As you walk down Cordova Street in the city of Vancouver you notice a gradual change in the appearance of the shop windows. The shoe stores, drug stores, clothing stores, phonograph stores cease to bother you with their blinding light. You see fewer goods fit for a bank clerk or man in business; you leave “high tone” behind you.
You come to shops that show faller’s axes, swamper’s axes – single-bitted, double-bitted; screw jacks and pump jacks, wedges, sledge-hammers, and great seven-foot saws with enormous shark teeth, and huge augers for boring boomsticks, looking like properties from a pantomime workshop.
Leckie calls attention to his logging boot, whose bristling spikes are guaranteed to stay in. Clarke exhibits his Wet Proof Peccary Hogskin gloves, that will save your hands when you work with wire ropes. Dungaree trousers are shown to be copper-riveted at the places where a man strains them in working. Then there are oilskins and blankets and rough suits of frieze for winter wear, and woollen mitts.
Outside the shop windows, on the pavement in the street, there is a change in the people too. You see few women. Men look into the windows; men drift up and down the street; men lounge in groups upon the curb. Your eye is struck at once by the unusual proportion of big men in the crowd, men that look powerful even in their town clothes.
Many of these fellows are faultlessly dressed: very new boots, new black clothes of quality, superfine black shirt, black felt hat. A few wear collars.
Others are in rumpled clothes that have been slept in; others, again, in old suits and sweaters; here and there one in dungarees and working boots. You are among loggers.
They are passing time, passing the hours of the days of their trip to town. They chew tobacco, and chew and chew and expectorate, and look across the street and watch any moving thing. At intervals they will exchange remarks impassively; or stand grouped, hands in pockets, two or three men together in gentle, long-drawn-out conversations. They seem to feel the day is passing slowly; they have the air of ocean passengers who watch the lagging clock from meal-time to meal-time with weary effort. For comfort it seems they have divided the long day into reasonable short periods; at the end of each ’tis “time to comeanava-drink.” You overhear the invitations as you pass.
Now, as you walk down street, you see how shops are giving place to saloons and restaurants, and the price of beer decorates each building’s front. And you pass the blackboards of employment offices and read chalked thereon: –
“50 axemen wanted at Alberni
5 rigging slingers $4
buckers $3½, swampers $3.”
And you look into the public rooms of hotels that are flush with the street as they were shop windows; and men sit there watching the passing crowd, chairs tipped back, feet on window-frame, spittoons handy.
You hear a shout or two and noisy laughter, and walk awhile outside the kerb, giving wide berth to a group of men scuffling with one another in alcohol-inspired play. They show activity.
Then your eye catches the name-board of a saloon, and you remember a paragraph in the morning’s paper –
“In a row last night at the Terminus Saloon several men . . .”
and it occurs to you that the chucker-out of a loggers’ saloon must be a man “highly qualified.”
sails from the wharf across the railway yard Mondays and Thursdays 8 p.m. It’s only a short step from the Gold House and the Terminus and the other hotels, and a big bunch of the boys generally comes down to see the boat off.
You attend a sort of social function. You make a pleasing break in the monotony of drifting up the street to the Terminus and down the street to the Eureka, and having a drink with the crowd in the Columbia bar, and standing drinks to the girls at number so-and-so Dupont Street – the monotony that makes up your holiday in Vancouver. Besides, if you are a woodsman
you will see fellow aristocrats who are going north to jobs: you maintain your elaborate knowledge of what is going on in the woods and where every one is; and, further, you know that in many a hotel and logging-camp up the coast new arrivals from town will shortly be mentioning, casual-like: “Jimmy Jones was down to the wharf night before last. Been blowing-her-in in great shape has Jimmy, round them saloons. Guess he’ll be broke and hunting a job in about another week, the pace he’s goin’ now.”
You have informed the Morning Post!
If logging is but the chief among your twenty trades and professions – if you are just the ordinary western logger
– still the north-going Cassiar
has great interest for you. Even your friend Tennessee, who would hesitate whether to say telegraph operator or carpenter if you asked him his business suddenly – even he may want to keep watch over the way things are going in the logging world.
So you all hang around on the wharf and see who goes on board, and where they’re going to, and what wages they hired on at. And perhaps you’ll help a perfect stranger to get himself and two bottles of whisky (by way of baggage) up the gang-plank; and help throw Mike M‘Curdy into the cargoroom, and his blankets after him.
Then the Cassiar
pulls out amid cheers and shouted messages, and you return up town to make a round of the bars, and you laugh once in a while to find some paralysed passenger whom friends had forgotten to put aboard. . . . And so to bed.
