This is either the easiest or the hardest post I've ever had to write - and I'm not sure which. I have at times been quite verbal about my beefs with this city, and yet I live here, at least temporarily...so it must have some redeeming qualities, right? Shane, astute questioner, amateur astrologer, and profound blogger, saw fit to ask me recently just what it is I like about the city where I grew up. Shane, here is your answer (and what a brave soul you are for daring to ask):
The first thing that comes to mind when contemplating the enigmatic city of Cornwall causes me to borrow from the motto of my high school: small enough to know you, big enough to serve you. I think this is a fair assessment of the city, after all, we do have a Walmart now (though I remember the days of yore when we traveled across the border to behold such a sight). We have a couple of actual chain restaurants, enough liquor and beer stores to keep us well-lubricated, one Tim Hortons for every 5 people, and one hardware store for every 10. And we manage to live in this lap of luxury with the low, low population of just 45, 642 inhabitants. I personally know 45, 639 of them, but haven't had a chance to bring a casserole two blocks over to the new family just moved in. I will get around to that later this week. I would vouch for at least 300 of them, and warn you not to lend money to maybe half.
I mentioned before that my family would cross the border back in the day, and this is true. Many still do it now, but in the late 80s and early 90s, Canadians headed into the U.S. en masse to take advantage of good prices, and if lucky, Canadian dollars at par! We marveled at stores like TJ Maxx, Winners, and Payless Shoes. And yes, we're all very embarrassed about that now. Every Sunday, we would hop on the bridge that connects Cornwall to Massena NY. The van would be running on fumes, so if there was any traffic at the toll booths, we'd have to coast down the other side of the bridge. Gas was really cheap back then, and we frequented an American gas station weekly - this was so ingrained in family tradition that my mother told us all stories involving my "adoption". She swore that one of the Native gas attendants had given me up in exchange for a bucket of chicken (never mind that I am the fairest of the bunch, at times we all believed it). We would hit the big mall dressed in our very worst apparel. We wore pants that barely buttoned, shirts that were frayed, and big floppy winter boots that I particularly found embarrassing. If our shopping was successful, we would change into the new clothes and toss out the old clothes - the road back to the bridge was always brimming with discarded Canadian clothes. If my mother was in a good mood, we would get a special treat: buffet at the Ponderosa! Oh how we loved that buffet...although I remember a time or two when I sat sulking over my cherry coke (cherry coke!- oh those zany Americans, what will they think of next?), trying to hide the fact that I was wearing old lady boots up to my knees in the middle of April. Yikes.
But Cornwall is not just the gateway to New York. We also sit against the border to Quebec, which in some ways is better than New York, because the legal age for drinking in Quebec is 18! Score! So by the time we were 14 we could convince an older sibling to drive to le depanneur, which is a cleverly located corner store within spitting distance of the border, which profited from selling no name liquors to underage kids (I remember buying lemon-beer from there once, and how badly it burned coming back up). Quebec is a lovely place to visit for great dining and shopping also, and the strip clubs in Montreal are fah-bu-lous! Montreal is a drive of only an hour and half, Ottawa clocks in at about an hour's drive away, Kingston an hour and a half, and Toronto maybe 5. I like to think of Cornwall as the little hub that could.
One of my favourite places in all of Cornwall is the library. When I was a kid, the library had maybe half a dozen tiny branches each containing fewer books than I had in my closet (Babysitter's Club #1-infinity, same with Sweet Valley High) dispersed throughout the counties. Some years ago it amalgamated into one big site in an old building that used to be a post office. It is ornately done in marble, and you can either lose yourself in an overstuffed chair, or sit on a bar stool watching traffic whiz by as you flip through a magazine. It feels historic and rich, and is perhaps the city's main jewel.
Otherwise, most of the city's best attributes are outdoors. The bike path, for instance, stretches from one end of the city to the other and beyond. Jason and I partake of it often. It runs parallel to the beautiful St. Lawrence river so the view is breathtaking. There are benches and gazebos and picnic tables dotting the path, where we can sit and share apple slices, or wine, or hand jobs. Er, cookies. It was a great privilege to grow up near the water, where I often fished for perch with my grandfather, made pitiful attempts at water-skiing with friends, and was often thrown violently off of inner tubes after being towed behind a speed boat, and dumped ceremoniously in front of a mob of hungry bar patrons at one of the many riverside pubs, like the good old Blue Anchor in Glen Walter, which was my childhood neighbourhood.
Glen Walter was a lovely place to raise children. We had friends instead of neighbours. We would jump on our bikes and accumulate members of our posse, making revving noises as we sped around the suburbs. Almost all of us had a pool in the backyard, with an acre of land to spare for general running around on. We had a playhouse, a big deck, lilac bushes, and a fire pit. The hill in our backyard was great for tobagganing in the winter, and slip-n-slides in the summer. The land fell so that we also had a sizeable skating rink in the winter with plenty of room for snow castles and snow people aplenty. Sometimes we saw deers or foxes in our backyard, and once we even saw giant rats! Well, that's how my sister saw it anyway. They could more accurately be described as beavers, if reality interests you. We would go frog-catching at the pond, and after a spring rain we would dig for worms because our Pa paid us a nickel a piece!
I have picked my own strawberries in the patches nearby, as well as apples in the orchards. I have eaten corn grown by my own family's farm, and drunk milk fresh from their cows. I have enjoyed the peaceful serenity of Cooper's Marsh, and visited the Bird Sanctuary. I have shorn sheep and watched cheese be made at Upper Canada Village. My lungs have thanked me sincerely for all of the delicious fresh air I have breathed in over the years.
I live in the kind of city where the people leave their doors unlocked (if American, see the movie Farhenheit 9-11 for more of this odd behaviour). People are nice to each other. When my mother's house was on fire, one neighbour rubbed her back while another offered booze. Twice I've lost my purse, and twice it was promptly returned, and the finders were hesitant to accept my reward money. Crime is not unheard of, but it's not rampant. The police have time for other things, like the R.I.D.E. program run by the O.P.P. - every single time I've been stopped at a check point and asked how much I've had to drink, I am thankful to live in a place where crime is not just attended to, but prevented.
I live in a sleepy town where everybody knows my name. In grade 8 our graduation ceremony was held at a Chinese kareoke bar. Me, and the 6 other graduates, crowded around the microphone to sing Yellow Submarine. Many of us have kept in touch. The city newspaper features either myself, or someone I know well, within its pages every few days (and no, I don't just mean the Police Blotter). In Cornwall you can see a movie for $4.25, and buy a beer for $2.50 (talk about a cheap date).
Cornwall, scene of my youth, current home, city where the Woody Allen movies will always be on the shelf for me to rent, where the bartenders are happy to make "these martinis you speak of" if only I provide a recipe, and where dwellers are excited to enjoy the "gourmet" stylings of -shock!- pasta: you are not so bad a place to come from. Not so bad at all.
[Have a burning question for Jamie? Nothing is too trivial, and by god, nothing is too bizarre. Ask away. Send questions to: the amazing willy wanker @ g mail . com (no spaces).]