My next blog will resume my writing on Israel. I took a week off to recover from minor surgery. During the week, among my visitors was Bob Bossin and his partner, Sima Shefrin. She is a visual artist and together they live on Gabriola Island less than an hour north of where I now live in the village of Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island. Bob moved to the island in 1980, just over forty years ago. Bob had phoned me and followed up with a visit to interview me about Rochdale College, for he was writing an article on this subject. He had lived in Rochdale in the late sixties.
Decades ago, I knew Bob as a founder of the Canadian folk singing group, Stringband. Before we parted after our lunch, Bob gave me a copy of his book that he had published by Porcupine’s Quill in 2014, Davy the Punk. It is ostensibly a memoir primarily about his father. I had never heard of the book before. I read it over the next three days. I do not know how well it sold at the time of its release, but if you are interested in buying a copy, email Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is a terrific read. And far more than a memoir. It is a tour of the “criminal” underground in Canada, primarily Toronto, of the thirties and forties. Bob’s father was a layoff man, the insurance broker of bets for a vast array of Toronto bookies, mostly Jewish it seems. He was also the managing publisher of the Canadian Racing and Financial News, (CRFN), a racing sheet sold at newsstands around Toronto for a quarter, but also the bible for bookies. But he also provided an “internet” service at the time, at one level, a phone service for readers of CRFN to answer their questions about races, and, at a second level, a subscription service for bookies to get the most up-to-date odds on races, as well a precise starting time and reportage furlong by furlong. Davy the Punk was the bookies’ booky.
If you want to read about the Bossin family tree, there is a brief account by Allen Bossin written in 2004 on the internet (https://bossincousins.wordpress.com/history-2/history/) that overlaps and reinforces that minor aspect of Bob’s book as well as imitating Dave’s and adumbrating Bob’s narrative skills in a few sketches that he provides. Both Allen and Bob tell the same story of Babe Ruth. Bob’s grandfather deplored his boys’ love of baseball; it was a wastrel’s activity. The boys protested. Babe Ruth earns $50,000 a year. Grandfather Zussman shook his head and replied, “Fur makhn yenem?” (For doing that?) Zadie Zussman died ten years before Bob was born, but it is clear that the stories about him were embedded deep in Bob’s psyche.
After providing a sketch of Bob’s brilliant but very tough “zadie”, and the fame and success of Dave’s two younger brothers, Hye and Art, this is how Allen summarized Dave’s career:
Zussman never had enough money to send his children to university and that was certainly a shame for son number one. Dave had been born in January 1905 aboard the ship St. Cecilia that carried his mother, Chava, to Canada. He had to go to work at an early age to support the Bossin household. He had a way with numbers, that uncanny ability to arrive at complex arithmetic solutions in his head. He also always seemed to have fabulous sums of money and he was tied in with a group of businessmen, lead by Abe Orpin, a racetrack owner. Abe played the horses and made a lot of money. Dave never bet himself; instead, he was a handicapper who went under the name Reilly. They had a clientele of 25 or 30 professional men that constantly placed bets and Dave was quite a success. [That is, Allen does not explain, Davy was a tout, an expert on horses in a race who offers tips for a percentage of winnings or of the bets.] By the 1930s, Dave was providing instantaneous racing results and, when challenged by the court system, he was successful in proving that plying his trade was perfectly legal. Dave headed a syndicate with a room of about 20 girls on the telephones announcing racing results across the country. The authorities were constantly hassling him, but he was always, quite legally, one step ahead. At one time he partnered with Jack Slavin, his brother-in-law in Chicago. Finally, in 1944 he had had enough of the harassment, and he went into business earning commissions placing bets for the next few years. Eventually he became a booking agent. But Dave died at an early age leaving his wife Marcia to raise their young son, Bob. Dave would have been proud to see Bob go on to give the Bossin name recognition across Canada as an accomplished singer and writer.
Dave died in 1963 when Bob was only 17. His mother, Marci Bossin, “the most beautiful woman in Toronto” (if you do not believe it, look at the picture on p. 97) outlived her husband by a quarter of a century. The book includes insightful vignettes of his mother, at once disarmingly candid with the disguise of a ditzy Gracie Allen. Bob had to navigate the sixties without the guidance and financial aid of his dad. Though perhaps not as brilliant mathematically as his father proved to be, Bob was an accomplished undergraduate and could have easily gone onto grad school. Instead, he became a performer, songwriter and writer. And for the last, I am grateful.
