Tag Archives: Arbys

The Thrill of the Grass

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Robert Kennedy.

A few days ago, I attended my first baseball game of the season. It was a spontaneous spur-of-the-monent kind of thing. That’s often the best way to attend a ball game. You wake up one day, the weather seems right, you phone or get phoned by someone who suggests a game and you’re off. It felt great to be back in the old ballpark, and it was a double-header to boot. The previous night’s game was rained out, so we got a toofer. (In our team’s league, double header’s are seven inning affairs, so not quite two full games, but way more baseball that one would normally expect). It didn’t even matter that the home team, our team, lost both games. It was the being there that was important: the sights, sounds, and smells of the ball park.

And the grass. That green grass. The thrill of the grass, as W.P. Kinsella put it. My friend and I are kindred spirits when it comes to baseball. Sure, we like stats as much as the next guy, but it’s the poetry of the game, the history, the tradition, the unspoken rules and code that appeal to us more than anything else. The idea that foul lines diverge into infinity, and that we are always standing in a ballpark, somewhere, somehow. In fact, we are always standing in all ballparks, at all times, if you think about it.

Think about it.

Woah.

Back to my storyt: It wasn’t long before I saw another familiar face: my cousin Aiden. His Dad, Cal, was my first cousin. I think I may have mentioned him once or twice in these posts. He was my favourite cousin, period. At family gatherings I always tried to sit next to him, to get his attention, to hang out with him. And he was always great with me, even though he was 15 years older. He was the one who introduced me to the best band in the world, U2, when I was in grade 7, so I owe him that in the very least. He was one of those guys who was always interested in hearing what was going on with you, and always had something interesting to contribute. He always had a joke or a wry observation about the way of the world, I think I got a lot of my love of humour from hanging around him.

So here was his son, Aiden, selling beer at the ballpark.

Beer.

Is it even possible that Aiden was old enough to sell beer? I guess he’s 18 now, and I felt old. It didn’t escape me that I am the same age now (39) that Cal was when he died., killed in a car accident 15 years ago. Tempus Fugit, as my grade 10 english teacher used to remind us.

We had a little chat, and I really wanted to buy a beer from my cuz, but it was kind of a chilly night and I didn’t really feel like anything right then, so he moved on to do his rounds. Maybe I’d catch him later.

One of the nice things about our ballpark is that local and chain businesses are allowed to rent concession space in the park. You can get generic hotdogs and hamburgers, sure, but if you feel like a slice of Boston Pizza, or a donut from Robin’s Donuts, or something from Salisbury House, those things are available to you.

And Arby’s.

Regular readers of this blog will know of my possibly unnatural love of Arby’s, and what a major role it has played in my life so far, and so having the ability to chomp on a Beef ‘n Cheddar or some curly fries while sitting out and watching a little baseball may not be heaven, but it’s close enough, am I right?

So before too long, my friend and I decided to take a little stroll along the concourse and get a couple of Beef ‘n Cheddars to take back to our seats. I wasn’t really thinking, and had already eaten a Beef Dip at a nearby pub before the game, but that wasn’t going to stop me.

As we made our way around the park, we noticed a few new concessions; one of which was “Taco Time”. It seemed like a pretty decent addition to the line up, but for some reason it wasn’t open. The big metal sliding door was all the way down, and we took a picture of my friend standing by the “Please Place Order Here” sign. It was just a bit of fun, and we were going to tweet the pic with a line saying something like, “Those Tacos are sure taking a LONG time” or something like that. Just some fun, right?

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We well almost got the end of the concessions, when we both had the same thought.

“Where is the Arby’s?”

We retraced our steps, and came to the horrible conclusion that Taco Time took over Arby’s spot! If you looked closely, you could almost make out the chipped paint where the Arby’s sign used to hang, partially covered up by the new Taco Time signage. And to add insult to injury, the bloody Taco Time wasn’t even open. Not only were we denied Beef ‘n Cheddars, an important part of our ballpark experience, but it was replaced with nothing. Just a shuttered kiosk.

The sad reality sets in.

The sad reality sets in.

The final insult was on the side door of the former Arby’s, current Taco Time. You could clearly make out the outline of Mitt, Arby’s oven mitt mascot. It was almost like a chalk outline around a murder victim, but the real victims here were the enthusiasts of slow roasted, freshly sliced roast beef within fresh onion buns and delectable cheese sauce.

Mitt without his binders full of women.

So long, Mitt!

I’ve been known to exaggerate on here, but I am not lying when I say that we were both in some form of mild shock.

Crime Scene

Crime Scene

“First St. James, now this.”

