February 17, 2010

The ink-worthy Wells

Ack. Sorry about the delay on this one, folks. I had to screen it through the censorship police.

Just kidding, obviously. I'm not one of the free-speech-oppressed journalists of Iran or China or Vancouver.

Anyway, here's a little piece of my work trip to Norman Wells last month. There were many more pieces, but I won't give them away.

When I asked him what people were talking about around town, Larry got up from the table and disappeared from the café so abruptly I thought he must be fed up with all my questions. Then, a few seconds later, he reappeared with a clipboard and a black pen and started making a list of the most pressing issues facing the 800 residents of Norman Wells.

I shouldn't have been surprised. I'd landed at the airport of this little industry town one latitudinal degree below the Arctic Circle less than 48 hours earlier but it didn't take long to figure out what kind of people this place – The Wells – made a home for.

Just off the plane, I stopped by the window outside the arrivals gate, wondering about the giant grey van idling driverless at the curb. A stencil of a sleepy teddy bear peeked out from under tucked covers below a red emblazoned RAYUKA INN logo on the side door. And then, in front of me, was a tall, thin, mid-50s man in a ball cap and a baggy jacket. Eyes tired but kind behind rounded glasses. Smiling slightly, unassuming. Larry.

"Are you with News North?"

I didn't ask him how he knew. The answer would have been obvious. Mine was the only face he didn't recognize.

Larry and his wife, Carla – who welcomes me with a hearty handshake, laughing brightly to match her short burgundy hair and emerald eyeshadow – have been running this hotel since "before you were born." The way they are together seems rare, like they've been together all day and all night for all of their lives and they've never run out of things to talk about. In both ways they have, and they haven't.

They tell me about the town, a little, as I pop through the café on the way in or out to one of many excursions over the course of the week. No gossip, though. Not quite what I expected. They tell me about themselves, a little more, as I sit down with them for a late lunch at a table between the colouring-page-plastered help yourself drink cooler and the Keno lottery counter. One of them's always rushing up to "whoo-hoo" a ticket, sell a newspaper, ring up an order to go, check on the kitchen staff. The lunch break rush is over; now it's back to the regular afternoon rush. The place is small – only four or five tables – but everybody's just passing through, saying hello, grabbing a cup of coffee.

"Just stay in this spot," Larry chuckles as he gets up again, hurrying to answer the phone, "and you'll get all the news you need."

I look around. He's right, of course. To be a fly on this wall, amid the cutesy painted wooden placards with their kitschy sayings lamenting non-existent maids and know-it-all teenagers. For the record, no question I could ask and no answer I could jot down in my reporter's notebook would be news to anyone here. If they want to know the state of the town's affairs, they can ask the mayor directly. He comes in here for breakfast every morning.

By now Larry's flipped two ruled sheets over the back of his clipboard, scrawling a fresh page of news tips, most of which would never have occurred to me. Some reporter I am. I feel I've been missing out, and I tell him so.

"You wereeen't heeeere!" he sing-songs, making me laugh, making me forget for a moment my inadequacies. I can't argue with that.

"But I hope I can come back soon," I tell him.

And I mean it.

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