1. Pets in the bush.... “Jano, where are you?” - The man yelled as he ran up the narrow staircase, taking two steps at a time. The house appeared to be abandoned. There was a sizable kitchen up front with a weathered dinette set in the middle loaded with dirty dishes and leftover food. On the stove something simmered, unattended.Through the kitchen a narrow hallway led to the rooms lined on one side of thecorridor. Everything was kind of lopsided, as in houses built on those old thirty-three foot lots. A cafe, more like a restaurant occupied the main floor, a favoured hangout for all sorts of new immigrants. Almost all the Europeancountries delegated some representatives at one time or another, a kind of mini United Nations. The place changed hands almost annually. When it got totally rundown, somebody with big dreams and ambitions took it over, - practically for nothing. They cleaned it up, maybe a new coat of paint, table cloths and a couple dozen new cups instead of the chipped ones and the most important cosmetic change, booted out the regulars, keeping only the name: The Spot. With these changes they were desperately hoping for the never appearing paying public. The gang, in the meantime, patiently waiting, hung around in the garage in the corner service station or at the front of the drugstore. And when the new owner let his guard down, one by one, the bums, the freeloaders and “the occasionally, temporarily doing okay regulars” retook the fort until next the time, destroying the new proprietor mentally and financially. As an added income, dubious as it was, the apartment
upstairs was part of the restaurant’s leasing agreement. Whoever owned the restaurant, controlled the living quarters upstairs. Originally the tenant lived over the restaurant, but somehow, nobody remembers when and how, it became a rooming house. Four rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom in the back of the house, a perfect setup. The great feature of the layout was an exit through the bathroom window, where a fire escape ladder led to the top of the garage in the back lane and was used frequently by whoever had urgent disappearing to do. Presently five occupants called it a home. In the big room, - the master bedroom, Mike and his sidekick Jano resided. Mike, the young man just come home, was paying the rent, - most of the time anyway. He was selling used cars on one of the small lots in the east end of the city. His friend Jano, was frequently between jobs, - as he liked to describe his status. They used to go to school together in the old country, they both graduated with honours, but went their different ways. Mike entered the army as a career choice, reaching the covetedrank of a second lieutenant, while Jano has worked at the state owned radio station, first as a youth announcer, but later demoted to the position of a gopher in the music library. All because of an on air incident, which for a casual observer might appear trivial, but back in those days, if you clear your throat right after pronouncing the name of your beloved leader, it definitely sounds as like insubordination. They met again on a cold December night at the Austrian border, both of them running westward, not because they feared retaliation for some heroic revolutionary deeds, but more likely to exploit the God given opportunity, to seek a fortune in the free world. They stuck together not only 2
for old time’s sake, but they somehow complimented each other’s talents for survival. Mike was a born wheeler-dealer, an unscrupulous salesman, and Jano readily provided justification for everything he did. It was good for the soul and opened the road to the pinnacle for them. But a lot later, it was 1958, a tough and cruel existence, a bit of pioneer times. Low paying meaningless jobs, endless parties in crowded, smokefilled rooms, beer, cheap wine, and sex on the run. In the room next to Mike’s and Jano’s lived a girl named Kati. Age? Well, that depended on what time of the day you attempted to guess. At nine in the morning, forty-two; in the afternoon, twenty-eight; but sixteen years old at night, - under proper lighting conditions. Never ask her though, she will swear with the extended vocabulary of a drill sergeant, adding, “You shouldn’t ask a questionlike that of a lady... You... %#[email protected]
#!!”. She worked as a waitress in the restaurant downstairs, but, most of the time in a real dining room called “The Puszta”. She was good at the waiting profession, only her faulty mouth caused her occasional unemployment. On the side she loaned out money. Anything between five and five hundred for a considerable, “friendly” interest. She never had any problems collecting, rumours were circulated that she had a “gorilla” on contract. Nobody, but nobody, ever wanted to find out the validity of the gossip. According to some, she created the legend of the enforcer. It started to circulate when a cabby named Marcus appeared in the restaurant with his left leg in a cast. He insisted that he had fallen off the stairs, but somebody allegedly overheard Kati saying to one of her clients... “Well, he owed a couple of hundred, and I can’t afford to lose that kind of dough.” Her 3
reputation as a tough business woman was firmly established. On the other hand she often tore up the check of a stranger if she sensed that he or she needed a free meal. - As they say, nobody’s perfect. The room in the middle was occupied by the Martian. A strange and mysterious character. Where he came from? Who knows. He had, through the times a half a dozen versions regarding his birth- place, none of them really checked out. He spoke all the languages spoken west of Spadina, without accent, or rather with the same accent, - and that’s something. He sprang up a web of wires on the roof saying it was for his short-wave radio which nobody ever heard playing, and he was able to see through walls and tell the identity of the caller when the phone rang. One might say that the phone companies got the idea for the gadget nowadays marketed as the Caller I.D., from the Martian. He was weird all right, - a vegetarian among a bunch of carnivorous savages and to top it off, he couldn’t tolerate alcohol. Once, they say in “The Puszta”, the flame went out prematurely on the Crepe Suzette and from the trace amount of alcohol left on it, he was in a coma-like state for twelve hours. He’s from Mars all right, the verdict was announced and it’s stuck. Maybe. Nobody really knows for sure. Back in the smallest room lived Bertie the artist, smelling up the whole house with his paints and turpentine in the process of turning out one masterpiece after the other, orthodox rabbis and purple sunsets in sofa sizes. That’s what the public wants, - he said. Being home most of the time, he was a kind of housekeeper, telephone secretary, and supposedly, cleaning personnel. He was just coming home as Mike turned to him. “Have you seen Jano?”
“He’s in the bathtub.” He answered as he peeked into the simmering pot. “Three-thirty in the afternoon?” “He’s been sitting in there since ten in the morning. He won’t let anybody in.” - Lamented Bertie. - “I had to go to the service station for a leak. Mrs Boros won’t let me use the washroom in the restaurant anymore.” “What the hell he is doing in there?” “Beats me. He’s nuts. He got into a fight with Kati because of it.” Mike banged on the door with his fist. “Jano, are you there?” “Yah, What you want?” “What are you doing in there all day. Get out of there right away, I need you on the lot.” “I can’t. I’m not ready yet.” “Ready for what?” No answer. A little while later Jano whispered from inside. “Okay, I’ll let you in, but wait till I get back into the water.” A click of the latch and Mike steps into the bathroom and bursts out in loud litany. “What the heck is this. Look at you. Your ass is wrinkled like a frog and white... Bertie! Get away from the door, this is between Jano and me.” Bertie tip-toed away from the door, in the meantime trying to make out the conversation from a safe distance. “Mike, if you promise not to tell anybody...” Jano still talked in a hushed tone. “I promise... Scout’s honour.” Replied Mike. “I’ve got lice...” - As he slides deeper into the water. “You mean itchy, crawling crab lice? You’re kidding. Where did you get them?” 5
“I think, Mrs. Shlezak.” “Mrs. Shlezak? The lady in the travel agency?” “I think so. There was nobody else for a long while... it must be from her.” “Fantastic. The LADY from the travel agency. Okay, you got pets in the bush, but what has this got to do with the day long toilette?” “I tried to drown them.” “What? You must be out of your mind. You want to drown the lice?” - Mike was laughing so hard his side started to hurt. This was the time when Kati came home and confronted Bertie in the kitchen. “Hey, Bertie. Pretty boy is still in the tub?” “Yah, guess what,” - giggled Bertie under his moustache, - “He’s got lice and he wants to drown them.” “He wants to drown crab lice?” - They both laughed uncontrollably. - “Where’d he get them?” “From Mrs. Shlezak. The lady at the travel agency.” By the time Kati burst into the bathroom, to have first hand view of the drowning ceremony, Jano was gently smearing vaseline on his tender buttocks, while Mike tried to dry up his tears. (Later, downstairs in the restaurant, a lively discussion went on, the opinions evenly split between drowning, and shooting crab lice with a rifle, as an effective alternative to Kawalda.) “Get out of here!” Jano yelled at Kati and tried to cover his loins with the vaseline jar but it was too late for her surprising discovery. “Jano, I didn’t know that you were Jewish...” 6
“Kati, get the hell out of here, shame on you.” Mike stepped in front of his naked friend, still trying to control his amusement. Kati pulled the door shut, but couldn’t resist not making further comments on her new found target. “I will never understand why people want to waste any part of it, specially when it is so... little.” “Cut it out...” Mike protested. “It’s shrunk... Over cooked” “Yah, an overcooked cocktail winie, you want some mustard on it?” Finally Kati left them alone turning to Bertie in the kitchen who tried to clear off part of the dinette table so he can sit down and have his late lunch. “Jewish, Heh. He doesn’t look it.” “He is one all right, specially lately. He found out in Vienna that to be be Jewish is a definite asset and ever since he’s carried a scullcap in his back pocket. He got himself circumcised last October to complete his return to the flock.” “But why the sudden changeover?” “Not for his spiritual need, that’s for sure. Economics. He’s got generous support from “Joint” the relief organization, but he got cut off a couple months ago. They told him it’s time to get a job. He was devastated, just when I got circumcised, - he said, - they turn against me.” Jano, Janos Somogyi according to his immigration papers, was born in Hungary in 1935 into a prosperous middle class Jewish family. His father was a respected lawyer desperately trying to fit into society in a not too promising age. He was not alone. A sizable segment of the Jewish middle class had abandoned their “Jewishness” for social acceptance of a very dubious value. Soon after Jano wasborn the family “Hungarized” their names and he, instead of Jeno Schwarcz, become 7
Janos Somogyi. The tragic twist of fate was that, regardless of their efforts, in 1944 they were, as were all Hungarian Jews, herded into walled-in ghettos and shipped, in ever increasing numbers into the infamous concentration camps. By some miracle, the Somogyi family escaped the fate of so many and after the war they tried, once again to compromise and fit in. Jano, became a good little foot-soldier of the new regime, a Pioneer with numerous badges of special achievements and an enormous ambition to be an actor. He wouldn’t be the first. The Hungarian theatrical, literary and intellectual life in general, was very rich with Jewish luminaries, their contribution to the cultural life of the nation was unmeasurable. He was missing only one thing to follow into the footsteps of the great forefathers, - talent. That was no deterrent though, he managed to convince the State Radio Youth Department of his unwavering loyalty to the cause of the working class which in those days superseded the “talent” category and become a radio announcer. Day after day, he was reading the “news” about the great achievements of the youth brigades in the factories and on the collective farms. “News” about the rotting capitalistic world staggering on the verge of collapse. “News” about the incredible wisdom of the Beloved Leaders, Generalissimo Stalin and the Hungarian clone, the mini wise man Matyas Rakosi. In those days circulated the popular joke in Budapest: “How’s the Jews in Hungary?” - Somebody asks the new dissident in New York. - “Fifty-fifty, the man answers.” “What do you mean fifty-fifty?” “Well, fifty percent of the Jews want to get the hell out of the country, the other fifty percent won’t let them to go.”
