Sometimes a story finishes itself at the just the right time. This is one of those amazing stories. The cycle feels complete on this one.
I debated where to place the big ‘reveal’ in this story. That’s an important discussion. Where should the ‘reveal’ happen in the arc of a storyline? In this case, I’m going to default to my Russian friends who are more prone to start with the reveal, thereby removing your anticipation and allowing you to focus on the poetry of the narrative. I should also add, that unlike my Russian friends, this story will be infused with happiness, laughter and small doses of crippling self-doubt. Dostoyevsky would be bored. Samuel Clemens on the other hand…
A few days ago, I met Morley Torgov. You may or may not know who Morley Torgov is. That’s really not important. What’s relevant is who Morley Torgov represents to me and why it was such a big deal that I met him.
When I was about thirteen years old, growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, ON there was little else to concentrate on aside from family and friends, girls, school, sports, and television. My seven older siblings were mostly out of the house by then but I did have my older brother Phil at home as my portal to the grown-up world. (He was six years older and introduced me to most of the music I still listen to today).
It was around this time that I began reading some of the English literature textbooks that were left behind in the small bookshelves of our basement barracks. I remember most of them like they were in front of me today. A picture book about Adam and Eve for children; Aristotle: Politics; The Norton Anthology of English Literature; You get the drift – I was indoctrinated to believe that we are from original sin until I read Huxley’s Brave New World and that basically evened things out for me. A thirteen-year-old left alone with these intellectual observations should surely have a teacher to help explain these concepts…but I didn’t. I just read them believing I could figure it out on my own. I even went as far as to pick up Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and worked my way into the first chapter before I felt the weight of pretention and ignorance fall upon me. I’ve still never picked that one up.
Then randomly, I found a slim paperback with an intriguing title:
Night. By Elie Wiesel.
I finished it in one sitting. It changed my life.
The harrowing account of the holocaust as told through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy. This is when I needed to find someone to explain life to me beyond my bedroom walls.
My mother was good at this. She was able to take my then troubled mind about the horrors of what I’d just read and somehow bring it all back to reality. “Sometimes, man’s inhumanity to man is unthinkable. That is why we need to listen to others and offer our empathy. These are not things you should trouble yourself with at your age. Go outside and have fun.” And usually, that was the perfect remedy.
That same year, I happened upon another book offered to me from one of my best friends Dale who said it was ‘hilarious’ and ‘about our hometown!’
Wait. What? About our hometown? People who write books are authors. Authors don’t come from Sault Ste. Marie. How is that possible?
The book was called ‘A Good Place to Come From’ by Morley Torgov. Now, here I was fresh off reading about a child’s experience in the Holocaust and now I was reading about a childhood experience growing up Jewish in Sault Ste. Marie in the 1940’s with his father always by his side. Not only was it brilliant and heart-breaking and eye-opening, but it was also hilarious. I’m talking laugh out loud every thirty seconds hilarious. (It’s no wonder I didn’t ask my mom if I could convert to Judaism – a question which wouldn’t have been answered with the same affable open-mindedness).
Ultimately, the story recounts Morley Torgov’s real life as a child in the Soo. His father owned a shop on Queen St. where they lived. His mother had left them when he was little and it was down to him and his father and a small group of Jewish families to carve out a life for themselves in this remote northern Ontario city of steelworkers and hockey moms. They ate at Kings Chinese restaurant. They swam at Point Deschenes. They contributed money to help build a synagogue. They eventually made their way to Toronto. Morley’s reflection of these days would be summed up with “A Good Place to Come From.” Not a great place yet more honestly titled a good place. I’ve come to respect that decision to call it a good place to come from: because it is.
After reading this book I was off to the races. No more deep, dark exploratory literature for this kid. Gone were the days of Wiesel, Siegfried Sassoon, Orwell, Huxley, and Poe. It was out with the old and in with the new, and that meant hello satire, irony, and sarcasm. Suddenly reading Leacock, Twain and Swift perfectly aligned itself with my surroundings. I had Morley to thank for that, and that’s a big deal.
