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Authors: Mordecai Richler

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Short Stories (Single Author)

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Fitz and Taylor did not let me down, but I was brought up short by an item which announced a forthcoming radio programme,
Keep Off the Grass
, wherein local savants, suburban cops and plainclothes teachers, would warn the kids against pot.

Pot.

For the record, pot, like the
Reader’s Digest
, is not necessarily habit-forming, but both can lead to hard-core addiction: heroin, in one case, abridged bad books, in the other. Either way you look at it, a withdrawal from a meaningful life.

In our St. Urbain Street time, however, the forbidden food had been ham or lobster and when we had objected, protesting it wasn’t habit-forming, our grandfathers, faces flaring red, had assured us if you start by eating pig, if you stray so far from tradition, what next? Where will it end? And so now we know. With the children’s children smoking pot, making bad trips, discovered stoned in crash pads.

Expo was of course thoroughly exhilarating and my wife and I decided to return to Montreal and try it for a year, not so much new as retreaded Canadians. We arrived in September 1968, picking, as it now turns out, a winter to try men’s souls. Dr. Johnson has described this country as “a region of desolate sterility … a cold, uncomfortable, uninviting region, from which nothing but furs and fish were to be had.” More recently, W. H. Auden has written, “The dominions … are for me
tiefste Provinz
, places which have produced no art and are inhabited
by the kind of person with whom I have least in common.”

Unfair comment without question, but I had only been back a month or so when I read
PENSIONER FLUNKS TEST IN MONTREAL’S LOTTERY
, thereby missing out on a possible one hundred thousand dollar jackpot.

A half-blind disability pensioner yesterday became the first contestant to flunk Mayor Jean Drapeau’s voluntary tax non-lottery … when he failed to name Paris as the largest French-speaking city …

This, to a sometime satirist, was meaty stuff indeed. A repast unbelievably enhanced when I read on to discover that our cunning, indefatigable mayor, possibly generalising from the particular of the city council, had commented: “This proves the questions are not easy, and that they are a real test of skill.”

O God! O Montreal! now branded by its mayor as the metropolis wherein recognition of Paris as the world’s largest French-speaking city is taken as a measure of intellectual fallibility.

And hippies are hounded as plague-bearers.

Possibly, the problem is I was raised to manhood in a hairier, more earthy Montreal, the incomparable Mayor Camellien Houde’s canton, whose troubles were basically old-fashioned, breaking down into the pleb’s too large appetite for barbotte tables and whore houses. At the time, Montreal endured a puritanical avenger as well as a journalist champion of the permissive society. All-seeing Police Commissioner “Pax” Plante, scourge of harlots, implacable enemy of bookies with something hot on the morning line, raked the debauched streets in a black limousine, a sort of French Canadian batman. On the other hand, Al Palmer, with the now-defunct
Herald
, campaigned intrepidly for our right to buy margarine
over the counter –
margarine once as illicit in Quebec province as marijuana is today. Al Palmer who was, in his time, the Dr. Tim Leary of artificial foods.

In those days, it should be remembered, no cop would have ventured, as did Detective-Sergeant Roger Lavigueur at a recent policemen’s union meeting, to threaten us with a
coup d’état
, saying, “It happens every day in South America. It could happen here too. We, the policemen, may have to take over the government.”

In the civilized Forties, before Marcuse, Fanon, Ché, and Mayor Daley, our cops, civic and provincial, never split a head unless it was rockhard – that is to say, a striker’s head. Otherwise they were so good-natured that before raiding a gambling den or brothel they phoned to make sure nobody nice would be there and, on arrival, resolutely padlocked the toilet and picked up a little something for their trouble on the way out.

In the immediate post-war years hippies need not have cadged off unemployment insurance, inflaming Ourtown’s over-achievers, but instead could have survived and served the straight community as well by voting, as did many an inner-directed St. Urbain Street boy, twenty or more times in any civic, provincial or federal election. These, remember, were the roseate years when commie traitor Fred Rose, our M.P., went from parliament to prison and was replaced by Maurice Hartt of whom
Time
wrote:

Hartt’s principal campaign asset is his whiplash tongue, which he has used on many an opponent. Once he so angered Premier Duplessis in the legislature with an attack on him that the livid Premier called to Liberal Leader Adélard Godbout: “Have you another Jew in this House to speak for you?” Hartt bounded up, pointed to
the crucifix behind the Speaker’s chair and cried: “Yes, you have – His image has been speaking to you for 2,000 years, but you still don’t understand Him.”

