In Moose Jaw. What Now?
MOOSE JAW, Saskatchewan- Al Capone used to source whiskey from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. It would be made from grain grown out in those endless central Canadian plains, distilled, and smuggled via train over the border to Minneapolis and then find its way down to Chicago.
It was a prime example of transit-oriented development: the emergence of a rail line and a station gave impetus for a new industry …
Whatever the case, that was the first and last time anyone had a reason to talk about Moose Jaw.
I stopped in Moose Jaw for the night partly because it’s called Moose Jaw. Better than Regina, I guess. So we pulled off Highway 1 and crept through a town that still had the patina of its wild west days. As we slowly rolled down a main street that had old brick three-story buildings on both sides and decorative street lights of well twisted steel, I vaguely remembered Ron McLean talking about hockey players from “out in Moose Jaw” when I was a kid, tuning into Hockey Night in Canada on my small 10″ television that I would watch under the cover of blankets so my mother wouldn’t know I was still awake watching fantasizing about how I would move to Toronto when I grew up. I named my dog Gilmour.
I guess I should probably point out that I could only get reception from stations across the lake …
Moose Jaw is still playing up the Capone connection and its bad town history. But the veneer is very thin. It’s 6 pm and nothing is open — clearly the rum runners have left little more of a legacy than a few murals and that gangster car suspended over the sign for my motel.
I tried to buy some mead from a local honey shop but a young woman met me at the door. “Sorry, but we just closed.”
“But I just want that bottle of mead right there.”
“Sorry, but I just shut down the register.”
No mead for me. I walked down the street dejected but still feeling good. The sun was shinning and pretty diffused colorful evening light came down from the three story brick buildings above. The town had a real main street, and it kind of reminded me of my hometown on the Erie Canal. Everything closes early there too.
A bald guy suddenly walked across in front of me and tried to open the door of a cafe but was stonewalled. It was locked.
“Everything’s closed!” he bellowed with a big laugh.
Even for locals this came off as kind of ridiculous amid the shining sun and t-shirt weather of summer. During the dark days of winter when nobody wants to be in the streets anyway this may have come off as a little more practical.
“You know,” he went on, “I used to own a second hand vintage shop down the street that would stay opened to 9pm. People would come and hang out there late in the day not because they were interested in buying anything but because there was nowhere else to go.”
He told me that he was a musician. I took some portraits of him. He gave me one of his CDs.
I was drawn to the Capone Hideaway Motel because it seemed like a real shit hole — a place that could be best described with one of the most lovely phrases of travel, “It has character.”
These are the kinds of places that I like staying in. These are the places with the stories — real and imagined — the interesting clientele, and the highest probability of having something happen to you in them. There are few things worse than having nothing happen to you — you may as well stay at home.
My my wife freaks out in these places. She’s become kind of a princess, freaking out about the dead bugs that are all over the floor, freaking out about the curly pubes pressed neatly in the sheets, freaking out about the Sikh owner spraying insecticide out of a spray bottle everywhere.
Says she’s going to sleep out in the car. It’s cleaner out there, she claims.
She’s probably right, but I don’t care. This place was exactly what I was after.
I have to admit that the full size old fashioned car they attached on top of a pole over their sign which had a likeness of Al Capone painted on it drew me in. It was my guess that the motel was built in the empty lot of a demolished older building sometime in the 80s. It’s existence seemed rather obtuse: a motel in the center of downtown.
Across the street from it was the entrance to Moose Jaw’s rum smuggling tunnels. People say Capone hung out there. They may as well — there’s not much else to tell visitors about this place.
Behind the motel was the Park Hotel, which was once called the Royal George — one of Moose Jaw’s landmark sites of past and present debauchery.
It was still early but I walked in anyway. The bar seemed to have been built out of an old ballroom. The room was huge and dark, ceiling was at least two stories high, and there was a rectangular old wooden bar in the middle of the place, sitting there kind of like a boxing ring in some kind of small underground stadium. I walked into the dimly lit void, looked around, and quickly scurried away. There was nobody else there, and lost my nerve.
I went to the casino. I lost $60 Canadian. I didn’t think it was possible to get so many 15s in one session of Black Jack, but apparently it is. I left feeling empty, like most people probably feel when leaving a casino. What now?
