Down on the corner

On our way up to my Dad’s on the kids’ fall break, we stopped at a gas station to get some gas, sandwiches, and to go the bathroom. Son walked in, looked around the place, and the few people hunched over their cups of coffee and their donuts, and he said, with sunshine in his voice: “Dad, this is a typical Finnish hangout.”

And it was. The gas stations used to be where people hung out and back when I was a teenager, we only had two real coffee shops in town. One of them was across the street from my Dad’s store, the other next to a bank, and being a block away from the market square, a little too far for me. So, if I ever went to a café – which I hardly ever did – I’d pick the one across the street from Dad’s store.

My hangout was the cafeteria at the hockey rink. That’s where I always found buddies, but not having a cup of coffee, but playing Pac-Man or another arcade game.

And this is what the street used to look like

A few years ago, they tore down the building where Dad’s store used to be. It may be ten years ago, but it seems like a few years ago. When I drove downtown today, and took a right turn, I still almost took another quick left right away, as if to park my park in the backyard of the store, next to a pile of old washing machines.

Lucky for me, I wasn’t driving on instinct so I didn’t hit the new apartment building that’s now standing where the backyard used to be.

Right now, I’m sitting exactly where Dad’s store used to be. Across the street is the old coffee shop building, but inside there’s now the office of a local paper, and next to it, there’s a shopping mall, with several coffee shops and even a donut shop – something the teenage-me had only read about in MAD Magazine.

Where I’m sitting now is where the freezers and fridges used to be, side by side. The tall ones next to the wall, the smaller ones in the middle, leaving a narrow aisle for the customers to walk through. Behind them was the bathroom, and separated by another wall, all the way in the back, Dad’s office.

That’s where Dad would count the money at the end of the day each day. He’d have the cash on his desk as he counted it all, and punched in the numbers into his calculator. Then he tore off the paper slip and put it in a little leather pouch, together with the cash, and then sent the driver to the bank. Not driving, the bank was also just two blocks away, so he walked.

And when I got to do it, I walked, too.

I gave my first interview in Dad’s back office, too. Just a couple of months after we had moved to this new town, we had a hockey tournament, and I had played well, and the guy running the local club’s TV guide advertorial paper – also a defenseman in the club’s men’s team – thought it’d be a neat idea to have a 14-year-old kid as the Player of the Week so he picked me. Dad set up the meeting in his office. And I told the “reporter” that my favorite food was Mom’s meatballs and mashed potatoes, and my favorite drink Coke.

Some things never change.

(I actually had a girl show me a clipping of that interview a year later. She had cut it out and carried inside her calendar. Imagine that. I was a teen idol.)

This is where I once helped a French couple, in French, no less. This is where I edited a video tape of my hockey team for a school presentation, this is where I made all those 80s mixed tapes since I had access to all the stereos in the store, this is where I first held a CD in my hand – Dire Straits -, this is where I worked as a delivery guy, and this is where I interviewed people for my business school thesis.

This is where I grew up.

And today, this is where I had a cappuccino, because today, there’s a coffee shop where the store used to be.

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