I was in French class when my father called me out of school early. It was 10:35 am, the big hand of the clock skimming past the seven, the little hand sitting dutifully at ten. We were practicing verb conjugation, the simplest exercise in language learning, which we repeated rote day after day without any seeming purpose other than the literal aim of being able to conjugate that verb. Today was être, the verb to be, and Madame Kleisinger stood at the front of the room with a militant resignation, leading us in saying the words aloud, each one two or three times, us middle-school kids committing the sounds to memory: Je suis, je suis, je suis.
My father called the school principal to get me out of class an hour before lunch. It wasn’t something that happened often, once when my sister was really sick, again when we had to visit my grandfather in the hospital to say our goodbyes. But today was a special day: my dad got word from some of his buddies at work that there was a shipment of TY Beanie Babies coming in to Carlton Cards at the Southland Mall. There were even whispers that some of the rare TY Beanie Baby bears would be in there too.
I waved goodbye to my friends, then ducked my head down slightly out of respect to my teacher as I exited the classroom. I loved school, though French was my least favourite, so getting out early hurt less than if it were English or science or math. None of us knew why we were learning French—not even my parents with their French names. My mother didn’t hide her resentment for the Francophones, even though she was married to a French man. My dad’s relation to his French-ness was provisional at best. He was raised by a French Catholic father who had withheld his native language from his children with the same determination that he withheld most other things, like kindness or care.
“The amount of government money that goes to giving them what they want. We always have to give them what they want,” my mom would say, referencing the tax-payer-funded bilingual signs around our prairie city, the labels on all of the food products in the grocery stores, including the one where my father worked full-time bagging groceries and stocking shelves with intent. Linguistic inclusion as an issue of economic inefficiency.
We were living in a present suspended from history and pivoted adamantly toward an even blurrier future. My ancestors, all settlers, had chosen to assimilate to the Anglicized way of life, living on less-than-ideal farming plots on stolen Indigenous land. They left behind cultures from France, Spain, Turkey, Bohemia, Romania, Scotland, and the Ukraine, for some yet-to-be-determined culture in Kanata. The “new country,” a new beginning, like starting from scratch. Except it wasn’t scratch. It was so really, truly far from scratch. Why think about where we came from, what life used to be? In the face of unspeaking mouths—my mom’s, my dad’s—our cultures evaporated, only to freeze in the sub-zero temperatures of Saskatchewan, suspended above you like icicles on an eavestrough that could fall at any second.
My sister and I walked together to school each day, stretching our long legs as far as we could to avoid stepping on the sidewalk cracks. In the winters, when the sidewalks were covered in snow, we would still avoid the cracks, our bodies remembering where they were. We didn’t want to break our mother’s back, after all, or allow in any other kind of bad luck. The sidewalks, like the streets, were cracked all to hell. The extreme temperature changes caused rapturous cracks, potholes that could destroy your car, all like a metaphor for the ill-fated feelings that pervaded this city. The construction of the city itself baffled settler logics: a settlement in the middle of flat prairie, winters with the kind of cold they say “builds character,” and no natural body of water in sight. In the 1880s the city would construct a man-made lake and call it “Wascana,” a skewed version of “Oscana,” the Cree word meaning “Pile O’ Bones.”
French class was in the portables, a part of the school that was added on to make room for more students than were expected by the school’s original planners. The suburb we lived in was quiet but growing, consistently: humble bungalows built in the early 1980s for those aspiring for class mobility and, maybe, even able to acquire it. Intergenerational class mobility: the unspoken spectre in suburbs like these, a latent promise only few would take notice of, fewer still heeding the call and trying, against all odds, to ascend that invisible ladder.
The makeshift architecture of the portables gave our lower-middle-class school an even grittier vibe, seeming to beg for graffiti tags which would crop up periodically and then be painted over in white paint, only to crop up again with more panache. Everyone was piss and vinegar, the grade eights listening to Eminem in the bathroom, the boys all dressing like Eminem, the girls wearing thongs from Ardène that they’d pull up past their low, low-rise jeans. These, our sexual training pants. The principal, who was also the grade eight teacher, would avert his eyes as we walked by, trying his best not to look. It was a daily spectacle, children dressed like adults, and promiscuous adults at that, unaware of the difference, really. We didn’t know what sex meant, let alone what it really meant to try and be “sexy.” This is just what you did, as you got older.
It was the middle-school classes that were in the portables, which for our school was grades seven and eight. I was in grade six but in a grade six/seven split, so most of my classes were in there already, a fast-forward into the terrifying world of the middle-schoolers. The buildings were called “portables” because they were temporary by definition, though I visited the school recently—over twenty years later, now—and they’re still standing, operating as they used to. The portables jutted out of the school’s otherwise brick exterior, these metal-walled bunkers that stood on wooden plinths and got drafty in the winters. Our teachers would set down towels along the perimeter which would soak up the water, hardening into ice. If you stepped on one of the towels it would crack, and sometimes the boys would smack each other with them when the teacher left the room. How quickly our class could devolve into a convincing rendition of Lord of the Flies.
