The Castrato Cowpoke of Kingston County

In Stephen King’s Joyland, Devon Jones mentions in passing, “…another summer mopping cafeteria floors and loading elderly Commons dishwashers with dirty plates didn’t hold much charm for me…”

In the summer of 1969 that prospect held all kinds of charm for me, though, because it meant I could have two months of complete independence for the very first time. My after-school job as busboy at the University of Manitoba would become full-time for the summer, and as a full-timer I was allowed to rent a bedsitter in the bowels of Mary Speechly Hall, the big hall of residence. There was a medium-security special wing for The Lifers: the full-time and somewhat damaged cafeteria staff who chose to live on-site. So for a summer I lived among the The Lifers. I came out of it unscathed and unsullied, possibly because I was utterly oblivious to what I now assume was going on down there.

Across the corridor was the self-nicknamed Fat Barry. “Howdy! Ah’m Fat Barry an’ ah’m from Texas,” he would say in a very high-pitched drawl from….well, if there’s a town called Kingston, Ontario in Texas then that’s where it was from. Occasionally Barry would slip out of character and lose the drawl, but the falsetto never failed him. When I became an opera fan years later, I wondered whether perhaps that wasn’t a falsetto at all, but actually his real voice, and how in demand he could have become had the baroque revival begun twenty years earlier. Of course he’d have needed to drop Texan in favour of a few European languages including English, and the ability to carry a tune—which he couldn’t—would have been a bonus too, on most if not all opera stages.

He spent most his spare cash on amazing satin cowboy shirts in mauve, sky blue and gold, festooned with embroidered lariats, spurs, guns and bullwhips. These billowed in shimmering rolls nearly down to his knees, so that no one including Fat Barry could see exactly where he hitched up his too-tight jeans with the rolled-up cuffs, or indeed whether that voice of his had been achieved surgically. Of course they hadn’t been performing that particular procedure down Texas way for, oh… decades!

The boots were absolutely real, really from Texas and glorious to behold. He didn’t need to tell me they were handmade, and I decided for myself that they had been custom fitted maybe a half-size too small, the better to facilitate a John Wayne-style pigeon-toed, mincing gait. I wondered how those beauties could be afforded on a busboy’s pay, but Barry confided to me that he did receive the occasional package of greenbacks from the family ranch. Oil, dontcha know…

I loved how Barry clearly got the joke that was his self-made persona. The occasional wink suggested that he knew I got it too, but that he was sure he had pretty much everyone else fooled, at least so long as he was the only Texan in town.

I could—won’t for now but will, soon—carry on about Fat Barry’s fellow Lifers, Crazy Albert and Little George Gage, but that would lead into a treatise on the mechanics of washing dishes for 1600 student diners in two hours, three times a day, and to a sidebar on the extended coffee break we all had one day that summer to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. And how much I loved to wheel steaming clean plates out to Sandy Schultz as she served up Salisbury steak on the servery line.


Crystal White Persuasion

If you don’t mind the odd brown-eye or worse, then a slow roll through town on an early morning train can be entertaining and is certainly educational. Without breaking any laws you can be a serial peeper across the back alley, into the back yard, and at the backside of a nation. The last time I had the experience was when passing through the outskirts of Poughkeepsie and other points south on the way to New York City. I can report that Americans are spookily similar to us when it comes to the early morning routines and rituals which reveal us as brothers and sisters under the skin. I guess there is residual sleep dust, otherwise known as rheum, which needs to be cleared before the daily epiphany of specialness and superiority experienced on both sides of the border and informing the conduct of our respective days.

There’s residual snow, too, in early spring upstate New York and it’s just like ours in the true north: patchy, grey and slushy, good for nothing but snowballs that really hurt. Dogs won’t even poo in it, and nor will boys bother “autographing” it, and even if they did it wouldn’t show. For those art forms, and for less damaging snowballs, you need the virginal white fluffy  stuff of December.

A fresh fall on top of a hard-packed base meant that in my smooth- soled moccasins I could slide up and down Somerville Street as quick as a flash, flicking up fabulous little Christmas-lit blizzards in my wake. That’s why I was sent on a mercy dash to Ringers Drugs on Christmas Eve 1962, for the life-giving Dr Pepper and Old Dutch BBQ chips needed to keep a family Scrabble session going.

This was probably also a ruse by my father to take me out of action for one game, so that he could escape for that game at least my evergreen challenge to his evergreen contention that the addition of pre or re to any old verb yielded a new Scrabble-legit word. Prezoom was his favourite (mine too), followed by prezip and requibble. But, ruse or not, I figured that a guy who’d voluntarily —unnecessarily, in my view— forsworn for life his beloved Scotch deserved to be indulged in the occasional small pleasure. So I bundled up and headed out for the three-block slide to my own personal Star of Bethlehem.

For a change I paid for the supplies, which seemed somehow appropriate on a holy night, and anyway it wasn’t my money. On the way home I felt a new sensation; had I known the term I would have thought to myself, “So this is agapé.” Every little bungalow was Christmas-lit in similar fashion: not a one was overdone, but every one was twinkling prettily. The night was crystalline and windless, and fresh illuminated snow was falling. Every front window emanated a gently glowing warmth and hinted at a quiet, harmonious tableau behind drapes drawn against the cold. Families just like ours—for that moment at least—doing family things. Somerville Street was the world, and the world was good.