Jano belonged to the latter fifty percent, until one day a crack appeared in the iron curtain and without too much of a risk taking, he could wiggle through and enthusiasticly join the first fifty percent. In Vienna he made a startling discovery. Being a Hungarian refugee, after a while, became a liability, but, being a Jewish refugee from Hungary made a big difference and his long forgotten Jewishness suddenly took prominence and he embarked on the road of transformation. At first he hid his origins, only a decade later he refused to remember his mother tongue, a language he had cultivated and was so well educated in, a language in which he excelled in his first twenty years. Eventually he faked a British accent, “graduated” from Oxford, and changed his name to John A. Sommerville. But that came lot later, remember it is still 1958, broke and riding with Mike to pull another con on an unsuspecting used car buyer. “Mike, stop and let me get out. My ass hurts like hell.” He almost cried. “I can’t. The sucker’s supposed to be back by four o’clock. I’ve got to make this sale otherwise we’re in trouble. You remember, your deal is nine hundred and fifty. Okay? It’s a ‘52 Chevy. If I sell it for eight, eight fifty, I can still collect two kilos. Don’t screw it.” Mike let Jano out from the car a block away from the lot. In front of the trailer, that served as an office for J.B. Crain Auto Sales Ltd. two Hungarians from Oshawa were waiting for Mike. “Good day... “ He greeted them in Hungarian. His clientele was recruited through advertisements in Hungarian publications. Being only one of the few salesman targeting that particular market, he made an acceptable 9
living. His command of the English language was rather limited, so in those days he depended almost entirely on cunning, and exploiting his own country men. And he was pretty good at it. “Good day Mister Kovacs.” The buyer, the younger man returned the greeting and introduced his companion. “My uncle, he is a mechanic.” A strong emphasis on the word, mechanic. Mike sensed trouble in the making. The car he wanted to sell had passed her better days. One thing he could do without was the scrutiny of an expert. Quickly he made an inventory in his mind of the cars in that price range and found nothing. He was ready to surrender to his failure when the two reached the Chevy and he smiled. The uncle couldn’t open the hood of the car. He was no mechanic, was the inescapable conclusion, - an elevator mechanic perhaps, but a stranger around cars. He helped him to open the hood, stepped back and enjoyed the spectacle. The uncle poked around the engine, pulled out the oil stick, felt the oil between his fingers and whispered something to the “buyer”. “Burning oil.” He announced the findings. “Of course she does.” Mike agreed. “Oil is cheap, put in a dollar’s worth once an a while. What do you want from an old car for nine hundred dollars?” “Nine? We talked about eight-fifty before... But my uncle said it’s not worth more than seven hundred...” “No way... Sorry.” Mike noticed out of the corner of his eye that Jano has arrived on que. “Mister Kovacs!” Jano waved from a distance and continued in English. “Sorry, I couldn’t make it yesterday. I hope you didn’t sell my car.” 10
“Hi. I’m afraid you might be late, these folks have just about made the deal final. I thought you were not coming back.” “You can’t do this to me. I’ve got the money. Nine fifty as we agreed. Please.” Jano put on a convincing performance and he pulled out a wad of money from his pants pocket; a bunch of newspaper cut to the size of bank notes sandwiched between two tens; and held it up in front of the Oshawa pair. Mike grabbed Jano by the arm and pulled him aside out of the hearing range of the others. After “heated” exchange Jano walked out of the lot, but not before he spit in the direction of the confused “buyers”. “Stupid olah.” Mike called Jano an “olah”, a derogatory name for a Romanian. Hungarians like to address “inferior” ethnic groups with special names, like olah for Romanian, swab for German, ruski for Russians. “What the heck he thinks? That I’ll sell out my country men for a stinking one hundred dollars? I promised the car to you for eight fifty and that’s what I’m going to sell it to you for. Come on, let’s make out the papers.” He didn’t even looked back as he walked briskly toward the trailer, he knew from experience that the show was convincing and that the suckers bought the story. Psychology, - he used to brag. In the meantime Jano boarded the streetcar to head home. He was glad not to have to sit in a car, - to sit anywhere, his bleached behind was hurting beyond imagination. The lice? They were okay, thanks. Clean as a whistle. The streetcar was nearly empty, only a few people were sitting and staring out of the windows without expressions on their faces. 11
He watched one after the other, trying to imagine who they were, where they were going this time of the day. Jano had a vivid imagination and he was a good observer all basic requirements for a writer, perhaps; but the process of labouring over a story, to actually compose it and write it word by word, frightened him. Not because he never thought about it. He did, but discarded the idea as a time consuming process, a poor money making proposition. He was hanging on an overhead strap and after finishing with his travelling companions as a bunch of ordinary, uninteresting John and Jean Does, his attention was turned to the strip of eye level advertisements. “Join the Pepsi generation” “Wonder where the yellow went?... Pepsodent” “...Westinghouse” “Join the Pepsi generation.” That’s it! He screamed from excitement, from the sudden realization of the obvious. That’s it. ADVERTISING ! How come he never thought about it before? That is the perfect field for him. Imagination. Creating a slogan, a sentence and no more. Somebody will pay for it. A perfect profession, no sweat, no backbreaking physical effort, just ideas and somebody will labour over the actual execution. “I’m a genius!” Pronounced out loud, right there on the spot. Nobody paid any attention to him talking to himself, just a passing glance from the driver through his overhead mirror. People were used to the fact that the world was full of nuts and it’s inevitable that once an a while one of them gets loose on the Toronto streetcar.
2. Miska Bacsi will explain... Not far from "The Spot" on the south side of the street, between a rundown hardware store and the Icarus Travel Agency, was located a tiny store, a very important establishment among the numerous ethnic businesses. A proud, gold leafed sign on the window panel proclaimed the presence of: "Mihaly Nagy, Gentlemen's Taylor. Made to Measure from Fine Imported English Materials. Est. 1945" A timid handwritten sign was added to it later: "Alterations, repairs of all kind of Mens' and Ladies' Garments." Which considerably degraded the intended refinement of the original pronouncement. Mr. Nagy was a so-called "Old Canadian" to mark the important difference between the three major waves of immigrants. The "Old" usually referred to the pre-war arrivals, legitimate immigrants, the "DP"s, or "displaced" persons, the after war exiles; and finally the "New Canadians" the rugged bunch of refugees who left the motherland after the '56 revolution. Freedom fighters, jailbirds, disillusioned party cadres and intellectuals: doctors, engineers, artists, actors, has-beens and wannabees. He was much older than his co-patriots and he was a friend to everybody, probably that's why he enjoyed the respectful title of Miska Bacsi. Miska is short for Mihaly, and the "Bacsi" is an affectionate equal to "Uncle". After the war upon his return as a victorious warrior in the rank of corporal, he took advantage of the grateful nation and with a small veteran's loan he opened his dream shop. Unfortunately that's what it was, it remained just a dream. Nobody really wanted a
"made to measure" suit of the quality he could offer, or rather nobody in the neighbourhood could afford it. Besides the occasional hunchback or handicapped man who needed special attention in tailoring, he depended entirely on alterations and repairs. Oh, he still kept a couple bolts of good quality cloths, - just in case, or as a rather essential part of the decor. He refused to give in and go to work in a garment factory, he was proud of his trade and pretended to be happy with the state of his affairs. To supplement his income and keep a dedicated audience for his daily philosophical lessons he kept a few jugs of moonshine in his back room for sale by the shot. The top quality plum brandy was regularly supplied by a Croatian farmer from Welland. He had a couple acre orchard of plum trees for the sole purpose of brewing the legendary "Sligovica" or as the Hungarians call it "Szilvorium". A 90 proof killer for a mere sixty cents a generous shot, when everywhere else a 40 proof lousy whisky cost a buck, buck twenty-five. To make the speak-easy even more attractive, Miska Bacsi was open for business eight in the morning. When he arrived in his prized '54 Studebaker five minutes to eight on the dot, usually a couple customers were already hanging around the store entrance. Miska Bacsi parked his car across the street on the Druggists parking lot, - he paid seven-fifty a month for the privilege. He walked around his car, checking it out for any visible damage that might have occurred during the twenty minute drive from his home behind High Park, wiped off the occasional smears with his handkerchief, tried the doors to see if they were locked properly and leisurely walked across the street in the morning traffic to greet his friends. Not customers, friends. 14
Bertie and a guy named Goldfinger were waiting at the door arguing over some ancient soccer results. The game in those days very seldom was played in Canada except by amateur ethnic teams, bringing nationalistic rivalry into the otherwise tolerant neighbourhood. Old triumphs and painful defeats were relived in repeated conversations providing hours and hours of belated entertainment. This morning the great Hungarian victory over the English was analyzed once more giving Bertie an edge over Goldfinger, since he used to play left-wing in his college team. His recall of the details of the game was vivid and very visual, throwing his whole body to make a point, demonstrating the brilliant pass of the left-winger which by the way resulted in a goal. The sporadic lone pedestrian made a wide detour to avoid the dancing, mimicking nut in the morning sunshine. "Morning boys..." Miska Bacsi acknowledged the early clients as he unlocked the door of his shop. "Morning, Miska Bacsi" Came the return greeting, abruptly dropping the argument and politely waiting to be invited in to the sanctuary. Miska Bacsi went through the morning routine. Turned the "Closed" sign around, switched the light and the radio on, changed his tweed sport jacket to his working attire and from the pinewood armoury standing in the corner of the back room, took out the bottle of Szilvorium and poured a "stampedly", roughly an ounce of the "appetizer" for the boys and a half portion for himself. "Prosit." They lifted their glasses and emptied them with one big gulp. Just in time, the bell rang above the door announcing the arrival of another thirsty customer, Dr. Schlock the notary public dropped in for his morning "usual" before he went to have his breakfast.
