Field Notes: Fort McMurray Janice

William Farrant

On short notice I had to travel to Fort McMurray for a day-long meeting. I booked my flights, but was unable to find a hotel room due to a massive oil industry conference. Amazed at how the least desirable city in the country didn’t have a single room available, I turned in desperation to Kijiji, an online marketplace better known as a breeding ground for wanna-be con men. As it was September, my intent was to find a vacant apartment for early October and offer a hotel rate for one night’s stay. I left a few emails and waited.

Moments later the phone rang. I answered the call with a pleasant “Hello,” which was followed hurriedly by a woman yelling, “Fuck, sonny, you can come stay at my place for $250 a night,” her rich Newfoundland accent cascading out of my phone and startling the cat.

Canada is a bilingual country, a fact Canadians love to remind Americans and other foreigners about, despite the majority of us only being able to speak English. Of course, English is the primary language in Fort McMurray, but if you were asked to pick the city’s official second language, it would probably be the Newfoundland accent.

Having phoned Janice from the airport to let her know I was on my way, it took her a surprisingly long time to answer the door once I arrived. I stood there, bags in hand like a door-to-door salesman, and rang the bell for a third time while children frolicked on plastic Fisher-Price swing sets in a neighbour’s yard and adults wearing khaki shorts and dress socks read the newspaper on their dusty patios. It was a large apartment complex on the side of the highway, isolated from other residential buildings and offering splendid views of the nearby concrete infrastructure and soon-to-be developed forest.

Eventually, Janice came to the door, dressed in a robe and drying her hair with a towel. It struck me as awfully cliché, like something out of an 80s teen movie. Mid-fifties, with large pancake-looking glasses, she flatly said to me as I scurried past her into the house, “Bedroom is up the stairs to the right. I’m here all night. Feel free to watch American Idol with me.”

My room was about the size of a king-sized bed, so I was thankful it only contained a queen. I took off my shoes, and sat on the corner of the bed staring at the beige wall for a few moments before I remembered it was my birthday. I decided to at least attempt to make a celebration of it, so I walked up the street to Paddy McSwiggins, a dive bar that would have rivalled the Oilcan in its day.

The scene at Paddy McSwiggins was a little aggressive for a Tuesday night, so instead of having dessert after dinner, I picked up a bottle of wine and headed back to Janice’s to watch American Idol. We sat there for the next couple of hours on her white leather couch, happily pointing out the deficiencies of each contestant on her 60″ plasma screen television, while I drank merlot out of a Tim Horton’s mug and she drank chardonnay out of a silver chalice.

I learned next to nothing about Janice during my stay at her apartment other than she’d been in Fort McMurray for ten years, was divorced, and was really good at Jeopardy, the program we watched after American Idol. Like most people there, she’s a transplant, buried in the wilderness of industry and too busy for a normal life. It’s something I can identify with — I come up for a few days, leave my hotel only for food and meetings, but otherwise keep to myself. It was a welcome relief to share a few human moments with a stranger in an even stranger town.

As I climbed the stairs to go to bed, I noticed Janice’s bedroom door was open. What caught my eye wasn’t the beige carpet, the light beige walls, or the dark beige door, but what was used as the doorstop: a simple black high heel, its toe filling the small space between the floor and the bottom of the door, its heel arched on a tight angle, as if that was its only purpose in life.

It was a revealing moment, this flash of creativity amongst a sea of banality, a little window into the person who is Janice, a glimpse no one else sees amongst the 18-hour workdays and go-go-go mentality of Fort McMurray. And while I briefly thought it was an invitation to join her in bed, it struck more as a little nugget of her personality, shining through in an otherwise dark and gloomy place.

Words by William Farrant