March 26 2016
I leave the bus in Thunder Bay, determined to see what’s left of the past in this city once called Prince Arthur's Landing — its name was changed because some felt the word “Landing” was down-market, implied a temporary arrival place for poor immigrants. Yet immigrants did land here, arriving by steamer from Toronto, almost eight hundred miles away. Their passage cost $15.50 — quite a sum in the nineteenth century — but it was an investment in the future, the first step towards earning a fortune; this was mining country, and new immigrants dreamt big. In reality, most accumulated little.
Salaries were often spent on the inferior poisonous booze served in tent saloons with their spittoons and sawdust floors. Cheap boarding houses lined the streets, and packs of starving strays, employed in dog trains during winter, roved. Water used for drinking as well as waste disposal guaranteed that cholera and typhoid were endemic; and by 1870, the lake, the surrounding rivers, were sufficiently polluted to remain so for the next thirty years.
I step into the freezing afternoon outside the bus station, watch cars, trucks and buses shoot by on the main road. Opposite, is a large shopping mall. Where is the old town centre, left or right? I go back into the station, ask the young woman at the ticket counter. She, evidently taken aback by my question, reflects for a good, long while.
“There’s the shopping mall across the road,” she says finally. “You'll find everything you want there: Winner’s, Mac Donald’s. All the chains.”
“It’s the centre of town I want,” I insist.
But this is too strange a request. She turns to a co-worker, and both are soon deep in shrugs and confusion.
“The old part of town,” I prompt. “The original part that existed before the shopping mall.”
“There’s only the shopping mall,” says the co-worker with dogmatic certainty. “Just outside the station and across the main road.”
There must be something left of the original town, something that isn’t a shopping mall. I set out, trudging through dirty brown sludge along the main road while the traffic roars beside me. No question of a sidewalk. No question of anyone walking. Why would they? Walking is a near death experience.
“Is there a little coffee shop anywhere near here?” I ask a nice lady with spectacles and a perm in one of the nondescript businesses along the way.
She thinks about this for a minute or two. “There’s a lovely restaurant in the mall. They have salads, quiches. Perhaps it’s a little pricey, but very nice.”
So I forge on although I have no idea where I’m headed. And here’s a Mexican food joint, happily not a chain: dingy, cheap with plastic cups and paper plates, but good enough for coffee and a reasonable bean burrito — I’m not demanding authenticity out here in the frozen north.
“How’s your day been so far?” asks the sweet young thing at the counter.
I stare, stunned by the question. Okay, it’s rhetorical; she’s been trained to say it to all and sundry, is being paid to say it. But I scrape around, search for an acceptable response. How exactly was my day so far? Do I even know?
“Well, at least its warming up,” she adds.
I sneak a glance through the plate glass window, see dull grey and brown, know it’s minus twelve out there: is this what locals call warming up? But pleased to have someone chirpy right in front of me, I ask for directions to the town centre. “Downtown.”
The sweet young thing is perplexed, just as perplexed as the two young women in the bus station were. “There’s the mall just up the road.”
“No. No mall.” I might sound slightly hysterical now.
Almost fearfully, she moves kitchen-ward, consults with another sweet young thing.
“There’s the mall,” says sweet young thing number two.
Neither has ever heard of an older part of town.
“How about a library,” I say. Libraries are always in town centres, not in malls.
First sweet young thing furrows her brow. “Well… there’s a library down the road but it’s really far.”
“Really far,” seconds number two.
“You’ll have to take a bus. It’s that far.”
“How far is really far?”
Neither can say. I give up, eat my burrito.
“Downtown is about ten minutes from here,” says the mechanic in a gas station. “Just keep on walking. You’ll hit it.”
So I carry on ahead, feeling sad, depressed. It’s discouraging, this hideousness: car parks, fast food discards, cement unloveliness.
In the end, downtown isn’t far at all, and there are still vestiges of beauty — not a lot, but a few — red brick buildings, typically Canadian, from the early 1900’s, set like jagged teeth along the main street. But in the library, in old photos, I can see what a splendid place this once was: crafted Victorian buildings, terraces, elegant architecture, great trees. All has been destroyed.
There are still bars though. I choose one, hoping for a bit of conversation, some warm contact (the stray dogs are long gone).
The barman is impersonal; a podgy blond and her blotchy-faced mate at the next table stare unabashedly at me. I smile, nod a “hello.” They don’t respond.
In the ladies room, I contemplate incompetent graffiti: LET LESBIANS LIVE has me wondering about a local euthanasia campaign. More intriguing is the grammatically curious: MAY BUSH HAS NEVER HAVE HAD AN ORGASM.
Back in the bar, the television is set to a programme about crocodiles — not a bad way to pass the evening — until a baseball-capped youth zaps to video clips, then leaves.
Outside, new snow has covered the brown slush, briefly turned ugliness into magic. I return to the bus station, wait for departure in the cafeteria while, from the television above my head, I hear screams of suffering, hysteria and intense violence punctuated by police sirens. The other travellers sit entranced: a normal evening’s amusement.
At the counter the listless waitress scratches her arm.
“Is there anything to eat without meat?” I ask her.
“Hamburgers.” She stifles a yawn. “Ham sandwiches. It’s all we do this time of night.”
(From, Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers, Sumach Press, Toronto, 2004, Winner of the Tannenbaum Prize in Canadian Jewish History, 2005, Shortlisted for the ForeWord Magazine Prize, 2005)