A few years ago, I was visiting my original friend Dale in Vancouver whose life story would read like somewhat of a Kafka novel at this point. The term Kafkaesque is overused these days but I best describe it as the finest episode of Breaking Bad: The Fly. Walter and Jesse spend the entire episode trying to kill a fly, but it’s so much more than that.
Dale’s life has been an unbelievable journey. From the day we met as friends in pre-school we (along with six other buddies) all hung out together until our post-secondary years kicked in. Along the way, Dale would win junior cycling races for all of Ontario. He’d be the first to hold down two jobs and buy and car. He was a skilled draftsman and artist. He had a keen sense of history and math and ultimately studied history at university. After taking a summer job doing data entry at the Bank of Montreal he never left. He stayed on with them ultimately finding a mentor and studied to become a Certified Financial Analyst. He finished all three levels, which are akin to becoming a doctor of finance and ultimately had a meteoric rise to the top of the heap – beating the street on a regular basis. He was approached by a small but mighty firm in Vancouver and worked for options for years. He ultimately made it to the front page of the National Post’s business section as the analyst of the year and became somewhat of a celebrity (at least in the eyes of his old hometown buddies). They say, luck and timing have a lot to do our successes, and in Dale’s case that seems to be a very valid truism. With years of reinvesting into the stocks of his employer, the company was sold to RBC at a major multiplier and with that came, Freedom 40…and wealth beyond what most of us could only imagine. And to think, this was our oldest pal? He hadn’t really changed that much. He’d just married and settled into a beautiful house in Vancouver. Now retired, he could truly do what he wanted to do. First things first…get back his first love – cycling.
During a tour break, I was staying with Dale and his wife Crystal for the weekend when the accident happened. I had to fly home for a funeral and leave my car in their driveway and got the news the day before I was to fly back to his place.
He was cycling, hit a rut, flew over the handlebars and smashed his head into the pavement with such velocity, it rendered him lifeless in a coma for a long month until at last, we all realized he was going to make it.
It’s been several years now since that accident happened and a lot has changed for our friend. He’s been confined to a wheelchair unable to walk much and has consistently worked at rewiring his brain while attending rehab daily. If anyone can make their way back to some semblance of normal, I know he can do it. Fortunately, as he says it, he is very lucky to have the resources for top quality medical assistance.
Last year during my visit on tour, Dale brought me into his music room. The standard old CD’s he’d long been listening to before our modern day roots revival. (Which has come and gone btw). Mostly Chess recordings of Howlin’ Wolf or Willie Dixon or even relatively obscure Toronto artists like Big Rude Jake or Handsome Ned. And then I saw it. Sitting among the towering stacks of CD’s tucked away on a small bookshelf: A Good Place to Come From. Morley Torgov.
“Dale, what the hell? Is that the original you loaned me from years ago?”
“Hmmm, probably not. It could be. I don’t remember. What a great book eh?”
“I loved that book. That book had a big impact on me.”
“Yeah, Aymar I remember you saying that. That’s cool.”
Just a few months ago, without warning an article came across my news feed that the Sault Ste. Marie General Hospital was gifted $3 million dollars to assist with cardiac care services by none other than my friend Dale Harrison.
What a great day. I was a proud friend as were we all. What struck me in the articles that ensued were Dale’s references to how the Sault helped shape him with a strong work ethic and offer him a set of values that he’d keep with him for the rest of his life. In other words, he looked back on his old hometown as a good place to come from, much like Morley did.
Now, (in the truth is stranger than fiction category) I recently had a call from a woman named Kimberly Sinclair of Spin Count media. Kimberly has been working my latest CD release to radio and called to mention that she has a secret weapon in her arsenal – a social media whiz kid named Max Kirsh. “Max is great. He can help with your social media and revamp your website and I would highly recommend him, Jay!”
“You don’t have to tell me twice Kim.”
Max currently lives in Halifax but is from Thornhill, ON. He happened to be home visiting his parents when we first met so he said: “Why don’t we just meet at my parents’ place?”
“Good call Max. That’s the way we’d do it in Sault Ste. Marie.”
“You’re from the Soo? My mom was born there. She’s a Bassett. Her first cousin was Howie – whom she says you’ll never forget if you knew him.”
