The harsh wonderland that was St. Lawrence Main
MORDECAI RICHLER WRITES ABOUT
When this young novelist grew up on Montreal’s Boulevard Saint-Laurent — ‘‘the Main it was a Canadian ghetto. It smelled strong, acted tough, bargained hard, and you either loved it or left it or maybe like Richler you did both
ALTHOUGH THE SIGNS read Boul. St. Laurent. I'll always remember it as the Main or St. Lawrence Main. It was, and still is, a long, incredibly varied, multilingual sideshow of a street. I don t know it from one end to the other. I never did. My own slice of the Main, the part I knew best, was bounded on one side by Rachel Street and, on the other, by St. Viateur, although we sometimes wandered as far as the corner of St. Catherine, where most of the glitter was.
The Main was rich in delights. But looking at it again after an absence of many years l 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 NOBODY BUT NOBODY OUTSELLS US, FANTASTIC DISCOUNTS, FORCED TO SELL PRICES HERE, but the bargains so bitterly sought after are illusory
— and perhaps they always were. Yet the Main, it seems to me, is the one major commercial street in Montreal that hasn't a counterpart in other Canadian cities, it’s unique, and it has certainly resisted both prosperity and change. True, most of the people I used to know there have gone, but the faces of those who have replaced them are the same. They are out-of-breath immigrants and their first-generation Canadian children. They too will leave and be replaced. The neon signs may be bigger and brasher, perhaps they promise more, but it’s still very much a poor man's street. A place where immigrants stop and struggle for a generation — for to stay longer is to have failed.
The Main was the sort of street reform candidates and town planners always wanted to do something about. It’s been described as vice-ridden, a hotbed of communism, CONTINUED ON PAGE 26
CONTINUED ON PAGE 26
The harsh wonderland that was St. Lawrence Main
Continued from page 17
and a breeding ground for juvenile delinquency.
Well, I guess there’s a patina of truth on all these clichés. But they overlook 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 Colonial Baths, where orthodox Jews still go to prepare themselves for a holy day. The "war assets” store with a sign over the cash register that reads MEXICAN MONEY IS ACCEPTED IN MEXICO. And more, much more. Why, within one block you could have disfiguring blackheads removed, talk Talmud with a Chasidic scholar, shoot a game of snooker with a stranger, bet on a horse, consult a matchmaker, read newspapers in six languages, furnish your bedroom for twenty dollars down, send a food parcel to a relative in Warsaw, eat a kosher smoked meat sandwich, and drop in on a herbalist with a sure cure for the most embarrassing of ailments.
The Main, with something for every need and taste, was dedicated to pinching pennies from the poor, but it was there to entertain, educate, and comfort them too. Across the street from the synagogue 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. The Main’s no esthetic treasure. There will be no outcry from historical societies when the inevitable bulldozers move in to demolish and widen. But I, for one, will miss it sorely. Not. mind you, because I'm sentimental about poverty. Make no mistake: it was no fun to be without money and it never will be. If I cherish some memories of the Main (and prefer it to many milder middle-class streets), I can still recall the children with rickets and the men in picket lines banging their hands together against the freezing winter night. These were certainly not the good old days. I wouldn’t, I’m sure, choose to be a child on the Main again, but I can remember it fondly now because it was, after all, the harsh wonderland of my childhood, and many of the stores and buildings, anonymous or an eyesore to others, have a special meaning to me.
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). You didn't, however, just go to any store, not even for thread. You went to a cousin's cousin or the friend of a friend, and there you got a special deal. The suit, for instance, was made just for' you, and at Eaton's ("those lousy anti-semites”) they'd ask you double because of their advertising and overhead.
The price asked on the Main, however, was always in the nature of a trial balloon.
"Across the street,” my mother would say, "I could get it cheaper."
"You see this label. Across the street," the storekeeper would say, lowering his voice, "you don't see such quality English tweed.”
"Is that so?”
"You must never repeat this, but across the street they buy factory seconds and sew in fancy labels themselves in the back of the store. I wouldn't mind, you know, but it gives our people a bad name.”
“It’s still too much. At Fancy-Wear there's a fire sale.”
“At Fancy-Wear there's always a fire sale. It's the specialty there.”
"Take off five dollars it wouldn't break you.”
"My God. already I'm taking a loss on this suit. 1 must be crazy.”
Eventually, a compromise would be reached. The storekeeper would assure my mother she was a lady, a real lady (the highest compliment possible on the Main), and my mother, who had priced suits up and down the street before even coming into the store, would leave in a good temper.
Amusing as this bargaining seems in retrospect it was no game in those days —enjoyed, as some would have it. by both sides—but a serious and necessary measure. The suits that were bought for us, to take one example, never fit. They were not meant to. Suits were purchased on the large side and we were expected to grow into them.
We also shopped for food on the Main. 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 French - Canadian priests strolling arm in arm ("Some of them even speak Hebrew now. Well, if you ask me. it’s none of their business. Enough’s enough, you know."). At the Rachel market—actually Marché St. Jean Baptiste and still in existence—I can recall old Jewish women holding up French - Canadian farmers' chickens to blow on them in order to establish if they were truly fat or only thickly feathered. i can also remember a particularly eccentric farmer who was cherished by all the housewives. He sold his strawberries for ten cents a box or two for a quarter and the women, a persuasive bunch, could never make him budge.