There was even a bit of crazy talk of leaving the game and driving to Transcona to the last remaining stand-alone Arby’s to satisfy our cravings. Instead, we made our way back to our seats, and en route we bumped into my cousin, Aiden, again.

“Aiden. The Arby’s is gone. What happened?”

He looked solemn and said, “You know a lot of people have been asking about that.”

“Really???”

“No, you’re the first. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even had anything from there.”

This news fell hard upon the first disappointment. I could only imagine what his father would have said.

“Look Aiden, Arby’s was wonderful. You could get these delicious Beef ‘n Cheddar sandwiches….” and I went on to describle the different things you could get there, like I was a sales rep, or maybe just a deranged, low-end foodie.

“You know, that does sound pretty good. I think maybe I had the curly fries from there one time,” but I could tell he was only humouring us.

What is it about Arby’s that has caused it to languish where other fast food chains flourish? My friend and I talked about this a few days later, and we’ve decided that they haven’t diversified enough. McDonalds and Burger King still sling burgers, of course,  but you can get chicken nuggets, or even terrible salads if that’s your game. Arby’s? Well, if you’re not into Beef ‘n Cheddars, you probably won’t be headed there, will you? I mean, if you have a picky eater in your group, chances are that picky eater wouldn’t find anything to their liking. It’s a sad, hard truth.

I ended up going to the regular concessions, resigning myself to a generic hotdog. On their menu, however, was pulled pork on a bun.

“Well, that sounds promising!” I said to myself. But the person behind the counter told me they were all out of pork.

“We can make it with turkey,” she said helpfully.

“Sure, why not? What do I have to lose?”

So I had pulled turkey on a bun, and returned to the action of the game. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that in that short time it took us to look for Arbys, see it was gone, complained about it and found secondary food, the visiting team scored 5 runs on us and went on to win not only the game but the series.

It was as if the baseball gods were in sympathy with the roast beef gods, and why not? Anything can happen in baseball.

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I’m thinking Arby’s

Sometimes restaurants close with much fanfare, generating nostalgically fuelled newspaper retrospectives and meaningful “last visits”. Other times, restaurants close without a word of warning.

The second way happened to me a couple of weekends ago. I had my “every-two-years-whether-I-need-it-or-not” eye exam out in the old neighbourhood on a Saturday afternoon. I thought I’d head out there and then have a little quiet afternoon by myself before heading home for supper.

Well, as it turned out, our daughter caught wind of the fact that “Daddy was getting new glasses” and she couldn’t WAIT to come and help me pick out my new pair. This didn’t really bug me (it bugged me a little bit, to be honest), but actually it meant that I could get my eye exam AND new glasses picked out in the same afternoon, even if it meant I was sacrificing a little “me” time in the process.

As we got close to the eye doctor, I saw a sight that LITERALLY forced me to the side of the road.

It was this:

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Closed. I had to pull over to investigate. Closed, as in “closed for renovations, see you in 6 weeks!”? or closed as in “It’s all over, mate. You shouldn’t be eating this rubbish anyway”. Sadly, it was the second kind of “closed”. A typed-up sign on the front door elaborated a wee bit. It said something to the effect of “we thank our loyal customers for many years of business. Your smiling faces were a joy to us every day.” I’m paraphrasing, I couldn’t get a good photo of the sign as the tape on one corner gave way and the sign dangled away from the door, but it definitely used the term “smiling faces”, I can tell you that.

Well, this was a blow. Arby’s has been a special place in my life for almost as long as I can remember.

When I was a kid, my family, the four of us, would have season’s tickets to what was then called “Actor’s Showcase”. I think they call it “The Theatre for Young People” now or something. They even have their own theatre downtown, but back then we saw plays in a converted gas station in a part of town called “Osborne Village”. The plays were always on a Saturday afternoon, and I always looked forward to our play day. They happened about ever six weeks throughout the winter. We’d get down there a little bit early and poke through a couple of bookstores before making our way to the theatre. Afterwards, we always went out for supper as a family. We went to a variety of places: one favourite was this place called “Country Kitchen” on main street. The food was okay, but the REAL attraction was getting a seat near the window so we could watch the trains go by. In fact, alert readers of this blog will recall a story about my Mom vs. a particularly douchy Jaguar driver. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this incident took place after a supper of trainspotting at the Country Kitchen. My Dad liked trains as much as the rest of us, but whenever he got his pick, he would choose Arby’s.

