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Authors: Mordecai Richler

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

The Street (8 page)

BOOK: The Street
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During the years leading up to the war, the ideal of the ghetto, no different from any other in America, was the doctor. This, mistakenly, was taken to be the very apogee of learning and refinement. In those days there also began the familiar and agonizing process of alienation between immigrant parents and Canadian-born children. Our older brothers and cousins, off to university, came home to realize that our
parents spoke with embarrassing accents. Even the younger boys, like myself, were going to “their” schools. According to them, the priests had made a tremendous contribution to the exploration and development of this country. Some were heroes. But our parents had other memories, different ideas, about the priesthood. At school we were taught about the glory of the Crusades and at home we were instructed in the bloodier side of the story. Though we wished Lord Tweedsmuir, the Governor-General, a long life each Saturday morning in the synagogue, there were those among us who knew him as John Buchan. From the very beginning there was their history, and ours. Our heroes, and theirs.

Our parents used to apply a special standard to all men and events. “Is it good for the Jews?” By this test they interpreted the policies of Mackenzie King and the Stanley Cup play-offs and earthquakes in Japan. To take one example – if the Montreal
Canadiens
won the Stanley Cup it would infuriate the
WASP
s in Toronto, and as long as the English and French were going at each other they left us alone:
ergo
, it was good for the Jews if the
Canadiens
won the Stanley Cup.

We were convinced that we gained from dissension between Canada’s two cultures, the English and the French, and we looked neither to England nor France for guidance. We turned to the United States. The real America.

America was Roosevelt, the Yeshiva College, Max Baer, Mickey Katz records, Danny Kaye, a Jew in the Supreme Court, the
Jewish Daily Forward
, Dubinsky, Mrs. Nussbaum of Allen’s Alley, and Gregory Peck looking so cute in
Gentleman’s Agreement
. Why, in the United States a Jew even wrote speeches for the president. Returning cousins swore they had heard a cop speak Yiddish in Brooklyn. There were the Catskill hotels, Jewish soap operas on the radio and, above all, earthly pleasure grounds, Florida. Miami. No manufacturer had quite made it in Montreal until he was able to spend a month each winter in Miami.

We were governed by Ottawa, we were also British subjects, but our true capital was certainly New York. Success was (and still is) acceptance by the United States. For a boxer this meant a main bout at Madison Square Garden, for a writer or an artist, praise from New York critics, for a businessman, a Miami tan and, today, for comics, an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show or for actors, not an important part at the Stratford Festival, but Broadway, or the lead in a Hollywood
TV
series (Lorne Greene in
Bonanza)
. The outside world, “their” Canada, only concerned us insofar as it affected our living conditions. All the same, we liked to impress the
goyim
. A knock on the knuckles from time to time wouldn’t hurt them. So, while we secretly believed that the baseball field or the prize-fighting ring was no place for a Jewish boy, we took enormous pleasure in the accomplishments of, say, Kermit Kitman, the Montreal Royals outfielder, and Maxie Berger, the welterweight.

Streets such as ours and Outremont, where the emergent middle-class and the rich lived, comprised an almost self-contained world. Outside of business there was a minimal contact with the Gentiles. This was hardly petulant clannishness or naive fear. In the years leading up to the war neo-fascist groups were extremely active in Canada. In the United States there was Father Coughlin, Lindbergh, and others. We had Adrian Arcand. The upshot was almost the same. So I can recall seeing swastikas and
“A bas les Juifs”
painted on the Laurentian highway. There were suburbs and hotels in the mountains and country clubs where we were not wanted, beaches with signs that read
GENTILES ONLY
, quotas at the universities, and occasional racial altercations on Park Avenue. The democracy we were being invited to defend was flawed and hostile to us. Without question it was better for us in Canada than in Europe, but this was still their country, not ours.

