General Byng’s Lessons On Language, Life and Lunch

I don’t have the name-chart for Mrs Whitworth’s gang of seven year-old ragamuffins, but I can rattle off 22 of the 28, no trouble. It wouldn’t be very good manners to point out the six I can’t rattle off, so if you recognize any or all. please let me know, and with luck I’ll wind up with a full set of names, and, better still, renewed contact with old classmates. I will ID the shorties of the front row right now, since you’ve already read a bit about three of us, and may like to put faces to names. L to R: Billy Noble aka myself; Randy Ptosnick, Matchbox & Dinky Toy magnate; Gavin St Germain; the fabled Agnes Lachance; Kenny McGhie, sly little interloper standing way too close to Mlle L.


You could not hope to meet a sweeter wee fellow than Gavin St Germain. He lived with his quite large family on 1000-block Southwood  just – almost literally – a hop, skip and jump from school. You wouldn’t catch Gavin hopping, skipping or jumping anywhere, though: he was just….there. Or…..not there.  And almost mystical in his apparent serenity and lack of extremes. Just a couple of years ago, when we General Byng second-graders were rising sixty, I had a look at the school’s staff list, and there, as Custodian, was Gavin. Fantastic. Who needs a memory, or a diary, or even a clock, when you can just stay where you are, timelessly and effortlessly? He had at some point moved away from the family home, though, exactly a schoolyard’s width away to a Gavin-sized house on 1100-block Somerville: still the same or slightly shorter theoretical hop, skip and jump from his evidently beloved school. I could show you a picture of Gavin’s fairytale cottage, but I guess I’ve already invaded his privacy enough by using his real name. A younger me might have scoffed at what one might consider a constricted or sheltered life, but then this whole series of memories has been by way of celebrating the modest joys and equally modest little travails of life on one’s own tiny planet, where the laws of time and space are suspended for a while, or perhaps permanently and pleasantly in Gavin’s case. So I envy Gavin, and apologize if I’ve misread him.

More of this world was Karen Grabowski, beaming away (third row left) behind Bobby LaFond of the Cosmo Kramer shirt. On first meeting, Karen asked me, in a spookily mature, hoarse contralto (think Linda Blair as The Devil Incarnate, but in a nice way), “Is you a good-kid or a bad-kid?” Something about her lunch/mud-encrusted mug told me that the correct answer was the latter, but I asked her anyway what the difference would be. “Well, what swear words do you know?” None, as it happened, so the verdict was, “Rmpf, good-kid.” Clearly I didn’t come back with, “And you’re full of shit.” Best I could do was, “Oh.”  So she gave me a few low-level cusses to be getting on with, and said she’d give me some better ones once I’d mastered these. To my painful cost I tried out, “What the hell is that?” on my mother a few days later, and never went back for my second lesson.

I did pick up one inoffensive but pretty neat word from Bobby LaFond some months later, during tuition on fractions from our wonderful and wise chainsmoking* principal Miss Weber.  Even though the term “numerator” appeared repeatedly and correctly in his textbook and on the blackboard, Bobby had a tiny linguistic tic which made him say “nooperator”. Miss Weber must have been as charmed as I was, because she only corrected him the once, and then let it go for the rest of the year. To this day, that word for me is “nooperator”, and I have to force myself to use the boring old “m” version when fractions come up in casual conversation, which, mercifully, they almost never do.

Maybe there’ll be a diamond jubilee class reunion in 2020. Gavin will have bought, privatized and renamed the school, Bobby will be an Emeritus Professor of Arithmetic, and, bad-kid at last, I’ll be able to greet the still-beaming dirty-blonde Mother Superior  with, “So, Karen, whaddabout those fucking nooperators?”

* Yes, of course while teaching, but also – more intoxicatingly and maybe even explosively – while refilling her magical spirit-fueled Gestetner.


Calling Occupants of the Apothecary Craft

Somerville Avenue, where we lived at number 1417 from 1959 until 1965, had the only traditional street-name in an otherwise planet-themed sub-suburb: Planet Street, Jupiter Bay, Mercury Bay, Mars Drive and so on. The developers were prescient in omitting Pluto—some years later stripped of its planetary status—and cleverly sidestepped the Uranus problem by mapping two Venus Bays (in fact culs-de-sac, aptly enough): one East and one West. We Somervillians felt a bit posh and special, even though our houses were same-ish little boxes just like the ones in the streets of space, and were dwarfed by the split-levels and two-storey monsters spinning round the outer orbits. Just by way of overworking the cosmic metaphor, I would remind you that a solar system needs a Sun and Giver of Life, and in my opinion ours was Ringer’s.

Ringer's Drug Store, Winnipeg, Manitoba

The signage suggests that they too saw themselves in that light. I wish I could tell you that’s my old bike out front—and it does look familiar—though clearly the picture was taken way past my bedtime. But if you look about an inch below the “c” in “Prescriptions” and cross your eyes, you may just catch a ghostly glimpse of an ancient pack of Mackintosh Toffees sliding of its own accord into a tiny boy’s tiny left hand.