Back in those days, there was only one Arby’s in town. My Mom was a saint, really, looking back on it. She didn’t really care for Arby’s at all, and the drive to the restaurant was a good half hour from the downtown, and yet  more often than not we ended up at Arby’s. After supper, I remember that warm, comforting feeling of being filled with Beef ‘n Cheddars and climbing into the back seat of our warm car and getting all cozy and falling asleep as the sun set and as we drove home.

I would always get a Beef ‘n Cheddar, my Dad would get a “Giant”, which was just a regular roast beef sandwich, but with twice the meat. I can’t honestly remember what my brother and my Mom had, they probably changed their order up from visit to visit, but it was always a Beef ‘n Cheddar for me and a Giant for my Dad. Curly fries for everyone. That goes without saying. They even had these deluxe baked potatoes that came with all kinds of crazy toppings and they came in these little domes that would steam up from the time you took your tray from the counter to your seat. I would quite often get a baked potato instead of curly fries. My favourite was the mushroom and swiss cheese option. In addition to the mushrooms and swiss cheese, the potato would be doused in butter and I would eat the whole damn thing, skin and all.

I can’t tell you exactly what it is about a Beef ‘n Cheddar that is so good, but I’ll try. It’s the softness of the onion bun, the gooey goodness of the cheese sauce, the tenderness of the slow roasted beef, and the sweet tang of the BBQ or “Arby’s” sauce. That’s it. Sounds simple, but try one and see if you don’t agree. Sometimes, I get a craving so strong, it’s ridiculous. It’s not a coincidence that when you say “Arby’s” out loud it sounds like “R.B.’s”, as in “Roast Beef”.

Although Arby’s in general holds a special place in my heart, this location in my old neighbourhood, this “closed without fanfare” location holds a particular special spot in my personal mythology. I still remember the day that the Arby’s opened in our neighbourhood. My Dad came home from work, all smiles. “Guess what’s going up in front of the hospital? GUESS! We don’t have to go to Transcona anymore! It’s an Arby’s!” It was the outline of the ten gallon hat that gave it away. We went on opening day, much to my Mom’s chagrin. We went there after church. We went there WAY more than we probably should.

My friend Ed worked in a comic book shop across the street from the Arby’s for many years, and on Sundays he was the only staff person in the building. It virtually became an unofficial “hang out” spot for me and my friends. We joked and we called it “The Eddie Show” because was like a late night talk show host, sitting behind his desk at the front of the store, and each of his friends would make their way over throughout the afternoon. “Who will be the first guest on the Eddie Show today?” was a common question. Whenever I made a guest appearance on “The Eddie Show”, you just KNOW I came with a greasy bag of curly fries and Beef  ‘n Cheddars for my best bud. They sometimes would have these crazy deals like “5 Beef ‘n Cheddars for $5”. I mean, Jesus, who is buying 5 Beef ‘n Cheddars at one time? That’s right: this guy. I remember showing up at “The Eddie Show” with the 5 in the bag and Ed saying, “You’re not planning on eating ALL of those here, are you?” Actually, I was, but I felt a bit guilty, so I gave Ed one.

As fate would have it, when I was hospitalized in my late teens for Depression, I was on the psych-ward in my neighbourhood hospital, a short walk from Arby’s. I didn’t take me long to figure out the morning routine. The breakfast carts would be wheeled onto the ward. We would eat and then we would line up for our morning meds. I learned to befriend the kitchen staff that would bring our breakfasts. I would ask them if they knew what was on the menu for lunch, and if it was something terrible, I would spend my morning trying to arrange a day pass so I could go out “for a walk” around 11:30 am and come back around 1:30 or 2. Reader, I’m not ashamed to say that this “walk” was a ruse and it would always lead me to the Arby’s.

Years later, I remember this one time when I was having a bad reaction to a new medication. Cold sweats, shakes, diarrhea, bad thoughts, you name it. I was anxiously pacing in the waiting room to see my psychiatrist when my then girlfriend (now my wife) showed up unexpectedly with a bag of (you guessed it!) Beef ‘n Cheddars. I know without a doubt in my mind that there is a time and a place for lithium, zoloft, paxil, and prozac. I also know that at that moment I don’t think I could have been any happier to see that familiar ten gallon hat logo on the side of that greasy brown bag. Oh, and my girlfriend too.

I remember a time about fifteen years ago when I received one of the worst phone calls you could probably ever imagine. It was my aunt, telling me that my beloved cousin, my favourite cousin, Cal, was driving home from up north with his wife and his two kids and some how he had driven off the road and flipped the car and was killed instantly. His wife sustained a broken leg and a dislocated shoulder, his 2-year-old son had a concussion and by the grace of God his eight month old son was not harmed at all……car seats.

