As they were dropping Ralph Klein into the big dirt depot this week, all I could think of is how great death can be for a reputation. Maybe there’s hope for me after all. Not that I don’t have my own magical memories of the Big Petrol Premier. My favourite comes from the time Klein stumbled across a diabolical plot to subvert public safety by Alberta’s provincial cons. Evidently, after their twelve-hour shifts of either spud-peeling or rock-picking (the Wild Rose province offered you a choice back then), they would sprawl about in communal TV rooms and watch reruns of Seinfeld and Cheers on… 24-inch colour televisions.
“You don’t come to Alberta, break the law, and sit around watching colour T.V.,” Klein reportedly bellowed. I can just imagine the newspaper hack cum oil czar spewing this wisdom from the meat seats of some down-market strip joint in the provincial capital. Back when he was simply Ralph the pint-quaffing mayor of Calgary, his most bellicose policies were often cooked up over a wet lunch at the St. Louis Hotel. One of the city’s more primitive establishments, the St. Louis (as in Loo-ey Loo-wa) was a place where the dancers could stuff a tip between their belly wrinkles – and the doorman was generally on parole. At the St. Louis, T.V. was a word from the weekly spelling bee.
Not that Ralph’s cocktail caucus wouldn’t have appreciated the irony. Unable to find a 24-inch black and white television anywhere in the western hemisphere, rumour is that the monochrome Machiavelli reached out to the home of black and white politics – China. And while you don’t want to know the carbon footprint on fifty family-size tellies traveling ten thousand miles, even Klein must have marveled at the final fallout. Because while Alberta’s jailbirds laboured under the lash of two-tone television, a posse of the cowtown killjoy’s cousins were taking note. Klein may not have shot Liberty Valance (another creepy bum from the east), but posterity won’t soon forget the first Canadian politician to get tough on prime (time).
“Check this out.” I looked up from my hand of euchre and saw a prisoner named Gooch unzipping his tan jailhouse trousers. The year was 1985, and Gooch worked with me in the spud-peeling shack behind Calgary’s Spy Hill jail. The twenty-something wasn’t what you’d call an arch-criminal, but he was committed. In the past year he’d been in and out twice, and was now ripping the wrapper off his third provincial sentence.
The four of us watched curiously as Gooch sidled up to the tier’s only other card table and a melamine mug sitting on top unattended. With the working day behind us, kitchen staff had just delivered the evening jug-up – a tray of fresh baked cookies and an urn of sugary tea – for the seventy denizens of the jail’s east wing. The cup belonged to some kid whose name I can’t remember – a kid who was always on the short end of some cruel amusement. Gooch pulled himself out past his zipper and thrust his hips up to the tea-filled mug.
Prison in the evening is a pretty boisterous place – a time of cards, dice, and settling the day’s differences in a dark and slippery shower room – all to the backdrop of Hockey Night in Canada. But by the time Gooch finally finished screaming, it might well have been the Sistine Chapel. In the breathless vacuum that followed you could’ve heard a blister bubble. And while the rest of the night was spent debating exactly what Gooch had in mind when he stuck his member of parliament into a 96-degree beverage, my question was more of a practical nature. I just hoped the poor sucker’s parents weren’t Jewish.
This year marks the 240th anniversary of the work that reformer John Howard began in his contribution to the modern day prison. As the sheriff of Bedford England, Howard was eyewitness to a nation wobbling on the edge of anarchy. But what shocked him most was the state response. Live disembowelment, immolation, and impalement were the public safety tools of the day. But for Howard, framing terror with law wasn’t just beastly; it was stupid. So he proposed a new tool – one he claimed would both punish and reform. Though it seems bizarre now, Howard and his followers truly hoped that this new appliance – the penitentiary – might even serve as a model of self-discipline and morality for the community at large. Something tells me that the sheriff of Bedford would have loved the St. Louis Hotel.
Following the night of the human tea-ball, it would be another decade before Klein’s colour blind version of law and order arrived at Spy Hill. By then I was a Ph.D in the Big House. And while I never did see the prairie Polit Buro’s great experiment in action, I did see Gooch again – in various forms of criminal repose. Maybe that’s what makes me so skeptical of the Conservative foray into criminology. I mean, if parboiled Johnson doesn’t break the underworld, I don’t see how a stint of bleached-out boob tube could get it done. Unless the only channel was CPAC. But who’d think of that?