Read The Street Online

Authors: Mordecai Richler

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

The Street (7 page)

BOOK: The Street
3.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“You read the wrong books, Feldman,” our history teacher said.

“Yeah. Siddown you dirty red.”

“Let’s chip in and send him to Russia. Waddiya say, guys?”

Danny shouldered his martyrdom with pride. Softly, softly, he infiltrated the F.F.H.S. Cadets Corps and Students’ Council. One day Danny was a civilian and the next he was a cadet major, with access to our sub-basement arsenal; and the Students’ Council had got up a petition to demand free milk at lunch hours and a ban on the strap. All this came about whilst our interests, as we began to encourage beards and passed from grade nine to ten, shifted from Rocket Richard’s scoring ability to Lili St. Cyr’s thrilling striptease act at the Gaiety Theatre. Our latest obsession, Miss St. Cyr’s unrivalled interpretation of Leda and the Swan, did not satisfy Danny, either. “I’ve never met such a bunch of decadent jerks in my life,” he said.

“Have you seen her, but?”

“Jeez.”

“She shaves her pussy.”

“It’s art, you know. She does it to classical music.”

Danny subjected us to a scathing lecture on women’s rights. He said the striptease was merely another form of capitalist degradation and, turning on Shubiner, he asked, “How would you like to see your mother strip on stage?”

Which, considering Mrs. Shubiner’s dimensions, had the rest of us quaking with laughter.

“You’re looking for a punch in the nose,” Shubiner hissed. “I’m warning you.”

Danny and I, it developed, had something in common. Neither of us joined in when they sang
God Save the King
at school assemblies. Danny abhorred all kings and didn’t believe in God. I wouldn’t sing
God Save the King
because I was opposed to British policy in Palestine. We had something else in common too – or so I hoped. Only the other night Segal, playing gin rummy with my father, had said, “You know those communist youth clubs?”

“Yeah,” my father said eagerly.

“You know they have parties every Friday night?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Boy. Oh, boy.”

“What?”

Segal jerked his White Owl Cigar discreetly in my direction.

“Go and do your homework,” my father said.

Now when the rest of the boys in class heckled Danny, I instantly charged to his defense. “Let Danny speak his piece. This is a free country.”

“Sez who?”

“Danny never did you any harm.”

“I don’t like his dumb kisser, okay? It makes me want to puke.”

Danny and I walked home from school together and I hinted that I would be interested in meeting some guys – “and dames too,” I allowed – who took life more seriously. There were other things besides sports, I said, and I told Danny a dirty Jewish joke, hoping to lead round to the subject of girls again. It was Segal’s joke, the one that ended Bloomberg’s dead, but I got no further than telling him about this peddler, one of ours, who had a cock as big as a Coorsh’s salami, when Danny cut me short.

“You’re a chauvinist,” he said.

“No kidding? Um, is that bad like?”

“Well, it’s not good. Listen, would you be interested in going to a social on Friday night?”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

That was Tuesday. Wednesday, I hurried to Irving’s Barbershop and got a Hollywood haircut. I also allowed myself to be cajoled into a mudpack facial to remove disfiguring blackheads. Thursday, I retrieved my one-button roll sports jacket from the cleaners and bought a hand-painted tie at Morrie Heft’s. Friday, I slipped into my new suit trousers and I was ready an hour early. When Danny finally picked me
up I was astonished to discover that he was wearing the same smelly old sweater and baggy trousers he came to school in every day.

There was no liquor at the party. They did have a record player, but nobody could boogie. A fuzzy-haired girl with a guitar sat on the floor and led a folk-singing session.
Joe Hill
and
Los Quatro Generales
. When it came my turn to pick a song I slipped my arm around the girl who sat next to me and asked for the one that began,

If all the girls were like Hedy Lamarr,
I’d work half as hard and get twice as far.

“Who brought
that
here?” somebody squealed.

“All-You-Eta,” I suggested quickly. “How’s about that. It’s a kind of gag version of
Alouette
. It goes All-you-eta, think of all-you-eta. All –”

“Shettup,” Danny pleaded, poking me.

“But that’s a clean one.”

“It also happens to be,” the fuzzy-haired girl said icily, “a tasteless corruption of one of our few authentic French Canadian folk songs.”

FOUR
The Main

T
WO STREETS
below our own came the Main. Rich in delights, but also squalid, filthy, and hollering with stores whose wares, whether furniture or fruit, were ugly or damaged. The signs still say
FANTASTIC DISCOUNTS
or
FORCED TO SELL PRICES HERE
, but the bargains so bitterly sought after are illusory – and perhaps they always were.

