Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son
‘Gott meiner,’ said my father to my mother. ‘Again no money? But I gave you twelve dollars at the beginning of the week. What have you done with it?’
‘I don’t know. It went away.’
‘So quickly … by Thursday? Impossible.’
‘It couldn’t be helped. Some of it I used to pay old bills. We’ve owed money to Herskovitz for I don’t know how long.’
‘But did you have to pay him this week?’
‘He’s right in the block. For two months now I’ve been coming home the long way around. I gave him three dollars.’
‘How could you! Haven’t you any sense? And what did you do with the rest? Joshua,’ he said, turning to me furiously. ‘Take a pencil and write these things down. I have to know where it all went. I bought eggs and butter on Tuesday.’
‘Seventy-five cents to the milkman,’ said Ma, earnest and frightened. She must have believed she had done something wrong.
‘Write it,’ he said.
I had taken a piece of Ma’s checkered stationery and placed the figures carefully within the tiny boxes. I was shaken, too, and eager to escape condemnation.
‘Willie had a tooth out. It cost fifty cents.’
‘Fifty?’ he said.
‘Yes, it’s usually a dollar an extraction. I sent him up alone and told him to say it was all he had. And after he was done, I waited for him downstairs. I was ashamed to show my face to Dr Zadkin.’
‘Did it have to come out?’
‘There was nothing left of it but the walls. Do you want to look at it? The child was in pain . . . Then there was fifty cents to have the boys’ hair cut.’
‘I’m going to buy a pair of clippers and do it myself,’ Pa said. He was always resolving to do this.
‘Fifty cents for the gas meter. Twenty cents for a coal shovel. Twenty-five cents to the insurance man. Twenty cents for a flat-iron handle. Forty cents to the tinsmith for relining my copper pot. Leather mittens for Bentchka cost me thirty cents. I haven’t even started on the bigger things yet, such as meat.’
‘We have meat far too often,’ Pa said. ‘We don’t need it. I prefer milk soups anyway.’
‘Don’t expect me to stint on the stomach,’ my mother said with determination. ‘If I do nothing else, I’m going to feed the children.’
‘They don’t look starved,’ said Pa. ‘Especially this one. I never look at him but what he’s chewing.’
My appetite was large and I seemed never to have had enough. I ate all the leftovers. I chewed down apple parings, gristle, cold vegetables, chicken bones.
‘If I knew how to do things more cheaply,’ said Ma, as though she now consented to take the blame.
‘You don’t bargain enough,’ my father said to her harshly. His accusation always was that she did not accept her condition and was not what the wife of a poor man ought to be. And yet she was. She was whatever would please him. She made over our clothes. On the table there often appeared the thick Russian linens she had brought, but on our beds were sheets that she had made of flour-sacks.
‘Like your sister Julia?’ said my mother.
‘Yes, Julia. That’s why they’re rich. It was she that made him so.’
I had been with Aunt Julia to the farmer’s market and knew how she worked. ‘How much’a der han?’ she would say when she seized a rooster. ‘Oh, trop cher,’ she’d cry at the Canadian farmer, and she’d say to me in Yiddish, ‘Thieves, every last man of them. But I will beat them down.’ And in her Russian shawl, with her sharp nose jutting, she would shuffle to another wagon, and she always did as she promised.
‘A wife can make the difference,’ said Pa. ‘I am as able as Jomin, and stronger.’
‘They have grown children.’
‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Pa. ‘Whereas I have no one to turn to.’
He would often repeat this, and particularly to me. ‘You can turn to me,’ he’d say. ‘But to whom can I turn? Everything comes from me and nothing to me. How long can I bear it? Is this what the life of a man is supposed to be? Are you supposed to be loaded until your back is broken? Oh my God, I think I begin to see. Those are lucky who die when their childhood is over and never live to know the misery of fighting in the world.’
When he flew into a rage, he forgot himself altogether and lost his sense of shame.
‘Aren’t you taking money for your brother?’ he once shouted at Ma. ‘Aren’t you saving to send him . . . ?’
He meant her brother Mordecai in Petersburg. Her brother Aaron had recently died. The Bolsheviks had come to his house and slashed open the beds and the furniture in their search for jewels and gold. They had taken everything from him and he was dead.
‘No, no,’ Ma cried, and it was obvious to me that she was not telling the truth. ‘How can you say it?’
She greatly loved these two brothers. On the day she received the news of Aaron’s death, when she had been doing a Monday wash, she sat sobbing by the tub. Except to mourn, Jews were forbidden to sit on the floor. She hung over the tub, and her arms, in grey sleeves, trailed in the water. I came up behind her to draw her from the water. My arms felt the beating of her heart through her bosom. It was racing, furious, sick and swift.
‘Let me be, Joshua. Leave me alone, my son,’ she said.
‘Aha! You do save money for him, and for your mother,’ said my father.
‘And if I do?’ said Ma. ‘Think, Jacob. Did they do nothing for you?’
‘And did they do nothing to me?’ Pa was beside himself.
‘If I do put aside a little money now and then, it’s less than you spend on your tobacco.’
‘And do you know how much money I’d have now if it weren’t for you and the children?’ he roared at her. ‘I’d be worth ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand, do you hear? And be a free man. Do you hear what I say?’ he glared with a strained throat. In his rage his face wore an expression that resembled hunger. His eyes grew huge, like those of a famished man. ‘I say I might have had ten thousand dollars.’
‘Why don’t you leave then?’ My mother wept.
‘That’s what I will do!’
He hurried out. It was night. He was gone for about an hour, and then I saw his cigarette glow on the front step, and he said to me, meekly, that he had only gone to buy a package of Honeysuckles.
