Things do not always go smoothly with this column. Monday morning, hearing the woeful news that Halifax’s beloved Newfoundland Grocery Store was closing, I walked up to Willow Street, where it has stood for a long, long time.
There, I discovered, the regular customers were piling in to get their cod tongues, their riblets, their jam jams, and their pig's tails while they still could.
When David Harnett asked what he could get me, I said some smoked mackerel, then, in the spirit of things, added “make it a couple of pounds.”
When I asked the manager if he had a minute to chat with a newspaperman, he slowly shook his head, so despondent was he about the impending closure.
So, I left column-less, carrying a plastic bag full of mackerel, and headed towards downtown where I thought I would see how the last-minute shopping was going, while perhaps doing a little of my own.
It was during business hours, so the crush of humanity was still ahead, both on Spring Garden Road, where the largest knot of people was a group protesting the rescinding of a human rights award to social activist Rana Zaman, and inside the surrounding malls, which I still largely had to myself.
Aside from the staff, I was alone, with my bag full of smoked fish, amidst the comfortable plaids, puffy down and placid music of the Roots store.
But the vibe was a little tenser at the Lawtons Drugs store, where a female shopper knelt, furiously sorting through the wrapping supplies, while a sweating man, carrying a large box of something, stood in the lineup, hoping, I imagine, that he would reach a cashier before his arms gave out.
The mood was edgier again inside Dollarama in Spring Garden Place: a woman, her arms piled impossibly high with gifts, ably navigated an aisle; nearby, a man eyed a small globe of the world with a “this may just have to do” expression; in the lineup stood a woman with a shopping cart filled with so much stuff that she might fear that the world is about to end.
Inside the Bookmark, Mike Hamm, the genial manager, was behind the cash, as he had been the last time I walked past there last Thursday night.
The line at the counter was four deep. The bowels of the store — 500 square feet which, before becoming a book shop, housed a laundromat, and, before that, I think, a donair shop — were jam-packed.
I had to side-step a little kid in a Santa hat, and say excuse me to both a man leafing through something hard-covered in front of the religion section, and a young woman with a paperback novel in each hand, as if she might pick one over the other depending upon weight.
Beside me, a woman was making some plans or getting some shopping instructions over her cell phone. Realizing that I knew her, I checked out the books she was holding, two small pieces of writing by Jane Austen, and a series of essays by Wendell Berry titled Think Small.
Hanging up, Carole MacDonald told me that she had done all the big shopping. Now, she was onto the small stuff that forward-looking people have in case someone unexpected shows up at the door and hands them a gift sometime over the next few days.
We both knew what happened next in such a case: the scurrying upstairs, the quick wrap job of whatever can be found that looks unscarred enough to be a present.
“The re-gift,” I nod sagely.
“Oh, you have to watch that,” she replied.
Then she proceeded to tell me about the time a few years back, when she found herself in the aforementioned situation.
MacDonald booted it into another room, grabbed the first presentable thing she espied, taped the wrapping paper shut, and slapped on a tag.
Then, just before she walked back out, she remembered something: she was about to hand her friend the very same Christmas gift that she had given her the year before.
Since then, she always keeps a little record of who gave her what, just in case.
I finished the day where I have sometimes finished my last-minute Christmas shopping, and where I have often found other husbands in the same boat: at The Body Shop inside Park Lane.
I remember how humbling it feels, wandering through the store, as one of the sales staffers, walking before me, grabbed lotions, salves and potions, seemingly at random, and tossed them into a little basket which my wife, heart sinking, would open on Christmas morning.
I had been away for a few years. Nevertheless, a woman named Natasha met me at the door like I was an old friend.
When I asked if the wild-eyed husbands and boyfriends had begun to descend on the store yet, she said no, although last weekend they had started to appear at The Body Shop in Dartmouth’s Mic Mac Mall, where she also worked.
With the retailing vet’s practised eye, she led me to a wall of gift baskets filled with things that were alien to me: calming and caring bath milk made, I guess, with almond milk and honey; hand cream infused with something called moringa.
I looked at them for a minute. Then, my laptop bag filled with smoked mackerel, I headed for the door.
“I might be back,” I said.
Christmas, after all, was a full day-and-a-bit off; I had all the time in the world.