A drunken high school rugby team appeared, amid the sound of bottles scattered in fragments across the street, less than a block from my apartment. They sang four songs: "Oh Canada", "God Save the Queen", "God Save the Governor General", and "Happy Birthday", in that order, in a near endless cycle. They followed me all the way to Peake's Quay, where we joined the rest of the bubbling mob, eyes restlessly jumping to the sky. Their route however, was inexact and, because of their wanderings, I never did hear "God Save the Queen" - it is added to the list on their word alone. They sang with the invincible force of the young and publicly drunk, and were everywhere applauded.
A small group of teenage girls, none old enough to hold a license, giggled in the direction of the rugby team and did their best to look unaffected by the world. Throughout the fireworks they spat snide and unfounded remarks about the display, the meanest and most cutting of which was: "I could do better in my front yard." They were at an age when being cynical means being a cynic - and being a cynic is confused with an outright blanket denial of everything shown or told. They didn't believe the middle-aged man who explained that the show was not over: that it had only begun. Later they were nearly beside themselves with gleeful spite when several fireworks exploded prematurely - still on the barge, and not projected upwards into the smoke filled easterly wind. By the end they had become silent.
The middle-aged man stood beside his wife, a teenage daughter of his own off somewhere else, though not - he assured himself several times - with the drunken high school rugby team. He knew it wasn't the fireworks he was defending when he turned, twice, to the teenage girls behind him to assure them that no, this wasn't the end, and no, that wasn't the highest they would go. He knew it was not really the rugby team he was clapping for.
This Canada Day long weekend I stand on a bridge holding an orange savouring it in the morning sun. I say a warm good morning to a unshaven fellow who'd slept in the nearby bushes and climbed out stretching and pushing a rusty bike up the street. With chemical empathy rushing up and down my spine, reluctantly uber-Canadian musician Martin Tielli's words come back to me:
"Canada is big. I like that because you can always find space to be alone."
It was one of the most beautifully bittersweet lines I'd ever heard and it stuck to me. He said it in an interview over the phone, pausing between sentences. His voice was dark melancholy wrapped around thin strand of whimsical joy, just like his song.
Last July 1st in Canada-mad Ottawa I was too sick to see the fireworks by the time they came. All afternoon we drank beer, ate veggie burgers and watched large and loud frat boy types, their chests exposed to the drizzling rain and painted with maple leafs. They shouted and hooted and waved flags from their cars and drank beer in the streets. The bar patios are full all day and the ubiquitous Molson Canadian knick knacks strangle the city like a holiday scourge.
I walk drunk towards Parliament Hill through the throng of red and white clad shouting rowdies and nervous looking families out to share the same public spaces.
Everybody has a Canada flag in their window in the last days of June in Ottawa. Walking down Bank Street the city is so plastered red and white you get the urge to sneeze, like when you accidentally look at the sun too long.
I listen to some bad live Canadian radio rock that Canada Day with 300,000 people but (the pot cookies turned out to be a bad idea) I had to leave. Later, out of the throngs, I lay down in the fetal position on my bed, sweating and girlfriend clutching my hand, when the distant pops of pyrotechnic patriotism began.
This year Edmonton had the second biggest fireworks show in the country July 1st. I saw the fireworks though I was at home, watching the clock, wating for a call that never came when the Molson meatheads trashed the city.
I started the weekend innocently. But then:
"I don't know who the fuck that was or what the fuck that was but give me $20."
A new friend, an Alberta correspondent for a national newspaper, said this to me as he handed me a pill. We were in an Edmonton after-hours club. Just then, they'd played a trance track called "1998" which we both identified with fond memories of the year of the same name. Very fond memories, in fact, that made me ache with nostalgia. But this night we had been drinking, being the Friday of a long weekend. I had a hunch his sudden disappearance/reappearance after they played that track wasn't innocent.
I hand him the money.
The next day was my first day off in almost a month and clearly now was not the time to ask questions.
Ecstacy or something.
We danced like mad people all night and got in a cab sometime after dawn.
Then I was standing on the High Level Bridge near my house clutching an orange in one hand and feeling the cool metal rail with the other. Listening. I had brought the orange to work for lunch the previous day and forgotten about it. It had rolled out of my bag onto my bedroom floor the previous night, though I didn't notice at the time. Discovering it this morning made me happy.
I meet another friend who works with me at the newspaper an hour later. We climb carefully into a canoe and paddle down the North Saskatchewan, me taking ephedrine to stay awake, both of us getting sunburned. The trip was supposed to be six hours long and we did it in four and a half. Because we're crazy.
Then Canada Day. I walk down past the coffee shop where the girl who was supposed to call when she got off at midnight, but didn't, works. With a jolt I'm overcome suspicion that I wrote down my cell phone number wrong, but that's just pride fucking with me. A distant distorted Colin James plays his last number at the Alberta legislature grounds across the river valley. Down, down, down I walk to the same bridge from the other morning to look at the people look at the fireworks.
I never really understand why people cheer at fireworks but I share a cheer with a group of cheering strangers anyway.
Maybe then I understand more of this moment, this place.
Darren Stewart has been writing lots, but not for Forget Magazine. This piece is a response to Kent Bruyneel's, yesterday (see below).
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The bells have stopped ringing at the Church just outside my window. The traffic on a Sunday afternoon in Vancouver is a pedestrian paced slow crawl. On Canada Day it is even slower.
Not that you mind in that idling blue convertible with the sun beading down on your bald head and The Rudy Huxtable Project pouring out your speakers. You don't mind at all.
Finding parking in the area just above Gastown is hardest on the weekdays, late in the mornings; on Sundays it is a comfortable game of circle the block, make the right move, stall, hold, jump.
The bells have started again. They are bouncing on the inside of their shell and ringing melodic to me, half a KM away. It is the church where my parents were married. 37 years ago.
My father was born, raised and lived his entire life in Vancouver. My mother was born in Joggins, Nova Scotia. And lived almost everywhere in this country. I have never been to Europe.
But I have driven, both by myself and with a friend, from PEI to BC (and back) at least five times. Ontario is the most gruelling part. Drive for a full day and still look at the same scenery. Trying.
Once I went through Michigan, crossing the border where Canada and the US share a city in the Soo. It was a low road move I thought would save on gas and allow me to smoke cheap American cigarettes.
It was a drag. Montana was beautiful and the gathering American night is not fundamentally different than the one in this country, but, like Al Purdy, I missed something. Something that embraced my feet and my memory. I am not American.
The sky is blue now over the towers I can see out my window. AT&T. Scotiabank. Telus. Inside their numbers are dwindled to a skeleton as their employees celebrate Canada Day. I am here with the lights on, having now switched to the new Ron Sexsmith album.
I think I will walk to the beer store. Buy a six pack and drink them slowly with my feet hanging out this 7th story window, and sing along, and feel something. Even if I can't give it a name.
Kent Bruyneel hopes you will all understand.