Fiction

OTTAWA'S FIRST (AND LAST) SIDEWALK CAFE

BEN LAPPIN July 9 1955
Fiction

OTTAWA'S FIRST (AND LAST) SIDEWALK CAFE

BEN LAPPIN July 9 1955

OTTAWA'S FIRST (AND LAST) SIDEWALK CAFE

Is the Capital sombre and dull? Mother thought it was, anyway, and she tried to give it the worldly air of Paris and Vienna. But she didn’t reckon on the cops and the climate when she opened

BEN LAPPIN

IF CANADA’S capital isn’t as worldly a city as Paris or Vienna, it isn’t my mother’s fault. Her crusade against Ottawa’s provincialism began with a street restaurant and ended up in

court with a public mischief charge. This happened soon after we came to Canada back in 1925, in those happier times when immigrants were known as greenhorns and not refugees.

Our street café was one of a series of wild enterprises conceived by my mother to bolster my father’s rather feeble earnings. Her business ideas were always coupled with a driven ambition to turn

our store into a kind of informal meeting place for the officials in the various foreign legations then situated in Ottawa. Whenever one of our ventures took its inevitable course, my father would plead with the realism of a man who knew his place in the world, “Our store the nations of the world need make treaties and plan wars? Please let us open

a grocery?” But his words fell on deaf ears.

The great activity that went on the day we opened our restaurant is still vivid in my mind. It was a sunny July morning, and my younger sister and I filled the street with a scraping noise as we moved the round little tables into their places on the sidewalk. The children from the neighboring houses came running over to find out what all the noise and bustle was about, but we pretended to be too busy to engage in conversation with them. They stood around watching us in silence, and this gave us a tremendous feeling of importance.

To my mother, this day was a climax to months of alternate pleas and ultimatums before she finally overcame my father’s objections to the notion of a street café. She moved with great enthusiasm between the tables, jiggling them back and forth.to make sure they rested solidly on their legs, and as each table passed muster, she’d cover it with a red checkered gingham cloth. Over near the curb, my father struggled ill-naturedly with the two enormous rubber plants which my mother insisted were needed to give the place a leafy effect. Our neighbors, who like us were immigrants, looked on silently from their verandas; they wouldn’t venture near us, but gaped with the compulsive interest of people watching some sort of family crisis being enacted in public. After the tables and plants had been put into place, my father went down to the basement to fetch the chairs. Just then a policeman passing our store stopped rather suddenly. As he surveyed the busy scene before him, the children lost no time in removing themselves to their own verandas.

“Are you people moving?” he finally asked my mother, taking out the little black pad and pencil from his breast pocket as though he weren’t counting on a satisfactory answer.

A frantic expression swept over my mother’s face, but she maintained her composure nicely. Turning to me, she asked in Yiddish, “Vos viller?” (“What does he want?”) I told her.

“Tell him we are opening a street café like they have in Vienna,” she said to me.

I had just completed my first term at school and my knowledge of English was much more skimpy

than my mother suspected. But it was a matter of great pride for me to keep up a steady flow of conversation when she’d ask me to interpret for her, so that whenever I was stumped for the right words, I’d simply interpolate expressions and even ideas of my own without her being any the wiser for it. As I began to translate it suddenly struck me that I hadn’t yet come across the English name for Vienna and, to my dismay, the only cities I could think of at that moment were those with teams in the National Hockey League where the Ottawa Senators, the new idols I had worshipped my first winter in Canada, had won the last scheduled league game from the Boston Bruins. Taking the usual liberties, I told the policeman we were opening a street restaurant just like the ones they have down in Boston.

“Is this your mother?” the constable demanded, looking sternly at me.

“Yes, sir,” I replied.

“Ask her if she has a permit for this ...” He motioned in the direction of the tables and seemed loath to use the name street restaurant.

Sensing what he was after, my mother ran into the store and came back immediately with the business license. The police officer examined the license carefully.

“Ask her what other permit she has,” he said handing the license back to my mother. I told her what he wanted. Looking rather lost she instructed me to repeat what she had said earlier. A second time I told him that we were opening a street café like they have in Boston. The policeman began to write in his little pad at once. “This is Ottawa,”

he said, without looking up from the pad, “not Boston.”

After he had finished writing he walked off leisurely. No sooner did the policeman leave than the neighbors, who all this time had remained at a distance, came over to comfort my mother since they were all pretty sure that for some reason or other we had run afoul of the law. When my father came up from the basement he was startled to see the neighbors grouped around my mother.

