Toronto is built on a simple grid, its  main roads running arrow straight  and meeting at right angles. To a stranger motoring along one of these arteries,  the intersections seem drab and featureless. On one of the corners, there’ll likely be a gas station, on another a bank; and then for maybe half a mile on each side a procession of small retailers: a pharmacy, a cleaners,  a couple of milk stores, a greasy spoon or two,  a Jewish bakery, a handful of so-called ethnic  restaurants, perhaps a supermarket fronted by an oversize carpark.

    For a while I lived two blocks from  such a crossroads; and so it acquired the familiarity of home territory.  Penury had forced me there. My business had closed and my literary ambitions had produced a book but no income. To tell the truth I was more than glad to have found lodgings that were not beyond my reduced means. The apartment,  a mice-infested one bedroom, was on the ground floor of a low-rise, one of a dozen box-like structures that ran along Bathurst Street north of Highway 401. Most of my neighbours were Filipino, shy, quiet couples  with youngsters clinging to their legs. A handful were what the middle-class like to call white trash,  men with moustaches and  work boots who spent their leisure time at the rear of the building smoking, drinking, and talking loudly in hoarse country voices. All received me into their midst without hostility: the Filippinos invariably smiling with a trace of nervousness, perhaps suspecting that I might be an official, and the whites puzzled a little, knowing that I was not one of them, but making room for me anyway with friendly waves and the  occasional offer of a can of beer.

    Immediately behind the apartments , a tranquil neighbourhood of tree-lined roads and neat bungalows stretched north and east. Almost every day I would pace these roads for exercise and to get out of the cage of my apartment. Mostly, they were deserted. I might encounter a couple walking their dog, and occasionally a car would purr by; but that was all.

    Friday evenings and Saturdays, by contrast, the area sprung to life. People emerged from the surrounding dwellings as if they had been hibernating: men in black suits, some with fedoras, others with fur hats and tallits beneath their coats, a few draped in black robes from which their legs, clad in startling white stockings, protruded like painted sticks. Women in fashionable wigs or shptizlis walked apart from the men, chatting quietly to each other and shepherding herds of children. All moved purposefully, in different directions according to the synagogue to which they owed allegiance, eyes straight ahead, saluting no one but their own. I marvelled at their self-containment, their obvious sense of belonging each to a community of fellows, their seeming isolation from the rest of poor humanity of whose existence they scarcely seemed aware, as if God illuminated their way with a light so strong that it blotted out everything foreign to their cause.

    On Sunday mornings, while the Filipinos, in their formal best, were hurrying to church, the kosher restaurants came into their own. One - with a delicatessen attached - stood just west of the main intersection, and from time to time, when my purse permitted, I would breakfast there. This meant passing through a gauntlet of surmise . Loudly whispered questions would pass among the diners, “Do we know who that is?”, “Isn't it Yankel Feivitch’s son, Moshe”, “Why doesn’t he say hullo then?”, “Because it's somebody else”, and so on. To avoid direct inquiry, I would aim to sit on a stool at the counter; but when none was available, I’d look for a table occupied by an elderly couple knowing that they’d always make room and ask only the simplest questions.  As often as not, they would adopt me for the half hour we sat together,  offer to share their meal with me because “they’d ordered too much”, gently probe me for information on my marital state in case they could be of help. I didn’t at first understand their solicitude, until a friend reminded me that these gentle people were probably survivors of the holocaust and that they were doing their duty. My recollection of their kindness suffuses with the sweet odour of oven-fresh bagels, the flavour of eggs and onions, and latkes with apple sauce.

    Facing the kosher restaurant, wedged among a line of storefronts of irretrievable blandness, was a food-store that drew my attention simply because it offered so little for sale. I wondered at its purpose and clientele. Its front window, partially occluded by messages in Hebrew and a language I didn’t recognize,  contained half-a-dozen cans of exotic beans, three bottles of olive oil and a jar of olives. Inside, the same bareness was evident: shelves  decorated rather than stocked with comestibles, a display case under the counter with three or four blocks of cheese, some smoked saugages , a tub of olives and another of green chillies, plus a dozen jars of very pale taramosalata.  It looked less like a store than the modestly stocked larder of a private home.

