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Remembering a most remarkable man, friend and colleague

Updated: Feb 25




David Sherman

 

For about 40 years, give or take a few, Fred and I had lunch. It was immutable. We were former colleagues at what was once a proud newspaper, the Montreal Gazette, and after we abandoned the mother ship, we decided to continue our friendship by sharing weekly noon meals that usually included MSG, Thai to Vietnamese, Japanese to Cambodian, Chinese to Korean. Between lunches, there were family dinners, long bike rides, winter walks along the rail lines that transverse the city, convivial discussions on his welcoming front porch, weekend market excursions and my wedding, for which he donated his beautiful home and his culinary chops. The jazz pianist who laid out his evening’s supply of joints took him aback – Fred was ascetic – but his hospitality trumped his distaste.


It was a friendship of a lifetime. It didn’t run out of dissection of life’s ironies and stupidities, grievances and cruelties, as endless as our anger, tempered only by comradeship and menu, occasionally fuelled by an exchange of New Yorker magazines for copies of New York Review of Books.

Our friendship lasted close to 50 years. We were friends, brothers, confidantes, always with a shoulder for the other. There was love and there was friction. We never ran out of fodder for dialogue or letters. What we did run out of was time.

A few months ago, in Morocco, which he then called home, after suffering mysterious symptoms of lethargy and cognition difficulties, Fred had a debilitating stroke, and, a couple of weeks ago, died. Luckily, he left indelible memories. If you wish, come along for a ride through the decades and meet a man of unparalleled intellect and obstinance. There are no more letters, no more essays for the blog you’re reading, no more Fred. Only memories. A few, plucked from the basket that was filled with most of a lifetime of them, I share below. It's all I have left of a remarkable man.


Our friendship was born in Montreal, my birthplace, his home of choice after fleeing Pasadena to avoid the war. But, after three decades or so, I left the big city for small-town life in the mountains north of Montreal. So, lunch involved a commute. But, not long after, Fred left for Morocco. He had converted to Islam and, I’m sure, moved, in part, to die in a Muslim country. Planning for the future was part of who Fred was. We lost our lunches. We lost our face-to-face friendship. So, we wrote. Real letters. “Dear David …”

For 40 years we shared the good and the bad, the delightful and the tragic. Not only over food. Circumstances sometimes dictated a long walk. A seat on his porch.

Fred was about a decade older and several inches taller. He walked tall and straight, a stride as determined as the man. But he shrunk with gusto and, I think, though I’ve lost an inch or more, last I saw of him, we were almost able to look each other in the eye.


One of my first days at the Montreal Gazette, around 1977, a young reporter anxious with ambition, fresh from a $115-a-week gig at the Sherbrooke Record, I walked into the library -- our generation didn’t call it a morgue -- and was fascinated by a slim man at the first desk pulling out lunch from a bottomless brown paper bag. It reminded me of the typical circus act -- how many clowns could squeeze into a little car? The stranger meticulously lined up four or five pieces of fruit in a straight line, a couple of sandwiches and maybe dates or figs or nuts. Might’ve been a thermos of tea. The memory is hazy but I was awestruck. One slim man with food for three large men.

I introduced myself. We learned quickly our politics were not dissimilar. And Fred was not averse to using double negatives. From then on, whatever story I was working on, I’d call Fred and he’d put together a package of research, always taking the extra step and often adding his own thoughts, opinions and the occasional contact to benefit the piece. The paper was not a rag at that time and together, we put out some good stories.


When we collaborated on unionizing the Gazette, Fred ran for president and I lobbied the newsroom, one on one, pushing him for president. It was democracy at its most grassroots and he was elected. The Montreal Star was still alive in those days, the nefarious behind-the-scene deal to shut it down and several other papers in major cities to divide the newspaper landscape into monopolies was yet to come.

Fred leveraged the competition to negotiate the best contract in the country. Guys in the editorial department called him Fred the Red. And few had brotherhood toward the librarians or people in circulation. Fred had organized steelworkers and garment workers and soon became disenchanted by the newsroom’s indifference to others, took a sabbatical and was offered a package to stay away. Soon after, I quit. He went on to work with the film technicians’ union. But solidarity forever was no longer in the vocabulary for many and he went home and later travelled the world to explore and write.

An American by birth, a draft resistor by common sense, he left home to flee to Greece, where he mastered Greek, fell in love with his life-partner Ingeborg, a Canadian, and ended up in Montreal where he mastered French and started writing freelance for a weekly rag I was editing and later La Presse and Le Devoir.


