I was a variety store urchin as a kid. My parents, Sam and Molly, ran a small variety store, post office and ticket agency in Toronto at the corner of College Street and Spadina Avenue. Like many children of small business owners, my brothers Barry, Stan, Gerry and I hung out at our parents’ store during weekends and summer holidays for lack of proper childcare.
To me at the age of six, Max Posner was a gentle giant of a man who lived above my parents’ variety store. My brothers and I viewed him with both amusement and benevolence. My fascination with Max (commonly known as “Porkchops”) was not so much with his size (over six feet tall), or his considerable heft, or his unusually large shoes, but rather his gentle and whimsical disposition. He wore a grey fedora hat and large grey overcoat, even in the summer. As a young child, I didn’t understand what “retardation” meant. I knew that Max couldn’t read. He would vehemently refuse any paper money, insisting on being paid in coins, which he was better able to recognize.
Our parents shared stories about their beloved Porkchops. They described how Max was orphaned as a young child. He was raised for a period of time by a cousin and later placed in various institutional settings, from which he would repeatedly escape. After several such incidents, my parents banded together with other business owners in the area to find Max a place to live and to ensure that he would have sufficient clothing and food.
I recall mornings when Max would emerge from his tiny apartment above the variety store to stand in wait at the store window. Once he received his requisite wave, a hand blown kiss from my mother, he’d trudge off to see Harriet, his other substitute mother at The Bagel Restaurant on College Street. Max would thump himself down on a round stool, leaning heavily on the laminate serving counter. This was a declaration that he was prepared to receive breakfast. With no children of her own, Harriet and Max developed a symbiotic relationship. His daily visits to sit at her restaurant counter nurtured both of them.
Lunch was later served at the Crescent Grill around the corner on Spadina, and supper would be a toss-up between the Homestead Restaurant and the El Mocambo. Max ate for free and ate well. Bathing was a bit trickier. Max lived in what was ostensibly an office building with only toilet facilities. My mother arranged with the local steam baths to supply him with a weekly shower and shvitz. In the 1950s and ’60s, these places were frequented by Jewish businessmen in the area. Wrapped in towels with vapours of steam billowing up from the floor, they raucously discussed sports, business, gambling and family. Periodically, they’d poke fun at Max during one of his weekly visits. Although he enjoyed attention, he could become deeply agitated if pushed too far by being teased. “Go on. Get a job ya bum!” was his best attempt at retaliation, while leaving the steam baths in a huff. At one point in the early ’70s, he refused to return to the Spadina steam baths, to my mother’s understandable consternation. “I’m not goin’ back der Molly!” he declared. Despite her coaxing and cajoling, Max refused to take his weekly shvitz. Eventually, she discovered that the demographics at the local baths had changed – the Jewish businessmen now went uptown. After this revelation, Max was sent uptown by taxi for his weekly bath.
During the day, Max was relatively safe with a retinue of people who served his needs. At night, College and Spadina was inhabited by a different crowd and Max faced a greater risk of being abused. At times, he’d be robbed of what little money he carried and roughed up by drunken bar patrons set loose after closing time. It was inconceivable to me as a child that a man so large and gentle could be the target of violence.
Eventually, Max’s health and quality of life began to decline. Harriet and her husband sold their restaurant and retired. Other businesses changed hands and the close network of caregivers and protectors began to unravel. Max endured a number of hospital stays for heart problems and without co-ordinated home-care services in those days, life at College and Spadina became a struggle for him. One morning, a concerned shop owner asked the police to check on his apartment and they discovered that Max had died, likely as a result of his progressive heart problems.
I often think of this larger-than-life character and of the compassion he drew from others like my mother and father and the business people at College and Spadina who, when called upon, found Max the items he needed, such as size 15 boots for the winter, or a new pair of oversized pants. Max was brave and determined to live independently at a time when the only alternative would have been for him to be institutionalized. He survived because a community of people sustained him until they no longer could.