"What's new boys?" Dr. Schlock inquired, more like a "How are you" than a genuine question. After all what could they tell him he that he didn't already know. Dr. Schlock, Notary Public, insurance agent, card carrying member of the Provincial Conservative party, this pillar of society quickly emptied the shot glass... twice. He pulled out a large roll of paper money from his pants pocket and pealed off a five dollar bill. "Miska Bacsi here... take what the boys had too..." "Dr. Schlock, I don't have change... too early yet." Miska Bacsi apologized. "Don't worry, you owe me... what? Two-sixty? I'll see you tomorrow." And the pillar of society exited himself from the shop. "One day somebody will knock him over for the money he always carries in his pocket." Bertie observed, shaking his head. "Don't give me ideas Bertie, unless you want a split." Laughed Goldfinger. "That kind of cash would improve my standard of living for a while..." "Come on boys, I don't want to hear that kind of talk here. Somebody might think you are serious." Miska Bacsi cut into the conversation. "Let's face it, he is quite stupid to brag about his money like that. Has he ever heard of a bank?" Bertie continued questioning the wisdom of the good Dr. Schlock. "Is it true that he used to be a big-shot lawyer back home?" "Who knows? Maybe he is just another St.Bernard." Goldfinger concluded. When people moved from one continent to the other, voluntarily or under duress, facts and fiction were easily confused. An imposing past, impressive qualifications were acquired from one day to another. 16
The title "ship doctor" became common, meaning the person got his "degree" on the ship crossing the Atlantic. Also a great deal of goodwill poured toward the refugees in the wake of the defeated revolution, many things otherwise frowned upon, were dismissed as curiosities. A joke circulated those days, went like this: "It's a well known fact that the Germans are very orderly people, rules govern every aspect of their daily lives. In Munich to extend the "order" to the canine population, fire hydrants were strictly segregated, they could be used only by authorized breeds. To make sure everybody knows the ordinance, signs are posted on the fixtures. One day a majestic St.Bernard walks up to his designated fire hydrant and is shocked by an obscene spectacle... a miserable looking little mutt empties his bladder on it. The king of dogs barks at the intruder. "Excuse me sir. Can't you read? This is for St.Bernards only." The mutt shakes his behind after he finishes his business and answers with contempt. "First of all I am a Hungarian refugee, second, at home I used to be a St. Bernard." There were many, many St. Bernards those days. Besides who wants to be a mutt anyway. Bob, the mailman arrived with the unwanted telephone bill and a letter from the Credit Union. Miska Bacsi put the phone bill aside, he knew exactly what to expect from it, but looked at the other envelope with a mixture of fear and curiosity. What do they want from him? His mortgage renewal isn't due for another three years and as far as the business account is concerned, well it is rather marginal. He hardly makes any deposits or withdrawals from it. A business like his is practically all cash, and once in a while somebody pays with a 17
cheque and that usually results in a nervous few days, always waiting for a possible NSF note. But this time there wasn't any deposit of that nature... Miska Bacsi was truly puzzled. He put the envelopes into the drawer of his sewing machine, which served as his business office, and invited the mailman for a "morning prayer". "Bob, how about it?" He pointed to the armoury. "I don't mind if I do. My stomach is kind of shaky this morning. I must have eaten something..." Word by word Bob the mailman repeated his standard speech. Same as every morning for about a year now, since Miska Bacsi first offered him a shot of plum brandy. Oh, that was a memorable event. The usual gang of vagabonds were debating the world's affairs when Bob, the new mail man on the beat stepped into the store. Being born in Canada, an English speaking civil servant, Bob looked at the bunch of foreigners with a slight sense of suspicion and contempt. They were loud, speaking a strange sounding language which hurt his ears. He knew about immigrants living in some parts of the city, but this was the first time in his life he had encountered the uncomfortable closeness of a noisy bunch of them. He was born and raised in rural Ontario, far from the cosmopolitan big cities, and since he joined the Post Office he walked the quiet, comfortable suburban streets of Port Credit. They transferred him to the new substation just a few days ago, and being the youngest of the crew, he got the roughest neighbourhood of them all. Strange names. Misspelled street names, illegible handwriting, and a cacophony of earsplitting foreign languages everywhere he went. He put the mail on the front counter and was just about to leave when the store owner, Miska Bacsi, called after him. 18
"Excuse me... You must be the new man. Welcome to the neighbourhood. My name is Michael Nagy. Joe, your predecessor used to come around since I opened this store. I'm really sorry to see him retiring. But I think he deserves a bit of a rest, after all those years..." Bob, holding the door handle listened to this man, speaking with an accent, but friendly and... likable. In the background the chorus of strangers fell quiet. "Yah, Joe retired. Well that's the way it is... You work all your life... and one day. Retired." "What is your name? We like to call people by their names, you know." "Bob." "Well Bob, I know you are on duty, but to celebrate your new assignment, how about a drink?" "No, no... I can't. Nine in the morning?" "Why not? This is the time when you need all the encouragement, to face the gruelling day ahead of you. It's good for the soul and the stomach." "It's true, my stomach is kind of shaky this morning, I must have eaten something." Bob answered. Miska Bacsi invited him into the back room. He felt very uncomfortable. Everybody shaking his hand, - which he found rather strange, while introducing himself. Miska Bacsi poured a shotglass full of some stinking white liquid. "Bob, this is the best plum brandy on this side of the Atlantic Ocean you're ever going to taste. Bottoms up." Bob, held his breath and emptied the glass... and choked. He never tasted anything like it. Like fire, and more... He couldn't breathe, he couldn't swallow, tears were running from his eyes... he would have liked to curse but couldn't produce the slightest sound. He 19
grabbed the edge of the sewing machine, the bundle of mail in his left hand flowed all over the floor and the place jumped out of focus, faces and furniture become a blurred kaleidoscope. And those morons were laughing at his agony. The terrifying experience lasted about a minute or so, and then, - suddenly a pleasant warmth ran through his whole body, his head got very light and his stomach growled; gimme food!!! They don't call it appetizer for nothing. A few days later, with considerable reluctance, he tried it again, and some time later, again. Soon enough he got converted to szilvoriun, and strangely, about the same time made peace with the neighbourhood. A crazy mixture of international renegades, poor but happy, and above anything, optimistic people. In his leather bag, any given day of the week, one could find much awaited news from all around the world. He felt more important in his trusted position than any time before. A tireless carrier of smiles and tears, good or sad, but always cherished tidings. Since then, whenever mail is due for Miska Bacsi, Bob gladly accepts the invitation for a stampedli szilvorium with the repeated excuse: "I don't mind if I do. My stomach is kind of shaky this morning. I must have eaten something." Down the hatch. And so many times, even when there is no mail, Bob ventures in, just for a friendly chat and he treats himself for a shot of the real thing. "Hi, Bob. How are you?" The pair greets the postie. "Good morning guys... Bertie you got a letter from your mom. Wait, let me find it". And he does. He recognizes the stamp, and by the stamp the country of origin. 20
Bertie's face lights up. He hardly can wait for some news from home, although his mother writes very regularly, - a long letter every two weeks, on the dot. For Bertie the familiar blue air mail envelope is always a heart warming sight. He walked up front to the window into the morning light and opened the envelope. In the back room another round of appetizer has been served. Bob excused himself, - duty calls, and popped a spearmint gum into his mouth and went on his way. Goldfinger, - some called him the "angel maker" paid his buck twenty and said good bye to Miska Bacsi. Bertie still read the letter, with a tiny smile in his eyes... Mother's gossip about the family always occupied half the pages. Miska Bacsi spread out a pair of trousers on his work table, marked the length with a white tailor's marker, but his mind was on the letter from the Credit Union laying in the drawer. What the heck they want? Bertie finished reading the letter and felt the urge to share the "good news - bad news" with Miska Bacsi. "Guess what? My brother Alex, finally wrote to Mom. He is in Australia. Son of a gun, it's almost a year now, since he disappeared from the refugee camp in Yugoslavia... He was supposed to come here." "The main thing is that he's okay. Sometimes plans are just that. Plans. I remember..." - Miska Bacsi switched into memory gear, his voice changed a bit as he settled into his chair with the pair of trousers, and while he talked, his hands were busy like two automated instruments doing a routine task. " In 1928, my brother Joseph and I decided to emigrate to America. They were real hard times. Joseph's work on the shipyard dried up, 21
I, myself worked in a fancy taylor shop downtown making hardly enough to support both of us. We got the papers from the American embassy and happy as a pair of pigeons, we flew the coop, headed to Trieste. By the time we set ourselves up for the journey, there was no money left for tickets. We figured we just had to get to the port, and something will happen. I don't know, looking back, what we were hoping for. But let me tell you, I was ready to swim the ocean just to get to America. We had fifty-eight pengo between the two of us. We were hanging around in the harbour, sleeping in the shadows of the warehouses, and eating from the knapsack while it lasted. One day Joseph got acquainted with the Captain of an old rusted boat, a German s.o.b. he promised to take us to America for the money we had. We boarded the ship... we were so tired, fell into the bunks and fell asleep. When I finally woke up, it was night again... and there was water all around. The Captain came and he said, he is in trouble, two of his crew took off, he was shorthanded, would we consider helping him out. "How much he would pay?" Joseph asked him. We were willing to negotiate, since we needed the money very badly. Joseph spoke a little German, he used to work in Austria for awhile. "Nothing!" He said. "No money. No work." My brother said. "Fine. I'll put you ashore in Africa." He said. "It's not fair." I said. "We paid for the fare." "So what? You can complain to the French in Algeria." Laughed the damned schwab. I told my brother: "Joe, we made a stupid deal, but I take anything, long as we get to America." So, I became 22
a cook and Joseph a stoker on the boat of Captain Hinschberger, I hope he burns eternally in hell. First class! For over two months these two idiots were working on that ship, sailing from one port to another, hoping to get to America... eventually. One day we were stretching our legs in a harbour somewhere, just laying soaking in some sunshine when we heard someone cursing... in Hungarian. A guy, - just like ourselves, was chasing a young man and screaming at the top on his lungs: Thief, thief... So we joined in and we were running through the docks as fast as we could, but we lost the son of the bitch... This is the way we meet Jani Balazs and we became good friends, - we still are. He told us that the boat we were sailing on, will never go to America. It's a kind of a small ship just to travel back and forth between Europe and North Africa. Needless to say, that night nobody cooked dinner for the schwab. The kid we were chasing stole Jani Balazs' money, we didn't have any, and since the city we ended up in was the famous port city in France, Marseilles, you don't have to be a genius to guess, all three of us ended up in the Foreign Legion. America? It suddenly got really, really far away." Miska Bacsi poured himself another drink, offered one to Bertie, - on the house. "You see Bertie, it's not where you're heading, but where you arrive... that's the important thing in life." They both fell silent for a long while, what was there to say? Bertie longed for the closeness of his big brother, he always hoped one day he will show up at his door, and now, all he got was a faraway address... and lots of memories.