“What happened here?” he asked, putting down the two chairs he’d brought up. My mother said that we were in trouble, and told him about the incident with the policeman. My father had a ceremonious way of approaching a crisis so that, although he was hardly more than five feet tall, he seemed to tower above everyone in an emergency. “How do you know we are in trouble? Wait until you hear more about this before you start worrying,” he said impatiently. Then he called me over. I went to him, followed by the neighbors. “Can you tell us what the policeman said while he was here?” he asked.

I not only repeated what the policeman said, but because I had begun to worry about being exposed in a packed courtroom before a judge and jury I came right out and revealed that I had inserted the name of Boston in place of Vienna while translating for my mother.

“Who gave you permission to use the name Boston?” my father roared.

I tried to argue my way out. “Boston is better known,” I said.

This only outraged him.

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“And how many times have you been around the world in your nine foolish years, that you can say such a thing?” my father demanded.

“I know,” I persisted feebly.

Mustering all the venom at his command he sneered, “Quiet you, you shortstop. All you know is baseball and hockey.” My father hadn’t the slightest idea what either game was about. To him baseball and hockey were the blandishments Satan used alternately in summer and winter to lure young people from synagogue services and from Jewish school. His admonitions on this subject were always withering and full of quotations from Koheleth and the Prophets, and the fact that our neighbors happened to be standing around us undoubtedly saved me from one of his biblical blasts.

Dismissing me, he turned to my mother and said, “If this is a serious matter we will hear about it in due time, and then we will go to see Mr. Elkind.”

SURE enough, the next day a sinister-looking slip of paper was delivered by special messenger, and this was immediately taken to Mr. Elkind, the druggist who ran the pharmacy at the end of our street. He was one of those amazing people who could somehow always answer a man in his native tongue, no matter what language he spoke. But Mr. Elkind’s linguistic talent was more of a nuisance to him than a source of satisfaction, for the immigrants in our district were forever hounding him to translate communications in English of one kind or another. Now and then he even appeared in court to interpret for newcomers who had gotten themselves involved with the law and, over the years, the judges and magistrates came to know Elkind the druggist as a very able interpreter. The constant impositions by the people in our street made out of Mr. Elkind a tense, irritable man of unpredictable moods. When he saw us coming he made a move as if to run into the dispensary, but he checked himself and called out, “Yes, what can I do for you?” My father handed him the slip of paper and, as he read, my mother plied him with a report of what had happened. Mr. Elkind confirmed our worst fears. What the messenger had delivered was a summons to appear in court within a week. On learning this news my father produced the business license and, showing it partly to Mr. Elkind and partly to the world in general, demanded justice.

A nasty mood blew up in Mr. Elkind, like a sudden gust of wind. “Justice you ask from a judge, not from a druggist,” he snapped, and disap-

peared into his dispensary. But a moment later he came back into the store and told us not to worry, that it was probably some misunderstanding which, at the most, might involve a small fine, and that either he or his apprentice would show up in court to interpret for us. At the mention of the word court, my mother began to weep, and Mr. Elkind fled into his dispensary once more. This time he didn’t come out again.

THE day my parents were to appear before the magistrate my older brother and sister didn’t go to work, my father having decreed that the family should be together at a time like this. On the way to court we dropped in on Mr. Elkind, who was amazed and touched to see our whole family looking so doomed. He told us that he couldn’t leave the store, but that he was sending his apprentice to do the translating for us. As we trooped out of the store he called after us, “For God’s sake, stop acting as if you were on your way to Siberia.”

The apprentice showed up as Mr. Elkind had promised. A pompous boy in his late teens with long bony arms and a large head that seemed to rest insecurely on his slender neck, the apprentice had recently been hired by Mr. Elkind straight from high school. We were just about to enter the courtroom when he arrived. Immediately, he got into an argument with the guard, who balked at letting my younger sister and myself into the court chamber on the grounds that we were too young. Ignoring the apprentice, the attendant stooped down and made several fatherly attempts to pry my sister loose from my mother, but it was useless. Finally he gave up and admitted us all.

The courtroom was a great disappointment. Instead of a vast elegant chamber such as I had seen in the movies, we were ushered into a dimly lit room with several rows of benches facing an elderly magistrate, who sat behind a rather plain desk on a slightly raised dais. Aside from the court functionaries, there were only three or four people in the room. We were shown to the very front bench and the magistrate eyed us with great interest as we sat down. From close up, he looked even older than on first glance. He was wizened and had a shock of fine white hair that lay on his head in a static fluffy mass like candy floss. The veins on his hands stood out like bits of string.

