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Barney's Versionby Mordecai Richler
Terry's the spur. The splinter under my fingernail. To come clean, I'm starting on this shambles that is the true story of my wasted life (violating a solemn pledge, scribbling a first book at my advanced age), as a riposte to the scurrilous charges Terry McIver has made in his forthcoming autobiography: about me, my three wives, a.k.a. Barney Panofsky's troika, the nature of my friendship with Boogie, and, of course, the scandal I will carry to my grave like a humpback. Terry's sound of two hands clapping, Of Time and Fevers, will shortly be launched by The Group (sorry, the group), a government-subsidized small press, rooted in Toronto, that also publishes a monthly journal, the good earth, printed on recycled paper, you bet your life.
Terry McIver and I, both Montrealers born and bred, were in Paris together in the early fifties. Poor Terry was no more than tolerated by my bunch, a pride of impecunious, horny young writers awash in rejection slips, yet ostensibly confident that everything was possible — fame, adoring bimbos, and fortune lying in wait around the corner, just like that legendary Wrigley's shill of my boyhood. The shill, according to report, would surprise you on the street to reward you with a crisp new dollar bill, provided you had a Wrigley's chewing-gum wrapper in your pocket. Mr. Wrigley's big giver never caught up with me. But fame did find several of my bunch: the driven Leo Bishinsky; Cedric Richardson, albeit under another name; and of course Clara. Clara, who now enjoys posthumous fame as a feminist icon, beaten on the anvil of male chauvinist insentience. My anvil, so they say.
I was an anomaly. No, an anomie. A natural-born entrepreneur. I hadn't won awards at McGill, like Terry, or been to Harvard or Columbia, like some of the others. I had barely squeezed through high school, having invested more time at the tables of the Mount Royal Billiards Academy than in classes, playing snooker with Duddy Kravitz. Couldn't write. Didn't paint. Had no artistic pretensions whatsoever, unless you count my fantasy of becoming a music hall song-and-dance man, tipping my straw boater to the good folks in the balcony as I fluttered offstage in my taps, yielding to Peaches, Ann Corio, Lili St. Cyr, or some other exotic dancer, who would bring her act to a drum-throbbing climax with a thrilling flash of bare tit, in days long before lap-dancers had become the norm in Montreal.
I was a voracious reader, but you would be mistaken if you took that as evidence of my quality. Or sensibility. At bottom, I am obliged to acknowledge, with a nod to Clara, the baseness of my soul. My ugly competitive nature. What got me started was not Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, or Conrad's The Secret Agent, but the old Liberty magazine, which prefaced each of its articles with a headnote saying how long it would take to read it: say, five minutes and thirty-five seconds. Setting my Mickey Mouse wristwatch on our kitchen table with the checkered linoleum cloth, I would zip through the piece in question in, say, four minutes and three seconds, and consider myself an intellectual. From Liberty, I graduated to a paperback John Marquand "Mr. Moto" novel, selling for twenty-five cents at the time in Jack and Moe's Barbershop, corner of Park Avenue and Laurier in the heart of Montreal's old working-class Jewish quarter, where I was raised. A neighborhood that had elected the only Communist (Fred Rose) ever to serve as a member of Parliament, produced a couple of decent club fighters (Louis Alter, Maxie Berger), the obligatory number of doctors and dentists, a celebrated gambler-cum-casino-owner, more cutthroat lawyers than needed, sundry schoolteachers and shmata millionaires, a few rabbis, and at least one suspected murderer.
I remember snowbanks five feet high, winding outside staircases that had to be shoveled in the subzero cold, and, in days long before snow tires, the rattle of passing cars and trucks, their wheels encased in chains. Sheets frozen rock-hard on backyard clotheslines. In my bedroom, where the radiator sizzled and knocked through the night, I eventually stumbled on Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Gertie and Alice, as well as our own Morley Callaghan. I came of age envying their expatriate adventures and, as a consequence, made a serious decision in 1950.
Ah, 1950. That was the last year Bill Durnan, five times winner of the Vezina trophy, best goalie in the National Hockey League, would mind the nets for my beloved Montreal Canadiens. In 1950, nos glorieux could already deploy a formidable defense corps, its mainstay young Doug Harvey. The Punch Line was then only two thirds intact: in the absence of Hector "Toe" Blake, who retired in 1948, Maurice "The Rocket" Richard and Elmer Lach were skating on a line with Floyd "Busher" Curry. They finished second to bloody Detroit in the regular season and, to their everlasting shame, went down four games to one to the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup semifinals. At least The Rocket enjoyed a decent year, finishing the regular season second in the individual scoring race with forty-three goals and twenty-two assists.
Anyway, in 1950, at the age of twenty-two, I left the chorus girl I was living with in a basement flat on Tupper Street. I withdrew my modest stash from the City and District Savings Bank, money I had earned as a waiter in the old Normandy Roof (a job arranged by my father, Detective-Inspector Izzy Panofsky), and booked passage to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth, sailing out of New York. In my innocence, I was determined to seek out and be enriched by the friendship of what I then thought of as the pure of heart, artists, "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." And those, those were the days when you could smooch with college girls with impunity. One, Two, Cha-Cha-Cha. "If I Knew You Were Coming, I'd've Baked a Cake." Moonlit nights on deck nice girls wore crinolines, cinch belts, ankle bracelets, and two-tone saddle shoes, and you could count on them not to sue you for sexual harassment forty years later, their suppressed memories of date-rape retrieved by lady psychoanalysts who shaved.
Not fame, but fortune eventually found me. That fortune, such as it is, had humble roots. To begin with, I was sponsored by a survivor of Auschwitz, Yossel Pinsky, who changed dollars for us at black-market rates in a curtained booth in a photography shop on the rue des Rosiers. One evening Yossel sat down at my table in The Old Navy, ordered a café filtre, dropped seven sugar cubes into his cup, and said, "I need somebody with a valid Canadian passport."
"To do what?"
"Make money. What else is left?" he asked, taking out a Swiss Army knife and beginning to clean his remaining fingernails. "But we should get to know each other a little better first. Have you eaten yet?"
"So let's go for dinner. Hey, I won't bite. Come, boychick."
And that's how, only a year later, Yossel serving as my guide, I became an exporter of French cheeses to an increasingly flush postwar Canada. Back home Yossel arranged for me to run an agency for Vespas, those Italian motorized scooters that were once such a hot item. Over the years I also dealt profitably, with Yossel as my partner, in olive oil, just like the young Meyer Lansky; bolts of cloth spun on the islands of Lewis and Harris; scrap metal, bought and sold without my ever having seen any of it; antiquated DC-3s, some of them still being flown North of Sixty; and, after Yossel had moved to Israel, one step ahead of the gendarmes, ancient Egyptian artifacts, stolen from minor tombs in the Valley of the Kings. But I have my principles. I have never handled arms, drugs, or health foods.
Finally I became a sinner. In the late sixties, I began to produce Canadian-financed films that were
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