Odd Thoughts: When downtown was a million miles away

It seems to be that the closer you get to downtown, the longer it takes to get there.

Ironically, that is progress.

When I was a kid, downtown was a million miles away – or at least it seemed about that far.

We lived in the sticks outside one of the larger towns on Vancouver Island. If Alberni and Port Alberni had been one town back then, as they are now, they would have been bigger than Nanaimo was.

Beaver Creek School was as close to downtown as I usually got. It was a 20-minute hike down a gravel road to the bus stop, and then a 10-minute ride down a lonely road to the school.

Same thing in reverse to get home.

Next step towards downtown took us to Berry Store, somewhat more than a corner store, where we got most of our groceries. Every week, if we were good, two or three of us got to go along – there are seven of us in total – and if we were really, really good, we’d each get a penny to buy candy.

Yes, kids, those pennies that don’t even exist anymore used to buy stuff all on their own. We could save them up for a few weeks and buy a nickel chocolate bar, about the size of the ones you get for a dollar today, or we’d chip in together and get a Coke or an Orange Crush. You can’t even get that size of bottles these days.

Most times, I used my penny immediately to capture three whole jawbreaker candies.

On special occasions we’d actually get to go right downtown. You could drive all the way without meeting more than one or two other cars on the road.

Downtown was Woodward’s, across the street from the Eaton’s catalogue office, where a lot of the family’s shopping transactions gave us access to Toronto – Canada’s downtown.

There was also a Simpson’s Sears catalogue office, smaller than the Eaton’s, that was popular with lots of families but not so much ours, and a Woolworth’s with a real-life lunch counter.

It just occurred to me: none of those apostrophes exist anymore.

They were all places we got to see only when we needed special stuff, like school supplies – and we were admonished to stick close while downtown.

It was exhilarating and exciting… and at least a bit scary.

I lost sight of Mom and Dad once in Woodward’s, ended up downstairs where they sold tools and sports stuff, and when I tugged on the sleeve of a man who was wearing Dad’s sweater, I discovered I had gotten myself hopelessly, desperately lost for several minutes that seemed like I had been damned to an eternity of lonely desertion.

I found them back by running around in a panic, and they didn’t even know I’d been “gone.”

And I didn’t tell them. I knew the back woods at the farm as well as any country bumpkin could, and I was too embarrassed to admit that I’d got lost in a two-room department store.

It was a different world. Not just the nickel Coke, or the fact that half the town lived a long way out of town, and yet, everybody knew everybody else.

We lived differently.

Now I live half the distance from downtown, and traffic makes it twice as long to get there.

I barely know a tenth of the people who live within a stone’s throw, and that doesn’t make me the least bit unusual.

Moms and dads still love their kids, but now, if they make just a moment’s mistake, all the people who never bothered to know them sit in judgment.


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