Sunday, April 01, 2007

Memory Spill: Westmount Place

It's difficult for me to figure out when -- and for how long -- I hung around Westmount Place Mall. It seems like I was always there, forever, but the period I'm remembering probably only lasted two summers at the most.

My father was a welder during the construction of the Bruce Nuclear Plant, and he spent most of the week living in Inverhuron (since the construction site was so far from our home). Meanwhile my mother worked full-time at the Zacks Ladieswear in the Westmount Place Mall, so during the summer -- when I wasn't in school -- she had no choice but to bring me to work with her.

This probably started in 1980, so I was eight or so. I don't remember the drive to or from the mall, but I have vivid memories of what I did when I was actually there. It was huge and it echoed, there was always quiet muzak playing, the decor was entirely earth tones and burnt oranges; somehow those colours -- coupled with the stifling air-conditioning and lack of skylights -- didn't seem depressing back then. It's just the way malls were designed at the time.

I'd spend eight hours a day there. Sometimes I'd hang around the back room at Zacks, a tiny, dirty, smoke-filled area. I'd bring papers and pencils and draw mazes, and label them "TEMPA," which was my very own maze organization ("Totally Excellent Mazes Produced (by) (my name)"). There was a desk in the back room, and its drawers were filled with plastic condiment packages from fast-food restaurants. I became accustomed to the company of women.

My mother was always fun at Zacks, because she had fun co-workers: Wendy (who was tiny and spunky) and my aunt Marlene. Sometimes Marlene would bring her daughter Melanie, who was my age, and we'd hang around together. Melanie was flippant and funny but didn't share my interests...I wanted to play "Doctor Who" and she wanted to play "Beverly Hillbillies."

Once she confessed quietly that a teacher had read a story to the class, and that it had made a big impression on her...I encouraged her to buy the book, but she confessed -- even quieter -- that she wasn't able to read it. So the two of us sat in the huge glassed-in mall foyers with the orange rubber flooring, and I read "The Tell-Tale Heart" to her. The sun coming through the glass would heat those foyers up more and more and the rubber would start to give off a delicious gasoline smell.

Meanwhile there was "Billiards," the gloomy, grown-up pool hall in the basement of the mall. Besides pool and pinball they also had the first video games. Somehow I learned about slugs at Billiards; maybe my father gave me one to try out. I remember holding a donut-shaped slug -- heavy, unmarked -- and slipping it into a pinball machine.

Then came "Astropark," the REAL arcade, which my aunt jokingly called "Astroturf." Two sisters worked there, very pretty "rocker chicks" with crimped hair and bad attitudes. They used to give me free quarters to play the games. One day the sisters beckoned me into the back room, which was dark and full of greasy machine parts. In the middle of the room they'd put down a napkin, and on the napkin were three or four dead flies. They said they were going to cast a magic spell to bring the flies back to life. I don't remember what the spell was, but they sprinkled sugar on the flies, and some of them started twitching.

I think those women had a huge impact on my life. I wish I knew where they were.

The mall had a somewhat deshevelled Home Hardware where they sold two choice items: Mexican jumping beans (two per package and a paper "race track" for bean-racing competitions) and another product I have difficulty describing: a cardboard sheet with some sort of background on it, and a transparent sheet (similar to Letraset) with figures on the back. You'd position the figure on the background, then rub a pencil over the transparent sheet until the figure detatched and remained stuck to the background. If you were careful this worked perfectly, but if you were impatient then Wile E. Coyote would end up missing an arm.

Upstairs, the Sears department store had a computer section that always smelled like burnt wiring. The TI-99 was there, and Intellivision, and a large vector-based console whose name I don't remember...but the star was the Commodore 64. I'd spend hours up there typing games out of the book "More BASIC Computer Games" (which is still fun to flip through now and then). Just when I finished entering and debugging Hammurabi, the salesmen would need to use the computer for something, and in seconds all my hard work was gone. But it wasn't about PLAYING the games, it was about unravelling the mysteries behind them.

The man who helped me was somebody I remember as "Mr. Long Tall," a computer enthusiast who worked at Sears and who was always ready to explain things to me. He suffered the indignity of all effeminate men who are good with children: my mother warned me constantly never to go in the bathroom with him.

