Even if neighbors claim â€œMichigan doesn't count", Patience Wieland will remain a Midwestern transplant
wherever she goes, intrigued by how place shapes perception. Moving for school, work and marriage, she
lived in seven climates in ten years. Today, her home is a rough-cut gem - somewhat unfairly described as
"Los Angeles traffic with the weather of Calcutta" - Houston, Texas. Her written credits include The Montreal
Gazette, Parting Gifts, The Aurorean, a syndicated column on pop culture, and a series for the Old California
Gazette, where she won a San Diego Press Club award. She runs a small business dedicated to classic film,
television and audio drama http://www.noirdame.com and http://www.martianroom.com
The Flag Man
There is a man who peddles his wares on College Street, and sometimes on Queen -- I think it is the same man. I'm never
sure because it's not him that strikes my memory, it's his shopping cart, packed to the gills with flags of every kind and
every country. I should remember his face more clearly, but it's hard not to stare at all the flags laying against one
another, a mound of cordwood and color.
I got close to him once, running across the street, heading for Fran's Diner after a long Friday, and a pile of work that
never seemed to end. I was hungry and completely single-minded, thinking of a Franburger and what I'd put on the
The flag man hissed at me, "You wanna buy a flag?" and I'm afraid I glanced only momentarily at his price list and then his
T-shirt, white with a grey burn under one armpit like he'd been carrying a newspaper. He smelled of sweat, in that stale
way that some men have -- a kind of dry, dirty aura hanging around them. And I kept walking; I didn't even smile at the
man. Or really look at any of the nylon flags, this time.
I went into Fran's then, taking a booth and then ordering a burger. Call me easily entertained, but I'd looked forward to a
quiet dinner all through the workday. I really needed to slow down, eat, and daydream. Holding onto my wallet, I walked
over to the jukebox, dunking my quarters in and selecting half a dozen songs, then returned to my booth.
"You like David Bowie, huh? Me and Brett are working on his new ISP. You know what an ISP is?" One of the men across
from me was talking.
I hadn't even made eye contact with him. Unfortunately, there was no one else in the restaurant for him to bother. Tired, I
stared at the aqua vinyl seat across from me. Empty, except for the bag and books I had scooted into the seat. Empty,
but when you eat by yourself a lot, you stop thinking about it. Absently, I nodded yes. But slow enough that I hoped he'd
get the picture. I smiled at the waitress when my food arrived.
But the stranger kept pushing. "An ISP is a service provider for the Internet, where you can get email and a web browser."
And then he smiled silkily, and said in a familiar-I've-got-your-number-tone, "But I suppose a girl your age would probably
be hooked up through your university." He paused. "Do you go to the University of Toronto?"
Surprised at the intrusion, and not really believing it, I turned and looked at both of them briefly, then faced my plate
again, as I continued to chew.
Brett, who I guess was his blond friend, was playing with his mashed potatoes, ignoring both of us a bit too studiously.
Both men had some sort of laminated pass on a string around their neck, like they were roadies for a concert. Brett didn't,
on first sight, seem so bad: he was probably my age or a little younger, on an internship.
The other guy was aggressively ordinary -- brown hair, brown eyes, brown khakis, gold ring. I pegged him the kind of guy
who goes on a business trip away from his family and bravely makes passes in the courtesy shuttle at O'Hare. I could just
visualize the last, tired businesswoman, listening to his monotone, rolling her head back against the seat rest. As the van
makes figure eights, the exhaust drowns out his pickup lines, and she clutches her case.
I had no such luck. The questions continued.
"Where are you from?"
I tried to focus on my plate of food. I wondered idly what his name was, as he droned on steadily, reminding me strangely
of the father's lectures on The Brady Bunch.
Brett was a pretty, antebellum sort of name for a Southern gentleman with manners. How accurate. This other man would
have a deceptively friendly, middle-of-the-road name, like Gary or Bill. And he kept talking, and word by word, the tone
seemed less and less friendly, more demanding.
"Do you live in Toronto?"
"Do you like it here?"
Chewing slowly on the burger, I tried to focus on the taste, the soft deterioration of the sesame bun against the top of my
mouth. He took my silence, or I should say my chewing, for a yes.
He shook his head, extending his palms upwards, like a parent detailing the mistakes of a child. "I can't understand why a
nice girl like you would want to be in such a big city."
I glared at him.
"Isn't it dangerous here for a woman?" GaryBill continued. "I'd never let my daughter live in a city of this size."
Oh, that tore it. "Toronto is pretty safe," I said, in a tone that meant to end the conversation. I got up and looked for a
newspaper. I prayed that at least one copy of the Star had been left behind. I came back with Thursday's -- but thank
God, it was the largest one. Lots to read.
The James Brown song I'd put on the jukebox was fading out now, but I hadn't really had a chance to enjoy it. As I sat
down and began unfolding the depths of newsprint across the table, the brown-haired man cleared his throat.