    On entering for the first time, I was greeted  by a moustachioed man in his early sixties with piercing eyes and an air of mingled weariness and injured pride.  I bought taramosalata and a 100 grams of olives.
“You’re not from here,” he accused as soon as he heard my voice.
“Nor you.”
I revealed my nationality; and he approved my European heritage.
“Canadians don’t come in here,” he said. “Don’t like the food. Europeans are more sophisticated. Even the English.”
I nodded vaguely skirting the obvious question of why he had so little for sale.
“People don’t like the truth. It’s  the way of the world,” he said perhaps thinking I had responded unfavourably to his  racial characterizations.
I could see he wanted to talk, so I asked him what he meant. He answered with a question of his own.
“Can you guess where I come from?”
“Somewhere in the Middle East?”
    He confirmed that the language I hadn’t recognized in the window was that of his birth. Hebrew, he told me, was there for another reason. “Armenians and Jews are like brothers,” he said. “We both suffered holocausts.” He paused for a moment to let this sink in, before adding, “Ours came first.”
He went on to describe the eradication  in 1915 of a million and a half Armenians by the Turkish authorities.
“People forget Armenia,” he concluded. “so I take care to remind them.”
I mentioned that 1915 was a long time ago, before either of us were born. Wasn’t it possible after so many years to bury past conflicts ?
“My family passed our history to me, and I pass it to my children. Until the Turks make amends we’ll never forget. In a thousand years, the memory of our suffering will be alive and fresh. Want to wipe out a people? Better do it well. Because if anybody survives, they’ll come back to haunt you; they’ll make you eat the dirt you used to cover up your crimes.  One day Armenians will take back their land. I won’t live to see it. But perhaps my children....” the sentence faded inconclusively, he shrugged his shoulders and ended, “ Who knows.”

    I returned to his store pretty well every week after that to buy a few supplies. He never mentioned his homeland again, but a bond grew between us  that I put down to the fact that I had listened to him on that first visit. Sometimes, as I was leaving, he’d accompany me to the door, and  we’d spend a few moments chatting and gazing out at the streetscape, the wide road with its incessant whine of traffic,  the flimsy,  flat-faced architecture, the gaudy hoardings,  the battered taxis ranged outside the bank with their engines belching, the oppressive suburban drabness of a North American metropolis.
“Tell me” he’d asked over and over again, “what in god’s name are we doing here?”

    Fifty metres further west on the north side, an Italian shoe store nested  unobtrusively between a lifeless café and a currency dealer. Here, a sale was always in progress: stock clearance, end of season, beginning of season, Christmas, Hannukh, Easter, spring, summer, winter, any excuse or none at all sufficed for a change of red banner above the entrance announcing devastating, unrepeatable bargains.  The discounted items always seemed oddly familiar, their patina of dust suggesting they had remained undisturbed for months.  The new season’s stock, set discreetly on shelves at the rear, was shiny and smelled of leather and wax. Leather bags hung from a rail across the middle of the room, and a display case set against a wall contained purses, wallets and embossed belts with brass buckles.

    I never encountered anyone in the store except the proprietor. Stout and white-haired, he wore an apron, a fixed smile, and an air of permanent melancholy. He spoke English as if it were a bastard form of Italian, varying syllables, relocating accents and  randomly adding vowel endings. He liked to chat, and after my first two or three visits, greeted me like an old acquaintance.
“Welcoma, welcoma. I glad to a see you. You coma to a buy a shoe?”
He knew by that time that I wouldn’t buy anything and he had probably figured out my poverty as the reason. If I so much as glanced at the new season’s stock he’d mutter, “Verya nicea shoe. But a lota money. People dona wana spenda money. But I ’ava shoe for you. Goodo price.” And he’d steer me to a snub-nosed, brown and white brogue with plastic highlights on the sale shelf.
“You no lika?” he’d ask with the mechanical surprise of the lifelong retailer.
“Afraid not.”
He’d glance critically at my old trainers, and shake his head.
“Another timea.”
“Sure. I’ll come again.”
I’d turn to leave, but before I reached the door he’d call me back - it was a kind of ritual.
“Waita a minutea. What abouta your a wife”
He’d wave a hand in the direction of the women’s shelves.
“Everytinga ona salea. Tell a your a wifea to como takea look.”
“Maybea she likea stilletto. We got a lota stiletto.”
That was true: they were the one’s with the most dust. I’d say goodbye, shake his hand, and  go my way.