"Where is your brother now?" Bertie asked. Miska Bacsi fiddled with the trousers for a long while before he quietly answered. "My brother Joe? - he got killed in Normandy. Two days before my battalion landed on the beaches." "I'm sorry." "Nothing to be sorry about, Bertie. We thought, we owed something to this country... Nobody asked us, we volunteered." A generation apart, joined by a bond of emotions the two men said good bye. Bertie went back to his purple sunsets, - sofa size. Miska Bacsi turned up the volume on the radio, not because he paid any attention to it, but rather hoping that the noise would wash over the rushing memories. *** Oh, the letter from the Credit Union? "Dear Sir, Mr. Nagy. I'm delighted to inform you, that the Nominating Committee placed your name on the list of candidates for the Board of Directors of the West City Credit Union. Election of the new board will take place at the next General Meeting, August 15. 1958. Your reputation as an honest and compassionate citizen is a guarantee for a valuable contribution to the work of our organization. I sincerely hope that you will accept the nomination. Please advise us regarding you decision. Yours truly Moses Posonsky Chairman
"I'll accept... Long as I don't have to give up the "u-know-what". Does that make me dishonest? Ah, I don't think so." *** 3. New York, New York.... The summer went by without too much excitement. Nobody got rich, as originally was planned, nobody get poorer either, - that probably would have bordered the impossible. On the weekends the gang piled into the few cars owned by the lucky ones and they headed to Musselman Lake or to Crystal Beach on Lake Erie. Plenty of food and a couple cases of beer satisfied even the most demanding member of the all inclusive club of newcomers. Those were the carefree times. No matter how hard life seemed to be, in relation to the miserable existence just a couple of years ago, - it was a marked improvement. Jano, - by the way got rid of the lice. He realized the unfortunate truth. That, while his skin was practically destroyed in the prolonged soaking, it didn't do any harm to the sturdy crab lice. He overcame his embarrassment and sought out the druggist, Mr. Szabo the day after the drowning attempt. "Hi, Jano. How can I help you?" The pharmacist greeted his costumer. "Mister Szabo, this is rather embarrassing, but I need some ointment for... my friend Mike. He picked up some lice. You know him. He jumps into bed with just
anybody..." Jano lied with a straight face. (Born advertising executive. wasn't he?) "Lice, you say? Shouldn't be any problem." Mr. Szabo offered his professional opinion, and while he served Jano with the large bottle of Kawalda, in his mind he run a quick check on his depleted inventory. In the last week or so, he had sold almost his entire stock. Those blessed lice get around, don't they? First, the store manager from the supermarket, then the pretty cashier, Mr. Shlezak the travel agent, the Polish janitor from the Anglican church, the cook from the Chinese restaurant... and now, Jano Somogyi or Mike. These are the only the people he knew personally but than, all those strangers had ventured into his store seeking relief also. The great crab lice connection. God bless the little creatures... ding dong... ring the cash register, a sweet sound for the ears of any store keeper. Jano's decision to make it to the top in the advertising field, hit a snag at the very beginning of his chosen "career". Six months went by since he discovered his calling and so far he couldn't get close to any of the ad agencies. Like so many little Fort Knoxes, they were impenetrable for the aspiring beginner. He made inquiries about getting a job of any kind, but the answer was unanimous; No hiring. He was determined though. Somehow, someday he would make it. He spent his time polishing up his English. To enrich his vocabulary, he read the daily papers from the head piece to the last classified ad. He sat in the filthiest movie houses for fifty cent all afternoon to see through three old pictures, and talking aloud with the actors to refine his accent. Like a bulldog, he bit on the idea and he didn't let go.
At the end of September he was ready with the Big Plan. He didn't tell anybody about it, not even his good buddy, Mike. They had hit a couple of Hungarians real big with a sale. Mike's commission came to an astronomical four hundred and thirty dollars. Jano, took his hundred and fifty dollar share. Then one morning, when nobody was around the house, he packed a small suit case, he bought in a second hand store for two-fifty and disappeared. He left a short note to Mike: "Sorry, I have to go somewhere for awhile. Will call you, John." Not Jano, but John. Mike hit the roof, he was so angry, "Where the hell I'm going to find a new partner?" Somebody he can trust. The con worked so well, and the s.o.b deserted him. He might have to write a new scenario, find a new angle. Jano boarded a bus and headed to New York. On the east side lived a cousin of his, Rob Bertalan, - a quite distant cousin. His mother had mentioned it to him in her latest letter. He didn't like the guy, he was a fat slob. He had dropped out of school and worked as a purchasing agent for a state company in one of the provincial towns in Eastern Hungary. A hustler with shady reputation. Their families didn't keep close contact, they belonged two rather different social classes, - if there is anything like that, in a "classless society". (Bet your sweet toots, there was.) Mr.Somogyi was a dr. of law with close connections in the Ministry of Justice while cousin Bertalan was a former textile and notions merchant. His tiny store was confiscated by the communist state in '49. and he and his immediate family were branded as class 27
enemies. Now you can see the incompatibility. But Jano, with a nobel gesture was willing to forget past differences, - "after all we are in America now", and take advantage of his kindred's geographical position: New York. The bus ride to New York was a terrible experience. The Greyhound was full up to capacity. Within a half an hour of the departure, the bus stank of cigarette smoke, perspiration and fumes. After the first rest stop, - the stink of onions, mustard and the heavy smell of grease of a ton of french fries which were consumed, was added to the orgie of odours. He got a seat on the aisles, next to him at the window a fast talking sizable woman was siting, talking non-stop and fanning herself with a folded newspaper. It was an unusually hot day to add to his misery. "Are you going to New York, young man?" Asked the woman, which of course was a stupid question since they were sitting on a bus, Express, Nonstop. Toronto to New York. "Yes I am." He answered as short as possible, hoping to end the inquiries. "Staying or visiting?" The woman continued the interrogation. "Visiting." "Me too. I'm going to see my daughter. She lives in New York, actually in the Bronx. She is in show business. That's what she says anyway. I want to see it for myself. One can be never absolutely sure. Young people now days... Hah. She just took off one day and I got a letter from New York, Mom she wrote, I am in show business. Would you believe it? I'm asking you... is it possible that a girl just like that ends up in show business? What kind of business is this show business?" 28
And she went on and on and on... Jano tried to block her yapping out by pretending to fall asleep, humming and singing to himself but to no avail. He learned everything about Lori, - that's the name of the daughter allegedly in show business in New York and lives in the Bronx, about Mister Kowalsky or Art as he is known by everybody including the Big Boss at the meat packing plant, about his annoying habit of burping at the dinner table, the main reason they don't socialize much lately... no wonder Lori ran away and went bad... "Show business? My foot..." Mrs. Kowalsky came to the conclusion by the time the bus rolled into the terminal in the city of New York in the driving late September rain storm. Jano, first thing found a souvenir shop and bought a street map of the city with her boroughs. He sat in the waiting room trying to figure out where the heck East 38th street was, and how to get there. Finally he decided, instead of taking chances of getting lost, he had better take a taxi, whatever the cost was going to be. Second, he went to a telephone booth and looked up the name of his cousin, one Robert Bertalan. He was surprised and angry, to actually find his name in the book. The son of a bitch, not only does he have an address, but his own phone number... while Jano had none. He dropped a dime into the slot, - Canadian dime, and it worked. He dialled the number and a few seconds later a voice came on... "Hello, Yes. Who is it?...." Jano hung up. That's him all right, Robie the fat slob, he even sounds fat... He decided not to announce himself, that would be bad strategy... to give him 29
advance notice, time to prepare for his arrival. Better if he just showed up at the door, the element of surprise will give him some advantage. He needed a place to stay while in the city, he can't afford to rent anything... and he need time to implement his Grand Plan. Robie's got an apartment... after all he can't refuse... he is family. If he tried to do just that, Jano had the argument prepared. He will blame the chilly relationship in the past between the two families, on his father. How he had felt the Bertalans' standings with the regime might compromise his career and how much he, Jano regretted the distance between the cousins created by his father's paranoia. He can't do all this on the phone, he needed to be inside his opponent's space to argue effectively. He got into a cab and told the address to the driver. "First time in New York?" The cabby asked. "Yes, just arrived from Canada." After a forty-five minute ride Jano realized his fatal mistake, - a mistake which cost him eighteen dollars to pay for a rainy sight seeing tour of one way streets and boulevards. The friendly driver let him out in front of an old five story apartment building. Fourth floor apartment B. read the address his mother wrote in her letter. He found the name R. Bertalan on the board and pushed the button next to it. Without any verbal response, the buzzer sounded and he yanked the front door open. As he rode the shaky old elevator up he prepared himself mentally for the icy reception and the well deserved rejection, but there was no retreat. The elevator came to a noisy stop and Jano found himself on the forth floor in a dimly lit hall. On the right, the second door was open. Music and loud conversation in Hungarian meant that he was in the
right place. It was an unexpected turn, he tried to evaluate the situation. A party. Is it to his advantage or had he better retreat and come back later... He stood some distance from the open door for a little while, trying to decide what to do, when a young woman looked out from the apartment. Glass in hand, seeing Jano she asked: "Are you looking for somebody? Can I help?" In English. "I'm looking for Robert Bertalan." "You are at the right place." The woman said stepping closer to Jano. "I am Mrs. Bertalan." Jano's mouth dropped from the unexpected revelation. What? The fat slob's got a beautiful young wife? It took a long while for him to recover then he stammered. "My name is Janos Somogyi, from Toronto..." The girl, called Mrs. Bertalan immediately switched to Hungarian and yelled into the noisy room. "Robie, look whom I found for you... It's Janos..." Jano was totally caught off guard by the reception. All his rehearsed dialogue became irrelevant. He just stood there flabbergasted, speechless. First, Robie hugged him with all his two hundred pounds, squeezing the daylights out of his frail body. He called him: "brother", "junior" and the one and only living relative on this side of the ocean. He dragged him around in the crowded, small living room and introducing him to the guests, some Hungarians, some Americans. When they finished the rounds and ended up in the kitchen to offer Jano a drink, Robie looked at his cousin with tears in his eyes and hugged him once more.