‘Will you please save the package for me, Papa?’ said Willie, and Pa said to him, ‘Of course, my boy. I’ll remember this time and not throw it away.’1
Pa was a mercurial man, and very unlucky. He had the energy to be a millionaire but nothing came of it except poverty. From Aunt Julia, I knew the story of the dowry. In less than a year, Pa had lost the ten thousand roubles and went to Ma’s brothers to ask for more. One of them, Uncle Mordecai, was very rich. He had run away to South Africa as a boy and made a fortune among the Kaffirs and later he sold cattle to the Russians during the Japanese war. When they lost they didn’t settle their debt, but he made a fortune nevertheless. He came back to Russia after this, and until the War led the life of a rich man. According to Ma, he was princely, dashing, brave and open-handed. By Pa’s account, he drank too much and spent his money on women and neglected his respectable wife. Pa would sometimes frown at me and say that I reminded him of Mordecai. He saw the faults of my mother’s family embodied in me. In my own mind I came to accept this, and was not ashamed of it even when Pa would say, ‘There’s insanity in your mother’s line. Her Uncle Poppe was a firebug, and he was very dangerous. He used to set the curtains afire. These things are inherited. There’s no taint like that on my family.’
‘Not if you don’t count hard hearts and bad tempers,’ Ma would occasionally, but too rarely, answer. Only occasionally, because she loved him. When he was away she’d say to the children, ‘If you told Mordecai that you needed something, he put his hand in his pocket and gave you what was in it, without looking.’
In Petersburg, Pa had made a handsome living. He dealt in produce and travelled widely. He was the largest importer of Egyptian onions and Spanish fruit. And it was evident that he and Ma had been people of fashion. She still owned black taffeta petticoats and ostrich feathers, now out of fashion, and some jewelry, while Pa had a Prince Albert in the trunk, and a stovepipe hat, a brocaded vest and a fox-lined overcoat. Ma’s fur coat was made over for Zelda and she wore it for four years at the Baron Byng school, complainingly. ‘Over there, we had everything we needed,’ Ma said. There were photos of Zelda in silk dresses, and of me in velvet pants, with long hair, like Rasputin. But every minute of this prosperity was stolen. Bribes made it possible. Then Pa was seized by the police for illegal residence. My uncles got him out of prison, and we escaped to Canada.
Within a year, the money he had brought from Russia was almost gone. The last of it he put into a partnership with three other men who owned a bakery. He had to drive a wagon, and he wasn’t used to rough labour then. He had never before harnessed a horse. Over there, only coachmen and teamsters knew how to harness. Pa had to learn to do it by lantern light in the cold Canadian nights, with freezing hands which he would try to warm by the lantern-glass or against the horse’s belly. His route lay in Lachine and Wilson’s Pier, along the St Lawrence, by the Lachine Canal, around Monkey Park and the Dominion Bridge Company. Across the river, in Caughnawaga, the Indians lived in their old cottages. At this time Pa smelled of bread and his hair was somewhat floury. His partners were quarrelsome and rough, they swore obscenely and held Pa for a dude, and as the misery of his sudden fall was too much to hide they gave him a hard time. Why should it be so terrible to have become one of them? Ma said they gave him all the worst things to do.
The bakery was a shanty. The rats took refuge from the winter there, and were drowned in the oil and fished out suffocated from the jelly barrel. The dogs and cats could not police them, they were so numerous. The thick ice on the Saint Lawrence did not float leisurely, it ran in the swift current. In March and even April the snow still lay heavy. When it melted, the drains couldn’t carry off the water. There were grey lagoons in the hollows of old ice; they were sullen or flashing according to the colour of the sky.
The partners had fist fights. Pa was no judge of the strength of others, and as he was very proud and reckless he usually got the worst of it. He came home with horrible bruises on his face and his voice broke as he told how it happened. Eliahu Giskin was the one with whom he had most trouble. Huge and stout, Eliahu had a shaved head and a tartar moustache. He drove one of the skinny, rusty wagons of the firm. The very rust was fading deeper, into a mauve colour, and on it was spelled in a circle of blind letters Pâtisserie de Choix Giskin. He was a bawling and clutching kind of man. He bullied the horse so that it put forth the best speed for him. Scared of him, it turned its head sidewards from the whip and galloped with heavy, hairy ankles through the streets. On the ground, Giskin himself was awkward and moved with hampered steps because of the size of his belly and his enormous boots. Pa also walked in a certain peculiar smart style; he put more weight on the left heel than on the right and marched as he went. He almost limped. It was an old Jewish way of walking, with his hands held at his back.
He and Giskin had their worst fight one day in the yard of the bakery when my mother and I were there. Exactly why they were fighting I couldn’t tell you. They grappled and Pa’s shirt was torn from him. It was a Russian style of fighting. Each tried to carry the other down and there was no idea of self-defence, but just one desperate body squeezing the other. Pa was burned up with violence, and he was a strong muscular man in his young days. Giskin clawed and scratched his white back as they clinched while Pa struck him with his elbow and fists. They fell on the rutted ground. A baker and one of the helpers ran out from the shack and pulled them apart.
‘How can this go on?’ said Ma at home where she helped him to undress and washed the dirt from him.
Pa admitted that it couldn’t. He might kill Giskin or Giskin him, he said. And Ma insisted that he should withdraw from the partnership, and he did so although he did not know what to turn to next.
He tried the junk business, at which my uncle Jomin had grown rich, and with the string of jingling junk bells stretched across the wagon he drove along the St Lawrence shore and up and down the shanty streets, the little brick streets, and put in at farms and monasteries to try to buy rags, paper and metal. He spoke ten words of French and not many more of English, then.
