Last report from Winnipeg

My roommates Ian, Sheri and I are sitting in the kitchen, 11 p.m., the night before I roll out of this city.

Ian and I biked to this Italian confectionary that I hadn’t ever noticed in a drab part of Winnipeg and brought home creamy, subtly-flavoured gelato and tiny, complicated pastries. It’s been a good last night.

As I started packing my bags yesterday, three months’ worth of nostalgia and fondness for Winnipeg hit me.

Two of the good friends I’m leaving are the other Free Press interns, with whom I’ve shared being a newcomer here.

Others, like Sheri and Ian, have given me a glimpse into a city where people come to live, rather than pass through, a city of several hundreds of thousands where there are few degrees of separation.

A lot of it is a concrete mess. A lot of it is beautiful neighbourhoods and elm trees. The legislature at night looks like a Greek temple.

There are streets comprised entirely of pawn shops and seedy-looking “hotels” – something to do with outdated liquor licensing. I went into one of these institutions for a story once. The regulars seemed a crass, endearing bunch. A 91-year-old cracked dirty jokes about dildos and nursery rhymes. And I learned the bar had fundraised a lot of cash for a long-time bartender who had to take time off for cancer treatment.

The traffic is aggressive and people are in a stupid hurry like in many Western cities.

The folk festival is a happy little city all to itself in a nearby provincial park, for five days. The fringe takes over downtown for a week and a half.

As for Folklorama – I didn’t love Folklorama, a festival of volunteer-run, food-and-a-show pavilions seriously underwhelming in talent – but I smugly respected all those earnest volunteers. Maybe it was a Winnipeg thing that I didn’t understand.

People are proud of living here. And most impressive, there’s this dynamism, heart, and sense of belonging despite a brutal crime record, part of deep desperation and poverty.

I’m grimly fascinated by the stories. People stabbed for a beer. Groups of kids in their early teens bludgeoning a lone man or woman to death. A drunken woman smashing a baby’s head on the pavement. Eighty-year-old widows robbed while paying their respects at a cemetery.

And the strangest of all, a brawl that Ian dubbed social Darwinism gone wrong, where people got into two vehicles and started smashing into one another. The 17-year-old girl at the wheel of one of the vehicles is charged with first degree murder in the death of a man who was run over. She also apparently inadvertently ran over her boyfriend’s mother.

Most people in the city just get on with their lives, despite the horrors. What else can you do?

I was really worried, the first time I biked home from a bar after 1 a.m. And I was a bit paranoid about leaving my parents’ car anywhere. But you learn not to leave anything visible in the car, you never leave the house unlocked, you keep an eye on whoever is walking toward you down the street. It’s not actually that dangerous.

There’s nothing like being a reporter for getting to know a new place. And the Winnipeg Free Press has made the summer for me: really kind, smart journalists who care about the city’s problems and the problems on reserves across the province. The editors gave me freedom and respect. My writing and reporting has improved, and I have a drawer full of clippings I’m so proud of.

It’s also given me a horror story turned learning experience and battle scar.

I spent one day calling what seemed like every person in a town where a crime had happened, and all the numbers seemed to be out of service. I finally found what I was looking for. I wrote the story, and moved on.

Later that week, the editor of the paper and I received a page-long letter from a family member of the victim, calling me “unethical, unconscionable” and “a vulture” taking advantage of the victim for a headline – and demanding an apology in the next day’s paper, or the family member would complain to the Manitoba Press Council.

Everything I wrote was true – though I had to make a few calls after I got the letter to be 100 per cent sure. That is unconscionable. I should have been 100 per cent sure before publication. The article itself, though, was respectful.

My editor backed me up. She also wrote a sympathetic letter to the family member, and the family member backed down.

In the end it was good for me to go through.

Speaking of the phonebook, I’ve gotten better at using it for finding people, looking for leads, asking person after person “have you ever heard of so and so?” – knowing when to abandon one route and try another — feeling so damn good when someone finally says, nonchalantly, “He’s my uncle.”

Or, more often, “He was my uncle.”

I didn’t expect to be calling so many families grieving the loss of a loved one – often, the loss of a loved one who was killed. Often, a poor or desperate person. But every time, these people who led these difficult lives were remembered with some grace and love by their families.

Being a print reporter can be solitary. I got antsy and stir crazy, in front of a computer for hours. I had to force myself to care about what I was writing about sometimes.

I lived for a month and a half of my time here in a big house by myself, often working, eating, sleeping, exercising.

I kept thinking forward, in my mind, to the beginning of September, to family and going back to school.

I think Anne of Green Gables says something like the best part about going on a trip is coming home again.

And yet, the night before I leave, my departure feels like it’s bearing down on me, like it’s pulling me away from here.

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4 thoughts on “Last report from Winnipeg

  1. We were so lucky to have had a chance to share our home with you Will. It was really bittersweet to find the summer racing to its conclusion. However, endings are always new beginnings… See you in Ottawa!!

  2. WILL!
    I LOVE THIS. Beautifully written. I had so many of these thoughts myself and you articulated it so well.

    What a wonderful, painful, shocking and hilarious three months it’s been!

    You know where to find me.

    -Meghan

  3. Sheri I was so lucky to find such roommates! Can’t wait to see you in Ottawa- OR Winnipeg.

    Meghan, thanks so much! That means a lot to me. And those four adjectives are just right for those three months. Hope all goes well in BC with your family. I’ll be in touch.

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