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
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.
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
“People don’t like the truth.
It’s the way of the world,” he said
perhaps thinking I had responded unfavourably to his racial
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
“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
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
“Welcoma, welcoma. I glad to a see you. You coma to a buy a
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.
He’d glance critically at my old trainers, and shake his head.
“Sure. I’ll come again.”
I’d turn to leave, but before I reached the door
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
“Everytinga ona salea. Tell a your a wifea to como takea
“Maybea she likea stilletto. We got a lota
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
“Takea shoe off.”
“I measure youro foot.”
I told him there was no point in measuring because I wouldn’t
“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
‘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
“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.
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
“I sella you foro twenty dollari. Also socki sama
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
“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
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
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.
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:
Say to my son Abel
And to his brother Cain, the son of Man