Of all the jobs I took that summer,” Karen Solie writes in her poem “Park Place,” “selling franchise coffee in the mall food court on weekends was the worst.” Unfortunately, I can relate. Eight summers ago, like Solie, I too took a job at Park Place, a mall which has only one legitimate claim to fame: having provided eponymous inspiration for one of Solie’s most powerful poems. “Park Place” is a first-hand account of Lethbridge and it is, moreover, a beautifully articulate, heartrendingly accurate indictment of the mall, the city and the culture of small-mindedness that paradoxically flourishes in that big-sky corner of the world.
Eight years ago, the first time I worked at Park Place, I was a freshly graduated 18-year-old employed at Le Château. Despite having no retail experience, I was hired because, when the manager asked if I had any favourite designers, I had the wherewithal to namedrop Karl Lagerfeld—and because I was obviously gay (although I was not yet out), so, like, I must be good at fashion, right? The second time I worked at Park Place was much, much worse. This was three years later, the summer before I graduated university. I needed to supplement my income from a local tea shop, so I applied at Pier 1 Imports, thinking, I like poufs, how bad can it be?
Solie captures the depressing realities of the routine at Park Place with forensic fidelity. “By noon,” her speaker recalls, the mall “would fill with transients, slackers, the mentally ill, and residents of the seniors’ complexes that ringed the commercial developments.” When I worked there, seniors did walking rounds of the mall’s wide, warm hallways in the early hours of the winter months as a means of getting their daily exercise. There was also the perennial infestation of “mall rats,” my father’s pejorative for the greasy, pinched-looking kids he used to be terrified I might become. I wasn’t permitted to go to Park Place unaccompanied as an adolescent, lest I should—what? Take up skateboarding? Buy skinny jeans?
Solie goes on to briskly describe the food court, holding the object of her study at arm’s length, not quite out of disgust or repugnance, but with an air of wary detachment. “The place was like a terminal for the last bus out,” her speaker remembers, with “its chairs and tables bolted to each other, then the floor, and subtly canted to encourage turnover. It didn’t work. Morale was at an all-time low.” No wonder: bad food fuels ill will.
Next, Solie widens her lens, pivoting to Lethbridge at large through her reference to that “Bible Belt city”—an apt descriptor for an epicentre of many amazingly diverse religions. Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Dutch Reformists, Hutterites and Mennonites all call Lethbridge home. There is also a synagogue, a strong First Nations presence and, in recent years, an influx of Muslim refugees and immigrants. Lethbridge should be proud that so many contradictory creeds coexist there so peaceably. But it’s also true that, as Solie notes, beneath its amicable surface the city rankles with “aggressions fuelled by resentment.” Lethbridge is a typical small-town Canadian city. Its inhabitants are polite, neighbourly, unambitious and usually devout. They are also repressed, passive-aggressive, gossipy and surprisingly vindictive to anyone who dares to stick their neck out above the crowd.
We wanted to party. In Lethbridge, like shopping and church, drinking is a foremost pastime. Karen Solie knows this all too well.
The average Lethbridgian is abandoned to a city where often it seems there is quite literally nothing to do but go to church or shop. Ironically, considering that Lethbridge is a farming town, the absurd cycles of consumerism to which Solie alludes—buy, take home, return, buy more—read like a postmodern parody of the pagan harvest cycles. Though Lethbridge is a place of wild natural beauty, no Romantic experience of nature is available to—or sought out by—the denizens of Solie’s poem. Instead, the banal rhythms and decadent values of Park Place corrupt the citizens, so that the mall becomes a synecdoche for Lethbridge as a whole, and the consumer mindset the psychological paradigm of the city’s inhabitants. Hypocrites, or victims? Solie offers no easy answers.
Instead she continues her tour of Lethbridge, describing how, on “nights at the Alec Arms or Coal Banks Inn,” the “multiplying glasses” of her speaker and her friends “made of the table a fractured lens we looked through to our better selves.” I myself never patronized either Arms or Inn. Just down 5th Street from those questionable establishments, however, were other watering holes where I did frequently multiply glasses of my own. There was Bordello, the first iteration of Club Didi, Lethbridge’s revolutionary queer theatre venue; the Owl, an acoustic bar; and a knock-off Studio 54, a disgusting nightclub that swarmed with undergraduates each Thursday night and decidedly did not live up to the reputation of the original. One night, shortly after I’d gone home, someone was shot on the dance floor. But my friends and I did not take danger seriously. We were eighteen, nineteen, twenty. We wanted to party. In Lethbridge, like shopping and church, drinking is a foremost pastime.
Solie knows this all too well. The poem offers a telling anecdote:
a regular picked his friend up from the filthy rug to see him
home, and with an arm about his shoulders, aiming for the door,
drove his face into the frame so that they fell together, still
embracing, like partners in a vicious sport, we laughed with the rest,
senselessly, even as it threatened to expose the vacant hours
we poured our own lives into, that stood in for youth.
This episode evokes in me a bittersweet nostalgia for the “vacant hours” of my own youth. I have not disavowed, in my melancholy heart of hearts, the places, people or experiences that made me who I am, however eagerly I left Lethbridge behind when it finally came time. In a conflicted way, I’m proud of my hometown. I know I’m lucky to hail from such a safe and comfortable part of the world. I had a privileged childhood. My friends and I were the children of middle-class, professional parents. It is possible, in Lethbridge, to prosper. For those who do, goodness, happiness and freedom are abundant. But before one can prosper, one must first fit in. One must accommodate oneself to the prevailing social mores.
