Their Canada and Mine
Back in 1953, on the first Sunday after my return to Montreal from a two-year stay in Europe, I went to my grandmother’s house.
“How is it for the Jews in Europe?” she asked me.
My uncles reproached me for not having been to Israel, but their questions about Europe were less poignant than my grandmother’s. Had I seen the Folies Bergères? The changing of the Guard? My uncles were on their way to becoming Canadians.
Canada, from the beginning, was second best. It made us nearly Americans.
My grandfather, like so many others, came to Canada by steerage from Poland in 1900 and settled down not far from Main Street in what was to become a ghetto. Here, as in the real America, the immigrants worked under appalling conditions in factories. They rented halls over poolrooms and grocery stores to meet and form burial societies and create shuls. They sent to the old country for relatives left behind and rabbis and brides. Slowly, unfalteringly, the immigrants started to struggle up a ladder of streets, from one where you had to leave your garbage outside your front door to another where you actually had a rear lane; from the three rooms over the grocery or tailor shop to your own cold-water flat on a street with trees.
Our street, St. Urbain, was one of five working-class ghetto streets between the Main and Park Avenue.
To a middle-class stranger, it’s true, any one of these streets would have seemed as squalid as the next. 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.
Among the wonders of St. Urbain, our St. Urbain, there was a man who ran for alderman each election on a one-plank platform (provincial speed cops were anti-Semites), a boy nobody remembered who had gone on to become a professor at MIT, two men who had served with the MacKenzie-Paps in the Spanish Civil War (they no longer spoke to each other), Herscovitch’s cousin Larry, who had demanded kosher food when he was sentenced to six months in jail for receiving stolen goods, a woman who called herself a divorcee, and a boxer who had made the ratings in Ring magazine.
St. Urbain was, I suppose, somewhat similar to ghetto streets in New York and Chicago. There were some crucial differences, however. We were Canadians, therefore we had a King. We also had “pea-soups,” i.e., French Canadians, in the neighborhood.
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, and many of us turned out to wave. 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. The King, we were told, was just a figurehead. “If he wants to put in even double windows at the palace, he needs a special act of Parliament.” We could afford to be patronizing because among our own kings we could count Solomon and David. True, we wished the Royal Family a long life every morning in shul, but this wasn’t servility. It was generosity.
“Pea-soups” were for turning the lights on and off on Shabbos and running elevators and cleaning out chimneys and furnaces. They were, it was rumored, ridden with TB, rickets, and diseases it’s better not to mention. You gave them old clothes. A week before the High Holidays you had one in to wax the floors. The French Canadians were our “schwartze.”
Our world was made up of five streets. Above Park Avenue came Outremont, where Jewish bosses and professional men were already beginning to make inroads on what used to be a middle-class French Canadian reserve. Two streets below our own came the Main.
The Main was rich in delights. But looking at it again after an absence of many years I must say that it can also be sordid, it’s filthy, and hollering with stores whose wares, whether furniture or fruit, are 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 was the sort of street narrow reform candidates were always clamoring about. It was described as vice-ridden, a hot-bed for Communism, and a breeding ground for juvenile delinquency. Well, I guess there was a patina of truth on all these clichés. But they overlooked a lot. Like the smell of fresh bagels on a Sunday morning and the pike floating glumly toward you in the window of Your Most Trustful kosher butcher. The “war assets” store with the sign over the cash that read Mexican Money is Accepted in Mexico. And more, much more. Why, within one block you could have disfiguring blackheads removed, talk with a miracle-working rabbi, shoot a game of snooker with a stranger, bet on a horse, consult a matchmaker, read newspapers in six different languages, furnish your bedroom for twenty dollars down, send a food parcel to a relative in Warsaw, and drop in on a herbalist with a sure cure for the most embarrassing of all ailments.