We all gathered at my aunt and uncle’s house, stunned, as families do in moments of unspeakable tragedy. We were hoping the reports were wrong somehow, but they weren’t. I know that sometimes when you’re in shock and you are grieving you don’t feel much like eating. Not my family. My uncle Doug turned to me, and asked if I was getting hungry. I said I guess so, and he pulled some money out of his wallet and said, “Why do you go out and get some food for everyone?” So I did. It felt weird to be elevated to the status of “the guy who went and did things for my uncle”, because that was my cousin Cal’s job.

But I did it anyway, and without even thinking about it, I went to Arby’s.

I didn’t even take orders. I just got a bunch of Beef ‘n Cheddars, Philly Beef and Swisses, a few regulars, a “Giant” for my uncle (just like his brother), and a whole whack of curly fries. When I got back to the house, my awesome family sat down together and ate Arby’s in one of the darkest chapters of our collective family’s life. We figured out who was going to go up to Thompson to help with my cousin’s wife and kids, we started the impossible talk of planning a funeral for someone in his late 30’s, and even then, in our grief, we told stories. Our favourite stories of Cal. How Cal introduced me to the band U2 and gave me his cassette copy of “The Joshua Tree”, how Cal always made time to talk to you, was interested in what you were all about, was always wanting to talk about books, movies, tv shows. This sounds corny, I know, but somehow through sharing these stories over this impromptu family reunion Arby’s meal, I knew everything was going to be okay.

So yeah.

Arby’s has a weirdly special place in my heart, in my family’s personal mythology. I could go on. I could tell the story about how my wife and I visited an Arby’s in Marshall, Michigan and how they had fresh homemade iced tea in a ceramic cistern that you poured yourself. I could tell you about the time my Uncle Jack and Aunt Doris were driving back from Arizona and my Uncle Jack was wearing a ball cap in the Arby’s and my aunt (who can have a loud, commanding voice) shouted, “Jack, take that damn hat OFF!” and my uncle looked around the restaurant and saw four other guys take their hats off too. I could tell these stories, but I won’t. Otherwise we’ll be here all day. When I eat at an Arby’s, I think of my Dad, my cousin, my uncle, all lost to me now.

Sure, there’s still the one on the other end of town, and sure, there’s still one in the mall, but to see the neighbourhood location close, the one with so much history, without so much as a “last supper” opportunity is hard to take. As it turns out, my “last supper” at that location happened to be on Good Friday last year, before a viewing of Zoolander. The Beef ‘n Cheddars delivered, but sorry, fanbase, still not a Ben Stiller fan!

I got back in the car and drove on to the eye doctor’s appointment. As it turned out, my eyes passed “with flying colours” and I didn’t need new glasses anyway. When we broke this news to our daughter, she starting bawling right there in the show room. I almost said, “Come on. Cheer up. Let’s go get some Beef ‘n Cheddars,” but I caught myself. In a minute, I felt like bawling too.

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Midsummer Magic: Before Bradbury, there was Bellairs.

Earlier this month I wrote a few words on the passing of Ray Bradbury. I’m currently reading his seminal novel about small town life, “Dandelion Wine” and am quite enjoying it. It’s put me in a bit of a nostalgic mood and I thought it was time for me to write a little bit about John Bellairs.

Before Bradbury, there was Bellairs, and I have to say Bellairs made much more of an impression on me and it was an impression that lasted much longer than any other author.

He haunts me still.

Where to begin? Why not at the beginning?

My grade 3 teacher ran a contest to see if we could read 30 books in 30 days. I took it as a real challenge. I didn’t cop out and just choose picture books like some kids did. For this to be real, I decided they had to be actually real novels. Up to this point, I had been reading Hardy Boys almost exclusively. The summer between grade 2 and 3 was the first summer I actually read a novel on my own. I remember we were on a road trip to Toronto and Montreal, and I was reading “The CrissCross Shadow” by Franklin W. Dixon. I would summarize each chapter for my parents (and my little brother) as we drove along. My parents were really encouraging. “What’s going to happen next?” “I think so and so is the bad guy.” etc etc. I can’t tell you the feeling of accomplishment I felt when I finally got to the end of that book and filled my family in with the final details. I was hooked. Simple as that. I was now a reader.

My first book, ever.

So fast forward six months and here I am trying to read 30 books in 30 days. I found this one book called “Captain Ghost” by Thelma Bell. I instantly fell in love with this sweet simple story of a group of friends who are scared of and later befriended by an elderly, reclusive neighbour. I think I was attracted to it because it had “Ghost” in the title, to be honest. I can’t tell you how many times I borrowed that book. Each time I borrowed it from the bottom shelf of our school library’s fiction section, I would see this spooky looking book shelved right next to it.

