Sunday, February 5, 2012

Not Available In Canada

This past weekend my wife and I went across the border to do some shopping in Orchard Park, just south of Buffalo, New York. These days, what with the strong Canadian dollar, hopping across the border to pick up some groceries, clothes, and of course cheap American gas, is completely routine; most everyone in southern Ontario does it, and a big chunk of Buffalo's economy depends upon Canadian shoppers. But in 1967, when I was ten, a trip to the U.S. was just about the most exciting event on the calendar outside of Christmas. Fortunately for me, we had a cousin living in Livonia, a small town near Rochester about a three hour drive from Toronto. We'd visit her several times a year and I looked forward to these trips the way kids today dream about a trip to Disneyworld.

In 1967 I was reminded daily of how exotic and bold and fun the U.S. was thanks to Rocketship 7, a kids' cartoon show beamed out of Buffalo every afternoon. Between the cartoons came the commericals for a cornucopia of magical consumer goods such as PF Flyers sneakers. Their ads clearly and conclusively showed that small boys could, with the aid of PF Flyers, achieve running speeds comparable to that of a cheetah or The Flash. My Canadian feet were normally clad in desert boots; safe, sober footwear designed to create a steady, even gait and flat feet. Only Field Marshal Montgomery ever found them fashionable. And then there were the ads for breakfast cereals: Trix, Froot Loops, and the black truffle of sugary cereals, Capt. Crunch. These fructose and corn by-product concoctions weren't just delicious, they had mascots! The Silly Rabbit, Toucan Sam, and the Captain had 30-second adventures that were more involving than any random five hours of Canadian TV programming. The cereal I usually got at home was Puffed Wheat, which might as well have been called Cardboard-O's. But the ad that made me frantic with desire was for the Johnny Seven O.M.A. To say that the O.M.A. was a toy gun is like saying the Ferrari Testarossa is a passenger vehicle. O.M.A. stood for (and the ad's voiceover shouted this in a Voice of Doom) One Man Army. Seven weapons in one gun! With a gun like that I could pacify my entire neighbourhood. Don't believe me? Here's the ad:

I was an absolute fiend for toy weapons thanks to shows like Combat and The Rat Patrol, so if given the choice between the O.M.A. and the ability to fly like Superman I might have taken the plastic weapon. There was one problem: the most covet-worthy products of America's toy and sugar industries were almost never sold in Canada. Just to grind that fact home the border station TV commercials for these items always ended with the flashing words, NOT AVAILABLE IN CANADA. Sometimes they even added an announcer who would say the offending words sotto voce. And there were dozens of other products that carried this warning. Why was this? Probably something to do with tariffs, small market size, et cetera. All I knew is that there seemed to be some kind of fun and frivolity barrier between America and Canada.

Several times a year I'd have a chance to wallow in the bounty of the U.S. when we made the trip down to Livonia for a long weekend with cousin Cleo. We normally crossed the border at Niagara Falls, and there couldn't be a more stark difference between two countries than at that crossing. The Canuck side of Niagara Falls was all silly tourist attractions and parkland. The Yank side consisted of some touristy stuff and then a thick belt of factories that produced noise, flames and smells. We usually drove through this zone at night, and I can vividly recall passing huge factory windows that were left open in summer to provide some air and glancing inside them to see men silhouetted against open hearths and kilns. Of course, our car windows had to stay up even in the summer because the smells these factories produced would gag a Mumbai rat. It was an nose-scorching mix of burnt plastic, gas fumes, and something very rotten. Best not to think about how toxic those fumes were.

Once we were well past Niagara Falls, N.Y., my parents would, on occasion, stop at a tavern. These taverns were always outside of towns (something to do with zoning laws, I think) and had a convivial, almost family-friendly atmosphere. My folks would enjoy their first Genessee Ale since the last trip to Livonia, and I would play on the inevitable shuffleboard table. The idea of the whole family going into a tavern would have been unthinkable at home. Taverns in Toronto were gloomy bunkers with separate entrances for men and "Ladies and Escorts."

