COVER

Sewage on a Sunday

Adult conversation turns, as it must, to backup valves

May 12 1997
COVER

Sewage on a Sunday

Adult conversation turns, as it must, to backup valves

May 12 1997

Sewage on a Sunday

Adult conversation turns, as it must, to backup valves

ANN DOWSETT JOHNSTON

Hello. I’m not here right now because the entire city of Winnipeg has been swept away by the flood. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you when our ark grinds ashore on the crest of Mount Ararat.

—Message on a personal answering machine

Welcome to Winnipeg, where the humor is black and the references biblical. Flight 175 from Toronto, approaching the city from the south, banks to the right. My seatmate, taking his cue from the pilot, banks right too, stuffing his grey ponytail behind the collar of his satin curling jacket. Craning over me, he sucks thoughtfully on his dentures. “Ooo-wee, look at that!” Below, a sea of murky water licks at the ribbon of the Floodway, a moat sparkling in the twilight around the city’s perimeter. Winnipeg twinkles within. Drawbridge up: it’s a comforting concept. But the curler isn’t fooled. “Boy, are they cooked!”

Perhaps. But the crest, on April 25, is still at least a week away. It’s cocktail hour on a fragrant Friday night, and martinis are being poured in River Heights. Jazz plays on the stereo, and the children, whisked away to another floor, are twirling happily to Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Uninterrupted, adult conversation has turned, as it must, to sewage. Beneath the majestic elms and lush boulevards of River Heights lies an archaic system that threatens to burst, Anaconda-like, into all homes through every available opening. Toilets, sinks, washers, shower stalls: all have to be stuffed, accommodated or removed. The most popular accessory, the sewage backup valve, has become the Tickle Me Elmo of Winnipeg hardware stores. Relatives across the country have been dispatched to their local stores and supplies are expected, by courier, at any moment.

But the resourceful aren’t patient. Overnight, lawyers and businessmen have become hydraulic engineers. “I heard that all you

need is a green garbage pail. Cut out the bottom, caulk it over the opening, and you’re fine.” “My neighbor says just pour concrete. Worry about it after the flood.” Another pearl: “Buy 50 lb. of flax, fill old nylon stockings, and ram them down your drains.” Someone smirks. The host pours a second round of martinis.

Saturday afternoon on the Assiniboine River. Pete and Sherry MacDonald, having spent an evening at their kitchen table watching the river rise like bathwater, move all their basement belongings into their living-room. On the television, a tearful father is holding a news conference, warning parents not to underestimate the danger of the river: his son, 14, had been swept into a culvert. Duncan MacDonald, 4, has been made to sit through two viewings of these newscasts. His mother grills him on the lesson. “He got to be dead and he’s not coming back,” says Duncan, squeezing Destiny, his pet hamster, in one hand, and a naked Darth Vader figure in the other. “I don’t go near the water.”

By Sunday, there is an unearthly quiet on city streets. Many families are down by the river, sandbagging. The rest are inside, parading Sherpa-like up and down basement stairs, transporting books, TVs, toilets and major appliances to the upper levels. One wife, confronting the job alone, quips of her travelling spouse: “He’s coming home on an early flight. It’s the first known case of a rat returning to a sinking ship.” Down at The Forks where the Red and Assiniboine meet, visitors are celebrating Earth Day. Trees sway, up to their middles in the rushing river, but the overflow crowd is focused elsewhere. Members of the Waywayseecappo Band have just arrived by bus, and the brunch customers at the appropriately named Bridgeworks sit sipping mimosas, gawking as the travellers disembark, overheated in their ceremonial eagle feathers face paint and moccasins. Talk turns political. “Apparently, Chrétien didn’t know where to put that sandbag when he flew in here yesterday,” says one disgruntled Winnipegger. “I tell you, if he goes ahead and calls that election today, there are a lot of us who can tell him where to stuff it. Either he just doesn’t give a damn, or he thinks we’re in such big trouble that we’re all going to be wiped out.”

Sunday, 5 o’clock. Parents with sore backs and grumpy children dash into the Foodfair on Lilac Street, grabbing roasts and hurrying home to unfinished chores. But some linger to chat, anxious to share their sense of foreboding. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Carol Shields, dwarfed by a black trench coat, joins the group. “The other day I was standing in The Bay, buying a cosmetic item,” she says, “and I thought, ‘My Lord, what am I doing? We’re almost flooded!’ ” Suddenly, the talk has turned sober: the news is no longer anonymous. Mutual friends have had to evacuate their house. “This is the inexorable coming, when you lose all sense of perspective,” says Shields. Still, she dismisses the apocalyptic Old Testament rhetoric. “It’s going to be a test. But you know, most of us are only one generation off the farm. There’s a pioneering spirit—it’s part of living on the Prairies, and it always has been.” □