Still breathing but barely

Some years ago, I spent a lost evening exploring the city in my parents’ station wagon. I was bored and poor, and this seemed as good an option as any to entertain a 20-something Winnipegger on a cold spring night. It was still winter, really, the dirty snow clung stubbornly to the ground, yet it was warm enough to buy a Slurpee.

Because that’s what you do in Winnipeg.

A handful of CDs were in the glove compartment. My brother had left some of his there from the last time he’d borrowed the car (yes, we’re both fully-grown adults who don’t own our own vehicles and regularly mooch off our parents. It’s more green that way?). One of them was the Weakerthans’ Left & Leaving.

Like any good introverted, bookish Winnipeg youth, I’d been a big fan of the Weakerthans for years. I went to their concerts, I cheered them on like a sports team.

They were my Manitoba Moose (the Jets were lousy anyway, and still are).

Is there any better soundtrack for a night of disenfranchised, pointless driving in a city you’re not sure how to feel about?

I was surprised to remember all the words; I knew them like I knew the layout I drove.

Navigating Portage, from downtown to the West End to St. James, knowing which intersections had red light cameras, which were landmarks on the way to friends’ homes.

There was comfort in those lyrics, and in those streets. They meant home.

Winnipeg is home. It’s where your friends are, your family. Your local hangouts – the neighbourhood bar whose signage boasts a tarot card reader who has yet to appear. The music store that recently amalgamated with the video store. There’s familiarity there.

Winnipeg is the right size for a lot of people, or at least people like me. It’s big enough to occasionally lose yourself. Small enough that you’ll always run into someone you know to reel you back in. The strangers whose faces you know.

But then there’s the bad stuff. The stuff that prevents us from getting too proud of ourselves. The poorly laid-out streets that make it hard for any non-vehicled person to get around. Our collective negativity – an attitude that screams if you’re not with us, you’re against us. And if you ever express any positivity about our city, you’re against us. It’s hard to feel good about Winnipeg when the prevailing attitude is that of grumpiness and a distaste for change and progress.

More than that, however, are the real problems. Winnipeg is home to the second poorest riding in Canada. We see a lot of serious crime. Our downtown suffers and the suburbs sprawl.

What keeps me optimistic is the sheer number of good people in this city. Passionate people who are pouring their energy and education into making Winnipeg better. They’re running car co-ops, they’re playing music, they’re writing stories and opening independent coffee shops and embracing all that makes this city weird and wonderful.

They’re volunteering, or working for peanuts at non-profits. They’re growing organic vegetables and running farmers’ markets. They’re making those less-than-desirable neighbourhoods more desirable, if only through their presence and awareness and positivity.

Maybe they’ve been hardened by this city and come through it, and are using their experiences to inform a more positive way of living.

My city’s still breathing, barely it’s true.

But I think that through the hard work of these individuals we have good reason to be optimistic.

The next time you’re feeling down about your city, do as I do. Reflect on how good we have it. And if you don’t think we have it good, be active. Don’t give up on Winnipeg just yet.

Borrow your parents’ car, listen to music that makes you sentimental for your teenage years, and contemplate Winnipeg’s positives. And maybe buy yourself a Slurpee.

Laina Hughes is a writer from Winnipeg. Pick up a copy of her book Wolseley Stories at McNally Robinson.

Published in Volume 68, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 18, 2013)

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