It’s the wild, sprawling, underpopulated, metric system-loving Garden of Eden to America’s north. If you’re American, as I am, and you’re looking to dodge a draft, or escape the law after robbing a bank, or see a loon, Canada’s got your back on all three fronts.
When the Gulf War was sputtering to life in the Middle East in the early ’90’s, I remember making a plan with my asshole college buddies to head for Canada should the U.S. government decide to draft us. The idea of fleeing to Canada to escape a war sounded romantic to me. I pictured my Canadian-bound self as a Bob Dylan-type folk hero. I imagined myself with an unkempt beard and a tattered straw hat—a peaceful man, with kind, tiny eyes. I imagined a poky road trip with me shaking the hands of humble innkeepers in the backwater towns I passed through. I asked these inbred hillbillies where the Canadian border was. They jerked a thumb over their shoulders. “North,” they said. Then I tipped my tattered hat, assured them that “it” was all going to be be OK, then took my leave.
The U.S. government did not draft us for Desert Storm, or Desert Shield, or whatever it was called. I graduated from college that spring and left my college pals behind. But the torch I quietly carried for Canada? It stayed with me somehow.
Years later, I was living in New York City after 9/11. The city felt heavy and dangerous in an alien, primal way. I lived 100 blocks north of the wreckage but could smell it smouldering for months afterwards. New Yorkers typically carried duffel bags and backpacks to transport their personal junk between their apartments and their places of employment. But after 9/11 all those bags and backpacks were transformed into harbingers of doom. I gave my fellow subway riders a rigorous eyeballing in the mornings, trying to guess who had a bomb and who didn’t have a bomb.
Some mornings it seemed like everyone was carrying a bomb except me.
I was working as a freelance writer back then. I was also working in Canada on occasion, flying from NYC to Vancouver where I sometimes hosted a television show that aired on G4.
Vancouver was genuinely refreshing. It was at the opposite end of the city spectrum from New York. It was small, new, and clean. Unlike New York, Vancouver had almost no history. The worse you could say about it was that it rained a little too often there.
I’d shoot the shows in Vancouver over the course of a few days then return to NYC. On these trips I’d suffer from a kind of amnesia, forgetting how gloomy New York still was. As soon as my plane touched down at JFK, the 9/11 gloom climbed back on my shoulders like a cartoon vulture. After my fizzy, effervescent days in Vancouver, being back in NYC felt like a step in the wrong direction. I’d get on the subway and think, This train is probably going to explode. Should I get off? I should get off. I’d try to get off—”Excuse me, getting off, getting off,” I’d say, nudging my way through the hordes. But the doors would close, locking me inside. Then the train would move, picking up speed as it clattered off into the darkness.
“I think I’m going to die,” I inadvertently said out loud during one of these moments.
A woman standing next to me overheard me. “We all do,” she said.
I made it to the next stop, of course. I got off the train as quickly as I could. I ran up the subway stairs, taking two steps at a time, desperate to get out from the claustrophobic misery of underground. I reached the street, gasping for air. I doubled over, hands on my knees, right next to an overflowing garbage can. I spent a few minutes trying to catch my breath.