No writer’s block here: it’s just that I’ve been reluctant to bump Uncle Ed off the front page; one way and another he’s taken more than enough bumping off. But I am now resigned to never hearing from the descendants of his cronies or his killers. I guess this means that any further reconstruction of his life and death must take the form of a novel. I’ll work on it. My daughter tells me I’m not bad at turning fiction into fact, so I hope it follows that I can do the reverse to equal effect. But meanwhile a plague of locusts, a case of frostbite, five-pin bowling with Yvonne Kebalo, and a bunch of other stuff wants airing in Winnipegland. Tonight’s winners, though, are a trio of career busboy/dishwashers: Little George Gage, Crazy Albert, and Fat Barry. I’ll just go and open their coffins now, and they’ll be here, briefly, just before sunrise.
The season after my season with the West Fort Garry Little League Colts, our Major League namesake team decided that Colts wasn’t such a good name after all, and thus were born the Houston Astros. They even moved to a new ballpark, presumably to escape the memory of Colthood. I took the blame for this at the time, but perhaps I was being a bit hard on myself.
I was after all a far better player than Charlie Brown, Lucy van Pelt, and the rest of the Peanuts team except for maybe Schroeder and the dog. Which is not to say I didn’t have my Charlie Brown moments, the worst of which is still, truly, too painful to relate, other than to say it was a fly ball to right field while I was thinking I’d rather be in left and out of the direct blaze of the setting sun. It was a game-losing miss, the game was a big one, and I credit myself only with my refusal to be consoled by our kindly coach, Murdo Morrison. “You lost it in the sun…” was no help at all. There are ways not to lose a ball in the sun, and I should not have forgotten them as I did that day.
I liked to catch for my friend the speed-merchant Clyde Merritt when he practised his pitching, and although I used one of those old-fashioned catcher’s mitts that looked and smelt like a cow-pie, catching still smarted when he really let rip.
Clyde Merritt was a name made for baseball. Curtis Small and Larry Lagimodière were names made for baseball. Larry Lagimodière! Good player, nice kid, perfect name.
Billy Noble: not such a perfect baseball name, but I did pretty much pull my weight—all 65 pounds of it—by way of my near-perfect on-base percentage. What with the tiniest strike zone in the league, and a two-sizes-too-big uniform, it was as hard for the ump to call a strike on me as it was for any pitcher—even Clyde Merritt— to throw one. Coach Morrison would say, “He’s gonna walk you, Billy Boy, so for chrissake leave the bat on your shoulder.”
And so I did, mostly. Very occasionally I’d get a rush of blood to the head and take a swing, and more occasionally still I’d actually make contact. It wouldn’t be until I played in a post-Summer of Love team out west that I finally came into my own as a hitter and fairly bewitching pitcher, but I have to be honest here and admit that the opposition in—I kid you not— The Kozmik League was ipso facto non compos mentis, often as not.
Back in Winnipegland now for my other Charlie Brown baseball moment, which was actually off-field, after a double-header on an empty stomach in the August heat. I blacked out on my bike and rear-ended a parked ’59 Cadillac, narrowly missing impalement on one of its glorious fins. As I lay semi-conscious on the road I heard familiar voices approaching: a couple of girls from school. Help, I thought to myself. One of them asked, “Isn’t that Billy Noble?” and the other answered, “Um, yeah, I think so.”
Last week my foreign-born daughter was in country, and, but for being way too old, could have experienced her very first Canadian Hallowe’en, fifty years to the day I experienced my last one. You knew you were too old for what non-Winnipeglanders called trick-or-treat when you substituted assholes for apples in the “HalloWE’EN AaaaPUHLS!!!” chant. And if you did “play a trick”, it was probably not so much a scampish prank as it was outright vandalism, arson or elder abuse. Or the pinnacle, the famous Flaming Bag of Poo.