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 shul you could see THE PICTURE THEY CLAIMED COULD NEVER BE MADE. A little farther down the street there was the Workman’s Circle and, if you liked, a strip-tease show. It was to the Main, once a year before the High Holidays, that I was taken along for a new suit (the itch of the cheap tweed was excruciating) and shoes (always with a squeak). We also shopped for food on the Main, 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 even 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 delicatessen we were allowed salami butts, card players bought us candy for luck, and everywhere we were poked and pinched by the mothers. 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 melamed. Jobs going on the Main included spotting pins in a bowling alley, collecting butcher bills and, best of all, working at a newsstand, where you could read the Police Gazette free and pick up a little extra short-changing strangers during the rush hour. But make no mistake. We were not sent out to work because we were poor, God forbid, like those no-goods next door. Work was 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 streets in small groups, smoking Turret cigarettes and telling bad jokes.
“Hey, shmo-hawk, what’s the difference between a mail box and an elephant’s ass?”
“Well, I wouldn’t send you to mail my letters.”
As the French Canadian factory girls passed arm-in-arm we would shout things like, “I’ve got the time if you’ve got the place.”
Shabbos 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 upstairs and told jokes that began, “Confucius say . . .” or “Once there was an Englishman, Irishman, and a Hebe, see. And they were all after this here dame. . . .” We would return to the Main once more when we wanted a fight with the pea-soups. Winter, as I remember it, was best for this type of sport. We could throw snowballs packed with ice or frozen horse-buns and, with darkness coming so 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 stand idly on the sidewalk. Eddy was a good head-and-a-half shorter than the rest of us. (For this, it was rumored, 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 shul, this brought in some thirty dollars a month, and if his tonsils were removed, it was feared his voice would go too. Eddy sang sweetly.) Anyway, he would stand out there alone, and when the first solitary pea-soup passed he’d kick him in the shins. 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,” one of us would say, “that’s my kid brother you just slugged,” and before the poor pea-soup could protest we were all over him.
These and other fights, however, sprang more out of boredom than from true racial hatred, not that there were no racial problems on the Main.
For if the main was a poor man’s street, it was also a dividing line. Below, the French Canadians. Above, some distance above, the English. On the Main itself there were some Italians, Poles, 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 rough with large families and spoke English badly.
Looking back it seems that it was only the English who were truly hated and feared. “Among them,” I heard it said, “with those porridge-faces, who can tell what they’re thinking. If they do think.” It was, we felt, their country, and given enough liquor who knew when they’d make trouble?
We were a rude, aggressive bunch round the Main. Cocky too. Send round Einstein and we would not have been overawed. But bring round the most insignificant little Anglo-Saxon fire insurance inspector and even the most powerful merchant on the street would dip into the drawer for a fiver or a bottle and begin to bow and scrape and say “Sir.”
After school we used to race down to the Main to play pool at the Rachel or the Mount Royal. Other days, when we chose to avoid school altogether, we used to 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 usually 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 cafes. There was the threat 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 cattleboat from Poland by way of Liverpool. But 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.
The Main, incidentally, was also for poets. A. M. Klein has written tenderly of the street in Hath Not a Jew, a collection of poems, and in his one novel, The Second Scroll (Knopf, 1951). More recently, Irving Layton, writing in a tougher, more colloquial style, has reached a surprisingly large Canadian audience with his collection of poems, Red Carpet for the Sun (McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 1959). There have also been Ted Allen’s short stories, published in the New Yorker and elsewhere in the 40′s (and his play, The Secret of the World, soon to be produced in London). The city’s leading Yiddish poet, Yakov Yitzhok Segal, died in 1955, but others, such as Melech Ravitch, still write lively pieces for the Yiddish journals. All their published works, as well as manuscripts, reviews, mentions, scraps, just about anything, are lovingly cared for by David Rome at the Jewish Public Library.
During the years leading up to the war, the ideal of our ghetto, no different from any other in America in this respect, was the doctor. This, mistakenly, was taken to be the very apogee of learning and refinement. In those days there also began the familiar process of alienation between immigrant parents and Canadian-born children. Our older brothers and cousins, off to the university, came home to realize for the first time 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 told of the bloodier side to that story. Though we wished Lord Tweedsmuir, the Governor-General, a long life each Saturday morning in shul, there were those among us who also knew him as John Buchan, the author of thrillers riddled with anti-Semitism. From the very beginning there was their history, and ours. Our heroes, and theirs.
