the Dark Side of Calgary

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“Maybe I’ll go on a killing spree! Maybe there’s gonna be human flesh all over the pavement!”

The man was shouting at no one in particular. He was just kind of yelling into the sidewalk. He was in his late 30s, approximately, Hispanic, with a buzzed head and thick lips. He sat on the ground, wearing camouflage pants and a thick black coat, his back to a concrete structure, and he just yelled. He didn’t seem to see me walk by. I only paused briefly, and as he quickly scratched at a purple spot on his head, I determined he was on drugs and kept walking.

Encounters like this in big cities seemed relatively commonplace. Just in the last year, in San Francisco, and again in Seattle, I’d witnessed bizarre encounters like this on the streets. My boyfriend and I, during our travels, had seen one woman scream about the entire world being rapists while she scratched at open sores on her legs, and we’d seen a homeless man in a wheelchair masturbating in a stairwell right outside our hotel. Still, something about the human flesh comment left me feeling a little frightened this time around.

It was my final night in Calgary, Alberta. After a few lovely days of exploring various parts of the city, including the national park, the zoo, a couple of gay clubs, a shopping district, and a professional theater, I wanted to make my last day leisurely. Sunday had been full of church bells, slowly sipped coffee, and contemplation. I’d been writing poetry, thinking deeply about where I am in life, and determining what goals I want to work on next. The trip overall had been deeply healing. And this evening would be my last quiet night before flying home at the ungodly hour of 4 am.

I briskly walked away from the man in camouflage and noticed a beautiful courtyard park in front of a massive church just across the way. It was gorgeous in layout, with steel benches, curving sidewalks, and small manicured gardens in front of the large church. I hurriedly cross the street to check it out.

As I entered the park, I noticed the tall brown building against the dull grey sky. It had been grey my entire time in the city, but somehow it was perfect. This weather is what people think of when they think of Seattle, this gray overcast heaviness. But it didn’t bother me. I liked the drizzle, the clouds over the river. It was music to me.

I looked back down and realized that several different men were watching me from benches. It wasn’t a casual gaze, they were staring me down. I did my best not to make eye contact, but counted four of them, all of them clearly homeless and very likely high. Suddenly I remembered the building I’d passed a few blocks back, the one that had “JESUS LOVES” written across the top in giant red letters, and I realized it might very well be a homeless shelter. Had I wandered into the local version of Pioneer Park? Back in my home in Salt Lake City, there is a downtown park in a prime location that is generally very unsafe and full of homeless people due to its proximity to the shelters. This could be downright frightening.

I paused briefly at a small manicured garden full of what looked like cabbage plants. They were green, purple, and white, and came out of the ground in jagged spikes. I stared at the plants for a few moments, stunned by their strange beauty, yet still aware of the men in the park behind me.

Then I got scared.

“Fuck everyone! I fucking hate humans!” A woman stumbled from behind a group of trees as she yelled into the sky. Her hair was sloppy, pulled back into a shaggy ponytail, and she had far too much face paint on, bright blue over her eyes, pink on her cheeks, and red on her lips. She was slightly plump, likely in her early 40s (or maybe in her 20s but far older than her years). She wore a leather jacket over a black t-shirt that was cut low to reveal cleavage, a pair of jean shorts that had the legs cut off of them (likely with a pair of scissors), fishnet stockings with holes in them, and a pair of scuffed high-heeled boots. I immediately assumed she was a prostitute.

The woman tripped slightly and dropped a white container of some kind onto the sidewalk. “FUCK!” she screamed, then she bent down, nearly falling off her heels, picked up the object, and threw it across the street. “FUCK!”

She then took a leather purse from off her shoulder and threw it hard into a bench, where it landed in a pile on the concrete. “FUCK!” She slumped herself down onto the metal bench near her purse, unzipped her jacket pocket, and wrestled a cell phone and headphones out of her pocket. The cord was tangled up and as she unraveled it, she just kept screaming. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! I hate humankind!” Finally, she just dropped the headphones, put her phone on top of her purse, and just collapsed her head into her hands. She started sobbing her eyes out.