He became a three-time Governor General-award winning translator with an equally brilliant friend and colleague, David Homel, and an author of eight books, give or take. And later, an avid contributor to this blog, where he discussed his new home in Morocco, his new friends and community and his curious conversion to Islam, which cost him most of his Canadian friends.

After Fred and I helped unionize the Gazette and Fred was elected president, I was assigned to write about the nascent World Film Festival market, where, ostensibly, filmmakers bring their films to sell to distributors. I was unimpressed and wrote that it lacked decent films and buyers though had no shortage of pornography. The version in the next day’s paper had my byline but it bore no resemblance to what I had written.

The editor, a woman who was later caught under the managing editor’s desk by an unsuspecting IT guy who walked in to service the computers and surprised her servicing the managing editor, rewrote my piece. It had been transformed into a celebration of the glories of the festival and the market. When I confronted her, she said she couldn’t publish what I had written -- she feared the truth would cost her invites to the festival parties and the B-level celebs.


I was livid and embarrassed my name was on this piece of public relations bullshit.

I called Fred, seething, and he suggested we take a walk. I was young, knew everything and completely naive. Fred talked me down and suggested we go on the offensive and file a grievance. He was not intimidated by conflict. In fact, his conscience demanded it.

We filed a grievance and the contract was amended. Editors were no longer allowed to substantially change a reporter’s copy without their permission. If they did, they had to remove the byline. It was unprecedented and a great victory for those of us in the trenches, especially when the British tabloid editors invaded. If they couldn’t embarrass you by rewriting your copy, they did it with nauseating headlines.

 

After we both quit to work from home – it was inevitable, Southam had turned the paper into a bank machine, quality journalism in the rear view, I called Fred to see if he wanted to have lunch. And, so, it began – decades of an immutable regimen of long, nap-inducing weekly lunches. And there was nothing off the table, though plenty on it.


There were a few years where the lunch of choice and occasional family dinner was satay noodle soup, a meal in a bowl, not for the faint-of-heart, at the Tong Nam, in Montreal’s Chinatown. The chef and owner always visited our table, proud of his blend of 30 addictive and crave-worthy ingredients. Each spoonful was a riot of flavour. Sweat popped on our foreheads. Our throat constricted. Cough reflexes kicked in. It was divine. We maintained our masochistic pilgrimage, Friday after Friday, summer and winter. We occasionally brought family and friends for dinners, sharing the ecstasy, until the day we found the doors locked and the dining room dark. We stayed in withdrawal.

But the real food, of course, was our friendship -- two men engaging in a ritual as old as man and fire. Shared food and conversation. Topics unlimited. World problems solved. Personal problems, if not solved, burdens lessened.


Over one meal, I described a friend’s wine-tasting. I said the participants talked about the various wines, “legs, body, nose,” though they soon had trouble talking. It seemed to me the tasting was just a bourgeois pretense to get drunk. They talked about “fine wines” but they were just getting wrecked in a “refined” setting with a vocabulary to match, I said.

Fred liked wine, and bought a few favourites by the case. At a subsequent lunch, Fred said he had concluded that I was right. He gave away his wine collection and stopped drinking.

 

When the GM plant in Sainte-Thérèse, a suburb north of Montréal, went on strike, protesting plans to shut it down, despite the fact it was the most productive in North America, I asked Fred if he wanted to join the picket line. He didn’t hesitate. We drove to the plant, 30 minutes north of town, stopped at a Tim Horton’s and, pooling our resources, bought as many coffees and donuts as we could and brought it to the picketers. The workers were suspicious at first, but the snacks and our avowed union creds broke the ice. We walked and talked with the strikers for an hour or so, comrades with strangers.

Fred was the only person I knew that would’ve dropped what he was doing and joined me for that adventure, a symbolic venting of our outrage. Our solidarity was not in vain. There is now a collection of big box stores and a massive parking lot where once they built Chevy Camaros. The last rolled off the assembly line in Lansing, Michigan, in January.

 

Over another of our lunches, probably Lebanese, Fred, as always, was wiping his plate clean with a shard of pita, despite complaining that he was stuffed. Fred habitually finished every morsel put before him, mindful of his days of hunger in Greece.

“Fred,” I said, “you don’t have to let a stranger in the kitchen decide how much you eat. If you’re full, it’s legal to stop.” He agreed though I’m not sure his habit of wiping plates clean ever abated. Fred was a hungry man in almost every way.