‘Might you could sell me iron, gentleman?’ was what he said. I was often on the wagon-seat, and watched–the eldest son, though ten years old, the b’chor as I was called, I was supposed to go into the world with him. He was not submissive, though he appeared to be so. At least he was not submissive to men. It was to necessities that he hung down his head and not to the farmer or the Brother or housewife. He had hard matter in him. He smoked as he drove, with keen eyes. We wrapped burlap about our knees when fall weather blew. The cold little bells clinked. ‘Gentlemann?’ Pa would begin, and something both anxious and bold played through him. To weigh paper, he had a scale in the wagon; his purse was in his hand to pay, a steel-billed leather purse. The term for it was also the slang word for the scrotum. The money in it was poor, seedy money, dark copper, bleak silver and a wrinkled green paper or two.
He left this business soon, never having earned more than a few dollars a week at it. In the winter it was too much for him. With Uncle Asher, Aunt Taube’s husband, he went into the bag business. They rented a loft and some machines, and hired two women to operate them. It looked as if they might make good as manufacturers. Somehow Asher got an order for munitions-bags during the War. However, the contract was cancelled because the first batch was not up to specifications. When this happened, there was a big family quarrel. Everyone got into it. Aunt Taube was very haughty. Uncle Asher had great respect for Ma and was always civil to her. In fact, he was meek and good-tempered, not very clever. He boasted about his teeth and never ate candy. He was apt to repeat this too often, about candy. It was she, his sister, who said the worst things against Pa.
Ma told her, ‘Don’t be ungrateful, Taube.’
She meant that Taube and Asher owed their being in America to Pa. He had given them the money to marry, in his prosperous days.
‘A great favour you did me,’ said Taube, although her love affair with Asher was famous. The son of a mere stationmaster, he was not considered a match for her. She had seen him from a train-window while he stood idle on the platform. He was placid, and handsome because of it. My cousins, three small girls, were like him. Aunt Taube always wore a smile, but it was a shrewd smile. At the left corner of her mouth a few of the nerves were ailing and she could not govern her expressions well. She was the brainy one and wore the pants.
‘It was Asher’s fault,’ Pa declared. ‘He tried to save money on the material. That was why we lost the contract.’
‘Jacob,’ said my Aunt, ‘you must always blame someone else.’
‘Well, what good does it do to fight about it now,’ said Ma. ‘That’s what I’d like to know.’
Neither quarrelling nor peace made a difference. Pa had no trade, he would have found no work if he had had one, for there wasn’t any to be found after the War. He was ready for any humiliation, even that of serving a master, and to him that was one of the deepest. He had come into the world to do business, and there was no limit to the strength and effort he would expend in this. His pride was beaten, or almost beaten, when he was ready to labour for another man.
‘A beggar!’ said Pa, describing himself. ‘A bettler!’
The ragged old country bettler, hairy, dirty and often crazy, were to be seen then in the yellowish streets of Jewish Montreal. They carried burlap sacks in which were old rags and scraps of food. What they couldn’t finish when you fed them they clutched with their beggar’s fingers from the plate and stuffed into the sack: stew, bread, crumbs of sugar. Then they blessed, they mumbled insane things, and shouldered their sacks and went away. They were supposed to be like this.
Ma therefore smiled when Pa said that. ‘Not yet, by any means,’ was what she answered.
‘Not far from it. How far do you think?’
He had gone into innumerable enterprises: jobbing, peddling, storekeeping, the produce business, the bottle business, the furniture business, the dairy business, the insurance business, matchmaking. There was no corner into which he didn’t try to squeeze himself.
At one time we thought of becoming farmers. I say ‘we’ because my parents discussed their projects over the kitchen table. Matters of business were always brought into the open. The children had to understand. If Herskovitz the grocer or Duval the landlord came to ask for their money, the children couldn’t say that Pa or Ma were at home. We grasped these necessities very quickly.
Pa had heard of a farm out beyond Huntington that was for sale or rent, and we went to see it. It was an excursion. We put on our best. Ma was very happy; she was not a city-woman by upbringing. We went down to the Grand Trunk Station on the trolley, buying some half-spoiled Bartlett pears on the way. Pa said they had their best flavour when they were like that and peeled them for us with his penknife in his neat way. Some of his habits were very trim. Tobacco made two fingers of his left hand dark brown.
There was a soft gloom in the station. The city air was heavy that day. But as we were crossing the ponderous black bridge the sun opened up on us. Beneath the funnel hole in the toilet the St Lawrence winked. Quick death should we fall in. Then the stones of the roadbed, scratched by much speed. It was bright and hot at the station when the short trip ended. We were picked up in a buggy by the farmer, an old man. Ma mounted the step with her pointed, black, button shoes, and Zelda next, with her straw hat on which cloth roses were perishing. The kids wore pongee suits with short pants, and I a pair of heavy serge knickers that made me sweat. They were picked out for me from a job lot Pa had once acquired. Blue flowers grew in the long, station-side weeds. A mill-wheel was splashing in the town.
‘Ah,’ said Pa. ‘It’s good to stand under that. It knocks your bones into place. Best thing in the world for you.’
Bentchka had a habit of dropping his head and dreaming at things with one eye. His hair was still long then. Ma would not let it be cut though he was nearly five. On her other side sat Willie with his bated-breath look; he stared at the hay, then lying over the stubble to dry. The old farmer, Archie, described the country with flaps of his whip. Ma’s face softened with all the country pleasure, the warm sun and the graceful hay, and fragrance, the giant trees and hoops of birds that went about them, the perfect leaves and happy sun. She began to have smooth creases of enjoyment about her mouth and chin instead of her often sober and dark expression.
