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.