Petula Clark’s hit “Downtown” urged melancholy ’60s hipsters to “linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty.” For me neon signs are, and were, much more than pretty – they are linked to the chronology of my life. When I first heard Clark’s song on the radio, there were plenty of neon signs to see in Edmonton. Making a trip downtown was a big deal to me then – and I associated those signs with the possibility that something wonderful was just waiting to happen.
In downtown Edmonton, the CN Tower was the first skyscraper I ever saw. The CN letters in its crown were like jewels, their bright red neon colour moving through my very veins. In a time when Klondike Days was neither abbreviated nor ambiguous, I danced in the Strand Theatre as part of the promenade entertainment. Those stacked capital letters surrounded by lights on the Strand’s neon sign above the entrance, in my child’s mind anyway, gave my little go-go dance on the theatre’s stage some real star power.
The WW Arcade was where my grandmother bought my mother a set of china I still use today, but you could go to the Arcade and buy almost anything. Its neon sign looked like an upside-down thermometer, as if it were taking the temperature of the customers who went in and out. No matter the season’s weather, the WW Arcade sign stayed the same.
But neon signs also cast their glow on me beyond the city’s downtown. The neon ice cream cone stuck on the roof of the Tastee-Freez on 118th Avenue beckoned even as summer melted away in its neon glow. I imagined the immortal cone shining through the night long after my family and I moved away from that Edmonton neighbourhood. The Nut House in Northgate Mall had a neon sign that meant celebrating a Saturday by spending 25 cents – maybe on a small bag of red pistachios that would stain my fingers. Back in downtown Edmonton years later the Mike’s News sign, with its fedora-hatted man hiding behind a newspaper and absent-mindedly swinging a crossed-leg in perpetuity, oversaw the purchase of Elvis Costello tickets by my then-boyfriend (now husband) for our first real date.
A few months ago, I found myself back in Northgate Mall. I was surprised to see a certain neon sign and was instantly transported back to my childhood. Though The Nut House is now The Nut Shoppe, the sign above the entrance conjured the same sense of happiness and excitement I felt when I was a kid. I had to go in and buy some candy.
Of course, there are still neon signs scattered around Edmonton and even if all they say is OPEN I still get an aching nostalgic jolt. Today, I can take Clark’s advice to “go downtown where all the lights are bright” to the Neon Museum on 104th street and see a profusion of neon signs – some remainders of the various stages of my life and reminders of an Edmonton past. And though many of the buildings and businesses these signs adorned may have vanished, their memories will always glow on.
Wendy McGrath’s most recent project is BOX – a jazz, experimental music, and voice adaptation of her eponymous long poem in collaboration with Quarto & Sound. McGrath has written three novels and two books of poetry. Her most recent poetry collection, A Revision of Forward (NeWest Press 2015), is the culmination of a decade long collaboration with printmaker Walter Jule. She is working on several projects: The final novel in her “Santa Rosa Trilogy,” a poetry manuscript, essay collection and another production with Quarto & Sound.