    Winter during my second year at the crossroads announced itself in the form of a sudden blizzard while I was on my daily walk. The soles of my trainers were parting company with the uppers, and by the time I reached Guido’s store, my feet were sodden and cold. His ‘late fall’ sale was on, and I entered hoping, though hardly expecting, that he might have a specially cheap end-of-line, shop-soiled pair that lay within my means. I had a twenty dollar note in my pocket.
He welcomed me with a cup of coffee.
“It a snow. You needa cafe. Keepo cold away.”
I listened to his sales patter but he had nothing in my size under seventy-five bucks. I finished my coffee and said good-bye, but he stopped me.
“Takea shoe off.”
“I measure youro foot.”
I told him there was no point in measuring because I wouldn’t be buying.
“Why you no buy? You needa shoe. Youri footi weti.” He looked down at my footwear and made clucking noises.
In those days I had not yet come to terms with my  poverty, which I assumed to be a temporary condition attendant on the success of my next novel, or the certain offer of a professorship somewhere, or at the very least a journalistic assignment.
“You’re right,” I agreed. “Pity I forgot to bring my wallet. I’ll step by in a day or two.”
‘So, I measure youro foot foro day or two.”
There was no escape, so I took off one of my trainers to reveal a sodden sock with a large hole in the big toe. More clucking noises as he set my foot on his measuring instrument and made a couple of notes. I felt oddly naked.
Telling me to wait for a moment, he vanished behind the counter, reappearing shortly afterwards with some fine, leather boots and a pair of socks.
“Try. First socki then booti.”
I obeyed. The socks felt warm and comforting; the boots  fitted perfectly.  Nerves in my feet began to tingle as sensation returned to them.  I felt myself smiling.
“You takea.”
“I can’t”
He thought for a moment. I began to untie the laces.
“How mucha money you gotta now?”
I made a show of searching my pockets before producing the twenty-buck note.
“I sella you foro twenty dollari. Also socki sama price.”
My protests against this generous offer were genuine but, I admit, not as strong as they might have been. After a minute or two of resistence, I handed over the money and thanked him.
“No thanka me,” he answered.  “Olda stocka. I no sella toa you, I no sella to a nobody. For three year booti here. Beautifuli booti. Nobody buy. Why nobody buy? My wifea complaina. ‘Guido, she say, why no you closa the store? You no sella enough.’ Accountant say samea ting.‘Why you no closea the store? You no makea money.’
“But I a tella them.  Alla my lifea I sella shoe. Witha no store what am I a gonna do? Tella me that. What am I gonna sell?”
Then as if he had suddenly remembered his purpose in life, he retrieved a belt and a couple of wallets from the display case. The salesman’s patter returned. “Fora you thirty dollari. Regular forty-five. Nowhere youa find sucha price. Where you finda belta likea that?”
“No money left.”
“What abouta wallet?”
“Maybe next time”
“Tella youra wifea to come. I givea besta price. She lika shoe. Alla women likea shoe.”

    Outside, dusk was closing in, and it was snowing still in thick, silent flakes. I turned west along the highroad and then north at the first turning, so as to circle back to my apartment through the quiet streets of the neighbourhood. The noise of traffic faded. I could hear the crunch of my new boots on the fresh snow and, casting a glance behind, saw in the fading light the crisp pattern left by their tread. I was headily conscious that they were impervious to the weather’s assault.  Several times I stopped to take in the stillness, conscious at once of being alone and yet of being surrounded by uncountable individual lives, by voices that spoke to each other or to themselves, though I could hear nothing of them.  Lights began to come on in the houses, many of which, I knew, had mezzuzahs fixed by the front door... Hark, Oh Israel...

    Approaching Bathurst, I smelled on a current of air the mouthwatering aroma of baking bread. Instead of turning towards my apartment, I followed my nose to where a line up had formed outside the bakery.  It was Thursday; busiest evening of the week; the day before the beginning of Shabbes..  Still with a few coins in my pocket, I joined the queue. In front of me, two men in fedoras were conversing loudly in Yiddish. Before they reached the counter, one of them sought out an aproned man from the oven room at the rear to whom he gave his order on a piece of paper. The man at once read out the order to the girl who was serving behind the counter: eight large rye with seeds,  four chala, three dozen bagels, and a selection of tarts and cakes: a week of supplies for the family. An ultra-orthodox male may  not address a strange female; someone else must do the work for him. Resuming their conversation, the two Yiddish-speakers  ignored the girl - a dark-eyed beauty with ethereally pale skin - placing their money on the counter rather than in her hand.

    When my turn came, I bought a small rye and a couple of bagels - an order signifying to those who heard it that I lived alone. Handing me my bread in a plastic shopping bag, the girl looked into my eyes, smiled and wished me a “Good shabbes”.  Then she leaned over the counter and whispered, “I added a small chala for tomorrow. Enjoy.”

    As I trudged home, the girl’s image leaning towards me stayed in my thoughts, though the words I heard her speaking were not hers exactly, though in a way they were also hers, words scratched years before on the door of a cattle truck as it rumbled through a dark Polish night and that maybe came in response to the Armenian’s question:

I, Eve,
Say  to my son Abel
And to his brother Cain, the son of Man
That I

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