Travelers’ Tip #14: The way to stay out of trouble in Edmonton is to head directly for Calgary

If you hail from one of those larger, more effete, self-aggrandizing places, such as Montreal, or Vancouver, or, god help you, Toronto, there is always faint hope that you may not endure imminent mental collapse when circumstances force you to spend 72 hours in Edmonton, Alberta. But avoiding this unwanted outcome will require tight control over each of your dangerous impulses.

Do not follow the example of Michel Lavoie of Montreal, who last weekend rode in a big bus to the world-famous West Edmonton Mall, where he threw himself from a hundred-foot-high platform, tethered to some kind of sproingy apparatus, after handing someone eighty bucks to facilitate the experience. (Michel’s big adventure is depicted below.) And, in the name of all that is rational and hygienic, do not attempt what was accomplished by Stuart Maddin of Vancouver, which was the consumption of a giant portion of fish-and-chips at midnight in the lounge of the Hotel Macdonald, only to wake up the next morning, conduct a little business, forcefully deliver a scientific lecture, and then head back over to order precisely the same super-sized meal in the same venue, a mere 12 hours later. Someone really needs to talk to Stuart about his intake of deep-fried foodstuffs, except that having just celebrated his 91st birthday, he’s unlikely to feign too much interest in homilies about alfalfa sprouts and wheatgerm, and their benefits to longevity.
 Determined to avoid the erratic behavior of my fellow conference-goers, I slipped away one morning in a rented Hyundai Accent to 16060 Stony Plain Road, in northwest Edmonton, and ate a quiet breakfast at Hap’s Hungry House, consisting of two slices of sourdough bread, one scrambled egg, and two pots of Hap’s watery coffee. I was in the company of R. Allan Ryan of Toronto, who ordered the veggie omelet, and declared it to be fully optimal. Hap appeared to be a middle-aged fellow affecting short pants and a brushcut — which is referred to in Portland as the total Tom Peterson Look, and known nationally as the Full H.R. Haldeman — and how Hap did hustle, backing up his crew of perky and efficient waitresses by adding timely ice-water fill-ups and deftly timed dirty-plate removal. “You see that?,” Mr. Ryan remarked. “There is Hap, doing exactly what an owner is supposed to do. Very rare these days.”

Tom Peterson, longtime Oregon appliance kingpin
Bob Haldeman, longtime Nixon henchman

I made a note to myself on the serviette: “Be like Hap.”

The coffee is traditionally brewed pale and weak in the non-chain restaurants in the west, I have found. Hunter S. Thompson, in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” takes note of the thin ‘Golden West’ coffee offered up in Nevada diners, and during my formative years, I was sustained by this style of coffee in the Mill Race Restaurant in Eugene, Oregon. It is also a staple in Arizona, Utah, Montana, Idaho, and the portion of California north of Stockton, as well as the British Columbia interior, and vast tracts of Washington state outside of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. These days, I’d prefer something more full-bodied and Starbucks-like, when offered the choice, but you learn to make do.

You make do in Alberta’s capital by betting with the odds, which means avoiding the many dubious attractions abutting Hap on Stony Plain Road, which include dozens of bars that would never pass muster back east, not even in Scarborough, Ontario. Stick, by all means, to the tried and true cultural destinations: the admirable system of civic parks, the extensive public library, the art gallery, the Citadel Theatre. Tommy Banks, a jazz pianist, formerly hosted an inadvertently hilarious variety show from that same Citadel Theatre, broadcast weekly across Canada on the CBC. The program began with Tommy making his way confidently across the stage toward his piano, where his trademark horn-rimmed glasses sat atop the instrument. The camera lens remained out of focus until Tommy located his specs, and placed them over his nose, at which point the camera image sharpened, and the TV viewer caught a 20/20 view of the stage. What drivel. Typical Edmonton cornball nonsense, I used to think, watching the show. Many years later, I stumbled upon the information that Steve Allen had used the exact same opening on his seminal network TV program, 20 years earlier, and that Tommy had built his franchise by blithely ripping off the master. What can you do when presented with evidence of such cultural larceny, except (1) name a street after the perp; and (2) place the thief in a facility where his activities can be controlled? And so it happened that Tommy Banks was appointed to the Senate of Canada in 2000, by the Right-Honorable Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Because who could envision kicking off a new millennium without Tommy Banks riding a piano stool in the Upper House?

