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Storming the Barricades


Let me tell you about the time I got pinched by the cops at Portage and Main.

It was dark and there were two shiny black police vans strategically parked at Winnipeg's famous corner, in the city's iron heart. The sergeant had a nightstick and so I didn't feel like arguing. He had my arm in a firm grip and I went very smoothly, very professionally, up into the steel and wire confines of the paddy-wagon.

On the street two seconds earlier I had craned my neck around the van door with weapons drawn – pencil and notebook – and peeked inside. There were six or seven sorry miscreants huddled together in there. And that's when the cop saw me. "Oh, you want to go in too?" He didn't smile but his eyes did. He had a name-tag over the pocket of his parka, Krupke or something. There was a pause for a meta-second and we looked at each other, knowingly. I could tell that he knew that I knew that he knew that it was a show of farce - but an example needed to be made in the name of law and order. 

It was November 18th, 1984. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers had just won the Grey Cup, humiliating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 47-17. Major whoopee descended on downtown. Hundreds of revellers stormed the barricades and hopped over the concrete flower boxes at Portage and Main - they occupied the forbidden intersection in their celebration. Someone had drawn the short straw in the night newsroom at the Winnipeg Free Press and so I was sent over to get some colour for the morning newspaper.

I walked east from Carlton along Portage to Main. By this time maybe 400-500 were occupying the crossroads - for the Blue Bombers, for the people. Celebratory toilet rolls were flung through the air and festooned the traffic signals. Several dozen of those blue and yellow Pudgy Pedro Vuvuzelas pulsated and petered - blasting monotone B notes of varying duration. Wake Me Up Before You Go Go! was pumping from a boom-box. Despite minus -20C there were folks who were half-naked, jigging and jangling and feeling nothing of the usual pain that comes with the onset of winter in the Red River Valley. Buses could not budge for all the jolly gamboleers. Cars were halted and honking. It was a gay enough riot but no one broke any windows or pooped in the planters because they were too joyful to be trouble. Yes, it was frigid but these were Winnipeggers and as it says in scripture: Many are cold but few are frozen. 

Around midnight someone called the cops.

Soon there were 10 of us in the police wagon. There was a banker and a nice gal from the post office, a plumber, a hardware store owner, me and the local stringer for The Globe and Mail. He too had jumped in to the van since neither of us wanted to be scooped by a competitor on the story. And really, when you think about it, getting carted off to the hooskow with a pack of pie-eyed partiers is a much better story than the original assignment. Some follow the money, others follow felonious football fanatics. 

No one was actually arrested. The cops just grabbed whoever loitered near their vans at P & M and we were taken away to be made examples of so that the civil power could show that Portage and Main would not be clogged with riffraff, the intersection would be returned to motorized traffic, and, as Neville Chamberlain once said, there would be peace in our time etc. I can tell you that between myself and the other newsman we interviewed the shit out of the eight quite lubricated and unsuspecting malfeasants as we rode down to the Public Safety Building whose bowels awaited us in all their brutalist architectural glory.  

I was surprised there was no fanfare when we arrived at the jail. Krupke and his associates merely unloaded us at the bottom of a vehicle ramp and ushered us into a sparsely decorated reception area that reeked of stale pee. Had I protested I’m sure I would not have been the first. The room was cinder-block claustrophobic and it needed some artwork, paintings or something colourful on the walls to lift the mood. Within about 15 minutes I started to pace and to wonder about jail rules, protocol and conjugal visits. But after about 20 minutes Krupke showed up and said we were free to go – as long as we all went directly home. 

To this day I don't know if our detention was proper or legitimate but I had no time to enquire since it was nearly 1 a.m., and the presses for the morning "Bulldog" Edition soon would be rolling. I'd taken a massive risk by climbing in the paddy-wagon in the first place. There were no smartphones carried by journalists in 1984 and so I needed a landline to file my story. "I'm allowed one call, right?" Krupke knew the look of a desperado when he saw one and directed me to a landline. I dialed the City Desk and Mike, the Assistant Night Editor, picked up at the other end. "Hi Mike," I said, and made it sound like jail happened every day: "So you’ll never guess where I am." There was a pause. And then, well, I really wish I could paint some of the colour that I next heard pouring from the other end of the phone. There was a real string of crimson words and some purple ones and at one point I thought maybe Mike had swallowed his cigarette and was choking. Let's just say it was a smoking hot string of invective that included some shorter snappy words and then some arching, longer, emphatic words and I am not sure that I could actually spell all those words for you even if I wanted to. But, eventually, we got things sorted out and I was able to dictate a few paragraphs to another reporter, Laura, and it all made its way onto the front page later that morning. 

So that was the time I got pinched at P & M, the Blue Bombers won the cup, everyone survived intact and not even one dog was frozen to a cold November hydrant. 

Thinking back on it all has got me feeling a bit nostalgic about that intersection and whether it should be re-opened to pedestrians again with this planned civic vote on October 24. Oh! The power of the crowd! Today it is the digital crowd of course that makes the biggest noise, though in the case of Portage and Main the first recorded riot there was in 1882 when popular Queen's Hotel bartenders Mike Shelley and Billy Gaetz retired from active duty. The street was gaily done up and hotel patrons partied well into the wee hours to toast them and probably a dog or two kept their tail between their legs just to stay warm, mind. 

You may have heard the P & M story that happened even earlier. The one about the lone and sturdy Winnipegger who, in 1869, crossed Portage and Main after an especially savage June rainstorm. Bible-black skies, thunderclaps and a half-hour cloudburst left P &M a giant soupy gumbo. As he got half way across, leaping from one sloppy spot to another, our friend saw a hat floating in a water-filled pothole. He bent low and lifted the hat and there, staring up at him, was a head. And a lonely hand reached up from the watery mess. "Brother," said the head. "Can you pull me out?" And of course being a helpful Winnipegger he pulled the stranger from the muck hole. "Bless you brother!" said the waterlogged victim. "Thank-you! Thank-you! Now, please," he said, "Would you help me pull out my horse and cart?"

I too can confirm, verify and foreswear that more than once I've been on the receiving end of an outstretched hand around here - because Winnipeggers are just like that.  Like gumbo, we stuck together for each other. And I’ve tried to do my bit too - helping poor lost American tourists who have wandered out of the Fairmont Hotel in January – looking perplexed at those Portage and Main barriers and wondering how to cross the bleeding road to get to the Jets game. The ones I encountered decided to bolt for it – right across Portage and Main - and reflecting on that foolhardiness I daresay they are lucky to be alive. Ponder if you will the exquisite irony if they had been shmucked: to have survived the whiplash of political dysfunction, the everyday gun violence, the rodeo of fake news and ripping of the social fabric in their own nation only to be pancaked while crossing Portage and Main. 

Today, I'm old enough to remember when you could happily frolic and skip across all the puddles at Portage Avenue and Main Street on foot. You may find this hard to believe but I have actually performed that pre-1979 act - publicly - many times. When I’m there now I sometimes think of the millions who have crossed overland where once two humble prairie trails met. 

I don't want to brag about having crossed it on foot because I know that some of you haven’t. And I suspect that if you haven't, then, secretly, you would love to if you could. So here’s my suggestion for October 24 - why don’t you take your turn at creating the next chapter in the history of our famous intersection? Vote Yes to re-open the people’s corner.



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