The City in the Mountain

For the past two months, I’ve awakened early to take the C-Train to my summer job in the northwest end of the city. I leave my suburban paradise, situated around Lake Bonaventure in the far south and lined with neatly groomed front-yard gardens framing two-car-plus garages, and head towards the other end of Calgary. If I’m lucky, which is frequently, I can get a seat to myself beside a window. The nice thing about this is that the C-Train runs above ground almost the entire way, offering the rider a neat cross-section view during the commute. For 45 minutes, I watch as suburbs meld gradually into shopping districts, parks, business centers and tourist districts all within the urban cityscape, each scene dotted with people going about their everyday business. On this commute, I can ease out of my morning drowsiness, comfortably watching the city speed by and disappear into the horizon, clusters of buildings, patches of wild grass and a sparse display of semi-animated people set up just so for me to observe along the way. Only a thin layer of glass separates me from the world; only this world through the glass pulls me away from a dream state back into reality.

Morning is the best time of day to observe Calgary. Shortly before the business day commences, people accumulate on the station platforms from their pre-dawn lives as friends, lovers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons. They arrive by buses in spurts, with others trickling onto the scene from their cars or from pedestrian walkways. Some of them are clutching briefcases and newspapers; others carry backpacks and tattered novels. Everyone is part of the gathering crowd, but each person is, for the moment, focused on his or her own activities, whether that is reading, dozing, or gazing emptily ahead. Later in the day, the car will be filled with chatter among friends and co-workers about evening plans, office gossip, or last night’s game. But for now, I can observe these people without hearing about their lives, without getting caught up in displays or attention-grabbing conversations about Ralph Klein’s latest drunken debacle or some teenage speed-freak’s narration of his own drug-induced antics, meant to impress with his counter-culture ways. But for now, it is quiet but for the sound of the train itself.

The train makes its way across the city, winding through the cluster of tall buildings that mark the downtown core. There are the glassy and reflective Gulf Canada Square and Energy Plaza, the Petro-Canada Center that marks the peak of the skyline, the post-modern Banker’s Hall that houses Talisman Energy, Mobil Tower built in the international style, as well as Home Tower and the Dome Tower, majestic abodes of Home Oil and Dome Petroleum, respectively. These giants belittle the train-cars passing between them, casting a shadow over us as we make our humble way through.

Ours is a city built on oil. Calgary is what it is today because of the energy boom of the ’70s, which drew the pantheon of the energy world and prompted its ministers and minions to settle here in the midst of Alberta’s vast oil reserves. Along with the focus of the oil industry, the boom attracted thousands of oil workers that have nearly tripled the city’s population since then. Although the energy boom is long over, the city is still growing, spilling over its edges as developers scramble to accommodate the growth. Suburban neighborhood homes, painted in coral and beige, are sprouting up along the city limits at an alarming rate, paving the way for more modern business and shopping complexes in the city, ones that are bigger, better and more sleek-looking than the isolated strip malls of yesteryear. In 30 years, Calgary has swelled from an insignificant dot on the map of North America to a metropolitan center and the Oil Capital of Canada. Although we are no longer just an oil city, the oil buildings remain our beacons to the world, signifying an ultra-modern way of life.

The train-cars unload almost completely, with work-bound people squeezing hurriedly into the open, upsetting the equilibrium of the scene as the commuters suddenly break out of the morning tranquility and lethargy to become a dynamic cloud of individuals, ebbing and flowing along the sidewalk. Through the window I see my fellow Calgarians walking into the towering buildings: men and women in suits, some others in business-casual attire. Mostly though, I notice an overwhelming quantity of men in khakis and polo shirts. I see one holding a cigarette in one hand, his other clutching a black, open-topped briefcase with a newspaper peeking out. He is casually non-descript, save for the round-shaped glasses that sit awkwardly on his round-shaped face, and through which he catches me staring at him. I quickly glance away, only to settle on another.