So healthy he could die
Kids like myself were dragged along on shopping expeditions to carry parcels. We were well treated by the storekeepers. Old men gave us snuff, card players bought us candy for luck. At the delicatessen we were allowed salami butts, and everywhere we were poked and pinched by the mothers. Rivalry among the mothers, and fierce stuff it was too. focused on the children. The best that could be said of us was, "He eats well, knock wood,” and later, as we were sent off to school. "He’s a rank-one boy.”
"A plugger, you mean. My God, look at the circles under his eyes. With us, you know, health comes first.”
"Is that so? Well, you see that gay lifting a bale across the street? He’s so healthy he could die from it. But my boy with the circles he'll be a doctor yet.”
"Awright? Who says no? Don't 1 wish you the best?”
“I'm sure you do.”
"Only he's such a shrimp if you'll pardon me. And to be a doctor you have to be tall enough to reach the operating table . . .
After the shopping, once our errands had been done, we returned to the Main once more, either for part-time jobs otto study with a Hebrew teacher. Jobs going on the Main included spotting pins at 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. To qualify for a job you were supposed to be “bright, ambitious, and willing to learn.” One ad I once saw in a shoe-store window read:
PART TIME BOY WANTED FOR EXPANDING BUSINESS.
EXPERIENCE ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY BUT NOT ESSENTIAL.
Our Hebrew teacher, in the back room of the little synagogue over the fruit store, unfailingly chewed poppy seeds as he listened to our lessons. Each time we got something wrong he'd rap our knuckles or twist an ear until we hollered.
Our jobs and lessons finished, we'd wander the street in small gangs, smoking Turret cigarettes and looking for trouble. It used to be good sport to shout, "Taxi!", and when the driver pulled up say. "I thought so." and run like hell. Other times we'd play slitup, a form of blackjack, under the light of a lamppost. As the French-Canadian factory girls passed arm in arm we'd shout things like, "Eve got the time if you’ve got the place.”
Those were the war years, and signs in cigar stores warned us THE WALES HAVE EARS and THE ENEMY IS EVERYWHERE, but. out of the street in our air-cadet uniforms, we 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.") that we had read about in the Herald. At the corner newsstand we bought a page on which four pigs had been printed. When you folded the paper together as directed the four pigs' 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'd stand and chant. ' Black Market Cooperman! Black Market Cooperman!". until the old man came out, waving his broom, and chased us down the street.
Saturday mornings it was back to the Main again and the original Young Israel Synagogue for the sabbath service. 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, an Irishman, and a Hebe. sec. And they were all after this here dame . . . ." On Sundays we went down to the Main once more to the Canada at the corner of St. Viateur, where you could see three feature films, four cartoons, and innumerable previews for twenty cents.
There was a condition to our admittance. however. Nobody under sixteen was legally allowed into a movie in Quebec. and while the enterprising management of the Canada was willing to stretch the law. it would go only so far. And so. before we were allowed inside, the fat lady in the ticket office made us turn around to see how' old we looked from the back (for it was from the back only that any visiting inspector would see us). Not to be allowed inside — and the fat lady's notion of how old we skinny thirteen-year-olds looked from the back of our necks was often capricious — meant a terrible Sunday. An afternoon off with nowhere to go: nothing to do until our luckier friends emerged from the Canada five or six hours later, groggy and scratching, to tell us of their incredi-
ble adventures. “This sliiksa, see. she comes out of nowhere and sits down beside me. Wow! Water would turn to steam on her back. Em telling you.”
We'd return to the Main yet again when we wanted a fight with the frogs. Winter, as I remember it. was best for this type of sport. You could throw snowballs packed with ice or frozen horsebuns and. with darkness coming so early in the afternoon, it was easier to elude troublesome pursuers. Soon, however, w'e 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 w'as 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 out and that's why he was such a runt. It was not that Eddy's mother feared surgery but Eddy sang in a rich synagogue's choir. This brought in about thirty dollars a month. If his tonsils were removed his voice, it was feared, would go too. Eddy sang beautifully.) Anyway, he would stand out there alone and when the first solitary frog passed he'd kick him in the shins. The frog, 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 frog could protest we were all over him.
These and other fights, however, sprung more out of boredom than out of true racial hatred, not that there were no racial problems on the Main.
The English were truly hated
For if the Main was a poor man's street it was also a dividing line. On one side, the French-Canadians. On the other, some distance away, the English. On the Main itself there were some Italians. Poles, Yugoslavs, and Ukrainians, but they did not count as real Gentiles. Even the French-Canadians, who were our enemies, were not entirely unloved. Like us, they were poor and rough and spoke English badly.
Looking back it seems to me 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 who knew when, given enough liquor, they'd make trouble?