The sign tells you all you need to know about the cheeriness of Canadian taverns. And if you wanted a bottle of booze you had to go to an outlet of the government-owned and ominously-named Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Once inside you would scan noticeboards bearing the names and prices of the different kinds of grog. Nothing was on display. You would then write down your choice on a form, take it to a cashier and pay, and then hand the stamped form to a man dressed like a banquet hall waiter who would disappear into the back of the building and return with your purchase, which was then placed in a brown paper bag. The U.S.S.R. had nothing on Canada when it came to scorning consumerism. No wonder my dad delighted in U.S. liquor stores, with their open displays of booze that often came in novelty bottles shaped like soldiers or racehorses or these:

Livonia was a very small town, partly agricultural and partly a bedroom community for people working in Kodak's head office and plant in nearby Rochester. For my purposes it was excellent as the town had an ample supply of boys my own age who were eager to play all the usual childhood games. One unusual activity we enjoyed was "playing store", as we called it, at the Livonia Dairy. The Livonia Dairy was a small concern, consisting of a barn, dairy equipment, a walk-in refrigerator holding milk, butter, and so on, and a till. On Sundays the business was closed, but they left the doors open for people to pick up their dairy needs and pay on the honour system. We kids would "man" the till on Sundays and go into the refrigerator to get people's purchases. We took our wages in the form of chocolate milk. We had no adult supervision and no one seemed to mind what we were doing. I know it sounds like something from a Norman Rockwell daydream, but it's true.

But the highlight of a trip to Livonia was going to Arlans department store near Rochester. This was our Aladdin's Cave. The three of us (four when my older sister came along) would split up and not meet again until shopping exhaustion set in. My mother would hunt for clothes and textiles, all of which were far cheaper and more various in the U.S. I, of course, was in the toy section, marveling at the serried ranks of toy weaponry: muskets, rifles, machine guns, cap pistols, even toy bazookas. Dad was something of a magpie; he ferreted out the rare and the unusual on Arlan's shelves, but he was especially attracted to anything that came in a jumbo-sized container. On one memorable occasion he dragged me out of the toy section to show me a quart bottle of Hai Karate aftershave, which he promptly dropped on the floor. We scurried away and that part of the store became a musky no-go zone for the rest of the day. Arlan's also introduced us to cutting edge developments in American junk food. We had our first submarine sandwiches at Arlan's and became hopelessly addicted to them. Back home, sandwiches were only available through the Sandwich Control Board of Ontario, and by law could contain only one piece of meat and one piece of cheese. Well, maybe not, but you get the picture. Mum wasn't usually too interested in foodstuffs until the day she discovered cheese puffs. She bought a bolster-sized bag, and by the time we drove back to Canada the bag was nearly empty and mum was bright orange from her fingertips to her elbows.

Passing through Customs back into Canada was always a fraught occasion for dad. He hated paying duty, so as we approached the border he and mum would rehearse their lies for the Customs officer. Dad was a poor liar, inevitably laughing nervously the second we rolled up to the Customs booth. If that wasn't a giveaway the sight of our overstuffed station wagon always gave the game away. We'd be waved over for an inspection and a jaundiced official eye would be passed over the contents of the wagon.

"Is there alcohol in those, sir?"
"No, that's a collection of porcelain Revolutionary War figurines."
"They have screwtops."
"Hahahaha! So they do."

Duty paid, we'd be on our way home where I would be the envy of my peers for at least several days as I unveiled the latest additions to my armoury. Securing the Johnny Seven O.M.A. made me a local hero for at least two weeks. Within those weeks I lost all of the gun's moving and removable parts, and was soon reduced to making machine gun noises when I played with it, the same as with all my other toy guns. It didn't matter. There would soon be something new and wonderful in America to lust after.

Livonia is still there, but with the imminent bankruptcy of Kodak it's probably going to go back to being entirely agricultural. The Livonia Dairy might still be going, but I'm sure they're no longer on the honour system. The factories in Niagara Falls, N.Y., are silent and sweet-smelling; every one of them mothballed or bulldozed. When my wife and I do some cross-border shopping now it's often for the same products (but cheaper) that we have at home, and this last time some familiar names (Old Navy, IHOP, Borders) had closed their doors, done in by western New York's declining economy. Video game warfare has replaced the need for the O.M.A., but, just for old time's sake, I always lie at Customs.

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