I was only a boy during the war. I can remember signs in cigar stores that warned us
THE WALLS HAVE EARS
and
THE ENEMY IS EVERYWHERE
. I can also recall my parents, uncles and aunts, cracking peanuts on a Friday night and waiting for those two unequalled friends of the Jews, Roosevelt and Walter Winchell, to come off it and get into the war. We admired the British, they were gutsy, but we had more confidence in the United States Marines. Educated by Hollywood, we could see the likes of John Wayne, Gable, and Robert Taylor making minced meat out of the Panzers, while Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, and others, seen in a spate of British war films, looked all too humanly vulnerable to us. Briefly, then, Pearl Harbor was a day of jubilation, but the war itself made for some confusions. In another country, relatives recalled by my grandparents were being murdered. But on the street in our air cadet uniforms, we F.F.H.S. boys were more interested in seeking out the fabulously wicked V-girls (“They go the limit with guys in uniform, see.”) we had read about in the
Herald
. True, we made some sacrifices. American comic books were banned for the duration due, I think, to a shortage of U.S. funds. So we had to put up a quarter on the black market for copies of the
Batman
and
Tip-Top Comics
. But at the same news-stand we bought a page on which four pigs had been printed. When we folded the paper together, as directed, the four pigs’ behinds made up Hitler’s hateful face. Outside Cooperman’s Superior Provisions, where if you were a regular customer you could get sugar without ration coupons, we would chant “Black-market Cooperman! Black-market Cooperman!” until the old man came out, wielding his broom, and sent us flying down the street.

The war in Europe brought about considerable changes within the Jewish community in Montreal. To begin with, there was the coming of the refugees. These men, interned in England as enemy aliens and sent to Canada where they were eventually released, were to make a profound impact on us.
I think we had conjured up a picture of the refugees as penurious
hassidim
with packs on their backs. We were eager to be helpful, our gestures were large, but in return we expected more than a little gratitude. As it turned out, the refugees, mostly German and Austrian Jews, were far more sophisticated and better educated than we were. They had not, like our immigrant grandparents, come from
shtetls
in Galicia or Russia. Neither did they despise Europe. On the contrary, they found our culture thin, the city provincial, and the Jews narrow. This bewildered and stung us. But what cut deepest, I suppose, was that the refugees spoke English better than many of us did and, among themselves, had the effrontery to talk in the abhorred German language. Many of them also made it clear that Canada was no more than a frozen place to stop over until a U.S. visa was forthcoming. So for a while we real Canadians were hostile.

For our grandparents who remembered those left behind in Rumania and Poland the war was a time of unspeakable grief. Parents watched their sons grow up too quickly and stood by helplessly as the boys went off to the fighting one by one. They didn’t have to go, either, for until the last days of the war Canadians could only be drafted for service within Canada. A boy had to volunteer before he could be sent overseas.

For those of my age the war was something else. I cannot remember it as a black time, and I think it must be so for most boys of my generation. The truth is that for many of us to look back on the war is to recall the first time our fathers earned a good living. Even as the bombs fell and the ships went down, always elsewhere, our country was bursting out of a depression into a period of hitherto unknown prosperity. For my generation the war was hearing of death and sacrifice but seeing with our own eyes the departure from cold-water flats to apartments in Outremont, duplexes and split-levels in the suburbs. It was when we read of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and saw, in Montreal, the changeover from poky little
shuls
to big synagogue-cum-parochial schools with stained glass windows and mosaics outside. During the war some of us lost brothers and cousins but in Canada we had never had it so good, and we began the run from rented summer shacks with outhouses in Shawbridge to Colonial-style summer houses of our own and speedboats on the lake in Ste. Agathe.

FIVE
Pinky’s Squealer

O
NE BRIGHT
, cloudless morning in July 1941, Noah, Gas and Hershey arranged to meet on the balcony of Old Annie’s candy store in Prévost, a village in the Laurentians, where their families had taken cottages for the summer. They were determined to climb the mountain behind the Nine Cottages to get to Lac Gandon, where the
goyim
were.

Hershey turned up first.

Old Annie, who was a tiny, grey-haired widow with black, mournful eyes, looked the boy up and down suspiciously. A first-aid kit and a scout knife were strapped to his belt. “What is,” she asked, “a revolution?”

Hershey grimaced. “He who hears no evil, speaks no evil.”

Old Annie’s store was a squat sinking yellow shack all but covered with signs advertising Kik and Sweet Caporal cigarettes. She wasn’t called Old Annie because she was sixty-two. Long ago, in Lithuania, the first three children born to her parents had not survived their infancy. So the village miracle-maker had suggested that if another child was born to them they should call her
alte
(old) instantly, and God would understand.

Gas arrived next. He had a
BB
gun and a package of crumbly egg and onion sandwiches.

“Knock, knock,” he said.

“Who’s there?” Hershey asked.

“Ago.”

