How else are you going to know that Winnipeg is still the Main Street of your mind?
YOU HAVE TO GO HOME AGAIN
How else are you going to know that Winnipeg is still the Main Street of your mind?
Your hometown is your hometown, like the bag a first baseman keeps one foot on no matter how far he stretches. Nobody else can know the hometown you know, which is as private as the colored elephant kids hide in their cupped hands to keep their buddies guessing. If anyone comes searching for your particular hometown, of course, he’ll never find it and will conclude you’re harboring peculiar delusions. What’s all this Winnipeg mystique? I hear from pretty sophisticated people all over, and their eyes gleam a little anger, a little hurt, maybe even a little resentment.
It’s a small city like any other small city; which I always hear as “What’s this Wailing Wall? A Wailing Wall like any other Wailing Wall!”
Every couple of years I go back home because I want to, because there are great people in my town, and because its physical reality is like a huge palm whose every thatch-line and crisscross I know as well as my own. It’s the city I grew up in, went to school and university in, began to sing and write in.
When you don’t live in your hometown, as I don’t, guides are always ready to show you the Big Change since you were home last. Usually the guide is some nice-intentioned glad-hander. He drives me to a stretch of Main Street where, when I first saw it, pawnshops and secondhand joints abounded, packed with wrinkled old clothes, unelectric guitars, peeled-metal saxophones, stringless banjos, gap-toothed accordions, hot and cold watches, hot and cold typewriters. They’re still there, but that’s not what he’s pointing to. Nor does he select the flophouses, the gypsy dives, the fog-windowed hotels, the gaping headquarters of the all-but-disappeared Communist Party or the spots still or once occupied by movie “houses” with great names like the Starland, Colonial, Regent, Beacon, Bijou, which all played, when I was growing up, the same Hoot Gibson or Tom Mix movie — or Tarzan.
The guide pushes my face toward some jammed-in concrete pile memorializing this or that, a spout of fountain, a barbarism of stone steps, a retchery of façade and dome. “Well, what do you think?” he says, beaming. Poor man. He doesn’t understand. About Main Street and me. He could have set the Taj Mahal on Main Street, coupled with Buckingham Palace, surrounded by Red Square, and Main Street would still be Main Street.
More! He could lock up every crumb-bum beer parlor and bar, hose down every hepatitis kitchen, strike life into the Royal Alexandra Hotel so it rises from its bombed-out rubble to become a youth hostel, a hippie commune or a home for senior citizens, and Main Street would still be Main Street. Wait! He could go so far as to fill in the axle-busting dip in the subway used to duck shunting overhead CPR trains. He could cry, “Up against the Exchange Café wall, Métis!” He could run the feeble-lipped drunks into some far reach of town, lock up the googoo-eyed stoned whores, erase all the misspellings on the men’s room walls, miraculously change the hickish oompahpahs on the flashing neon jukeboxes to Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan collector’s items. Listen! He could convert crafty bubbly Mayor Juba into some kind of silent meditation freak — and still Main Street would be Main Street.
Urban renewal breeds such incredible delusions. Does my guide really believe tearing down the old city hall that looked like a gingerbread park pavilion or Victorian railroad station removed it forever? Doesn’t he know that under Winnipeg’s tallest hunk of glassy concrete, the Richardson Building, the old Dominion Theatre lies sulking? Some dark night my old gang and I might excavate and exhume, just to prove the obvious point that the old drafty theatric eyesore still does repertory underground. Nothing’s sacred, right? One of these days someone will try to snatch Golden Boy off the “Parliament” Buildings
and leave the Capitol’s old dome exposed, severely bald, obscenely naked. When that happens, no Winnipegger will believe it. As for Golden Boy, he doesn’t really need that dome job any more. He’s diversified into postcards, pins, rings, official stationery, nostalgia and mind’s eyes.
