N exercise 2.1
I grew up in a town of a half million or more, at the foot of a long escarpment that we all called the Mountain. The downtown, also at the foot of the Mountain, was reputed for its grunginess, the colourful cast of local misfits and degenerates who peopled the strip of park that ran between the two major streets. The school I attended had much the same position in the public consciousness; one might be considered rather tough just for being in its catchment area.
At one end of the city, rusting industry occupies many square kilometres of lakeside space, and it is this black and fiery behemoth that greets visitors coming over the bridge from the north. It’s the first sight of the city that many people get. Smog and stink and jets of flame spew into the sky at all hours, while tiny orange lights set within the hulk blink on and off.
The city also has a large harbour where wealthier residents might keep yachts and other pleasure craft. There’s a series of bike paths and pedestrian walkways criss-crossing through this area, and it’s a nice place for dogs. The west end gets richer, with a university renowned for its teaching of med students, and a high school where full musicals were put on with regularity, with cast members who could actually carry a tune throughout a performance. They wore uniforms there that went all the way to the belt and shoes.
The downtown and the east end are older, and it shows in both the architecture and the tenancy rate. Many empty shopfronts gone to rust and splintery wood line the main thoroughfares, and though new businesses pop up occasionally, few last. The stand-out ones, on the other hand, have been going for decades despite opposition – Steel City Video, as an example, or BBQ Chicken Pizza as another. Many other spots are papered with yellow newsprint, padlocked with chain.
The Mountain escarpment offered pockets of beauty, though – there were sets of metal stairs for people to ascend on foot or with bicycles, and trails rain through and along the ascending slope. An old railway line has become a paved bike path, bright sun filtering through the greenery for kilometre after kilometre. There are thousands of waterfalls within the city limits, of every shape and size.
Buildings are more cookie-cutter on the Mountain top – newer, pre-fab homes and big lots for 7-11s and Wal-Marts everywhere. The car is king up there with giant roadways stretching lane after lane. This is to the south. The further one went to the north, on the other hand, the grittier things got – scarred pavement, boxy trucks, bleating horns and the whir of machines. The bridges and ramps out of town were chewed up by massive rubber tires hauling intimidating machines to projects unknown. Meanwhile the downtown is undergoing revitalization by government fiat – new condos get priority and garbage collection is undertaken regularly by those enduring community service.
The diverse cast of characters of that city never fails to amaze, and though it isn’t so spectrum-crossing as the province’s capital, Steel City has a personality all its own.
There was an old greasy-spoon just a block from my high school, staffed by a matronly cook with a surly expression and a young woman that could have been her daughter. The daughter served tables under the watchful, half-lidded eye of her mother figure behind the smeared plastic sneeze-guard. Mom held a metal spoon at just about all times, upright like a scepter bespeaking high office, while her daughter sat at a barstool behind the host’s stand near the door, with a second-hand paperback novel.
The tables were plastic and the floor a cheaper, imitation version of linoleum. The colour scheme was all over from white to red to yellow-grey, and each chair had a layer of thin vinyl covering that looked like it was DIY, intended to keep clean-up to a minimum. There was a CRT TV in the corner, sitting on a rack, tuned to a news channel with scrolling text but no sound. One segment of the frame was devoted entirely to revolving shots of nearby highways and the traffic crawling along them.
The diner – Mama’s, it was called – has since closed, and many other restaurants have opened and closed their doors in that building since. It’s Mexican, now, and was Lebanese not long before. Where the mother and daughter figures are is anybody’s guess.