"Boy, oh boy... Am I glad to see you Jano... How did you find me?" Jano, took a large gulp from the rum and coke Robie mixed for him and slowly regained his composure. "Mother mentioned in her letter, that your mother told her that you are living in New York. But she didn't say anything about you're being married..." "She couldn't have. We decided to get married only last month. Julie and me, we were living together since we got to the States." "I'm glad for you." He wasn't. He tried to hide his envy. Look at him. Fat, with a slightly blemished complexion, no decent education one could brag about... One year in America and he is married to an attractive girl, having a decently furnished apartment of his own... listed in the phone book... Robie Bertalan. Go, figure. "What's the celebration about?" Jano asked, shifting to English. "Well, you are not going to believe it." Robie continued in Hungarian. "Last year, soon after we arrived, I got a job through a Jewish relief agency, as a warehouse man at a garment factory." (Of course, what else. Thought Jano getting his bruised sense of superiority restored.) "It is a good job, I can't complain, but I told myself, Hey... you are in America now, - I always dreamed of being a writer. Comedy writer. It's okay to stack bolts of fabrics during the day, but at night, on your own, you can be anybody you want to be... And I wanted to be a famous comedy writer. So, I started to write monologues, sketches...and one day this summer Julie, without me knowing about it, sent a package of my 32
scribbling to the "Night Owls" TV show... Guess what? Last week, I got my first cheque... seventy-five dollars for being funny. Isn't that great?" (You fucking son of a bitch. Jano's eyes fogged over and a grimace, intended to be a smile, distorted his face.) "It's fantastic... Congratulations... I drink to your successes." And he buried his aggravation in the glass of rum and coke. The party went on into the wee hours, Jano was tossed from one group to the other, listening to the endless, sickening praise of his cousin the "comedy writer". There was a Hungarian math professor, who lectured at Columbia, with his middle-aged wife who squeezed Jano into the corner of the sofa and with a seductive smile she blew cigarette smoke into his face. The warehouse manager, Robie's boss Mister Wallace, a tall Jewish guy from Jersey laughed non-stop at everything Robie said. "Isn't he funny? It's killing me." Jano wished he would drop dead. There was a young American couple, Joe and Anne, apparently neighbours, anchored at the buffet table and adoring Julie's Hungarian dishes, making it sound equal to Robie's irresistible humour. Julie's sister, Eszter a slender nineteen year old, sat quietly in the corner with her date, a young black dancer from some obscure all-black ballet company... She, a dancer herself, used to be a member of the Hungarian State Opera ballet, now out of work, out of place. Both of them staring at the celebrating congregation with envy, - perhaps dreaming about their own big "first". As the night progressed, Jano revised his plan a half a dozen times. He explored the apartment, found a 33
spare room apparently not in any particular use, but there was no bed in it. He can sleep on the floor, he decided and get a bed later. He also learned that Julie was working at a delicatessen somewhere in Manhattan, between the two of them, they made enough money, - he speculated so his prolonged stay shouldn't cause to much of a strain on their finances. If he managed to earn some money, he would contribute to their budget. The main thing is, they, Julie and Robie should invite him to stay. He decided to postpone the crucial conversation for the next day, but not to wait too long so the euphoria would still linger over the Bertalan's residence. He concluded that the whole situation was definitely to his advantage, and he should exploit it to the full extent. Robie escorted his boss down to the front door, waiting for a taxi. His booze handling limit was considerably stretched, - in plain English he was stoned the boss of course. Julie packed a plate from the leftovers for the neighbours, cabbage rolls, cold breaded chicken and bits of this and a bits of that. She was very appreciative of their praise, like all good cooks are, she loved everybody with a hearthy appetite the raison d'etre for her labours in the kitchen. (Any attempt by Robie to loose his fat image, seemed to be doomed.) They were the last of the guest, when they finally left with the loot, Julie started to clean up the mess, Jano helped her, piling the dishes and glasses onto the kitchen counter while she quickly passed them through hot soapy water. She kept talking, - non stop. "You have no idea how much we appreciate your coming... When Robie heard the news, that you are in Canada he completely went nuts. But we didn't have your address or phone number, we didn't even know 34
what city you are in? Mama Bertalan's letters are not exactly a good source of vital information. She starts to write about one thing, then she switches to an other subject before she would finish with the first. Otherwise we would have looked you up a long time ago." She looked very pretty, her reddish, curly hair was falling in her face in disarray, tiny pearls of perspiration appeared on her temple from the steaming hot dishwater in the double sink. Jano, couldn't help, but look at her the way a cousin was not supposed to look, he new it, but his mind and hormones were moving on different tracks. "You'll stay with us for a while? Won't you... Jano?" Julie looked at him with an irresistible smile. "Well, I have some plans and I would like to look around in New York, to see if I can gather some information... I thought, I might stay with you people for a while..." Jano threw in the line, to see what the reaction would be. "Of course you could. Oh, Robie will be so happy... I know he will be..." Jano thought breaking the news to Julie, get her on hisside before confronting Robie would be a good idea. So far he felt, it was the right move. Julie was so eager to nurture the kinship between the cousins, to build a "family" around herself... A typical Jewish mother candidate, - if there was one. Jano found her rather naive, not very smart. How could she be? What a girl as attractive as she was could see in a slob like Robie? If he would be a celebrated writer already, that would explain it, but he is not and according to Jano's "gut feeling" he is
not going to be one. This whole "success" story regarding his writing being accepted by a TV show, was just a freak incident. There will be no other. It can't be. He could envision a career for him, if it depended on Jano, - maybe a warehouse manager, even a rich wholesaler, but definitely not a writer. That was obscene. How could it be? While his mind pondered over this puzzle... Julie, Robie, success and fame... Julie was chattering. How they met in Vienna, the romantic trip on the Italian freighter... the scary prospects in a strange, gigantic city, the help of the goodnatured strangers, and the wedding... A traditional Jewish wedding with a real rabbi... Finally Robie came back. His boss deposited in a cab, safely on his way to Jersey, now he could direct all his attention to his beloved cousin. "Jano, boy am I glad to see you." And another bearhug. "He is staying with us for a while..." Julie shared the good news with Robie. "We can fix up the guest room... Eszter's got a spare bed, tomorrow you can pick it up. The only problem is, how would you get it over here." "That's not a problem, but tomorrow is Saturday nobody is working in the shop. Monday I will ask Mr.Wallace to get the truck driver to pick it up. It's only a couple miles anyway. He'll do it for me, Am I his favoured Hungarian comic, or what?" (He just won't let it go, would he? Jano fumed.) Robie kissed Julie and waltzed her around the kitchen, they both laughed, seemingly enjoying each other's happiness.
They talked for a while about hardship, little joys of discovery in the new world... "Have you tried a chocolate milk- shake yet?" Robie inquired and in the next minute offered to take Jano up to the top of the Empire State Building. "What a view!" It was almost five in the morning when they called it quits... Julie made a bed on the sofa for Jano, and after a giggling trip to the bathroom Robie and Julie retired to the bedroom. Jano took out his toilette bag from his suitcase, stripped to his underwear and went to brush his teeth. He splashed his face with cool water and looked in the mirror. He liked what he saw. He flexed his muscles, turning to the left, to the right and observed his nice tan... combed his hair and the one on his chest. He concluded to his own satisfaction that he, indeed was a very handsome man... He promised himself to work on his biceps... could show a little bit more bulge, but otherwise… "I'm perfect." He declared. As he brushed his teeth, his mind wondered about Julie. Her petit, well rounded figure, her hair... the frolicsome freckles on her tiny breasts peeking out from her modest evening gown and her eyes... He imagined her lying in bed with Robie, the fat slob... embracing her and even... Oh boy. He tried to erase the picture from his mind. He felt envy and jealousy. The feeling surprised and disturbed him, but in the mean- time a strange excitement got hold of him. He went into bed, on the sofa of course, and tried to concentrate on the task ahead of him, the reason he came to New York... To Madison Avenue. The world of advertising. Success, money, and power. Forget Julie, the little grey mouse, the prospective Jewish housewife, mother of a bunch of obnoxious kids... 37
What he wants, are the glamorous models, actresses will be the ones thet will fall at his feet... just wait and see... Robie Bertalan, what real success is like. *** 4. Pain and glory... While Mike was laying in the Wellesley Hospital in excruciating pain, the following headline appeared in the afternoon tabloid's front page. "Used Car Salesman Savagely Beaten By Unhappy Customers" ensued by a detailed account of the event started out as a refund claim by a couple of new immigrants; Beaters - over a junk sold to them by one super salesman Mike Kovacs, the Beatee. An accompanying picture showed the dealership's trailer before and after the refund was refused by Mr. Kovacs who is known among the used car salesmen on the strip as the "King of Junks". According to reliable sources there was a jalopy to come yet, for which Mike Kovacs couldn't find a customer. For top price too. In "The Spot" a quick vote was taken by the current owner, nicknamed The Judge, about Mike chances of salvaging his handsome facial features after the beating and so maintain his unchallenged superiority of a Don Juan-in-residence. The Judge, was named for his ability for quick and devastating judgment on any given topic so happened to hit the floor of the popular hangout of opinionated bums, drifters and curious "normal" 38
people gathered daily for the free entertainment of an unquestionably one-of-a-kind quality. - The Judge proclaimed with a sense of historical importance: "I believe, if visible scars will remain after the recovery, his sex appeal will be increased by ten fold..." The crowd overwhelmingly agreed. "On the other hand... - the Judge continued - if he kicks the bucket, all the girls from Spadina to Danfort can kiss good bye to his sex appeal and the dew worms will take over." A thunderous laughter indicated a vote of approval. Well, Mike concentrated all his energy, not to kick the bucket but pee in it. The fact that a gorgeous, buxom nurse was holding his miserable, shrunken dicky aiming for the bedpan, didn't help either, but both his hands were bandaged to his elbows, due to the fact that he desperately tried to hang on to the trailer's broken window frame, while his irate countrymen were trying to push him through it. The young intern in the ER worked for a good hour collecting glass slivers from his bleeding palms, while his colleague stitched his split chin, cheek and brow. "Well Mike, not a drop. Might as well use the catheter." - you could detect a bit of a sadistic tone in her voice as she dropped the crumped gown over the bruised legend, called a master piece by Roza Bukowszki the art teacher. She once tried to describe it to a group of soul mates in the intimacy of a ladies room at the Hungarian Cultural Centre. "Yes, it's a masterpiece, alright, like the one which graces David's body... Shapely, like the one carved by Michelangelo and hard as marble...."