Urban-renewal pushers never learn from experience. They banished the old City Market from north Main, but what truck gardener or old horse fell for that stuff? Was one single Mennonite fooled? Or anyone who knows what farmer’s cream tastes like, or eggs four hours old, or butter hand-churned and sweating crystal globules? My old neighbors Mr. Boyczuk and Mrs. Brisky weren’t fooled.
Mr. Boyczuk was a stoker, a fireman in the municipal hospitals, King George and Princess Elizabeth, where we used to stash away people with catchy diseases. Coal gave way to oil and Mr. Boyczuk’s job eased a bit. His front, I mean. Because Mr. Boyczuk was never what the city thought he was. In his heart of hearts Mr. Boyczuk has always been a genius at growing things. In the Ukraine, where he was born, that meant growing fruit. So what did he care if Winnipeg had winters longer than a woman’s normal pregnancy? Or that kids swinging Tarzanfashion bust up delicate plum-tree branches; or wet snow gathered till something tough but fragile had to give? Mr. Boyczuk won ribbons for his Centennial emblem tray foisoned with grapes and apples and plums and pears — as great a miracle as growing Durham wheat in the middle of the Sahara. So if someone comes searching for my hometown Winnipeg and doesn’t meet Mr. Boyczuk, how can he know this town?
And Mrs. Brisky, whose house played left wing on a line with ours at centre and Mr. Boyczuk’s on right wing. Who would have the lottery luck to find Mrs. Brisky? Just as the old City Hall is still there, in spite of what some people think, so I — in spite of all my years away from the street — still live next door, still “Jackie.”
I spend a lot of time around universities and other insecure institutions. Locked away in such places one sometimes starts to think intelligence a function of schooling. Mrs. Brisky has had little schooling. But seeing you’re so nice I’ll let you in on some of her reflections.
On cancer-inducing substances: “How come, Jackie, first they give the people something, and then they say it makes the cancer? They couldn’t find out first what makes cancer, and then, if it don’t, give it to the human being?”
On TV, newspapers, government pronouncements: “They so dumb they think we so dumb to b’lieve everything?”
On Trudeau: “He always dress so nice, only I don’t b’lieve he’s gonna do too much.”
But not everything in the old town has that reassuring stolidity. Winnipeg is still much like an assembly line, a conveyor belt on which boxes of apples are laid so that a constant number are in the storage shed, and a constant number picked off at the other end. People come in from farms and small prairie towns; new immigration trickles in new arrivals; American draft laws and military involvement account for a sprightly infusion in and around the universities (of Manitoba — my alma mater — and Winnipeg, formerly United College). The number coming in is more than balanced by those leaving for Vancouver, or Los Angeles, or Phoenix, Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary. Being the rail gateway to the west may only mean lots of people just pass through and keep on going.
In many ways, too, Winnipeg shares the fate of other small cities in the continental midwest that fit into a kind of bounce system — New York number one by a million light-years in the USA, then San Francisco, LA, Chicago; Toronto and Montreal far ahead of the pack in Canada, and then Vancouver, and Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg muscling for eminence. News and training and practices travel slowly in the continental pecking order. Shock treatment is dumped in New York, questioned in Toronto and Montreal, still the rage in places like Winnipeg. Near-psycho-analysts who caution “hold tight, don’t rock the boat” are but one of many points of view in the big towns, to be countered and questioned by people counseling bust-out or change-everything. By the time the counterview actually arrives in places like Winnipeg, it’s possible that some entirely new understanding may exist
elsewhere. Observations like this make people unhappy. Winnipeggers prefer to think the local practices are fixed and stable, not out of touch with new realities.
I have to say more: complex subjects arrive in the old hometown simplified and sometimes unchallenged. People in Winnipeg still talk about LSD or related substances “blowing your mind” when, in the places where all the “fun” started, people now talk of “blowing your life.” Unquestioned connections between drugs and art and new perception hit you, during discussions with students, as points of view you haven’t heard elsewhere for several years now. In Winnipeg, alas, some kids even take Timothy Leary seriously. In Winnipeg, alas, parents who want to be swingers let the old booze-vs-pot bit pass over into parallel pitches for speed and shooting up as “lifestyles” they’re too square or establishment to “dig”!