We arrived at the house. It was like silver with age, the wind had polished it so long. The old wife with her seamed skin came to the door and called in a clear voice, ‘Arrrchie–the hens are in the garrrden.’ Willie ran to shoo them. Pa and Ma inspected the long doors, went through the house and then down toward the yard. Ma said, ‘It just revives you to smell this air.’ From the tone she took, Zelda and I knew that this was just a holiday in the country. And I had been imagining great things and let my mind build hopes that I could be a farmer’s son and walk on those gold stubble fields from one horizon to another and not as a timid, fleshy city boy with these meek shoes, but in boots. But look! It was obvious. We couldn’t live here. Glancing at me as if I would be the most prone to it, Ma said, ‘We can’t have children growing up ignorant and boors.’ I couldn’t hide my disappointment. It filled my face.
‘I don’t see why they should,’ said Pa.
But Ma said it was plain enough. No synagogue, no rabbis, no kosher food, no music teachers, no neighbours, no young men for Zelda. It would be good for the health of the younger children, that was true, but she wasn’t going to have us grow into cowherds, no finer feelings, no learning.
‘Ach, too bad,’ said Pa with gloom, but he nodded. He was sizing up the beast-world of the barnyard, and I don’t doubt but that he was thinking what hardship it had been for him to learn to harness a horse. And our mother had strange ideas about association with animals. If I stroked a cat she’d occasionally warn me against it. She’d say, ‘You’ll be cat-witted.’ Or a dog, the same. ‘You’ll be dog-souled.’
‘No, no,’ she said to my pleading. Zelda was on her side; Pa was not wholeheartedly on mine.
And when we were ready to leave, we had to search for Willie. He had wandered off to the river to watch the blackbirds plunge through the bulrushes and to try to catch toads in his handkerchief. This was enough for Ma. She was in a panic. A river! Small children wandering away. There was no more discussion of farms. The farmer drove us back to the station toward night, when a star like a chopped root flared in the sky.
Pa would often say afterwards that he still wished he owned a piece of land. Losing his temper he’d exclaim against my mother, ‘There could have been bread. All we needed. But you had to have your city. Well, now we’ve got it. We’ve got bricks and stones.’
The next business he tried was a dry goods store in Point St Charles, not a prosperous district. The streets ran into nothing after blocks of half-empty slum and goat-tracked snows. The store was in a wooden building. Stairs led down to it from the sidewalk. When you got down to the bottom, where the wood underfoot was shredded with age, you found a door in which there was a little pane, and when you opened it you encountered Pa and Cousin Henoch. They were setting up shop. Railroad overalls and ladies’ drawers hung on exhibit, stockings, gloves, wool headwear, layettes, silk shirts and Hudson Bay blankets, and a lot of army goods. There was an odour of smoke from some of these articles; Pa had bought them at salvage sales. The business had no credit as yet and could not lay in an entirely new line. Pa got job lots wherever he could. Cousin Henoch had brought a little money into the partnership, and Pa had borrowed some from his sister Julia and her husband, who had plenty of it.
I participated in this, too. Pa, you see, thought that I was stupid and backward. He had a biased and low opinion of me and he was anxious for me to take shape, and quickly. He couldn’t stand for me to remain boyish. He would say to me, ‘You’ll be a man soon and your head still lies in childish things. I don’t know what will become of you. At twelve, thirteen, fourteen, I was already a man.’ Oh, he was very impatient of childhood. One must not remain a child but be mature of understanding and carry his share of difficulty. He wouldn’t have me studying magic or going to the baths with Daitch, or hiding in the free library.
Catching me there, he’d drive me into the street. When his temper was up, he thought nothing of gripping me by the ear and leading me away. Back from unseriousness. Back from heathen delusions. Back from vain and childish things. We’d march together while he gripped my ear.
‘Do you know what you are?’ he’d say full of rage. ‘A chunk of fat with two eyes staring from it. But I’ll make something of you. A man. A Jew. Not while I live will you become an idler, an outcast, an Epicurus.’
I was frightened and begged him to let go. I wasn’t entirely a submissive son. But I didn’t dare try to free my ear, though my voice went deep and hoarse when I said, ‘Don’t do that, Pa. Don’t do that!’ I yelled, ‘Oh, let go!’ while he gripped me and led me home. He made me look like a fool in the eyes of the old lady at the library. To him such things didn’t matter. He kept his eye on the main business of life: to provide for us and teach us our duty.
After a family conference he often said, when it had been decided what to do, ‘And you’ll come with me.’
So I was with him when he went to make a loan of Aunt Julia and Uncle Jomin.
Aunt Julia was his eldest sister, a very shrewd and sharp-minded woman, and rich, and her attitude toward many things was condemnatory. She had a thin face and a pinched nose, very unfeminine to my way of thinking; her colour was flushed and it made her look threatening sometimes. Yet she was witty, also, and often kept you laughing; and when you were laughing and out of breath, then came something that took the ground from under your feet. When she said something about you, you were criticized to the heart. It was merciless, for she was a harsh judge of character. Her face, I said, was thin, but her hair was heavy and glossy. She wore it in a single stout braid down her back. Her body was also heavy, in contrast with her face, and at home she wore a few unusual and choice garments–a man’s undershirt, a pair of voluminous green bloomers and over them a scarlet crêpe de Chine wrapper, wool stockings and fleece slippers. She sat heavily or, cooking, cleaning, she stood and moved with heaviness, and at all times, in that unvarying nasal tone, she uttered the most damaging and shrewd remarks conceivable: a sort of poetry of criticism, fault-finding and abuse. She was always ingenious and there were very few offences that she forgave.
