Over the years I have often been critical. I have done restaurant reviews for Pulse news, critiqued everything from plays to politicians on CJAD Radio and most recently penned a book review for the Jewish Book Council in New York City.
My inclination to critique started in Grade 1 with “Fun with Dick and Jane.” The two protagonists in our reader were two little kids who hung out with Sally and a dog named Spot. I felt that these kids were too easily amused. One of them would only have to point and say something like “See Spot run” and they would get all excited.
Our class would take turns every morning reading aloud. When it was my turn, I stood up and read the line “ ‘Look Sally,’ she cried, ‘there’s Spot’.”
I did not exactly understand what was going on but I was very concerned. Why was Jane crying? Was there something wrong? I spent the entire day worrying about Jane. I stayed behind after class to ask Miss Wadman about it. She would know for sure. She was a teacher and she’s the one who gave us the book in the first place.
”Miss Wadman, why is Jane so upset?”
“What do you mean? What makes you think she’s upset?”
“She was crying.”
“Jane was not crying.”
“Oh yes, she was. I will show you.”
I took the book out of my school bag, found the right page and proudly pointed to the line.
“It says right here, ‘Look Sally,’ she cried.’ “Why was she crying?”
“She wasn’t really crying. When it says she cried, it just means she said.”
“Then it should say she said.”
I didn’t believe Miss Wadman for a minute and remained convinced that something was bothering poor Jane and nobody was prepared to even talk about it.
The rest of my early reading consisted of Superman and Mighty Mouse comics voraciously devoured at the barbershop owned by Mr. Struzer on Villeneuve Street. I admired the strength of Mighty Mouse and vastly preferred him to the scrawny and squeaky-voiced Mickey who I felt was vastly over-rated.
I read every comic book in the shop not because I had a haircut all that often. I had been ordered by Mom to go sit in the shop if I ever came home from school and there was nobody home.
You could walk to the barbershop from my house without having to cross a single street. Location. Location. Location. That’s why Mom had anointed Mr. Struzer to be my designated unpaid babysitter.
Mom used to walk me to school every day until one afternoon when she arrived late and I opted to head home on my own. Had I not shown this momentary streak of independence, Mom would have been walking me to work every day at CJAD.
My barbershop/personal daycare/reading room was located across the street from a rooming house which featured a blue neon sign that proclaimed the place to be “The Florida Apts.”
So this was Florida? This was the place so many of my parents’ friends were so excited about visiting? It did not look all that impressive to me.
It certainly did not look as good as the Cleavers’ house on “Leave it to Beaver.” I was convinced that Beaver Cleaver would be a fun friend to have. I kept looking for a house with a white picket fence so I could knock on the door and ask his mom if Beaver could come out to play.
I was also convinced that the Plaza restaurant on Park Avenue was the Plaza Hotel I had read about in all those books about New York City.
Where did I find all those books? At the Jewish Public Library. I had heard from friends that it you were a kid, you could join the library for only five cents.
Then you could borrow three books at a time for two weeks. And then you could borrow another three books. All this for five cents.
Armed with a nickel I found on the street I headed for the library on the corner of Mount-Royal and Esplanade. I eagerly walked up to the counter and plunked down my nickel.
I was so excited. I was about to be able to read all the books I wanted. The librarian gave me a pink card on which I had to write my name and address. That was no problem. But then she told me that I would have to get my parents to sign the card. Now that was a problem. They would not be home until late that afternoon.
I wanted to start reading right away. There must be something I could do to get around this inconvenient red tape. I came to the conclusion that the required signature would have to be forged.
I knew that my own handwriting looked like a child’s handwriting so I could not sign. If I asked Mr. Struzer, he would probably tell my parents. I would have to find someone else.
I walked to the corner of Mount-Royal and St. Urbain and started explaining the situation to friendly-looking adults, pleading with them just to write my mom’s name on the bottom of the pink card.
Some were amused at my request while others were appalled but they all turned me down one after another. This went on for more than half an hour. Then I spotted what looked a college kid smoking a cigarette. She had a long ponytail and looked less law-abiding than all the others. Maybe she would agree.
She did. I patiently spelled out the name Schnurmacher. She wrote it down on her cigarette package and then signed on the dotted line. I have been an avid reader ever since.
Writing and penmanship were major issues in my house ever since I received an F minus in conduct. Other kids were terrified to go home with their report cards. Not me. I usually received mostly Very Goods and the occasional Excellent. There was however one time that just like Lucy, I had some ‘splainin’ to do.
As Mom looked at my report card, she said, “Tomi, vat does it mean conduct?
Mom called me Tomi when she was upset about something.
“Conduct means how you behave in class.”
“You have an F minus. That’s a bad mark.”
“Yes, Anyu, that’s true. But it’s not as bad as a U which means Unsatisfactory which is the worst mark. At least I did not get a U.”
“Yes, but why did you get an F minus.”
“Because the teacher says I talk too much in class.”
“So? Vat’s wrong vit dat? You are a smart boy who likes to talk. There is nutting wrong vit dat.”
Unfortunately my teacher Miss Rettig did not see it that way. Her opinion differed to such a extent with Mom’s take on the situation that one sunny Friday afternoon I was told I had been talking so much I would have to be punished.
My punishment? I had to write out the sentence, “I must not talk in class” 500 times” and hand in this assignment by Monday morning. When I told Mom about it, she was livid. Not at me. At the teacher.
“Ridiculous. You vill not write one word. I vill write it for you.”
Mom did indeed write my 500 lines. On the last page, she added an elegantly written thank you and her signature. On Monday morning, the teacher took one look at the lines and asked me. “You didn’t write this. Who wrote this?”
“My mother did.”
“She was not the one who was talking in class. She is not to supposed to write the lines. You are. And I want to see them written by you and handed in by Wednesday morning at the latest.”
I went home and told Mom that I would be the one who would have to write “I must not talk in class” 500 times.
“No, you won’t Tomika. You will only have to write it once.”
I wrote the line in my childish handwriting and Mom spent the next two hours copying my handwriting 499 times. This time, there was no thank you and no signature. I handed in the assignment Wednesday morning and Miss Rettig was none the wiser.
How did Mom help out with my Talmud class and did my Dad really invent the credit card? That will have to wait until tomorrow.