Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Oasis

Hey, Party Peoples.

A part of me was hoping to get into Corner Brook one of the days I was home during Christmas but it just wasn't in the cards.  Considering the last time I was there, however, perhaps this was a blessing in disguise.

Y'see, growing up in Stephenville (a small town on the west coast of Newfoundland) in the Eighties was tough for an imaginative (read: "geeky") kid.  If you were lucky and you could time it just right, you might score a few dog-eared comic books at the Sweet Shoppe or A.V. Gallant's variety stores, but it was hit or miss.  It's not like you could have set up a subscription service with a corner store.     

I personally kept VHS rental joints like The Video Screen and Debbie's Video Shoppe (hmmm, was that a "shop" or a "shoppe"?  I can't remember now...) in business single-handedly.  It's because of awesome mom n' pop places like this that I first saw all the sc-fi, horror, drama, action, comedy and fantasy confections that gave me an imagination and creative spark as an adult.

But if you wanted comics, cassette tapes, board games, toys or any other flights of fantasy flotsam you were kinda S.O.L.  After all, these were the days before E-Bay and well, er...the internet.  Me and my circle of peeps would speak in hushed tones about stores in far-away lands where you could just walk in and procure The Dark Knight Returns trade paperback, a copy of Ronnie James Dio's Sacred Heart album or Leading Edge's Aliens board game all in one fell swoop.

But in Stephenville, if you wanted shit like that you had to mail away orders to places like American Comics.  Often times your order had to be sent in with a list of alternates in case what you were asking for was sold out by the time they got your letter.  I don't know how many times I'd get a delivery, feverishly rip open the box and be crushed because three-quarters of what I ordered wasn't there.

Listen, I'm not one to get all sanguine and sentimental about growing up in a small town in the Eighties, folks.  Frankly, if you had interest or hobbies like mine, it kinda sucked.

But there was hope.  There was a reprieve.  There was...

Corner Brook

Now, I'm pretty sure that if you search the town's website or pour through it's tourism brochures, you won't see Corner Brook described as an 'Oasis' anywhere.  But I'm tellin' you right now, in all honesty, as a kid, a trip to Corner Brook was akin to going to friggin' Manhattan.

I have very precious memories of being taken out of school on a Friday afternoon by my folks.  My Dad would use the weak-ass excuse that he had business in town.  Business that apparently couldn't have been done on, say, Saturday or any other day of the week, but I certainly didn't complain. 

Makes me wonder if Math class was in the afternoon.  It would certainly explain my deplorable showing in that particular subject.

Anyhoo, as soon as the announcement was made, I'd be so giddy with excitement that I could barely pay attention in class that morning.  Er, more so than usual, I mean.  The forty-five minute pilgrimage would often be spent looking at indistinguishable tree-packed scenery, reading stale magazines or adding fuel to the fire if one of my parents was tormenting the other.

The last ten minutes before arrival was allocated to preparation of singing the official "Corner Brook Arrival Celebratory Anthem".  Just as we cleared city limits me and Dad would strike up with our respective tunes.  If I remember correctly, my selection was an original composition called "We're Here Because We're Here" (which, co-incidentally, was the extent of the lyrics for the entire song) and Dad's contribution was that timeless, yet unheard-of classic "Down on the Labrador".  Mom added her own two-cents by shaking her head and maintaining that we were all "touched".

Eventually we realized just how stupid and juvenile this was, so we stopped doing it about three years ago.

Our first stop would typically be at The Glynmill Inn, a beautiful, Victorian-style manor overlooking Glynmill Pond.  To me, it always seemed like an incongruous oasis within itself: a pretty, picturesque, sylvan garden and manor smack-dab in the middle of mountainous, serpentine streets, strip malls, Honda dealerships and the omnipresent sulfurous reek of the nearby Abitibi Price pulp and paper mill.

