MONTREAL THEN: COMING TO CANADA, PART III—The Immigrant’s Life

After decades of teaching, Zsolt Alapi is a born-again writer, editor, publisher, who has made his home in Montreal for over four decades.

Inevitably, the fish died.  One day in early September I crawled out of my shack to feed the trout only to find several thousand bloated carcasses floating among the algae and murk of the pond.  My brother’s dream of a quick buck and my temporary employment had come to an abrupt end.  There was nothing to do but bury the carcasses, which were beginning to smell in the warm sunshine.  With my summer earnings of around $150.00 in my pocket, I hitchhiked back to Montreal to find a place to live and a job.

Home became an apartment in NDG just on the wrong side of the Westmount border on Claremont Avenue that I started sharing with Judit.  She was a refugee, a true DP from behind the Iron Curtain.  She had defected to Canada while visiting her sister and now lived on the $150.00 per week subsidy that the Québec Government gave to immigrants provided they attended French courses six and one -half hours per day, five days per week.  She spoke no French or English and we had been introduced through my brother because I spoke Hungarian, English, and some French, was myself a refugee, albeit from the more immediate chaos of Vietnam and the U.S., and we both needed to share a place to afford accommodations.  The arrangement was supposed to be strictly Platonic, at Judit’s sister’s insistence.

Which, for me, it unhappily was.

                  The day we moved in, her relations set up a queen-size bed in one room with an old oak dresser and a comfortable armchair in the corner.  They also donated a kitchen table, four chairs, pots and pans, two throw rugs, some cushions, and a short-wave radio so she could listen to the broadcasts from home.

For my part, I brought a knapsack of clothes, a sleeping-bag, an inflatable air mattress, a collection of Chinese poems called The Jade Mountain, and an espresso maker with a five-pound tin of Mario coffee.

During our first month together, we rarely met since Judit was either off at school or with her relatives.  When we did meet on the occasional weekend, it was to drink endless cups of coffee, and talk about the writings of Karl Marx.

Despite having fled Communism, Judit was an avowed Marxist.  She had left Hungary, she insisted, not for ideological or political reasons, but simply because she and her then boyfriend had been on a five- year waiting list for an apartment that had been denied them at the last moment.  So, she still believed in the historical imperative, that religion was the opiate of the masses, that the workers would one day rise to slaughter the bourgeoisie, and that hetaerism (extramarital sexual intercourse between men and unmarried women) was steadily developing into open prostitution.

It was in vain that I tried to reassure her that I was unmarried, and even after this failed, I told her that I simply wanted to share a meager third of her bed not for licentious purposes, but simply to rest my aching back since my air mattress had long since fallen into disrepair and permanently deflated.

                  All to no avail, but then came the different men.

At first it was Maghdi, an Egyptian in his thirties.  Then, Ediz from Turkey, followed by Won Jun from North Korea, Ramon from El Salvador, Jean-Baptist from Haiti, Guptal from Bangladesh, and many others.

Each night, I heard different men cry off in different exclamations of pleasure, from the sharp guttural of the Arabic, to the high-pitched whine of the Korean.  The constant staccato drumming of the bed frame against my wall was some form of cruel derision as I vainly tried to sleep on the hard, wooden floor, tortured by longing.

When I asked Judit why I couldn’t join her in bed, she laughed derisively and told me that these others were victims of the capitalist, imperialistic wrongdoers who had raped their countries, their very souls, and it was her duty to provide them with some solace and comfort in their exile.

            I had just about given up trying to find a job when, during one of my walks up St. Laurent, I saw a sign outside Brown’s Department store (long since gone), in English and French:

Wanted, short order cook, delivery man, all-purpose kitchen help.    Spoken French and English.  Some knowledge of German helpful.

Only in Montreal.

I was directed up to the fourth floor where I met Herr and Frau Schoendorf.  The interview was conducted in German, and I spoke in my best Hohdeutsch.  Herr Schoendorf said:

“You work 10-6, Monday-Wednesday, 10-9 on Thursday-Friday, weekends off.  The store is closed Saturdays.  Jews, you know.”  When he said the word, “Juden,” he almost spat it out.  I later learned that Schoendorf had been a part of the Hitler Jugend during the war, somewhat ironic in light of the fact that he now ran a restaurant in a department store where the clientele was 90% Jewish.

He continued in English: “You will help my wife with the cooking.  At lunch there will be sandwiches and two hot dishes.  Then there are deliveries to the salesmen in the store, all four floors.  You will also take coffee to the back room for the peddlers who play cards there.”  At this, Herr Schoendorf chuckled.  I realized that he had made a joke and I smiled lamely as well.  Schoendorf had called them “bettler” with his Hanover accent.  I remembered that “bettler” meant beggar.

