ARTICLES

Making it with the chicks

MORDECAI RICHLER October 8 1960
ARTICLES

Making it with the chicks

MORDECAI RICHLER October 8 1960

Making it with the chicks

ARTICLES

MORDECAI RICHLER

I have, since I returned to Canada after seven years in Europe, developed a voracious interest in our magazines. I read all of them. And it would seem, after a few months’ haphazard study, that we Canadians are greatly concerned about the sex life our children lead.

One might conclude that our children, overprivileged but delinquent, sex-crazed and given to hot-rod violence, are bound to grow up irresponsible behemoths rather than dull, decent folk like their parents. I doubt it.

In fact the following, my own childhood sexual adventures, are offered in a spirit of reassurance. There is hope, you know. I picked up most of my sex education on street corners and I have, I think, survived.

I wasn't quite eight years old when I first got into trouble over a girl. Her name was Charna; she lived upstairs from me on St. Urbain Street, and we had played together without incident for years. Then, one spring afternoon, it seemed to me that I’d had enough of marbles and One-Two-Three-RED LIGHT! and other childish games. I was bored.

“I’ve got it,” I said. "We're going to play hospital.”

Charna looked puzzled.

“I’m the doctor, see, and you’re the patient. Is anybody home at your place?”

“No. Why?”

“It’s more of an indoors game, like. Come on.”

I had only begun my preliminary examination when Charna’s mother came home. My

punishment was threefold. I had to go to bed without my supper, my mouth was washed out with soap (after many such purifying operations I still don’t know which washes cleanest, but Palmolive certainly tastes best), and I was no longer allowed to play with Charna. My father was the only one in the house who was undismayed by my behavior. “You’ve got to hand it to him,” he said.

“You’d better speak to him,” my mother said. “It’s a lot worse when they pick up that kind of knowledge on the streets.”

“It looks like he’s pretty well informed already.”

If I wasn’t, it was clearly my mother’s fault. Some years earlier she had assured me that babies came from the T. Eaton Company, and whenever she wanted to terrify me into better behavior she would pick up the phone and say, “I’m going to call Eaton’s right this minute and have you exchanged for a girl.” So I’d eat my porridge or correct any other infraction against good conduct. Meanwhile my brother, who was five years older than I was, would compulsively add to my discomfort.

"Maybe Eaton’s won’t take him back, Maw. This isn’t bargain-basement week, you know.” “I’ll send him to Morgan’s, then.” “Morgan’s,” my father would say, looking up from his evening paper, “doesn’t hire Jews. I’ll have nothing to do with them.”

Arty cured me of the department-store myth. He had modern parents, the only ones on St. Urbain Street, and he was very knowing about how to make babies. “You do it with a seed,” he said. “You plant it, see.”

Arty was a shrewd one for getting on with girls. He was my mentor. By the time we were both twelve, and starting to go out on dates, he told me, “When you go to a social, what do you do first?”

“Ask the prettiest dame there for a dance.” “That’s your first mistake,” Arty said.

Arty explained that everybody went to a dance with the same idea. Maybe twelve boys with the same idea and only one prettiest girl. The thing to do, he said, was to make a big play for the third prettiest girl at the dance while all the others were busy with number one. That way you never walked out alone.

I did not, mind you, just open a door and arrive at the dancing-party stage of courting. I traveled a long and troubled route to get there. Why, there had even been a time when to walk a girl home from school and maybe hit her one over the head with my geography book was all I wanted. The next stage was certainly the bicycle one. I would ride up and down in front of my girl’s house for hours and when she finally came out I’d do my best to run her down, shout an insult, and speed off.

Our parties were usually held at a girl’s house and the thing to do was bring along the latest hit-parade record. Favorites at the time were Besame Mucho and Tico-Tico. We’d boogie for a while. Then gradually we’d favor more and more slow numbers until Arty would get up, clear his throat, and say, “Hey, isn’t the light in here hurting your eyes?”

But with the coming of the partygoing stage complications set in (for me, anyway). My face had broken out in pimples. I was little and thin

for my age. I had trouble getting a second date with the same girl, if you know what I mean, and usually the boys had to provide for me. Arty would phone some unsuspecting girl and lie, “There’s this friend of mine in from Detroit. Would you like to go to a dance with him on Saturday night?”

The girl would usually come, but afterwards she’d complain. “Why didn’t you tell me he was such a twerp?”

So Arty took me aside. “Why don’t you try body-building or something?” he asked.

