The sign said “Mom’s Deli”, which suggested an old school cheese and meat shoppe, maybe old world comfort foods, but Mom was my grandfather George and his place didn’t serve much comfort. The place consisted of a couple of wobbly tables with mismatched chairs. It also had a low lunch counter that seconded as a bar and “mood lighting”, which really just meant, dim low lights.
My great-grand parents came to Canada in 1941, in the middle of World War Two, to escape the creeping tyranny they saw happening around them in Thessoloniki, north Greece. Like Italy the intelligencia were enraptured by the fascists, though the peasants knew better and my great-grandfather George, knew that the illegal schemes he was caught up in would get him shot, sooner rather than later. So he gathered all the drachmas he could and secured himself and his pregnant wife Athena passage abroad on a steamer by bribing a galley worker from his village. The ship, filled with olive oil, took two months to cross the ocean allowing them to get the hell out, slowly and safely. They only knew they were headed to North America and nothing about Canada.
Shortly after arriving in Canada George had our last name changed from Papadopoulas to Phillips to get rid of the Greekness after hearing about the 1918 anti-Greek riots in Toronto, where Greek owned businesses on Yonge street were trashed by xenophobic mobs over three days. Never mind his thick accent, my great grandparents were Canadians now.
After the riots the bulk of newly arrived Greeks, set themselves up on Danforth Avenue, George and Athena moved into a small rooming house on Sumach Street in what was then the Irish Ghetto of Cabbagetown. George had a couple of old world hustles that he used to build up a small nest egg, over the next several years. Though prohibition had ended in Ontario in 1927, the puritanical laws around access to alcohol still meant there was a viable business selling booze late at night and on Sundays. Since bootlegging brought George into contact with all kinds of people he inevitably started fencing the stolen goods people showed up with to trade for a late night snort.
By the time my grandfather, George was in his twenties, his father George, bankrolled him to set up a restaurant on Parliament street. This allowed George Sr., to sell booze out the backdoor, while giving his son an honest direction in life. George Jr., my father, started running the place in 1980, forcing me to help out there after school and on weekends.
While the sign said “deli”, there wasn’t much in the way of food. Some cooked sticks of chicken and pork, some rice, some potatoes. George would open a couple of cans of soup in the morning and leave them to warm on low all day, calling it his homemade special. The real business was beer. He would serve up trays of half-pints, 24 for $20 or $1 each, of foamy, room temperature draughts that the neighborhood couldn’t get enough of.
I remember one day after school I was unpacking a box of beer glasses that had arrived directly from Germany. I asked my baba why he would buy beer glasses directly from Germany, when there were plenty of restaurant supply stores around the city.
“Take a good look at the glasses son”, he said with a mischievous grin.
“They look just like the ones we already have”, I replied, puzzled.
“Okay now fill one of the old ones with water and pour into a new one”, he told me.
I did as he asked and was surprised when the new one overflowed.
“What’s going on?”, I asked incredulously.
“The new ones are 6 ounces and the old ones are 8. However they are the same size, shape and weight, so no one will know the difference. From now on for every $1 glass of beer I serve I will make an extra 25 cents, fuck those bums coming here and getting mouthy with my waitresses”. He said with the pride of a politician who figured out how to game the system, to their benefit.