As a teenager, my main goal was to escape Swan River’s small prying eyes for the anonymous crowds of Winnipeg. My dreams were filled with the sophisticated night life of the city. Now, I dream of an escape to streets where you can jaywalk at any time of the day without causing a ten car pileup.
In Swan River, word of mouth spreads faster than honey on peanut butter. If I went cruising on a Saturday night — a popular Swan River pastime — I could count on Sister So-and-So calling my mother by Monday evening at the latest. “Do you know this boy?” she would ask my mother. “What kind of boy drives a car like that? Did she get home safely?” I never bothered to attempt to deceive my mother because I knew the town’s sensors were always reaching out, feeling my deception with its central nervous system. If I tried to sneak a cigarette behind the convenience store on a Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Elder would coincidentally be talking out his garbage on the other side of the lane. If I skipped a class, there was about a 75% chance that one of my mother’s acquaintances would be on a coffee break when I walked in the Pizza Place.
Now, I can only hope that when my own children are teenagers there will be others to watch out for them, as my small community did for me. Will the girl behind the counter at the 7-Eleven tell me when my daughter loiters in the parking lot all afternoon? Will the clerk at Magic Land let me know when my 12 year old son wastes a Friday afternoon playing video games? In a city where children can be seen on any given day flocking through the malls like geese heading south for the winter, I am doubtful.
Most small towns have a favorite activity — curling, hockey, or square dancing. Swan River has a variety of these, as well as others. However, underlying all these activities is a sport that is participated in by people of all ages — going for coffee.
Going for coffee is an activity that does not require large amounts of skill or dexterity, but discernible nuances separate the amateurs from the professionals. Uniforms of the amateurs consist of bright and flashy colors, makeup, or fancy cars. They prefer restaurants where they nibble on fancy desserts, like Turtle Pie. Their focus is on being seen at the right place at the right time. Seasoned professionals go to coffee shops where overalls, stained with effort or ripped jeans are common. The 1970s Ford pickups reign over the parking lot. Professionals are serious about their coffee — thick steaming cups of the earth’s blackest liquid ebony — which is meant to rejuvenate the soul’s battery. Decaffeinated coffee is sacrilegious. Those who approach going for coffee as a hobby drink cups of amber, sweetened with the nectar of flowers — because it tastes good.
I held a seat beside many seasoned professionals. Shop owners greeted me by name, grunting over the counter, “Howsit go’an?” But as I drank my coffee, which went kicking all the way down to my belly, I day dreamed about poetry readings and art galleries. I fantasized about sipping espresso after a night at the symphony. I yearned for culture.
Living in the city, I discovered that I don’t like espresso and that the symphony is a good antidote for my insomnia. I search for coffee shops that have the original coffee culture I learned at home — friendly cups of bottomless java and bright lights that do not insinuate a need to hide.
I felt that leaving Swan River was inevitable if I were to follow my dream of being a writer. Swan River was a graveyard where the dead really did rest in peace. I needed to live in a cheap one-room apartment with no windows. I needed neon and dark alleys. I craved the attention of temperamental artists. One could not become a writer dying in a small town.
So I moved to the city to share an apartment on Selkirk Avenue with a girlfriend (I was afraid of poetic isolation). I met a brutal man who pierced my soul with his ignorance. And finally, I began to write. My poems evolved from memories of Sunday driving through Big Woody with my grandma and mom. Entire short stories developed out of the Saturday night cruise scene — down Main Street, pull a U-turn at the bus depot and back up Main Street until the traffic gets boring. As the time line between my Swan River life and my city life grows longer, more ghosts begin to haunt what I once thought was a peaceful graveyard.
Now that I have come to appreciate the culture and the values of a simpler lifestyle, will I ever move back to Swan River to live? No — it holds more value to me as an escape from the blinded eyes of the city.
**Note: This was written about 20 years ago; I now happily live in my hometown!