Hallowe’en Apples wasn’t yelled much outside of Winnipegland, not at all outside of the Prairies, and even here began to wane in popularity following those (apocryphal?) late sixties stories of sadistic neighbours embedding razor blades and straight pins in them apples. They needn’t have bothered, because apples and other fruit were immediately used as missiles in inter-child combat or for window-pelting, what with weighing too much and taking up valuable space in our pillowslip candy sacks. That’s candy, lady, C-A-N-D-Y. Sheesh. Some kids’ well-meaning mothers gave us syrup-laden, lovingly home-baked agglomerations of Rice Krispies, Cocoa Puffs and such which, while appealingly sweet, brown and gooey, usually gathered lint, dust and worse in our bags, so were bound for the toilet, where they floated maddeningly through four or five flushes. Toffee apples were the worst of all, carrying as they did the double threat of assorted detritus and razor blades lodging in one’s gullet.
My cousins in Carlyle, SK had a not-at-all apocryphal booby-trapping to contend with, in the form of the front yard of a local widow, presumably a witch, who every October placed an ad in the Carlyle Observer. The headline was “Children, Take Heed” and the upshot of the text was that Hallowe’ening juveniles would be considered to be trespassers on her property, and that traps had been laid. I don’t know whether anyone ever called her bluff, or whether she had to die before The Observer would stop running her ad, clearly in malevolent breach of standards, if not laws, even those of that freewheeling time.
My last Hallowe’en, in 1964, was hallowed to be sure. It fell on the day I was caught shoplifting Doo Wah Diddy Diddy, and my punishment, in addition to the truly frightening opprobrium of my dad, was that I would not be allowed to dress up and go begging for candy that night, but would only be allowed to go out unmasked with my UNICEF coin box, which we Sunday School kids traditionally proffered along with our pillowslips. Leaving out the back-story, I piously informed the mothers that this year I was collecting nothing for myself, but only cash for UNICEF, and that they may therefore care to double their donation to that cause, which of course they did, cooing at my blessed sacrifice and general adorability. I collected and submitted (yes, unskimmed) $130-plus—serious money in 1964— and received Sunday School praise and a certificate for my winning effort.
So, crime and punishment, penitence and atonement, redemption and validation, all on the one day. Who needed candy? I was the Hallowe’en Asshole.
Back in July, when I lifted Mama Trossi’s typographically troubled menu from the 1958 Winnipeg Visitors Guide, I thought I’d keep that useful publication to myself for further plundering before sharing it with you. But it turns out that Mama’s menu was the highlight by miles, and that there’s really not a lot more plundering to be done. As much as the wannabe cognoscenti like to characterize that decade as dead cool, or kitsch, naive and quaint, or—I hate this term—”retro”, the fact is that the 1958 Winnipeg Visitors Guide was none of the above, mostly. It simply served its purpose without much in the way of chrome, neon, red leatherette, ducktails or atomic age imagery. See for yourself. And as much as I tend to characterize early childhood as dreamlike, magical and sepia-toned, the fact is that the great artist and sage Garrison Keillor was right: it was that way because our parents and other caring grownups made it that way for us. For their own part they lived in an unsentimental present, variously delightful or challenging or just plain ordinary; just how it was, probably worse but just possibly even better than how it might come to be remembered.
The barking Mr Schulz of the scary corner store may just be a case in point. Thanks to my faithful Henderson’s Directories and the archives of the Winnipeg Tribune, I now know that his Christian name was not scary at all. The name Marcel(!) may conjure up a variety of emotions or imaginings, but I think fear isn’t one of them. And although the name Schulz suggests German origins, Marcel was in fact a son of Flanders. I may have correctly guessed, though, that his grandchildren adored him, because he was no ordinary corner grocer. Folks, Marcel was a thespian! He staged and sometimes starred in amateur performances of plays in his mother tongue, Flemish Dutch. I wonder if he did comedy, and whether he repeatedly typecast himself as a short-tempered shopkeeper. Or perhaps as a harried innkeeper, admonishing his staff, “Laat de oorlog niet vergeten!”