A time when many a freshly scrubbed young notary was elected to the city council for a dollar a year and, lo and behold, emerged one or two terms later a real estate millionaire, lucky enough to hold the rocky farmlands where new highways were to be built or schools constructed. This archetypal city councillor, now just possibly a church or synagogue board chairman, certainly a Centennial Medal holder, is the man most likely to inveigh against today’s immoral youngsters, kids so deficient in industry that far from voting twenty times they don’t go to the polls at all, or respect their parents who grew up when a dollar was a dollar, dammit, and to make one you hustled, leading with the elbows.

To come home in 1968 was to discover that it wasn’t where I had left it – it had been bulldozed away – or had become, as is the case with St. Urbain, a Greek preserve.

Today the original Young Israel synagogue, where we used to chin the bar, is no longer there. A bank stands where my old poolroom used to be. Some of the familiar stores have gone. There have been deaths and bankruptcies. But most of the departed have simply packed up and moved with their old customers to the new shopping centres at Van Horne or Rockland, Westmount or Ville St. Laurent.

Up and down the Main you can still pick out many of the old restaurants and steak houses wedged between the sweater factories, poolrooms, cold-water flats, wholesale dry goods stores, and “Your Most Sanitary” barbershops. The places where we used to work in summer as shippers for ten dollars a week are still there. So is Fletcher’s Field High, right where
it always was. Rabbinical students and boys with sidecurls still pass. These, however, are the latest arrivals from Poland and Rumania and soon their immigrant parents will put pressure on them to study hard and make good. To get out.

But many of our grandparents, the very same people who assured us the Main was only for
bummers
and failures, will not get out. Today when most of the children have made good, now that the sons and daughters have split-level bungalows and minks and West Indian cruises in winter, many of the grandparents still cling to the Main. Their children cannot in many cases persuade them to leave. So you still see them there, drained and used up by the struggle. They sit on kitchen chairs next to the Coke freezer in the cigar store, dozing with a fly swatter held in a mottled hand. You find them rolling their own cigarettes and studying the obituary columns in the
Star
on the steps outside the Jewish Library. The women still peel potatoes under the shade of a winding outside staircase. Old men still watch the comings and goings from the balcony above, a blanket spread over their legs and a little bag of polly seeds on their lap. As in the old days the sinking house with the crooked floor is right over the store or the wholesaler’s, or maybe next door to the scrap yard. Only today the store and the junk yard are shut down. Signs for Sweet Caporal cigarettes or old election posters have been nailed in over the missing windows. There are spider webs everywhere.

ONE
The Street

I
N
1953, on the first Sunday after my return to Montreal from a two year stay in Europe, I went to my grandmother’s house on Jeanne Mance street.

A Yiddish newspaper fluttering on her massive lap, black bootlaces unravelled, my grandmother was ensconced in a kitchen chair on the balcony, seemingly rooted there, attended by sons and daughters, fortified by grandchildren. “How is it for the Jews in Europe?” she asked me.

A direct question from an old lady with a wart turned like a screw in her cheek and in an instant I was shorn of all my desperately acquired sophistication; my
New Statesman
outlook, my shaky knowledge of wines and European capitals; the life I had made for myself beyond the ghetto.

“I don’t know,” I said, my shame mixed with resentment at being reclaimed so quickly. “I didn’t meet many.”

Leaning against their shiny new cars, yawning on the balcony steps with hands thrust into their trouser pockets or munching watermelon, pinging seeds into saucers, my uncles reproached me for not having been to Israel. But their questions about Europe were less poignant than my grandmother’s. Had I seen the Folies Bergères? The changing of the guards? My uncles had become Canadians.

Canada, from the beginning, was second-best. It made us nearly Americans.