The Inn was the home of The Ewing Gallery, presided over in the Eighties by Lance and Tess Ewing.  I always though that this stately couple were as out of place amongst the indigenous population as the Inn was amongst the city.  I always wanted to know if they were natives.  I always suspected that they were exiled "Mr. & Mrs. Smith"-style retired American Secret Agents who had chosen to go incognito in Corner Brook because they thought it was "quaint".         

Lance always reminded me of a gregarious, rugged version of Heinein-award winning science fiction writer Arthur C.Clarke.  Tess (who I'd nick-named "Tessica" for some reason) was considerably more ethereal.  Whenever we had to swing by their house instead of the galley we would sometimes get a rare glimpse of her in a window or doorway: a slender apparition in a housecoat.  At my Dad's art exhibits, however, she was always elegant, well-spoken and dignified.

I have the utmost warm feelings for these virtual strangers.  It's because of their sponsorship of my Dad's artwork he managed to help me pay for university and as a result I didn't graduate under an insurmountable avalanche of debt.

After all the professional artist business was concluded, we'd often have lunch at the relatively opulent Carriage House dining room at the Inn.  Being a stupid kid with a woefully underdeveloped palate I'd often opt for just a simple muffin so I wouldn't spoil my appetite for the eagerly awaited repast which would inevitably conclude out visit.

Just for the record, though, the last time I checked about three years ago, they still made the best apple cinnamon muffins in the galaxy.

The highlight of our trip would follow soon after: a trip to The Valley Mall.  Speaking as someone who absolutely hates venturing into a mall now, it's amusing in retrospect when I think about how important this place was to me once.  In the Eighties, the Valley Mall was the friggin' shiznit.

It was a little slice of nirvana.  There was an A&A record store, a place where I could easily procure the latest metal opus.  Leisure World had a back shelf well-stocked with Avalon Hill wargames like Squad Leader ( and Panzerblitz (, fantasy games like The Creature that Ate Sheboygan ( and a slew of intriguing-looking but intimidating Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hard cover books.

Coles bookstore was another highlight.  Here I might find a trashy compendium of sci-fi or horror films, a movie review guide or a  Star Wars book (which, towards the end of the decade became increasingly scarce as people became all Star Wars-ed out).

Another lynchpin for me: The Fun Villa arcade.  It was great being in an arcade which was the antithesis of the one in Stephenville.  It wasn't dirty, smoky or a place where I'd be offered weed every two minutes.  Here I could watch teenagers play Pac-Man (the machine was always w-a-a-a-a-a-y too busy for snots like me to even get close to it), destroy the Death star umpteen times in the vector graphics Star Wars game and guide "Winky" the plucky, well-rounded hero of Venture through an electronic, snakealicious, neon maze.

Other stops might include a trip to the pet store to get food for my pet tarantula Max.  I was aware at the time how long these spiders could live and always wondered if she'd still be around when I was forty.  Alas, here I am and she only passed away just recently after being the star attraction at the Deer Lake Insectarium for the past six years!   

When comic books became a hot commodity some enterprising dude had the foresight to open up a shop on Park Street.  I was an easy mark for this guy and my folks would often indulge my weakness for Batman and X-Men comics as well as Empire Strikes Back trading cards and various hard-to-acquire toys.

The last time I went to Corner Brook a few years ago, I went back to his shop at its new location on Broadway.  Much to my disbelief the guy still recognized me.  Either Newfoundlanders are so in tune with people that they never forget a face or I bought so much crap from him in the Eighties that I made a lasting impression.

The store itself was in chaos.  It looked as if someone had dynamited a warehouse of Todd McFarlane toys and then hung up an hours of operation sign.  Nothing was organized.  Nothing was priced.  Thank God he was preoccupied with another customer since I was almost killed in a live-action game of Jenga when I made the mistake of looking for a price tag on some 3.5 edition D&D manuals. 

I managed to extricate myself without too much awkward, "Jedi Mind Trick"-style pushy sales conversation.  Although I found some tempting wares (like a Tony Esposito figure from McFarlane's hockey series, a few Marvel Legends I didn't have and some sweet-ass horror film figs by Neca), the total absence of price tags terrified me.

