Monday, July 5, 2010

Eaton's Downtown

Eaton’s downtown. Transit vortex: bus stop 15 metres from the wartime house.

There was one other place, besides Shaughnessy Heights, where I could run freely in Winnipeg. My dad worked rotating shifts, including most weekends, and my mom’s part time job at Eaton’s was also on the weekends. She worked in the Cash Office up on the 9th floor and in the Information Booth at the foot of the escalators on the main floor every Friday evening from four until nine-thirty, and on Saturday all day. To deal with the problem of a lack of a babysitter on Saturdays, Mom would leave three soft, taupe-coloured cardboard bus tickets on the kitchen table with a note telling us to meet her for lunch at work.

I don’t know how I was so blessed to grow up in a house where we didn’t have any chores. All of my friends had mountains of chores to do on Saturdays, especially the Ukrainian kids. But not us. Our house was a place to live. To really be who we were. If our parents tried to assign us chores, it eventually ended up in a battle royale, among the kids mostly, until we were told to get outside. Winter or summer. Get outside. It wasn’t a strategy on our part, it was just how our house functioned. Nobody in our family made their bed. Nobody closed a dresser drawer. Nobody put laundry in any basket that I ever saw. The stairs were piled with stuff, destined for our upstairs world, stuff that never got carried up. We climbed over piles of clean and dirty laundry and sometimes would plow through it to find something we needed.

On Saturday mornings, without being taught or told how, we got up and dressed, any which way, and hopped the bus. Sometimes, there would be a battle over that and we would take separate busses. We were little kids, maybe six or seven years old, with a little sister in tow. But none of us ever got sick of our trips to Eaton’s. We knew every corner of that place: the elevators and escalators, the annexes and the bathrooms, the stairwells and the lunch counters, the grocery department and the books.

The bus trip involved a transfer at the Selkirk and McPhillips turn-around. There was a warm-up shack there where we could wait for the bus to take us up Selkirk to Main, down Main to Graham, and along Graham to Donald where we’d hop off and run into the Donald Street annex and begin our game of hide and seek. We never had any money, but we were never bored. When we showed up too early at Mom’s station, she would give us a quarter for chips and gravy at the third floor lunch counter. We usually ate with her in the staff lunchroom on the second floor, but sometimes we’d eat on the fifth floor in the Valley Room. We were not allowed in the Grill Room, either because it was too fancy or because there were so many old people in there and we might knock one over. It was probably too expensive. After Mom got off work, we’d head past the cosmetics to the candy counter on the main floor and get licorice allsorts (I liked the beaded ones best) and head out the Hargrave annex to catch the bus home. This part of the trip was hell in the winter.

In sub-zero temperatures, the bus shack on the southwest corner of Graham and Hargrave was a horrible torture chamber with stinky steamy putrid breath sticking to the small windows along the tops of the side walls and escaping through the cracks in the ill-fitting door. Mom worked the pre-Christmas rush, and the days were short in December, so it was dark whenever we’d go to catch the bus home in winter. We’d walk up to the shack and push the door open. Inside there was a bench along the east wall and people would squeeze back to let us in. As soon as we were in, Mom would light up and contribute to the soup that was breath and cigarette smoke. That bus shack had a smell like no other place I’ve known. The salt from people’s shoes made the black, bumpy rubber floor sloppy and gritty. I stood between the legs of grown-ups and could not see out the windows. Everything was a shadow from the single incandescent light bulb. Folks’ navy blue Eaton’s bags got soggy on the floor. Men in big coats and hats smoked. Women in fur coats and red lipstick smoked. Kids tugged and pushed each other hoping for a chance to stand on the bench to wipe the window for a peek outside. Someone would say, “Here it comes!” and everyone would shuffle. Sometimes it was ours. Sometimes it wasn’t. I think those Elmwood kids got on the East Kildonan McKay bus. I never talked to those kids. They had more busses than we did. We’d run out to check and call Mom out if it was ours, the Selkirk bus. We would ride the trolley to the end of the line where we’d run into our clean and spacious bus shack at McPhillips and wait to transfer to our own bus, the Selkirk Keewatin, to drop us off across the street from home, our wartime house.

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