I tried boxing at the Y and was knocked out my second time in the gym ring. I would have persevered, however, if my usual sparring partner, one Herky Samuels, hadn’t had the nasty trick of blowing his nose on his glove immediately before he whacked me one. Besides, I wasn't getting any taller. I wasn’t exactly a midget, you know, but some of the boys had already begun to shave. The girls had begun to use lipstick and high heels. They had also started to go in for brassieres — rather optimistically. I thought (except for Gitel Miller).

If I had a thing, as they say, about being short there were valid reasons for it. Nobody under sixteen was allowed into the movies in Montreal, and while even a thirteen-year-old girl would beat the ruling with an adroit use of lipstick and high heels a boy couldn’t bluff his way past the usher unless he was tall enough. Before the dating age we had a simple method of breaking the law. An older friend would buy a ticket and stroll round to a rear exit where four, six, or sometimes even eight of us would be waiting outside. He’d release the bar, open the door, and we’d all spill inside. But I could hardly ask a girl in high heels to do that for me. Neither could I risk her getting in and my being turned away. So I didn't take girls to the movies. “It’s not real life, anyway,” I’d say.

“It’s Robert Taylor.”

“It's escapism, you mean.”

My brother was not very sympathetic about my girl troubles. “Some of us have it,” he said, “and others . . . Well, if I were you I’d stick to your airplane models.”

My brother Harvey was studying at Queen’s

University and he came home for only one weekend a month. "I can see the family unit in a much clearer perspective now.” he said.

Harvey had begun to affect a pipe. On his monthly visits home he smuggled certain items across the provincial border. Cigarettes, cheaper in Ontario, margarine, banned in Quebec, and sunbathing magazines. In his freshman year at Queen’s, Harvey also developed a taste for art photography annuals, although he did not own a camera. This baffled me until I found one of the annuals under his mattress and flipped through it. I promptly canceled my subscriptions to Canadian High News and the National Geographic Magazine, and joined the YMHA photography club, but it wasn’t all I had hoped for.

My brother, however, was not the family rake. That office was filled by my Cousin Lou. and I learnt some splendid lessons on how to make it with the chicks from him.

“Principle number one,” Lou said. “Treat ’em like dirt. Principle number two. Never give up a dame on spec. Always have another one warming up in the bullpen, so to speak. Principle number three. Any dame is better than no dame.”

Lou was a haberdashery salesman. He had a little black book—“There’s more gold in here than in all of Fort Knox” — that he kept scrupulously up to date.

A trip round the corner for, as Lou put it, a swig of java, was an adventure if he was your companion. He called all the waitresses “honey,” he wiggled his ears at them, and said things like, “You send me, baby.”

It didn’t annoy him, either, when the waitress replied, “I’ll say I send you, brother, but I'd hate to tell you where.” Once the girl had gone to fetch our coffee Lou would whisper to me, "An Irish tootsie.” or, nudging me, “A Frenchie.” Lou rolled his eyes and had comments to make about all the waitresses. “Oh. it must be jelly 'cause jam don’t shake like that.” Or, another time, “Those thin ones, Wow!”

My mother didn't approve. “Lou's a bad influence on the boy,” she said.

"Aw. Lou's all talk and no action,” my father said. “He's OK.”

Round about this time Arty, Hershey. Stan and 1 were drifting through high school together. and there we got a rude shock. Suddenly the neighborhood girls, whom we had been dating loyally for years, dropped us one-twothree and began to go out with older boys— McGill students, working boys, anybody so long as he was over eighteen and had a car. We would sit outside on the steps on Saturday nights and watch the girls come tripping out in their party dresses, always to leap into a stranger's car. and go off into the night without even a wave for us. Obviously, a double feature and toasted tomato sandwiches and a coke afterwards no longer constituted a date. That, as one of the girls told us, was okay "for children like us.” but these days they went to fraternity dances or nightclubs and, to hear them tell it, drank Singapore Slings endlessly.

"It’s awright,” Arty said. “Let them have their lousy little fling. But they’ll come back crawling for a date. You wait.” We waited and waited and, disheartened, gave up girls altogether for a time and

CONTINUED ON PAGE 46

Making it with the chicks continued from page 31

“Whatever you do,” he said, “don’t give them your right name. We’re from out of town, see”

took to playing poker on Saturday nights.

“Boy, when 1 think of all the mazuma 1 blew on Gitel.”

“Skip it. I’d rather lose my money to a friend, a real friend,” Hershey said, scooping up another pot, “than spend it on a dame, any time.”

"They’re getting lousy reps, those dames, running around with strange guys in cars. You know what they do? They park on quiet streets ...”