It was “The Figure in the Shadows” by John Bellairs.

This was one of those happy coincidences that happens in life. On an impulse, I borrowed it one day and I completely forgot about the 30 book challenge. In the end I may have read 10 or 12, but I discovered an author that is still in my heart today. I was hooked from the very first line. “Lewis Barnavelt stood at the edge of the playground, watching the big boys fight.” This book showed wizards and witches to be living amongst us and there was a new revelation for me. There was such a thing as good wizards and witches. This was also 20 years before Harry Potter. I loved everything about this story. I loved the descriptions of small town life in “New Zebedee, in Capernaum County, in rural Michigan”. I loved the old house where Lewis lived with his Uncle Jonathan and the next door neighbour, Mrs. Zimmerman who would always wear purple and turned out to be a witch ( a good witch). Uncle Jonathan was a male witch (they call them warlocks in these stories) but not nearly as powerful as Mrs. Zimmerman. He could conjure the odd thing and do some pretty cool parlour tricks, but that was about it. I could relate to Lewis, a shy bookish character. I also loved his friend, tomboy Rose Rita Pottinger whose fearlessness was a perfect counterpoint to Lewis’ timidity. I also loved the cozy quiet moments in the books, where the characters would play cards and drink cider (Uncle Jonathan would always drink something stronger) and eat donuts and have bonfires. I also loved the subtle way evil magic was talked about. Mrs. Zimmerman at the end of “Figure in the Shadows” says “You know, it must have been awfully  lonely on farms in those days. No TV, no radio, no car to take you into town for a movie. No movies at all. Farmers just kind of holed up for the winter. Some of them read the Bible, and some of them read-other books.”

Gary, You’re one lucky dude, whoever you are!

And the illustrations. I can’t even tell you how much the illustrations fueled this 8 year old’s mind. “The Figure in the Shadows” was illustrated by Mercer Mayer, but almost all of the other stories had drawings by Edward Gorey. In fact, there was a time when I couldn’t imagine John Bellairs writing anything that wasn’t accompanied by Edward Gorey sketches. It was the first time I had ever heard of the term “frontispiece”. The same is true of Edward Gorey, when I discovered he had a whole career doing things other than John Bellairs novels. It somehow didn’t seem right that these two would have the ability to work on stuff separately. It felt like cheating. Bellairs’ words and Gorey’s pictures belong together.

I soon found out that “The Figure in the Shadows” was book 2 in a trilogy and book 3 wasn’t yet published. I quickly sought out “The House with a Clock in it’s Walls” (book 1) and loved it almost as much as “Figure in the Shadows”. Do you ever really get over your first love? I learned how Lewis came to live with his Uncle and how he adjusted to life in New Zebedee. A year later, “The Letter, the Witch and the Ring” was published and you’ve never seen a more excited 9-year-old tear out of his school library with it under his arm.

Soon John Bellairs moved away from those beloved characters and created two other distinct series.

Johnny Dixon lived with his grandparents in Dustin Heights, Massachutsets. His mother died and his father was a pilot fighting in Korea. He had similar characteristics to Lewis, shy and bookish. He was befriended by Fergie, a tough no-nonsense kind of kid. A male version of Rose Rita, if you will. He also developed this wonderful friendship with cranky old Professor Childermass across the street who studied the occult. The first book in this series was “The Curse of the Blue Figurine” and another strong title is “The Mummy, the Will and the Crypt”.

Fourteen year old Anthony Monday works part-time in the Hoosac Public Library in Hoosac, Minnesota. He is befriended by elderly librarian Miss Eells and her brother Emerson. Two of his best adventures are “The Treasure of Alpheus T. Winterborn” and “The Dark Secret of Weatherend”.

I loved the intergenerational aspect of these stories. Characters my age could work and joke with adults and also be seen as equals (especially when fighting evil spirits and the like.)

I read these books well past the target age, I am sure. I read them even after I discovered Stephen King and Clive Barker. It wasn’t until I got to university that I noticed that there hadn’t been a new one in a while. I was in the library and I noticed that there was a new John Bellairs book, but on the cover it said “completed by Brad Strickland”.

Wot.

This was the early 1990’s, before the internet. It was harder to keep up with things then. The book jacket said that Brad Strickland was “authorized by the estate of John Bellairs to complete a number of manuscripts left behind after the author’s untimely death in 1991.”