Though she oppressed me, I was crazy about her. She was a great show-woman and she said whatever she pleased with utter frankness, and she and Uncle Jomin, that mild person, were extremely salty. Because, you understand, they were outstanding people; they had a right and nobody would contest it. My Uncle Jomin was a brown man and slender. His beard was tight, short and black; it surrounded the broad teeth of his smiling mouth, of which one was gold. The bridge of his nose had an intense twist, and then the cartilages broadened–it became a saddle nose. He had the brown eyes of an intelligent, feeling, and yet satirical animal. He had a grim humour about him. The odour of his breath was tart and warm. I always found it agreeable to be near him. He enjoyed playing the hand-slapping game with me, a homely game that went like this: you laid your hands on his palms and were supposed to snatch them away before he could slap them. If he missed, it was your turn to try to slap his. Despite his slight trembling–he was not well, he had an enlarged heart–he was quicker than me. With a bent head that shook slightly he would hide a deep smile and gaze at my reddened hands. His crisp beard itself made a slight sound. My hands smarted. I would laugh, like the rest of them, but be angry at heart.
My cousins, grown men and all in business, stood watching.
‘Faster, you duffer,’ said Cousin Abba. He was nearest to me in age and already had an enterprise of his own; in summer he operated a fruit stand. Abba subscribed to Chums and Magnet, British schoolboy magazines. He talked continually of Bob Cherry and Tom Merry and Billy Bunter and hamptuckers, and mixed ‘jollies’ and ‘eh what’s with the fantastic Yiddish they all spoke, a French-Russian-Hebrew-British Yiddish.
‘Faster there, Houdini, you golem. Stay with it, now. Stiff upper lip does it. That’s the spirit my man. Ay, what a frask-o. Burns, eh? Good for the circulation, I’ll be bound.’
He whinnied when I cried out. He was all right, Abba. Not more open-handed than the rest of them. They didn’t exactly have that reputation. But we were fond of each other and he often gave me good advice.
Jomin’s business was junk. He was one of the biggest junk dealers in Montreal. In his yard there were piles, mountains of old metal shapes, the skeletons of machines and beds, plumbing fixtures. A deep, scaly red-brown beautiful rust shone like powdered chicory and dry blood to the sun. Cobwebs floated from it. I went around in the loft and tried to read funnies on the faces of paper bales or looked for locks that I could study, as Houdini had done. In the office swung chandeliers and pricey metals. Long-armed and stooped in his cocoa-coloured sweater, Uncle Jomin stood in the middle of the yard and sorted scrap. He examined a piece of metal, classified it and threw it to the top of the appropriate pile. Iron here, zinc there, lead left, brass right and babbitt by the shed. Boys, Indians, old women, half-wits and greenhorns who did not know a word of English, arrived with junk in little carts and coasters. Junk men with wagons and plumed horses came. During the War Uncle Jomin did a vast business. The junk was needed at the shipyards and on the Western Front.
My aunt bought real-estate, and my cousins went into business. Moneywise, they were among the first families. They lived simply, and they were known as hard dealers. In the synagogue, they rated very highly and had seats against the eastern wall, the best because the nearest to Jerusalem. The dark man and his sons, with other leading Jews, faced the rest of the congregation. Of these, most were meek immigrants, peddlers, factory workers, old grandfathers and boys. From the women’s gallery Aunt Julia, thin-nosed, looked down. Her Hebrew was good and she prayed as well as any man. She wore glasses and read steadily from her book.
She’d say to me, ‘What do you think of Tante Julia? Your old Trante is no fool.’
She could not let a word go by without giving it a twist. She had a great genius with words.
One winter afternoon we came to make a touch for the store in Point St Charles. Naturally enough, Pa was a little scared of such a woman. Ma said, ‘It will be hard but you have to do it. They can give you the money, and Jomin doesn’t have a bad heart. Not even she can refuse her brother.’
Pa shrugged and turned his hands outward. He had been tramping the town, making his stops: he covered miles daily in his hunt for business opportunities, and did it in his outward-pointed stride, favouring the left heel, always, and his hands behind his back and his head dropped to one side. ‘We’ll see,’ he said. He had stopped at home to get me to come with him, and so didn’t take off his fox-lined overcoat–the orange fur was bald in places–and his scarf, the colour of creamed coffee, was wound thickly under his chin; it sparkled with melted frost, and so did the moustache that covered his handsome mouth. He diffused an odour of cigarettes; his fingers were dyed with the brown colour. Ma helped me into my sheepskin. She wasn’t well that day, she suffered with her teeth and was heating buckwheat on the stove to apply to her cheek. Bentchka was ailing, too. He sat and looked through the bars of his bed at the sparrows as they ruffled on the wires and on the glass clusters of the telephone poles and dropped down to peck in the horse-churned, sleigh-tracked snow. You could leave him alone; he’d amuse himself for hours.
We changed cars at Place d’Armes; the snow stung like rock salt, and then we travelled another half an hour on the Notre Dame car and arrived at Aunt Julia’s at sunset. Ribbons of red colour were buried in the dry snow. The sun seemed snarling, the moon pearly cold and peaceful. We went in. The stoves were hot and there was a bearskin on the sofa. The curl-tailed bitch barked. Her teeth were sharp, curved and small. My face smarted with heat and cold, and my mouth watered at the smell of gravy. Meat was roasting.
Tante Julia was thinking, as I took off my coat, how chunky I was. I knew. In her eyes this was not a bad thing, but meant I had a lot of good hard work in me.
Her floors were highly polished and gleamed with darkness, with stove lights and the final red of the roaring cold Canadian day. While she watched us take our outdoor clothes off her face judged us in a very masculine way. She knew what Pa was here for. Trust her for that.
‘Come in the kitchen and have something,’ she said nasally. She was not stingy with food; she always fed you well. ‘The lad must be hungry.’
‘Give him something, yes,’ said Pa.