“Any questions?”

“No, I think I get it.  Ich verstehe.  I understand.”

Und du, Liebchen, was denkst du?”  But Frau Shoendorf, a sad, silent woman, had nothing to ask.  She nodded noncommittally and went back to cutting up tomatoes.

Herr Schoendorf walked me to the door.

“You start Monday.  Be here on time.”

Each day at my new employ, between 10 and 11, it was my job to buy the rolls, cream cheese, and Danish.  First, I would go to the St. Lawrence Bakery (long since gone) where I bought kaisers, onion rolls, rye, and the cheese and poppy seed Danishes.  They all had to be Kosher.   Then, I went to Biedermann’s butcher shop near Duluth where a thin old man wearing a blood- stained apron and a black yarmulke would give me the order of meat for the day.

“I’m here to pick up the veal that was ordered,” I told Biedermann.

Biedermann said nothing, only laid the chops onto the sheets of paper.  He wrapped them and handed them over, mumbling something in Yiddish.  I caught the last part:  “Goyim….”  Biedermann spat on the sawdust- covered floor as I left.

Back in the kitchen, Frau Schoendorf unwrapped the meat, and she and I would start to prepare the day’s lunch.  She carefully sliced around the bones, removing them, then handed them to me who covered them in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs.

Herr Schoendorf looked on and chuckled:

“Wienerschnitzel they want……what they get is cheap pork.  Old Biedermann is some Kasher butcher, eh? Anything for the money…that’s how the Jews are.”

Just then, Frankie Schoenberg, one of the peddlers entered.  Frankie had class.  He wore a blue blazer and had slicked back hair covering his bald spot.  He was known as Francois Belmont to his clients, Frankie to his pals.  Frankie was from Poland, a son of survivors.  He spoke mostly Yiddish, but knew a smattering of languages and spoke more than passable French.  His English was something else, and we had long ago given up trying to understand it.

Gibt mir ein pletzle,”  he told me, snapping a finger.

“Sorry, no pretzels today.  The bakery was all out. Tout finis.”

Pletzle, pletzle….can’t you get that through your goyische kopf?”

“Na, ja, Frankie, machts nicht,” Herr Schoendorf intervened.  He took me aside and said:

“A pletzle is an onion roll.  Hold the butter and some beef salami with mustard on it.”

I made the sandwich, and suddenly there were other salesmen, peddlers, and staff.  It was the lunch hour, and they all screamed to be served in at least five different languages.

“Two egg salad….”

“Un Coke avec une Mae West…”

“A cheese Danish, and one bagel with cream cheese… so then Morris said to me, if you won’t put out, I’ll get myself a shikse… so me, I said to him good luck with that, who wants your hairy old nuts and your back with the boils… I should be so lucky?  Sure, he said I was his Princess… he can kiss my royal ass, I told him… and as for his shikse, she was just some east end slut, Marie-Claude or Huguette or whatever the hell her name was. Probably found her in some cheap lap dance bar.  Never ate nothing but fries, poutine, and pâté chinois… no teeth probably since the age of 16, all the better to suck on Mr. High and Mighty’s poor excuse for a prick… So then I says to him, take your slut and have her…  I’m gonna get me a goyim….”

The ex-Mrs. Mendelbaum laughed as she picked up her order, looked me square in the eye:  “Yeah, some handsome young goy with a nice hard karnotzle… here, that’s for you, go spend it tonight on some nice medeleh…”

She tipped me fifty cents, took her sandwich and Danish and went off with her friend, Sonia, back to Accounting.

After the lunch rush, we cleaned up and while Frau Schoendorf made the salads for the next day, her husband and I watched The Flintstones while we waited for the phone orders and afternoon snack deliveries.  Herr Schoendorf loved The Flintstones.  His favourite character was Barney, and he tried to laugh just like him. Often, too often. It annoyed me to no end.  I used to fantasize about hitting him with a hot spatula from the grill, about pouring the hot fat from the fry pans on the Nazi bastard’s head, about having him as some character in the show, a cartoonesque intruder that Dino bites in the ass and chases down the streets of Bedrock.

Somehow, I had become a minor character in a Mordecai Richler novel.

2 Comments on MONTREAL THEN: COMING TO CANADA, PART III—The Immigrant’s Life

  1. Yvonne (McElligott) Lunney // October 17, 2018 at 11:04 am // Reply

    I am an 83 year old grand and great-grandmother and spent many years in Chomedey , Laval. I can relate to a lot of your material and enjoy your writing. Do you have all these articles published in book form?

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