Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Child's Christmas In Eaton's

I loved Eaton's when I was a kid. Their Christmas Catalogue was like an artifact from an untouchable civilization, filled with details that seemed at once accessible and beyond reach. Where could we find this happy family, and their dark, romantic home?

In 1975, my father would drive the family to Winnipeg, park the Impala in the Parkade, then ask me the time. If my watch was running, I was allowed to head for the third floor, where the books were. Eaton's had an impressive science-fiction shelf -- I could burn over an hour just perusing the tawdry covers, nevermind the contents. Meanwhile, my father was dragged by my younger brother and sister through every aisle of toys on fourth, while my mother spent some much needed alone-time, browsing for necessities. We'd meet an hour later at the Parkade exit.

All our family pets came from Eaton's. In 1977 we were given a pair of hermit crabs, purchased on the fourth floor. I once bought a gerbil there that lasted less than a week. We buried the blighter in our garden, then drove to the city and told them our tale of woe. We were refunded the full three dollars, thanks to their unheard-of refund policy. My parents still have the Matchbox collector-case I purchased with the dead gerbil money.

My mother introduced us to the pleasures of the seventh floor. Eaton's reserved their penultimate floor for damaged furniture and remaindered goods (their eighth floor -- accessible by stairs only -- was reserved for the truly weird stuff: a surplus of pet rocks, and the like). At Christmas, they erected a bunch of plywood and fibreglass sets depicting common fairytales, each animated by some sort of electrical motor and pulley system. Whoever created these sets paid just enough attention to detail to keep a kid mesmerized -- again, we were looking at something that was clearly possible, but just beyond our own capacity to execute.

Darth Vader made a guest appearance at Eaton's in 1978. My mother took me out of school (I met my grade 8 teacher some years later, and he still recalled her note: "I'm kidnapping my son for the day"), and drove me out to see this costumed dude. I joined a queue of two dozen or so lads like myself. Then someone started the music, and out came Vader, striding malevolently between home furnishings and kitchen ware, and wheezing mightily in order to be heard through his plastic mask.

I got his autograph.

Ten years later, I put on a shirt and tie and worked at a photofinishing joint in the mall attached to Eaton's. I found a new excuse to visit the seventh floor: the elevator girls. Eaton's elevators weren't the modern, heat-sensitive button type: these required a lovely girl to sit on a tall stool, and politely ask everyone to step to the back. Then she pushed or pulled a lever, and up (or down) went the elevator.

There was one girl in particular who caught my eye: a blond Ukranian of Dan DeCarlo proportions. She also had that DeCarlo smirk, and the heavily-lidded eyes that suggested an incomprehensible worldliness. By this time seventh floor had been converted to sporting goods; my sock drawer had an abundance of white athletic tube socks that year.

Nothing came of my friendly chit-chat with her, except for an extended conversation the night I bumped into her at a local watering hole. I learned three things that night: 1) it's possible to mistake sheer boredom for aloof sophistication; 2) she didn't remember my name because there were better dressed fellas from the financial district who made a similar habit of visiting the seventh floor; 3) her French boyfriend was willing and altogether capable of reducing me to a smear of foie gras, and there he was now, coming in from the parking lot -- with his three muscular, French buddies.

There were other Eaton's pleasures. I dropped coin on my first cologne at Eaton's. I bought some swanky neck-ties there, too. A girlfriend gave me one of my nicest sweaters -- purchased from the first floor, no less. Then there was the basement, where all the reduced-reduced priced goodies were allocated. In the middle of all these single shoes and un-bagged underwear sets was a Malt Stop. This was a common gathering place for the University crowd (the U of W was just up the street). One winter morning I was having coffee with a friend, when we spotted a fur-clad woman approaching the Malt Stop. We recognized her as the mother of one of our wealthier classmates -- a woman of cultivated tastes. She ordered the nacho chips, with jalapenos and cheese sauce.

I was sad when Eaton's finally tanked. I was still young enough to treat the place like a Destination: a store where I bought what Christmas presents I could, before calling it a day. And it seemed to me that my classmate's mother had the last word on what was so wonderful about that place: you could be surrounded by a million things you might never be able to afford (including the elevator girls), but anyone could put down a fiver and get the nachos and cheese.


DarkoV said...

..purchased with the dead gerbil money. Ah, yes, truly the closest to blood currency that a young lad gets to. I believe the exchange rate involves a factor of soul-selling. And anything purchased with dead gerbil money can NEVER be thrown out. Those babubles have to be buried with you when you go to the Big Gerbil Wheelie in the sky.

DarkoV said...

In English, babubles is translated as Baubles.

DarkoV said...

If I remember the hierarchy of the main stores in Montreal, it was
1) Ogilvy's (they also always had the most intricate Christmas window decorations.
2) Eaton's
3) The Bay (on St. Catherine's St. It had some unnaturally huge taxidermied bear and elf in the front lobby. We always suspected they were larger than normal as to contain a store security guy who kept a watch for seasonal shoplifters).
40 Hyper-Marche

TPR said...

DV - your urban bear story has made some old hunter (possibly deceased?) very proud. When I was tree planting in northern British Columbia we saw a few "Ursus" specimens which were impressive enough to make us appreciate our own mortality. Fortunately none took more than a passing interest in yours truly.

WP - You'll be glad to know that Timothy's bronze likeness resides in the MTS Centre where he continues to lovingly frown on the prairie children as they shuffle to their seats to watch the Manitoba Moose.

Whisky Prajer said...

dv - I've never seen Ogilvy's in its Christmas splendor. But then, I've never been to Montreal in the winter, either. This shall have to be amended.

And I'm sorry to hear about babubles - I was hoping it would usurp "truthiness" as the most popular english word of the year.

tpr - Timothy's glower remains intact, does it? Does his head still receive a regular polishing from daring passersby?

Anonymous said...

I worked in the Camera Department at Eaton's downtown and not only knew the elevator girls but may have also known you. Curious to know who your Don Decarlo dame was? Been trying to find your e-mail address as I am too private to post anything here. How is it best to contact you without posting to the world?

trevor haralson said...

Do you still have his picture with darth vaders autograph? I do lol

Darrell Reimer said...

You know, Trevor, I think I might! I might have to rummage through the depths of a few closets, but if I find it I will scan and post it on this entry.