raider in canada:
portrait of sean martin

a documentary by Randy A. Riddle


First Impressions of Calgary

The road to Calgary from North Carolina is a little deceptive. Strangely, one must first fly to Dallas/Forth Worth and, in that mini-city of an airport, the flight connects to Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver or one of many other western Canadian cities. This shouldn't be a surprise; afterall the city of Calgary has been described by some as the "closest in temperament" to a United States city. If Calgary has a "sister city" south of the border, it would probably be Dallas-Fort Worth.

Flying into Dallas, one passes over the vast well laid out grids of farms and plains, and their oil, railroads and crackerbox suburban spread houses neatly arranged like pieces on a Monopoly board. Heading into Calgary is much the same, but in a different stage of development. Calgary is a boom town. The first boom of the last decade was oil and Texans began calling the city home. Calgary is the only city where the Canadian economy is doing well--my host Sean told me that the population of the city has increased by half in the last year alone.

The first impression of the city after you land on your own two feet is one of a city that really wants to make you feel at home. Just as you leave the gate to head towards customs, you must go down a fairly large escalator. Above the convenience is a large banner, "Welcome to Calgary", and a flock of life-sized stuffed Canadian geese hanging from the ceiling. I couldn't tell if the geese were real or an artist's facsimile, but just as I passed underneath the geese, I noted that the airport was playing a recording of the honking birds to get you in the mood. Come to think of it, maybe these were loons hanging over the escalator -- I'm not really sure.

After the smiling faces at customs (contrasting with the unsmiling faces of the US customs officials), you head for the home stretch -- a set of double-doors that takes you into the main part of the airport and closer to your car, a taxi, a rickshaw or whatever device will get you back in the real world. But, there's one more uniquely Canadian touch -- as the double-doors open, you see that the airport is all decked out in a kind of Western theme. A split rail fences cordon off areas of the airport, cows, cowboy hats and boots predominate. And right there waiting at the double doors is a Calgary resident holding some brochures and thrusting out a warm handshake and saying "Welcome to Calgary -- if you need anything just let us know." Later, Sean told me that these greeters at the airport are drawn from a pool of volunteers and many of the folks are local retired residents. Well, I know one thing -- these greeters seemed allot more enthusiastic and genuine than the ladies who thrust flyers in your face at the local WalMart.

There, just beyond the greeter, standing next to the split-rail fence was Sean. We hadn't seen each other in about three years. He had dropped by for a week one summer after we had hooked up with each other over the Internet -- I gave him a whirl-wind tour of Winston-Salem, carting him up to Mount Airy so he could see the Snappy Lunch, a little landmark for the Andy Griffith Show. Now, he was playing host to me while I shot a documentary about his work and I got to see a Gay rodeo for the first time. Seemed like a fair trade. He swooped me up off the floor in big bear hug and I wondered how such a sensitive, artistic Canadian guy that looked so innocent could be that strong. But, that's a story for another day.

Traffic is the big problem in Calgary -- Sean hurried to get home before the 3:00 pm gridlock that would engulf downtown. There's public transportation -- a bus system and above ground subway that, according to my host, doesn't run often enough. Driving through downtown, I was impressed with the clean, modern look of the city. The skyline is broken by tall mirrored skyscrapers that are home to the oil and banking industries in Calgary.

I noticed that the city was all decked out for the upcoming Calgary Stampede -- the annual "straight" rodeo event that occurs one week after the Gay rodeo every year, the biggest event in the province. One ten story building was painted with a giant mural of a cowboy; a different one is painted there each year, according to Sean. Seems like every storefront in downtown has large cartoon rodeo characters painted in the windows to herald the coming of the big rodeo event. Sean told me that the Stampede pretty much closes down the city for a few days as the city celebrates the traditional event in a big way.

Businesses in downtown Calgary decked out for the Calgary Stampede; a boon for window artists each year.
(c) copyright Randy A.Riddle 

Sean and his partner live in the southwest part of the city, not that far away from downtown. It's an older, quieter part of town. Small "mom and pop" coffee shops, clothing and grocery stores dot the neighborhood. The housing is a mix of more recent small suburban houses from the fifties and sixties with the occasional Victorian-era house. But, there seems to be no escaping the States, even while I was hours away from the US border -- there were two (count 'em TWO) Blockbuster video stores within a couple of blocks of each other and, of course, the ever-present Starbucks just up the street from Sean's house. The neighborhood reminded me a bit of any liberal college town you would see here in the Southern US, but with allot less graffiti.

Sean and his partner had just bought the house a few weeks before I arrived and they were still moving in, a large Victorian home that they were hoping to refurbish and turn into a bed and breakfast. But amidst the laid-back feeling of this little neighborhood was a city bursting at the seams -- newspapers were running articles about the shortage of low-income housing in Calgary. Sean's partner was going to sell his old house in a few weeks and he noted that it wasn't unusual for a house to go on the market and sell the same day in the city.

A work produced in colored chalk by a teenage street artist just a few blocks from Sean's house.  (An interview with the artist as he creates the work is seen in the Supplements section at the end of the documentary video tape.)
(c) Randy A. Riddle

Sean had raved about Calgary for months in our many telephone calls and email exchanges. After only a few hours, I began to see what he liked about the place. Calgary felt more laid back and friendly than Toronto, where I had attended a conference a few months before. More importantly, the city felt like a strange paradox -- almost like the little cow town that was taking everyone by surprise, combining the heritage of its Western past with a high-tech future. Only time will tell if Calgary can handle the massive pace of growth and still keep its unique character. At least they're off to a good start.

Randy A. Riddle, June.1998, 3.15.99