Saturday Night in the Oil Patch
April 2013 – Bobbing derricks, truck traffic, and puffs of dust surround me on my drive to Northern Alberta. But the images that fill my mind are of tall buildings and human traffic in a city back east. Montreal. I’ve been reading the 1973 Leacock Medal book Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory by Donald Bell.
My son, Jonathon, lives in Lloydminster and works on a rig in the heavy oil fields. For six years, his greatest ambition has been to move back to the familiarity and friends of Ottawa.
Donald Bell[i] would have struggled too if he had had to move to Alberta for a job. He loved his home town too much. More precisely, he loved the people of Montreal. The “painters, idlers, hermits, and various city freaks” who populate the pages of Bagel Factory. [ii]
The all-night diner and bagel bakery on Saint Viateur gave Bell a great venue for the study of urban humanity in action. But he also found material at rock concerts, wrestling matches, and other gatherings of “Hieronymous Bosch figures in modern dress.”
Bell seemed, however, most engaged when telling me about individuals like Jacob Kaminsky, “the Balloon Man,” who inflated and sold the little balls of latex on the street until weather drove him into Place Bonaventure where he was arrested for selling without a mall permit. Bell covered the court case telling the story of a man who brought colour to the city streets and to the air floating above them.
I think of my time as a PR guy and my days as a balloon man, stretching, inflating, tying, and tearing my fingers to decorate Legion Halls, backyards, and community centres. My kinship with the Balloon Man causes me to think that Donald Bell’s Bagel Factory characters likely exist everywhere, and I wonder whether oil patch Alberta had any Balloon Men.
Standing in the senior-filled Tim Horton’s in Red Deer, I think about Jockey Fleming and Kid Oblay, two Montreal street characters that some label beggars. Bell deemed them “old-time moochers” who “work” the intersection of Peel and St. Catherine. He drew their jagged biographies by transcribing what they said about each other and Montreal. The drama in the stories came in images teased out of their words. Jockey pleaded for burial “in the Irishman’s cemetery” because “That’s the last place the devil will look for a Jew.”
Bell’s went beyond this Jewish sub-culture. The lacrosse game told the story of urban aboriginals, and the theatrical booking agent Don D’Amico, bohemian artist Luigi Scarpini, and the Carmen Espresso Restaurant touched on the city’s Italian community. The Flea Market in Le Vieux Montreal story revolved around Polish entrepreneur Stash Pruszynski. And the Delphi Pool Room with its annual Fluke tournament gave Bell an excuse to celebrate the mind of Nick, the proprietor, and the city’s Greek neighbourhoods.
They must have a pool room or two in Lloydminster. Although I email and phone my son fairly often, we have things to discuss, and I’m thinking that sitting confrontation style in a restaurant booth might not be the best way to break the ice. That night, he meets me at the Holiday Inn, and we walk a block to shoot pool at The Sticks on 44th and talk for two hours. A Montreal hockey game is playing on big screen TVs, there’s a fight, the camera pans the crowd, and I think of wrestling at the Paul Sauvé arena and Hieronous Bosch. I go back to the hotel room and read more Bagel Factory.
Without rolling hills, transport trucks, and edgy odometers, I focus on the text and think less about Bell’s stories and more about his technique. He seems to be stepping back from the journalist’s role with the story of the stories - and how he does his work: studying and writing about other people’s lives.[iii] Bell tells how he meets and engages with his subjects. He doesn’t bother writing about people he doesn’t like. He gets involved. He lends them money, they call him when in trouble, and he partners with them in business. He gets sued by the Balloon Man, and he gets another “friend” out of jail. He gets more deeply involved. Donald Bell’s sees the people in the bars and on the streets of Montreal, not as characters or caricatures, but as humans because he cares about them.
Caring about my son makes me think about the people I meet in Lloydminster and around the oil rigs outside. Like multicultural Montreal, they come from many regions and countries, but are all Canadians and interesting to me as people who surround my son. I start to think that someone might be able to write Bagel Factory-style essays about the people in this part of Canada too. Maybe this is why a Leacock winning book seemingly about a particular city, particular people, and a particular point in time was really about people everywhere.
A month later, my work will take me to Montreal and to the Bagel Factory on Rue Saint Viateur. In front of the bagels and ovens, I will think of the people in the heavy oil fields of northwestern Alberta.[iv]
[i] Donald Herbert Bell was born November 17, 1936 in Brooklyn, N.Y. In 1941 his family moved to Montreal. His family name at the time was Belitzky. He died in Montreal March 6, 2003, age 66.
[ii] In the 1960s, Bell worked for CBC International Services, the Montreal Herald, the Calgary Herald, and the Montreal Gazette. From 1967 on, he was a freelance writer. For years, he researched the life and death of magician Harry Houdini. Bell’s manuscript was published posthumously in 2004 as The Man Who Killed Houdini.
[iii] In the 1980s, Bell travelled extensively looking for books for his second-hand bookstore in Sutton, Quebec : La Librairie Founde Bookes. He wrote a column in Books in Canada magazine and a book, Bookspeak, on these experiences.
[iv] For more, check Concordia University Archives Don Bell fonds. http://archives.concordia.ca/P235 , accessed Nov. 5, 2013