I stood there frozen for a moment, wondering what to do. Should I go to comfort her, ask if she needed anything? She shook with deep, silent sobs. I looked closer and saw needle marks up and down her legs under the fishnets. I was just remembering the men behind me and how I needed to leave when another man came from behind the trees, and I immediately wondered if he was this woman’s pimp.

He was bald with a spotty goatee and a patchy face. Shorter than me, he was missing teeth and wore a dirty white T-shirt and blue sweat pants over his white sneakers. He looked at the woman, then looked at me. He had a bizarrely playful look on his face.

“Hey.” His voice was almost calm. “Trust in JC, am I right?” I didn’t answer, and instead gave one last look at the woman. “Hey, that’s my coat, right? You take my coat?” I looked at the red jacket I was wearing, then back up, and simply shook my head. “That’s my coat.”

I almost answered, but instead just turned away and started walking quickly, not running, away from the cabbage plants, the crying woman, and the bald man. I crossed paths with the men with scary eyes again, and turned right out of the park. I kept walking fast, noticing the other people around me on the sidewalk, just regular civilians, realizing none of them had been in the park. I walked a full block before I turned my head around and realized the bald man was following me. He was only 20 yards back. We made eye contact and he playfully spoke again.

“Just trust JC.”

I went from nervous to downright scared now, and walked more quickly. Was he that woman’s pimp? Was he mad at me for having looked at her? Did I step into his territory? Was he mentally ill? Did he just really like my coat and want it? Or was he just high and curious? I walked faster.

Two blocks later, he was a bit farther behind, but he was still following. I was a mile from the Airbnb where I was staying. This wasn’t going to end well. I came on a new block and realized I was passing a business. I stepped inside without looking, and realized I was in an ice cream shop.

The shop was empty except for a small Asian girl working behind the counter. She greeted me, and I approached a bit nervous. As she described their unique ice cream methods, I felt myself begin to calm, and then I heard a tapping behind me. I turned around and saw the bald man standing right outside, tapping his hand softly on the glass. He was staring through the window right at me and wanted my attention. What kind of fucking Stephen King nightmare was this?

I turned back to the Asian girl, and told her how the man was following me, and how maybe we should be ready to call the police. She couldn’t be more than 17. She looked over my shoulder at the man, then smiled reassuringly. “This is a sketchy area sometimes. I don’t think he will come in.”

“No, but I have to go back out at some point.”

A few minutes later, I sat at the table, eating a scoop of mango ice cream that I didn’t even want, and tried to avoid the man staring at me from outside. There were no other exits that I knew of. How was I going to handle this? I opened up my phone and began to Google the Canadian police phone number. There was no way I was walking out there.

When I looked back up from my phone, the man was gone. I waited ten minutes, then wandered up to the window, wondering if he was around some corner. A mile was a long way to walk with someone after me, and I’d been mugged pretty badly once before (back when I was a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia). Instead, I summoned an Uber. The car pulled up within two minutes, and I rushed outside and jumped in, my heart thudding in my chest.

Twenty minutes later, I called my boyfriend to tell him what had happened. Knowing me far too well, he responded simply.

“Huh. That’s scary. I’m glad you are okay! But I bet this will make one hell of a blog post.”

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Calgary Loft 3

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In America, I’m often asked if I’m really from Canada

There is something about the way certain words leave my mouth

The mix of Missouri and Idaho on my tongue

“See you ta-mohr-ow” or “hey, I’m soar-y”

Seem unfamiliar

 

And now I’m in Calgary and they sound nothing like me

 

It’s strange here, in a good way

Everything is the same, but slightly altered

Like looking at my world through a different lens

 

Cinnamon tastes a little different

And the air breathes a little cleaner

Product labels bear the same names with different words and designs

And things seem to cost a little more but actually cost a little less

I don’t speak metric or Celsius, I don’t know how to measure in kilometers

And the trending fashions seem like something out of 1995

 

Last night, a drag queen yelled, 

“Anyone here from the East Coast?”

And she meant Halifax and Charlottetown, not New York and Boston

 

I think perhaps I’m suited for these colder climates. 