Partly it is personal; I could identify with many elements in the story. Bob tells of the role I served for a time as an eleven-year-old runner (Bob called the role a front-ender, but I had never heard that term) for the bookie at the north-west corner of Lippincott and College St. in front of Koffler’s drugstore. (Murray Koffler would subsequently found Shopper’s Drug Mart). At one point, Bob described the location of a bookie in The Kensington market who operated out of a thin laneway that was a continuation of St. Andrew’s Street. He used the stall of a Shoichet (a ritual kosher slaughterer) as a front. I never knew it was a bookie joint in 1943-44 when I went up the same lane to the identical Shoichet carrying my grandfather’s chickens from his chicken store a few doors north on Kensington Avenue to watch the Shoichet tie the chicken up by its legs, slit its throat as the headless bird continued to flap its wings wildly as the Shoichet began the process of plucking its feather. I earned five cents per chicken run. Seven years later, I was earning twice that sum for my message and bet runs for the bookie on College St.
We had moved to the house in the lane beside my grandfather’s chicken store after we had lived with my mother’s parents on Havelock opposite the Dufferin racetrack that is such an important landmark in the tale Bob spins. But the many locations in Toronto, such as the United Dairy Restaurant on Spadina Avenue, with which I could identify, were not the only memories evoked in reading Bob’s book. There was my life as a corner newspaper vendor followed by my even very lucrative life as a Toronto Star delivery boy.
Bob tells the story of Toronto the Good chaining up the swings in the children’s playgrounds around the city on Saturday evening and unchaining them on Monday morning to prevent children being engaged in frivolity on the Christian sabbath. After Kensington, we moved north of College St. to live on Ulster St. The area was overwhelmingly dominated by Jewish homes and small shtetl synagogues in converted houses. But Lippincott, one block west of Borden, was a gentile street. And when we played hockey or baseball in the lane between the two streets on a Sunday, as often as not the police would arrive to break up the game having been summoned by one of the non-Jewish neighbours. After all, we were desecrating their sabbath.
There are also the literary allusions in the book. At one point, Bob identified one of the many characters that populate the book with the sad sack lachrymose donkey, Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh. “Nobody cares about me,” was often used – by myself and others – as a jocular plea for more consideration of our personal interests and desires. But perhaps one of the most identifiable moments was when Bob described the tough Irish cops of Toronto. We moved from Ulster St. even further north of Bloor St. to Palmerston Avenue (not the boulevard with its much more stately homes), exactly one block west of the Number Twelve Police station. How often did we hear the screams and cries of arrested prisoners! Everyone knew they had been subjected to a beating. But I never saw or heard of anyone regarding these events as anything unusual.
The tale bob tells has many more even deeper themes than Toronto the Good, Toronto the Tough or Toronto the Corrupt. There was the antisemitism. Bob tells the story of Eaton’s Department store refusing to hire Jews, including Bob’s mother, while its rival, Simpson’s did hire Jews. My mother worked for Simpson’s for years as a comptroller operator in its accounting department and was always treated respectfully there. However, when she was single, she had worked for one of the elite clubs in Toronto, but only by pretending she was not Jewish. Genteel, and sometimes not so genteel, antisemitism characterized Toronto at the time. It also went deep into the Canadian polity and Bob refers to and quotes from Irv Abella and Hesh Troper’s book, None is Too Many that provides the evidence and quotes to explain why Canada had the worst record for admitting Jewish refugees before, during and even after WWII.
Canada’s version of McCarthyism also becomes part of the story and George Drew when he was premier of Ontario launched an anti-Communist crusade in Ontario. Allen Bossin describes one of Bob’s aunts as a communist, but Bob in his book was caught up in the larger political narrative as well as the underground one of the crusade of Ontario’s puritanical premier against gambling and his illegal prosecution and even more illegal persecution of Dave Bossin.
But all of the above are the extras. For the book is much more than a memoir if it is even that. Though not a formal history in the academic sense, it is a marvellous history of Jews and their role in the gambling underground in Toronto. It is a tale told with the gift of the story for which Bob’s dad was so famous. I used to love hanging out in the “shvitz” (the steam baths) on Sunday and listening to the men tell their stories to one another as they ate schmaltz herring and drank whiskey on the leather couches in the rest rooms after taking their steaming hot baths. Bob’s book not only took me back there, but did so through story after story that evoked his father’s character at the same time as he provided a history not found in our textbooks.
The book is populated by stories of Harry Belafonte and Frank Sinatra, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and his nemesis, Senator Estes Kefauver, Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong, Sammy Luftspring and Moses Annenberg, Gordon Sinclair and Jocko Thomas, Bernie Shapiro, who became president of McGill University, and his twin brother Harold who became President of Princeton University, as well as their father Max who owned Montreal’s famous Ruby Foo Chinese restaurant and was also a gambling kingpin in Montreal.
It’s a wonderful read.