Friday, August 8, 2008

What Do You Do at the Deli?

It has been a long while since we traveled to a foreign land, himself and myself but after shipping the younguns off to Jew Camp, we journeyed to Toronto where my beloved presented a paper about Welsh writer Menna Gallie whose drolly titled book You’re Welcome to Ulster is an unusual spin on the Troubles from a Welsh perspective, and contrasts the Welsh experience to the Irish, the subtle and the unsubtle differences. We share a continent and a language with Canada and seldom, during our five days in Toronto did I feel palpably foreign. But drinking in the subtle differences was satisfying as was the exhilarating freedom of driving country roads, just the two of us, reminding us of when we explored Europe years ago, before kids and cell phones and the Internet.

I had always been taught that Los Angeles is the most ethnically diverse city in the world but Toronto rightfully claims this distinction. Canada actively recruits educated immigrants. One in five Canadian citizens was born outside of Canada. I posted a couple thousand words about ethnic food there on the Ontario board at for more on that. We were treated with genuine warmth in contrast to the false warmth or genuine coldness we are used to in L.A. We were reminded though that our northern neighbor is not an idyllic paradise of politeness, by the bus beheading that took place during our visit.

We visited the Mennonite farming community of St. Jacob’s and watched a multimedia presentation at the Interpretive Center. Spuds and I recently visited Hearst Castle and watched a presentation about William Randolph Hearst. It was so bland and spinelessly non-controversial that Marion Davies wasn’t even mentioned. The St. Jacob’s exhibit was excruciatingly well balanced even alluding to the tendency for rifts to develop among the different denominations of Mennonites. We also noticed public highway signs marking the locations of family nudist camps. The media show at Ste. Marie’s Among the Hurons, a restored Jesuit mission, was frank about the contributions and the failings of the Jesuits and also those of the neighboring Wendant Indians but adamantly encouraged viewers to refrain from making judgments. Canada, it seems, is almost militantly open minded.

We stumbled upon, not far from our apartment, what at first seemed to be a garish casino. Toronto, for the most part, is a stately and sophisticated city so we were taken aback by a brightly painted building covered with a zillion light bulbs and looking like something from Stateline Nevada. New York has Macy’s and Paris has the Galeries Lafayette and London has Harrod’s. Toronto has Honest Ed’s, a gigantic discount store, covered with sayings like “Come inside, only our floors are crooked.” I knew almost immediately that Honest Ed was one of my people and the tip off was the combination of a huge amount of crap for sale and the funny signs. Honest Ed was a rag merchant who thought big, had fun and made good. He died last year at the age of 91, just a few weeks before my dad. There were times when my dad embarrassed me with what I perceived as uncouth, loud, crass Jewishness. I wonder if there were times when Honest Ed’s children were embarrassed by the gaudy shlockmeister emporium that put food on their table. Honest Ed, for all the plastic crap, became one of Toronto’s biggest patrons of the arts, buying and restoring a number of old legitimate theatres, including London’s Old Vic and producing, in partnership with his son, several very successful shows. And while my own dad was often less than genteel, his business fed me and sent me to college and is now feeding my children. Budget Films and Honest Ed’s are kindred spirits, sharing the guilelessness of hopeful Jewish boys who remembered being hungry and believed in working like dogs and in the possibility the better life that I now take for granted.

Eager to try a Montreal bagel, I wandered into Montreal’s Deli, another family business. Every table was covered with ancient xeroxes describing the family of the deli’s founder, Melanie Simpson. Her parents were one of those serially adopting couples, like in the movie about the DeBolts, or Mia Farrow. They had a few kids of their own and then ultimately adopted some twenty five others, many of them handicapped, from poor countries all over the world. Many of these children are employed at the large, successful enterprise. I salute people who are able to open their homes and hearts to children the world has cast off and lord knows I appreciate the righteousness of a family business. One of the tattered photocopies contained an article from the Toronto Sun from 9/30/96 about the family and the restaurant from which I copied verbatim this remarkable sentence:

“In view, performing various tasks are siblings Sashi, 26, who is from India; day manager Katherine, Melanie’s younger sister by birth; Halima, 29, from Somalia, who was not expected live when she arrived here; Tim, 26, from Cambodia who suffers the effects of agent orange used during the war years; Jasmine from Korea who is deaf; and Roberto, from Ecuador, who is charge of all the recipes at the deli.”

If you have an affliction, that takes precedence over what you do in the deli. The bagel was sweeter and cakeier than the ones sold here.

Although we’ve never had twenty five kids to contend with, Casamurphy is quite a different place absent of the Fifteen Year Old and Spuds. We ate vegan thai food right out of the carry out cartons on the bedroom floor with the t.v. on and the dishwasher is run so infrequently that we have to hand wash the enormous coffee mugs we both favor. After his huge apprehension about returning to camp I’ve found a number of happy pictures of the Fifteen Year Old on the camp website and we received a breezy note that he is making friends and having fun. I have found only one picture of a very serious looking Spuds and his notes home have had a tinge of melancholy. This gave me pause but I communicated my concerns about it to the Fifteen Year Old and for all the crap the boy has put me through, I trust with every fiber of my being that he will take care of his little brother.

Summer is winding down and after several dramatic years I am thankful for a mellow time, particularly because I realize mellowness and fraughtness and the places in between are often determined by forces I cannot control. And besides the kick in the gut acts of God, of which I have amassed a sizeable list these last years, I have personally fucked up spectacularly in the past despite my pure intentions, and inevitably will again.

I was in the religion section in a huge Toronto bookstore and there was eastern and western and the Koran and all manner of Bibles and sacred texts and hundreds of religious scholars and philosophers I've never heard of and I felt so friggin' overwhelmed and hoped for the briefest moment that I would magically gravitate to the one and only book I needed to read. With my next breath I saw my folly and knew that from my mellow place in August I would shun the book with all the answers. It’s the journey. The sweet horrifying humiliating love filled journey. I held my beloved’s hand as we drove Ontario back roads and was perched in the last row when his research paper was applauded. My beloved elder child is protecting my beloved younger child. I know there are days when I will not feel as blessed and buoyant, but still, it’s the journey. Kill the Buddha on the road and burn the friggin’ book. May we not be known by our afflictions and remain humble in the light and thankful for all that makes us less and less afflicted every day we fumble down the road.

Shabbat Shalom.

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