I also made a tactical error when I mentioned out loud that I'd rabidly collected hockey cards every single year except (for some stupid reason) 1979, which was Wayne Gretzky's rookie year.  Well, when he overheard this, told me that he had it and was willing to part with it for a paltry $600.00.  In retrospect, that probably wasn't such a bad deal.

On the way out, the owner (who's name I've never known), said loudly: "Hey!  Make sure you bring $600.00 back for that set!", half-joking and half deadly serious.

My last tour through the Valley Mall about four years ago was pretty depressing.  The upper level, once dominated by a large Zellers, upscale clothing stores and the entrance to a computer tech school (Keyin Tech?  Beothic Data Processing?) had all been cleared out to make room for the employment equivalent of The House of Pain: an ICT Call Center.  Eeeeesh. 

It wasn't much better downstairs.  Coles bookstore was gone.  The Fun Villa (not to mention 98% of all arcades from the Eighties)...GONE!  A&A Records...GONE!  This was replaced by a CD Plus, where I took pity on the bored staff and bought an Arctic Monkeys CD to give them a highlight for their day.  Leisure World was still hanging on.  I trekked to the back of the store, hoping to find a perfectly preserved mother-lode of  Eighties board gaming artifacts just sitting there, waiting for some savvy collector who knows their value to rescue them from a life of eternal neglect.  Instead all I find are endless, boring shelves of yarn, Styrofoam balls and tole paints.        

Even the food court has been gutted.  For a moment I pause and mourn the Borg-like assimilation of the mom n' pop Burger World into a Tim Horton's kiosk before moving on.

Back in the Eighties, we'd leave the Shangri-La sensory overload of the Valley Mall and make our way up to the Corner Brook Plaza for a meal fit only for an advertisement-indoctrinated twelve year old.  Back then the Plaza was, in the immortal words of Kevin Smith, the 'Dirt Mall'.  At the time it was anchored by a K-Mart on life support and featured cheesy Newfoundland bric-a-brac stores and discount clothing outlets.  The only draw for me in this mall back then was the "methinks thou dost protest too much" Family Bookstore, which was a schizophrenic pastiche of magazines (including some you wouldn't think to find in a so-called "Family" bookstore), pop paperbacks, Newfoundland music tapes, and cake pans (?).            

But the other big pull to visit this mall: they had a real, live McDonald's.

Like so many other kids in the Seventies and Eighties, McDonald's was always a pretty big fixture in my life.  When we moved away from Sydney, Nova Scotia (where a trip to the notorious Sydney River location was quite common) and moved to Stephenville, this childhood institution was ripped away from me.

Exiled from what I considered to be civilization at the time, I lamented the introduction of such major childhood technological developments as the Chicken McNugget.  American-sourced Saturday Morning cartoons were torture for me as Grimace, the Hamburglar and chief ringleader himself Ronald McDonald tempted me with their unattainable, transfat-tastical wares.

The only available option to appease my prepubescent fast-food cravings were home-made, non-flavor engineered burgers which recalled this awesome Eddie Murphy skit:

Or, A&W, which, at the time, I'd dubbed "A & Double-Spew".

Just like everything else, Corner Brook got an A&W first, which resulted in an unfortunate onion-related mishap.  Back then the venerable fast-food franchise was going through a bit of an identity crisis.  In an ill-guaged attempt to be more contemporary (I suppose), they'd eliminated their classic "burger family" menu in lieu of some new taste "treats".  Instead of using yummy, kid-friendly minced onion on their burgers like McDonalds, they started using huge, sauteed, slivered onions.

And let me tell ya folks, nothing says "tastes like evil" to a twelve year old's palate like huge sauteed slivered onions.

I remember one trip when Dad relented and took us to A&W for lunch in Corner Brook.  I got one of these new-fangled burgers and closed by eyes hoping the fast-food trappings (paper wrapper, undeniably burger-like appearance, omnipresent fries) would trick me into thinking I was partaking of my precious McDonalds.