The man I see now is in his late-30s and has tousled and brilliant blonde hair. He is smartly and beautifully dressed in a shirt, tie, and a remarkably shiny pair of pointed black shoes, but his sophistication is marred by the royal blue pack on his back, from which are dangling a cluster of multi-colored carabiners, metal devices used in climbing and mountaineering. In the sea of khaki, his subtly wild demeanor, indicated by the carabiners, is bound to attract the attention of a young, impressionable, female writer staring through the window of the train at the otherwise disorderly crowd. This man may be a mild-mannered businessman by day, but by weekend he is a free-climber or mountaineer. He walks brusquely past me, not noticing that my eyes are following him through the other side of the glass.

Calgary is notoriously casual: people wear jeans to the Philharmonic and dress-up cowboy style to weddings. One might thing such casual dressing is crossing the line of propriety, but there is something more to this than just the choice of clothing: it’s really about a nonchalant attitude. People come to downtown Calgary during the workweek to do what they have to do without it taking over the rest of their lives. The carabiners signal to me that this man lives, at heart, in the vast and unconquerable wilderness surrounding our city. His 9-5 trek into the core of the oil industry, outfitted in expensive clothes, does not diminish the rugged and free-spirited streak from his demeanor. The carabiners and his wild blond hair belie the untamed adventurer within. With mountains and rivers in abundance in Banff and the Rocky Mountains, an hour outside of Calgary, it is no coincidence that Calgary is home to many outdoor enthusiasts. It is not surprising, then, that this mentality — the constant desire to be surrounded by nature rather than the urban complex — is pervasive among the population.

Although Calgary has its suits and its skyscrapers, my view through the window suggests a dichotomy: a laid back attitude that doesn’t totally fit with the business-oriented surroundings. At this early hour, I see people going to do whatever it is they do to make a living without participating in some communal celebration of the business-culture they’re otherwise a part of. Perhaps it is because a large portion of these oil workers are not finance people but researchers that this environment is so casual. Regardless, the aesthetic contrast is striking: the superimposition of a very relaxed population upon the stern and solemn buildings of downtown Calgary.

Having dispensed with the majority of my fellow passengers in the downtown core, we emerge from the swell of tall buildings back into the sunlight. We’re carried over the bridge crossing the Bow River, which runs throughout the city before returning to the wilderness. It twinkles as we traverse it. This takes us past Kensington, where I spent many an afternoon as a 15-year old hiding out from teachers and parents in the coffee shops, used book stores, and used record stores that pepper the area. Suffering from teenage angst, this neighborhood was the perfect refuge: close enough to school that I could walk, far enough that I could escape from everyone I knew, and find myself surrounded by musical and literary treasures. Most important, though, were the cafés where I could buy one drink and sit for an entire afternoon, and where I would read Kerouc and Sartre while pretending that I was a brooding poet, even though I didn’t write poetry.

I still like to spend time in Kensington, but for different reasons, now: although the neighborhood spans only a few blocks, it’s comprised of an eclectic mixture of independent stores, boutiques and restaurants, as well as an eclectic mixture of people. The street is wide and the buildings low, allowing for the sun to shine through in the summer; the buildings are varied, some with colorful trims and peaks and others with no ornamentation at all. While yuppies with expensive sunglasses stroll along the sidewalk, perusing boutiques and restaurants, the independent movie theatre, The Plaza, along with the aforementioned used book/record stores and coffee shops, draws a liberal university crowd sporting Birkenstocks and blond dreadlocks.

