Through the wonders of “Facebook Memories”, I discovered an interesting tidbit. I am going to be starting this journey EXACTLY two years to the date that I returned to Calgary after two and a half decades of living in the United States. I don’t know if it was subconscious or coincidental but the calendar as read by Zuckerburg don’t lie.
My family moved to Calgary in 1975 when the population was a mere 176,000. In those 30 years, it has ballooned to almost 1.2 Million. Spurred by the oil and gas industry, and possibly Alberta’s complete absence of any sales tax, it grew at what can now only be called an alarming rate.
To the left is the Calgary Tower. (Husky Tower originally). I remember seeing it for the first time as a ten year old boy. I was mystified by the giant structure that could be seen from any vantage point in the city. A beacon of wealth and prosperity and the symbol of my new home.
And boy-o-BOY, was I excited to find out that my father’s office was right next door. The wall of his office at Allstate Insurance actually vibrated as the elevator shuttled tourists upwards for the most spectacular view in Western Canada. The Rocky Mountains to the west and endless prairies as far as the eye could reach to east. I remember my first trip to the observation deck. My mother yelled at me because I couldn’t get enough of either view. I ran back and forth, drinking it all in. I remember wishing I had two faces so I could look both east and west at the same time.
I left Calgary in 1986, well after the boom had begun. Above is the Calgary I returned to in 2014. See the Calgary Tower? No? Believe it or not, it is still there. However, now the 8th tallest structure, with 11 office buildings within 20 metres of eclipsing it, it can only be seen on the downtown skyline if you’re looking from the east.
Fine dining. Theater. Ballet. Sports (Go Flames!). Art House Cinema. In my opinion, Calgary is a world class city. Problem is that I seem to be one of the very few to hold that opinion. Poll after poll shows Calgary to be one of the the cleanest, most livable city in the world and we even have the Best Mayor in the World. However, Calgarians distrust in these outsiders opinions can be summed up by a simple exchange I had at work just a few evenings ago.
When I am not screenwriting, I am a poker dealer by trade. I love my job and I am fortunate to work in one of the best poker rooms in all of Canada (Which saying a lot because Canadians love poker.) Since I learned my craft and lived for the ten previous years in Las Vegas, my name tag states Vegas as my hometown. A player read my name tag and the following exchange took place.
Player: You’re from Las Vegas? Really?
Me: Well, actually I was born in Toronto and I was raised here in Calgary. But I spend the last 10 years in Vegas.
Player: Oh my God. why would you ever come back here?
As with my players, I am sure many readers have visited Las Vegas. The glitz! The glamour! The parties! But if you’ve ever lived there, you know that those monuments of neon are built on the broken dreams of wannabe high rollers and it’s citizen’s alike. Get away from the strip, even just blocks away, and you see blight and squalor and addiction and every form of human devastation imaginable. The city has David Copperfield and a Cirque show on every corner but no real culture.
But Calgarians, despite having everything at their finger tips can’t shake that small town mentality. I blame the Calgary Stampede.
Once a year, beginning the second Friday in July, the bustling metropolis grinds to a halt for ten days to make way for the Calgary Stampede. Billed as the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, it can be heart-warming to see how the city embraces this 10 day nostalgic fest. Walk into any bank or corporate office during rodeo time and you’ll see it. Almost every man and woman wears a cowboy costume to work. The white Stetson is one of the official symbols of Calgary and you’ll see it by the thousands. Every business, big and small, hosts some sort of Western themed event. Pancake breakfasts. Chuckwagon BBQ for lunch and dinner. The beer is flowing and country music is everywhere. I mean, EVERYWHERE! If you play in a country music band and can’t get booked in Calgary during the first two weeks of July, you’d either better switch to Death Metal or get out of the business for good because you obviously suck. People come from all over the world to ho-down and square dance, drink and frolic and Calgary is truly happy to accommodate them.
Problem is once the party is over, the chuck wagon tents are folded up and all the horse shit has been shoveled away, Calgarians can’t shake the ‘Cowtown’ name or the Cow-town mentality. It can’t help but see itself as a one horse town. Even with a population of 1.2 million. So if you get the chance to visit my city, even if it is for the rodeo, I urge you to stick around and experience this glorious city the other 355 days of the year.
So in five days I’ll be turning my back on it again, heading east into the sunrise. My journey will take me to Toronto, city of my birth, Winnipeg, the city of my earliest memories and numerous new exotic places, both within my countries borders and beyond. But despite what my name tag says at work, or what my birth certificate states or where I live out my remaining years or even where they put me in the ground, Calgary is, and will always be my hometown.