Glimpses of a City


Walking down the main street, you eventually come across one of the two high schools. Turning the corner and shimmying under the fence that separates the children’s play area from the parking lot you will find a white wall where someone has painted five perfect identical hearts in a row. Under each heart is a different word. Together, they read “every day is valentines day”.


In the industrial area, there is an abandoned lot that once held an oil tank. It is surrounded on three sides by a concrete wall. The fourth is blocked by a crumbling chain-link fence. The three walls have been appropriated by the graffiti community and act as a kind of shifting mural. Every night, they sneak in and add to, alter or erase part of the mural. Sometimes, the changes are tiny, other times they are a sweeping reworking of a whole wall. You explore the communal effort, taking delight in the inventive forms and innovative colours. Describing the mural is pointless — it is too big and, anyway, it will be unrecognizable when you return.


Nestled among the skyscrapers downtown is an attractive corner office decorated in the minimalist style. A sign announces that it is the offices of “SMED International” though what business SMED might be involved in is not immediately apparent. The receptionist is very polite, though she insists that she is unable to answer any questions unless you have an appointment.


Turning left onto a side street and left again, you find yourself in a quaint residential neighbourhood. The houses are all more or less identical — brick single family dwellings with pointed roofs and tasteful lawns. Walk for two block and turn left again. Halfway up the street on your right, you will find a singularly unique house. The owner had decorated it in dark stained wooden cylinders, each no more than two inches in diameter. Everything is covered in these cylinders — the walls, the lawn, the railings and the flower boxes. They form patterns and shapes — spirals meet triangles that intersect with rectangles and circles. You are reminded of Shamanism. A neighbour tells you that the owner was a construction worked until an accident injured his neck. Now, he spends most of his time at home working on his house.


Proceeding along the canal, you find a place where the path diverges to accommodate a weeping willow that dips its leaves into the gently flowing water. If you duck under the branches you find yourself in a small sheltered area that exists between the trunk and the canopy of leaves. A wholly unremarkable spot, except for the dozens of friends and lovers who, like you, stumbled into the protected space and, like you, thought of it as a sanctuary.


Inside the government building is a grand gallery lined with pillars. Where each pillar meets the arches of the ceiling, there is a carving of a head. Were you more familiar with the history of the country, you would be able to identify all but one of these heads as the likenesses of great leaders of the past. The remaining head, the tour guide tells you, belongs to the stone mason responsible for carving the entire gallery, angry that he had not been paid on time.


The grass on the hill is even and lush. Your friend tells you that it was not always so. She tells you about the day when the city woke to find that someone had dumped huge quantities of fertilizer on the lawn, leaving chemical burns outlined by verdant green. The result was that anyone passing the hill on their way to work that morning found themselves confronted by hundred foot tall letters asking “WHY?”.


Embedded in the sidewalk that runs along the outskirts of the park is a series of small copper plaques. Each one depicts a different species of fern (there are more than twenty in all) and gives its Latin name. No explanation is offered and the park itself contains no living ferns.


Halfway down the block there is a gap between the houses. If you walk down this tiny alley you find yourself in the half-overgrown backyard. Bending down, you see that the remains of a herb garden grows between the weeds. Peering through the windows you see by the boxes that the occupants have just moved in. At night, three friends sit in the sun room. One reads, one writes and one draws. All three are comfortably silent as they listen to a playlist of songs selected especially for the occasion.


Continuing past the commercial district’s bright windows and packed patios, you find a small storefront that has been converted into a Falafel shop. A sign on the door notes that the health agency has given it a “conditional” pass but you enter anyway, lured by the low prices. The shop keeper is earnest and his movements are nervous and unpracticed. You wonder if he is new to the falafel business. You note that he has prominently displayed three books on organic and vegetarian cooking and try to decide if this is marketing or an indication of his actual cooking style. The pitas are whole wheat and he gives you too many vegetables. The chicken is delicious.


Cresting the hill, you begin to hear the syncopated beat of a tambourine. As you approach the park you see a group of people dressed in loose white clothing. In the dimness they seem almost luminescent. You watch as they seem to alternate between fighting and dancing, marvelling as the execute flips and one-handed cartwheels. Your friend tells you that they are practising Capoeira, a martial art developed by slaves and disguised as a dance to hide it from their masters. The disciples are fluid and graceful.


Crossing the lawn, you see that the parking lot is deserted and that the windows of the grocery store are dark. This surprises you, as the sign out front indicates that this is a 24 hour location. There is a small sign posted to the door. “For your shopping convenience,” it says, “we are now closed between Midnight and 7:00am.” You leave, hungry. 


Wandering down a street near the government district, you see another of the familiar blue Heritage markers that denote a building of particular historical value. You stop to examine it and note that instead of the usual words about heritage and protected properties, this one tells the story of a man waking up drunk in an alley. Careful examination reveals that someone has cleverly mimicked the style of the Heritage markers, though the materials are cheaper and the ink has started to run. As you continue on your way, you can’t help but steal a glance back at the building, uncertain as to why you would have accepted it as a candidate for Heritage protection in the first place. 


In the heart of the University you find the main library. Walking through the atrium you notice a ditch, now dry, that seems to run both out into the cliff and down into the lobby itself. The security guard explains that when the building was first conceived, the ditch was to be a pool fed by a waterfall from the top of the cliffs and meandering through the atrium and into the lobby where the patrons would be soothed by the lapping of the water. He wonders at the lack of foresight of the architects who forgot to account for the bitterly cold winters of the region and tells you about the decision to finally drain the pool and seal the lobby, one frozen Saturday afternoon.


The gas station has long been abandoned. For some reason, one of those old coke machines is still there, still working, and still stocked. A beacon across the darkened parking lot, you find yourself going out of your way to investigate, one hot summer night. To your surprise, the price is 50¢. You buy a drink, and can’t tell whether you’re enjoying the flavour or the nostalgia. You excitedly tell your friends but months later, when they finally make the trek, it’s gone.