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Authors: Mordecai Richler

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

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BOOK: The Street
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“It’s one hell of a life,” one of the truckers might say and Tansky would reply fervently, “We can change it. It’s up to the people.”

Even in winter the regulars used to risk the wind and the ice to slip outside and stamp up and down around the enormous trailer trucks, reminding each other that they too could have been millionaires today, fabled philanthropists, sought-after community leaders, if only, during prohibition, they too had been willing to bootleg, running booze over the border in trucks like these.

Another opportunity missed.

Looking in here, landing a little slap there, the regulars always stopped to give the tires a melancholy kick.

“You should have what one of these babies burns in gas in one night.”

“Ach. It’s no life for a family man.”

It was different with the peddlers. Most of them were, as Miller put it, members of the tribe. Even if a man was so stupid, such a
putz
, that he couldn’t tell from their faces or if – like Tansky, perhaps – he indignantly held that there was no such thing as a Jewish face, he still knew because before the peddlers even sat down for a coffee they generally phoned home and looked to see if Tansky sold pennants or toys to take back as a memento for the kids. They didn’t waste time, either. They zipped through their order book as they ate, biting their pencils, adding, subtracting, muttering to themselves, and if they were carrying an item that Tansky might feasibly use they tried to push a sale right there. If not, they would offer the regulars cut-rates on suits or kitchen ware. Some of the peddlers were kidders and carried come-ons with them to entice the French Canadian hicks in St. Jerome and Trois-Rivières, Tadoussac and Restigouche. Hold a key chain socket to your eye and see a naked cutie wiggle. Pour seltzer into a tumbler with a print of a girl on the side and watch her panties peel off.

Segal told all the peddlers the same joke, ruining it, as he did all his stories, by revealing the punch-line first. “Do you know the one,” he’d say, “that goes Bloomberg’s dead?”

“No. Well, I don’t think so.”

So Segal, quaking with laughter, would plunge into the story about this traveller, one of ours, a man called Bloomberg, who had a cock bigger than a Coorsh’s salami. Built stronger than Farber the iceman’s horse, let me tell you. He went from town to town, selling bolts of cloth, seconds, and banging
shiksas
(nuns included) on the cot in the back of his van, until the day he died. Another salesman, Motka Frish, was also in this godforsaken mining town in Labrador when he died. Motka hurried to the mortuary where the legendary Bloomberg lay on a slab and sliced off his cock, his unbelievably large member, to bring home and show to his wife, because otherwise, he thought, she would never believe a
man could be so well hung. He returns home, unwraps the cock, and before he can get a word out, his wife has a peek and begins to pull her hair and wail. “Bloomberg’s dead,” she howls. “Bloomberg’s dead.”

Afterwards, still spilling with laughter, Segal would ask, “Heard any hot ones yourself lately?”

Takifman was another one who always had a word with the peddlers. “How is it,” he would ask, already tearful, “for the Jews in Valleyfield?”

Or if the peddler had just come from Albany it was, “I hear the mayor there is an anti-Semite.”

“Aren’t they all?”

“Not LaGuardia. LaGuardia of New York is
A
-1.”

The peddlers would usually ask for a couple of dollars in silver and retreat to the phone booth for a while before they left.

Tansky’s beat-up brown phone booth was an institution in our neighbourhood. Many who didn’t have phones of their own used it to summon the doctor. “I’d rather pay a nickel here than be indebted to that cockroach downstairs for the rest of my life.” Others needed the booth if they had a surreptitious little deal to transact or if it was the sabbath and they couldn’t use their own phones because they had a father from the stone ages. If you had a party line you didn’t dare use the phone in your own house to call the free loan society or the exterminator. Boys who wanted privacy used the phone to call their girl friends, though the regulars were particularly hard on them.

Between two and four in the afternoon the horse players held a monopoly on the phone. One of them, Sonny Markowitz, got an incoming call daily at three. Nat always took it for him. “Good afternoon,” he’d say. “Morrow Real Estate. Mr. Morrow. One moment, please.”

Markowitz would grab the receiver, his manner breathless. “Glad you called, honey. But I’ve got an important client with
me right now. Yes, doll. You bet. Soon as I can.
Hasta la vista.”