Of course Marcel’s corner store is long gone, as are all the 1950s Pembina strip businesses but one, which is in its own way as flat as Flanders. And bless their hearts, they’ve kept the original sign, and isn’t it just too too dead cool, kitsch, naive, and quaint?
Why…it’s…RETRO! And yes, Belgian Waffles are still on the menu, just as they were when Marcel entertained his Flemish cast and crew on opening nights, and his beloved and loving grandchildren on Feest van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap. There are crêpes too, but strictly for those pesky Walloons.
I’ll be leaving Schulz’s Scary Corner Store as is because it’s true to my memory, and I write memory, not history. When they’re one and the same, though, so much the better. It happens often enough. And when I subsequently find a back-story which adds substance, humanity and charm to characters like Schulz, I am uplifted. Here endeth the lesson.
I turned 62 this week, and it’s been bittersweet. I got to thinking about 62, 1962, Linda Bay and Nancy Drew, did some mental math and …. O My Lord: Nancy Drew is 102! This assumes eighteen years of growing up before Edward Stratemeyer and a team of ghostwriters collectively known as Carolyn Keene committed Nancy to print in 1930 and locked her into the longest, most suspenseful and most lavishly funded gap year in the history of River Heights. So, my renascent but wildly age-inappropriate crush on Nancy must be nipped in the bud. Sigh…
Of course Nancy doesn’t look 102, because she gets a complete makeover approximately every generation—in human years—
and River Heights simultaneously gets a socio-technological upgrade. This is so that each new generation of readers is more readily engaged and retained. Fair enough, I suppose: this is not Great Art which is being interfered with. I’m not part of the target market, though, and I’m perfectly happy to stick with Nancy Mark II, introduced to the world in 1959, and to me by Miss Bay in 1962. A secondary intention of that series of rewrites was to eliminate racial stereotypes, anticipating the era of compulsory cultural sensitivity by at least a decade if not two. But, as Nancy Drew biographer Melanie Rehak tells us, “The series did not so much eliminate racial stereotypes, however, as eliminate non-white characters altogether.” Efficient, even borderline elegant, if a tad hamfisted. Simpler times, I guess.
My excuse for this reawakened interest in Nancy is that I wanted to check on whether she really was “startled by a bloodcurdling scream” at every turn, or whether my memory was going all creative on me, as it does now and then. With two mysteries under my belt and a third in progress, it’s beginning to look like the latter. All I’ve had so far is one piercing scream and one shriek, also piercing. Not even a situation which could give rise to a bloodcurdler.
Never mind. Not only am I being carried back to a time and place which I remember as magical, but I’m actually enjoying these books. Although ghost-written to a formula by various hands, they’re really quite stylish, and Nancy comes across as arguably a fine role model for girls not only of my generation but of the two generations which have followed. I’m speaking here of the 50s/60s Nancy, generally regarded as “Classic” Nancy. Strangely,her later incarnations seem to have gone backwards vis à vis the evolving status of women in western society, so that the 21st century Nancy is just as boy-crazy and deferential to males as real girls were pre-1970, whereas pre-1970 Nancy was politely tolerant of males, but certainly not in need of their help, their attentions or even their presence*. Her relationship with her well-heeled, generous and ever-approving father was one of great mutual respect: his advice was sometimes offered and sometimes even solicited, but followed only if Nancy was in full accord. Daddy Drew was supportive of whatever course of action Nancy decided upon, because he had faith in her ability to handle negative consequences. Perhaps more fathers of daughters should read Nancy Drew instead of parenting manuals.
You may well ask why a man of 62 is making so much of a quasi-academic interest in Nancy, and I can only venture that I may be sublimating. The age gap issue, don’t you know.
I’ll leave it at that, then, not wishing to bore you further, and moreover not wishing to be thought a teensy bit peculiar. I will let you know, though, if and when I finally hear my long lost bloodcurdling scream. Please, Miss Bay, bring it on!
