Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The urban flower

Summer has fully arrived when the beer tent blossoms

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If anyone is looking for me this weekend, you can find me in the beer tent.

In the fragile urban ecosystem of our city, the Old Market Square beer tent is the essential native flower of the Exchange District summer. It blooms across these long and lazy weeks, nurtured by festivals brandishing jazz, or reggae or theatre. The occasion of the beer tent’s unfurling is simultaneously essential, and yet somehow incidental: The festivals colour the petals, yes, but the thing inevitably takes on a certain relentless life of its own.

And oh, the earlier we arrive at the beer tent and the longer we stay, the more convincing is the sun-kissed promise that this summer will never go away. The laughter tangles with the sounds coming from the stage (music, an MC, a magician) and fills the wind with a certain warmth.

I wish I was writing this column in a beer tent. I don't actually drink beer. Perhaps "beer tent" is a misnomer, it's not really why we go there.

A vignette: There was once a friend, just out of a relationship who stumbled under the myriad tiny weights of house and job and children and the little ways those things can conspire to push lives into seclusion. We were sitting in the Old Market Square beer tent at Fringe Festival, my de facto summer home. My friend was a first-time house guest, visiting a place he'd never known.

The colours of the beer tent paraded into his view, the rotating cast of friends and actors pausing at our table, plying us with handbills and a parting request to check out their show, if we were able. There were sparrows nibbling at the scattered remains of food-truck french fries, wrapped in greasy paper. There were men in dreadlocks and women in sharp navy business suits, jackets off and sleeves rolled up, just bolted from the towers into a perfect July afternoon.

If anyone was looking for us, there we were. We were all there.

My friend, he soaked in this easy humanity as surely as the sun, and like the sun, it left him glowing -- though unlike the sun, unburned. "How could I have missed this all these years?" he said, shaking his head, jaw falling into a slack smile of discovery and delight. "What else have I missed?"

We spend so much time missing each other.

How's this for a suggestion of the purpose of this life: It is to be together. Not just in terms of friends or lovers, but in all of a million "each others." Humans are intensely social creatures, but in the West we are architects of a society that often separates us from this nature -- the lonely drives, the little cubicles, the gaping streets that befuddle pedestrian encounters. The walls, the suspicions, the weeks of never meeting someone who isn't so much like ourselves.

In the Old Market Square beer tent, there are no walls and we are all together.

Another vignette: A friend from way back, when invited to the beer tent, waves his hand. "Oh, I don't go there," he said. "There's some weird people."

But isn't that the beauty of the Old Market Square beer tent, how it stands in the collision path of a thousand walks of life? How it rolls with the stories of a thousand people who've had life too hard, too easy, or just oh-so-right? In the beer tent, I've met physicists and dancers, and I've met teens trekking across the country on empty railway cars. Trajectories of life would ordinarily keep us apart, but in the beer tent, we are united by the human desires we all share: to breathe the air, to laugh, to make connections and to share.

So if anyone is looking for me this weekend, come down to the beer tent and let's have a mingle. Maybe you have a mohawk, maybe you have an Audi, maybe you haven't left your house this year. Let's pour a Half Pints or just a cup of water and feel the warmth of the surrounding bodies gathered under a cooling night sky. Let's talk about everything and laugh about nothing and debate what's happening in the world, and where, and why.

Yes, this sounds so corny, and so very "twee." But it's beautiful outside and the sun moves to shut a writer's cynical eye: When the 2013 beer tent blossoms finally die, then this column may again plunge itself into more bitter reveries.

For now, friends, let's gather under the stars and raise a glass -- and let's just feel a little free.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 D2

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