About the book
- Shortlisted for the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award
About the author
Ryszard Dubanski was born to WWII survivors in a displaced persons' camp near Sherwood Forest (yes, of Robin Hood fame). These days he lives in the Commercial Drive neighbourhood of Vancouver, works in the Fraser Valley teaching Communications at UCFV — and obsessively re-lives Winnipeg, where he grew up from age two to twenty-two.
His publications are various, including prize-winning creative non-fiction, fiction, radio drama, journalism, criticism — plus a cookbook featuring his much-coveted Vatican Lasagna recipe.
One of the Black Teeth stories, "Fat Girl," which tells a stirring tale of love, saints, and pyrogies, has recently been adapted as a feature screenplay.
When I was seven, my route to school was carefully planned. Eastward on Alfred Avenue I'd walk, over the train tracks, around the corner, usually down Manitoba Street, sometimes down Burrows because it took me past the spire of St. John Cantius — after all, he was the Patron Saint of Poland, often mentioned by our nuns, a great scholar who taught for many years at Kracow university. Sometimes I'd go straight up Alfred to Arlington, where my school was, Margaret Scott Elementary, named after an energetic nurse who had worked hard to improve life for the working class immigrant enclave of the North End. I pictured someone pretty and blonde, like our school nurse, handing out...what? I wasn't sure, but something good and useful, maybe mercurochrome?
By either route, I made sure to pass the two corner grocery stores that lay between me and my destination. Originally modest little homes, they had been transformed by rectangular boxlike additions to their fronts, one stuccoed and the other clad in faded wooden siding that matched the original house parts, both with big square windows. Unlike regular houses, they came right up to the sidewalk, pushed out onto the street, metamorphosed into that magical incarnation, the grocery-home.
Nowadays corner stores have extras like fax machines or photo copiers. But their essence remains the same: foodstuffs up front and the families living in back, with a TV or radio usually playing from somewhere in the living area. Often one of the family members will be sitting on a chair squarely placed between the two realms, one eye on the TV and the other on shelves of Campbells' soups, Heinz Ketchup, Kraft Dinner, Ritz crackers, Libby's Fruit Cocktail, canned pork n' beans, various candies and chocolate bars, cigarettes up high beyond the front counter — Players, Matinées, Export A — a cooler holding bottles of milk and tubs of ice cream, and so on.
In those earlier days, the grocery-home fascinated me. It was all I could possibly want, an absolute contradiction to my mother's stories of starvation in Siberia, fights for a potato during the war, hunger rations in the DP camp. Here there were shelves and shelves of glittering canned goods, candies, drinks — everything, unlike the limited and sometimes barren larder at our little schanda by the tracks. When you stepped inside a grocery-home, often there was no one even there, in the store part, I mean, no one guarding the hoard, and for a moment you'd be alone in this treasure trove of goodies, transfixed by plenty like some Aladdin stumbling into a genie's cave of wonders. Then the father, mother, or son/daughter school-kid clerking between bouts of homework came in, to see who was there and to ring up your order. Tantalizing smells drifted from the darkened domesticity beyond, where the rest of the family stayed, inside the home part, having supper maybe, or lunch, a cup of coffee or tea.
Often I entered not to buy anything, because I didn't have any money, but on a personal reconnaissance mission, researching all the different grocery-homes in the neighbourhood, not just the two on the route to school. Each was a little different, and I just liked to meditate on the cans of soup, tins of salmon, boxes of Corn Flakes, cookies with names I didn't understand (Oreo?), the oddly shaped corned beef cans from Argentina, all in somewhat odd arrangements, to dream...
But it was a perilous business, my obsession. The grocery-homers looked at me strangely. Some would ask rudely what I wanted, then send me sharply on my way. And one day a huge Great Dane jumped unexpectedly out of one of the grocery-home's tiny fenced yard and attacked me. It leapt up, yowling in a deep-throated basso profundo, then stopped. For a moment we stood eye to brown shiny eye. It scrutinized my face uncertainly, and then clamped its huge salivating black mouth on my left wrist. It was a token bite that didn't even break the skin. Still, I was terrified, and remained afraid of dogs for many years after.
Another day, I came across a stack of newspapers on the corner of the street where one of the grocery-homes stood, tied with twine, just sitting there, maybe fifty copies, obviously having fallen from the sky, or been lost by someone. I stooped to contemplate this gift, not quite knowing what to make of it. I twisted a few copies of the Winnipeg Free Press out of the pile, then started for home, not sure what to do with the newspapers since neither of my parents read English and I didn't read period — when an angry grey-faced man in a flannel robe and slippers ran out and yelled at me. I dropped the papers and ran. It was years later I realized that was how papers were delivered to corner stores, just dumped on the street or sidewalk in front of them.
Despite these close calls, at bedtime I still prayed my family might one day own one of those miraculous grocery-homes where we would all live happily. In the morning, when I woke up, I'd stay in bed for a minute or two, eyes shut, imagining what it would be like to wake up in a grocery-home instead.
Everything would be different: in my pyjamas, I'd pad downstairs while the household slept, turn on the lights in the store part, go out among our laden shelves before we were open for business, wander up and down, and then reach up and grab: anything I wanted, anything I felt like. No shortages, always a surplus — that was true freedom. It meant never having to worry again.
“Black Teeth and Other North End Souvenirs is a memoir of growing up in the ethnic neighbourhoods of Winnipeg's North End in the 1950s and 1960s. The author, Ryszard Dubanski, is a Polish-Canadian writer who now lives in Vancouver.
— Graeme Voyer Prairie Fire Magazine
“Replete with small epiphanies and unabashed impressions, this curiously titled memoir chronicles first-time author Ryszard Dubanski's personal odyssey as a Polish immigrant kid living in Winnipeg's North End during the 1960s and '70s.
Currently residing in Vancouver,…” >>
— Bev Greenberg The Winnipeg Free Press