* From Mystery at Lilac Inn: Later, as Nancy, Helen and Emily were talking, the two older girls suddenly stopped speaking on the subject of their forthcoming weddings. Helen said, “Goodness, Nancy, you must be tired of hearing us talk about steady partners when—” Nancy interrupted. Laughing gaily she said, “Not at all. For the present, my steady partner is going to be mystery!”
I often wonder why my dad bothered giving up alcohol as he did, officially, when I was just zero. I hope it wasn’t on my account, and anyway it would be vain to imagine it was. He clearly missed the stuff, with good reason in my view, because he was a lot nicer to be around when on one of his sporadic lapses. I had the privilege and pleasure to be with him during the odd bender before he got back on the wagon for once and for all just before turning fifty.
As head of Manitoba’s country library network he was often required to travel around the wilds, occasionally with me in tow and making a bit of a holiday of it. Completely out of character, he took me camping in the woods near the Minnesota border when I was nine or ten, taught me how use a low-powered rifle on targets and a full-sized ax on firewood and on a couple of perfectly innocent garter snakes. We had bacon & eggs, buttery toast and perked coffee just before daybreak at a diner in Sprague. To this day I’ve never quite managed to recreate that heavenly scent of hot breakfast mingled with crisp and pungent autumn air.
He pointed to the Canada/US crossing just a few yards away, and explained that south of that line the people were soft, the weather benign, and life so easy as to turn your body to flab and your mind to mush. And sure enough, I could just make out on the horizon a couple of pudgy Minnesotans scratching their heads as they gawped uncomprehendingly across the frontier at the true north strong and free.
The summer before, we got a bit closer to the real true north when we steamed to the top of Lake Winnipeg and back again (which took the best part of a week) on the beautiful, long since retired—some say haunted—MS Keenora.
The afternoon before the big storm I came into money. Big money. A buck-and-a-half, which my dad pressed into my little hand, suggesting that I go up to the promenade deck and fill my face with a hot dog or two, apple pie à la mode and as much Seven-Up as I thought I could handle. “Take your time. We’re on holiday, Billy!” This had never happened before, and never would again: not the pressing of the money and certainly not the taking of the time. I was bemused, but happy to oblige.
After my large snack and an edifying chat with the rehearsing resident jazz band, I went back to our cabin, but there was nowhere to sit, as by now two lady teachers had arrived to share a bottle of what they insisted was “Chinese Tea” with my dad. From memory I think it was Ballantine’s Chinese Tea, or possibly Famous Old Grouse Chinese Tea. And when I say “lady teachers”, well, in hindsight I guess “fresh-out-of-college girl teachers” would be closer to the mark. Odd, because my dad was not normally known for his patience with the young. There was some giggling, the odd baritone chortle, and a few more coins being pressed into my hand. “Have a second slice!” I was happy to oblige all over again, thinking, “What a nice daddy you are…” and years later adding, “you dirty dawg…”
Later, having of course skipped dinner, I was finally able to reclaim my bunk, but I was bounced right back out of it when the big storm came, and for most of the night I was bent over a bucket crying, shuddering and still heaving long after the last bits of hot dog and pie had come back up. This was my first intimation of death, and remains the most palpable. All through the night my dad was solicitous, comforting and, well, fatherly and in control: the guy could hold his Chinese tea. He told me there was no way the Keenora could sink, and if he had his doubts he didn’t let on, not even when two holes were being ripped in the hull below the waterline. The captain managed to find safe haven before a third rupture, which, he told us in the morning, would surely have sent Keenora to the bottom. What I didn’t know at the time was that for all Lake Winnipeg’s massive area it’s actually quite shallow – thirty feet or so at its deepest. So maybe the worst case was that Keenora would just wind up sitting on the floor, with her superstructure and parts of the top deck poking above water, feeling a bit stupid. Kind of like that famous and ill-fated pontoon boat down on Lake Wobegon in Minnesota, land of swaying palms and head-scratchers.
