 Centennial. The Centennial Flame, burning oily-black for all eternity with Alberta crude.
Looking over the green, I marveled at how thoroughly it had been preserved. It was as if I’d stumbled onto some alternate dimension, where a fragment of my childhood lived on, embalmed. I remembered how this green had seemed like an extension of our front yard. I had known every shrub, every crack in every path, and had carefully monitored the progress or decay of the bushes and flowerbeds that had lined its paths. It had been mine, and I hadn’t been able to imagine that I would lose this place, any more than I could have imagined that I would stop going North in the summer.
I stood at the edge of a line of pine trees looking out on the High Level Bridge. The sun was going down behind the bridge, pulling the vast Prairie sky into the shadows. A freight train shunted over the bridge, the creaking and grinding of its wheels echoing sadly off the riverbanks. The air smelled of pine needles, undergrowth, of oncoming frost. I felt the North all around me like the trace outline of a dream.
Midnight sunlight through the twisted jack pine,
Glacial waters washing against a pebbled beach,
The Cosmos . . .
The dusk came quickly, and with the dusk figures appeared behind the trees, glancing furtively in my direction. I left before they got any closer, broke the spell of the park, walking past the marble pools, the geyser, up and over the little bridge where the American’s house had once stood. On a parking lot at the park’s edge, I paused for one last look. The lights of the Legislature were blinking on in the gloom. It wasn’t my childhood I felt there anymore, but the pull of those great mine buildings I’d imagined as abandoned cities, calling to me through the fluttering leaves, the cracked asphalt of the empty parking lot.
I left my old neighborhood feeling both melancholy and curiously at peace. It was reassuring to know that even if the neighborhood itself was gone, I could at least come back and relive the same memories again and again, that neither the granite walkways, nor the fountains had the power to erase a part of my life that had been so vividly felt.
Walking along the edge of downtown, I recognized more landmarks: the Chinese grocery, hidden away in the corner of a hi-rise, a brick schoolhouse, the LaCombe Hotel with the revolving restaurant on the top floor where you could look out on the whole river valley. I remembered the sense of wonder I lived with as a child, marking these places as my own, signposts in a familiar, safe universe. I felt that wonder again, fleetingly, like the echo of the North I felt in the river valley.
I turned back onto Jasper Avenue in front of the Hudson’s Bay. Rush hour was waning and the street was deserted but for a solitary figure waiting at a light a couple blocks up. Busses and vehicles light and small roared by, filling the air with pollution. The Bay, I discovered after looking in the window, was deserted and had been so for many years. The display windows were coated in dust, and papers and refuse filled the doorways. Across the street was the Silk Hat Diner, where my mother and I went for lunch with Sam or Tony Aria when they were in town. The old neon sign of the top hat and gloves glowed blue and yellow in the window, but inside the diner looked as empty as the street, and I couldn’t make myself go in.
I kept walking. I needed to map out as much of the city as I could while my memories were still fresh. Yet even while the Jasper Avenue I’d known took shape around me, it was depressing to see what the street had become. So much of what I remembered was gone, replaced by an amalgam of disjointed ‘70s detritus: glasses boxes, an orange cube, a concrete conference centre sprawling down the hill behind the grand old MacDonald’s Hotel. Downtown was less a cohesive centre than a smattering of boxy islands marooned amidst an asphalt ocean.
Other memories crept in, supplanting or perhaps building on the memories stirred up by the park. I’d sensed what was coming, even though I couldn’t place what the event would be. In the year before we were evicted, the destruction had already begun, starting downtown, jumping like a topping forest fire into our neighborhood. In the fall, the art gallery behind my school, a three-story red-brick building that had been one of the city’s earliest structures, was torn down. During recess, I stood at the fence at the end of the schoolyard and watched, fascinated and horrified, as the wrecking ball swung in and out of the building, breaking open walls, floors, rooms, exposing the curving oak staircase in the middle of the building, then taking that down as well until all that was left was a pile of rubble. In the winter, the Legislature’s steps were eaten away by salt and ice, and in the spring men with the jackhammers came, pounding away at the crumbling sandstone steps until they looked like a mouth full of decaying teeth.