1991. The same year my Dad died. Somehow feels a little appropriate, doesn’t it, considering John Bellairs was a such a positive  influence on my early years and was almost a literary father figure to me? I admired and loved him and waited impatiently for each new book from grade 3 to high school. 1991. How I fucking hate you.

I tried reading that Brad Strictland book, as well as one or two later ones, but I just couldn’t get into them. The familiar characters were there, of course, but there was something missing. The magic was gone, I’m afraid.

But wait, there’s more!

In 2007, my wife, Mom and I were on a road trip, a very John Bellairsy intergenerational road trip, I might add, and we found ourselves in Cape Cod. A little pre-trip research turned up the fact that Edward Gorey’s cottage has been turned into a museum ever since his death in 2000. It is located in Barnstaple, just off the scenic 6A road. It was a short drive from where we were staying and we had a wonderful time poking around his place. It was filled with a lot of artifacts from his life, but many things were left the same as when he lived. The back of his couch still had the scratch marks from all of his cats. We had supper that night in the wee restaurant that he often frequented. I was cheered to see they had a complete set of John Bellairs’ first editions on display too.

Edward Gorey’s house, Cape Cod.

.

As a public librarian, I take a personal interest in the John Bellairs books in our collection. I jealously guard them from weeding. I know I am supposed to maintain a professional disinterest in the collection. It’s not my collection after all, it’s the community’s. Having said this, I have let the children’s staff know to not withdraw any John Bellairs without checking with me first. Most of his titles are sadly out of print these days. Something so strong from my childhood is slowly fading into obscurity. My wife, who works in the children’s department of a different library, does her part to keep John Bellairs alive. If ever a young boy comes in and asks for something scary, my wife will say, “Do you want something really scary?” The boy will invariably nod his head and my wife will answer. “Okay, well, if you think you can handle it, this is really really scary. It gave me nightmares!” and she hands him a John Bellairs title.

A year after the Cape Cod trip, my wife and I were planning a road trip to Toronto in June. I’m usually the planner, but this time my wife said, “Where’s that town where John Bellairs in from? Maybe we could check it out?”. Well, it turns out Marshall, Michigan, John Bellairs’ home town, is about three hours past Chicago. It was sort of on our route, so we made an effort to spend a night there.

And it was AMAZING!

Here’s a quotation from “The House with a Clock in its Walls” describing New Zebedee, the fictional town based on Marshall.

“To begin with, the town was marvelous. It was the sort of place he had always wanted to live in. Lewis’s old hometown in Wisconsin looked as if it had been built yesterday; all the houses were the same size, and the main street was just a row of bars and gas stations. New Zebedee was different. It was full of tall, elaborately decorated old houses. Even the ordinary white-frame houses had things that made them seem different-a stained glass window or a bouquet of iron flowers on top of a cupola. And so many of the houses seemed to be hiding secrets”.

Cronin House. The inspiration for “Barnavelt’s Folly” as seen on the covers of “The House with a Clock in its Walls” and “The Figure in the Shadows”.

The town WAS marvelous. It is on a National Historic Registry for the most number of 19th century buildings in one area, and people really take pride in keeping them in good shape. The main street looks like it was transported here directly from the 1950s. There is still a hardware store, people! And a Rexall drugstore with a soda counter! And the masonic hall, the same masonic hall where Lewis Barnavelt gets (SPOILER!) abducted by the creature in “The Figure in the Shadows”. At one end of the main street is a beautiful fountain, a focal point and landmark in many of the stories. In fact you could see the fountain from our room in our bed and breakfast. I had printed out a “John Bellairs walking tour” off the internet before we left, and we did exactly that. We walked from location to location, each one significant in some way for inspiring John Bellairs. The octagon house featured in “The Treasure of Alpheus T. Winterborn?” Check. Marshall’s high school that inspired Lewis’ and Rose Rita’s school in New Zebedee? Check. The crown jewel on the tour was the Cronin House, which inspired Barnavelt’s Folley, where Lewis and Uncle Jonathan lived. There was even a plaque outside the house commemorating John Bellairs as a notable resident. We visited the library (a nice new facility with a small John Bellairs display in the lobby, but sadly it looked nothing like the library where Anthony Monday and Miss Eells worked) and noticed that there was an “American Museum of Magic” on the main street. How appropriate! Marla decided to do some watercolour painting by the town fountain, so I checked out the “museum” on my own. It was really just one big room, filled with artifacts from the days when Marshall was on the vaudeville circuit. Doug Collins, the curator, told me that Marshall was almost exactly half way between Cleveland and Chicago, and so it made for a natural spot for people to stop for the night. This all changed, however, when the railway went through and there was no longer any need to stop. Marshall also lost out on the bid to become the state capital. That honour went to Lansing in a last-minute final vote, but not before Marshall had prematurely built a governor’s mansion and cleared a huge area for the state capital building. The governor’s mansion is still there, but it looks out on a big empty field where the capitol was meant to be. It is now used for the annual fairgrounds. Doug said, “Kind of ironic that the spot meant for politicians is now used to showcase livestock.” and we both had a good chuckle.