I feel at home in my flannel and jeans, my knitted hat with the floppy strings

Conversation comes easily, and people laugh at my jokes

 

It doesn’t feel upside down, just a little tilted

Slightly sideways

 

Yesterday, I drove through a nearby national forest

And had to lurch my car to a sudden stop

When a large grey wolf ambled out into the road

She wasn’t in a hurry

She trotted across the highway, as if she were out for a stroll

And disappeared into the trees

I sat stunned, blocking the cars behind me

But no one honked impatiently

They simply waited for me to gather myself

And then continue driving

Into the trees

Ones that smell just a bit differently than the ones I’m used to

 

Calgary Loft 2

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I’m on the 17th floor again

across the lot from my balcony window

is a 30-story building

and I can see a dozen or so apartments

lit up against the light sky

like little televisions.

One man is turning sausages on a grill

while his wife pours the wine

A teenager has her phone in her hand

a laptop in her lap

and a crime drama on the big screen

but she’s only looking at her phone

A couple is kissing in their bedroom

and then the lights go out

A lonely woman has been staring out her window

at the city for as long as I have. 

I watch them

and all I can think about are 

the zoo exhibits I saw today. 

Each sign gave the animal’s name

listed its diet and mating habits

and whether they were merely at risk in the wild

or critically endangered

because the humans keep taking up more space. 

A rockhopper penguin with yellow-feathered eyes

cried in pleasure as her mate scratched her back with his beak

A red river hog tugged at a metal fixture with his jaws

releasing a stream of water into his mouth

A komodo dragon sprawled over four rocks at one

stretched wide and taking up the maximum amount of space

A baby bactrian camel carelessly watched

as adults chew straw, causing their humps to sway. 

I pretend, projecting each animal exhibit

into each window of the tall building

seeing animals instead of humans. 

It’s entertaining, but really, mostly the same. 

 

In casual conversation today

I told a woman I was from America

she made a disappointed sound by clicking her tongue

and told me how sorry she was

then walked away. 

I think she meant it. 

Calgary Loft

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I’m on the 17th floor

It’s dark outside

I’m standing in a pair of black briefs

looking at the neon city against a dark sky

as the cars drive on bridges over the river

But mostly I catch my reflection in the glass

I can see through myself and into the city

and that awakens the poetry corners of my brain

I’m only renting this penthouse

but for many this would be the realization of a dream

Hardwood floors, marble counter tops

a grill on the balcony overlooking the river

It’s easy to picture red wine in goblets on coasters

laughter as the sun sets

lentil pasta in steel pans, fresh flowers in vases

and homegrown coffee in the morning

And the vision of all this haunts me in its way

because its all so fleeting, so temporary

Those preconceived ideas

about happiness, joy, success

Because some day, someone else would own this space

and make it theirs

and the landscape would change. 

I can see through myself and into the city

and then the light flicks off

and I can’t. 

Losing my lube in Canada

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“Everyone here is no nice!”

I had only been to Canada a few times before, once to Victoria, Vancouver Island as a teenager on a brief family vacation, and a few times to British Columbia during my married Mormon years. Yet now I was on my way for an epic (well, epic on my own terms) five day vacation to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a city I had kind of chosen at random a few months before when I wanted to plan a trip to look forward to.

“They are nice!” Tyler said back, and I thought of the dozens of South Park and How I Met Your Mother episodes I had seen making fun of Canadian niceness.

My best friend Tyler and I had arrived at the airport in Salt Lake City in plenty of time, and we’d been surprisingly moved to the “premier” section of the small plane, a watered down version of first class, with drinks delivered in glass containers with ice, a small pillow and blanket, and a bit more leg room. The flight attendants and many people on the plane were clearly Canadian and proud of it, many wearing maple leaves on their clothing or apparel showing off their favorite Canadian sports teams.

We heard plenty of “Oh, sorry!” and “Hey, no worries” in our interactions. When Tyler accidentally spilled some of his complimentary water on himself, the flight attendant, adorable in a black skirt and white top and with her hair in pigtails, handed him napkins. “Here you go, sorry about that, no worries, no worries.” And he and I had laughed.