The bar across the street from my motel had already had their last call by the time I walked in. A sign on the wall said that Capone used to drink here. These days they close at 9 pm.
I went back to the King George. The place was still dimly lit and empty, but a young bartender in cut off booty shorts was behind the bar with her legs kicked up on a chair. She was busy reading a novel. I ordered a Molson and made small talk.
By the time my pint was pushed over to me I figured I’d be better off catching up on my notes. I wrote about a day of traveling across the central Canadian plains. It didn’t take too long.
A bald guy walked up and ordered a drink. I nodded and said hello. He was in his late 30s, seemed intense — kind of strange, perhaps. He bought me a shot and told me about how he moved to Moose Jaw from Medicine Hat four years ago to work at golf course.
“Then I get here and realize that the job is seasonal. What am I supposed to do the other eight months of the year?”
How does Moose Jaw compare with Medicine Hat?
“It’s a lot quieter.”
“But there’s a lot of friendly people. I just spent the day walking around talking to people.”
“There’s a lot of junkies.”
“Yes, but I consider anyone who does any drug a junkie. If you smoke pot, to me you’re a junkie. That’s just how I role.”
He seemed agitated, as if something was going on with him. His answers to my questions were short and curt. I would think that he didn’t really want to talk to me if it wasn’t for the fact that he made the effort at the onset. He clearly had something he needed to say. I pressed. He told me about how a couple guys got into a pretty bloody fight in the bar that he manages and how he fears he’s going to get reprimanded for it.
“I’m getting in trouble because someone opened up someone else’s lip.”
His boss told him to go out and get drunk tonight and they’d talk about it the next day. He was doing what he was told.
Everybody knows each other here. Gordie, Dean, and Hank are getting wasted in the smoking area in the back. Their friends are gambling in the mini casino that’s in a partitioned off room in the corner.
Gordie stumbled up to the bar and mumbled something to the bartender. She yelled at him. He somehow managed to walk down the long corridor to the door and fell out onto the street. The bartender turned and looked at me. “I’ve seen Gordie everyday for the four years that I’ve worked here.”
I went out to the smoking cage in the back and met Ken and Hank. Ken was a fireman. Hank was a farmer. They were both at the end of their careers, retired, and looking for what’s next.
Hank said he was going to sell his farm and move to Belize or somewhere in Asia. I recommended Asia. He said that he had some friends who tried that “but they didn’t come back too healthy, if you know what I mean.”
Hank said he just came over to get a box of wine. “She’s in the mood for a box of wine tonight?” hahaha. But he ended up hanging out for hours.
They gave me an intro to Saskatchewan: “Saskatchewan is bigger than California but California has more people than all of Canada.”
They told me a Saskatchewan joke: “We don’t fear our dogs running way here, because if he did all we’d have to do is go outside and look for him. Even if he ran for three days we’d still be able to see him.” hahaha.
Saskatchewan is flat and empty.
I told them that I was from Buffalo.
“You guys used to have a football team there, right?” Hank continued giving me a full course on Saskatchewan humor.
Ken said that his first football game was in Buffalo. His wife bought him tickets. The Packers lost. He was pissed. The Bills used to win back then.
Ken told me that he’d been a firefighter for 20-something years. You should never ask a firefighter his stories. You may expect heroics but what you end up with is tragedy — stories of decapitated dudes and the like. It’s a good way to damper the mood of an otherwise jovial drinking night.
“I have so many stories that you could write a book,” he turned to me and said.
He told e that his dad died when he was young and he was raised by his uncle. It wasn’t a stable place to be but he found refuge in the gym.
“You’re looking at the former Mr. Saskatchewan,” Hank interjected. “Show him the pictures.”
Ken passed his phone over to me with an old photo of him posing in a competition on it. He was the first Mr. Saskatchewan and also reigned for a while as Mr. Western Canada.
We talked for a while more, heard some good stories, and then Hank remembered that he was out on an errand to get some wine for him and his wife. Ken disappeared. I went and took a leak and when I came out the bar was empty again. I stood at the bar and talked with the bartender.
“Where do you go for fun?” I asked, not wanting to go back to my dead bug strewn motel room just yet.
“Right here,” she quickly responded. “I can get drunk and dance on the tables here and nobody cares.”
I smiled and looked across the barely lit empty tables that undulated around the ballroom. Moose Jaw was done.