Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sudbury 1972: The Frontenac Hotel by Anne Burlakoff


Hotel Frontenac, Elm St, Sudbury, courtesy Greater Sudbury Historical Data Base
The main entrance for the hotel had two separate doorways: overhead on the left the sign read Men Only; on the right it was Ladies and Escorts. Brushing off the snow, we entered through the right hand door to find a large open area divided with a four-foot wall, which seemed ineffective for the purpose of protecting the sensibilities of the gentler sex from the hard drinking louts yonder.

Both sides were busy with locals who nodded to Pete and pretended not to stare at the rest of us, particularly Joe, with his long hair, faded blue jeans and scuffed Frye boots. We found a table in the corner and borrowed a couple of extra chairs. The wooden table top was scarred and gouged and the table itself tilted precariously until Joe folded up a matchbook and put it under one of the metal legs.

The air was blue with cigarette smoke.  The selection of music available from the jukebox that stood up close to the bar was limited to country: Faron Young, Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash. Our waitress had tired eyes and thick ankles, but when Joe used his Virginia twang to charm her, something close to a smile flashed for just long enough that you could see how pretty she'd been at eighteen. She brought us a bowl of peanuts and a pitcher of draught, and we ordered another one right away.

Pete went table-hopping, stopping to have a glass with a table of middle-aged miners in coveralls or to shoot the breeze with the old gents who looked like permanent fixtures. After a while he returned, and the boys drifted around the corner of the half-wall to play shuffleboard on the men's side.

I stayed at the table with Roz to sip beer and make small getting-to-know-you talk. Four years older, Roz was far more sophisticated than me. She had traveled across the U.S. and Canada, and held firm opinions on many topics I knew very little about, such as the war in Vietnam. 

I admired her fringed buckskin jacket, just like the one Bob Dylan wore on the cover of his album.

Sounds of cheering drew us toward the shuffleboard table. Pete was in the process of playing his fourth opponent. He had taught Joe the game, then beat him three straight. A couple of older men from a nearby table played him, one after the other, but Pete was on a roll and won two games out of three each time.

His current opponent, Jean, was a miner from Elliott Lake who had spent two seasons in the NHL. He still had steady hands and a keen eye along with a fierce competitive instinct, and he played with both concentration and an Export A hanging out of the corner of his mouth. Pete was all jittery with nerves at the thought of playing a local hero and minor celebrity and Jean had won the first game at 15-8. But Pete regained his confidence enough to take the next game 15-11, inspiring cheers and rowdy talk. They were just beginning the rubber, and Jean had the hammer.

Pete went first, sliding his rock with a flair that put it in the 3-point zone. Jean sent his with enough accuracy to knock Pete's into the gutter, but there was so much momentum Jean's rock slid in after it. Everyone had a good laugh about this. Jean lifted the corners of his mouth briefly and shifted the cigarette from right to left, then turned his attention back to the game.

Pete delivered the next rock into the 2-point zone. Jean ignored it, and slid his into the end zone, also gaining 2 points. When all 8 rocks had been delivered, they were spread out across the board, with one of Jean's slightly ahead to earn him 3 points. They switched direction and started the next round, this time with Jean sliding first.

For ten minutes the points and the lead see-sawed back and forth. No player earned more than 3 points in a single round of play. Pete was still having a good time, but Jean was becoming anxious. He took longer to line up his shots, and several times he removed the cigarette from his mouth and held it between his fingers in contemplation of his next play. 

There was no more friendly chatter. When Jean cursed at the waitress who took just a hair too long to deliver his next beer, the bystanders muttered to each other. Clearly he was taking the competition a little too seriously.

With the score tied at 11-all, each man had one last rock to slide and Jean had the hammer. Pete slid his all the way down the board to knock one of Jean's 3-pointers into the gutter and leave his own hanging over the edge. This was worth 4 points. All Jean had to do was knock off the hanger to regain the lead, but his last shot went wide and slid off the board into the gutter all by itself.

Pete was the immediate centre of a flurry of hand-shaking and back slapping. Without a word, Jean stalked out the back door. Pete acted nonchalant about it.

“He'll be fine, no problem. He's just not used to losing, that's all.”

“He's no Davey Keon, either,” one of the bystanders retorted.

There were rumblings of disagreement from the other men. This was considered a cheap shot to take at a local, who, after all, had made it all the way to the big time.

Despite his casual remark, Pete's eyes cut nervously toward the back door several times. His shoulders visibly relaxed when, after a few minutes, he was proved right. Jean was back inside and coming forward to shake Pete's hand and clap him on the shoulder. “Next time I won't be so easy on you, eh?” That got a good laugh and the atmosphere in the room lightened considerably.

Last call came at 1 a.m. Pitchers were emptied and we shrugged on our parkas, along with the rest of the crowd. The regulars piled into waiting taxicabs or cold pickup trucks left in the back parking lot. When the final vehicle roared off, the streets were empty and silent. The snow had stopped falling but the sidewalks were covered, muffling the sound of our footsteps. In the small park in front of the library we made angels in the snow. The temperature had dropped and snow crunched beneath our feet all the way home.

Anne Burlakoff was raised in Southern Ontario, but at the age of 17 she felt the pull of the west and hitch-hiked out to Vancouver, with many an adventure along the way. Lately she’s been thinking about that adventuresome girl with the open road and her entire future ahead of her. “In many ways that trip helped to define who I am today as a woman and as a Canadian, says Anne.

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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