One bite was enough to convince myself otherwise.  I could instantly detect the nauseating texture of huge, slivered, half-cooked onions.  I almost yarfed right there in the back seat of the car.

Dad tried to remedy the situation by scraping most of the onions off.  Unfortunately he scraped them right onto the floor of the car.  Later we tried to find as many as the pungent f&^%$^& as we could, but that car stunk like onions until we unloaded it (at a severely depreciated price) many years later.

I also found out down the road that the only food my Dad hates with a passion is half-cooked, slimy onions.  Co-incidence?  I think not...

So when Stephenville got it's own ersatz A&W years later I never darkened it's doors.  In fact, before the franchise came to it's senses and realized they had an untapped vein of nostalgic gold on their hnads our hometown location soon closed down.  Fast-forward a few years later and A&W experienced a miraculous resuscitation when they re-instituted the old, familiar, raw-onionated Burger clan (The Momma Burger, The Papa Burger, The Teen Burger , The Baby Burger, The Uncle Burger, The Grandpa Burger, The (Obviously Named After A Distant Italian Relative) Mozza Burger, and the presumably forthcoming Second-Cousin- Twice-Removed Burger).   

Well, when Corner Brook got a McDonald's in the early Eighties, that was like taking wonderful and giving it a healthy dollop of awesome sauce.  I have very fond memories of Dad finishing up an exhibit at the Glynmill Inn, taking us up to McDonald's in the plaza parking lot and letting me gorge myself on a twenty pack of Frankensteinian, mechanically separated Chicken McNuggets.

And this was back in the day when you were excited to bite into one that wasn't gray on the inside.

It also has to be mentioned around this time I developed a debilitating, life-long phobia of drive-thru's thanks to my Dad.  Quite often he'd deliberately mis-pronounce things, make shit up out of the blue, request items that weren't even on the menu or ask for a side-order of "smiles".  The poor girls manning the wickets were probably feeling debased enough in their day-glo, lime-green, MARK I-era uniforms (which, I'm surprised, didn't kill the appetite of the average customer even before they'd ordered) without having to contend with such smart-assery.

Hmmmm, I wonder how many loogie-burgers we ate over the years?

Well, of course, now I live in a place where I could re-enact my very own Super Size-Me experiment every day of the week.  Even Stephenville has it's own McDonald's now.  Between this and digesting such unappetizing but enlightening fare as Fast Food Nation and Food Inc., needless to say, the place holds very little appeal for me anymore.            

Well, the last time I went to Corner Brook Plaza a few years ago it had realized it's revenge by laying low its hated rival, the once-proud Valley Mall.  It had experienced a complete Renaissance, and was now chock-a-block with high end clothing stores and a pilfered and regenerated Coles bookstore.  In other words, it had become just like any other boring, small-town generic mall on the planet.

I haven't been back in a few years, but it's my understanding that the Valley Mall is now entirely dedicated to commercial space.  It's inadvertent role as a haven for geeky childhood interests had been swept away.

Funny how the progress of time can sometimes feel like de-evolution for someone still in commune with their inner child.  Even though everything I could ever want is within my fingertips I still cherish how important these modest touchstones were for a somewhat lonely, awkward, imaginative kid seeking solace and escape from the ordinary.

Farewell, Fun Villa, wherever you are.

EPIC:  Information on the City of Corner Brook.  Please note that the city still seems insistent on using the bland slogan "Our Spirit...Your Success" versus  the considerably more esoteric "Oasis For Geekery in the Eighties".  Oh, well.

ALSO EPIC-ISH:  The Valley Mall doesn't have a website since it's deader than Fatty Arbuckle but it looks like there's a new comics/toys/boardgames store opened up in town.  Good to see that rural Newfoundland geeks still have a home!  

50% BONUS IN THE EPIC DEPARTMENT:  Website for the beautiful Glynmill Inn:

FAIL: Let me tell ya, Kind Readers, I've been there...

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