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A Christmas Story

by Al Roach


Clem bought all his presents and had exactly two dollars left. He knew just what he was going to do with that money. He asked me if I wanted to go downtown with him on Christmas Eve and make a purchase.

We decided to save the nickel bus fare each way and walk from Walkerville. It was a beautiful evening: clear, snow on the ground, temperature hovering around ten degrees Fahrenheit. Our shadows walked along with us, first behind, then overtaking us and extending out in front as we passed each yellowish street light.

We reached the corner of Wyandotte and Ouellette where, in a field on the northeast corner, a sign proclaimed that a bank would be built there as a post-war project. We found the main street alive with joyful last-minute shoppers.

We turned north and walked along the eastside of Ouellette toward the river. The wind was developing a bite and I adjusted the metal band over my brown fur earmuffs, drawing them closer to the sides of my head. My feet slipped on lumpy snow, hard-packed by hundreds of shoppers' boots.

"Where is this angel, anyway?" I asked.

"At Bartlet, Macdonald and Gow."

"It would be!"

Almost to Sandwich Street (Riverside Drive), I pulled my woolen jacket up tighter around my throat and leaned into the wind. We passed Meretsky and Gitlin Furniture, the Tea Garden Restaurant, John Webb Jewellers.

Despite wartime shortages, shop windows displayed a tempting variety of gifts "for her" and "for him", all competing for space with crossed Union Jacks, signs exhorting us to "Buy British" and purchase Dominion of Canada Victory Bonds, and others reminding us that "Loose Lips Sink Ships".

We approached the Fleetway Tunnel exit. Across the street was Liddy and Taylor Men's Wear, the store where Clem and I spent some of the dollars we earned, working Saturdays (for 40 cents per hour) at the A&P on Ottawa Street, to outfit ourselves for the return to school each fall.

We were surprised to see the newsstand at the tunnel exit open so late in the evening. The headlines were always the same in those days: success and disasters for the Allied armed forces on land, at sea and in the air, but inside, the comics were still there. War or no war, Li'l Abrner was wrestling for a gun with the four-armed Mr. Armstrong, Brick Bradford was championing the weak against the strong, and Caps Stubbs remained the quintessence of boyhood.

In that festive season, all the papers, including The Windsor Daily Star and The Detroit Times were carrying Clement C. Moore's "The Night Before Christmas". And, assuring eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon that, yes, there is a Santa Claus, as they had done every year since the editorial first appeared in the New York Sun in 1897.

Light snow began to fall, powdering our hair and eyelashes, tickling our noses.

"What are you going to do with this angel, anyway," I asked.

"Put it on the top of the tree, of course.  It's a beautiful white satin ornament with gold hair and all that. I'm going to put it up there tonight when everyone's asleep - a kind of surprise for my mother. She's been wanting one since the cat got the old one last year. Top of the tree looks bare without an angel."

We crossed Park Street, passing the Prince Edward Hotel. Through the revolving doors and down the steps came a live angel in a white satin evening gown; Persian lamb coat and dangling silver earrings. Escort in black coat with velvet collar and fringed white silk scarf. They tiptoed their way (she holding her gown up with one dainty hand) over the icy sidewalk and into the waiting checkered cab.

There was to be a New Year's Eve dance in the Prince Eddy ballroom. Matti Holli's Orchestra. Three dollars per person. Clem and I would not be there. If we could scrape up the price of admission, we'd likely take our girlfriends ice skating at the arena "to the music of Ralph Ford at the electric organ."

Moments later we passed the Canada Building where Sid Tarleton and his St. Mary's Church Boys' Choir had made their annual appearance at 9 a.m. that day, leading the building's tenants in singing Christmas carols. An old tradition.

Across the street was the beautiful new building of Birks-Ellis-Ryri (successors to McCreery's). We remembered the original McCreery's Jewellery Store, located in the Prince Eddy.

A stubby little Sandwich, Windsor and Amherstburg Railway Ford bus crunched by, throwing dirty snow on our trouser legs. The Fords were among the first buses purchased after the streetcars were junked in 1939.