The portables were connected to the boot-room via a corridor. This was the hallway where we spent much of our lives, walking back and forth to class, playing games on the floor during indoor recesses when it got very cold—the cut-off point for having recess indoors was when the principal could confirm a windchill of minus 40, the point when, as we learned in science class taught by a rather keen young teacher who had something called a graduate degree, Celsius matched up with Fahrenheit. Anything warmer than minus 40 had us idling outside for fifteen minutes, throwing the occasional snowball or building forts in the snow.
Indoor recess saw us playing cat’s cradle and other hand-and-string games, and trading Pokemon cards. I had recently gotten my first and only Pokemon card, Charmander, gifted to me by a friend named Adam. In giving me this small but monumental gift, Adam was inviting me, I felt, into a world of circulation and play that was as of yet out of my purview as a girl.
When we weren’t trading Pokemon cards or listening to DMX on a friend’s disc-man, we’d sit in small circles playing knuckles. In knuckles, you’d place your fists down onto the cold floor, knuckles exposed, and wait for the person across from you to whip coins along the floor. The goal of the game, it seemed, was to hit the other person’s knuckles and make them bleed; the other person won, in a certain sense, by taking the pain with some semblance of strength, maybe laughing to hide the tears, putting their hands into their jean pockets, pressing the bloodied knuckles into the softer denim inside. Girls and boys played together, and on a perverse level it felt like a form of intimacy, a way to flirt by causing small degrees of harm.
I reached up to grab my winter boots, the ones lined with matted-down faux fur, which I got as hand-me-downs from a cousin who lived on the other side of town. I strapped them over my socks, now damp from walking along the boot-room floor. We’d lift our snow-and-salt covered boots up to a metal rack above our heads, the now blackish, briny snow water dripping down, unluckily hitting your face in a drop that dripped down your cheek. Then, once freed of our boots, we’d run around in our socks and slide on the floors. Our school janitor, Mr. Bellamy, mopped the floors after morning entrance, but didn’t have time to mop the floors again after recess, and so on sloppy winter days your socks would suffer. We’d greet Mr. Bellamy hello, some of us saying thank you! as we walked past him and his mop.
My dad was waiting outside in the car. He’d been idling for a few minutes but turned off the engine to save fuel. The windshield was starting to freeze over, ice crystals forming a kaleidoscopic pattern that obscured his vision almost entirely. When he saw me through a hole in the side window, he started the car back up, stepped out with his forearm-length windshield scraper, proceeding to scrape a hole big enough for him to see. I climbed over the hill of snow that had accumulated along the side of the street, pushed along by snow-plows, becoming a natural trench dividing the sidewalk from the street. It was close to six feet at its highest point, at least a foot and a half taller than me, and I was the tallest kid in my grade. I straddled it in my snow pants, summiting its bank and emerging with a look of victory on my face once I’d landed on the other side.
It wasn’t often that I got to hang out with my dad, so I looked at this as a not-all-lost situation. He and my mom both worked full-time, and my dad saw us off to school in the mornings when mom was at work as a secretary at the law firm. He would put our hair up in ponytails, drop a can of Campbell’s Chunky Soup (beef & potato) in our backpacks for lunch, say bye to us before we walked our few blocks to school. When we got home in the afternoons dad had left for the night shift at Safeway, where he’d start before suppertime and close the store at 11pm. This was when mom was home from her job, making us dinner before putting us to bed. My dad would get home once my mom was already asleep. He’d arrive exhausted from working on his feet the whole time, dealing with the public at a time in the day when the public was not particularly kind. This was the nineties, before companies had the good sense of encouraging things like ergonomic floor mats, podiatrist-approved work shoes.
My dad drove us over to the Southland Mall, where the shipment would arrive at Carleton Cards in T-1 hour. Even though it was a cold day, minus 30 degrees Celcius with the windchill, dad parked in the furthest spot away from the entrance of the mall, yards apart from any other car. It was the family’s usual routine to avoid door dings.
“We don’t have a lot,” my dad would say, “but we take good care of what we have.”
Once parked, we walked together past sparsely populated rows of trucks and cars, my dad taking my hand as we crossed the street.