On a similar note, I laid down my cutlery mid-lunch one day and said I had started to try and slow down when I ate. I was in the gym a lot in those days and always ravenous. I have a memory of him calling me and saying he had decided to follow my lead and put down his fork and knife mid-meal to slow down a bit. Fred's habits were intrinsic to his dogmatic personality and change was a Sisyphean challenge, but, every once in a while, it happened.

 

One summer, my wife at the time and I joined Fred and Ingeborg early Saturday mornings for a bike ride north to Gouin, a road parallel to what older Montrealers call the back river. We followed the same route along the service road of the elevated 40 that bisects the city and north to the river where we would stop and, take a breath and an energy bar and return. Our route along the 40 West took us by the Continental Can Company, a two- or three-block-long, one-storey factory which was a fixture in Montréal all my life, fascinating for its squat immensity.

We passed it every ride until, one week, it disappeared. Torn down, reduced to a two-football-field-size field of rubble. A lifetime landmark vapourized. I was shocked. When we took our break by the river, I told Fred, “They tore down the Continental Can Company.”

He said, “What’s the Continental Can Company?”

Fred was a straight-ahead cyclist, a horse with blinkers, eyes only for the road in front of him. Everything else was a distraction. Which may be why one day he rode into the back of a parked truck; another day the bike path ended but not his machine-like pedalling. He went over the handlebars. Neither slowed him down. He continued to spend every second weekday afternoon riding up and down Mount Royal. I joined him once and made an appointment with a physiotherapist the next day. As in so many things, Fred and I were in different leagues.

 

When his brother died in New Zealand where he lived after returning from the war in Vietnam, Fred needed to talk. We sat on his porch as the sun went down while he recounted the bitter memories of the war years, his resentment of his parents’ desire that he, too, go to Vietnam, his scorn of the U.S. and his love for his brother who he believed was a victim of the war though he died after coming home. His hatred of the U.S. only grew with age as did his disdain for the mainstream press which he felt were co-conspirators in the slaughter.

 

Often, I would join Fred’s weekly 7:30 a.m. excursion Friday or Saturday to the Jean Talon Market. Fred’s shopping plan was as meticulous as the invasion of Normandy. He had his week’s menu in hand, main courses and sides, and that and only that was pursued. If corn was planned for next Wednesday, corn it was and only one purveyor could be visited. He had a spot for strawberries, a spot for bread, a spot for tomatoes, a spot for green beans, no deviation permitted. Following along dutifully, I soon followed his footsteps when alone, because, as in almost everything, his choices were unimpeachable.

 

I admitted over a dim sum lunch that I had the audacity of reading a best-seller by someone like John Grisham. Fred replied, dripping with scorn, that reading those books was akin to using crack cocaine. I suggested, over a har gow dipped in hot mustard, that perhaps his viewpoint was a little extreme. After a few bites, he admitted perhaps I was right.

I’m not sure he was being honest. For Fred, reading for pure pleasure or to pass the time was as wasteful as taking a vacation and sitting in the sun or enjoying the scenery as you pedalled at the prescribed 80-90 rpms. Pleasure had to have purpose.

 

When sushi first invaded Montreal, I suggested his initiation at a new place on Laurier, west of Parc. When the platter was laid on the table, perfectly aligned pieces of maki and the requisite meticulous design of parsley and ginger, he stared at it curiously.

“Fred, it’s going to be orgasmic,” I said, “Take a bite.” He was skeptical but popped a piece in his mouth and chewed slowly. Then his face lit up with that huge smile and, with his mischievous grin, looked down at his lap.


It wasn’t quite orgasmic, but close enough.

 

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8件のコメント


John Pohl
John Pohl
2月25日

Wonderful, David. I hope I go first so you can write my obit!

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If you go before me, John, I will write that you really painted by number and you were really 4 ft 6 inches and wore stilts your whole life.

いいね!

Beautiful tribute to a beautiful friend, David.


Fred opened one of his chapters in his autobiographical Then We Were One with a quotation from Robert Louis Stevensons Requiem:


Home is the sailor, home from the sea ...

いいね!

Susan Heid
Susan Heid
2月24日

Friendship like this is rare and beautiful. Moments and memories to cherish forever.


Susan Heid

いいね!


いいね!

Really at the risk of sounding trite. You are a lucky man. I am not a writer so can't do better than this crowed and won't try.

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Whatever you do, try not to die. That's key.

いいね!
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