"No kidding?”

“I’d just hate to see a sweet kid like Molly getting into trouble. If you know what I mean."

"I couldn't care less.”

"Know something,” Arty said. “Monks never go out with dames. For all their lives — ’’

"Monks are Catholics, you jerk. Who ever heard of a Hebe withoul a dame?” Once poker palled on us we began to frequent St. Catherine Street on Saturday nights. We’d walk up and down the brightly lit street in gangs, stopping here for a hot dog and there lo play the pinhall machines, but never forgetting our primary purpose, which was to taunt the girls as they came strolling past.

"Hi, beautiful!”

“Hubba-hubba!”

“Boy, is that one ever stacked!”

Once or twice we went to the Palais d’Or and tried to see what we could pick up. Arty instructed us in technique first. “Whatever you do,” he said, "don’t give

them your right name. We’re from out of town, see."

But most of the girls wouldn’t even dance with us.

"Send round your older brother, sonny.”

"Don’t you think it’s rather late for you to be out?”

So we began to go to Belmont Park, hoping to find younger girls. There we danced to the music of Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen and at least had some fun in the horror houses and on the rides. We also began to go in for snooker a lot.

“A poolroom bum,” my father said. “Is that why I’m educating you?”

Only a few nights before, my mother had been to one of those lectures the ladies' auxiliary of the synagogue had just started to go in for.

“The way lie’s out on the streets every night,” she said, “people will think he comes from a broken home. A maladjusted boy.”

Malarkey, I thought; but, looking hack, I guess I was perched on a dangerous abyss in those days. It had all started, it seemed to me, not with Charna, but earlier, on the day I had begun to look up bad words in the copy of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary they kept right out there in the open at the Y library. And now, some years later, a life of vice spread out temptingly before me. Fortunately, I fell in love instead.

Zelda was an Outremont girl—“An expensive cookie,” as Cousin Lou said —with a lovely golden head and long dark eyelashes. I met her at a Sweet Sixteen party, asked her out, and was shocked when she said she'd come. (Usually, they gave me that bit about having to wash their hair.) 1 took Zelda to a Y dance and outside her house afterwards 1 kissed her good night.

"Now. why did you do that?” she asked.

"What?”

"Do you really get any pleasure out of kissing a girl?”

"Eh?"

"1 thought you were a more serious type." she said.

“Oh. sure. Sure I am.”

"For once in my life I'd like to meet at least one male who was interested in me just for my mind."

“You're right," I said quickly. "You've got a point there.” And I assured Zelda I was interested in the real her, whatever that was.

The ruse worked, but only for a little while. Only, in fact, until the night we baby-sat together for her Uncle Bernie.

"You just please sit down right over there and talk to me," Zelda said.

Sheepishly 1 rose from the sofa and walked to the chair across the room. "What subject would you like to discuss?” I asked hoarsely.

"Anything."

And so it went.

Meanwhile, they were giving me a hard time al home. I was always on the phone to Zelda, and my brother, home on holiday, was merciless.

"Well, well, there, pimplehead, I hear you're going steady.”

"Mind your own business.”

The boys began to ride me too. "Wow. that Birdie Litvinoff," Hershey said of his latest steady, "water would turn to fire on her back.”

"Sure," I said. "Oh, sure."

"Well," Arty said, "how you making out with Miss Anti-Freeze these days?” "You'd be surprised, lunkhead. She’s the best-looking dame around here and—"

"A lot of good it does you, but."

"—and the most intelligent."

Hershey laughed. "Big deal," he said. "The trouble with you morons," I said, "is you've got sex on the head."

"Better that,” Arty said, "than a million blackheads. Present company excluded, of course.”

After that we fought. And so, as if I didn't have enough troubles already, Zelda cost me my two best friends. I was getting desperate.

"Look,” I said to her at the next social, "all the guys are here. They're watching me. Couldn't we even pretend to kiss during the next slow number? Just to keep up appearances, like."

"Do you care what other people say about you?”

"Certainly not.”

"Then why—”

"Skip it. Just warn me if I hold you too close, eh?”

Zelda and I parted friends, as the gossip columnists say, and—without a girl of my own again — I entered my reading period. I began to send away for volumes that came in plain brown wrappers, but they were of no real help. Eventually I picked up with Arty and Hershey again and they found me dates. One or the other of their endless spill of girls always had a cousin with thick glasses — “She’s really lots of fun, you xnow" — or a kid sister — "Honestly, with high heels she looks sixteen" — and that was always for me. ^