A wisp of a story emerges and says, “Write me.” So I do.
I’m nine years old. The new Toronto subway has just opened. Simpler times. It is a signature moment in our lives.
New York had a subway. Now, we had one too. And being Canadian, our subway was clean. (And not because it was new. Recent visits reflect continued “We’re not New York” cleanliness standards.
Okay, here we go.
One day, a distant cousin – so distant we saw him on no other occasion than at my grandmother’s annual Passover Seders, and even then, he was seated at the “nonentity” end of a long table, a hinterland reserved specifically for distant cousins – called up my mother, and offered to take my older and me on our first rides on the new subway.
His name was Mosey Brown. (Pronounced Mozie, a diminutive, presumably, of Moses, but less ethnic than the alternate diminutive, Moishe.
Mosey Brown was gainfully employed, though he owned no store, as my immediate family did, nor did he toil in a profession, like my lawyer, dentist and accountant other cousins. Mosey worked at the Liquor Control Board, a government agency involved in the legal distribution of alcohol, dispensed from a facility, whose concrete-walled decor brought to mind a police station. That sold Scotch.
Why a man we barely knew wanted to take us for our first rides on the new subway I had then, and retain today, no imaginable idea. The answer may lie in the area of Mosey, a bachelor, having no children of his own to take for their first rides on the new subway, combined with the fact that my brother and I had no Dad to take us. But this is merely a guess.
Whatever the reason, my mother acceded to Mosey’s proposal, and off we went. But not before our mother delivered a stern warning, accompanied by a waggling forefinger, underlining its significance.
“He doesn’t have any money.”
We understood what that meant. If, after our subway adventure, Mosey Brown invited us out for a bite to eat, we should be sure to put no strain whatsoever on his limited resources.
What do I remember about Mosey Brown? He was a man of sweet and gentle nature, in the habit of wearing blue jeans, a denim work shirt and a too long, leather belt, that left the end of it flapping in the breeze. That’s not a lot to remember about a person, I suppose, though there are numerous distant cousins, of whom I recall nothing at all.
We took a bus – Mosey had no car – to “Eglinton”, the northernmost subway station, at which point we escalatored down to the platform and boarded the subway.
I recall a generalized excitement about traveling underground. I also noticed that at each of the twelve stops, from “Eglinton” to “Union Station”, the platform walls were decorated with large tiles, featuring a Paint Box assortment of pastel colors, every station represented by a different, identifying color. I once could rattle off what those colors were, but not anymore. I believe “Eglinton” is pale yellow.
I also remember the piercing whistle, blown by a uniformed subway official, leaning from a window of a car near the middle of the train, alerting the passengers that the doors were about to close – there was one sonorous “twerrrrrp” as a warning, followed shortly thereafter by two shorter “twerps”, just before the doors began rumbling shut.
I gave the job serious consideration as a possibility for future employment. It seemed like something I would like. Little responsibility. And they give you a whistle.
We traveled the length of the route, and then we returned – traveling backwards! – to “Eglinton”, where we had originally gotten on.
It was exhilarating fun. And personally historic. I had ridden the subway for the first time!
Then Mosey said, “Let’s get a bite to eat.”
And there we were. My mother’s “Warning Place.”, that came with the waggling forefinger. We immediately agreed to the “bite.” Saying “No” would have been rude. But we knew what we had to do.
A nondescript diner, somewhere near the “Eglinton Station” exit. I study the menu, and when my time comes to order, I say,
“Chips and a Coke.” (Chips are French fries. We are an English colony, after all.)
“Are you sure that’s all you want?” inquires Cousin Mosey.
“Yeah. I’m not that hungry.”
Though, in fact, I was. Maiden voyages have been known to bestir the appetite. I have heard the travelers on Columbus’s three ships were voracious eaters. Though that could be made up. Perhaps for this story.
Our orders arrive. For me, it’s a Coke in a glass with a straw, and a large plate, full of crisp and crunchy-looking French fries.
Here’s a strange thing. I hate tomatoes, but I like ketchup, which is almost entirely made from tomatoes. I am a never-ending mystery to myself.
I reach for the ketchup bottle, I unscrew the top, I swivel my wrist, and I shake, shake, shake.
No ketchup emerges from the bottle. Not a droplet. Not a glop.
Shake, shake, shake again…
A few more vigorous shakes. Still no dice. The ketchup remains stubbornly in the bottle.
At this point, if I were home, I’d have thrust a knife into the bottle, and jiggled around in there, until the ketchup agreed to cooperate. But we were eating out. And I wasn’t sure that was good manners.
So instead, I reverted to the “traditional.” I suspended the ketchup bottle directly over my plate, and gave it a sharp whack to the bottom with the heel of my right hand.
The ketchup still did not budge.
Another couple of whacks…
Then, with all the strength that my muscle-free, nine-year old body can muster, I thumped the bottom of that bottle just as hard as I could.
It was a deluge. The stuff exploded out of the bottle, covering my plate, and overflowing onto the table. It was Hurricane Kartrina. But with ketchup.
By the time I had flipped the bottle upright, literally half of its contents lay sloshing on my plate, smothering my French fries in a Vesuvian lava flow of red. Poor little potato sticks. They never knew what hit them.
I was in shock. Probably near tears. But throughout the disaster, Mosey Brown remained understanding and calm.
“Forget about it,” he said comfortingly. “We’ll get you another order.”
“Another order”? They would undoubtedly charge us – “us” meaning Cousin Mosey – again! I immediately recovered my composure.
“That’s okay,” I told Cousin Mosey insistently. “I like ketchup.”
I then proceeded to dip my fork into the thickening sea of gloopiness, ferreted out the submerged and dripping French fries, and, trying my hardest not to gag, I polished off the entire plateful.
What else could I do?
He didn’t have any money.