It is all a whirlwind; a life constructed in little vignettes, little parables that pass by like clouds in full bore – over in a second.
We made our way south by southeast to North York and the aftermath of the windstorm the previous day. The usual post-blustery bedlam: cops with flashing lights making you wait and then waving you on. Other lights, clean out, and always the one citizen who panics and throws off the synchronicity of the complete stop, wait your turn and then go. For the life of me, I cannot figure why that auto-choreography is so hard to figure out. It is the same with roundabouts, which hold the record for ways to get killed. There were ten telephone poles snapped or pulling the others over along the way, like memories dragged into something, when all they really wanted to do was stand tall and stable, like telephone poles doing their job.
We took an old, less familiar way, turned right on a road we remembered, went under the bridge, and were about to take bets on whether to turn right or left at the T-junction. Right was the easy guess, for there was a tidal pool of vans and cars and old Italian guys at the garage winery. Bingo! The annual President’s Day. I used to come every year with my Old Italian Guy, in the blue van and then later, when he stopped crushing grapes in the garage altogether, in the silver van. Ten pails of carignane, and moscato and alicante to make it dark-like. Put the green garbage bags on them to keep the stains off the upholstery. Drive home carefully. Back into the garage and syphon the lot from the back of the van through the trap door, into the cantina and the blue fifty-gallon drum. My Old Italian Guy improves on the system every year. He makes it effortless and, if it gets any easier, all we will have to do is drink the wine.
But today, I am with my wife and we are late. The barbecue and the old cranky Italian guy behind it are already going. The sausage smoke fills the air and most of the buns are pre-cut in a large plastic bag. It is organized bedlam as old Italian guys bring their vans up or pop their trunks and wait for their name to be called and their order to be filled. We pass them and go inside, and there is only one old guy ahead of us. I like him immediately, like those stupid little Konrad Lorenz goslings, imprinting at first sight.
My Old Guy is dead, as of last year, and the year before that, he had “the problem with the comprehension” and could not be sprung from the rat’s nest. The nearest we got was a wheelchair ride in the winter, up to the Flagship Grocery Store and the wine kiosk, for a thimble full of red. Swallowing surprised the old guy. It made me a bit sad, when he coughed sipping it and missed the garbage can when he threw it out.
I see that the bling cop is here again this year. In the golden years there were old-Italian-guy gardening hats, old-Italian-guy T-shirts, aprons – the land of plenty, and they gave up popping the balloons and said: “here, take what you wish”… and I did take what I wished. My son got a hat, my daughter got one, one for the Old Guy, one for me, a shirt for my wife. Last year my wife had to fight with the bling cop. We came out of there by sheer will with a hat and a T-shirt. We just didn’t have the energy this year, so I played the game, picked a cork and got my old-Italian-guy gardening hat. I adjusted the strap and put it on in time to stand in front of the cashier. She is as unhappy this year as she was last year. When I tell her I want one pail of “ready-to-drink red,” she says there is none. I wag my finger at her, cajole playfully, invite her to be human, and tell her that last year she had some. Must have been my hearing, but all of a sudden she has some. When she says 64 dollars, I have this feeling that her mangiacake detector is on and she is overcharging me. You can fool some of the people, most of the time.
My wife could not care and has fallen into a beautiful, dreamy Italian-woman trance. I know she is remembering her father, and it is then that you can see that being another culture can be externalized and that it is a sphere, and when you are in it, you are enchanted. Sure, I am being robbed. I pay anyway and happily. We exit thru a back hall to use the bathroom and emerge right by the barbecue and nonna’s hot sauce. Sure enough, the old Italian guy is as cranky as last year, and gruffly gestures for us to “get the bun.” So we do, and he gives us the sausage. We stand and wait for the Spanish guy to call our name and I am happy. I am standing in the sun, watching old Italian guys waddling like all the Canada Geese that have showed up and are now beginning to nest. What a bunch of sweeters. I could take all of them home, or better still, be invited to their homes to work hard, learn and eat well.
Some young Italian guy, of the “stallion varietal,” asks for a favour and beckons us over for a contest photo-op by a “Win this Fiat” car. I get the inner-grin and gesture to my wife. In shutter-speed we are right in there, alongside all the other old Italian guys. I am sure when they download the shot, there will be a sign over my neck, saying: “Where’s Waldo” or something. It makes me laugh and hungry to tell anybody, really. I find myself in another photo shoot. This time it is with old Italian guys in front of a skid of purple twenty-litre juice pails. It feels like a Woody Allen movie. They all look out of place, with one foot already into the cantina and sucking on the siphon to get the work done. There will be mortadella sandwiches on chewy bread once the last tool is put away. Last year it was like Dunkirk, trying to cobble enough bottles together to decant all that wine. I drew the line at empty olive jars.
Finally, they call our name and it is just the one pail, but the young guy still wants to take it to my car. At first they say they are out of garbage bags. I had the practice wisdom to have two in my car from home, but I want to see what they will do for a foreigner. The Spanish guy finds one, slips it on and gets our pail all shipshape for loading. I make a joke to the young guy, we laugh and there it is: whirlwind and all that: genii in a bottle and, if I could have one wish, I wish I could have my father-in law-back.
Glenn Carley is the author of the urban opera, Polenta at Midnight: Tales of Gusto and Enchantment in North York (Vehicule Press, 2007), and a contributor to the anthology Italian-Canadians at Table (Guernica, 2013). His creative non-fiction, Good Enough From Here, will be published by Rock’s Mills Press (Fall 2019). He resides in Bolton, Ontario, with his family (Gcarley@rogers.com).