The first thing a fellow needs when he hits Vancouver is a clean-up: hair cut, shave, and perhaps a bath. Then he’ll want a new hat for sure. The suit of town clothes that, stuffed into the bottom of a canvas bag, has travelled around with him for weeks or months – sometimes wetted in rowboats, sometimes crumpled in a seat or pillow – the suit may be too shabby. So a fellow will feel the wad of bills in his pocket and decide whether it’s worth getting a new suit or not.
The next thing is to fix on a stopping-place. Some men take a fifty-cent room in a rooming house and feed in the restaurants. The great objection to that is the uncertainty of getting home at night. In boom times I have known men of a romantic disposition who took lodgings in those houses where champagne is kept on the premises and where there is a certain society. But that means frenzied finance, and this time you and I are not going to play the fool and blow in our little stake same as we did last visit to Vancouver.
So a fellow can’t do better than go to a good, respectable hotel where he knows the proprietor and the bar-tenders, and where there are some decent men stopping. Then he knows he will be looked after when he is drunk; and getting drunk, he will not be distressed by spasms of anxiety lest some one should go through his pockets and leave him broke. There are some shady characters in a town like Vancouver, and persons of the under-world.
Of course, the first two days in town a man will get good-and-drunk. That is all right, as any doctor will tell you; that is good for a fellow after hard days and weeks of work in the woods.
But you and I are no drinking men, and we stop there and sober up. We sit round the stove in the hotel and read the news papers, and discuss Roosevelt, and the Trusts, and Socialism, and Japanese immigration; and we tell yarns and talk logs. We sit at the window and watch the street. The hotel bar is in the next room, and we rise once in a while and take a party in to “haveadrink.” The bar-tender is a good fellow, one of the boys: he puts up the drinks himself, and we feel the hospitality of it. We make a genial group. Conversation will be about loggers and logs, of course, but in light anecdotal vein, with loud bursts of laughter. . . .
Now one or two of the friends you meet are on the bust; ceaselessly setting-up the drinks, insisting that everybody drink with them. I am not “drinking” myself: I take a cigar and fade away. But you stay; politeness and good fellowship demand that you should join each wave that goes up to the bar, and when good men are spending money you would be mean not to spend yours too. . . .
Pretty soon you feel the sweet reasonableness of it all. A hard-working man should indemnify himself for past hardships. He owes it to himself to have a hobby of some kind. You indulge a hobby for whisky.
About this time it is as well to hand over your roll of bills to Jimmy Ross, the proprietor. Then you don’t have to bother with money any more: you just wave your hand each time to the bar-tender. He
will keep track of what you spend. . . .
Now you are fairly on the bust: friends all round you, good boys all. Some are hard up, and you tell Jimmy to give them five or ten dollars; and “Gimme ten or twenty,” you’ll say, “I want to take a look round the saloons” – which you do with a retinue.
The great point now is never to let yourself get sober. You’ll feel awful sick if you do. By keeping good-and-drunk you keep joyous. “Look bad but feel good” is sound sentiment. Even suppose you were so drunk last night that Bob Doherty knocked the stuffing out of you in the Eureka bar, and you have a rankling feeling that your reputation as a fighting man has suffered somewhat – still, never mind, line up, boys; whisky for mine: let her whoop, and to hell with care! Yah-hurrup and smash the glass!!
If you are “acquainted” with Jimmy Ross – that is to say, if you have blown in one or two cheques before at his place, and if he knows you as a competent woodsman – Jimmy will just reach down in his pocket and lend you fives and tens after your own money is all gone. In this way you can keep on the bust a little longer, and ease off gradually – keeping pace with Jimmy’s growing disinclination to lend. But sooner or later you’ve got to face the fact that the time has come to hunt another job.
There will be some boss loggers in town; you may have been drinking with them. Some of them perhaps will be sobering up and beginning to remember the business that brought them to Vancouver, and to think of their neglected camps up-coast.
Boss loggers generally want men; here are chances for you. Again, Jimmy Ross may be acting as a sort of agent for some of the northern logging-camps: if you’re any good Jimmy may send you up to a camp. Employment offices, of course, are below contempt – they are for men strange to the country, incompetents, labourers, farm hands, and the like.
You make inquiries round the saloons. In the Eureka some one introduces you to Wallace Campbell. He wants a riggin’ slinger: you are a riggin’ slinger. Wallace eyes the bleary wreck you look. Long practice tells him what sort of a man you probably are when you’re in health. He stands the drinks, hires you at four and a half, and that night you find yourself, singing drunk, in the Cassiar’s
saloon – on your way north to work.
Excerpted from Woodsmen of the West by M. Allerdale Grainger Afterword by Caroline Adderson. Copyright © 2010 by M. Allerdale Grainger Afterword by Caroline Adderson. Excerpted by permission of New Canadian Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.