I don’t live far from where I grew up so I often find myself re-visiting streets that were once so familiar to me. Today was one such time.
The street where I live was a patch of forest when I was a kid. Nestled between two old and big cemeteries, about thirty years ago developers built about a hundred and twenty townhouses. It’s a nice neighbourhood but I still remember it as the woods.
When I reached the end of my street and turned left on St. Laurent Boulevard, one the first things I passed was an empty lot. It’s been empty for decades. It used to be the neighbourhood French school named Jean XXIII. Phonetically, we Anglos called it Jean Vin Tois. I had friends that went there. I don’t know where the neighbourhood French kids go anymore.
Across the street, a little down the road, is a Catholic Church. Mount Carmel. It’s where I was baptized and it was probably the last time I was reliably deemed a good Catholic. I’ve probably been in there fewer than a dozen times. Most of the time, I think of its parking lot, where cops regularly convene, either to discuss policing plans or to have a chat over a coffee.
On the right is a strip mall. One that has been a white elephant since the day it was built. The first business is a Circle K, which used to be a Mac’s Milk. It’s the only business I ever stole from. It was a Saturday night after midnight. The clerk was in the back with a girl and the boombox was blasting. I wanted to buy a chocolate bar and I waited a few minutes, dinging the bell, but no one came. So I left with my seventy-five cent Snicker’s Bar. If I didn’t feel guilty about it, I wouldn’t remember it thirty or more years later.
In that mall was the first restaurant I remember in the neighbourhood. It was a French restaurant and was popular for a while. I don’t remember the name but my brother worked there as a dishwasher. I think it was his first job.
Next was a tailor/dry-cleaning business. It used to be the local barbershop. When I was going to university in Toronto, I often got my haircut there in the the summer or at Thanksgiving and the barber would make the typical barber small-talk and from the moment I told him I was a student in Toronto, I was known as Mister Toronto. Every time I returned, I was greeted enthusiastically, “Mister Toronto”. It bugged me at the time but now it seems sweet.
There’s a very popular burger place next door. It used to be a bank. The Imperial Bank of Commerce. It’s where I had my first account to deposit my paper route money. All in the hope of saving enough to buy my first bike on my own. The first new bike I would ever have. It was before ATMs so my mum would have to leave work early on Fridays (they weren’t open on the weekends) to deposit her pay, otherwise we wouldn’t have any money for the weekend. Ironically, a bank cost her money at work so she could deposit money in their safe. The safe is still there in the burger joint.
Next door is a great catering place. It used to be a small, local grocery store. It didn’t last long after we moved to the neighbourhood and so my mum, without a car, had to come pick up her two small children, and take us on the bus to a bigger store a mile or so away when we got groceries. We would go to McDonald’s for dinner. I was a fussy eater and wanted a plain Quarter Pounder so it took even longer to get our order. Then we would get groceries and splurge for a taxi home. That was our Friday night when I was a young boy.
The Dairy Queen was next. God, I loved that place. We went there after softball games, soccer games, any time we had a an extra buck, which was rare. It was the ultimate symbol of summer time in my neighbourhood. It’s still there but the old sign is gone and they sell hotdogs and cakes. It’s not the same. Or I’m not the same.
In December, after the DQ was closed for the season, they sold Christmas trees in the parking lot. For a few years, we got a real tree, usually a pine of some kind. Again, we still didn’t have a car but we brought a toboggan. And we worked together to bring it home. My thirty-something mum, me as a nine year old and my four year-old brother. I still remember the sound of the scrape of the toboggan on the pavement when there wasn’t any snow.
Across the street, there’s a popular fish and chips place that used to be a local dive bar when I was a young adult. It was where I watched Live Aid with my best friend. It was the first time I drank a beer in a bar in my hood. I felt like an adult. And Live Aid felt like an earth-shaking event. Our Woodstock. The technology of big screens, cable, it was all so new and different. The place was called Bristol’s. It’s been gone for twenty years.
The last business I saw was a pizza place. It’s in a building that has probably had fifteen businesses in it in the last thirty-five years. There was a weed dispensary recently. It was always the second best corner store in the area behind Nick’s. When I was a kid, it was called Andre’s. When I was old enough to cross that street, my mum would send me to the store to pick up a few necessities. Usually a pack of smokes and a carton of milk. She would write out a list. Craven A Special Mild, two percent milk. One time, I got a box of tampons and then told Andre I didn’t need a bag. I kicked those tampons down the street like a soccer ball and as I got home, my mum was sitting outside. My god, she was so embarrassed.
The neighbourhood sure has changed. Everything that was, is gone. Or different.
Thirty years from now, someone else is going to feel the same way about growing up here.
The only things that might stay kind of the same are the ponds, the cemeteries and the old trees. And even those change every day.