The university people are ubiquitous, smoking outside the theatre, sitting along the street drinking fruity concoctions and caffeine-infused drinks, lurking between bookshelves and filing through the used albums at warp speed, creating an avant-garde symphony of click-click-click’s as the plastic CD casings collide against one another. Kensington is one of the best places in Calgary to people-watch. But there are other spots, as well, such as Stephen Avenue, lined with historical facades where sketched-out punk and candy-kids squat just a few doors down from a cluster of weed-paraphernalia-shops on the one side, Banker’s Hall on the other. There’s Eau Claire Market, outside of which teenage boys skateboard and everyone loiters, and which leads into an open park, Prince’s Island Park, from where the sound of bongos, guitars, and children’s voices can be heard in the summertime. There’s 17th Avenue, the strip of trendy-but-not-too-trendy-and-definitely-not-a-chain clothing stores, café-bars, and open patios that are packed with 20-somethings on a weekend afternoon. Here there are bookshops, record shops and, right in the middle of it all, one of the biggest high schools in the city and a tiny park where “alternative-looking” people come to play hacky-sack. The characters that walk through here on a weekend afternoon are colorful and varied: some dragged along by over-eager pets; some with piercings, tattoos and hairstyles that defy the imagination; some rolling along shakily on a pair of inline skates; and of course, there’s always the Birkenstock wearing, liberal university crowd.

To me, people-watching is a largely urban activity, one that is made possible by the wide variety of people and eccentric characters that are drawn to and shaped by urban environments. In Kensington, the diversity of culture and interests draws an equally diverse and eccentric crowd, creating an atmosphere ripe for observation.

But I transport myself to a parallel reality of nighttime in Calgary, any regular night of the week, and all of a sudden the streets are purged of crowds. It’s 10 o’clock, and the only signs of life under the illumination of street lamps are the souped-up Honda Civic zooming by with some generic trance track seeping out the windows, packed beyond the limits of safety with high school students trying to maximize space; the young couple passing into my line of vision and then out again as they head somewhere, maybe towards their car, maybe towards a bar or lounge; and if this happens to be downtown, there might be the rustle of a sleeping bag stuffed in a doorway on the side of the street as whoever is cocooned inside tries to get comfortable.

Calgary has many great cultural venues and a plethora of different pubs, clubs, bars and lounges for a variety of difference scenes, but outside of such immediate vicinities, the city is asleep before midnight. The army of khakied men, my blond-tressed adventurer, and all the people I watch during the day in Kensington, at Eau Claire Market, on 17th and Stephen Avenue have virtually vanished. If they’re out at all, they may be tucked away in restaurants, bars or lounges — isolated pockets of public life scattered throughout the city after hours — but they’re most likely reclining on comfortable armchairs at home.

There is a strong sense of disjunction between day-life and nightlife in Calgary. The crowds don’t carry through from dawn through dusk; public activities, such as communal participation in the downtown work environment and loitering or strolling through public areas, are replaced by private activities at night; those who stay in the city duck into private venues — tucked away jazz or Ibiza-style clubs, for instance. But by and large, come 10pm, the concrete playground of downtown Calgary is a virtual desert.

There is something that is awkward about Calgary, something that I can see as I traverse it each morning. It is the city pushing against its edges, prompting the construction of yet more uniform suburban neighborhoods to contrast with the tall, noble towers that mark our center. It is the abruptness with which the streets quiet down in the evening and the silence that envelops this sprawling city of over a million residents. It is the sense of artificiality that results from superposing a not-quite-urban mentality with the urban environment. Calgary is a city built for oil at a location surrounded by wilderness. It is still new to its identity as a metropolis and still lacks a distinctly urban identity. We are waiting to grow into our clothes, but in the meantime the awkwardness, like the awkwardness of adolescence, will remain.

I step off the train to begin my day as usual, but two months from now I will leave this city to pursue other dreams. When I return, Calgary may not be as it is today. But like my blond-tressed adventurer, I often like to imagine that I belong outside the city, in the wilderness, where I can feel the cold wind whipping against my face as I glide down the snow-covered mountains on my board in the winter, adrenaline pumping. I remember the sensation of lying on the edge of a glacier-lake after a five-hour hike, feeling the harsh sun beating down on my head and breathing in the sharp mountain air. On my morning commute, carabiners spotted on the same man wearing a tailored suit, I take satisfaction in seeing that the urban mindset hasn’t yet overrun the mountains and the plains in the minds of my fellow Calgarians. We’re still a bit wild, out here.