The crazy '80s: U of A grad-turned-Hollywood writer recalls … as much he can about Edmonton

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“May you live in interesting times.”
— a famous saying that I was too lazy to look up 

If you, like me, lived in Edmonton in the latter half of the 1980s, you know those were indeed interesting times.   

Those years held so much more than just the passing of the fashion torch from leg warmers to acid-wash jeans. (Free business idea to time travellers — acid-wash leg warmers! You’re welcome.)  

The latter half of the decade was when the Oilers were mid-dynasty, the Eskimos were Grey Cup champs and — perhaps most impressive — West Edmonton Mall not only had a hotel, but that hotel had a truck-themed room.  

Stanley Cup, Grey Cup, tractor-trailer themed mall lodging? That’s the kind of hat-trick most cities can only dream of.

I was a student at the University of Alberta back then and when I wasn’t failing organic chemistry, I was out enjoying everything the city had to offer. You may think I enjoyed myself too much and that’s why I failed organic chemistry, but trust me, I failed organic chemistry because I’m dumb and because it was organic chemistry.

City of Champions

Sign of the times on the south entrance to the Edmonton. (Scott Stevenson/CBC)

In retrospect, I recognize my enjoyment of all the local delights was intertwined with my equal enjoyment of being a university student. I had zero responsibilities — and close to a zero GPA — and all my adventures were bankrolled by student loans.  

The “dumb student me” was living it up, knowing that “stupid sucker future me” would get stuck with the bill.

My world was centred on campus, where my brain was punished by classes and my liver was punished by bars like Dewey’s, the Power Plant and RATT, which either stands for something, is a drunken misspelling of “rat” or is a really drunken misspelling of “proclamation.” (Editor’s note: Hi Joel! It stands for Room At The Top. You’re welcome.)   

In between the brain and liver assaults, I also trashed my other internal organs by eating tons of greasy food sold in the HUB mall. HUB was, sadly, a mall without a hotel in it. The shame.

Goose Loonies, Sidetrack and The Trade

Joel Cohen U of A

Writer Joel Cohen in his University of Alberta days. If some of his “memories” seem vague, it could be related to his closed eyes. (Supplied by Joel Cohen)

Lucky for me, I had friends and those friends had cars. Together we would travel to places like The Corkscrew, Goose Loonies, Denny Andrews and Earl’s Tin Palace (a real step up from Earl’s Rust Palace, an establishment that doesn’t actually exist).

Sunday nights, we were regulars at “open mic” night at the Sidetrack Café, where a lineup of consistently great acts performed while we shared appetizers, nursed drinks and avoided eye contact with the waiters. Life was good.

But the lazy quote referenced above (Editor’s note: Hi Joel! It’s an old Chinese curse. Let us know if there’s anything else we can do for you) mentions “interesting times” and interesting means more than just good. For example, Kim Jong-Un isn’t good but he’s sure interesting — I own all his albums!

On a more serious note, the late ’80s was when a deadly tornado hit Edmonton and when three people died in a roller-coaster crash at the mall.

And Gretzky was traded.

With these and other highs and lows, I know my positive vibes aren’t the same for everyone. Edmonton’s million or so residents all had their own unique relationship to, and consequent opinion of, those times.

It’s also impossible to meld all those perspectives together in a quest to define the “soul” of the city back then. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the last 20 years and I’m still not even sure it has a soul. I think it may have had a soul at one time, but sold it to pay for another Botox treatment — its “Santa Monica” was sagging a little.

Wayne Gretzky trade

Wayne Gretzky and Edmonton Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington and the infamous trade of 1988. (Ray Giguere, The Canadian Press)

So with all those caveats, I’ll give up on trying to objectively clarify or quantify the Edmonton that I lived in. Instead, I’ll lean on what I remember 30 years later.  

I’ve forgotten the bitter cold. I’ve forgotten the bad days and bad news. I’ve honestly forgotten everything I ever “learned” while getting my U of A degree.

But I remember experiences and moments in time.  

I remember the spectacular foliage in the fall. I remember the river valley, Whyte Avenue, movies on $2.50 Tuesdays. I vaguely remember seeing a band called “The Upangy Bottoms” and I remember some mornings where I couldn’t remember the night before.   

Those good memories represent my Edmonton of the late ’80s and I’ll hold them dear until probably, when in my late 80s, I forget everything else. Including to wear pants.

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