When it was repeated in The Spot the next morning, Berti laughed as hard as he could without choking on his breakfast. "Has anybody seen the picture of the David statue? It is awful small for a man, as if standing naked out in the cold" Mike was known around Bloor and Spadina in those days as a "lady's man" by some, a stud, or the "village's bull" by others. Envied and despised, praised or ridiculed, depending where you stood in the endless maneuvering in the daily struggle by the young male population, - to get lucky, to get laid. They kept score, bragged, exaggerated and lied, trying to establish some sort of dubious reputation, - all for one reason only: Male ego. The unfortunate truth was and still is, you can't by groceries with it. This whole affair on the car lot happened Wednesday at ten in the morning and the word got around so fast about Mike's predicament that by Thursday afternoon, the hospital administration placed a security guard at Mike's door for crowd control. They were coming like the Russians. Women out numbering men by five to one, for obvious reasons. His poor room mates, three unfortunate post operative patients couldn't figure out what the big fuss was about, who is the mysterious stranger under the bandages. The ear splitting cacophony of a foreign language didn't offer them any clue either. Among the visitors Jonathan Craig showed up, accompanied by his wife Louise. He was the owner of the used car business, the scene of Mike's successes and ultimate painful humiliation. Mister Craig, or as he was known and addressed by everybody; J.B. burst into the room with an unmistakable "used-car-salesman" look, 40
noise and smell. He was a short man, maybe five foot eight, fat and bald. His plaid sport jacket and dangling gold ID bracelet, most likely prescribed as compulsory accessories for all used car salesmen, commanded immediate attention, along with the abundant use of aftershave lotion, which instantly overpowered the hospital's ever present smell of disinfectants. "Mike, Baby... I'm so sorry. Look at yourself, isn't that terrible. What an age we are living in, - J.B. addressed the captive audience in the room, - ...that an honest working man can't conduct his business without fear of vicious attack by these hooligans..." Everybody, of course agreed. "Louise! Look at this poor man." Grabbed his wife by her arms, she was standing at the door. - "Say something damn it... don't just stand there." "I'm sorry Mister Kovacs, I'm really sorry, I brought some fine liquor for you." She carefully placed a bottle of whiskey, wrapped in brown paper on Mike's stomach. The Martian who faithfully guarded Mike's bed since the orderlies brought him up from the Emergency Room dedicated himself to be collector and safe keeper of all the goodies brought by the visitors. So far six pot of deliciously smelling chicken soup, a big pile of Wiener Schnitzel, four trays of poppy seed, cottage cheese and apple strudel, two large and three small bottle of moonshine, six bottle of selected Hungarian wines, like Bull's Blood, Grey Friar and Szekszardi Voros and now a bottle of J&B scotch whiskey. (This is what Mister Craig drank to match his initials. J.B.) Mrs. Louise Craig stepped to the background as soon as she did her spousal duty, as always she surrendered the stage to her overpowering and 41
obnoxious husband. As visible as he was with his repulsive wardrobe, and loud demeanour, she was the absolute opposite. Shy, very quiet, dressed in inexpensive, nickel and dime fashion and yet managed to be somewhat stylish in her grey existence. J.B. had never taken her anywhere in his business outings, so many of his acquaintance and business friends never even meet her. Occasional family gatherings and the Sunday morning church service at a small Presbyterian Church on the west end was the only joint escapade of the Craigs. While J.B. patiently sat through the boring service and lecture of Reverend Hobson and generously contributed to the collection plate he didn't participate in any of the church activities at all. That was Louise's domain. He felt deep in his soul that his whole life, somewhat hovered on the edge of Christian acceptability. In plain English he was a bit of a crook. He accepted that and apart from the hour and a half every Sunday he lived with the burden quite comfortably. He let Louise practice an innocent life of a housewife, involved in charitable affairs and sheltered, or rather isolated existence and let her pray for her husband's salvation. He kept busy being a businessman, buying and selling, cheating and trying hard not to be cheated. He spent his leisure time in restaurants and bars, once a week playing poker with a bunch of "business men" and occasionally going to Woodbine to drop a bundle on the ponies. He was faithful to his wife, among all the vices he practiced, infidelity was not among them. Once, under the influence, - he confided to Mike: "I don't fool around. If some broad hangs herself on me, I know it's for money... I can get it at home for 42
free and Baby, I'm telling you it is GOOD. Capital G, capital double O and D. GOOD. Mike, she is wrapped in plain brown paper and that's the way I like it so nobody, but nobody in the whole world knows, that under that plain cover a terrific body is hidden, hidden from the vultures like you. Hehehe. She doesn't know herself and I beg you not to tell her ever, she might get carried away. She is a so-so housekeeper, a lousy cook but in bed... she is fantastic." The conversation stuck in Mike's memory. Any story about women had a special compartment in his brain, stored for later references. It was months later that he had a chance to take a closer look at Mrs. Craig, while he went to pick up a car at the house. The terrific body described by J.B was wrapped in a light duster, loosely tied at her waist, her hair braided into a tiny ponytail. Barefoot she was, as she opened the door and handed the car keys to Mike with a shy greeting. Well, he concluded after a inquisitive, penetrating look, - let J.B. have her. In Mike's assessment, she was a "dog". The hospital room fell silent for a few short minutes, the visitors, some of Mike's friends and acquaintances stood uncomfortably in the presence of the "Boss". Mike desperately tried to give them a sign with his one visible eye, kind of a "Good bye" but nobody noticed or understood it. J.B. sat on the edge of the bed, nudging Mike to move over and bent over to talk to him, looking for some sort of opening on his head bandage around his ears. "Do you hear me? Mike Baby?" Mike made a slight move with his shoulder, it could mean either way, yes or no. J.B. turned to the visitors.
"Do you mind, people... I got to talk to Mike. Visiting hour is over. You come some other time. Byebye!" He motioned to them to go away in such an unmistakable manner that everybody understood it would be impolite to hang around any longer. One by one they said a quiet bye and left. The Martian just rolled himself around the doorframe barely out of site, with extended ears listened to the proceedings. Even the patients in the room disconnected themselves pretending to be sleeping. After J.B. was sure nobody listened he placed himself closer to Mike and talked directly to his head. "Listen to me. Everything is taken care of. I bailed out your friends and gave them the money back. They can keep the car too. If the police come to talk to you, this is what you're going to say. "It was all a misunderstanding, in the heat of the argument you tripped and fell" Understand what I'm saying?" Mike tried to object, shaking his head. J.B. thought he didn't hear him so he repeated his words a bit louder. Soon he realised though, that Mike disagreed with everything he said. He wanted them to pay dearly for his pain and humiliation. Jail them both for a long period of time. He wanted justice, revenge. Call it what you like it, with every painful part of his tormented body he wanted them to be prosecuted. J.B. gave their money back? And the car too? What about the wrecked office? He is nuts? His broken jaw and swollen tongue robbed him of his greatest asset. Speech. He could talk a calf out of his mother's womb not only in Hungarian but in his newly and rapidly acquired street English too. J.B. put his palm on Mike's bandaged forehead and firmly pushed it into the pillow. 44
"Look Mister! You don't seem to get the picture. Let me spell it out to you. I don't want them crafty lawyers making a case in court against us. All the dealers on the strip agree. There is too much talk is going on about regulation, crooked used car sales practices and all that baloney. You are not goanna press charges... get the picture? If the police come, you say, - and J.B. repeated the previous sentence with an strong emphasis: It was all a misunderstanding. In the heat of the argument you tripped and fell. End of story. Get it?" Mike let out a desperate growl, shaking his aching head which made J.B. inpatient. "Don't make me fire you, Mike. You are to good a salesman. Listen to me. The damned politicians goanna use you and the whole damned story to squeeze some sort of strait jacket on the whole business... regulation, licences, complaints bureau, the heck knows what else..." Louise tugged at J.B.'s coat sleeve. "Tell him!" "Tell him what?" - J.B. snapped at her. "The Sales Manager." Louise whispered. "Cut it out." "You might got to..." "I never had a Sales Manager," - addressed himself to Louise with an irritable tone in his voice. "And I never needed a Sales Manager, it was a stupid idea anyway." J.B. raised his voice to an unacceptable level, considering the solemn atmosphere of the temple of medicine. Mike's moaning suddenly stopped and the only visible good eye lit up hearing the word Sales Manager. The title even on the marginal small lot like J.B. Craig Auto Sales meant something. Meant something for Mike 45
anyway. Prestige, advancement and career milestone. He wanted it badly, a business card, the magic word printed under his name: Sales Manager. Not to mention the extra commission that might come with it. His good eye fixed on Louise begged for more support, and he got it. "No, it is not a stupid idea, not at all. Beside, you need a little more time away from the business. You've promised." Louise pressed the matter. J.B. never used obscenities in front of his wife, but now the "f" word almost slipped out. "Shit... I'll make you a ... (substituted the forbidden word with the milder "damned") damned Sales Manager. You look after Johny and Milo if I'm not there, but don't expect any more money. You are making more than I do as is." The sudden promotion helped ease the pain and Mike couldn't help but dream about the possibilities the title : Sales Manager might bring to him. Ideas, new scams and scenarios chased one an other in his throbbing head. Johny was a young Canadian with strange principles, not a good salesman material, he had to count him out, but Milo a Serb from Subotica, who even spoke a little Hungarian was a different story. Always broke, borrowing a couple dollars almost every day for cigarettes, coffee or lunch. By the time J.B. actually paid the commissions his little brown envelope was nearly empty except the numerous I.O.U.s. Yes, Milo was definitely going to play the parts Mike designed for him. He remembered J.B.s rankings: "don't expect any more money..." Hah. "Just leave it to me..." he concluded and with an inner smile, - his wrecked face wasn't capable to perform such ordinary task, - and went to sleep. 46
Next Monday after the orderly removed some of the bandage from his face and he finally could speak, the nurse, as she was instructed called the 52nd Division and reported to Sergeant McLeary that Mike could be interviewed. A few hours later a policeman arrived and while Mike, - the first time since the beating, - tried to eat some solid food he, the policeman pulled up a chair and with note pad in hand started the questioning. First the routine identification questions, like name and address, establishing the exact local of the alleged crime, and all that was meticulously recorded in the little black note book. Putting all that behind, the police constable leaned back on his chair and posed the Question; "Now, Mister Kovacs,in your own words, please tell me what happened." Mike fixed his visible good eye on the ceiling and started the pre rehearsed speech. "Well, we had a little disagreement, I mean the boys and I, nothing to it really..." The policeman looked at him with disbelieve... Crazy foreigners... "Disagreement? You call this a disagreement? Have you had a chance to look in the mirror? How the hack you ended up like this?" "In the heat of the argument I fell and got bruised a little." "Mister Kovacs, don't forget that I was there... I scraped you off the trailer's wall... you're trying to tell me that nothing to it? You refuse to cooperate... You don't wish to press charges?" "Look officer. You might not understand, they are my country men, I made a mistake, I supposed to give 47
their money back... They are poor people like me... working hard for their money... If I can forgive them for a couple punches, why can't you?" "You people are crazy... I know I'm not suppose to say such things... but you are nuts. It makes it very difficult to protect you if you don't do your part. Are you sure?" "Yes officer, I'm a good Christian.. I can forgive my fellow man..." "What a crap!" - muttered the constable under his moustache and put away his note book. " - But watch out, next time if they put a knife between your ribs... we might not be around." **** Sixteen days after the so called "disagreement" on the J.B. Craig Auto Sales lot, the limping and aching Mike Kovacs Sales Manager, King of The Junks entered The Spot to be greeted by the regulars with earsplitting hurrahs. Mike graciously accepted the adoration and for each and every member of the crowd he, personally handed over one of his freshly printed business cards, a tangible proof of his hard earned prominence. The Judge himself made him a double espresso. The Spot wasn't licensed to serve alcoholic beverages, but for a distinctive patron, rules were broken and from under the counter a generous splash of brandy topped off the cup. Mike, with a motion of his left hand silenced the celebrating congregation and lifted the tiny cup to his trembling lips. With half closed eyes he sipped the aromatic brew slowly, ceremoniously, enjoying every drop of it. While in the hospital, as soon as the pain in his battered body subsided about the fourth day after the 48
beating and well before his stupendous appetite demanded satisfaction, - he craved his daily dosage of espresso coffee more than anything else. The Martian brought some in a thermos bottle one day, but it was a total disappointment. Stale and flat tasteless black soup without the customary bouquet, without the golden froth holding up the spoonful of sugar what you can watch slowly sinking under, indicating the true goodness of the brew a final divine conclusion of the labour of a long line of dedicated men and women. If you want to know what goes into a good cup of espresso coffee you might as well start with the tireless field workers on the coffee plantation high on the sun drenched Kenyan mountains and their distant cousins in Costa Rica. The native Indians the distant descendants of the proud Incas who tend the plantations up on the northern slopes of the Andes in Columbia where the climate is the best for the noble coffee shrub. The young maidens who with their gentle hands wash and spread the green beans to be dried under the gentle autumn sun. The eager dock hands who carry the heavy bags on board of the rusty old boats which will sail to the ports of faraway lands. The blender who selects and mixes the best beans, so much of this kind and so much of the other, to be roasted with loving care by a wise old man in shiny copper apparatus... and Mr. Rozsda, don't forget the good old Bela Rozsda, who's always willing to give up his sabbath if his beloved customer got short on the "Mellowcup" the favoured blend of the Spot's patrons. Willing to risk eternal condemnation drives to the city with five pounds of the best.
