Merge Right (or Left)
I’m on my way to see the play Studies in Motion, the true story of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who more than a century ago tried to stop time through experimental photography, but couldn’t stop the tragic entropy of his own marriage. As I sit in my car, alone again, waiting to merge in a construction zone, I remember the essence of an old joke. An Edmontonian stuck in traffic comments to his friend that it’s a nice place to live, and will be even nicer when it’s finished. This frustrating and seemingly endless road construction hints at a deeper truth. The city is always building, always inventing itself, but it’s never clear what it’s trying to become. There is always progress, but what is the goal?
The city is confused, juggling multiple and conflicting personalities. Edmonton is isolated and extreme. It is the northernmost, major city on the continent, and on a map, it sits apart from the other Canadian cities that huddle around the American border. My life has been filled with long, contemplative hours behind the wheel, the endless patchwork of farmland and prairie mesmerizing me as I try to get somewhere, maybe to see her, maybe someone else. This sense of isolation is fed by the severe climate: temperatures typically range between -40C and +30C. People here have a sense of grim survival, gladly spreading their blankets on the flattened grass in Hawrelak Park in July, battling mosquito mobs, just to absorb a little of the solar radiation that will be such a rare commodity later in the year. In deep winter, the sun is a weak orange orb, low in the sky, limping across the horizon for barely seven hours a day. In my days as a cubicle drone, sunlight was only a vague dream. Now it’s a little better: my office has a window that provides me a thin hope that I might survive the coming darkness.
Work Will Save You
People here like to think they are friendly and helpful, but sometimes, harder sensibilities prevail. Edmonton is an industrial city, a centre for the oil industry. Not the oil executives, though: the pressed-white shirts, the money, reside in Calgary, a fact that only helps feed the city’s inferiority complex. No, Edmonton is the service centre for the real work, a place where looming, skeletal refineries greet visitors from the east; where a gravel pit and fogged windows once provided the necessary seclusion for my young, urgent flesh to press against hers, only to be illuminated by a policeman’s light, a memory that was once a hot ember but is now a cold stone; where endless industrial parks of cinder block and corrugated steel circle the perimeter; where, from the clearly inferior position in my Honda, I must peer around pick-up trucks driven by real men. Work matters here; idleness is a sin. The first thing anyone you meet will ask you is “What do you do?”
In a city of immigrants, one’s roots are celebrated: the annual Heritage Day festival attracts hundreds of thousands of people, all eager to sample spicy ethnic food and over-amplified traditional music. Every year, I navigate the mass of humanity that swarms Hawrelak Park, melting inside the red plastic tents as I search for the perfect curry. Where you come from seems more important than where you are. Similar numbers of people are attracted to a variety of summer arts festivals. In August, the Fringe Festival transforms Whyte Avenue into a seething, chaotic display of alternative theatre and street performers. This year, while munching on some unidentifiable, deep-fried morsel, I gave $20 to a New Zealander who was juggling basketballs while riding a ridiculously tall unicycle. This guy deserved some reward for traveling so far to such a remote place just to entertain me on another empty afternoon. An artistic feeding-frenzy consumes the city between June and August, an expression of the urgent need to pack as much culture and activity as possible into the few available warm months.
Too Much History Coming Down
History here waits like a prisoner on death row. Buildings more than fifty or sixty years old are often viewed as liabilities, more likely to be torn down than preserved. New buildings imply progress and wealth; old buildings suggest inefficiency and poverty. Architecture is functional and anonymous – best not to stand out too much. There are exceptions, of course. The new Art Gallery of Alberta stamps a striking presence on an otherwise humdrum downtown. I love spending a few hours with the works of Picasso, Escher, the Group of Seven, or even Warner Brothers’ animators, then relaxing on the on the roof-top patio with a dark and bitter coffee, watching the traffic below. A lazy afternoon at the gallery was something that we once shared, when time mattered, when our hands would find each other’s even if our eyes were locked on the canvases.
Who Am I?
Edmonton may wear a blue collar, but it wears it on a lab coat: the city has been trying to reinvent itself as a centre of knowledge and research. The University of Alberta, home to dizzying variety of programs, is still a place I will gravitate to on a Sunday afternoon, wandering empty corridors seeking out hidden passages, then later, sitting and reading a book while sipping my Java Jive special. I spent four years as an undergraduate here, and I am always pulled back, like a marble spinning down a funnel. The campus, a sprawling jumble of architectural styles, seems aloof as it overlooks the broad river valley, the largest continuous urban green space in North America. The North Saskatchewan River, sometimes a slow moving, dirty green serpent, sometimes a haphazard, geometric collision of ice chunks, was once the boundary between two cities that became one. As the largely undeveloped valley sprawls across the entire city, it pushes away at the edges, seeming to reject any identity that is imposed on it. It is easy to get lost here if you leave the trail, and I have been entangled many times in the dense and unforgiving growth.
The play will be starting soon, but I am still waiting to merge. The light has faded now, and the sky is beginning to threaten, to tease with a few snowflakes, a hint of the long chill that will soon arrive. As I stare at the road signs, cells raw from the recent implosion of a twenty-year marriage, heart cracked, self-confidence shattered, immobile but unable to stop time, I consider my uncertain future and think that, yes, this city with no true identity, no definite goals, no sense of history, belongs to me.
It’s going to be a long winter.
Glenn Arnold lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where it goes to -40 in the winter and there’s more oil than in Texas. Glenn took the photos of himself and the art gallery. His son Craig Arnold shot the street view, the refinery and the gorgeous cityscape down the valley.