We were laid up for an unscheduled day in Grand Rapids while a crew was flown in from Flin Flon to fix the hull. Passengers were talking about thirty-foot waves, which would have been quite a trick from a lake thirty feet deep, and like myself they will have dined out on that figure ever since. I don’t recall seeing the teachers again for the rest of the trip; perhaps they fell overboard and no one told me. Perhaps they’re still out there, sunning themselves on the rocks, lying in wait for the next errant librarian to wander by.
Miss Tinkler and her very first (I think) little flock. Strange to consider in hindsight that she wasn’t really a great deal older than us kids, and even now is only in her mid-seventies. I like to think she still has the ponytail – sadly not on display here – and the ’56 Customline, but I guess it’s more likely she has a blue rinse and a mobility scooter. And maybe a sixty-something toyboy too, but he’s unlikely to be one of this bunch, what with two of the six males having died young by their own hands.
Sitting to my left is Jimmy Bradford. He’s probably looking so happy because he’s just remembered that he lives in the Donna Reed Show. My excuse is that I’ve been told that in place of final exams (yep – final exams in Grade One!) I can take a viva with Principal Smith (his real name). This will mean my family can drive to Calgary a week before school’s out and not have to leave me home alone.
I don’t remember much about Winnipeg’s wild western kid brother, which is just as well, because cousin Sarah would only correct me on anything I might say. Our dad being our dad, it goes without saying that we headed back east the day before the Calgary Stampede began. “Too commercial. Too many Americans.” And I would think and wisely keep to myself, “Yeah, and too much fun, cheapskate. Xenophobe.”
I do remember Brooks, Alberta, though. It was a dark and stormy night. So stormy, in fact, that visibility got to zero and even our dad had to admit defeat and stop trying to drive through it. It was still a few weeks until Robert Bloch would give the world The Bates Motel, so we had to settle for second worst: The Brooks Motel. There was a bed for the parents, and we four kids had to arrange our sleeping bags on the floor, which was fair enough, but our configuration was made a tad difficult by the leaks in the roof and the needful placement of buckets, and the two little ones had to curl up under the table. So the room had puddles, the biblical torrent on the tin roof was deafening, but not so nerve-shredding as my little brother’s crying and whimpering (fear plus chronic infantile eczema). Nor was it as angry and foreboding as our dad’s low rumble threatening to become a roar, brought on by our neighbours, who were drowning all of this out, a-moanin’ and a-shriekin’ and a-thrashin’ on the other side of the de rigueur paper-thin partition.
The official version, from our mum, was that the woman was having a baby – maybe even twins or triplets. I don’t know if eleven year-old Valerie or thirteen year-old Cameron bought this. I did, of course (but who knew it HURTS?), and itchy little Ross was oblivious, distracted by his flaming skin. Over the ensuing decades, though, I have managed to piece together a pretty fair idea of how babies are made, and I can now report that we were not witnesses to the delivery of the Brooks litter but to, er… its conception.
We decamped before daybreak, as soon as the rain and the thunderheads began to dissipate and the four strong winds were folding up into an innocent prairie zephyr. The holiday was over, and the deathly quiet drive back to Winnipeg was non-stop, save for the inevitable running out of gas near Miss Tinkler’s Starbuck. As a very young man I came back to Alberta for the purpose of having my heart broken for the second of three times by a girl who later became a Princess of Burma, albeit in exile in Edmonton. But that was 1971, a whole year after “my” Winnipegland ended, so not for these pages. Just wanted to get in the thing about the Princess, is all.
Here’s the song, performed by Jack Nicholson in a darned good impersonation of our Neil, and here’s what I’ve “decided” became of the Brooks Motel, which stopped operating under that name shortly after our brief and unedifying stay.
p.s. If the song is being elusive, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DP9UjLeLN5A and leave a comment if it’s still not there.
