The Fleetest Hand In Town

SS_MeganticMy great-grandfather was in his 20’s when he brought his young family to Canada in the early 1900’s. He was a millwright, which meant that he understood machinery and structures. Being a millwright in those days was like being on the cutting edge of technology. He could build and fix anything and the New World needed building. So they hopped the SS Megantic to Canada, since his skills were very much not in demand in Revolutionary Russia where being dead was quickly becoming more popular than being a tradesman.

As the story goes, his plan was to get the family on a train in Quebec City, and travel down to Texas where work was plentiful. However, when the train stopped in Montreal, he saw a lot of activity.

He stepped off the train, dipped a sheet of rolling paper into the pocket of his well-worn coat, and produced a freshly rolled smoke a few seconds later. Indeed, rolling cigarettes with one hand was also a skill he possessed, and I always imagine the tip igniting spontaneously as soon as he finished rolling it. He was that good.

So he took a drag, looked around, and decided this was it. “Fuck Texas”, he said in Russian. “Plenty of work here.”

It’s funny, because whenever I lose another toe to frostbite, I always think to myself, “Fuck Montreal”. We’re so similar that way.

They settled in the suburbs, which in those days was a mile from today’s downtown core. The family rented a flat, while my great-grandfather worked various jobs and bartered for materials. There were enough ex-pat Russians around so that he could get by without knowing a word of English or French. Sometimes he got into a jam, but when he did, he’d just dazzle them with the one-hand Jedi smoke rolling trick and walk away with a bunch of free stuff.

It took years, but when he’d gathered enough materials to barter with, he secured a parcel of land for nothing. But nothing in those days was something, so they still had to sacrifice while he worked out his next plan: build a series of flats on the land, and then move the family into one of them. No more paying rent to The Man.

montreal flatsHe built everything with the help of his son Jeff. They did the woodwork and electricity as well as the masonry. My great-grandfather was not a big man, but at 5’6″, he employed stone quarrying techniques known only to the Egyptians and people like Edward Leedskalnin, who I’m pretty sure he met on the boat to North America. I have no doubt that Leedskalnin disclosed some trade secrets.

In a few months, the apartments were complete and the family moved in to one of them. This is where my paternal grandmother grew up, and my father later on.

The apartments were home. Other row houses sprung up around my great-grandfather’s strip of flats and a working-class neighborhood was born. The sky was often the colour of soot thanks to the nearby coal fired factories and there were blacksmiths on every corner shoeing hooves for the local horse population. The streets were hot and treeless. For a new neighborhood, it got gritty and tough in a hurry.

Life was still hard, and my family collected modest rents from their neighbour tenants. When the late 1940’s rolled around and the city declared war on lead piping, they were met with a choice: Replace the lead pipes with copper, or sell everything. It was going to cost a small fortune for the changeover.

As the deadline approached, my great-grandfather was confronted by a city official. He looked him in the eye, pulled out a sheet of rolling paper and with a flurry of fingers, produced a perfectly rolled cigarette from behind the city official’s ear. He was impressed but not as impressed as my great-grandfather had hoped. They ended up selling everything for a song.

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  • Mikewj

    Great story, Mike, and I would've loved meeting your grandfather.

    By the way, in Montreal you lose toes to frostbite, but in Texas you lose them to heat-induced fungus. Personally, I prefer the frostbite because it doesn't smell as bad and you don't scream with that silly Texas drawl.

  • That is an AMAZING story. It was like a book – I didn't want it to end! Unbelievable. How sad he had to sell. My father's mother had a family farm in Arlington that they were forced to sell. At the time I was so mad – like your family – it was for a song. But looking back now I see it worked out just fine b/c that is the money my Dad used to build the beach house.

    Your great grandfather WAS a Jedi! HOW COOL! “Roll One I Will!”

  • hahaha….”these are not the taxpayers you are looking for..”

    Thanks, Katherine! It's sometimes hard to imagine the exact situations from 50-60 years ago, but I believe that they play a part in shaping who we are today. I think it's good to reflect of the past, without dwelling on it.

  • Thanks, BonyMike, glad you liked it.

    I hadn't thought about that disgusting way of losing digits. I think I'd choose frostbite too.

  • Mikewj

    Or, in your case, dwelling IN it.

  • Fascinating story Mike! I really loved this. I didn't realize your family came from Russia! Wow! No wonder they settled in Canada. Texas? Uh, no. I don't think that would be right for you. You are a Canada type guy, you know, super cool and no cowboy hats or boots. And no southern drawl. It's all good Mike. Really such a great tale!

  • How great to still be in the land of your family. Your grandfather sounds like quite a guy. Did you inherit his rolling ability?

  • I loved this story and now, and I want to hear more. Tell us more, Uncle Mike!

