It’s the 1980’s.
I’m working in Edmonton in a small office downtown. There are only three of us, one of whom is almost always on the road. Which leaves me and Wendy.
It’s the middle of December.
At lunchtime I take a walk. I notice it’s starting to snow.
I duck into a five and dime, possibly a Woolworths or similar, the kind of store where the shoes are next to the tablecloths which are next to the vacuum cleaners which are next to the gift boxes of Black Magic chocolates.
I find myself in the pet aisle where there is a sign announcing Free Hamsters. All you have to do is buy a cage with an exercise wheel, a water bottle, a supply of cedar chip bedding material, food, and a food dish, and they throw in the hamster for free. Seems too good to be true, but IT IS TRUE. And so, some minutes later, I’m back outside carrying a hamster in a cardboard box in one hand and a giant bag of all its worldly possessions in the other.
The snow has picked up.
Wendy is only slightly amused when I explain my good luck at stumbling upon a hamster sale, and not at all impressed. Turns out she doesn’t like hamsters. Wendy is a country girl who puts such things under the heading of ‘varmints’.
Sometime later that afternoon Wendy says How are you going to get it home? She means on the bus. Because the bag of supplies and the cage and the cardboard box is a lot for a crowded bus. Plus she says, it’s snowing like crazy.
Moving the hamster from box to cage would make things a lot more manageable. Problem is… I don’t like the idea of touching the hamster and neither does Wendy.
Miracle Number 1: Fred Goodchild, a restaurateur from a few doors along, who has come in to see about his account. He says the snow’s so bad things are shutting down, which explains why no one else has been in that afternoon to see about their account.
On a whim I ask Fred Goodchild if he will move my hamster, some of the cedar bedding, and all of the accoutrements into the cage.
Which is how my hamster comes to be christened Fred.
By the time we leave work the snow is a full-on blizzard. The streets are more or less empty of traffic, the buses are running very slow if at all. If it were just me I’d stand outside and wait in line but in my new role as a hamster mother I realize there are responsibilities I hadn’t counted on. In other words, I’m not at all sure how long or at what temperature a hamster actually freezes.
It feels wise to get a cab instead.
[I should mention that I’d recently applied for and received my first ever credit card, the timing of which is miracle #2, which is no small detail as the story unfolds]
There’s zero chance of hailing a cab on the street so I walk to the nearest hotel, where the doorman tells me the wait is a minimum two hours.
And that is how Fred and I come to spend the better part of our first evening together in the bar of The Four Seasons Hotel, me drinking fine brandy and tea and eventually ordering a cheese plate and salad, bits of which I lovingly shove through the wires of his cage on the seat next to mine.
I have no memory of anyone commenting on Fred’s presence or complaining about the squeaking of his exercise wheel. No one asks us to leave (miracle #3). Nor do I recall even thinking it odd to be dining with a hamster in the swankiest joint in town.
A cab finally comes. I pay with my shiny new credit card. It’s a long slow ride but we make it home safely (which feels like miracle #4). I set Fred’s cage on a table in my living room in front of a painting I think will give him a sense of the outdoors and where we can watch reruns of M.A.S.H. and Mary Tyler Moore together.
And we do.
And I think what in the world is better than to be home safe and warm, me with a belly full of brandy and cheese, a hamster and his squeaking wheel, the air scented with cedar shavings.
Such was the magic of a stormy night in Edmonton in December.
[I’d like to add that I was young and not yet given to thinking about the sadness of hamsters being imprisoned, though I do like to think I liberated him from life in the pet aisle. It’s something. And his cage was eventually upgraded and I learned to touch him and hold him and even though all this was before the invention of googling how to make a hamster ultra comfortable I do believe he had a contented life inasmuch as a hamster living an unnatural life can be content. That, and we’ll always have The Four Seasons…]