Anxious callers had long ago picked the paint off one wall of the booth. Others had scratched obscenities into the exposed zinc. Somebody who had been unable to get a date with Molly had used a key to cut
MOLLY BANGS
into the wall. Underneath, Manny had written
ME TOO
, adding his phone number. Doodles tended toward the expansively pornographic, they were boastful too, and most of the graffiti was obvious.
KILROY WAS HERE. OPEN UP A SECOND FRONT. PERLMAN’S A SHVANTZ
.

After each fight with Joey, Sadie swept in sobbing, hysterical, her housecoat fluttering. She never bothered to lower her voice. “It’s happened again, Maw. No, he wasn’t wearing anything. He wouldn’t. Sure I told him what the doctor said.
I told him
. He said what are you, the B’nai Jacob Synagogue, I can’t come in without wearing a hat? How do I know? I’m telling you, Maw, he’s a beast, I want to come home to you.
That’s not true
. I couldn’t stop him if I wanted to. Yes, I washed before Seymour. A lot of good it does. All right, Maw. I’ll tell him.”

Sugarman never shuffled into Tansky’s without first trying the slot in the booth to see if anyone had left a nickel behind. The regulars seldom paid for a call. They would dial their homes or businesses, ring twice, hang up, and wait for the return call.

Tansky’s was not the only store of its sort on St. Urbain. Immediately across the street was Myerson’s.

Myerson had put in cushions for the card players, he sold some items cheaper than Tansky, but he was considered to be a sour type, a regular snake, and so he did not do too well. He had his regulars, it’s true, and there was some drifting to and fro between the stores out of pique, but if a trucker or a peddler stopped at Myerson’s it was an accident.

Myerson had a tendency to stand outside, sweeping up with vicious strokes, and hollering at the men as they filed
into Tansky’s. “Hey, why don’t you come over here for once? I won’t bite you. Blood poisoning I don’t need.”

Myerson’s rage fed on the refugees who began to settle on St. Urbain during the war years. “If they come in it’s for a street direction,” he’d say, “or if it’s for a Coke they want a dozen glasses with.” He wasn’t kind to kids. “You know what you are,” he was fond of saying, “your father’s mistake.”

If we came in to collect on empty bottles, he’d say, “We don’t deal in stolen goods here. Try Tansky’s.”

We enjoyed the excitement of the passing peddlers and truckers on St. Urbain – it was, as Sugarman said, an education – but we also had our traffic accidents. Once a boy was killed. An only son. Another time an old man. But complain, complain, we could not get them to install traffic lights on our corner.

“When one of ours is killed by a car they care? It saves them some dirty work.”

But Tansky insisted it wasn’t anti-Semitism. Ours was a working-class area. That’s why we didn’t count.

St. Urbain was one of five working-class ghetto streets between the Main and Park Avenue.

To a middle-class stranger, it’s true, the five streets would have seemed interchangeable. On each corner a cigar store, a grocery, and a fruit man. Outside staircases everywhere. Winding ones, wooden ones, rusty and risky ones. An endless repetition of precious peeling balconies and waste lots making the occasional gap here and there. But, as we boys knew, each street between the Main and Park Avenue represented subtle differences in income. No two cold-water flats were alike and no two stores were the same either. Best Fruit gypped on weight but Smiley’s didn’t give credit.

Of the five streets, St. Urbain was the best. Those on the streets below, the out-of-breath ones, the borrowers, the
yentas
, flea-carriers and rent-skippers,
goniffs
from Galicia, couldn’t afford a day in the country or tinned fruit for dessert
on the High Holidays. They accepted parcels from charity matrons (Outremont bitches) on Passover, and went uninvited to bar-mitzvahs and weddings to carry off cakes, bottles, and chicken legs. Their English was not as good as ours. In fact, they were not yet Canadians.
Greeners
, that’s what they were. On the streets above, you got the ambitious ones. The schemers and the hat-tippers. The
pusherkes
.