He announced, "I suppose at your age, I can understand wanting to live in such a large place. But when you grow up," the
man continued, "you want to live in a good decent place. Like where we're from, in Iowa."
Brett's face was flushed, and he started forking his coleslaw passionately.
I understood now. The brown-haired man not only thought I was a naÃ¯ve teenybopper, but the descendant of Tories --
presumably kicked next door, tails between their legs. Above all, and totally, a woman in dreadful need of colonization, who
had no idea how bad she had it, how bad she needed it. Oh, and I'm sure he thought he had "it" to give. And that Des
Moines held seductive wonders that no little girl from Yorkville could ever fathom on her own.
At that moment, I didn't know whether to laugh or stab him with a fork. So let me interrupt the murky reverie, to explain
that I was the strangest of creatures, an American student working on a Canadian work visa. As rare as a unicorn, or so
Canadians kept telling me.
This wasn't my first summer here, but I was still getting used to being a novelty. The double-take each time I crossed the
border. "Aren't you doing this backwards?" I'd been asked -- since the "brain drain" issue was of vital national importance,
frequently covered in the papers.
And sometimes, there was the insecurity that made tough work for the Ontario Tourist Partnership -- "Why would an
American want to come here?" (Considering how popular the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website got on
November 3rd, 2004, maybe I was just seven years ahead of my time.)
I began to sympathize with friends, who were Asian, or black, being asked for the down low, the final verdict on their entire
culture -- or worse, being told who they were; identity as destiny. In the summer of 1998, I'd been called onto the carpet
at the Toronto architecture firm where I worked -- fearing I'd done something wrong -- only to be asked for the "American
view" of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, with my boss goggling at me steadily, like I was the part-time spokesman for home.
I'll admit, I was naÃ¯ve about coming to Canada -- at first. But not like the hoary "skis on the car roof" urban legend -- an
imaginary but deeply treasured story of Yankee tourists heading north for a summer vacation.
I couldn't claim to be above that, anyway. I had a pocket full of cross-border jokes -- about Ohio. My favorite one is about
the war between Michigan and Ohio, and how the loser had to take Toledo. It's true, actually -- happened in 1835.
Strange, though -- the Canadians can joke about the time they burned down the US capital in 1814, even though we did it
first -- in what's now modern day Toronto. I don't recommend visiting Americans joke about that -- though few even
know the historical precedent -- anymore than an English Canadian should tease a Quebecois at the Plains of Abraham, the
haunted acres where French forces surrendered their control of New France.
My childhood in southeastern Michigan was full of cultural memories I had never needed to justify before and not separated
carefully into piles marked, "American" or "Canadian". I never had to put "Cedar Point roller coasters" in the "Ohio"
category, right? The annual trip to Cedar Point was just another thing that made home, home, like the dumpy Toledo train
station that grandiosely welcomed you to "The City of Glass". No doubt it had brother cities, each of them feigning a charm
school education, scattered throughout Ontario and Michigan.
Saving pennies to buy bottles of Faygo in summer, raking football leaves in fall, listening to 89X -- a Canadian radio station
-- while I did my homework. Maple leaves and overcast skies. My accent, flat like a newsreader's. Of course I grew up on
The Friendly Giant, and Mr. Dressup, and my mother and I both cried when Barbara Frum passed away.
The winking lights of the Ambassador Bridge meant a passage into downtown Windsor, where -- unlike Detroit, which
empties out around 5:30 -- you could walk the streets in evening without fear. Those streets meant opportunity, the
possibility of better things for the region.
I'd been crossing the border for two decades. I was no Scarlett O'Hara, rubbing my hands over the cinders of a city, more
of a Rust Belt Mamie who had lucked out on scholarship to a lesser-known school in New England. Toronto was no less the
"big city" to me than it would be to a kid from Thunder Bay or Moose Jaw. I loved the art scene of Toronto, Honest Ed's,
the broad diversity of neighborhoods, and the shuffle of shops along the Annex.
So I didn't expect to be treated as a kind of reverse carpetbagger when I arrived in "T.O.". In college, I'd raised money to
bring two Canadian filmmakers over the border to show their films, then crossed the border once again, because I wanted
to know the real Canada.
Yet I was appalled to learn how many Canadians assumed they already knew the "real America" - though I met few who
had actually lived in the US. I couldn't help wincing when well-meaning acquaintances -- raised in upper middle class,
suburban homes -- told me I wasn't "like other Americans."
I thought of classmates from working-class backgrounds -- for whom travel home at Christmas was a financial burden. For
most of them, working -- let alone studying -- abroad was out of the question -- even in a landlocked neighbor like
Canada. And what about those who never even made it to college? No, indeed, I wasn't like other Americans. I was lucky --
not innately possessed of better wisdom, but blessed to have the chance to travel, to cross borders, to have the luxury of
travelling where my wanderlust and curiosity impelled me to go.
