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Back-to-School Shopping, Canuck Style

Published on: December 30, 2013

usa_canada_border[Circa 1985] In the backseat of my parents’ car, I froze as the border agent peered through the window and fixed his gaze on my brother, barely 3, sitting next to me.

“Those are great shoes, buddy!” the agent exclaimed, leaning his uniformed body farther into our car and glancing around with his eyebrows arched. I swear I could feel my mother stiffen in the front seat. I bit my lip in silence and tried not to either cry or laugh.

School shopping, I knew, was never, ever supposed to end this way.

I grew up on the east coast of Canada, with fall rituals that were so dependable that it seemed the school year couldn’t begin without the first fat red and orange leaves floating down and the cool season’s crisp wind, smelling like fireplaces and pumpkins and future snow blizzards.

We also couldn’t start school without that yearly ritual of school shopping. And that meant a pilgrimage across the border to the United States.

Though the Canadian-U.S. exchange rate did not favor us, we went anyway because the United States had so much that we didn’t have, even in the big, fairly sophisticated city of Montreal. And despite the bad exchange rate, stuff in the U.S. was so much cheaper.

It was almost like Canada, where today you can find almost anything that we can find here, was like a Communist bloc country — starved for everything good we had heard about but couldn’t get our hands on. And even if there was something good (stylish, new, on TV) to be had in Canada, we certainly couldn’t afford to be clothed head-to-toe in it in my family.

But the U.S. had all the brands we read about in magazines and saw on television, all the cool stuff. So off we went, piled into my dad’s brown Jeep Wagoneer, out of the city, through the cow fields and tiny French Canadian towns dotted with white homes and red roofs and across the border to Plattsburgh, NY.

(To say that Plattsburgh, NY was our shopping mecca should tell you all you need to know about the pathetic lack of retail options we had back home. Our sad, claustrophobic malls closed at 4 p.m.; nothing, not even a grocery store, was open on Sundays.)

We’d hit the bright, shiny New York malls and outlets with a full-scale attack. It was ritualistic, almost religious. There were the stores we’d go to every single year: the Gap; Bass; Osh Kosh. We’d buy shoes all around (white Keds; leather from Bass), winter sweaters, jean jumpers, Levis, Guess jeans, even the Hanes for Her cotton bikini-cut underwear that my mom had to have.

Marching through the American stores was exhilarating. At 7, 8 and 9 years old, I was enthralled by everything I saw. Compared to home, the U.S. had SO MUCH. I wanted to detour constantly, to finger a bubblegum pink Hello Kitty diary, to gawk in gaping awe at the endless toy-store aisles, to smell the air in the giant bookstores.

(The American mall air smelled so different, so much more delicious, than the mall air back home.)

But we couldn’t detour. We were on a mission. We had to stock up for the long, hard winter. Sometimes I imagined I was Mary or Laura and, along with Ma and Pa, I needed to secure our supplies and sundries before the heavy snow came and cut us off from the world. Which is funny because in reality the large city I lived in probably had more supplies within its borders than all of Plattsburgh, NY.

But it didn’t have the Gap.

Of course there were negotiations. There was a family budget, and we didn’t get everything we wanted. My mom made careful calculations about who needed what most, and the bounty was spread around.

Before heading back north, we always stopped for lunch at the Howard Johnson’s, a ritual almost as serious as the shopping. We’d sit in a booth in the green-and-orange restaurant and gorge ourselves on clam chowder and fried clam strips — more delicacies that, of course, were virtually unavailable back home.

Then, we’d head out to the car to prepare ourselves. Back at the mall, we had already thrown out the ratty, old too-small outfits we had traveled down in and donned one of our new outfits, the tags long since ripped off and thrown away.

Now, in the Howard Johnson’s parking lot, my mother would begin to bundle us in layer upon layer of new clothing, the thinnest layers first topped with all manner of thick turtlenecks and nice winter wool.

I know I mentioned the cool winds of fall earlier, but really those winds were nowhere to be seen yet. In fact the bright New York sun was still shining. The forecast did not call for six layers of clothing.

But anyway, once bundled in all the new, tag-less clothes our bodies could fit, we’d slip on a pair of new shoes and slide into the backseat and off to the border we’d go. The rest of our purchases, the stuff we couldn’t wear, would be piled in the back of the Jeep and hidden conspicuously underneath a shade that drew across the deep, back trunk.

The purpose of the shade, and of us having to wear eight outfits at once until we were stuffed up and puffed up like the Michelin tire man? My parents wanted to avoid paying duty on all our purchases.

I know, it’s pretty bad, right?

The only thing I can figure now that I’m a parent with a budget of my own is that they were already taking a hit with the bad exchange rate, and they wanted to put all the money they’d saved toward stuff we needed. We had no extras in my family, and like Ma and Pa on the prairie, my parents were just trying to stretch our resources as far as they could go.

Some years, we’d glide right through the border crossing, answering a few quick questions from the guard about where we’d been and what we’d bought. Sometimes I think we’d claim a few items under the daily limitation allowed.

But that one year, when I was about 8 years old, things didn’t go as smoothly. The clever border guard that year passed my parents right over and decided to talk straight to us kids.

“You like those shoes, little guy?” he asked my 3-year-old brother with a wink. “Did you just get those? Are they new?”

No, no, no I could feel my parents and me praying in silent solidarity, willing my brother to keep his sweet, puckered lips shut.

But my brother, gobs of drool running down his puffy toddler cheeks, nodded happily and smiled his gooey smile.

“New!” he exclaimed, giving the shiny navy blue loafers a little kick. “New! New shoes!”

It all went downhill from there. We got out, and my parents answered a lot of questions while the border agents pawed through the load of new, tag-less clothes in the back of the Jeep. Then my parents paid up.

The drive home was more silent than usual, but afterward, we laughed.

Sometimes, when I’m running around buying school clothes for my own daughters (often without them because they can’t be bothered to shop patiently), trying to choose from an overwhelming number of stores and options that would have stunned me silly as a child, I think about those border runs in the autumns of my childhood.

How magical it seemed, the covert excursions into another country, my family shopping and eating and getting ready for the school year, two parents and two kids, together, lawless.


In between glue-stick runs and coffee binges, Natalie Singer-Velush is ParentMap’s Web Editor. In her former life she wrote for newspapers and once pumped milk in the bathroom of the King County Superior Courthouse while covering a murder trial. She was also once chased by rabid raccoons. Natalie lives in Seattle with her husband and two school-aged daughters.

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