Our school, Baron Byng High School, was under the jurisdiction of the Protestant School Board, but had a student body that was nevertheless almost 100 per cent Jewish. It became something of a legend in our area. Again and again we led the Province in the junior matriculation (McGill entrance exams). This was galling to those on the left who held we were the same as everyone else, but to the many more who felt that at all times there’s nothing like a Yiddish boy, it was an annual cause for celebration. Our class at BBHS, Room 41, was one of the few to boast a true Gentile, i.e., a white Protestant. His name was Whelan—and he certainly was a curiosity. Envious students came from other classes to study and question him. Whelan was not too bright, but he gave Room 41 a certain tone, and in order to keep him with us we wrote essays for him and slipped him answers at examination time. We were, I’d say, as proud of Whelan’s accomplishments (and no less condescending) as ever a Britisher abroad was of his African houseboy.
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 (our equivalent of the World Series) and earthquakes in Japan. To take one example—if the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup it would infuriate the English 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, Danny Kaye, a Jew in the Supreme Court, the Jewish Daily Forward, Max Baer, Mickey Katz records, 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 fighter this meant a main bout at Madison Square Garden, for a writer or an artist, praise from New York critics (Adele Wiseman for her novel, The Sacrifice), for a businessman, a Miami tan, and, today, for comics, an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show (Wayne and Shuster), or for actors, not an important part at the Stratford Festival but Broadway (William Shatner, Lou Jacobi) or the lead in a Hollywood TV series (Lorne Green 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 ring was no place for a Jewish boy, we took enormous pleasure in the accomplishments of, say, Kermit Kitman, a one-time outfielder with the Montreal Royals, and Maxie Berger, the boxer.
Streets like our St. Urbain and Outremont, where the rich lived, made up an almost self-contained world. Outside of business there was 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. You had Father Coughlin, Lindberg, and others. We had Adrian Arcand. The upshot was almost the same. So I can recall seeing swastikas and “A has les Juifs” painted on the Laurentian highway. There were suburban areas and hotels in the mountains where we were not allowed, beaches with signs that read GENTILES ONLY, quotas at the universities, and serious racial fights on Park Avenue. The democracy we were being invited to defend was imperfect and hostile to us. Without question it was better for us here than in Europe, but this was still their Canada, 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 remember my parents, my uncles and aunts, cracking peanuts on a Friday night and waiting for the United States, for those two unequaled friends of our people, Roosevelt and Winchell, to come off it and get into the war. We admired the British, they were gutsy, but we had much more confidence in the United States Marines. (Educated by Hollywood, we could see the likes of John Wayne, Gable, and Robert Taylor, making mincemeat of the Panzers, while Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, and others seen here in a spate of British war films, looked all too humanly vulnerable to us.) Briefly, then, Pearl Harbor was a day of jubilation here, but the war itself made for some confusions. In another country, relatives recalled by my grandparents were being murdered. But out on the streets in our air cadet uniforms, we Baron Byng boys were more interested in seeking out the fabulously wicked V-girls (“They all go the limit with guys in uniform, see. It’s patriotic like.”) 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 corner newsstand we bought a page on which four pigs had been printed. When we folded the paper together as directed the four pig’s behinds made up Hitler’s hateful face. Outside Cooperman’s Superior Provisions, where if you were a regular you could get sugar without ration coupons, we would chant “Black-Market Cooperman! Black-Market Cooperman!” until the old man came out, waving his broom, and chased us 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 tremendous impact on the community. I think we had conjured up a picture of the refugees as penurious Hasidim with packs on their backs. We were eager to be helpful, our gestures were large, but in return we expected 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 little villages in Galicia. Neither did they despise Europe. To 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 we did and, among themselves, had the gall to talk in the hated German language. Many of them also made it clear that Canada was no more than a frozen place to stop until a U. S. visa was forthcoming. So, for a while, we real Canadians were hostile. (This has long since died down, of course, and the refugees of 1940-41 have been assimilated into the community. They have done much to enrich its cultural life, too.)