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘Too worried to eat, ah?’
Nevertheless, Pa also ate several slices of delicious dry roast meat with carrots and tart grape jelly. We drank tea. Uncle Jomin was a slow eater. For every piece of bread he recited a blessing. Then he sliced away the crust and bent to the plate with a slow shake of his broad head.
‘Tuck in, old top,’ said Cousin Abba. ‘Joshua is a gefährlicher trencherman.’ All my cousins laughed. Everyone was present this evening. I laughed, too.
I was in an odd way a favourite with them all, although they were also sardonic with me and gave me hell. I caught it from Cousin Moses because I tracked tar one summer day into his new Ford. He had bought it to court a girl–a rich girl related to Libutsky the bottle man.
I crept into Moses’s car with tar on my shoes, and he lost his temper and whacked me on the head–a favourite place; perhaps everyone felt that it was thick and hard and I would take no harm there. I cried and said I would get him for that, and for a while we were enemies. At Huntington, where Aunt Julia had a summer house, Cousin Moses slapped my face once and I picked up a piece of wood and tried to kill him. I would have brained him; I was in a rage. It swept me away and I no longer knew or cared what I was doing. He was sitting on the swing with his fiancée; he was swarthy and she pale. He was grinning. A vine wove fiercely around the lattices; it grew a kind of cucumber, full of prickles and inedible. Moses teased me out of the side of his mouth. I gave him an angry answer because I couldn’t bear to be ridiculed before the girl, and I suddenly felt a spirit of murder in my blood and ran at him with the piece of firewood. He knocked me over and picked me up by the collar, choked me with the neckband and beat some sense into me. He slapped me till I tasted blood in my saliva and then booted me in the tail. He told Aunt Julia he wouldn’t have me around. He said I was a goy, an Ishmael, and that I’d have to go back to St Dominique Street. It was a holiday, you see. They would rescue each of us a few days at a time and give us some country air at the cottage. So back I went and Willie was sent down.
I made it up afterwards with Moses. Maybe it weighed on his conscience that he had beaten me so hard; I felt ashamed, too, that I had tried to murder him. Anyway, I got along better with him than with my cousin Philip. Philip was a law student at McGill and behaved very slyly toward me. They were all my seniors and dealt with me more as uncles than as cousins. Cousin Thelma, two years older than I, was fat and huge and had a bold savage temper. Her hair was hugely frizzy and her teeth obstinate and white.
‘Well, my brother,’ said Aunt Julia when everybody was present. ‘I gather that things are going badly again.’
‘They never went well,’ said Pa. ‘But I may be doing better soon, God willing.’
‘Why, do you have something new in mind?’
‘Yes,’ said Pa.
‘And why don’t you stick to one thing,’ his sister said. ‘You jump from this to that, and here and there. You have no patience.’
‘I have little children,’ said Pa, in a lowered but not patient voice. ‘I have to put bread on the table. I am no coward and I’m not idle, and I’m learning the language and the ways. I’m all over the city every day and digging in the cinders for a bone. I thank you for your good advice. When a dog is drowning, everyone offers him water.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said my Aunt Julia. ‘You don’t have to tell us what it is to be poor immigrants. We know the taste of it. When Jomin came over he dug ditches. He worked with pick and shovel for the CPR and he has a hernia to this day. But I, you understand me, knew how to manage and I never thought I was a grand lady from St Petersburg with rich brothers and a carriage and summer house and servants.’
‘She doesn’t have them any more,’ Pa said.
‘You didn’t know anything of such things either, before you met her,’ said Aunt Julia, ‘and don’t pretend to me that you were born with a golden spoon in your mouth. In a silk shirt.’
‘Yes, but what of it?’
‘You cry because you’ve fallen so. And how humiliating it is. In Petersburg common people couldn’t see you, your windows were so high.’
‘I never snubbed you, or anyone,’ said Pa. ‘My door always was open and my hand was too. I tasted prosperity once but I know something else now. Eliahu Giskin beat my bones, and I haven’t a piece of tin/To stop up my hole, or cover my skin, as they say. I often feel as if I was buried alive.’
‘My children had no pianos and violins. They knew they were poor. You have to know, and be, what you are. Be what you are. The rest is only pride. I sent them out to earn a penny. They collected bottles and bones and ran errands. They had no time to be musicians. Now, thank God, things have gone better. They will hire musicians when they marry. Then,’ she said, ‘we’ll dance. And I hope you’ll be there to share our joy.’
The Jomins owned the house we were sitting in, and other properties around town.
‘A wife has a duty to her husband not to make him a slave to the children,’ said Aunt Julia. ‘If you saved the dollars that you spend to make Kreislers of your boys and a princess of your daughter you wouldn’t have to dig in the cinders like a dog, as you say.’
The blood had risen to her face, which never was pale, her eyes were angry and her voice high and hard. As Pa had come to confess failure and ask for aid he was obliged to listen. Also, he may not have disagreed entirely; perhaps he wanted to hear Ma blamed. He was an influenceable man and sometimes said these very things himself. Pa didn’t have a constant spirit. Depending on how he felt, he changed opinion. One night he’d sit and shed tears when Zelda played Beethoven, his heart touched; another time, he’d stamp his feet and say we were ruining him: ‘Food! That’s my duty. Shoes!–Shoes I’m obliged as a father to put on your feet. Whatever a father should do, I will do!’ he’d shout at us all. ‘But I will not lay down my health and strength for luxuries and nonsense.’
Aunt Julia said, sternly, with fierce eyes turned to me, ‘Children have their part to do, too.’