“Ago who?”

“Aw, go tell your mother she wants you.”

Behind Old Annie’s store was the scorched, spiky field that was used as a market. Early every Friday morning the French Canadian farmers arrived with poultry, vegetables and fruit. They were a skeptical bunch, with hard, seamed faces, but the St. Urbain Street wives were more than a match for them and by late afternoon the farmers were drained and grateful to get away. The women, who were ruthless bargainers, spoke a mixture of French, English and Yiddish with the farmers. “So
fiel
, Monsieur, for dis
kleine
chicken?
Vous
crazy?”

Pinky’s Squealer saw the two boys sitting on the stoop, waiting for Noah. He approached them diffidently. “Where you goin’?” he asked.

“To China,” Gas said.

When the Squealer’s mother wanted him to go to the toilet she would step out on her balcony and yell, “Dollink, time to water the teapot.” Pinky, who was the Squealer’s cousin, was seventeen years old, and his proper name was Milton Fishman. He was rather pious and conducted services at Camp Machia. The Squealer was his informer.

“I’ve got a quarter,” Pinky’s Squealer said.

“Grease it well,” Gas replied.

Habitually, those families who lived on Clark, St. Urbain, Rachel and City Hall clubbed together and took cottages in Prévost for the summer. How they raised the money, what sacrifices they made, were comparatively unimportant – the children required sun. Prévost had an exceedingly small native population and most of the lopsided cottages were owned by French Canadians who lived in Shawbridge, just up the hill. The C.P.R. railway station was in Shawbridge. Prévost, at the foot of the hill, was separated from Shawbridge by that
bridge reputedly built by a man named Shaw. It was a crazy-quilt of clapboard shacks and cottages strewn over hills and fields and laced by bumpy dirt roads and an elaborate system of paths. The centre of the village was at the foot of the bridge. Here were Zimmerman’s, Blatt’s, The Riverside Inn, Stein the butcher, and – on the winding dirt road to the right – the synagogue and the beach. In 1941 Zimmerman and Blatt still ran staunchly competitive general stores on opposite sides of the highway. Both stores were sprawling dumpy buildings badly in need of a paint job and had dance halls and huge balconies – where you could also dance – attached. But Zimmerman had a helper named Zelda and that gave him the edge over Blatt. Zelda’s signs were posted all over Zimmerman’s.

Over the fruit stall:

AN ORANGE ISN’T A BASEBALL. DON’T HANDLE WHAT YOU DON’T WANT. THINK OF THE NEXT CUSTOMER
.

Over the cash:

IF YOU CAN GET IT CHEAPER BY THAT GANGSTER ACROSS THE HIGHWAY YOU CAN HAVE IT FOR NOTHING

However, if you could get it cheaper at Blatt’s, Zelda always proved that what you had bought was not as fresh or of a cheaper quality.

The beach was a field of spiky grass and tree stumps. Plump, middle-aged ladies, their flesh boiled pink, spread out blankets and squatted in their bras and bloomers, playing poker, smoking and sipping Cokes. The vacationing cutters and pressers seldom wore bathing suits either. They didn’t swim. They set up card tables and chairs and played pinochle
solemnly, sucking foul cigars and cursing the sun. The children dashed in and out among them playing tag or tossing a ball about. Boys staggered between sprawling sun-bathers, lugging pails packed with ice and shouting:

“Ice-cold drinks. Chawk-lit bahs. Cig’rettes!”

Occasionally, a woman, her wide-brimmed straw hat flapping as she waddled from table to table, her smile as big as her aspirations, gold teeth glittering, would intrude on the card players, asking – nobody’s forcing, mind you – if they would like to buy a raffle in aid of the Mizrachi Fresh Air Fund or the J.N.F. Naked babies bawled. Plums, peaches, watermelons were consumed, pits and peels tossed indiscriminately on the grass. The slow yellow river was unfailingly condemned by the Health Board during the last three weeks of August, when the polio scare was at its height. But the children paid no attention. They shrieked with delight whenever one of their huge mothers descended into the water briefly to duck herself – once, twice – warn the children against swimming out too far – then, return, refreshed, to her poker game. The French Canadians were too shocked to complain, but the priests sometimes preached sermons about the indecency of the Jews. Mort Shub said, “Liss’n, it’s their job. A priest’s gotta make a living too.”

BOOK: The Street
10.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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