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 very 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.) But for those of my own 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. For the awful 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 busting out of the depression into a period of hitherto unknown prosperity. For my generation the war was to hear of death and sacrifice but to see with our own eyes the departure from cold-water flats to apartments in Outremont, duplexes and homes in the suburbs. It was when we read of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto and saw, in Montreal, the changeover from small shuls to big synagogues-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 Shaw-bridge to Colonial-style summer houses of our own and speedboats on the lake in Ste. Agathe.
The war was when the concept of the ghetto became even more rigid in Montreal. German Jews, the argument went, were the most assimilated, and look what happened to them. Our antipathy for the goyim quickened. We wanted no part of them.
Back in Montreal, living within the Jewish community once more, this time after an absence of seven years in Europe, I found the changes come about in so short a time astonishing.
As far as I can see it’s still a matter of their Canada and ours, but on all levels, even among older Jews, there has been a disheartening adjustment to what we Canadians defensively call the American way of life. When I was a boy, we had already begun to discard anything that made us appear different. Some business and professional men Anglicized their names: Rabinovitch, let’s say, was reborn Rice, and Lipschitz, Lane. But the children were still given sturdy Old Testament names. Today I find the children of even the most Orthodox families are, just as in the U.S., more likely to be called Neal, Stuart, Michele (for Malke, this), and Eugene. Naturally, the rabbis who serve such an up-to-date community are no longer severe men with splendid beards. Today’s clean-shaven young rabbi, as you well know, is not so much a descendant of Hillel, Shammai, or the Baal Shem Tov, as a regular guy, like Norman Vincent Peale. He no longer threatens the community with God’s terrible wrath but, instead, organizes father-and-son breakfasts, golf tournaments, and musical comedy-type Bar Mitzvahs.
Just as Americans come up here to look for hockey players, we scout the U.S. for modern rabbis. So, probably, the rabbi has come to Montreal or Toronto from, say, Cleveland. Most likely he has a Ph.D., his weekly column in the Toronto Telegram or Montreal Star is signed Dr., and deals with everything from “What Is True Happiness” to, say (for National Sports Week), “Jewish Athletes from Bar Kochba to Hank Greenberg.” The most envied congregation would be the one with the rabbi who has appeared most often on television panel games.
Still, there is a definite dichotomy of feeling about the U.S. here.
For even as the big city Jews here hasten to imitate the U.S., they also, as Canadians, have become more and more fiercely nationalistic in recent years. So, while the tone may be set for them by New York, they are aggressively proud that the Canadian dollar was, until recently, worth 103 American cents. Miami may still be necessary but, as Canadians, the Jews object to being pushed around by Washington. This is true socially too. For even as the community insists that its rabbis emulate the up-to-date Protestant minister, it is determined that the children should attend parochial schools. Jewish-sounding names may be abandoned, the children may very well have a tree for Christmas, but they will still live in ghettos. Yesterday there was one ghetto, today, as the Jews have moved out to suburbia, there are a series of such enclaves. No longer with much excuse, however. But when I put this to a seemingly assured young man, he replied, “Well, I just wouldn’t feel comfortable living next door to a goy. All this brotherhood crap is meaningless. Underneath, they’re still anti-Semites.”
The same man told me that because many golf courses are still restricted the Jews have constructed clubs of their own. Recently, there was a crisis at one of these clubs. A young Jew brought along a friend of his, a Gentile, to play with him. The Gentile liked the course and the people he met there so much that he applied for membership. After much heart-searching his application was turned down. “Why?” I asked.
“Well, it wasn’t that they had anything against him personally. But they did feel that if they let him in the others would apply. Soon, they’d all want to get in . . . and we’d be pushed into our own corner again.”
“What if a Negro applied?”
“He’d be turned down. But not because he was colored. Only because he’s a goy.”
Well, in a sense it’s amusing, even gratifying, to know that we Jews so recently off St. Urbain can now kick the goyim off our own golf, curling, and yacht clubs, but it’s also very depressing. We’ve adjusted splendidly, sure. We’re Canucks now, still a little off-white perhaps, but no longer as different as we were.