Among the wonders of St. Urbain, our St. Urbain, there was a man who ran for alderman on a one-plank platform – provincial speed cops were anti-Semites. There was a semi-pro whore, Cross-Eyed Yetta, and a gifted cripple, Pomerantz, who had had a poem published in
transition
before he shrivelled and died at the age of twenty-seven. There were two men who had served with the Mackenzie-Paps in the Spanish Civil War and a girl who had met Danny Kaye in the Catskills. A boy nobody remembered who went on to become a professor at M.I.T. Dicky Rubin who married a
shiksa
in the Unitarian Church. A boxer who once made the
Ring
magazine ratings. Lazar of Best Grade Fruit who raked in twenty-five hundred dollars for being knocked down by a No. 43 streetcar. Herscovitch’s nephew Larry who went to prison for yielding military secrets to Russia. A woman who actually called herself a divorcée. A man, A.D.’s father, who was bad luck to have in your house. And more, many more.

St. Urbain was, I suppose, somewhat similar to ghetto streets in New York and Chicago. There were a number of crucial differences, however. We were Canadians, therefore we had a King. We also had “pea-soups,” that is to say, French Canadians, in the neighbourhood. While the King never actually stopped on St. Urbain, he did pass a few streets above on his visit to Canada just before the war. We were turned out of school to wave at him on our first unscheduled holiday, as I recall it, since Buster Crabbe, the Tarzan of his day, had spoken to us on Canada Youth Day.

“He looks to me
eppes
, a little pasty,” Mrs. Takifman said.

My friends and I used to set pennies down on the tracks to be flattened by passing freight trains. Later, we would con the rich kids in Outremont, telling them that the Royal Train had gone over the pennies. We got a nickel each for them.

Earlier, the Prince of Wales came to Canada. He appeared at a Mizrachi meeting and my mother became one of thousands upon thousands who actually shook hands with him. When he abdicated the throne, she revealed, “Even then you could tell he was a romantic man. You could see it in his eyes.”

“He has two,” my father said, “just like me.”

“Sure. That’s right. You sacrifice a throne for a lady’s love. It kills you to even give up a seat on the streetcar.”

A St. Urbain street lady, Mrs. Miller of Miller’s Home Bakery, made an enormous
chaleh
, the biggest loaf we had ever seen, and sent it to Buckingham Palace in time for Princess Elizabeth’s birthday. A thank you note came from the Palace and Mrs. Miller’s picture was in all the newspapers. “For local distribution,” she told reporters, “we also bake knishes and cater for quality weddings.”

Our attitude toward the Royal Family was characterized by an amused benevolence. They didn’t affect the price of potatoes. Neither could they help or hinder the establishment of the State of Israel. Like Churchill, for instance. King George VI, we were assured, was just a figurehead. We could afford to be patronizing for among our kings we could count Solomon and David. True, we had enjoyed Bette Davis in
Elizabeth and Essex
. We were flattered when Manny became a King’s Scout. Why, we even wished the Royal Family a long life every Saturday in the synagogue, but this wasn’t servility. It was generosity. Badly misplaced generosity when I recall that we also included John Buchan, 1st Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, Governor-General of Canada, in our prayers.

As a boy I was enjoined by my school masters to revere John Buchan. Before he came to speak at junior Red Cross Prize Day, we were told that he stood for the ultimate British
virtues. Fair play, clean living, gentlemanly conduct. We were not forewarned that he was also a virulent anti-Semite. I discovered this for myself, reading
The Thirty-Nine Steps
. I was scarcely into the novel, when I was introduced to Scudder, the brave and good spy, whom Richard Hannay takes to be “a sharp, restless fellow, who always wanted to get down to the root of things.” Scudder tells Hannay that behind all governments and the armies there was a big subterranean movement going on, engineered by a very dangerous people. Most of them were the sort of educated anarchists that make revolutions, but beside them there were financiers who were playing for money. It suited the books of both classes of conspirators to set Europe by the ears:

When I asked Why, he said that the anarchist lot thought it would give them their chance … they looked to see a new world emerge. The capitalists would … make fortunes by buying up the wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.

“Do you wonder?” he cried. “For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the
pogroms
. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to meet him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince
von und zu
Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with retreating brow and the manners of a hog … But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew
in a bathchair with an eye like a rattle snake. Yes, sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.”

BOOK: The Street
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