“Interestingly enough Max, my brother Dave used to talk about him. Said they played basketball at the Y together.”
Dan and I arrived to meet with Max and were introduced to his mother Paula. Even though Paula left the Sault when she was quite young, we seemed to know all of the same people and places. It wasn’t before too long that I blurted out “Yeah…like Morley Torgov said it’s a good place to come from!”
“Oh my god, Jay. You remember Morley? Of course, I do. If you’re from a certain generation in the Soo he was our Mark Twain.”
“He’s my dad’s best friend. I call him Uncle Morley. He’s still alive and well at ninety-one living in Toronto with his wife Anna-Pearl.”
“Wait! What? This is crazy. Paula. There are too many worlds colliding for me to believe what is happening right now.”
“Would you like to meet him?”
Suddenly about four weeks later, I’m at Morley’s condo in mid-town Toronto, literally a five-minute walk from where I currently live. Paula meets me in the lobby as we await her father and friend to accompany us to their unit. We walk in together where I meet Morley and his wife Anna-Pearl. Both looking at least ten years younger than their rightful age, they immediately make me feel welcome and show me around their home. It would be exactly as I had imagined for some strange reason. A beautiful view of the Toronto skyline poured into their long surrounding set of windows. Art filled the walls and corners as did books and magazines. A healthy stack of well-read New Yorkers rested on the coffee table next to the pot of tea and cookies Anna-Pearl laid out. (Paula informed me that Anna-Pearl is still taking continuing education courses – what an inspiration!)
We did the dance that strangers do when in these situations. It’s a tough one because I’m showing up as a bit of fan and I certainly don’t like it when fans of my music approach me with that conceit. I’m always gaurded against someones preconcieved image of me. So knowing that, I took the opportunity to explain myself clearly, getting right to the point. I must have sounded like a crazy fan.
Sitting in the circle of six, I said “Well, yes I’m from the Soo…and I read your book A Good Place to Come From…and it made a big impact on me as a kid you see…cuz I’d just been reading some heavy stuff and you made me believe a young kid could be a writer from the Soo…like Frank Paci was. I won a poetry contest back then and met Frank Paci. Then I read his books too. Black Madonna and The Italians…and then I went to school and studied literature at university but also loved music and became enamored with writers who were like you as well as songwriters like John Prine and Tom T. Hall. You know it’s all connected Morely. Right? Like my friend Dale who gave me your book when I was a kid who also believes the Soo is a good place to come from.”
It truly felt like that’s how I carried on. I’m not one to get too nervous these days, but when someone’s creative force has had an impact on you like this, it’s no small thing.
After my ramble, we settled into a proper visit with a great conversation about who knew who and who remembered what.
The highlight was the story of the building of the synagogue.
“It was at the bottom of Bruce St. right Morley?” said Anna-Pearl.
“Yes, and it still is. Remember so and so and so and so wanted the different names for it? As I recall it lead to a fist fight out in the parking lot.”
And with that, I chimed in “Ahhh yes…violence in the name of religion and they hadn’t even put a post in the ground.”
With that one wise-crack, Anna-Pearl laughed out loud and said “So true. So true! Have some more tea.” A major break-through in group!
As the conversation continued, I noticed a great trait in Morley. Seemingly soft-spoken, but when he said something it was usually well-timed lines of comic relief. He reminded me of Bob Newhart for some reason: dead-panned but hysterically funny when he wanted to be.
I just wanted to relay this story to you before the holidays as a way of saying that my Christmas came early this year. I really hope yours is a great one too. The river we’re on; this crazy journey of our lives; Sometimes it brings us home – right to where we started. It reminds us of the reasons we left and the reasons we keep coming back. If you’re lucky, you can say you came from a good place. If not, here’s to hoping you find one.
In the meantime, find A Good Place to Come From and give it a read. If you don’t laugh the night away, I’ll personally call you up and tell you bad jokes until you do.
Interested in exploring more about the concept of the big reveal? If you’re an artist, songwriter, author or filmmaker I’d suggest you immediately read the transcripts of the interview between Truffaut and Hitchcock. My oldest brother gave me this book several years ago and it is a must read for anyone in these artistic pursuits.