Take to the hills, everybody. The city’s had it

HARRY BRUCE February 1 1970

Take to the hills, everybody. The city’s had it

HARRY BRUCE February 1 1970

Take to the hills, everybody. The city’s had it


A city boy ponders the country’s pleasures_ Our token radical crosses the undefended border Aislin looks at the Queen’s Canada_ Is the public service against women?_ If you don’t dig rock, go soak your head_ And other assorted boosts, knocks, raspberries and plums, as Maclean’s begins a new feature: a lively give-and-take between you and us


I CAME DOWN to the city recently after six months away and, in the past when I had come back, there had always been a beautiful young surge of excitement but this time, for the first time, I did not feel it at all and it was painfully clear that, between me and the city, something had changed forever. Then, for four days, a blank, grey cover, an oppressive eiderdown of tarnished mist sat on the city, and intermittently it dribbled the sooty sort of rain that has turned clotheslines into an urban anachronism. The temperature was neutral.

There was no season, no sunrise or sundown, or even a real noon.

I was born here. I had lived most of my life here, and it was here that I’d done most of my reading about air pollution. Pollution had always been something one only read about but, now, with every breath, it was here in my nostrils, surprising and unpleasant and, melodramatically, I thought, Ah, my beloved city. My beloved city, you really do stink.

Most of the people I know are lifelong lovers of the city. As children, some of us actually liked the smell of automobile - exhaust fumes, and we’d hang around gas stations to suck it in. The landscape of our memory is common. It consists of city softball, city hockey, city hopscotch and skipping, a peculiarly dusty and smelly kind of July heat, Saturdayafternoon movies, the learning of expertise in the use of streetcars, and roaming by bicycle for mile upon mile down corridors of houses in a hundred alien territories. It consists of street gangs, clubhouses made of stolen fence planks, a few concrete swimming pools (the chlorine was fierce), asphalt and, wherever we went, pavement. Pavement in the morning, pavement before coming in for bed, bloody noses and terrible love on the schoolyard pavement. To people like us, you need only say the word “pavement” aloud, and the images and urgings and colors and rivalries of childhood, they all begin to boil around in some obscure depth of the mind. At a downtown cocktail party, I have merely to name a particular dance hall where we teen-

aged “operators” used to go to see if we could “make out,” and three or four strangers of my generation will all look up with a happy shock of recognition. We’re city boys.

And later, did we change, did we settle in the square, healthy suburbs, or beyond? Not on your polluted life!

We moved even farther downtown than our parents had lived. We were not exactly a Jet Set. We were the Taxi Generation. We put our kids in downtown schools. We traded our knowledge of the Saturday - movie matinées for a knowledge of “film.”

We moved out of the hot dance halls and into the bars, coffeehouses, art galleries, delicatessens, [laundromats, magazine stores, boutiques, hairdressing salons, creative, men’s tailoring shops, bookshops, charity balls, theatres, and all the other places that a good city is supposed to provide to keep one’s-appearance interesting and one’s, mind moving. We made jokes abpuf the rubes who were so unfortunate as to live more than two miles from City Hall and, if we were smug, it was only because we were rather pleased with the way we lived in our city and because, outside of being rich in Manhattan or London, we really could not imagine how anyone could have a better life than the ones we had arranged for ourselves.

But something has changed, something has gone wrong, and I’m not quite sure what it is, or it is so many things that I can’t get them all straight. Perhaps it’s just that the longer you live in any one place the more oppressive and confining it becomes. Perhaps the bricks, and the

pavement itself, in all their great familiarity, slowly cease to be a background to excitement and, instead, become reminders of the small defeats and private disillusionments that everyone must endure. Hardly any of the people I know are still living with the people they married in their 20s. A dose friend suddenly died and, until then, I’d never had a close friend who did that, just died. She used to read rural real-estate ads, and she’d talk a lot about finding a place in the country and getting out of the crappy old city. And now, every other city boy I meet — and his wife, or his second wife, or his new girl friend . . . they are all scheming to find something “up north” that they have never found in their beloved city. They are buying Crown land, building log cabins, comparing prices per acre, forming little syndicates to buy bush and rock and pasture and brooks and, even before they’ve found these things, they are worrying about how they’ll keep the hunters and the snowmobile nuts off their property. Even to my city-loving friends, the city is no longer the place where you choose to work to get a good life; it’s becoming the place where you have to live to get good work.

Air pollution is nowhere near the whole reason for this change in feeling. Pollution is more symbol than cause, a pervasive reminder of our gentle despair over no longer caring much about the old city. For, if we loved the city enough, we who once enjoyed the smell of auto exhaust might even' learn to stop worrying and love the smog. Your true citylover, your Jimmy Breslin for instance, can celebfate even the more profound horrors of city life. Gangsterdom, ghetto life, power failures, transit strikes, bums, drought, crime waves, poverty, not to mention' such minor unpleasantness as greed, rudeness and human callousness... they’ve all been endlessly deplored, but writers and politicians have also romanticized them, and sometimes even idealized them. This is my town. You gotta know how to talk to the cab drivers. Don’t let anyone give you any crap. I grew up on the pavement just across the river and, believe me, brother, that was murder. 1 can take care of myself in this town. This is my town, and I love every rotten, corrupt, ratinfested, disease-ridden, back-stabbing,

throat-slitting, screwed-up inch of it. The dope addicts, too.

I can understand that, I just don’t like it much any more. A recent essay in Time magazine said much the same sort of thing: “In countless different ways, [the great city] has almost always been an unpleasant, disagreeable, cheerless, uneasy and reproachful place; in the end, it can only be described as magnificent.” I can understand that, too. I just wonder if, in connection with cities, we shouldn’t redefine such words as “great” and “magnificent.” The dream of The Great City recently led Mayor Jean Drapeau to explain on television that, in a sense, the anarchy and murderous public violence that afflicted parts of Montreal in October were merely the jir'ice of Montreal’s international greatness. “In England,” Drapeau said, “it is London. In France, it is Paris, and in Canada it is Montreal.” Praise be! Canada can hold her head up because Montreal, in addition to

her big-league baseball, her big-league skyscrapers, her big-league gangland killings and her big-league slums, can now prove her greatness with bigleague street violence as well. I thought I detected a note of pride in Drapeau’s statement, as though he’d just talked the Metropolitan Opera Company into moving to Montreal, but no one seemed to think he’d said anything unusual, and I wondered, Are we all quite sane?

I’m moving back to the city myself soon. There’s a job there, and I need the money. You see, I know a place on the coast of Nova Scotia where I can build a house that faces the ocean. There’s a little bluff back from the beach and, though the water is very cold, it has always been clean and it marches up to the shore from somewhere I cannot see, and there are big evergreens. You can walk for miles, over a billion round beachstones, and hardly ever meet anyone . .. □


A majority of Canadians define the thin line between sanity and insanity as the 49th parallel. — Five dollars to Mrs. S. Ives, Vancouver