‘Oh,’ said my father, ‘he’s a pretty good lad.’ He put his hand on my head gently. I almost burst into tears at this. A moment before I was indignant with him because he said nothing in defence of Ma. I, you see, knew what she was up against. Fear of Aunt Julia and my other hard elders kept me from speaking. It was no time to have a burst of temper and hurt Pa’s chances of a loan. But now when he touched me and said I was pretty good, I wanted to take his hand and kiss it, and say how well I understood what was happening, and how much I loved him. The roof of my mouth ached, and my throat closed. I didn’t dare move or open my mouth.
‘He should be that,’ said Aunt Julia. ‘He’s got a good father – a father who watches over his children. He’s old enough to understand the difference.’
I was old enough, certainly, to understand.
‘What’s this new business you have gone into, Uncle?’ said Cousin Moses respectfully. It came hard, because Pa was an immigrant, all but a pauper. Also, like everyone else, Pa was subject to mockery, probably, as soon as his back was turned. I had seen all the Jomins take turns at mimicking acquaintances. I had seen them put an entire Sunday afternoon on the porch into this wicked vaudeville–how so-and-so walked, stammered, wiped his nose on his sleeve or picked bones out of fish. My sister Zelda also had a great gift for this game. She didn’t spare anyone. And I am positive that Pa was often taken off in Aunt Julia’s house. And perhaps he had just done something typical, and they were barely able to hold back their laughter. However, respect for elders was drummed into all of us. Pa was Moses’s uncle and Moses had to speak to him with consideration and civility. It was quite a thing to watch, for a man like Moses had a strong spirit of satire. He smiled at the side of his mouth. He had a powerful, swarthy face, and passed air loudly through his nose to punctuate what he said.
His engagement to the Libutsky girl, now broken off, was the result of Pa’s matchmaking. My parents had tried that, too, as a sideline, and had brought Moses and the girl together. Uncle Jomin read matrimonial notices aloud to his sons from the Yiddish paper. Widows with fortunes were the chief interest, and young women with large marriage portions from the Far West who needed Jewish husbands. My Aunt Julia told her children, ‘Don’t hold yourselves cheap. Marry rich.’ The Libutsky girl had money, but it didn’t work out. Ma thought well of Moses. However, she said, the girl was too gentle for him. He would need a bolder one.
‘What is this business?’ Moses said.
‘A little dry goods store in Point St Charles.’
‘Not a bad idea,’ said Moses, ‘Is it a good location?’
‘Yes, we can make a living there. If the Lord will send a little luck. You know I’ve never been a lazy man. I’ve had money, and I’ll have it again, as surely as we’re alive this day in the world . . . ’
‘With God’s help, it happens,’ said Uncle Jomin.
‘It was hard for Sarah to get used to the life here, but . . . ’
‘You have a good wife,’ said Uncle Jomin. ‘I feel for her. And it is a strange country. But you have to keep your head. That’s the main thing about strangeness.’
Aunt Julia interrupted, saying, ‘I don’t see what’s so strange. You had to make your way over there, too. Would you want to be in Russia now? A fire!’ she said. ‘A destruction! Millions of corpses. Ploughing with cannon. Typhus. Famine and death. Didn’t you have a taste of it? Don’t you thank God that you escaped from those madmen?’
She told Pa this sternly, and glared at him that he could be so weak-minded, so forgetful, so ignorant as to talk loosely about the strangeness here. She showed you how the old country was sealed up in doom and death. She spoke strongly, and as though it was a credit to her to have come here. Escape? No it was more like a triumph.
Melba the fox terrier sat in Uncle Jomin’s lap and cunningly reached for scraps on his plate. She extended her head sidewise under his arm. Melba was privileged and the reason was that one night she woke Uncle Jomin when the house was afire. She pulled the blanket from him and saved the family. Therefore she had the run of things. She escorted Jomin to the junkyard in the morning and then she came home to accompany Aunt Julia to the market. They seemed to me exceptionally lucky in their dog. We could not have one. I brought a terrier in and he gave us fleas. We had to be treated with Paris Green. Pa went out and brought it home in a paper sack, mixed a paste and smeared it on our bodies. Another time an English bulldog followed me home. I fed him peppermint hard-balls, the red and white kind. However, he ran away. I ran after him all the way to Peel Street but couldn’t get him back. We had cats, instead, many of them. They belonged to Bentchka.
Then, too, Aunt Julia had pictures on the wall that seemed to me of a high degree. Of these, the best was Queen Victoria with a veil and diadem, her flesh very fair and pure. She had her elbow on the table and her chin rested on her wrist. In addition, there was a painting of a basket of fruit. A peach sliced in half with a very rich red stone was in front. Another picture was of a faithful collie who had found a lamb in the snow and wouldn’t abandon it. These were powerful and influential pictures. It wasn’t any old thing that turned up in the junkyard that Aunt Julia would hang on her walls. At home we had only one picture, of Moses holding up the tablets.
‘I have a partner for the Point St Charles business,’ said Pa.
‘A partner! Why a partner?’ said Aunt Julia. ‘Why are you afraid to do anything by yourself? And who is this partner?’
‘Henoch,’ he told her.
‘Gottenyu!’ Aunt Julia raised her sarcastic eyes to heaven. She clasped her hands and wrung her fingers. Her long upraised nostrils were tense with laughter and horror at Pa’s idiocies.
‘That one?’ said Cousin Moses.
Aunt Julia cried out, ‘You poor beggar. You everlasting fool.’
‘Is this,’ said Philip, ‘the Henoch who left his wife?’
Henoch was my mother’s cousin, and he had brought his wife and family over, but then there had been a divorce. No one approved of that.
‘I didn’t want a partner,’ Pa explained. ‘But I had to take in someone. I couldn’t do everything myself.’
‘Not if you took Joshua out of school?’
‘No, not even.’