The building still stands, having been sans-Ringer for some years, at the corner of Somerville & Pembina Highway. It was up for lease (vacant, I think) last year, and I must admit to having had a fleeting notion to fly back, pay the money, sign the papers, move in, restock it with all the former merchandise I could find, and live out my twilight years shoplifting cigarettes and junk food from myself, reading Superman and Archie for free, choosing between Lois Lane & Lana Lang / Betty & Veronica and winding up with Miss Grundy. But no, Thomas Wolfe and the Shangri-Las were probably right.

Not every product at Ringer’s was itching to be released into my care, of course. Most of the sweet things and all of the comic books may as well have been nailed down. The Old Dutch Potato Chips (Onion ‘n’ Garlic. Yum.) made too much noise. The cute and shiny red “Be careful! You could take an eye out with that thing!” Swingline Staplers were easygoing enough, but how many staplers or one-eyed friends can one boy use?

A youthful and perhaps over-earnest concern for the health of our planet led Me and Kenny McGhie to come up with a precursor to “sustainability”, years before it became fashionable and then mainstream. This was The Multiple Redemption of Empty Pop Bottles at Two Cents a Time System, or TMROEPBATCATS, as we abbreviated it for convenience and obfuscation.  What you did was you took a six-pack of empties into Ringer’s and redeemed it for twelve cents, ten of which went immediately on one of the above cash-only items, and then exited, two cents to the good. A while later you would retrieve that six-pack, or one just like it, from the storage area out back, return through the front door, redeem, spend, and so on, as many times as you dared in the one day. In that almost all of the cash went straight back into Ringer’s registers, Me & KM would have called this a “win-win scenario”, had the term existed back then. As a retired retailer, I sense I should be spotting a flaw here, but dawgblast it, I jess cain’t…

Around about here I could segue into a nicer story—warmer, and free of any larceny or nose-thumbing— about Ringer’s, Somerville Avenue, a cold and crystalline Christmas Eve, and the truth of agape, but I’ll save it till the season is right, not much more than a Mercury-year from now. I’ll give you its featured song here and now, though, apposite as it is to both little tales: I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, from Händel’s Messiah. sung by our lovely Québécoise soprano Karina Gauvin….. always on high rotate in my heart. Rotate. Get it?









Enough With The Capers, Already

[Bennell has just removed a small indistinct object from a stock pot with a pair of tweezers]
What is that?

Cook: A caper.
Matthew Bennell: Nope.
Restaurant Owner: You presume to tell me what is in the stock?
Matthew Bennell: It’s a rat turd.
Restaurant Owner: A what?
Matthew Bennell: A rat turd!
Restaurant Owner:[sniffs the “caper”] A caper!
Matthew Bennell: A rat turd.
Restaurant Owner:[sniffs again, now angry] A CAPER!
Matthew Bennell: If it’s a caper, eat it.
[the restaurateur sheepishly demurs]

That’s from the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Spookily, Jerry Walter, who played the restaurateur, died just a few months later, but apparently not from eating dodgy capers. The health inspector Bennell was played by Donald Sutherland, the fairly famous Canadian actor perhaps better known to us prairie types as the erstwhile son-in-law of Tommy Douglas, a towering figure in Canadian political history, born in Scotland, raised right here in Winnipeg, and wisely elected premier by our neighbours to the left/west.

As successful and virtuous as he was as politician and man, Tommy did have his low moments, such as the No-Bubble Bubblegum Incident of 1959. My dad had sat me down on a log on Carlyle’s Crescent Beach, and was failing in his attempt to teach me how to blow and snap/pop bubblegum bubbles. The fact that he’d never actually mastered the art himself was unhelpful, as you can imagine. But then he said, “Oh, good. Here comes the Premier of Saskatchewan. He’s bound to be able to show you how.” Well, willing Tommy was, but able he wasn’t. Clearly his father had been as ineffectual as mine in passing on life’s essential  skills. He impressed me, though, as an exceptionally friendly and funny man, and impresses me still as the most engaging and breezily dignified politician I’ve ever met on a beach or anywhere else.

Almost exactly a year earlier, my father and Mama & Papa Trossi had similarly failed to teach me how to eat spaghetti unmessily with the old hold-spoon-against-fork-and-twirl manoeuvre. I did learn, though, that life, like a plate of spaghetti, sometimes requires that you simply suck it up.

Mama Trossi’s was a short-lived but still fondly remembered Winnipegland phenomenon, easily more successful than the arrivista Pizza Place in living up to the latter’s hilariously self-described “…no better eating anywhere from Winnipeg to Rome!”. Sadly, Mama Trossi’s was closed down in the early sixties. Word on the street (as if anything as Fort Rouge-gritty as “the street” could exist in whiter-than-white-bread suburban Fort Garry!) was that the villain in the piece was a public health inspector. I’d like to think it wasn’t Donald Sutherland, and indeed that the whole story was apocryphal, particularly the bit about the rats, which grew implausibly bigger  and bigger in the local collective memory as the years went by.

You may chuckle at the quaintly low prices on Mama’s 1958 menu: all but the most exotic items were a buck & change, and espresso was 15 cents, a bargain if you could cope with the misspelling. But these days the site at Pembina & Chevrier is occupied by a Szechuan restaurant, and pretty much everything on the menu, inflation-adjusted, is a buck and change. Plus ça change... Those apocryphal rats will be the size of cats now, but I am happy to report – and yes, I’ve checked – that capers are only very rarely found in Chinese kitchens.