I slid on home, unbundled myself, and sat back down, resolving in my newfound universal love state to let my father win the next game. But halfway through it he just had to proffer prezooming, and I just had to say “Challenge.” Agapé was agone, folks, and I never really experienced it again, though Poughkeepsie did come close.


Blockhead Billy

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.”

 


Hallowe’en A$$#@les

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.

 

 

 


A Wave to Marcel From Mama and Me

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 


          

A Beehive, a Bush Pilot, and My Favourite Martienne

 

The glorious and glamorous Miss Linda K Bay liked to tell her Grade Five class all about her boyfriend the bush pilot. She loved him a lot. He didn’t work down south, she was quick to explain, but way up north, flying over the wilderness around Flin Flon*, Thompson, and Lynn Lake. His name was probably Steve, or Brad, or Jack, or something similarly square-jawed. Not Gord. Gords are not bush pilots. Gords get rescued by bush pilots. There are Gordons all over the Scottish diaspora, but Canada seems to have a monopoly on Gords, which is a whole ‘nother story. This one’s about Miss Bay, mostly.

Linda K Bay had the best beehive ever. The fact that it was flaming red was a bonus, and I just know that was her natural colour. If Principal Weber happened to look in and see thirty little heads lain on their desks between their arms, it wasn’t because we were shielding our eyes from Miss Bay’s fiery radiance: it was because she was reading us our daily dose of Nancy Drew, and eyes-closed was the only way to listen to Carolyn Keene’s suspenseful tales. Miss Bay was a magical story-reader. The way she delivered “Nancy was startled [as she was seemingly every other chapter!] by a bloodcurdling scream” was…. well, if any of us kids had known the term frisson we surely would have commented, “Nice frisson, Miss Bay!”

Between bloodcurdling screams, I sometimes snuck a peek at The Girl Three Rows Over (and Two Seats Down), also a redhead of sorts: hair of deep, mysterious, otherworldly auburn—almost violet—and every bit as big though not as vertical as Miss Bay’s.

Royalty-Free (RF) beehive hair Clipart Illustration #1052120

Today I am certain to be the only 60-something man on planet Earth reading a Nancy Drew mystery. I wanted to do a bloodcurdling scream count, and clearly chose badly, as The Secret of the Old Clock doesn’t have a one. There’s a piercing scream early on, and from then on diddly-squat, screamwise. Here’s hoping for a better result from The Mystery At Lilac Inn. Carolyn Keene was no more an actual person than Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima, of course, but the ghostwriters did a good job; the prose is actually quite elegant in places. So I’m enjoying my important research, along the way being transported right back to 1963, receiving frissons from Linda K Bay while banishing from my mind the image of Steve the bush pilot, and deciding that the otherworldly auburn girl must be from Mars, the red planet, or maybe from another galaxy altogether.

 

* I’ve always been  fond of the name Flin Flon and its more sensible sounding uncut version: Flintabbatey Flonatin. Here’s a song, with my parental advisory that a man smoking a cigarette appears briefly on-screen. So you may wish to shield your children’s eyes, and your own, too, if you’re of delicate sensibilities….perhaps a Gord.


Think I’ll Go Out To Alberta

 

winnipeg_ralphmaybank

 

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 rigeur 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.

 


Lunch Is a Many-Splendored Thing

I do have some more little stories. Honest (may one still say “Injun”?) I do, but at the moment they’re bouncing around together like kittens in a river-bound pillowslip, and I have to do some separating or pairing-up before I write them up. So in the meantime I offer a little list of 1961 Winnipegland lunch spots chosen for their names, charming or not so charming. At that time there were seven hundred-ish eateries in town, of which just over a hundred were named Something or Other Lunch. Most of the others were  Something or Other Grill, Diner, Coffee Shop/Shoppe, or Snack Bar. They’re all long gone. These days you may come across something called a “Diner”, but it will be ersatz, possibly even to the extent of being housed in a fake railway car.

While external factors may be blamed for the disappearance of those beloved greasy spoons, some of their owners may have been partial architects of their own demise, thanks to ill-conceived names:

There was Till Eulenspiegel Lunch (367 Selkirk), named for a repellent mythical German jester, whose surname is literally translated as “Owl Mirror”, whatever that means. A more common, scatalogical rendering (no idea how it arises from Owl Mirror) is  “Wipe The Arse”. Yummy.

 

Not at all offensive, but linguistically decades too early was X-10-U-8 Lunch (550 Pembina). And oh how I wish I’d ever seen the Miss Winnipeg Drive-Inn (1780 Pembina). Beauty-queen carhops on skates! Or so I like to imagine. But it was as doomed as “Miss” herself. Ms Winnipeg Drive-Inn? Nope, I think not.

Lunches for persons of dubious character could be had at Smack & Snack (1763 Henderson Hwy), or O Kum Inn (290 Carlton).

Though clearly established for the noblest and worthiest of causes, these two will surely have had the signwriters scratching their heads: Hebrew Sick Snack Bar (239 Selkirk)! I wonder if meat and dairy are separated in kosher sick. Here’s my particular favourite, and the one which got me started on this important research:                                                                  War Amputations Lunch (272 Sherbrook). Will that be a leg, sir, or a wing? White meat or dark?

 

 

 

 

 

 


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.

winnipegland_genbyng

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?