Ads in this day's Star, signed by W.H. Furlong, K.C., chairman of the S.W. & A., and F. X. Chauvin, vice-chairman, thanked Windsorites for their patience. The buses were badly overloaded, what with wartime workers and Christmas shoppers vying for standing room in the aisles. Maybe they should have kept the old reliable streetcars.

We passed Honey Dew Limited, which served the best orange drink in town, and looked across Ouellette at the sparkling windows of old established retailers such as Burton the Tailor, Esquire Men's Shop and George W. Wilkinson Limited. (Four decades into the future, these locations will be occupied by One Plus One Ladies' Wear, Jeanne Bruce Limited Jewellers and Chateau 333 respectively,)

In front of the five-story Wilkinson's store ("Wilkinson's Shoes Wear like a Pig's Nose") stood a Salvation Army lass in her quaint bonnet with the big ribbon. Her little hand bell sounded somehow shy, matching her sad eyes.

An idea. "Why don't you give your two dollars to the Sally Ann?" I suggested. "It's Christmas Eve, you know."

"Bah! Humbug!" replied Clem in his best Dickens' manner. "Charity begins at home."

At the Palace, Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross was playing. Starring Frederic March, Claudette Colbert and Charles Laughton.

Across London Street (University), past Stuart Stores for Men, the Singer Sewing Machine Store, C.R. Wickens and Son Tobacconist and Gift shop, across Chatham Street, Wright's Butcher Shop, Grinnell's Music Shop (piano's, sheet music, radios, records"), John A. Jackson Limited Men's Wear, the Star Restaurant, across Pitt Street, past the Canada Trust Company on the northeast corner.

As we went by the C.H. Smith Company store, we saw a small boy standing in front of Bartlet's, staring at something in the window. We recognized him; we'd seen him many times selling his magazines to the drunks coming out of The Ritz and B.A. Hotels at Ouellette and Sandwich. He must have lived over one of the stores in those old run-down, three-storey brick buildings on Sandwich. Not exactly Willistead Crescent.

Shiny black hair. Big, staring brown eyes. He was looking at a black lace shawl with a $5 ticket on it. A lot of money in those days.

Clem's pace slackened, reduced to a crawl, and came to a stop. Silence. The boy turned as if to leave.

"Nice shawl, kid," said Clem.

A pair of brown eyes looked at him innocently. A bit perplexed.

"Uh huh." A pause.

"How much money do you have?"

Again the artless eyes stared at Clem, taking him in, registering no emotion. Another pause.

"Three dollars."

Three dollars, I thought. Three dollars earned the hard way. Long hours after school on that pavement in front of the two hotels, just up the hill from the old Detroit, Windsor and Belle Isle Ferry Company dock. Long weeks, maybe months, of selling magazines at a profit of two cents per sale. Always thinking about the black lace shawl.

This, I decided, is going to be interesting. I leaned back against a lamppost to watch closely. "Think of that," I said. "He's two dollars short. Now that's quite a coincidence."

Clem gave me a why-don't-you-mind-your-own-damn-business look. Another pause. Clem looking at the boy. Boy looking back, wondering what was coming next. Me looking at Clem.

Finally: "Look, kid, take this two bucks and go in and buy the shawl and don't ask any questions."

A minute later we were looking into the store, watching the perfumed saleslady wrapping the shawl in a Christmassy box. A pair of brown eyes watching her every move. Five-dollar bills scrunched up in a grubby hand resting on the sparkling glass counter.

Another minute later and he was out of the store, dashing around the corner and heading west on Sandwich Street. He disappeared into a south side doorway near Fifth Brothers Tailor Shop and the Taylor Furniture Company.

I thought a certain mother was going to be very happy on Christmas morning.

We turned back down Ouellette Avenue. In silence. We stopped at the traffic light at Chatham. The snow was falling heavier now, coating the scene in fresh holiday white. I looked sideways at Clem.

"I thought charity begins at home," I grinned.

"You can just shut up," he said.

But I couldn't get over the feeling that Clem would not need his satin angel. A far more substantial one would be shining down on him on Christmas morning.

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