The Main, with something for all our appetites, was dedicated to pinching pennies from the poor, but it was there to entertain, educate and comfort us too. Across the street from the synagogue you could see
THE PICTURE THEY CLAIMED COULD NEVER BE MADE
. A little further down the street there was the Workman’s Circle and, if you liked, a strip show. Peaches, Margo, Lili St. Cyr. Around the corner there was the ritual baths, the
shvitz
or
mikva
, where my grandfather and his cronies went before the High Holidays, emerging boiling red from the highest reaches of the steam rooms to happily flog each other with brushes fashioned of pine tree branches. Where supremely orthodox women went once a month to purify themselves.

It was to the Main, once a year before the High Holidays, that I was taken for a new suit (the itch of the cheap tweed was excruciating) and shoes (with a built-in squeak). We also
shopped for fruit on the Main, meat and fish, and here the important thing was to watch the man at the scales. On the Main, too, was the Chinese laundry – “Have you ever seen such hard workers?” – the Italian hat-blocker – “Tony’s a good goy, you know. Against Mussolini from the very first.” – and strolling French Canadian priests – “Some of them speak Hebrew now.” “Well, if you ask me, it’s none of their business. Enough’s enough, you know.” Kids like myself were dragged along on shopping expeditions to carry parcels. Old men gave us snuff, at the delicatessens we were allowed salami butts, card players pushed candies on us for luck, and everywhere we were poked and pinched by the mothers. Absolutely the best that could be said of us was, “He eats well, knock wood,” and later, as we went off to school, “He’s a rank-one boy.”

After the shopping, once our errands had been done, we returned to the Main once more, either for part-time jobs or to study with our
melamud
. Jobs going on the Main included spotting pins in a bowling alley, collecting butcher bills and, best of all, working at a news-stand, where you could devour the
Police Gazette
free and pick up a little extra shortchanging strangers during the rush hour. Work was supposed to be good for our character development and the fact that we were paid was incidental. To qualify for a job we were supposed to be “bright, ambitious, and willing to learn.” An ad I once saw in a shoe store window read:

PART-TIME BOY WANTED FOR EXPANDING
BUSINESS. EXPERIENCE ABSOLUTELY
NECESSARY, BUT NOT ESSENTIAL

Our jobs and lessons finished, we would wander the street in small groups smoking Turret cigarettes and telling jokes.

“Hey,
shmo-hawk
, what’s the difference between a mail box and an elephant’s ass?”

“I dunno.”

“Well, I wouldn’t send
you
to mail my letters.”

As the French Canadian factory girls passed arm-in-arm we would call out, “I’ve got the time, if you’ve got the place.”

Shabus
it was back to the Main again and the original Young Israel synagogue. While our grandfathers and fathers prayed and gossiped and speculated about the war in Europe in the musty room below, we played chin the bar in the upstairs attic and told jokes that began, “Confucius say …” or, “Once there was an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Hebe …”

We would return to the Main once more when we wanted a fight with the pea-soups. Winter, as I recall it, was best for this type of sport. We could throw snowballs packed with ice or frozen horse buns and, with darkness falling early, it was easier to elude pursuers. Soon, however, we developed a technique of battle that served us well even in the spring. Three of us would hide under an outside staircase while the fourth member of our group, a kid named Eddy, would idle provocatively on the sidewalk. Eddy was a good head-and-a-half shorter than the rest of us. (For this, it was rumoured, his mother was to blame. She wouldn’t let Eddy have his tonsils removed and that’s why he was such a runt. It was not that Eddy’s mother feared surgery, but Eddy sang in the choir of a rich synagogue, bringing in some thirty dollars a month, and if his tonsils were removed it was feared that his voice would go too.) Anyway, Eddy would stand out there alone and when the first solitary pea-soup passed he would kick him in the shins. “Your mother fucks,” he’d say.

The pea-soup, looking down on little Eddy, would naturally knock him one on the head. Then, and only then, would we emerge from under the staircase.

“Hey, that’s my kid brother you just slugged.”

And before the bewildered pea-soup could protest, we were scrambling all over him.

These and other fights, however, sprang more out of boredom than from racial hatred, not that there were no racial problems on the Main.

