Believe it or not at one time Calgary was, and maybe still is for all I know, the friendliest city on Earth. Well at any rate, on a weekday morning in 1963 it was the friendliest place I’d been to so far in my short life. In just my first couple of hours after being dropped off by my last ride I had been given money by strangers, without my having asked anyone for anything. They could see I was on the road and could probably use a few bucks. At a downtown diner my meal was paid for by another stranger with a smiling face who’d struck up a conversation with me and decided I was worth helping out just because I came from somewhere and was going somewhere else. Where didn’t matter.
It didn’t stop. My backpack and dusty clothes were an open invitation to everyone to talk to me, give me a buck or two, or just wish me good luck. Someone mentioned that Calgary was a boom town, everybody had money, and so I supposed this in some way explains the everpresent good vibes. On the sunny sidewalk of a downtown street an older gent sidles up next to me and asks me who I am and where I’m headed. What’s your name? Smith, I say. In spite of everyone’s good nature there still lurks in me a bit of the old suspicions. Really, what’s your name, he insists. Why would you lie? So I tell him my name. You’re Jewish, aren’t you? I confess I am. Well, you should be proud and not making up names. And wherever you go in your travels you should always seek out other Jews. We help each other out. Well, I never thought about it that way before.
Walking along together we came to drycleaner, or it might have been a shoestore, or anything else. It was a long time ago. My name is Engel. This is my business, he said. Why don’t you come by at noon, I’ll take you to my home for a nice homecooked meal. I have a daughter about your age you can meet, too. Oh boy, I thought. Is this the end of the road for me?
I went back at noon and we drove way out to god knows where. Calgary seemed so huge and empty. We drove past nothing in the way of bars, clubs, joints, or anything, like a vast suburban nowhere. This man was obviously a nice guy and generous but he kept driving in his point about sticking with my own kind. Till then I didn’t even realize I had a kind. But there it was. Avoid strangers, he added. It became clear that by “strangers” he meant gentiles. I kept my mouth shut. Well, he’s an older guy, probably survived the war in Europe, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. But inside I was thinking, why travel the world if I’m only going to stick with one kind?
His wife cooked up the best meal i’d had in weeks. Maybe months. Engel licked his lips and got up from the table. I have to get back to work but you can stay a while and relax. Come see me later. His daughter and I retired to the livingroom. Sad to say she was not the least bit attractive to me. A little on the plump side with a plain doughy face but she was sweet as could be. We talked about jazz of all things and what else I can’t remember. Plans for the future, no doubt. I wish I could have dug her more. Was the old man in a hurry to unload her? Imagine bringing home a hobo – Jewish hobo, but a hobo – to have lunch and sit in the livingroom with his zaftig princess. Well, she was nice and I hope today she’s a happy jazz-loving grandmother but I got up and she told me where to get the bus back downtown. I stood on a hot summer streetcorner in an empty Calgary wasteland till the bus came, then wandered around and went back to the drycleaner’s as requested. Or shoestore.
I own an apartment building, Engel told me. There’s always an empty apartment. Go see the manager, Mrs Monk, and she’ll let you in. You can stay as long as you want. Mrs Monk! I hoped she was distant cousin of the jazz genius, but it was not so. I wandered around Calgary the rest of the day and believe it or not ran into Murray and a little later the rest of the guys with whom I’d recently shared a bit of my westward journey. I was the King of the Road that day because I actually got us an apartment. Later that night the five of us went to the apartment and crashed. There was no furniture and we were all sprawled out on the carpeted floor the next morning when we were woken up by the sound of a key in the lock. The door creaked open and, after a short pause, creaked back shut. We all got up and a while later Engel was there demanding the return of the key. Monk had turned us in. I trusted you and you betrayed me . . . you let “strangers” stay in my apartment. It was clear what he meant by “strangers”.
Dale and I decided to head west and made it to Banff within a couple of hours where we soon hooked up again with the others for further adventures in the real world, involving breaking and entering, another eviction, mountain climbing, and a night in jail, to be revealed in an upcoming episode.