A governor’s mansion, but no governor.

When I mentioned to Doug the real reason why we stopped in Marshall, he looked at me and said, “I went to school with John, and his older brother Frank”. He looked at his watch and said, “Tell you what. It’s pretty quiet here day. Why don’t we close up shop and I’ll take you around town and show you some of the sights?” I couldn’t believe this. Five minutes later I was in Doug Collins’ minivan and took me around to see things that weren’t on the tour, like the house that John Bellairs grew up in and where his brother Frank is currently living. He even had some old yearbooks and let me have a look. Doug told me that he worked for the Marshall fire department his whole career. “I was responsible for turning the water to the town fountain off every night.” he proudly told me. “Now it’s on a timer”. I had lost track of time and I thought Marla would be getting worried. I asked Doug if we could swing by the town fountain, and I’d introduce him to my wife. “Sure thing!” and you should have seen the look on Marla’s face when I pulled up in a minivan and got out. “Marla, I want you to meet Doug. He knew John Bellairs and his brother, Frank!”

Me and my personal tour guide, Doug Collins (with Houdini in the background of course!)

That night, after supper, Marla and I took a drive out to the cemetery. “No admittance after dusk!” the sign read. IT WAS AFTER DUSK! I was feeling quite Lewis Barnavelty: “Maybe we should just look at it from the car?” but Marla had the spirit of Rosa Rita. “Come on, you’re not SCARED, are you? Let’s check it out!” Truth was, I was kinda scared. And also we were breaking the law. But Marla was out of the car before I could say anything else, and cursing to myself I fumbled out after her into the semi-darkness. The cemetery looked exactly how a John Bellairs cemetery should look. Crooked grave stones, gloomy mausoleums, twisty paths. A tiny bit of fog even rolled in from the nearby river to complete the effect. I almost expected to stumble over a tomb marked with the Omega symbol and see two piercing lights, like the scene from “The House with the Clock in its Walls”. That didn’t happen, but by God all of a sudden the entire grave yard was full of fireflies. “Oh my God, can you believe this, Trev?” was my wife’s astonished response. In a way, I sort of did. It was John Bellairs’ home town, I was eight again, and it only made sense that after all these years we had rediscovered the magic.

Oakridge Cemetery, Marshall. (We went back the next day to take pictures).

We brought a little bit of Marshall home with us from that trip. I mean that literally. Marla bought a couple of doorknobs in an antique shop and one of them is on our front closet door. Who buys doorknobs as souvenirs? My wife, that’s who! She also went back and secretly bought me a chess set that I was coveting but didn’t think we had the money or space for it. She gave it to me as a Christmas present, and it was a lovely surprise. I don’t think she knew that one of John Bellairs’ stories is called “The Chessmen of Doom” and chess is a contant presence in the Johnny Dixon stories.

Also, for the record, Marshall has the BEST Arby’s I’ve ever been in. They had this giant ceramic cistern filled with iced tea. It had a spigott and everything!

I’ll take two!

Now this wouldn’t be a blogpost without a good list, so here’s a list of my top five favourite John Bellairs stories. The ones that I’ve read over and over again and will still pick up as an adult and which I cannot wait until my daughter is old enough to discover for herself. I say discover, but there’s really no way she won’t be aware of them as long as I’m around. I realize this list will mean nothing to anyone except me and the dudes that run the “John Bellairs wrote the best books” fanpage on Facebook but here it is anyway.

1. The Figure in the Shadows

2. The House with a Clock in its Walls

3. The Mummy, The Will and The Crypt

4. The Curse of the Blue Figurine

5. The Treasure of Alpheus T. Winterborn

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You can’t spell “Vote Compass” without “Ass”

“Politicians are like diapers; they need to be changed often and for the same reason.” Mark Twain

Just like that, we’re into another Federal election. In my city, we will have had a civic, provincial and federal election within a 12 month period. I know a lot of my friends have become apathetic and disenchanted with our political system and it’s leaders. Everyone’s focusing on what’s bad about the other guy, rather than just telling us what’s good about themselves. A friend of mine has a theory that most people would vote “Green” if it was based solely on policies, but most people vote strategically. “Who has the best chance of beating the guys I hate the most?” It’s hard not to agree with the cynics, but I personally love election time.