Jomin said, ‘What happened to Henoch’s fish store?’
‘Gone,’ said Pa.
‘Well, that’s a fine omen,’ said Aunt Julia. ‘He ruined his own business, and now you want to give him a second opportunity in yours.’
‘They say he’s living with another woman,’ said Moses.
Moses had a passion for gossip. He’d come and tell his mother things. That very evening, I heard him say to her in an undertone, ‘Max Feldman, you remember . . . ’
‘With another woman?’
‘His own mother-in-law.’
‘No!’ she said, turning her fine sharp head to him, with hypocritical alarm. ‘Woe-to-us-not! Those wasters! Where?’
‘Where do you think,’ said Moses. ‘In bed, of course.’
She gave a little scream of horror and satisfaction. ‘What a beast of a woman, to do this to her daughter.’
‘Well,’ Pa said in reply to Moses’s question about Henoch. ‘I don’t know where he’s living.’ His answer was uneasy, for it wasn’t truthful.
‘And such a sport yet,’ said Aunt Julia, ‘with his little moustache, and his crooked eyes and fat lips, and his belly, and that coat he wears with a split in the back, like a Prussian.’
She was a deadly observer. Cousin Henoch’s coat did bear a resemblance to the Prussian military overcoat.
‘And he stinks of fish,’ she added. ‘And he’s rotten to the bone, and lazy, and he probably has syphillis. And if you think I am going to throw away money on a business like . . .’
‘I’ll give you my own note,’ said Pa. ‘Not his, mine.’
‘ . . . If you think we are going to throw away hard-earned money,’ she said, ‘you can go out in the woods, and find a bear, and pick up the bear’s apron, and kiss the bear,’ she said, fiercely nasal and high, ‘right under the apron.’
The mirth of the Jomin family was a curious thing–it had a devil of a twist to it. They were dark, and they were all clever and subtle, and laughed like wolves, pointing their faces.
The kitchen walls were hot. The stoves were bursting with heat. Where old pipe-holes entered the chimney there were circular asbestos plugs with flowers painted on them.
The Jomins laughed at Aunt Julia’s wit, but Pa said angrily, ‘You are heartless people! Hard people! One schleps himself out to earn a living for his wife and children, and another mocks him. You have it good in America. While my face is being ground.’
The hot kitchen filled with high, wrathful voices. The cries mounted.
‘America is all yours, my dear brother,’ cried Aunt Julia. ‘Go and do as Jomin did. Work with a pick and shovel, as he did. Dig ditches and lay tracks. To this day he wears a truss.’
That was a fact. An elaborate truss with a cushion for the groin hung in the bathroom. I found it behind the bathroom door and tried it on. The pad pushed uncomfortably into the belly.
‘He’ll never be the same man. Don’t expect me to waste his money on your wife’s relatives.’
‘A coarse, cruel character you have,’ Pa shouted. ‘Your brother’s misery does you good, you devil, you.’
‘You grudge me my good luck,’ she cried. ‘You’re envious. You have the evil eye.’
‘And you would murder people in the street, with your arrogant heart. And you are brazen. And you don’t know what it is to pity. You’re not a woman at all. I don’t know what you are.’
They raged and shouted at each other. It was a lifelong quarrel of nearly forty years’ duration, which now and then flared. Pa blamed her for his ruin in Canada. He called her a witch. He said she could have saved him any time she chose but preferred to see him struggle and go under.
Her face was red as Chinese paint. I am sure she knew of more sins and dooms than he could imagine if his anger lasted a month. She cried out, ‘Why do you throw yourself on people. You fool! And don’t you think I know better than to try to soak up the sea by flinging loaves of bread into it.’
It was Pa’s outrage that she found intolerable.
‘You may kiss my–!’ she told him.
‘You may lie in your grave before then,’ he shouted, ‘and not a penny will you have there.’
Melba barked at him so shrilly that Abba finally took her away, and it appeared as if her barking had incited Pa and Aunt Julia, for when her dog-shrieks ended, they both grew calmer. I too was susceptible to dogs’ barking.
And Uncle Jomin on his own lent Pa 150 dollars to go into business in Point St Charles, and took Pa’s note for the amount. He sternly warned him against his partner. Uncle Jomin had a pair of eyes of gloomy strength; they had great power to warn and threaten. But what good does it do to threaten a desperate man?
For one brief year we had the feeling of a family that owned a business. It was a store. People went everywhere else to buy their dry goods–if the French and Irish families in this sparse slum bought anything at all. But there was a little store, nevertheless. The partner, as predicted, was no good. He put his entire trust in Pa, and so did nothing. Every afternoon he took a nap on an old bench at the back of the store, which must have come out of the waiting-room of a station. He flirted with the Ukrainian and French women who came, and Pa said we had to keep an eye on him, he might give things away. All the men in Ma’s family had this weakness for women, he told me. Henoch snoozed, during vacant summer afternoons when the air was warm and grey. Pa went out to hunt bargains, job lots, and to check on prices in other stores. I read books and practised tricks, and tried to discipline my body. I was ambitious to learn to tie knots with my toes. Houdini could both tie and untie them. I studied the books of spiritualists, too: Oliver Lodge, A. Conan Doyle, and a book called The Law of Psychic Phenomena, by Hudson.
The dry goods store soon went on the rocks.
1 About forty years ago I tried my hand at a novel called Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son. When some 200 pages of it had been sketched, roughed out, I put it aside. A few of these recollections are to be found in Herzog, but when I wrote that novel, I had virtually forgotten The Bootlegger’s Son and was reminded of it only recently by Mr James Atlas who exhumed it from a midden of discarded manuscripts. The editors of Granta evidently believe that the vanished world of its setting may interest contemporary readers. S.B.