“It’s no longer the same, is it?” an old friend said to me. “When we were kids if we came home from school and said our teacher was picking on us, we were told, ‘if he’s picking on you he has a good reason.’ Today my oldest goes to the child psychiatrist twice a week. It’s twenty-five bucks a crack.” He had other, more damaging criticisms to make about the community. But like so many others he was careful to add, “Listen, it’s sad. For all I know it’s even shameful. But you mustn’t tell the goyim. For them, it’s ammunition.”
So while our Jewish political leaders fatuously proclaim our Canadianism, even as they protest how very much at home we feel here, the Jews still live apart and in fear. It’s still a question of their Canada, and ours. The Jews, assured in their own suburban camps, have only to step into the outside world to feel conspicuous and insecure.
All this may sound dreadfully familiar, and it should, for the Canadian Jew is (not unjustifiably) a would-be American. However, there are some subtle differences in our condition as compared to yours. The Jews in Canada have never taken as integral a part in the political and cultural life of their country as have the American Jews. True, we have been handed some political lollipops. There’s a Jew in the Senate, another is an MP, and, in Quebec, there are now two Jewish judges, but there is no Jewish politician of stature in Canada, and, as I said before, our cultural capital is New York. This is not to say that the cultural bastions of Toronto—the book and magazine publishers, the CBC, what little theater there is—is anti-Semitic; far from it, but it is in their hands. Whereas, looking down on the cultural life of New York from here, it appears to be a veritable yeshiva. I won’t even go into the question of Broadway or television, but from COMMENTARY by way of Partisan Review to the Noble Savage, from Knopf to Grove Press, the Jewish writers seem to call each to each, editing, praising, slamming one another’s books, plays, and cultural conference appearances. So many of the talented young writers are Jews, and I’m sure, in New York, not one of them has been asked as I was recently asked at a party in Montreal, “When are you going to stop writing about the Main Street and Outremont? I mean, aren’t you ever going to write about Canada?”
I have, since my return to Montreal, been back to the Main again and again.
Today the original Young Israel Synagogue, where we used to chin the bar, is no longer there. A bank stands where my old poolroom used to be. Some familiar stores have gone. There have been deaths and bankruptcies. But most of the departed have simply packed up and moved with their old customers to the nearest of the new shopping centers at Van Horne or Rockland. And what are these centers if not tarted-up versions of the old Main, where you could do all your buying in a concentrated area and maybe get a special price through a cousin’s cousin? Yesterday it was a dollar off because it’s you, today it’s the shopping stamp.
Up and down the Main you can still pick out many restaurants and steak houses wedged between the sweater factories, poolrooms, cold-water flats, wholesale dry goods stores, and “Your Most Sanitary” barbershops. The places where we used to work in summer as shippers for ten dollars a week are still there. So’s Baron Byng High School, right where it always was. Rabbinical students and boys with sidecurls still pass. These, however, are the latest arrivals from Poland and Rumania and soon their immigrant parents will put pressure on them to study hard and make good. To get out.
But many of our own grandparents, the very same people who assured us the Main was only for bummers and failures, will not get out. Today when most of the children have made good, now that the sons and daughters have split-level bungalows and minks and winters in Miami, many of the grandparents still cling to the Main. Their children cannot in many cases persuade them to leave. So you still see them there, drained and used-up by the struggle. They sit on kitchen chairs next to the Coke freezer in the cigar and soda store, dozing with a fly-swatter in hand. You find them rolling their own cigarettes and studying the obituary column in the Jewish Eagle on the steps outside the Jewish Library. The women still peel potatoes on the stoop under the shade of a winding outside staircase. Old men still watch the comings and goings from the balcony above, a blanket spread over their legs and a little bag of polly seeds on their lap. As in the old days the sinking house with the crooked floor is often right over the store or the wholesaler’s, or maybe next door to the junk yard. Only today the store and the junk yard are shut down. Signs for Sweet Caporal Cigarettes or old election posters have been nailed in over the missing windows. There are spider-webs everywhere.