Funny how some of the most innocuous conversations, born on a street corner, seemingly nondescript, are in fact rooted in the most profound of truths. Everyone has had these moments.
So I'm standing outside "The Barn" restaurant in Toronto ("It's called The Barn because all the animals go there" I was once told), having a smoke, and some hapless soul walks up and asks me for a cigarette. That'll teach me to open up a full pack on Queen Street. As I hand this guy his smoke, he looks at me and in all sincerity asks, "Do you know Tony?".
Do I know Tony. Yeah, sure. I know hundreds of guys named Tony. Portuguese Tony. Italian Tony. Even some English Tonys. There's plenty of women I know named Tony, too.
I glance at him a little more closely now, the street in me always wary of the con. What's this guy's trip? From his mannerisms, the ticks in his facial expression, the nervous shuffle and inability to stand still, it was obvious that there were several issues going on.
"I don't know," he says. "I think he's Portuguese or Italian."
No kidding! This line of questioning was going nowhere. I flicked my cigarette butt onto the street and looked straight into the man's eyes.
"There's all kinds of guys named Tony around here," I said "Just keep looking."
The man shuffled away. He had one of those small portable flashlights dangling from a carabiner attached to his belt buckle. There goes Diogenes, looking for an honest man.
And at that moment, it hit me, like some mystical silver bullet that struck me right between the eyes and exploded in my brain.
My best friend growing up was Tony. And he had a brother named Luigi, though everyone called him Louie. And they had an older sister named Maria. Like me, they were first generation immigrants. Their parents were from Italy, mine from Lithuania. And they came to Canada to find a better life.
Tony's father Joe was an economic refugee, part of the wave of Italian immigrants who left an impoverished village in the south of Italy as the post-WWII economy of Italy floundered. Joe left Italy for Argentina, but finding life there not economically viable, went to Canada instead.
This was a typical story. The men leave their villages, leaving their wives behind. They come to Canada, find work as labourers and team up in shared accommodation, saving their pennies until they can send for their wives. Their frugal existences had a profound and lasting effect on their children, who learned the core values of work and family.
We also learned that the men worked too hard, drank too much, fought with their wives about money and gave the kids a shot in the head if they acted up. Which was often.
My "son of immigrants" story was slightly different. In 1948, my mother, her sister and her parents left Genoa on the Greek ship "Nea Hellas." They were headed for New York. The war years had been spent as displaced people, walking across Europe to escape the tyranny of Stalin's Russia and the constant state of war that engulfed Lithuania as first the Germans, then the Russians, invaded the tiny Baltic state.
What must have it been like to leave your house and friends and possessions and walk, yes, walk, across half of Europe, a Europe seen from street level, a Europe of bombed out buildings and struggling for food after years of war? How does that affect a young person's psyche?
My own destiny was being played out on that voyage. My mother met my father on the boat and he was going to Canada. She told her parents she was in love and was going with him. Hard to imagine me letting one of my daughters go like that, but it happened. They got off the boat at Pier 21 in Halifax, and made their way to Toronto, where my father enrolled to study at the faculty of music at the University of Toronto. That's why I was born in Canada, not the U.S. That was my destiny.
My house growing up in the late 60s, was just across the street from Tony. And while my parents were going through a divorce and the subsequent upheaval, Tony's house was an oasis. I was accepted into the large extended family. I ate there. When we misbehaved, I got disciplined by his parents along with Tony. His grandmother used to chase us with the broom, or shower us with water from the hose. We spent those long days of summer playing outside; we joined the same soccer teams; we grew up and chased girls and listened to music. Tony's house was the bedrock on which my early existence settled. I learned to speak Italian.
Later, as we grew older, the crowning rite of passage was being invited to the same table as the Old Guys, telling stories but always being respectful of the generational hierarchy. We drank wine, we played cards. When Tony came over to my house, my aging grandfather always wanted to play some poker. Instead of wine, we drank vodka; Grandpa got drunk. Tony helped him to his bed. Years later, when Grandpa was on his deathbed in the hospital, it was Tony who brought him some vodka. I lifted his head and gave him a drink, the last wish of a good Lithuanian. He died the next day. He was 98. Tony and I were pall bearers.
Things change. People grow apart. Different priorities and all that. Tony and I were the sons of immigrants, and we grew up Canadian. But our very core essence was rooted in the immigrant experience. But you can't have roots and wings. And we had to fly.
The simplest of thoughts are often the most profound. The maxim, or aphorism, "know thyself" has had a variety of meanings attributed to it in literature. It was inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Plato employed the maxim "Know Thyself" extensively by having the character of Socrates use it to motivate his dialogues. Socrates says, "I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things."
And in that one moment when a guy stopped me on the street and asked me "Do you know Tony?" it helped me remember who I am.
Stuff like that happens all the time.