Fear and longing in the Miner’s Mess

tale by Jim Green
illustration by Alison McCreesh

The Miner’s Mess, the coffee shop and eatery in the original Yellowknife Inn, shut her down Sunday, June 14, the year of our Lord 19 and 92. A dismal day in the annals of northern history. A sad event that set a legion of lost souls adrift forever.

It wasn’t the Miner’s Mess when I first sampled the coffee in April of 1969; it was still the Yellowknife Inn Coffee Shop. A real old tyme diner. Green vinyl booths with chrome poles to hang yer hat on. A jukebox you could play from your booth by poking quarters in the tabletop  Select-O-Matic record selector and punching in the letters and the numbers. Along one side of the room was a counter with a long row of green vinyl and chrome stools that could spin all the way around, bolted to the floor. The stools had those chrome footrest dealies underneath that you could hang the heels of yer boots on. A right fine establishment.

So here’s the crowd in the Yellowknife Inn Coffee Shop on a Thursday morning, a ritual for many in the early ’70s. Tom Doornbos most every day, several times a day. Smokey Heal sporting his cattleman’s Stetson and cigar. Smokey met his wife-to-be in there. Sam Otto sometimes. Dunc Grant when he wasn’t flying. John Anderson-Thompson every once in a long while. Jim McAvoy. Some geezer who seemed to be pulling a yellow rubber chicken out from under his coat every time he came in there. Sonny Arden. Chuck Vaydik. Mike Piro. Bob Olexin. John Denison of ice road fame. Norm Byrne Junior. Shorty Brown. Danny Bacon. Walt Humphries if he was in town. Wayne Guzowski. Young George Tuccaro, and a whole bunch more.

But we’re talking Thursday morning here, so there’s a difference. There’s an almighty powerful electric charge in the air. A tightness. Heavy. Like that pregnant pause before the wind hits, right before the first bolt of lightning of a purple thunderstorm.

It’s the radio they’re all half-listening to. You can see that’s what’s on their minds. CBC radio. And here it comes. The dreaded introduction to the long awaited proclamations. And the deadly pronouncements from the Department of Northern Health.

“Would So-and-So please kindly report to Northern Health as soon as possible on a matter of personal urgency.”

Now, the thing was, most everybody, the young folks anyway, were at the dance at the Elks Hall the Friday before so they had a pretty fair idea of who went home with who. And the men gathered in the coffee shop, especially certain younger men, were feeling guilty as hell and absolutely terrified they were gunna hear their own names on the radio. So they’re sitting there hunched over, sucking coffee cups, and some of them praying they won’t hear their names and they can keep the fear from their faces.

The older guys, meanwhile, are having trouble to keep from smiling. They’re getting a big kick out of the whole Thursday morning performance.

Well, y’know what they did back in those days, eh? You wouldn’t get yer shot; they wouldn’t give you the penicillin, unless you gave them the name of the person you got the “dose” from, a word used to cover a range of fearsome possibilities from peeing razor blades to your toe nails turning purple and falling off. Today they’re called Sexually Transmitted Infections.

It was a good idea I suppose. Good for the health of the public. But it sure played hell with a lot a folks who somehow managed to get along pretty fair without their private laundry flapping in the public breeze.

Many able-bodied men, and hefty women too, got themselves punched out in the Gold Range after the whole town heard their names, or their spouse’s names, or girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s names, or somebody else’s girlfriend or boyfriend’s names, over the radio. So it was a great relief, and of greater public service, to the patrons of the Yellowknife Inn Coffee Shop especially, when Northern Health and CBC stopped doing that.

Now we’re getting on to the days of the Miner’s Mess Cafeteria. Nobody ever used the word ‘cafeteria’; it was always the Miner’s Mess and just the Mess. “Meetcha at the Mess.” The renovations and renaming happened sometime in the early ‘70s. About 1972. Like colon cancer, progress had settled in and taken hold. The friendly old diner was deconstructed and remodelled to become a self-serve joint where you lined up with plastic trays to shuffle along the grub line. The new name was probably slapped on to make it at least feel feeder friendly. And it was, sort of, after a fashion.

Most folks agreed that self-service sucked, but it was still the greatest place in Yellowknife by far to get together with the old time crowd. Northerners from all across the country had been congregating in that room for years and continued right on doing it.

But it was different room, that new place. The tables and chairs were all wood, for one thing, which made for a really noisy room what with folks pulling and pushing chairs around. Real noisy.

But the greatest thing about that new place was the OLD-TIMERS’ TABLE. It was just a bunch of little tables shoved together in a long row, but it was THE TABLE. Only a newcomer would sit there by accident. Others either knew their place at that table or sat somewhere else and waited, prayed, for an invitation.

There was also something called the MINER’S MESS COFFEE CLUB. An exclusive clan who actually had their own blue enamel cups hanging on pegs on the wall with their names painted on them. I was invited to sit at that table a few times – and I loved it.

I looked forward fondly to the day I could waltz into the Miner’s Mess any old time and plunk myself down at the old-timers’ table, knowing I belonged there.

Hell, I could do it now. I got 40 years in. But the Mess is gone.

This story has been adapted from Jim Green’s most recent of two CDs, “Yellowknife – Notes from the Gold Range,” available at the Book Cellar.  www.jimgreenstoryteller.com

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