A short distance down from Zacks was a Bent's Camera store. The people who owned it had a son named Ian, and we became best friends. We were both literate nerds with overactive imaginations. He took me into the back room of the camera store -- you'll notice that many of my defining moments ocurred in the back rooms of stores -- and showed me what happened when you put a magnet under a work-table covered with iron shavings. He probably understood why it happened; I didn't. But our knowledge was pure give-and-take: one day he came up to me at W. H. Smith's and asked me -- secretly -- what "being stoned" meant.

Behind W. H. Smith's we'd sometimes come across boxes of discarded books, all of them missing their covers. We got a lot of books that way.

Dinner was Dairy Queen, and was always a super cheese-dog with milk. They had a jukebox, and I played "Whip It" and "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," so I'm sure everybody hated me. I learned that if you put your thumb over the end of your milk straw and pushed it down into the inside of the hotdog, you'd end up with a hole in your hotdog and a straw filled with meat.

Most of the time Ian and I hung around Videos, which began as a VHS rental store but gradually turned into a (you guessed it) computer store. I watched "Watership Down" there and was ashamed of my crying. I was fascinated by the cover of "Driller Killer," and I always wondered why the movie was called "Happy Birthday Tome". I remember the police arriving to take "Snuff" off the shelf.

The best game at Westmount Place Mall, though, was to start at one end, pretend you were a rocket ship, and run all the way to the other end. The brown floor tiles were okay but the orange ones were meteorites.

Now the only part of the mall that remains is the Pharmacy; everything else has changed. It's entered stage three: Refurbished As Headquarters for Insurance Company (stages one and two are birth and decline).


Eric Little said...

One word: the same word.


Anonymous said...

You mention the Sears department store, but I'm pretty sure Sears was never in that mall. It was an Eaton's if I am not mistaken.

Adam Thornton said...

I agonized over whether it was Sears or Eaton's, but I think it was both at different times. Though I can't be sure. My suspicion is that it was Sears in the '80s, and then Eaton's in the '90s, but I wouldn't swear to it!

By all means, share your Westmount Place knowledge.

Adam Thornton said...

I can't write a biography until lots of people have died! So I'm waiting on the Bird Flu.

Anonymous said...


Eric Little said...

Ummm--that word is what "Memory Spill" is--and thanks for a very good example of it too.

"Memory Spill" and pieces like it will have to suffice until the Complete Chronicles of Muffy are published--by which time I should be on my 1275th viewing of "Viva Las Vegas" in the Tartarean Theater.

VanillaJ said...

Thanks for that. I remember Westmount Mall had a store named "Saunders", which sold all the school uniforms in town. When I went to be fitted for my school uniform (nice Catholic girl, I was), it was the first time I noticed that there were clothing lines WAY outside my typical price bracket. Like, my uniform tights cost $12 in the mid-eighties. They sold other clothes, not particularly stylish from a teenager's perspective, but expensive. If you can remember Bargain Harold's, then you know where I usually shopped as a kid.

Westmount Mall was oddly laid out in a hybrid of strip mall and regular mall. It had dark, awkward, unvisited corners that may explain some of the excitement it held for you then, but also why ultimately people preferred to shop elsewhere.

B-t-w, it sounds like you were once a charming little Muffy. I should have liked to known you then.

Adam Thornton said...

Like the mall, I myself have dark, awkward, unvisited corners.

Yes, it was strange, because it had a huge enclosed L-Shaped hall (the "real" mall), then two arms that stretched out (the "strip mall"), one of which ended in a decrepit covered area which is still there.

Even cooler were the underground portions, and the forbidding doors leading up into the office space (which stretched above one of the strip mall arms).

I don't remember Saunders (I wasn't a Catholic schoolgirl), but I do remember Bonnie Togs being there, and A&M Records, and Smitty's (where I used to eat piggies in a blanket).

I bought "The Wall" and Styx's "Mr. Roboto" at the A&M. And they sold Smurf books and figurines for some reason.

Anonymous said...

Both Eatons and Sears occupied the land once but that was many moons ago

Adam Thornton said...