But the most powerful event, the one that was to haunt me for years to come after we left, took place during the last Christmas we spent in Edmonton. A pipe burst in the hallway next to my classroom, and the plumbers had to rip out a wall to fix it. During class, the whole school was filled with the sound of hammers and electric saws, drowning out the teacher and the Christmas music the staff played in the halls to drown out the noise of the demolition. When we went to get our coats at the end of the day, we had to step over pools of dirty water which had spilled out on the floor, maneuver past the workmen who seemed to be ripping at the walls in a kind of frenzy. Behind the ripped out walls, the pipes and electrical wire had been exposed and, along with the dirty plaster on the floor, the destruction seemed somehow obscene, even sinister, and for several nights afterward, I had nightmares.
I realized later it had been an emergency of some kind, a burst radiator pipe or something of that nature, but at the time it was my first inkling that a world I thought secure could be torn apart by forces beyond my control. An inkling too, that in a magical universe, not every force hidden below the surface was for good. This vision bloomed over the next four years, occasionally veering into outright terror, and only let up when we moved back here, to Uranium City, the center of my childhood North.
I ended up in the most spectral Chinatown I’ve ever seen. Typical Chinese arch with golden dragons on either side then a couple of restaurants separated by those runway size parking lots. One street of porn shops, then a street of dusty looking taverns named after British royalty: ‘The King Edward’, ‘The Queen Victoria’, with signs warning ‘No Knives Allowed’ fixed to the front door. A single street of wooden houses, the downtown towers looming behind them like props left behind from a sci-fi set.
I noticed a few figures on the street, sitting on the steps of the houses or walking on the pavement, and turned the corner grateful to find a place downtown with actual people. Everyone on the street appeared to be native, in their teens or early ‘20s. I passed a couple of kids pissing into the bushes in front of one house while another kid pounded on the front door, then a porch where a dozen teenagers hung around on the steps, one young guy strumming an out of tune guitar, playing it so aimlessly I couldn’t make out if he was playing an actual tune. As I walked by two native girls in spandex pants and leather jackets, one almost obese, the other so skinny she looked like a good breeze might knock her down, came up the walk and turned up the steps, greeted by shouts and laughter.
Natives. As soon as I’d stepped out of the bus station, I’d seen them, huddled about the downtown streets as they had when I’d been a kid, bewildered by the civilization that had been erected all around them. Sleek black hair, scarred-up faces, blank eyes: haunting Canada’s idea of itself like a bad conscience.
They too were a memory of youth, of the West. When I’d been a kid, I’d been perplexed by these city Indians, who were so unlike the Indians I knew up North, Indians like Rosie and her husband Albert, or the tireless, quietly humorous guides who worked for Gilford in camp. Yet when I talked to the drunks in front of the Chinese grocers by our neighborhood, I had to admit that the Indians I admired in the bush were at least cousins to the beaten, marginal figures in front of me: they had the same faces, even the same warmth and humor when they weren’t too far gone. When we moved back to Uranium City, one of those little northern towns where I’d spent time between the bush camps and the abandoned mines, I started hanging out with native kids. Their older brothers would be the coolest guys in town, the guys with cars who seemed to get all the girls and reconciling these two images became even harder.
I went back to the hotel. I had nothing else to see. I wanted to rest, to dream, to prepare myself for the push back North, back home.UG
Tim Beckett has been a cook, tree-planter, road-sweeper, documentary researcher, housepainter and many other things besides. He grew up in Edmonton, Alta, and Uranium City, SK, with side trips to Port Radium, NWT and Vancouver, BC. He has lived in Montreal, London and presently hides out in New York City. He edits and contributes to Sensitive Skin Magazine, and has been published in a few places. He is working on a novel ‘Uranium City Return’ of which this is an excerpt. He has received two Canada Council grants and would like to receive many more.