If the Main was a poor man’s street, it was also a dividing line. Below, the French Canadians. Above, some distance above, the dreaded
WASP
s. On the Main itself there were some Italians, Yugoslavs and Ukrainians, but they did not count as true Gentiles. Even the French Canadians, who were our enemies, were not entirely unloved. Like us, they were poor and coarse with large families and spoke English badly.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that the real trouble was there was no dialogue between us and the French Canadians, each elbowing the other, striving for
WASP
acceptance. We fought the French Canadians stereotype for stereotype. If many of them believed that the St. Urbain Street Jews were secretly rich, manipulating the black market, then my typical French Canadian was a moronic gum-chewer. He wore his greasy black hair parted down the middle and also affected an eyebrow moustache. His zoot trousers were belted just under the breastbone and ended in a peg hugging his ankles. He was the dolt who held up your uncle endlessly at the liquor commission while he tried unsuccessfully to add three figures or, if he was employed at the customs office, never knew which form to give you. Furthermore, he only held his liquor commission or customs or any other government job because he was the second cousin of a backwoods notary who had delivered the village vote to the
Union Nationale
for a generation. Other French Canadians were speed cops, and if any of these ever stopped you on the highway you made sure to hand him a folded two dollar bill with your licence.

Wartime shortages, the admirable Protestant spirit of making-do, benefited both Jews and French Canadians. Jews with clean fingernails were allowed to teach within the
Protestant School system and French Canadians off the Atwater League and provincial sandlots broke into the International Baseball League. Jean-Pierre Roy won twenty-five games for the Montreal Royals one year and a young man named Stan Breard enjoyed a season as a stylish but no-hit shortstop. Come to think of it, the only French Canadians I heard of were athletes. Of course there was Maurice Richard, the superb hockey player, but there was also Dave Castiloux, a cunning welterweight, and, above all, the wrestler-hero, Yvon Robert, who week after week gave the blond Anglo-Saxon wrestlers what for at the Forum.

Aside from boyhood street fights and what I read on the sports pages, all I knew of French Canadians was that they were clearly hilarious. Our Scots schoolmaster would always raise a laugh in class by reading us the atrocious Uncle Tom-like dialect verse of William Henry Drummond:
Little Baptiste & Co
.

On wan dark night on Lac St. Pierre,
De win’ she blow, blow, blow,
An’ de crew of de wood scow “Julie Plant”
Got scar’t and’ run below –
Bimeby she blow some more,
An’ de scow bus’ up on Lac St. Pierre
Wan arpent from de shore.

Actually, it was only the
WASP
s who were truly hated and feared. “Among them,” I heard it said, “with those porridge faces, who can tell what they’re thinking?” It was, we felt, their country, and given sufficient liquor who knew when they would make trouble?

We were a rude, aggressive bunch round the Main. Cocky too. But bring down the most insignificant, pinched
WASP
fire insurance inspector and even the most arrogant merchant on
the street would dip into the drawer for a ten spot or a bottle and bow and say, “Sir.”

After school we used to race down to the Main to play snooker at the Rachel or the Mount Royal. Other days, when we chose to avoid school altogether, we would take the No. 55 streetcar as far as St. Catherine Street, where there was a variety of amusements offered. We could play the pinball machines and watch archaic strip-tease movies for a nickel at the Silver Gameland. At the Midway or the Crystal Palace we could see a double feature and a girlie show for as little as thirty-five cents. The Main, at this juncture, was thick with drifters, panhandlers and whores. Available on both sides of the street were “Tourist Rooms by Day and Night,” and everywhere there was the smell of french fried potatoes cooking in stale oil. Tough, unshaven men in checked shirts stood in knots outside the taverns and cheap cafés. There was the promise of violence.

As I recall it, we were always being warned about the Main. Our grandparents and parents had come there by steerage from Rumania or by cattleboat from Poland by way of Liverpool. No sooner had they unpacked their bundles and cardboard suitcases than they were planning a better, brighter life for us, the Canadian-born children. The Main, good enough for them, was not to be for us, and that they told us again and again was what the struggle was for. The Main was for
bummers
, drinkers, and (heaven forbid) failures.

BOOK: The Street
3.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Amanda Scott by The Bawdy Bride
Club Vampire by Jordyn Tracey
The Autumn Palace by Ebony McKenna
Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener
The Haunting Within by Michelle Burley
Island for Dreams by Katrina Britt
Martin and John by Dale Peck
Say It Ain't So by Josh Berk
The Jamestown Experiment by Tony Williams