Legends of Myself 58

Posted on January 23, 2013

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58.  Prince Rupert, 1959:  The Grand Café

Goodbye to Spaksuut.  My departure from Port Essington in 1959 was the final one for me.  I stood many times in view of it.  I gazed at it across the river.  But I never again crossed the Skeena while it continued to exist, which was until the mid-1960s.  Neither have I visited the site where it used to be.

Outside of imaginary lines drawn on old title deeds, Spaksuut is now almost entirely defunct, and exists more and more in the memories of those who once lived there.  And every little once in a while more of those memories become second-hand, memories of memories, as the people from the generations who once lived there pass one-by-one away.

The village is today mostly a hope and a nostalgic dream.  When I returned from a trip to Egypt in 1997 and described that country’s mostly-arid nature to my father, he said to me, “Egypt has nothing, but millions of people live there.  The Skeena has everything and nobody lives there.”

2nd and 6th againHello to the Grand Café.  When I departed from Spaksuut and Gus and Irene’s house in the summer of 1959, I went to live with my father in Prince Rupert.  It was the first time I recall living in what would become my father’s mainstay residence every time we were in town, the rooms above the Grand Café.  (I don’t think they had any specific name.)

The Grand Café was a partnership between two Chinese, George who was the main face of the business in dealing with the public, and Sing who handled the finances and oversaw the kitchen.  George was open and generous—to a fault—in the literal meaning of that phrase.  Whenever my father walked into the café after being out of town, perhaps fishing, George would be there at the front counter.  His wide face would light up, he’d greet my father effusively, then reach under the glass counter in front of him for a double-handed sample of smokes or chocolate bars to be proffered in welcome.

catholic church steepleThat was George’s way, and I don’t know whether his improvident and sometimes embarrassing generosity wasn’t one of the reasons that Sing was so serious.  Someone had to be serious to keep the business above water.  Still, George was a lovely man.

The Grand Café stood at the corner of Second Avenue and Sixth Street.  Sighting up Sixth Street from that corner, looking up towards the main drag of Rupert, Third Avenue, you could see the treed ridge at the back of downtown with the old white wooden Catholic Church steeple reaching up past the treetops.  That steeple is gone now from that view as that church building no longer exists.

The café itself was fronted on Second Avenue in a two story building which appears in photographs dating as far back as 1911—then with wooden sidewalks in front of it—and which stands there still, although the restaurant on the corner is no longer called the Grand, and Sing and George are long gone.

The Grand was a typical greasy spoon serving Canadian and Chinese food, with stools on either side of a u-shaped central counter, a double row of booths facing each other on the right side of the room, tables and chairs arranged on the left.  Supper, which may well have been a hamburger steak, or, if you were feeling prosperous, a pork chop, came with some overcooked vegetables, a scoop of mashed potatoes, if you were lucky a little gravy, bread both white and brown, and afterwards, a pudding or jelly for dessert.

little dotNext door to the Grand on Second Avenue was Eddie’s Newsstand which was an important part of my universe during my stays at the Grand.  It still exists, although it has moved up the street a little and lost much of its original character.  Then it was a crowded little place that sold jawbreakers, three for a penny, and pop for 12 cents, two cents deposit on the bottle, but you could stand in the store and drink it, which kids customarily did, the better to loiter in front of the comic rack and browse.

By the early sixties I was transitioning to superhero comics, but in 1959 I think my tastes still included generous portions of Disney, Little Lulu, Sluggo, Henry, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Wendy the Witch, Hot Stuff the Little Devil, Heckle and Jeckle the sarcastic crows, Little Dot (who had an obsession with polka dots) and Sad Sack.  The move to Rupert brought me a fresh and massive infusion of pop culture, obviously.  In Port Essington I remember merely Popeye dispensing Pez, and Mr. Peanut, the most elegant of all peanuts perhaps, but lacking in backstory.

mr_peanutThe comics on Eddie’s rack were then 12 cents, or I should say, Still 12¢, as many comics proclaimed on their covers, at which precarious price they remained for years until finally popping up to 15¢.  By then, having been warned for years, the comic buying public was presumably ready for it.

I’m not sure where George lived.  Sing had a suite at the front of Grand rooms on the second floor.  (The restaurant took up the whole of the first.)  You accessed that floor by a doorway and a flight of stairs to the left of the Grand Café entrance on Second Avenue.  There was another entrance via an exterior staircase in the alley.  Where my father’s and my room was located I can’t precisely recall for 1959.  In those days, we customarily shared a bed, which seemed like a perfectly normal arrangement for me.

The Grand rooms even provided a companion for me.  Living with Sing was his son David, the same age as me, who holds the distinction of being one of the very few friends from those early years who I ever saw again.  We were to spend many hours together in the coming years, in those bits and spurts when I was passing through Prince Rupert.  1959 was when our association began.

Posted in: autobiography