No sooner were we seated than the court clerk rose and read out the charge against my parents, the gist of which was that they had committed an act of public mischief, having set up, without a permit, a catering business on land in front of our store belonging to the city. When the clerk returned to his seat, a heavy man in a uniform who sat behind a table rose and entered the witness box. As soon as he turned to face the benches, my mother recognized him as the policeman who had stopped in front of our place. She stirred uncomfortably and murmured to my father, “Ot is er, der rnalach ha mavis.” (“There he is, the angel of death.”) After taking the oath, the policeman pretty well repeated what the court clerk had read out, but toward the very end of his testimony he brought in the fact that my mother had conveyed to him she planned to open a street restaurant like they have in Boston. That which I dreaded all week had happened.

I lowered my eyes to avoid my family and clutched my fists tight inside my pockets to stave off panic. When the policeman returned to his seat, my mother, in whose name the summons

had been issued, was asked to come to the witness box. On occasions when her galloping enthusiasm was throttled my mother could generate a type of despair befitting a much larger woman. With her eyes blazing defiance at the policeman and her tiny body almost painfully erect, the picture in the witness box was one of broken majesty. She took the oath with a stiff nod of her head while the magistrate eyed her curiously, as if the problem she had brought into court was somewhat senseless.

Leaning forward he asked, “Now

then, what’s this about a restaurant like they have in Boston?”

My mother turned to the apprentice who followed her, and who also took the oath, but with such a ringing “I do,” that a sour expression came over the magistrate’s face; it was plain to see that he had taken an immediate dislike to the boy.

“Tell the good judge,” my mother said in Yiddish to the apprentice, “that because of a childish impulse, my nine-year-old son used the name of a city 1 didn’t mention when he translated my remarks to the policeman.

Tell him that it is our wish only to bring the fine customs of Europe to Ottawa, and that we want to open a street café like they have in great capitals like Vienna and Paris and Warsaw. Such a place will bring happiness to the diplomats sent here by many countries.”

The apprentice could hardly wait for my mother to finish. He threw his head back in the manner of an orator and said, “Your Worship, these here people are new in the country ...”

Interrupting him with a sharp rap of the gavel, the magistrate asked nastily,

“Is that what she told you to say?” The apprentice became startled ana. began to fumble about for a reply, “Answer my question,” the magistrate insisted.

My mother quickly realized that something had gone wrong and sent the boy to his seat. Frightened at the magistrate’s outburst, he practically ran back to one of the benches. He was hardly seated when my mother mo tioned for my elder sister to come up to the magistrate’s desk. The magistrate seemed more receptive to my sister, waiting patiently while she took the oath, and my mother issued instructions for her to translate the very same words she had said to the apprentice. My sister, who had become proficient enough in English to make herself understood in her daily encounters with store clerks, streetcar conductors and the like, was sadly out of her depth before the magistrate. After a few words she faltered and stopped altogether.

The magistrate put his face between his two hands and leaned over on his elbows. The weight of his head against his hands pushed his cheeks and his eyebrows up toward his forehead giving him the look of an ancient gargoyle. He seemed faintly amused at my sister’s difficulties. After a few moments of painful silence she was quickly yanked away from the magistrate’s desk by my mother, who now worked from the witness box with the feverish dispatch of a baseball manager laboring to save a crucial game.

THE next thing I knew, my mother was motioning to me to come and take over the job of translating. To help me face the ordeal, my father came to my side. My knees quaked under me and I felt myself floating r ither than walking over to the magistrate, who was by this time plainly enjoying the cavalcade of interpreters that was filing past his desk. The court clerk hesitated to administer the oath, but the magistrate told him to go ahead, saying that I couldn’t do any worse than the two grownups who preceded me. My mother sought to reassure me from the witness box by telling me that I had only to admit the foolishness I had committed, and I would be promptly forgiven by the judge. Then she repeated what she had said to the apprentice, and asked me to translate it. She allowed several moments to pass by, and then tried to prod me into speech with “ Nu, vos varis duf” (“What are you waiting for?”). Í was waiting for a miracle. I prayed quietly to God to help me now, not only with the English name for Vicn, but for Pareez and for Varsheh as well. But only such names as Boston . . . Montreal . . . Toronto and the other cities on the National Hockey League roster kept dropping into my mind like hot coals. Í looked at my mother helplessly, and told her what the trouble was. Then I began to cry.

