Lessons on elevators and crosswalks

story by Catherine Dook

In 1973 in Yellowknife, Edmonton was ‘the city.’ Sometimes we called it ‘outside,’ but the meaning was the same. Toronto was foreign and Vancouver a dream. When a fellow Sir John Franklin High School graduate moved to Vancouver, bought a boat and moved aboard her, we thought he’d lost his mind. “A Boat!” we said, and “Vancouver!” One sounded as eccentric as the other.

I can’t speak for my friends, but I had enough imagination to get me to university in Edmonton and no farther. Edmonton was the destination of Pacific Western Airlines. (“Piggly Wiggly Airlines,” we said. “Pray While Aloft. Perhaps Wednesday Afternoon.” “Patience with Assholes,” a former employee told me. He sounded bitter.)

Yes, Edmonton was ‘the city.’

I was 18 and I was scared to death.

In Yellowknife in 1973, even at 40 below, two trucks going in opposite directions would often stop on Franklin Avenue, roll down their windows and chat for awhile until the conversation was done, one or both drivers got cold, or someone drove up behind in one direction or another and complained with his horn. The pedestrian was king. If he wanted to jaywalk from the Miner’s Mess in the Yellowknife Inn to the post office, every single driver on Franklin Avenue understood that at 40 below it was so flippin’ cold he’d rather get hit than stand still for traffic and freeze. There were, of course, penalties for running over pedestrians: Yellowknife drivers were alert to their suicidal nature and drove with one foot hovering over the brake.

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I understood Edmonton was full of tall buildings. Tall buildings! Yellowknife had only one – the Fraser Tower. Thirteen stories. (Officially 14 when they housed the Queen in the penthouse.) Thirteen stories. We could hardly imagine such a skyscraper. Of course, I’d never been farther than the lobby and had never even tried the elevator, but think of it!

So it was that I caught a flight to Edmonton on PWA with two trunks full of my possessions. My roommate, also a Sir John Franklin graduate, was as Arctic a girl as I was, but we made friends quickly. Just as well, because both of us showed a most alarming propensity for drifting into busy traffic with abstracted expressions on our faces. I’d step straight onto Jasper Avenue with no more sense than a mosquito flying into a headlight, and two burly girlfriends would grab me by the arms and haul me back up on the sidewalk. My roommate was a tiny girl with size five feet who was easier to rescue because she was smaller, or so our friends complained. I figure those young women saved my life five or six times before I caught on that in ‘the city’ ‘outside,’ drivers were not as attuned to pedestrians as in the Arctic. Also, there were more of them.

A few days later I registered for my courses. My, but there were a lot of large buildings on the U of A campus. And ALL of them had elevators. I’d never been in an elevator. The Fraser Tower had an elevator, but I’d never been on it. I was pretty sure I’d found the right building, and I was pretty sure I’d found the elevator. The door opened. I squared my shoulders, stepped confidently into the tiny space and waited for someone to stop their hurried rush past and follow me. Nobody did. And then the door closed. I was alone in a coffin with no idea whatsoever what to do, and then the elevator slid upward. I began to scream and cry and pound on the walls and finally the elevator stopped and the door opened and I stumbled out, sobbing with terror. Someone kind who probably thought I was an idiot explained that the first number of the room I was looking for was also the floor I wanted, and you pushed the corresponding button on the elevator panel.

“See?” she said. Well, who knew?

Physical trauma aside, my roommate and I were homesick. The sun shone all winter – so depressing – the temperature was too mild, and the trees were oppressively large. We hunted all over campus until we found a scraggy spruce tree. Stunted, twisted and half-dead, it was just like

home. My roommate and I sat under it and cried. Adaptation. We managed it in time, but it took a bit of work.

I don’t know where my roommate is now. She left giving our faculty the figurative finger. I was left breathless with admiration for her style, God bless her. Me they just flunked.

Then one day I left ‘the city’ behind me and set out by way of Eastern Canada for the West Coast. And a boat.

Catherine Dook was born in Yellowknife where her father worked as a bush pilot. She is the author of three humour books and now lives onboard the sailing vessel Inuksuk in Cowichan Bay, B.C. with her husband. Contact catherinedook@hotmail.com to purchase her books.

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