As in other places I've visited, I am given a temporary pass because of my status as an outsider.

By Timothy R. Trebilcock
Published May 23, 2017

My father says I have a euphemism to describe my carousing. When I say I'm goin' for a wander, what I mean is that I will walk as far as the tavern, where I drink beer, talk to strangers and fraternize with undesirables. When I argue that most of the time I just walk, he claims he can see it in my eyes when it is something more.

I like undesirables - or at least what I perceive them to have, which is a sort of freedom that comes from not being accepted. It's comforting to think people choose these paths, but they are driven as surely as the sunrise by an invisible hand. It's a brief, bright burning foisted upon regular folks through some perverted process of elimination that makes them extraordinary.

I've always felt a sort of kinship in the presence of these emissaries, but I am a tourist in my own home town. Not that I am visiting attractions in the off-season, but as in other places I've visited, I am given a temporary pass because of my status as an outsider. I am forgiven because of my naivete and stupid grin. I have developed a sense for an exit, but not for an ending.

I wander up James Street to one of the quaint new gentry bars where they make sazeracs and serve small plates. People from Toronto are moving here in droves because housing is still affordable for those with money. The influx is outwardly improving the streetscape, but too much money puts long-time residents, diversity and character at risk. The city bills art as the new steel in Hamilton, but they're also selling an image to potential clients. Many Hamiltonians who make art are leaving.

I overhear the bartender talking to a customer about the wonders of artificial intelligence. My thoughts betray my skepticism. We are already awash in intelligence that is artificial. The backlash against expertise, people calling themselves journalists because they have an opinion, anti-vaxers putting children at risk and the theory that the president of the USA only pretends to be stupid in order to negotiate effectively.

Meanwhile, institutions spend millions searching for solutions where none are needed to maintain a facade of innovation. McMaster University is spending a million dollars on technology to track academic and extracurricular activity and encourage reflection. Is this not already built into normal human function and the University experience?

I have been silent except for small talk about craft beer, but the bartender is suspicious. I lean over and ask the prospective MBA and aspiring broga instructor named Jordan how artificial intelligence will impact actual intelligence and technologies like language. He speaks in trends about disruptive artificial intelligence, Facebook, self driving cars and Air BnB changing everything. If you don't get on board you'll be left behind, he councils.

It's the same sales rhetoric used for CDs and later MP3s, but somehow we're still all buying records. What will happen to people guided by their lack of programming literacy and unwillingness to adopt fads? How will they get around? Where will they live? How will they speak? Answer these questions and you peer into the future.

The sazeracs worm their way into my heart as I pay the bill and leave. I tack back across James thinking I'll hail a cab and head back to the ranch, but I catch wind of the muffled sounds of music up ahead. The temptation proves too much. The Portuguese restaurant and deli is dark except for the house band, which is all subdued flashing reds and greens.

The deli/bar on the right-hand side is populated by bored staff, and across the room is a set of stairs descending into a dining room with two patrons sitting alone drinking Canadian and listening to Here for a Good Time. The band finishes and a kid, probably working the night shift, parks his bike in the front window and happily walks inside.

His sobriety is unsettling. When the bartender approaches to greet him he smiles preternaturally at her and stammers out an order for francesinha and fries. We talk briefly about his job as a cleaner in the mall, his love of physics and plans for the future.

After he leaves, I boldly ask the bartender why she isn't dating him. They are approximately the same age and he is clearly interested. He rides a bicycle, she jokes. I'm being incredibly patronizing, but I am also an enthusiastic patron. Hamilton's getting LRT and there are bike lanes everywhere! You can safely double ride and take transit together!

She looks at me quizzically. Mind your own business, she jeers. The stage is open, why don't you play a song? She is surprised when I pick up the house jazz guitar and muddle through a scratchy rendition of Be Here to Love Me. As I leave her expression suggests an unfathomable disappointment, yet we are friends.

I wander up to the bright, open lotteria for last call where silent TVs scream sportcentre and sweaty MMA wrestling. At 1:45 AM you can line up your drinks and leisurely finish by 2:30. Smatterings of French, Italian, Portuguese and English can be heard, but a sober native speaker would never understand this dialect.

In the mirror behind the bar I notice several people watching me, including a muscled, gap-toothed man in a plain t-shirt sitting with a similarly attired woman by the entrance. His dark skin shimmers with perspiration in the fluorescent light. The gaze is piercing and I can't look away. I know you, it says. You don't belong here anymore.

Deafening shouts, scraping chair legs and the grunts of a fight break the spell. I finish my beer and squeeze past the melee at the door. A knife is dislodged during the scuffle and I hear it clatter across the pavement outside.

At the curb I hail a cab, grab the old buck and palm it up my sleeve. It opens easily as we drive away. It is sharp, recently oiled and very well maintained. A suitable memento of my visit.

It is a Sunday drive to bhangra music through early morning city streets slick with rain. Partially lit neon signs proclaim Time for Bagel, Le Chinois and Twenty Fo Seven, all closed. I ask the driver to stop four blocks from my destination. Birds are chirping. No one must discover the location of the Big Fish Ranch. God knows it's in Hamilton, Ontario.

Timothy R. Trebilcock has been living and writing on Canada's West Coast for 25 years. He has written articles for newspapers and magazines. He currently lives between Hamilton, Ontario and Victoria, British Columbia.


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