“How long have you been in this country?” the magistrate asked after a while.

“It’s gonna be a year next month, sir,” I replied, grateful for the diversion.

“Say ‘Your Worship,’ ” instructed the court clerk.

“Your Worship,” I amended quickly. “And did you do well in your first year at school?” he asked.

“Not bad, Your Worship,” I replied with proper modesty.

His face broke into an unexpected smile and he said, “Keep up the good work, lad.”

“I will, Your Worship,” I promised fervently.

Then he said to my parents that there wouldn’t be a fine this time, but

that the tables and chairs had better not be put on the street again until we had taken out a permit. He dismissed us with a slight wave of his hand, and began to study a large sheet of paper on his desk with the preoccupation of a man who had lost complete interest in us. We waited for something more to happen, but the attendant came over and ushered us out.

ON THE way home from court my parents went over the protzess, as they called the trial, incident by incident. The feeling of relief that swept all of us was soon doused by my father, who became suspicious that we had gotten off too easy. “How could the judge decide in our favor when he didn’t even find out our side of the story? This isn’t the end, I’m afraid.” My father’s ominous words drove us straight into Mr. Elkind’s drugstore once again, where I was asked to repeat what the magistrate had said. To save his face the apprentice kept correcting me until Mr. Elkind ordered him into the dispensary.

After I was finished Mr. Elkind looked rather displeased with my parents and said, “I told you there was nothing to worry about. Now get your permit like the magistrate ordered, and go about your business.” My father said he didn’t understand how we got off without even paying a small fine. “You want to pay a fine?” Mr. Elkind asked with a sinister little grin, as if he could arrange that right away. Then, turning to my mother, he asked the name of the magistrate who had tried our case. She didn’t know it, but she described the old man in great detail. “Why. that was Magistrate Kennedy,” said Mr. Elkind. “He doesn’t need an interpreter. He understood every word you said. He taught German in high school as a young man, and during the war he was in charge of a prison camp. He speaks German almost as well as English.”

At this my mother’s face dropped. Although Yiddish was close enough to German for the magistrate to have understood her, she felt robbed, because she spoke German, Polish and Russian fluently, and loved nothing better than a chance to display her knowledge of those languages. She was put out at the thought that she had let such a golden opportunity slip by, and we left Mr. Elkind with my mother vaguely irritated.

SEVERAL days later my father brought the permit home and that same afternoon the chairs, tables, rubber plants and gingham tablecloths were brought outside again. This time the neighbors came over to help set the furniture up and, when everything was in place, my mother insisted that they sit down to coffee. They obeyed reluctantly and sat uncomfortably in their chairs looking anxiously toward their verandas as they waited to be served. They gave the appearance of people who had been locked out of their homes. After they’d had their coffee they wished my parents good luck, and disappeared quickly into their houses.

It wasn’t until the next morning that the first paying customer showed up. He flopped into one of the chairs and ordered coffee and rolls in an indecisive voice, as if he was sorry he’d yielded to a foolish impulse. My mother served him, and then withdrew some distance to watch the man consume his food. My father, my sister and I joined my mother, and for some reason we couldn’t help hovering about the man, who started to throw uneasy glances in our direction. After a while he began to cover his food by leaning over it in the manner of an insecure dog. Finally, he dropped his money on the table and

left without finishing his coffee and rolls.

The ability to ignore a customer in the act of eating is something that evidently takes time to acquire. We didn’t in the short time while our street café lasted, and the few people who stopped off for something to eat were all stared into a state of nervousness. After a few weeks it became clear, even to my mother, that the venture was doomed. The foreign diplomats my mother had counted on never ventured into our street., let alone the café. The only steady frequenters consisted of my

grandfather and his bearded cronies, who sat about all day sipping seltzer water and regaling each other with tales of the miracles performed by great rabbis of bygone years, or arguing some such nice point in the Talmud as to whether it is holy or sinful to mutilate the body through fasting, or whether it is proper or improper for a wife to be buried next to her husband. It was because of these Talmudic disputations by the group of old-timers that our neighbors soon began to call our café the Yeshiva, after the Talmudic seminaries, although officially it went under

the very urbane name of Café Europa.

With the first cool days of September my mother’s interest in the restaurant started to wane. Soon her eyes began to shine with that inner glow that meant only one thing—a new business venture was taking shape in her mind. When she finally did come out with her idea my father fought it like hell, but it was no use.

Well, before our second winter in Ottawa arrived, we had opened a lending library of foreign books which my mother was sure would take the legations by storm. if