Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Yee Haw! It's Stampede in the City

It's Stampede once again in Calgary. Wannbe cowboys dust off their boots and don their Stetsons to hit the trails, and the bars, for a foot stompin' good time in the new heart of the west. Suddenly every street side cafe is corralled off with wooden barn boards and bales of hay as the city gets down to celebrating how the west was won. In the spirit of the times, normally law abiding citizens let loose and stagger out of hotel bars at 8 am, their bellies full of sausages and eggs swirling in a bath of vodka and OJ.

Last night, I left a restaurant on 17th Avenue as dusk was settling in. The streets were still alive with Stampede revelers as I walked to my car. In the distance, I saw a man stumbling towards me. He'd obviously had a few too many at some cowboy joint down the road. His hat was askew. His gait unsteady. As he navigated the sidewalk he smiled blearily at passers-by who deftly sidestepped his unsteady progress. Like everyone else, I gave him a wide-berth. Drunken wannabe cowboy's can be unpredictable.

As the man reached an intersection, the light turned red. He didn't hesitate. He stepped off the curb and kept on walking. Brakes squealed as drivers stopped to give him safe passage. A couple of horns blared. He laughed and smiled and kept moving. He made it safely to the other side, waved at the drivers who had stopped to let him pass and kept on going. People laughed and waved back.

Hey dude! It's Stampede. It's all in the spirit of the greatest outdoor show on earth.

It's a far cry from a scene I'd witnessed earlier that day when walking to a meeting in the East Village. A couple of blocks from the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre where I work, a man whose tattered clothing easily labeled him 'visibly homeless', jay-walked on a red light. Cars slammed on brakes. Horns honked. Expletives filled the air. One man called out from his car, "____ idiot. Get off the ____ road and get back in your ____ dumpster." He didn't wait for the man to reach the other side of the road. With a gunning of his engine, he swerved around him, and peeled away in his shiny black sports car.

Stampede is a great time to celebrate the spirit of our ancestors who toughed it out on the prairies to create this great City of boundless energy and opportunity. It's a great time to saddle up to the bar and get real close to your neighbours. It's all about community spirit. It's a spirit that's hard to ignore, especially if you work in the downtown core. Conversations around water-coolers extol the revelries of the night-before; that's if you happen to even make it in to work. On every street, line-ups form outside hastily erected tents that span parking lots. Under their white plastic domes, thirsty office workers, eager to partake in the opportunity to consume their body weight in alcohol, enjoy some good ole' fashioned western hospitality before hittin' the dusty trail homeward bound.

At the DI, where we are home to 1100 people a night, we struggle to keep clients safe from the excesses they encounter on the streets during Stampede. Visibly homeless individuals are easy prey for drunken party-goers who perceive them as fair game on the open range. A man peacefully sleeping on a grassy verge may find his sleep interrupted by a citizen who, proudly sporting a sparkling tin badge on his chest, feels obliged to give the homeless guy a kick in the ass, with a slurred, "Move along there pardner. You don't belong here."

Problem is, there aren't many places for a homeless Calgarian to belong. Stampede or not, there's no place under the sun to sleep it off without the risk of coming in contact with a passer-by filled with condemnation of the seemingly dead-end choices you've made that lead you to nowhere but what they deem to be the wrong side of the street.

In our city of high spirits and sky-rocketing prices, what's sauce for the goose, is not sauce for the gander. It's okay for drunken Stampede-goers to stumble along searching for the next opportunity to get into the spirit of the wild west. It's not okay for a visibly homeless man to stumble in his quest to find a safe place to rest until he can make it back home.

That's the way it goes in the land of opportunity. If you haven't got what it takes to survive on the streets of the wild west, you'd better not fall. Someone might kick you while you're down.

But hey! Don't let it get you down. It's Stampede. Yee Haw! Have a drink pardner.