I thought so! Yes, now it's just Mutual Life or something.

I wonder what it's like to work in a cubicle inside a former mall (see also the King Center & Market Square)

Anonymous said...

someone has to fill those empty monsters now that "malls" have become urban sprawls on the edge of town. As the city grows bigger, Fairview and Conestoga malls may become offices too.

VanillaJ said...

And yet, people still insist on buying houses with large suburban lots & driveways way the hell outside the city core. Conestoga Mall & Fairview Park Mall are still doing well, while malls within our urban centres are dying or dead. The workers of SunLife Financial who have taken over Westmount Mall haven't batted an eyelash, I'm sure. The "grey cubical beehive" esthetic has infiltrated most corporate cultures, particularly the Insurance & Financial industry. Hard to believe people choose to live like this, choose to spend 1.5-2 hours a day in transit.

Eli McIlveen said...

Muffy, Feral Mall Child! What fascinating memories...

For similar reasons I spent a lot of time in the hospital, for a summer or two. My mum didn't work there though - she was on dialysis three days a week.

It wasn't nearly as interesting. :D

Adam Thornton said...

Did the hospital at least have neat nooks and crannies? Did you form a relationship with the staff?

There actually WAS a feral mall child...I THINK his name was Umberto and he always smelled vaguely fecal.

Sum of Primes said...

Those were fantastic times, full of fun and wonder. I think fondly on them often! Muffy is a fantastic person, one that I'm thankful to count as the best of friends.

The people in W.H. Smith were generally great, and I think they were both amused and enamored with the two young 'uns that would digest all of the reading material they could get their hands on. While cover art on books can be nice to look at, we wound up with so many more books than we'd ever be able to afford through the turning of a blind eye to the coverless books slated for disposal heading out the door instead of to the garbage.

Possibly as a result of our imaginations, whether at the mall or elsewhere, it seemed that all places were a source of wonderment and adventure. From the tunnels unseen underbelly that allowed the mall to run efficiently, to the rather grubby billiards hall, the arcade, back rooms of various stores which could be full of intrigue, and "regular staffers" who welcomed us into their worlds.

I vaguely recall Mr. Big Tall, and countless hours spent at the computers there...console games were nifty and all (what with Intellivision using speech synthesis and having nifty controllers, as well as the...Vectrex? -- a first exposure to a vector graphics home unit).

Videos became a regular hangout once computers entered into the mix. The proprietor, Barry I think was his name, was warm, intelligent, and seemingly both tolerant and amazed at the type of questions and programming efforts which ensued.

Hanging out in Bents, one of our regular customers sort of pushed me over the edge on the technology front -- a university student at the time, he had built a computer from scratch in a briefcase which he shared with me, showing me how to input a program using 8 dip switches and a pushbutton for entry, along with a few other controls and a crude display. Opening up the briefcase to a scene of wires, circuit boards, components and all was like opening Pandora's Box.

Dairy Queen was more or less a food group unto itself, what with how often we were there.

In the late 80's my parents sold Bent's in order to move to the west coast, after which it ran for a while, changed locations within the mall, and, I believe, eventually closed.

Sadly it's the plight of many small businesses to falter or fail under the burden of the high overhead of a mall location. The mall is like a small-town tourist destination for retailers -- some are regular longstanding citizens, but many come for a visit of varying duration, and then "move on"

Zacks was a fun hangout for us, but more likely for the people there than the clothing racks, although they had their moments, too ;)

Smitty's had a downstairs which housed...a pub/bar of sorts. I was snuck down there for the occasional lunch in order to receive an education in Foosball. I do remember Sauders -- it was one of the more costly clothing retailers to be found there. There was a little cafe across from Bents for years, serving up food, cafeteria-style. The quality wasn't the best, but the prices were fine. They too eventually closed.

I seem to recall an office supply store further around the corner, past the arcade (right near that entrance). Stationery shouldn't be anywhere near that amusing. Again, I blame overactive imagination (" could use this staple remover to..."). With all these sorts of things in mind, it's little wonder that I was a huge fan of MacGyver.

There was barely a square inch of that place that we didn't cover, side by side. Exploring, getting into trouble, trying to stay out of trouble...all the good stuff.