A few abusive encounters made me question whether Pierre Trudeau's bon mot about "sleeping next to an elephant" was
a fully drawn metaphor. Introduced to a man at a party, he practically spat beer on me, giving an impromptu spoken word
performance of why he hated Americans. I was not a human being to the host who brought me over and paused to watch
the explosion, I was a parlor trick, a walking, breathing shit-stirrer. Never mind that the foaming mouthed man towered
over me, stunk of beer, that I had entered the party by myself and was visibly shy. I was born there, not here. Maybe I
didn't look the part, but I was the elephant, and fair game.
Even one of my friends, loaded with a six pack on July 1st, had turned into a firebrand, ranting about the Challenger
disaster, War Plan Red and the Alpha Flight comic books.
I preferred to pick my battles. Unlike Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, who seethed to the Nazis that his nationality was
"drunkard", I was human first, a woman second, a Midwesterner third. No one else seemed to see it that way.
And here it was happening again. Who was the elephant now?
In retrospect, maybe I should have stabbed the man with my fork -- to prove his point about how T.O. was more
dangerous than Iowa. Instead I retorted, "I grew up in Cedar Rapids, and it's much nicer living somewhere like this. Iowa
City is the only place with any culture in the whole state." A bouquet of little lies stuffed inside a bigger truth. I'm sure Iowa
is nice -- nicer than the City of Glass, certainly -- and I'd really only seen Iowa City from a Greyhound bus window. Once.
The dark-haired man put his fork down. He drummed not his fingers, but just his left thumb, apparently at a loss for
words. His wedding ring beamed a tiny, reflected starburst against the wall of their booth. Bump, bump, bump. He stared
coldly at me. Brett looked like he wanted to throw up.
In the silence, I concentrated on a new article, "How to make homemade ice cream." Probably what GaryBill and the wife like
to do with the kiddies -- when he's not trolling the college food court for a pickup or harassing the babysitter.
Twenty minutes later, emerging for a second behind the newspaper folds, I saw that he was still staring at me. His eyes
held a gaunt judgment, like a Grant Woods portrait. For a moment, I felt a twinge of guilt. Maybe he was homesick.
"Can I see that?" he said tersely, nodding towards the Star. It was an order, not a request.
I tossed over a section to him, thinking it would keep him quiet. But he groaned. "Oh, it's a Canadian paper. I thought it
was a real paper."
My jaw dropped. Where was a self-styled Canadian Resistance cell when you needed one?
My friend Kev talked about this kind of "American imperialist," magnanimously allowing that I was "okay" for one of "them",
and marveling whenever word of a burned out USA Today box hit the news. Kev was funny, despite his obsession with the
Johnson administration, as if it had been universally beloved "down there", words that made a good euphemism for Hell. He
promised to "teach piety with a stick," preferably by throwing said imperialists down the escalators at BCE Place. I always
walked behind him, when we went out shopping at the mall. Just in case.
But now GaryBill was reading; reading his unreal newspaper, full of unreal facts and the doubtful sort of journalism
Canadians are so known for practicing, and at least it had shut him up.
I went over to the cashier and paid my bill, groaning inwardly at my destroyed plans to sit and read quietly in comfortable
Back home, I maybe wouldn't have been baited so easily. I could have given him a stone look, chewed on my food in a way
that showed I didn't care, real slow and smacking my gums like my father does.
But back home, would he have spoken to me like that?
Was it Toronto -- the megacity stripping away all politeness, even as crowds of people waited for the crosswalk signal? Or
was it the presence of this man, temporarily displaced abroad, who thought he could interrogate a "native", or maybe just
a random woman, like an officer at customs?
If I was the elephant, what did that make him?
Was he an American pig, or was he just a chauvinist one?
In front of the counter, I turned back to make eye contact with the still-blushing Brett, who pursed his lips, then returned
to face his plate. From the back I could see a shiny circle of flesh, poking through GaryBill's hair. Maybe the man wasn't
really working for David Bowie, I thought. Maybe he was a ninth grade science teacher on vacation. A father used to
lecturing children who had spoken out of turn.
There are people back home like that, after all. I know they exist in Canada -- they probably exist in Dubai and Tokyo, for
all I know.
Wherever they're from, they look like my mother's friend from the reading club and in the grocery store they come up to
you and say, "Sweatpants outside the house, dear?" And they pat you on the arm, or they drum their fingers on the table,
but either way they intend to put you in your place. Your place. Hmph.
As I walked home that night, I stopped to get a bottle of beer -- a Molson Golden, marveling again at its simplicity. So
what if my Canadian friends called it cheap swill? I could never hold my liquor anyway, and the higher alcohol content made
it a liquid warmth faster than I could experience in the U.S.
After six months in Canada, I realized how much I had to learn. Not about Canada, but about human nature. I had
forgotten that cold dogma could travel north and south... cheap and flimsy as a nylon flag.