The Jews who lived on and around the Main were a rude, aggressive bunch. Cocky too. Send round Einstein and we would not have been overawed. (Wasn't Albert, like us, an immigrant, and didn't he too adore laikus'?) But bring round the most insignificant little Anglo-Saxon fire-insurance inspector or cop and even the most powerful merchant on the street began to scrape and bow and say, “Sir."
St. Lawrence Boulevard was once the main street of a ghetto. The ghetto was self-made and it was there because we were afraid. Sometimes with good reason.
At Baron Byng High School, just round the corner from the Main at Rachel, our immigrant parents put pressure on us—their wealth and hope—to make good. The school, under the jurisdiction of the Protestant School Board, was nevertheless almost a hundred percent Jewish, and became something of a legend in our area. Our class, room 41. was one of the few' to boast a true Gentile, a real white Protestant. His name was Whelan — and he w'as certainly a curiosity. Envious students came from
The Main, our parents warned us, was for dopes, drinkers, bummers, and (heaven forbid) failures
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, slipped him answers at exam time, and, indeed, did our best to help him. We were. I'd say, as proud of Whelan's accomplishments (and no less condescending) as ever a Britisher abroad was of his literate African houseboy.
After school we raced down to the Main to pJay pool at the Rachel or the Mount Royal. Other days, when we chose to avoid school altogether, we used to take the 55 streetcar down as far as St. Catherine, where there was a variety of amusements offered. You 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 you 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 Frenchfried potatoes cooking in stale oil. Tough, unshaven men stood in knots outside the taverns and cheap cafés. There was always the threat of violence.
As I recall it we were always being warned about the Main. Our grandparents, and sometimes our parents, had come by steerage from Rumania and cattlehoat from Poland by way of Liverpool to start in there. But no sooner had they unpacked their bundles and cardboard cases than they were planning a better, brighter life for us, the Canadianborn 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, dopes, and (heaven forbid) failures.
Today, however, when most of the children have indeed made good, when the sons and daughters have duplexes and gardens and winters in Miami, many of the grandparents 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 freezer in the cigar and soda store, dozing with a flyswatter 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 sitting 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 poppy seeds on their lap. As in the old days the sinking house with the crooked floor is often right over the store or the wholesale, or maybe next door to the junkyard. Only today the store and the junkyard are shut down. Old election posters or signs for Sweet Caporal cigarettes have been nailed in over missing windows. There are spider webs everywhere.
Today the original Young Israel Synagogue where we used to chin the bar is gone. A bank stands where my old poolroom used to be. But the street itself hasn't altered much: only the people have changed. It's no longer an overwhelmingly Jewish street, though I'd say that Jews still predominate. Other immigrants, mostly Greeks, have come to the Main.
Greek nightclubs, groceries, and banquet halls can be found everywhere. Where one day you might have seen a shop called Magin-David Printing today you find Hermes Printing, Greek Signs Made Here. The Canada is still standing but now it's called the Verdi Theatre and the day I passed Napoli e sempre Napoli was playing. The clothing factories where we used to work in summer as shippers and packers for ten dollars a week are still there. So’s Baron Byng, right where it always was, just round the corner at Rachel, but nowadays, it’s only seventy percent Jewish. Other students are Greek. Hungarian, and Chinese. Many of them had to take special classes in English before they could begin their regular studies.
Some familiar stores are gone. There have been deaths and bankruptcies, of course. But most of the departed have merely packed up and moved with their old customers to the new shopping centres at Van Horne or Rockland. And what are these centres 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 friend’s friend? Yesterday it was a dollar off because "it’s you," today it's the pinky stamp. Only the technique has changed.
A chance to compare status
Up and down the Main you can still pick out many restaurants and steakhouses wedged between the pants factories, poolrooms, cold - water flats, wholesale drygoods stores, and "Your Most Sanitary" barbershops. Most of them are functional. Moishe’s Steak and Chop House, however, is a special case. A large part of Moishe’s trade comes from successful Jews who moved out of the district long ago.
Moishe’s cuisine is an old-fashioned Jewish one; not only does he prepare food somewhat like ma used to make but he serves more than you can usually eat, and when his customers were children it was often otherwise. Indeed, I think these people come to Moishe’s for nostalgic reasons. Then, too, there is no longer really a ghetto in Montreal.
The Jewish community, as it has prospered, has shifted and spread to different parts of the city. Boys who grew up together no longer live around the corner from each other. Unless they belong to the same synagogue they seldom meet. But at Moishe’s, it seems, you can always run into an old friend and his family on a Saturday night. It’s nice, I’m sure, but the pleasures are double-edged. It presents an opportunity to conlpare status and achievement. The ghetto's gone, hut the rivalry is still fierce. It's no longer “He eats well, knock wood," but "You ought to see him on the golf course. A natural.’’ "He’s a rank-one boy" has been displaced by "His teacher says he's the best-adjusted boy in the class."
Outside, as the families get into their enormous cars to return to suburban homes, rabbinical students and melancholy hoys with sidecurls still pass. These are the latest arrivals from Poland and Rumania. The boys will soon be going to Baron Byng and their immigrant parents will put pressure on them to study hard and make good. To get out.
The cycle, begun again on the Main, seems endless.