“Maybe you’ve finally found your people!” Tyler joked.

I have a weird way of pronouncing certain words. I grew up in south-western Missouri, where they have thick hillbilly drawls, and then spent my teenage years in eastern Idaho potato farming country, where the locals talk more like farmers and hicks, with long vowels and lazy consonants. I have a nice strong baritone voice, but I give those long vowels to certain words, and I have a bit of a drawl sometimes, so I tend to say a few words funny, like “soar-y” instead of “sorry” and “to-moar-ow” instead of tomorrow. I’ve been asked many times before if I’m from Canada. The flight attendant had said ‘soar-y’ and ‘no woar-ies’, causing us both to giggle.

“Maybe I have found my people!” I laughed back, just as we heard a woman from somewhere behind us yell “Oh my Goad!”, and we giggled even harder.

We walked off the plane into the Calgary Airport for our layover, and noticed beautiful artwork along the walls, much of it celebrating local wildlife, like geese and moose. We checked out handsome men in flannel and kept bantering back and forth.

I jabbed Tyler with an elbow. “Is it safe for you to enter the country again? Weren’t you on the Canadian Mounties Ten Most Wanted list years ago? If they catch you, I don’t have nearly enough Moose Bucks to bail you out.”

If anyone was annoyed with the giggling American gay male thirty-somethings, we didn’t notice, just excited to be in a new space. We lugged our luggage down the long line toward customs, our declaration forms and passports in hand, and some very polite agents, one a brown-skinned man with a thick beard and a turban, ushered us through quickly and without incident.

Then we made our way back toward the security line to re-enter the airport for our connecting flight. I slipped off my shoes, unpacked my laptop into its own bin, removed my coat, and then hefted my large carry-on bag up onto the conveyor belt. A nice man ushered me through the metal detector, but then something in my bag raised concern on the X-Ray machine.

“Excuse me, sir, is this your bag?” The Canadian TSA agent (although I’m not sure that it is called the TSA in Canada) was a short man in his early 30s with thick glasses and a large bald spot. “Please step this way.”

He led me to the end of the row as people continued passing through security. He informed me he had to look for something in my bag. “Do you have anything sharp, hazardous, or liquid in the bag?”

“Nothing sharp or hazardous. I do have some liquids in my toiletry bag. But I had this bag on my flight from Salt Lake City to Calgary and everything was fine.” I did a mental inventory of the contents of the bag as he unzipped it. Toothpaste, moisturizer, deodorant. And then I remembered I had packed a bottle of lube. The boyfriend and I keep a large 8 fluid ounce bottle of lube, that cost about fifty dollars, next to the bed, but it was more than half empty. I had packed it for… well… personal reasons (come on, my mother reads this blog) thinking that it was empty enough to be safe.

Sure enough, the man with the bald spot opened my toiletry bag and held up the bottle of lube in front of his face. Then he held it up in the air a bit, as if to show his fellow employees. He turned to me, a bit too loudly, and said, “Well, sir, your personal lubricant exceeds the maximum number of allowed milliliters.” My brain seized a bit, having no idea how to compute milliliters.

“I, um, it was fine on the last flight.”

“It’s against federal regulations.”  He continued holding it up in the air, and I felt my cheeks start to turn scarlet. “You have three options. You can be escorted out through security and recheck your bag, because this personal lubricant is not allowed on the flight, then come back through security. You can choose to have me discard this after you surrender it to me. Or I can give you a mailing package and you can mail the lubricant to yourself.”

Flummoxed and stuttering, embarrassed at the idea of mailing a bottle of lube to myself, I instructed him to simply throw it away, and he placed it in a container behin him as I repacked my bag and wanted to get away from there as soon as possible. He just stood there watching. This particular Canadian had no intention of saying Soar-y.

As we walked away, Tyler kept giggling, teasing me, but I was red faced and wanted to be out of there. I pictured the security technicians watching on their cameras at the American tourist with the giant bottle of lube.

Then Tyler tapped me on the shoulder. “You realize that man back there is totally going to take that lube home and–”

“No! No! Enough!” And finally I giggled again, ready for a weekend of new experiences in the land of nice.