Desperately seeking a safe harbour
DJ’S CAPE BRETON JOKE UNLEASHES FLOOD OF INTEREST FROM TRUMP-WARY AMERICANS
The first sign of what Rob Calabrese would c o me to think of as America’s unmooring began last year, just after Donald Trump won his first presidential primary and Calabrese published a $28 website that he’d designed in 30 minutes. “Hi Americans!” it began, and what followed was a sales pitch for an island where Muslims could “roam freely,” and where the only walls were those “holding up the roofs” of “extremely affordable houses.”
“Let’s get the word out!” Calabrese wrote, adding a photo of an empty coastline along the Atlantic Ocean. “Move to Cape Breton if Donald Trump Wins!”
It was meant as a joke — but seven hours after Calabrese linked the site to the Facebook page of the pop radio station where he works as a DJ, in came an email from America. “Not sure if this is real but I’ ll bite.” And then another: “It pains me to think of leaving, but this country is beyond repair.”
And then more. Within 24 hours, there were 80 messages. Within a week, there were 2,000, and many used the same words: “nervous” and “terrified” and “help.”
The emails kept coming, so many that soon the island’s tourism association brought on four seasonal workers to help respond to the inquiries, which were arriving from every state and hundreds of towns.
“Look at this one,” he said one day recently, scrolling through a spreadsheet where the inquiries were organized and stopping on No. 2,121. “I am a former U.S. Marine who did two tours to Iraq. And I want out of here.”
There were emails from a molecular biologist, a University of Oregon professor, a granite construction worker, a contractor for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a woman who said her hometown was “Unfortunately, Alabama.” There were declarations and confessions about incomes, sexual orientations, goals for their children. Several included resumes.
“I desperately want to move my daughters to the safety and sanity of Canada,” email No. 3,248 read.
“This is no longer the America I have loved for all my life,” email No. 3,310 read. “I am a hardworking man and could contribute much to any country that gives me a chance.”
It was somewhere around email 4,230 that Trump was elected president of the United States, and just before his inauguration came email No. 4,635.
“Looking to immigrate to Cape Breton area from Colorado,” it began. “I am a skilled paralegal and my wife is an attorney.”
Calabrese read it, wondered briefly about t he people who sent it, and waited for the next one to come in.
The email was written by Jimmy Gantenbein and Cathleen McEwen from their living room sofa in Loveland, a town 80 kilometres north of Denver. A month later, furniture from that living room had been stuffed into the garage. Paint buckets lined the hallway. They’d been in touch with a real estate agent. Soon they planned to have their home on the market.
They’d bought this home at the start of their marriage — the second for Jimmy, 54, the third for Cathleen, 61 — and 17 years later they knew the place nearly as well as they knew each other. They had a view of the Rocky Mountains from the bedroom. Afternoon sunlight warmed the carpet where their old poodle liked to curl up.
“We’re going to love it here,” Cathleen remembered saying on one of their first spring nights, after a neighbour’s 50th birthday party ended with outdoor cartwheels. They lived on a cul- de- sac with two other homes, and Cathleen spent a few years on the city council. They made friends with Democrats and Republicans.
And then came the arrival into their settled world of Donald Trump. He was on TV so often that Jimmy and Cathleen created a no-Trump rule after 9 p. m. He was in their town, holding a rally 15 km from their home that drew an overflow crowd. He was in their neighbourhood, his name popping up on yard signs all around them. During primary season, it felt as if he’d arrived at their own front yard, when their neighbour saw them in the driveway, walked over, and said he was supporting Trump. We’re going with what Bernie, Jimmy and Cathleen recalled saying, and though the conversation was brief and cordial, they hadn’t talked to their neighbour since.
Just that morning, signing onto Facebook, there was a post written by her friend Pam, somebody she’d known for 13 years, telling Muslims to “grow a pair” and “defend the country they immigrated to and assimilate!” She thought for a few minutes about what to do and then punched out a response, telling Pam to “put the same mental energy” into researching the Muslim faith “that you put into your diatribe.” Then came the back- andforth among other people, 19 comments, no minds changing.
So now, they also had a “Relocation” folder on their computer filled with information about Panama and Belize and Costa Rica and Canada. They’d bookmarked the Cape Breton website and set up Web alerts for real estate listings on the island. They’d talked to an immigration lawyer in Canada. So, maybe Cape Breton. There’d been a run of 60-degree days in Loveland, and meanwhile in Cape Breton, the temperatures were near freezing, forecasters were saying another eight to 11 inches of snow were on the way, and the emails were still arriving, a couple every day.
“I am heartbroken seeing our America be torn apart … by one, out-of-touch billionaire,” one wrote.
Calabrese read every word as he waited for the snow to arrive, and the Americans to arrive, and email No. 4,780 to arrive.