You too can reconstruct entire Winnipegland streets as they were in, say, 1926 or 1956 or 1967 or just about any old year you like. You can find out what business used to be where something else is now; you can find out who lived where (or where who lived) and what they did for a living. Stalking the dead/near-dead, or historical research? That’s between you and your god.
All you need is time on your hands, an unoccupied brain, good closeup eyesight, and some archived Henderson’s Directories. It’s a bit sad, I guess, but I confess that I myself happen to tick all these boxes. Your local public or university library probably has a set of Hendersons tucked away in its nether regions. Or you can share mine, which are lovingly curated by the University of Alberta’s Peel’s Prairie Provinces, bless their cuttin’, pastin’, cowpunchin’ li’l librarians’ hearts.
Thanks to Henderson, I found the Sturgeon Creek site, now occupied by three blue dumpsters, where my great uncle Ed hung his hat prior to getting himself murdered in Northern Ontario in 1925. I found out that my 1964 classmate Georgina‘s mother worked at Federal Lunch, and that two of her sisters cooked and carhopped at the original and only true Pony Corral. No wonder G always looked so well fed…
Depressingly if not surprisingly I found that the 1960s Pembina Highway commercial strip is unrecognizable just a generation or so later. No more Ringer’s Drugs (my fault), Lee’s Lunch, Larry’s Lunch, Loblaw’s or Shop-Easy. No more Automatic Carwash, Riviera Park Miniature Golf, Pembina Drive-In Theatre, Miss Winnipeg Drive Inn or Pony Corral worthy of the name. No more carhops. And my point is? I should get over it? Grow up? Get a life? Too late…. someone shoulda told me years ago.
Back then the motels , drive-ins and such petered out after University Crescent, giving way to a semi-rural straggle of small homesteads doubling as automotive cemeteries, not poetically funky or derelict enough to make for a Dylanesque desolation row, and certainly not spiffily earnest enough to be considered lifestyle blocks, and anyway, people didn’t have “lifestyles” or the requisite SUVs quite yet. Their cars looked like cars, their trucks looked like trucks, and both had blown rings and whining diffs. There may have been some gluten intolerance (in the humans, not the vehicles), but its sufferers would have had the good manners not to mention it.
OK, we’ve driven a couple of miles south and arrived at Mary, Mother Of The Church, straight across the tracks from my old school.The Church opened for services on Holy Thursday 1989, 22 years almost to the day since a few of us did a lunch-hour scorched earth policy number on the quarter-quarter section of gopher-infested land on which the Church now stands. The idea was to smoke the little beasts out of their burrows and bop them on the head when they popped up for air and freedom. Of course no one had thought to bring baseball bats or medicine-balls, though one of our number had earlier found and then retrieved a piece of cast iron like this one
but the gophers were too nimble be bopped. Our little rings of fire were by now one big ring of fire which would be out of control within minutes, and anyway it was time to get back to school. We made a brief token gesture with cow pies, which are really good for putting out flames fast, but you need a lot of cow pies and a lot of fourteen year-old idiots to make much of an impression on a forty-acre inferno. Water? Well, if the Beatles don’t have a lyric for every possible situation, you can always fall back on Mr Dylan, whose song gave me the title above, and closes with the sublime “The pump don’t work cuz the vandals took the handle.”, though being Canadian we rendered it “The pump doesn’t work cuz the vandals took the handle.”.
Anyhoo, we were out of sight when the fire trucks arrived; they took one look at the natural firebreaks on all four sides and turned around for home. We got a blast from our home room teacher (“So who dropped the cigarette?” “No one…we lit it with matches, sort of on purpose…”) and our fearsome vice-principal, but our parents weren’t told, and we never heard anything from the farmer or if there even was a farmer. The field regenerated itself, all lush and green, within a couple of weeks, the gophers packed up and moved south, and that plot of land had been reverently purified by fire, and made ready for the coming of Mary, Mother of the Church. Or so I choose to believe.
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.
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?
[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 or 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.