First: it’s a relatively short period. Five weeks and its over. Not really enough time for voter fatigue to set in, not like the system our friends to the South employ. The 2012 Presidential election is still almost 2 years away, and there is already rumblings about who will run. Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota announced that he is launching an exploratory committee into the feasibility of him running for President. He’s not even running yet, he’s just announcing to everybody that he’s checking out his options. That’s like me announcing in the morning that I kind of feel like an Arby’s Beef and Cheddar for lunch. There’s a slim chance I’ll actually eat one, but I want everyone to know that I’m thinking about one of those delicious sandwiches made up of an onion bun, lean shaved roast beef, Arby’s Sauce, and velvety cheese sauce…..where was I?

Jack Layton doing his best "Beef and Cheddar" impression.

Oh yeah, elections. The second thing I like about them is that the politicians are out there crisscrossing the country, (or in Duceppe’s case, La Belle Province) and that anything can happen. Politicians veer from scripts, unexpected protests can erupt and rhetoric escalates. It doesn’t really matter that on May 2 the results will more than likely be the same: A minority Conservative government, with a strong showing (but not strong enough) from Liberals, NDPers and the Bloc. Who knows? Maybe even Lizzie May and the Greens may snag a seat.

I'm glad there's a "Vote Green" sign in the background. Easier to identify.

This brings me to this week’s topic. The Vote Compass. This thing started innocently enough. The CBC hired a couple of poly-sci profs to come up with a survey that asks your opinion on a number of topics relevant to Canadians. Representatives from each major party “answer” the questions based on their platforms and past practices. The idea is that you can take the survey and see which party most closely aligns itself with you. It’s billed as a “voter’s tool” for those who may not know how they want to vote. “See where you stand on the issues” encourages Peter Mansbridge. You can see if you’re a soulless Tory, a wishy-washy Liberal, a treehugging Greeny, a commie rat NDPer or a treasonous BLOCer, I suppose.

"Let's fuck this country up good!"

I took the compass survey, answered the questions as truthfully as I could, without trying to “guess” what the survey wanted, and was surprised to find myself aligned most closely with the Green Party. “Oh great”, I thought. “I’m most similar to a party even LESS likely to form a government than the NDP, my default party on all things political.” I wondered which questions turned me towards the Greens. I DID say that the environment was important to me, but isn’t that a no brainer? Who would actually say “I care not for mountains, trees, air and water? These things do not interest me.” I thought all the rest of my answers were pretty left leaning, and I said Jack Layton was the most trustworthy leader. Delusional perhaps, but trustworthy in my eyes.

Then there was a bit of a kerfuffle with the Vote Compass. Kathy Brock of Queen’s University claimed that it had a Liberal bias, and of course this became headline news for our local rag “The Winnipeg Sun”. Turns out the professor answered all the questions “somewhat agree” and it dubbed her Liberal. She went back and chose “somewhat disagree” and guess what? Liberal again. CBC fought back in defence of the Vote Compass to say that there is a balance of left and right leaning questions, so if you were to answer everything the same, then you’d come out in the middle. Right smack dab where the Liberal party falls. Welcome to Liberalville, Kathy!

"Does this boa make me look phat?"

The next thing was that it was discovered that one of the professors who designed the Vote Compass was previously employed by Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the Liberal Party. Now we’re getting into Manchurian Candidate style territory. Or are we? Upon closer inspection, maybe not. Peter Loewen, the “director of analytics” for Vote Compass, volunteered for Ignatieff in 2006 and wrote a couple of policy papers for his leadership bid. I guess they weren’t winners, because Ignatieff eventually lost out to Stephan Dion that year. Loewen also told reporters that he’s fundraised for Stephen Harper in the past. He doesn’t sound all that partisan after all. I remember I had a poly-sci prof at the U of W who was also a speech-writer for the down defunct Reform Party. Defunct. What a great word. Say it with me. DEFUNCT. I bet Miranda Hart would appreciate this word. Actually I have nothing to say about that Reform Party speech writer, I just wanted to say defunct.

 

"A moist plinth? No, I'm on the cusp of a defunct thrust."

A quick survey of staff at my library revealed that everyone turned up Liberal, so maybe there is something to this bias talk after all.

If you haven’t taken the survey yet, why not? Let me know in the comments how you fared.

www.votecompass.ca

You know you want me.

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