It was a weekday morning about an hour before lunch, which would be when the local high-school students would arrive to hangout at the food court, eating New York Fries from paper cups, paper plates folding under the weight of Edo Japan. The mall right now had a quieter pulse—the morning crowd—where seniors congregated at tables in the food court. They sat there for hours on the hard seats, quietly enrapt in conversation over styrofoam cups of coffee which they stirred with flat plastic brown sticks. Another group of seniors dutifully walked laps around the mall’s circumference: the Mall Walking Club. Dressed in outfits from the eighties, they pumped their arms back and forth to up the cardiovascular ante, little walking weights wrapped around their ankles. I was getting a glimpse of a world that was temporally forbidden to me, like when I was at home sick and could watch Maury.
My dad and I weaved through the food court as he called out, “hehhh-lo Jim!” “hehhh-lo Sherry!” My dad knew almost everyone in this town from growing up here and living here his entire life. Since he worked at each of the Safeways around town he had gotten to know the regulars. Many called him Safeway Ray, a name he embraced with no shame, eventually taking it as his account on Hotmail.
We waited outside of the accordion gates at Carleton Cards. The stores in the mall were not open yet, the metal gates lining the front of the stores to keep out shoplifters who might, I imagined, sneak past the security guards at night when the mall closed down only by hiding in a dressing room or some other ostensible hiding place. I really couldn’t think of another purpose for these gates. It was a small prairie city, more like a big town, and while there was some petty theft, that tended to be contained to peoples’ garages and grocery stores.
Indeed, when he was at work, my dad had been known to follow shoplifters out of the store. He would speed-walk out in his red staff apron and name-tag to confront a man who had lined the inside of his leather jacket with premium steaks. Another time he watched as a woman filled her cart to teeming, covering the store’s more expensive items with rows of toilet paper and other less conspicuous goods, looked around, and then promptly walked out of the store without paying. My dad chased after her, calling out “hey!” before putting both of his hands firmly on the front end of the cart, stopping it in its tracks.
“Fuck you!” the woman said, pausing to look him up and down before getting in her car and leaving the cart behind.
“You’re not a security guard, Ray,” my mom said in concerned disapproval when my dad relayed these stories. “If something happened to you, Safeway is not going to have your back.”
My dad ignored the legal advice.
“Well what am I supposed to do? I’m not going to let them just steal!” He said. “If they’re taking a sandwich I’ll say hey, let me buy you a sandwich. I’ll take them out for lunch! But they’re not hungry. They’re fancy people stealing big-screen TVs and steaks.”
I leaned my body against the cream metal gates watching as the employee inside stood at the till, arranging the contents of the cash register and closing it with a ching.
I pulled out a book from my backpack, Louis Sachar’s Holes. I’d read it four times by then, and each time it got better. Sliding down against the gate and coming to a crouch, I started to read.
“You and your friends like these Beanie Babies, yeah?” my dad asked.
“Uh huh,” I said, looking up from my book momentarily.
“These are going to be worth something someday,” my dad said, deep in thought.
My parents were very careful with their money. They were working two full-time jobs making just slightly higher than minimum wage, and raising two kids whom they hoped might have a better life ahead of them. And so, with the future in mind, they carved out some space for more extraneous expenses: my dad putting money into collecting or a secret savings account, my mom paying for extracurricular activities for my sister and me. We got to choose one activity each. I chose piano lessons, my sister ballet, both “classy” hobbies that, expectedly, weren’t cheap. We were all preparing, in our own ways, to be better suited for that nebulous thing called the future.
My dad was a collector in a casual but committed way. He was especially interested in coins, starting his first collection when he was a kid, growing up in this same prairie city as the youngest of six kids. Now, he perused the local coin shows, and then hockey card and collectibles shows, where he showed an astuteness for what to buy and when to sell. For a few years he ran his own show, which he called Sportsfest, a sports memorabilia show and sale. He held it in the sunlit lobby of the city’s performing arts center. Knowing as many people as he did from his years at Safeway, he’d convinced the manager to rent out this space in those months when it went unused—late spring, early fall. He learned that the other sports show in town rented tables to sellers for $100, and so my dad rented tables to sellers for $75, still making a decent profit. After each show, he’d take our family out for pizza and pop.
The employee unlocked the gates and the gates clanked open, making a noise that would make birds scatter if we were standing outside. My dad and I walked in, now welcomed into this space where everything was happily for sale. I looked up and around, taking the space in, distracted by the kitsch spectacle of porcelain ornaments, spiritual messages, and pop-up greeting cards. My dad headed straight for the Beanie Baby display, flagged with the now-iconic red heart tag reading TY. He looked around at the display, appreciating the decently conceived layout; much of his job at Safeway, when he wasn’t working the til or working the back in receiving, was stocking shelves, lining them in rows, preempting the critiques from his onlooking buddies, who joked that he was going to “bring out the protractor!”
Public education here was better in my dad’s day.
