Thursday, February 16, 2012



When I think of Montreal, which is not often these days, the deli fiefs of Schwartz's and Ben's slide into my thoughts as if they had just been goosed by warm memories of mounds of smoked meat wedged between rye and devoured with gulps of cherry Coke.
They were the nicest icons in Canadian food emporiums. I say "were" because Ben's has been gone for a few years after a strike and Schwartz's has been bought by a consortium who I pray will not turn out to be Philistines intent on franchises.
I loved Schwartz's before I knew it was an institution. My bride and I and her parents decided to visit relatives who lived near Schwartz's in a messy big old house which had once housed a poet loved by the separatists.
The car broke down,  I felt guilty because my humble father-in-law couldn't afford the car repairs and I really didn't have any money, and I couldn't find the relatives near St. Laurent.
The next morning some kind of honourary uncle to Mary gathered me up in the late morning. We dined at Schwartz's, warming up on some weiners grilled over the flames, then devoured a large plate of dark red medium pastrami which I was informed had been smoked, of course, that day.
I licked the fat off my lips. A far cry from WASP meat-and-potatoes.  Then a couple of stomach-burning shots at the corner tavern and I returned to my bride slightly the worse for wear but burping contentedly.
It was the start of many visits, generally for the large plate and some crunchy pickles, before I found that Ben's just beside the hotel in which the old press club resided uncertainly was a great place at 2 a.m. when you were ravenous after all those rums and didn't want to go too far north.
Some days it was Schwartz's at noon and Ben's in the middle of the night. And the hell with those who claimed smoked meat led to stomach cancer.  I'm sure the two were fixtures on the expense accounts of most Toronto reporters who were pretending they had wined and dined their contacts at much posher places.
I recall the wee hours at Ben's when my friends and I were over- refreshed, as we used to say about drunk politicians we were trying to protect.  I was kidding with the cashier when she announced she was also a fortune teller. And she told my fortune. The hair still stands on my nape when I remember because she knew my past and predicted some of my future.
One magical weekend before the opening of Expo 67, several of us shivered through a late-winter storm and headed for the warmth of Schwartz's. It was a great Friday. We had already filed for the Saturday Telegram and we could just enjoy ourselves.
Back at the Crescent St. apartment that the Tely had rented for Expo's duration, to escape the horrendous hotel prices that had been jacked for the world's fair, I got a call from Windy O'Neill, a fringe Leaf defenceman in the 40s who had defied Conn Smythe and had quit to become a lawyer.
He had two tickets for the Saturday afternoon game at the old Forum. Not just a routine game but the Stanley Cup final between Montreal and Toronto now remembered as the last time Toronto won the Cup.
I prepared by going to the opening of the Jamaican pavilion at Expo which featured every rum imaginable. I arrived at the Forum in a fine mood, only to find that Windy's ticket was in the opposite corner to mine.
Half-way through the first period, Bob Pulford got into a fight with Terry Harper. Pully and I had played football together and dated together so I cheered the Leaf on with bellows while the crowd around me got quite mad.
Sausages rained down. I continued to be quite rambunctious. At the first intermission, a man sitting behind me tapped me on my shoulder and said that he was Randy Ellis, father of the Leaf Ron Ellis, and he was sitting with Ron's wife, who was pregnant, and I was starting a riot.
So I simmered down, made easier because the Leafs won. Besides I was cold. I was missing my overcoat. I stood outside after the game and felt so expansive that I decided to drive to Toronto to see Mary.  I'm not sure I was totally welcome when I swept in unexpectedly and immediately went to sleep.
Early Monday I drove back to Montreal, still shivering without my coat. I decided to start the week off just right by going to the old smoky ambience of  Schwartz's, a cocoon in the storm of life.  And there hanging in a corner was my overcoat. It had been there for four days during a cold weekend and no one had walked off with it.
When I complimented the waiter, and the waiters always seemed to have been there forever, or at least from the opening in 1927 - a line borrowed from the Richlers, father and son, who immortalized the  Hebrew Delicatessen and are one cause for the lineups - he acted as if His Customers would never dream of boosting even a fine tweed overcoat.
They say the smoked meat is a lot better in Toronto these days. And it is too. But it can never be better than the ruby pastrami I had as a young reporter  at Schwartz's because it came slathered with mustard and one of the finest of all spices, nostalgia. 

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