And last, but not least the ingenuity of the late descendants of DaVinci who invented the whistlinghissing contraption. An mighty expensive gadget which might cost a couple thousand dollars to make a puny cup of coffee? Why not? All this, of course could be for nothing, wasted if the last man or woman on the line screws up. Very few people know, for example, that you're not suppose to grind more coffee at a time than what you might use in the next half hour. Did you know that the grinder has to be adjusted regularly depending on the humidity of the air? Coarser if humid, finer if the air is dry. It is a misconception that the espresso coffee is made with steam. Hahhh. No way. Filtered, softened hot water just under the boiling point. Under no more, no less than 9.5 psi pressure. The steam produced by the machine is for making frothed milk for the cappuccino, and cappuccino is for the dilettante, real coffee connoisseur don't drink cappuccino. Maybe for breakfast. Maybe. Oh, one more thing. espresso should be drunk with sugar. Lots of sugar. Now you can see what a extraordinary international co-operation goes into a perfect cup of espresso coffee. Nobody, but nobody appreciated it more in this minute than, Mike Kovacs, Sales Manager beaten but not down, wounded but ready to do battle... Well he rather surrendered that night than fight... and Betty Tooth promised to be gentle. She kept her word. In the Spot the celebration stretched well into the night, but upstairs in the darkened room Mike had fallen asleep, like a baby in the unlikely hour of ten. He was estatic to be home, to
be alive and sunk his aching head into his friendly, long missed pillow with the unmistakable scent of familiarity. Before he drifted into dreamland, with his deep, seductive voice he whispered into Betty's ear: "Sugar, you got to do the laundry in the morning." *** Sugar, aka Betty Tooth waited till Mike had fallen asleep, and quietly dressed. Berti just came up from the restaurant and he was examining the fridge in the kitchen for some edible substance when Betty carefully closed Mike's door behind her. "How's the patient?" Berti enquired. "Oh, he is fine, same old jerk." "I'm glad to hear it." "Good night Berti." "Good night Betty, be careful." "Well, a bit late for that, I guess." And the night was over, so the unfortunate episode of one Mike Kovacs and the unhappy customers. The pain lasted for a while, but on the end it was worth it. Mike with his newly acquired title embarked on a journey up the hill, as far up as nobody could foresee, not even J.B. Craig, but more about him later. Jano Somogyi missed the history making brawl, he was gone for more than a year by now. Nobody really knew what was happening to him, the occasional short phone call to Mike, revealed very little about his life in the Big Apple. Mike didn't pay to much attention to his bragging. His credit, as far as truthfulness is concerned 51
was quite low... a definite asset in the ad business but a disadvantage when it came to dealing with his friends. ***
5. An other conspiracy theory... It was an old cliché, used by friend and foe to describe Toronto in the old days: that you can fire a cannon Sunday on the Yonge Street without hitting a single soul. Well, it was changing a great deal by the time of our story, if not as much around Yonge Street but definitely changing on the Bloor West. On street corners, front of the drug store, the restaurants and cafes small group of people were hanging around engaging in never ending arguments or friendly discussions. There is no topic was too trivial or pivotal to be off the agenda of these impromptu symposiums, let it be the Middle East crises or the latest vintage of sligovica at Uncle Miska's speakeasy. Everything was analyzed in enthusiastic and loud debate. Sunday was especially busy day for these parliamentary sessions since so little was to do around town. At the front of The Spot, about a half a dozed man was standing in a semi circle engaged in heated argument about the latest medical procedure treating duodenal ulcers. Little Schwarz, the watch peddler was due to report in the hospital, Monday morning for operation. His ulcer was acting up lately, affecting his ability to make a living. Little Schwarz not to be mistaken for Bald Schwarz the taxi driver. They were not related except the fact that both were from Ferencvaros a 52
district in Budapest famous for their soccer team. Anyway, according to the Judge a new method was developed in the States, - he read about in a Medical Journal, he said - which does away with drastic cutting and stitching, simply turning the whole stomach inside out. The good surface gets in ready for the ambush of the acid, the punishing wear and tear of hot Hungarian cuisine with all the garlic, pepper and murderous hot paprika. The damaged part has a chance to heal in the soothing environment of the abdomen ready for the possible reversal next time. He, - the Judge was just hoping that the doctors in the General read about it and spare Little Schwarz from unnecessary suffering and loss of valuable body mass. If somebody is hardly tip the scale at hundred and twenty pound can't afford to give up even an ounce. Little Schwarz put in a meek objection, saying, he personally would leave it the doctors to decide what to do and the Judge better stick to the restaurant business, although some members of the panel insisted that, he didn't know much about it either. Across the street from the Spot an old Anglican Church graced the view. Dark, built at the beginning of the century by English immigrants. As the city went through a gradual transformation, the well-to do parishioners moved north into the suburbs and the mixed new arrivals in the neighborhood were anything but Anglicans. The congregation depleted in numbers, although they tried very hard to keep up with the times but the maintenance fund get leaner and leaner through the years, it's effects started to shown on the valuable real estate. Here and there a cracked pane, a missing color wedge of the stained glass window, eavesdrops hanging loose and of course the most visible neglect was the rusting ornamental fence around the grounds. The 53
sizable grounds, which obviously was a garden some time in the past, as the overgrown shrubbery, degenerated rosebushes and some stubborn ivy clinging to the crumbling walls, -like so many sad witnesses reminded the passerby of a bygone glory. It was one o'clock in the afternoon, a lazy, early October Sunday afternoon. Berti came down from the apartment and for a short while listened into the discussion with an outsider's indifference. It was three years since he arrived in Toronto and set up residence above the Spot. Three years of trying to figure out, what makes these people listen to each other's contrived reasoning and absurd convictions. Three years of renewed pledge that he won't get drawn into the circle of fools, but the entertainment aspect was usually too great to be missed. But today, somehow he could do without the medical consultation of the would be surgeons and casually strolled over to the other side of the street, narrowly missed by a noisy tram. He watched as the Martian got off the streetcar at the corner of Brunswick and he sit down on the brick base of the church's fence. It was the right height and wide enough to offer a comfortable seating especially if you could find the right longitude to place your spine between the vertical bars. He wanted to be alone to sort things out in his mind and upstairs was too much going on. Mike and his admiring entourage playing blackjack since last night and looks like they are not going to quit for a while yet. The Judge just sent upstairs a pan full of scrambled eggs, - five eggs for each of the players and two pound of hot smoked Hungarian sausage cut into it. The demijohn was still half full of home made red wine, so one might imagine of the general atmosphere of the
residence. Certainly not suitable for meaningful contemplation. Sometimes, when the world is closing on, on him, he gets on the streetcar to ride all the way to the High Park for a little rendezvous with nature. - Poor substitute for the real thing you might say, but without a car, how far one can get away from the overbearing, cacophonous city. Again, as so often, that Sunday afternoon, he was longing for the serenity of the country with gentle hills and distant horizons. Untamed trees and noble weedruled meadows. Even the memory of the mud laden boots he used to curse after a day out collecting chamomile flowers for his mother medicine chest, reminded him of an other world so painfully missed. Sadly, very few people populated his nostalgic reflections apart from his mother and brother... But places, images and objects. Yes! Anything connected to that forsaken landscape, he used to call home. Well, he was a painter after all, a poet of the visual. And a damned good one too. But today he couldn't get away; he was expecting Dusan the art dealer to come to pick up the weekly lot. Not much. Eight canvasses. Five fourteen by eighteen portraits and three twenty by twenty six landscapes. The so-called sofa size. He should get at least eighty-five; maybe a hundred bucks for them. He hoped. All depended on Dusan's mood, which is in turn, was the direct consequence of his luck or the lack of it, - on the Saturday's run of the horses. The Martian was standing in the doorway to the apartment, like someone who doesn't decide yet the direction of his next step. His attention was directed to Berti who intensely examined the tip of his shoe. He was waiting for him to look up, to have an eye contact, 55
perhaps giving some sign. He, the Martian was worried about his neighbor lately. He was unusually withdrawn, quiet and preoccupied. Apart from occasional, mostly of art related discussions on a relative superficial level, the communication between the two was quite limited. Even around the kitchen, - both of them rather cooked their own food than eat downstairs, - even in the kitchen they didn't have too much in common. The Martian was vegetarian and Berti considered a day without meat, the end of the world, a starvation diet. At occasions, the Martian offered some well thought opinion on Berti's work. Not on the commercial canvasses he made for Dusan, but the ones were standing turned to the wall in Berti's room. The ones he worked on, in his spare time. The ones were not for sale, or rather unsaleable. After a long minute or so, Berti sensed that someone watching him and looked up. You know that uneasy feeling when you notice of someone's penetrating stare? If that stare is originated from the man called The Martian even more disturbing. Not because Berti disliked him, not at all. It's the matter of fact, among the roommates the Martian was the most tolerable and that included even Kati whose got enough bothersome peculiarities to rank right behind Mike Kovacs. He knew the Martian wants to talk to him and was no way out, although he would rather be left alone. As their eyes meet, Berti waved an awkward greeting with a silent Hello. The Martian, just like somebody waiting for an invitation walked across the street and set down next to Berti. -"What's up Buddy?" With his usual line of greetings, he tapped on Berti's shoulder. He called everybody: Buddy, except people he disliked. He addressed them as: Sir. 56
-"Nothing to brag about. Nice day, eh?" answered Berti. -"Yes it is." They sit side by side for a long while, still, meticulously examining the tattered strip of grass between the cracked sidewalk and the brickwork, as it was the most important task on hand... Berti broke the silence, like answering an unspoken question. -"Waiting for Dusan, suppose' to be here long ago." -"He is not very reliable, isn't he?" -"Well, if he is coming on the day he promised... it's okay, several hours late, no big deal, but when he doesn't show for a couple days, and you need the dough... that's make me really pissed..." The Martian tried to comfort Berti: -"Let's hope he is coming." -"Jah... I got to pay my rent yet." -"The Judge knows that you good for it." -"I think so." - Berti wasn't really worried about the rent, but he was down to his last couple dollar and was hardly anything in the fridge. -"Kati moved out this morning, did you know?" Berti announced the big news. -"No kidding, Kati the original tenant? What happened?" -"It's a big mystery. She quit her job at the Puszta, - they say, - and she rented a fancy apartment somewhere around the Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Allegedly she is hanging around with Peppi von Cherny lately..." - among a couple minor weaknesses, gossiping was the vice, Berti enjoyed the most. -"Who is that character, that Peppi?" asked the Martian. 57
