- Vancouver. Master Thief of the Woodward’s Food Floor
I had a friend I made in Miss Daw’s class at Grandview School. He lived in a ground floor apartment on Cotton Drive hardly two blocks from my address on Graveley, and he was silly in the way that boys of 12 are silly. Practically down the slope from where he lived and not so far from me was a patch of what was then undeveloped ground, covered in bush and scrub. I remember once the two of us hanging out there. According to my friend, fights took place in that rough at certain times, which he thought was a fine thing that he would like to participate in. He showed me the way people—boys—walked if they wanted to get into fights, with their elbows slightly out and their hands made into fists. I don’t recall that he ever did get into a fight, even though he practiced the walk and looked suitably aggressive. And I myself had no intention of volunteering.
After Chinese checkers and an arbitrary landlord knocked us out of Graveley Street, our family landed once more at the Butler Hotel. It wasn’t so far way that I couldn’t still see my friend a few more times, and I did. He was within range of where my feet could carry me. But circumstances soon erased even the chance of continuity or connection to that neighbourhood.
The move to the Butler Hotel was accompanied by both a shrinking of our living quarters and a reduction of our standard of living. I can’t be sure why our prosperity seemed so much less, but I suspect we can blame the simple fact that hotels are more expensive than apartments; even working class establishments like the Butler were there to rent by the day and week, not usually by the month, and they charged for the number of people in a room. But whatever the reason, our poverty expressed itself in a drastic change of diet. Suddenly every meal consisted of pea soup which it didn’t take us very long to grow tired of.
Of course, while our fall in life was hardly welcomed, it wasn’t enough to slow us down. Irene rejoined Marylou and I, reconstituting our gang, and my father, I guess, spent a lot of time at the Fisherman’s Hall, which was only a few blocks away. The three of us terrorized the halls of the Butler, hung around the lounge, climbed to the roof and looked down on Water Street or over to the Woodward’s ever-twisting W.
Once on a lark my sisters dressed me as a girl and introduced me to our father as a new acquaintance. He absolutely had to recognize his son, and probably didn’t like to see me dressed as a girl from the I-don’t-know-how-to-deal-with-this expression that I remember on his face, but he never let on. I think he just said hello.
Still the Butler couldn’t hold us, and with the Woodward’s Department Store just a block over, with a full ground floor devoted to selling groceries, we inevitably drifted over there as part of the exploration of our neighbourhood. That stuff they had just looked too sweet. Thus Woodward’s food floor is where I became a juvenile delinquent.
What tempted me? The food, mostly. But also the discovery that it could be so easily done. And after I began, it was something only I could do, something that made me special in our little trio—which, after all this time, after all we’d gone through, from Prince Rupert to Vancouver, all the stories, adventures, songs, and the raucous hilarious times, still, still, I felt I had to audition. I felt I had to somehow prove my value and worth in this family, somehow to prove I deserved sisters.
So I went over to Woodward’s and filled up brown grocery bags and walked out with them—because in the store they always assumed that if it was bagged, it was paid for, and I found out that you could just appropriate the bags when no one was looking. I once stole a multi-bladed knife with a horn handle, but that was practically the only thing I took exclusively for myself, or from any floor of Woodward’s except the food floor.
And of course one day I got too complacent and was caught. A woman with two guards stopped me in the vestibule as I tried to leave the store. So ended my career as a juvenile thief.
They brought me to, I believe, a fifth floor office of Woodward’s where I waited for the authorities to arrive. I was howling. I couldn’t believe where I’d put myself. I couldn’t believe what I’d done.
“My father will disown me. My father will disown me.”
The disappointment my father would feel in me was the most terrible thing my imagination could conjure in that office.
“My father will disown me. My father will disown me.”
Did they hear that? Did those who had caught me hear that? Was that the sound of boy raised without morality, without any forces in his life to redeem him? Was I a hardened criminal boy? Did they hear how lost and sorry I was? Did they hear me?
I thought the trouble I was going to get into with my father was the worse trouble possible. I was in despair at how I had disappointed him. How I had failed at everything he had taught me. But I was only a little Indian boy who knew nothing about the power and the arrogance of the White people. I knew nothing about the danger I was in. I knew nothing about the trouble I had brought to my life, to my family.
What was it? I don’t think, calculating the time I had, that my entire outlaw career at Woodward’s exceeded three weeks, if it lasted that long. Somehow its consequences made it seem longer than that, but no.
What was it? Six peaches and a package of Fizzies. They haven’t sold Fizzies for some time now, but they were a commercial answer to the fact that in the 60s, kids would drink even Alka Seltzer for the fizziness, and for the bubbles popping up your nose. Six peaches and a package of Fizzies was the haul they caught me with that day.
That was enough. For them, that was enough.
And no, it wasn’t my father that I had to fear.