At the University of Manitoba I startled the students in a question period by saying I saw absolutely no connection between drugs and art; that I knew of no poet or painter or musician who had been made an artist by drugs; that the next time they came across a great novel or poem or piece of sculpture produced by “expanding t h e frontiers of consciousness” and “mind expansion” and all those other phrases we used to hear without embarrassment several years ago, they should wire me. Or better still, Timothy Leary, who should be the first to know.
Away from the university other strange points of view, new to me, or much more intense versions of things I had heard before, made me wonder. I spent a lot of time in cabs, most of it silent, letting the drivers do the talking. I could have been in Georgia or Mississippi — George Wallace country, in fact. Passing some of the grimy joints on Main Street the cabby spoke to me in the comfortable tone one uses when one’s sure the listener is getting what he wants to hear.
“If it was up to me, I’d line those Métis up and shoot ’em. Drunk all day long. Bringing VD into us [!]. I hear the police really work them over when they find them passed out on the sidewalks. We get visitors from the east and from the States — we should lock ’em all up. Ship ’em out to reservations — camps — anywhere so’s nice people don’t have to look at them or breathe their germs. I’m glad I work for a company that don’t usually take calls this far north. Our clientele goes to the Winter Club, private parties in the big homes. You never got to be afraid of catching anything from them.”
This sort of thing isn’t worth a trip home, but it’s a way of expanding the frontier of consciousness. What is worth the trip, and doubly so after you’ve had several doses of the poisonous anti-Métis sentiment, are the signs of awareness, talent, imagination and energy in Premier Edward Schreyer’s three-year-old government.
Ed Schreyer’s people were familiar to me, not only because I knew some of them personally but because I recognized in them the same excitement and eagerness I found in John Kennedy’s men in 1960. Here, for certain, were people who knew that only by being part of the solution can you avoid being part of the problem. Like Jack Kennedy, Ed Schreyer is à political man who knows political action starts with being elected. Some NDPers don’t go for victory, having learned to love only lost causes.
Not that a vigorous young premier can erase telltale signs that Winnipeg is just another town extended northward from the American midwest, the middle of righteousness; 19,000 people had responded to a newspaper ad
asking the provincial government to rescind its invitation to John Lennon and Yoko Ono for Manitoba’s Centennial celebrations; the cops had Q r a c k e d down on a poster that featured a roll of toilet paper!
Yet here’s old Winnipeg; in 1972, the first city on the North American continent to have a unified one-tier government complete with community consultation and participation. It’s called the central-city concept and when it came in with the new year it brought 12 municipalities together and increased the population of my home town to more than 545,000, making it Canada’s fourth-largest city.
So Winnipeg’s not so paltry, anymore — if it ever was. In fact, one look at an eonlong three-locomotive-strong prairie freight train and everything paltry about the Canadian midwest is all but erased. Right near a tourist information office (looking like a plaster-of-paris white molded pelvis with windows) that freight train passed — with irregularly staggered cars of newly cut abstract rounds of cordwood; beat-up shacks still trailing electric wires from the roofs as though some giant had ripped them free of the northland they temporarily served as homes; wrapped and hooded farm machinery; empty cattle cars; grain-storage boxcars with doors wide open on inner darkness; and last, and most certainly least, that signature to all prairie things, the tiny lonely unchanged still-red caboose, with somebody of course in it, professionally waving. Then out of sight again, as if the whole bit were a returning Winnipegger’s staged dream.
It wasn’t, though. It, like the old City Hall and Golden Boy and the new premier, is part of the hometown reality. Like everyone else, resident or stranger, I have to check it out from time to time, just to make sure it’s still real. ■
Jack Ludwig is a Winnipeg novelist, short-story writer and playwright of international acclaim. He has published two novels, Confusions and Above Ground.
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