#YEG: Urban Refuge

Faced with a crisis, a writer finds refuge in simple pleasures.

Illustration Jason Lin

It’s been said that great cities don’t have to think about how to be great. They just are. Paris, Montreal, New York. Sometimes I wonder, with all our anxiety about looking cultured, is Edmonton thinking too hard? Do we overlook our small, unexpected moments of greatness that resemble the one, for example, celebrated in the movie Hannah and Her Sisters?    

Woody Allen’s character, burdened with an existential crisis, walks the streets of New York’s upper west side and into a movie theatre to gather his thoughts. He has no idea what’s playing, but, by chance, it’s a film he’s seen many times since childhood. Caught up in the ridiculous singing, dancing and banjo playing of the Marx Brothers, a suicidal Allen stops worrying about the afterlife and rejoins humanity – embracing his time and place in it.

It seems a city’s character has something to do with the relationship between a person’s whim and the particular way the city is willing to indulge it: Plan-free and for a thin dime, which in turn allows for unexpected joy and transformation.

When I moved to Edmonton from British Columbia in 2001, I wanted my Woody Allen moment. What I found was that, with the growing capitalization of simple pleasures, I, like everyone else, had become hesitant to act on a whim. Who can afford to impulsively step into a civic gallery to avoid a sudden rainstorm, or turn into a half-finished matinee to let his or her mind calm down? 

Then, one particularly slushy Saturday afternoon, while passing the Black Dog’s pub window on Whyte Avenue, I found my moment. Muffled but ecstatic folk music pressed through the glass. I’m sure there was a banjo present. I opened the door and warm humanity exploded at me. The happy, glowing faces of the audience turned my way. No one stopped me at the entrance to ask for money.

When I got to the bar, it seemed they barely wanted anything for a beer, either. I don’t recall, but I’m sure the band was a notable local or touring one you would have willingly paid to see. For more than a decade now, I’ve enjoyed this tradition of the free Saturday afternoon show that, remarkably, continues to exist in many venues around town, including Filthy McNasty’s and Blues on Whyte. It is our thing, what makes us great, without a lot of official noise around it. Weary of winter, we find an afternoon of free music, like the once-cheap matinee, is there to enfold and revive us. 

Thea Bowering’s recent publication, Love At Last Sight (NeWest Press, 2013), includes a number of stories about wandering the streets of urban Edmonton. 

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