My dad ran Sportsfest for eight years, from the late 1990s through the 2000s, selling thousands of hockey cards and figurines to hundreds of happy customers. The show came to an end in the mid 2000s, after some local politics made the enterprise too stressful. He was in it mainly for the community, and he enjoyed the entrepreneurial endeavour, was clearly very good at it. But he wasn’t as driven by the profit motive as one had to be to go into business in earnest, and so he continued to work his minimum wage job with a curiously committed work ethic, letting the more difficult thoughts leave his body as he lined shelves of canned soup. His creativity now went into putting together intricate aisle end displays for Coca-Cola and Old Dutch chips.
Though he had liquidated all of his hockey cards, he still collected coins, preserving a collection he started when he was a child in a cabinet in the basement. When my dad’s dad died, he received his share of the inheritance, split evenly amongst the six siblings: $5000. He was surprised to see an amount so low, knowing how stingy his father had been throughout his life, but, upon reflection, realized it was his father’s final fuck you to the family.
“I’m going to treat myself to that big silver coin,” my dad told us over dinner one night, a rare moment of him bringing up something other than the weather or what happened at work that day. “It will give me something to show for my inheritance.”
He ordered the special coin from a dealer up in Edmonton and then waited the five business days, eager for its arrival. When it came in the mail, he gathered us around to watch the unboxing. “It has a good weight to it,” he said, lifting the package in his hand. He opened it up and saw the big, round, heavy coin, encased in a plastic holder. Along the center of the plastic holder was a cavernous crack, the silver beneath it tarnishing from exposure to air.
My dad looked around at the Beanie Babies on display, until he saw the one that really caught his eye. It was a Beanie Baby bear in the same shape and form as the other Beanie Baby bears, but its fur was a psychedelic peachy pastel—a pastiche of seventies tie-dye. For my birthday that year, I’d gotten my first lava lamp. There was a novelty store in town that had created a small spectacle in the suburban mall with their wall of lava lamps, a sight heightened by the black light bulbs that they had beaming down overhead, also for sale. Around the lamps and black light was inflatable furniture, plastic couches of electric-green that you could take home and blow up yourself.
After the library and the park, the novelty store was my favourite place to go. I’d go with my dad, but had to agree not to go into or even look over at the back area. It was adult’s only, but the store had no barricade or curtains to signify this shift. The only indication you’d entered this forbidden area was an already-too-late sighting of something inappropriate but benign, like boob shot glasses or pasta shaped like penises. I asked for a lava lamp and my mom and dad were happy to buy it for me, thinking it was both baffling and kind of cool that the era of their youth was already vintage, being sold back to their kids at the end of the nineties.
The psychedelic peachy pastel Beanie Baby was the Garcia Bear. Named after Jerry Garcia, the bear had a short-lived time on the TY roster, launching in 1996 as an homage right after Jerry Garcia died and being swiftly pulled from some, but clearly not all, shelves by 1997. Once matters had been resolved with the now famously litigious Garcia estate, TY released a bear in the same pattern but under a new name, the “Peace Bear,” who wore a peace sign badge of honour on the left side of its chest.
The Grateful Dead’s brand of anarcho-capitalism and libertarianism was in curious commingling with the historical fact that they were one of the most efficient alternative brand names of all time.
“Be careful with the Cherry Garcia ice-cream,” my friend, artist and poet Andrew James Paterson, would tell me years later in one of his Kaufman-esque class critiques.
I came over to join my dad.
“Which ones do you like?” he asked me.
“I like the tie-dye one,” I said, pointing.
“I think that’s one of the rare ones!” my dad said. He looked around the display for others and, not seeing any, asked the cashier if she could check in the back for more.
“Whatever’s out there’s all we’ve got.”
“We’ll take it.”
My dad opened his wallet which held a couple of $20 bills. He still never used any kind of bank card, believing there was something too intangible about debit, too threatening about credit. He picked up the Garcia bear and two of the Peace bears, each in slightly different palettes. He then looked through the bowl of plastic claw-top tag protectors, asking the cashier if he could put the tag protectors on now and, upon her approval, placing them around each tag.
“We sell the protective cases for the toys, too,” the cashier noted, gesturing over to a shelf where a Beanie Baby giraffe was encased in a plastic coffin, his neck curling under the too-short ceiling. “They keep the dust off,” she continued.
My dad, always fearing entropy, took three.
“They’re going to be releasing a new bear for that Y-2-K,” the cashier explained, her vowels stretching out. “Called something like Millennium Bear. I heard it’s gonna be sparkly.”
We left the store and walked out together past the food court, where teenagers were starting to assemble at tables with their trays. Other teenagers were walking through HMV looking at CDs, checking out the novelty store for graphic tees.
My dad carried the bears with their boxes in the plastic bag, a look of pride on his face.
The Garcia bear was going to be worth a lot of money someday.
He could just feel it.