Shannon meets Tommy Banks at the Citadel Theatre, Edmonton, 06/11

I was telling David Perry via e-mail about Senator Banksy, the Ivory-Tickling Solon from Wild Rose Country, and he instantly one-upped me, something he’s been doing without effort since high school. Maestro Perry, a concert violinist who used to perform with the Edmonton Symphony, was stuck on a bus with Tommy for an entire summer, covering the very length and breadth of the province of Alberta. Each night, the musicians would file out of their coach and assemble on stage, to back up Tommy’s rendition of “New York, New York,” with lyrics re-written (by Tom) to refer to a good number of the local cities, towns, and villages. Hearing this gave new meaning to the phrase “imminent mental collapse,” and I couldn’t help but wonder how Tommy managed to find a couplet that rhymes with Medicine Hat that isn’t “nuts to all that.” Plainly, it was that gift of syncopation that led M. Chretien to select Banksy for the Senate, over yours truly.

Faced with months of bouncing through the badlands, hearing Tommy warble something along the lines of “It seems there was this feller,/And didn’t he hail from Drumheller?”, it became a small enough wonder that Perry high-tailed it as far away as possible, landing in the orchestra-pit of the philharmonic of Sapporo, Japan.

I recall that one of Tommy’s frequent guests on television was Clarence ‘Big’ Miller, a talented blues-shouter with an agreeable manner. I used to make a point of watching the Banks show each week, because Big Miller was pretty damned good, and also, let’s admit it, out of the hope that one week Tommy would fumble, a consequence of myopia, and insert the temple of his glasses directly into his eye-socket, causing him to yelp in pain for the entire length of the program. Sadly, if that event came to pass, I managed not to tune in on that occasion. Big Miller was far more than just a beefy sidekick to Edmonton’s-Answer-to-Steve Allen. He had an acting career that, at its pinnacle, led to his unforgettable role as Abdullah the Butcher in the Canadian cult classic movie, “Big Meat Eater.” Better that we let that go, for the moment, but those inclined can enjoy the big man in action, below.

Big Miller is dead, alas, but there is a park named for him — part of that admirable system of civic parks — and it is adjacent to Tommy Banks Way, the street named for his teevee companero. If six degrees of separation is the usual measure, there is next to no separation of anything in Edmonton, and that is the principal reason why I counted down the hours until I could get the hell out. Of course, in this mounting desperation, I neglected to consider that the streets all run one-way downtown, and that the expeditious route in from the airport could not be re-traced the same way back. So, after a couple of misdirected turns, I was lost on a greenbelt beside the beautiful Something-or-other River, and then further lost while crawling along the streets of fashionable Old Strathcona, and eventually on Highway 2, which was unexpectedly shut down in the aftermath of a fatal car crash. Traffic was re-routed through the IKEA parking lot, where I turned to the passenger seat and said to R. Allan Ryan, “Dude, we’re going to miss our flight.” He replied: “No!”, as we crawled for two hours along thoroughfares named Misery Drive and Extreme Tedium Boulevard, arriving at Edmonton International Airport five minutes before our scheduled departure. The nice woman at the Westjet counter reassured us that it would only be seven, no, eight more hours until the next departure to Toronto, more than enough time to head back to Stony Plain Road and shop for a gun, score a crack-cocaine rock, and charge a quart of rye from Mom’s Liquor Barn, and find someone to start work on that sleeve-length tattoo project I’ve been thinking about, the one with the entwined images of daggers and blood-dripping eyeballs and the BMW logo in flames and my name spelled out vertically in an Olde English Bold font, along with some selected scenes interpreted from Paul Theroux’s novel “Saint Jack.” Instead, we decided it was time to forget Edmonton, so we made prompt tracks for Calgary’s airport and spent the whole of the evening in the departures lounge with several hundred uniformed NATO soldiers from Norway and the UK, who were returning from maneuvers somewhere near Lethbridge.

I very slowly ate a hamburger at Chili’s over the course of five hours, and tried to imagine how Senator Tommy Banks might would have worked Lethbridge into his musical ode to Alberta. I got stuck trying to rhyme “Lethbridge” with “take hostage,” which doesn’t scan, and isn’t very good wordplay by any standard, so I arrived at the decision to just concentrate on the hamburger.

Finally, a good call. It was an excellent burger, well worth enduring a bit of inconvenience in order to enjoy.

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