My grandfather, like so many others, ventured to Canada by steerage from a Galician
shtetl
, in 1904, following hard on the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War and the singularly vile pogrom in Kishinev, which was instigated by the militant anti-Semite R A. Krushevan, editor of
Znamya (The Banner)
, who four months later was the first to publish in Russia the
Minutes of the Meeting of the World Union of Freemasons and Elders of Zion
, which he called
Programme for World Conquest by the Jews
.

My grandfather, I was astonished to discover many years later, had actually had a train ticket to Chicago in his pocket. Canada was not a choice, but an accident. On board ship my grandfather encountered a follower of the same hasidic rabbi; the man had a train ticket to Montreal, but relatives in Chicago. My grandfather knew somebody’s cousin in Toronto, also in Canada, he was informed. So the two men swapped train tickets on deck one morning.

On arrival in Montreal my grandfather acquired a peddler’s licence and a small loan from the Baron de Hirsch Institute and dug in not far from the Main Street in what was to become a ghetto. Here, as in the real America, the immigrants worked under appalling conditions in sweatshops. They rented halls over poolrooms and grocery stores to meet and form burial societies and create
shuls
. They sent to the old country for younger brothers and cousins left behind, for rabbis and brides. Slowly, unfalteringly, the immigrants began to struggle up a ladder of streets, from one where you had to leave your garbage outside your front door to another where you actually had a rear lane as well as a back yard where corn and tomatoes were usually grown; from the three rooms over the fruit store or tailor shop to your own cold-water flat. A street with trees.

Our street was called St. Urbain. French for Urban. Actually there have been eight popes named Urban, but ours was the first. Urban 1. He was also the only one to have been canonized.

St. Urbain ultimately led to routes 11 and 18, and all day and night big refrigeration trucks and peddlers in rattling Chevys and sometimes tourists used to pass, hurtling to and from northern Quebec, Ontario, and New York State. Occasionally the truckers and peddlers would pull up at Tansky’s for a bite.

“Montreal’s a fine town,” they’d say. “Wide open.”

Unfailingly, one of the truckers would reply, “It’s the Gay Paree of North America.”

But if the trucker or peddler was from Toronto, he would add, ingratiatingly, “The only good thing about Toronto is the road to Montreal. Isn’t that so?”

The regulars at Tansky’s felt it was a good omen that the truckers and peddlers sometimes stopped there. “They know the best places,” Segal said.

Some of the truckers had tattoos on their arms, others chewed tobacco or rolled their own cigarettes with Old Chum. The regulars would whisper about them in Yiddish.

“I wonder how long
that
one’s been out of prison?”

“The one with all the holes in his face smells like he hasn’t changed his underwear since God knows when.”

The truckers struck matches against the seat of their shiny trousers or by flicking them with a thumbnail. They could spit on the floor with such a splash of assurance that it was the regulars who ended up feeling like intruders in Tansky’s Cigar & Soda.

“I’ll bet you the one with the ears can’t count to twenty without taking his shoes off.”

“But you don’t understand,” Takifman, nodding, sucking mournfully on an inverted pipe, would reassure them. “Statistics prove they’re happier than we are. They care their kids should go to the McGill? They have one every nine months
regular as clock-work. Why? For the family allowance cheque.”

When the regulars carried on like that, belittling the bigger, more masculine men, Tansky would regard them reproachfully. He would put out delicate little feelers to the truckers. His brothers, the French Canadians. Vanquished, oppressed.

Peering over the rim of his glasses, Tansky would say, “Isn’t it a shame about the strikers in Granby?” Or looking up from his newspaper, pausing to wet a thumb, he’d try, “And what about our brothers, the blacks?”

Then he would settle back and wait.

If one of the truckers replied, “It’s shit, everything’s shit,” and the other sneered, “I try to mind my own business, buster,” Tansky’s shaggy grey head would drop and he would have to be reminded to add mustard and relish to the hamburgers. But if the truckers were responsive or, more likely, shrewd, if one said, “It’s the system,” and the other, “Maybe after the war things will be different,” they would earn heaping plates of french fried potatoes and complimentary refills of coffee.

BOOK: The Street
11.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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