-"A Pollack, he lost his right leg in the war." -"Oh..." was the Martian only reaction. After a few seconds he added: "I wonder who is taking her room. I wouldn't mind to change, but I hate moving with all the junk I accumulated in the last two years." -"Me too." said Berti and the subject was closed. A street car vent by, the earth was shaking under the monstrous red and beige contraption, some people disembarked at the stop, a minute later she was gone, and was quiet again. At the front of the Spot the circle was changing constantly, some was coming others were leaving. A wide variety of subject was discussed with the same impassioned manner, like Little Schwarz duodena ulcer. The Martian spoke again. --"Look Buddy, I know something bothering you. What is it? It's not a good idea to button up, problems have a nasty habit, and they eat you from the inside. Better let them out. What is it?" Berti, looked at the Martian, smiled. -"Nothing really... and everything." suddenly he felt talk is good. To talk to somebody who willing to listen... it's good. -"Here am I, waiting for Dusan, The so called art dealer. Worked all week on those damned pictures... waiting for Dusan, the man I immensely dislike... Yes a definitely don't like him. I don't hate him. Sometimes I think I do, but I like to believe that I don't lower myself to the gutter of hatred for such a trivial reason...He is a crook, so what? After all he provides the means for some sort of an existence, whatever meager it is. At least I don't have to work in the supermarket, sorting rotten vegetables... But, look what I do? Sometimes it makes me
puke, just to look at another seascape with purple sunset." Berti toke a deep breath and after a little while he continued. -"Back home, another Dusan was telling me that the only canvas was worthy of consideration that was painted in the official style of the almighty socialrealism. No sweating working hero, no money... Landscape without giant hydro towers, or tractors... l'art pour l'art... bourgeois decadence... I'm just as screwed here as I was screwed back home... and the top of it... is this a home?" Pointed at the house across the street. -"I see what you mean." it was kind of a 'go ahead talk'. -"I hope to get enough money for my effort to pay the rent of that miserable room and buy some food." Berti made a submissive gesture and continued with resignation is his voice: -"A classic case of a starving artist. - You know I probably wouldn't mind if my real work would be sold for peanuts... but nobody wants those..." He paused for a while and finally turned to the Martian. -"Marcus..." Berti was one of the very few, who know the Martian real name. Marcus Mindus-Sacasa. No wonder everybody preferred the nickname, Martian. Who the heck would remember it, Markus MindusSacasa. -"Marcus, you have seen my work, tell me, it is really worthless, as they say. Do I live in a vacuum, in a false believe that I've got something, when everybody telling me other wise? I reached the point when I stopped to show them to anybody I'm so fed up with rejections. I'm hurt, sometime I swore I don't want to pick up another brush and just pour turpentine on the 59
whole God damned lot and set them on fire, myself included." -"Berti, you talk nonsense. You are an exceptionally talented man. And you know it." Marcus spoke with a hushed, but forceful voice. -"That's not what every gallery owner was saying. Look, when I got here and managed to buy a few yards of canvas and put together a small selection, I picked a Gallery just like that, out of the telephone book and with the best two of my lot a walked into the Alison Grant Gallery. First a man told me that they are not interested in anybody's work, other than the few of they own clients'. I insisted to talk to the owner, telling that I'm a Hungarian freedom fighter, - it was a big thing in '57, and everybody was a freedom fighter, so it just slipped out in my desperate attempt to be listened to. And it worked. Alison Grant seen me in her office or more like in her boudoir. There she was an ageless, prune faced woman. The place smelled like a cross between a French perfumery and a cheap tavern. It was ten in the morning and she was already stoned or she never sobered up from the night before. She hugged me, kissed me on both my cheeks and she told me how sorry she was that the revolution was lost. She kept pouring some kind of whiskey for me, and after I declined to accept it she drank it all herself. One glass after the other. She looked at the canvases and with deep sorrow in her voice, same tone as she expressed her sorrow about the lost revolution, she told me that I definitely have talent, but I lived behind the iron curtain so long, that I missed the incredible progress the art world experienced. My pictures are passé, that was she told, passé. Not in vogue. Reminded her of Emily Carr, definitely an Emily Carr repro. She said. In that time I didn't even know who 60
Emily Carr was, never mind copying her style. And than she told me to go and learn, see what is going on in the art world. Find myself, come up with something fresh and new. Look at shows and exhibitions. See what others do. But most important be different and forget about what I'm doing now. I was devastated. She was the first, but many others were telling me since the same thing. Come with something new." He glanced at his wristwatch. -"Where the hell is that God damned Dusan." with the same breath he continued his tirade. - "I've looked the showrooms, galleries and I got more and more depressed. I can't understand what is out there. Something is wrong with my eyes, tell me Marcus am I an ignorant moron? Why everybody is raving about those abstracts and I can't see anything, but meaningless gibberish. The titles aren't help either... I've been painting to Dusan's order for so long, that I lost my sense of direction?" Berti jumped to his feet. -"Okay, okay... stop right there. Sit down and relax. Don't get so exited. You have asked so many questions in the last few minutes, it would fill the curriculum of couple semester of Art 101. Sit down, please." Marcus grabbed Berti by his arms and pulled him back on the ledge. - "First of all, I wouldn't put down of those pictures, you produce for Dusan by the dozen. While they hardly qualify for the Venice Biennale, a./ painted with professional know-how. I couldn't do it, the Judge, Little Schwarz and millions of others couldn't paint any of those. It takes talent and technique what you have. B./Non of those ever will be hanged in the National Gallery for sure, but would you be proud of it anyway see it on the same wall as your contemporaries' abstract 61
gibberish is blocking the view of a nice white wall? Most of your work, you so apprehensive about will be enjoyed, appreciated and cherished more than most of the moderns hidden in eccentric collectors' vaults. Look at that girl, what's her name?" Pointed Marcus across the street where the young men were standing and just joined by a pretty girl in her Sunday best. -"Susan, I don't know her last name either. She works in Szabo's drug store." -"Doesn't matter. Look at her isn't she pretty?" -"What she has to do with my problem?" Berti objected. -"Plenty." Marcus continues. "Pleasant to look at her. No question about that. A work of art, if you ask me, yet if you look closer you can tell that the dress she is wearing coming from the Eaton's basement, the jewel ninety nine cent glass beads from Kresge's. Shoes, handbag the same class. This is Bloor West, my friend, not Rosedale. Your Susan graces the scenery with her crisp, scrubbed, innocent beauty, as your twenty five dollar, assembly line pictures are decorating a modest living room somewhere in this land of new beginnings." With a joyous giggle he motioned to the other side. – "Look the impudent bums how they instantly turn into so many Southern gentlemen. Isn't that something." then he continues "I bet the man who is buying your painting from Dusan's van on some parking lot is very proud of his purchase, and hardly can wait for the cousin to come for a visit, so he can show off with the luxurious addition to his humble household. Not a three ninety five nativity print under glass, but a real oil painting signed by a real artist." Marcus looks at the puzzled Berti and proceeds. – 62
"So, be careful when you put Dusan down. He is not so bad, he is serving a noble need, need for beauty on an affordable scale." -"I never thought about that..." Berti mused and after a little while he added. -"Maybe I should put a little more care into those paintings... I never thought where they going to end up, except Dusan's van." -"I'm glad, you see it in the different light." Marcus stood up and stretched his arms above his head. " Come on Buddy, I'm dying to have a coffee, I'm buying." And he sprinted across the street with Berni in tow. It was dark and cool in the restaurant. In the back of the room, they called the pit, was the chess table. Now two older men were silently staring on the board with no more than a half a dozen figures still standing. The pit sunken, about a half a foot below the rest of the restaurant was like a separate world of its own. Here, apart from the rest of the room different rules applied. Voices were seldom raised, gentlemanly manners were compulsory. In around the middle of the room in one of the boots a young couple were holding hands, whispering in each others ears... not because they wanted to keep their secretes for prying strangers, but more likely the subject matter required nothing, but gentle whispers. At the staff table, right under the espresso machine sat Margo the waitress with her sun Steve, a smart ten years old doing his homework. Every afternoon, when the place was relative quiet, mother and son were deeply involved with scholarly business. It was hard to say, who coached whom, but the grammar, far
superior then any of the so-called new Canadians who were hanging around Bloor and Spadina at those days. Somebody, you can bet it was the whispering young man feed quite few quarters into the jukebox and Frank Sinatra crooned one hit song one after the other. In contrast of the near idyllic ambience a hell of the commotion was coming out from the kitchen. Only the occasional crash of a dinner plate or fatal meeting of a frying pan and the stovetop interrupted the steady flow of colorful litany of profanity. No other tribes on the face of the earth are capable to swear as fancy, innovative and insulting as the Hungarians. A wellenlightened Hungarian can swear for a half an hour without repeating the same word twice. And the Judge found a worthy match in Missus Bogar, the cook. They let it all out, but the people in the front didn't even blink, they did what they did in holy ignorance. The quarrel rooted in a fateful oversight on the part of the Judge. He forget to supply the daily mickey of dark rum, as the contractual fringe benefit to Missus Bogar and as a result she was painfully sober and when the Judge refused to pay five dollar to the bootlegger for the dollar ninety five bottle of booze, the hell broke loose. The fact that the dishwasher didn't show up for work in the morning and Missus Bogar had to wash the leftover dishes from the night before, didn't help either. When the Judge called his cherished cook a drunken slut, she throws a bowl full of nokedly, the essential part of a real chicken paprikash at the Judge and she walked out of the kitchen. Quit. Exactly this point the Martian called Margo with his usual polite manner: -"Margo, my little Buddy, can we have a couple small espressos?" 64
-"Just a minute, I'm coming." rubbed Steve head and she concluded. "You are right, that's my boy." The Judge appeared in the kitchen door, wiping his face, bits and pieces of small dumplings stuck into his balding head, now unstuck, slowly one by one... and he screamed. -"Get me a damned cook..." And Frankie sung, "...strangers in the night." "So, as I was saying that part, about your and Dusan business was easy. You have nothing to be ashamed, after all prostitution the oldest profession on earth. Your problem is that you are a cheap whore when you can be a high class one, for big money too. But more about that later. Let’s talk about you and the current state of the arts." The coffee arrived, hot and aromatic with Margo's ever-pleasant smile. -"Oh, by the way, I almost forget." She turned to Berti. "There is a message for you Berti, Dusan called. He said he can't make it today, trouble with his van, but he is coming tomorrow morning." -"Thanks Margo." But under his moustache he murmured a brief curse, directed toward the absentee art dealer. ***