No, I was not economically disadvantaged, and I was not in a religious or ethnic minority, but, as a closeted gay teenager, I nevertheless did not “fit in.” I was always an outsider, observing from the sidelines. My privileged upbringing meant I could luxuriate in artistic and intellectual pleasures. I mastered what I now recognize as ironical postures and Wildean denouncements as a means of armouring myself in a brittle shell of self-satisfied superiority. The grim detachment of Solie’s speaker is an all-too-familiar outlook: “I can’t say we were not happy in those days, though I didn’t fully understand what qualifies, and still don’t.”
My first apartment was a small bachelor in a converted turn-of-the-century bank overlooking Galt Gardens. This makes it sound far more glamorous than it was. Its equivalent in Toronto or Vancouver would be unaffordable, but in Lethbridge it was relatively cheap, firstly because my landlady was also my boss and gave me a break on the rent, and secondly because the downtown was and probably still is considered the sketchiest part of the city. 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Streets as well as 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Avenues: these are “the streets” that Solie characterizes as places of “constant wind, blowing grit, offensive drivers and unwed mothers,” with “cops in surgical gloves bullying Natives in Galt Gardens.”
There is now a concerted effort to revitalize downtown, to bring fresh and vital energy to the city, and even to take better care of the city’s disenfranchised populations, from the LGBTQ+ community to the long-maltreated First Peoples, some of whom live there and many of whom visit from the nearby Kainai Reserve. It remains true, however, that I have never seen racism more egregious than the racism I encountered on the streets of my hometown. Nor have I personally encountered graver homophobia.
Lethbridge is suffused with the unsaid. It is a city of repressions. There is no true forum, no agora, no civilized public space in which to speak one’s mind without fear of repercussion. By and large, people are either apathetic or polarized. The 2017 mayoral debate was a showcase of astonishing incompetence that would have been hysterical were it not so utterly sad. With leaders like that, who needs followers?
Many of the locals likely to help break Lethbridge out of its complacency can no longer do so, because they are no longer locals. One can hardly blame them for leaving. Why stick around? Why risk turning “angry and mean” like the men in Solie’s poem, or risk becoming “secretive, adept at spin, experts engaged in a life’s work at 23,” like the women? I know men like this. I know women like this.
Yes, in Lethbridge it is possible to thrive. There is a strong sense of community, if you can mould yourself to the demands of the majority. It is a secure and healthy place to raise a family. The Oldman River, rolling coulees, vast sky and nearby mountains are all humbling in their constant, unchanging beauty. Indeed, I suspect that that very constancy, that very immutability, provides a sense of safety and purpose for those who are happy to call Lethbridge home. The landscape itself is conservative. It is so flat, so huge, and in winter, so cruel, that it can feel inhumane, unliveable—even prehistoric. Through time, for better and for worse, Lethbridge stays the same.
For the counterculture, too, there are valid reasons to stay. The strength of the repressions invites an equally strong resistance. Club Didi remains one of the most unapologetically queer spaces I have ever encountered. The Southern Alberta Art Gallery, locked in a staring match with Park Place from across Galt Gardens, is a vital institution, as is the nonsensically titled Casa, the lovely community arts building. There is a public library, a theatre, a symphony—all those precious public goods. And, of course, plenty of fine people in Lethbridge are doing important work—in education, the arts, social justice and community outreach, healthcare and many other fields, including the trades, industry and agriculture.
And yet, despite the strong sense of community, countercultural or otherwise; despite the artistic and civic endeavours that manage to survive; despite my friends and family and loved ones who remain, I always knew I would one day have to leave. And then, one day, I did.
Maybe I’m simply the odd one out. Maybe it’s merely my own emotional baggage (which I carried away with me) that prompted me to leave. I know Lethbridge is not the only stubborn hometown that incites such ambivalence—hatred and love in equal measure. Canada is rife with cities like Lethbridge. There are Park Place Malls everywhere.
Solie’s poem concludes with a declaration of the speaker’s slowly acquired resolve:
Amid the fragrance of yellow grasses, pelicans elbowing into
the water, in my awareness of my last days in that town, I resolved, henceforth, wherever I was, to be ready to leave without warning.
Here at last we have some mention of nature, of something resembling beauty, whose unpretentious influence opens like a door an as-yet-unconsidered possibility: why not get the hell out? Why not run away? And yet the speaker doesn’t leave. She says with conviction that she’s “ready to leave without warning,” but will she? This question the poem cannot answer. The title becomes a bad pun. Park Place. A place where you park it. The way things have always been, and always will be.
I saw recently on Instagram that the gift shop at SAAG now carries sweaters that announce, in block letters, “STILL IN LETHBRIDGE.” They are the brainchild of the company Still in Town, which makes similar merchandise about Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Their tagline? “We love it. We hate it. We’re still here.” Of course, there are no Still in Town sweaters for Paris or New York or Vancouver, the city where I now live. Presumably, those are not cities where “people love/hate the fact that they’re right where they are.” They are, it would seem, the cities one loves to love. They are the cities one leaves home for.
Liam Monaghan is a writer, theatre artist and educator originally from Lethbridge. His plays have been produced across Canada.