    You are probably better off up north than down south in Texas. If you lived there you'd have to learn to ride a mechanical bull and wear funny hats. Plus, it can get really hot sometimes. Besides, I spend more time in my backyard where I can see you, than in my front yard, where I can see only Iowa. I suppose if I was taller I could see Texas.

  • Oh wow! I loved this! I wish I knew HALF as much about my own great-grandfather. Can you roll your own cigarettes?

  • See that's the thing. I have this fantasy about buying back one of those old places and living in one of them. The other thing though is that they're WAY out of my reach now that the area has become gentrified. Those are the flats in the pic.

  • Thanks for reading! Some of my great-grandfathers children did move down to Brooklyn, so there are still a few relatives stateside.

    And, you never know! Maybe I could pull off some cowboy boots, with the spurs! The 10 gallon hat would be a bit of a stretch I think…

  • I never managed the one handed smoke rolling trick, but I like to think that I inherited some of the ability he had to work with his hands.

  • Well, Unky Mike has a bunch more stories to tell, so maybe he'll light a fire and invite y'all over for a cheese party while I spin some yarns! But not in the summer. Too hot for fires. Seriously though, that would be awesome.

    It's funny you'd mention mechanical bulls. There's this bar not too far from me that just got one last year. I won't ride it, but I have friends who have!

  • I could probably do it, but not one handed. And it would probably come out very very crooked!

  • You should try!!!

  • You made me sadpants today.

  • While this was a very good, interesting, enjoyable and fascinating story, I can't help but notice something. You're Russian!! You and I are natural enemies! Here I thought you were just another Canadian – friendly and mostly harmless. But you're part Russian! You could turn on me at any moment and throw Molotov cocktails all around my blog. I'm watching you Mike. I'm watching you closely.

  • Aw..cheer up, Vange! While it is a little bittersweet, the bright side is that I live nearby the old apartments. I took that pic of them just a few days ago.

  • Ziva! There's nothing to worry about! Only my great grandfather was Russian, so really, I'm only like, 1/8 Russian, which is the part that occasionally lapses into fake heavy Russian accent saying things like “now we deploy Wodka.”

    Now where did I leave my ushanka…?

  • Really Ziva, being only 1/8 Russian, he'll just throw cocktails all around your blog, which isn't bad at all.

  • Jepeto

    Refreshing after all that smegma talk 🙂

  • Mikewj

    I just read a very disturbing book about Russians, and I understand Ziva's apprehension here. CheesyMike, is there something you could do to assure Ziva you're not going to invade her blog, make it a satellite of your blog, throw her in prison and torture her until she confesses to being an enemy of the state before sending her off to Siberia to work in the salt mines?

  • Mikewj

    It just dawned on me that you're Russian and Nicky's Greek. What's Jepeto, and have the three of you considered opening some kind of crazy multinational restaurant?

  • Mikewj

    The solution to your dilemma is clear: You need to get rich, and quickly. You need to apply the evil part of your Russian brain–the part that understands how to make a lot of money very quickly–to this problem and then buy back the family estate. Or, perhaps it would be simpler to lob molotov cocktails through people's windows, dropping prices very rapidly, and allowing you to step in as the proud new owner.

  • That's a great idea, BonyMike! With Jepeto's French heritage, it's only natural that we combine the three cultures and create “Freekian” cuisine.

  • Well, there is the fact that the Russian side of me is very diluted after 100 years of family living in Canada. I guess I could go over to her blog and throw a bunch of beavers and maple leaves at it. That should make her feel safer.

  • I can't do it. I just got through replying to your other comment and all I can think of now is throwing beavers all over the place.

  • Mikewj

    Canadians really aren't very frightening, are they? Must make it terribly hard to be tough. “You know I'm very, very cross at you, eh?”

  • Mikewj

    Featuring Smega cheese sandwiches?

  • Mikewj

    I don't even want to say what I'm thinking.

  • Great piece Mike. It reminds me of the importance of recording our family histories. As the older generations leave us we lose more than a family member we potentially lose the rich stories of their lives that make up our heritage.

  • Jepeto

    My father is French-Algerian and my mother is from Abitibi. That makes me a Frealbitibian.

  • Yep. I want to get down as much as I can before it's all lost and forgotten.

  • And we always serve our enemies tea and maple syrup.

  • Hopefully not!

  • 1/8 seems plenty Russian to me. But I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and let you throw cocktails all around my blog, because you actually seem like a very nice Russian. Now there's a contradiction in terms if there ever was one. But know that if you as much as sneeze in Russian, I will sic the polar bear at you.

  • What does a Russian sneeze sound like?

  • What does a Russian sneeze sound like?

  • Mikewj

    Isn’t that like Free Tibet with “ibian” at the end?

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