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).