The Barefoot Bingo Caller: A Memoir

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9781770413429: The Barefoot Bingo Caller: A Memoir

A rollicking memoir through the shifting zeitgeist of the last five decades

In The Barefoot Bingo Caller, Antanas Sileika finds what’s funny and touching in the most unlikely places, from the bingo hall to the collapsing Soviet Union. He shares stories that span his attempts to shake off his suburban, ethnic, folk-dancing childhood to his divided allegiance as a Lithuanian-Canadian father. Antanas has a keen eye for social comedy, bringing to life such memorable characters as ageing beat poets, oblivious college students, the queen of the booze cans, and an obdurate porcupine. Passing through places as varied as the prime minister’s office and the streets of Paris, these wry and moving dispatches on work and family, art, and identity are ones to be shared and savoured.

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About the Author:

Antanas Sileika is the author of four works of fiction. His first book, Buying on Time, was shortlisted for the Leacock Medal for Humour and the Toronto Book Award as well as serialized on CBC Radio’s Between the Covers. Woman in Bronze and Underground were both listed among the 100 books of the year by The Globe and Mail, and the latter is in development for a film. An essay of his will be included in Best Canadian Essays of 2016. Antanas is the director of the Humber School for Writers. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1953–1993: Hermes Repaid


To prevent me from reading all day long my mother bought a piano.


A piano demonstrated that she had finally got back something of what had been lost by the war. A piano represented culture and achievement, and her youngest son was to be the embodiment of the return to grace. All the better that no one else on our working class street in Weston owned a piano.


Although I had no musical talent, I could use the piano as a form of retaliation upon my much older brothers.


I loved nothing on television so much as movies, especially the old ones and even the corny serials that had once been shown in cinemas before the war. Sunday afternoons were zones of freedom for all of us after church and before finally buckling down to do homework on Sunday nights. Serials and double-header movies played on TV in the afternoon but, sadly, so did Wide World of Sports.


My older, more powerful brothers would watch any sport at any time. I didn’t begrudge them the baseball and football games on TV, and we all loved hockey, but they would watch anything, from water skiing to pole vaulting to motorcycle racing. I found it a crime that arcane sports, barely sports, trumped my movies. So I sought revenge.


“Why are you playing the piano?”


“I’m practising.”


“Why do you have to practise while we’re watching TV?”


“I have to practise whenever I can.”


“We can’t hear the announcer.”


To add pungency to my aggression, I played badly, repeating errors without ever correcting them. Playing badly took no extra effort. I did it naturally, to the acute pain of not only my brothers, but also my piano teacher, Mr. Rose.


After giving up on personally teaching me, Mr. Rose kept assigning me to new and different piano teachers in his school. One died, to be replaced by another who liked to mimic students’ playing by simultaneously playing on their forearms. After some alert parents had him fired, my next teacher was Frank, a hairy-fingered Italian who taught to make a few extra dollars to supplement his job playing for burlesques at the Blue Angel. Frank had seen it all, and the Tony Bennett knock-off let me bang away unchastised through clouds of his cigarette smoke. If I aggravated his hangover too much, he’d tell me to run across the street to Inch’s Drugstore to get him a cup of coffee.


My brothers used the same tactic. “At least bring us some Kool-Aid.”


“Why should I?”


“We’ll give you a quarter.”


“When?”


“As soon as we have one.”


I knew their weaknesses and they knew mine. A quarter would pay for a comic, a bottle of pop, and a small bag of chips. I brought them their Kool-Aids and lived in the dream of collecting the quarters, which were really nothing more than notional coins, bitcoins of the past, because they existed only as abstractions.


Older brothers were mixed blessings. They were frenemies avant le mot: champions, teachers, exploiters, torturers, benefactors, and the only ones who really understood you.


Andy and Joe were ten and six years older than me. Andy was practically an uncle, the one who dressed me in the morning when I was still too small to get my own socks on. They were strong, sporting boys. Joe was the only boy in the history of St. John the Evangelist elementary school who could knock a baseball right out of the playground. The two of them could play “goalies” on the driveway for hours with two hockey sticks and a tennis ball. They knocked a lightweight golf ball around nine holes in our suburban backyard and threw footballs out on the street with deadly accuracy.


Naturally, they expected to train me in their skills, but by a cruel roll of the genetic dice, I had come out timorous and inept, the third brother in fairy tales but without the happy ending. Their attempts at coaching could be hazardous.


“Don’t be afraid of the ball,” said Andy.


“Don’t be afraid of the bat,” said Joe.


I was backcatcher to my brothers, who were pitching and batting, and I stood well back of the bat, so far back that the ball was already arcing low, making it hard for me to catch.


I wanted to please them, so I did what I was told and pulled up close behind Joe. His bat caught me straight across the forehead on the back swing.


It could have been worse. I could have been hit on the forward swing.



“Stand over there,” said Andy. They had learned a little of my incompetence, and if they couldn’t train me, at least they could keep me out of the way. I stood by the back door as the two finished preparations over by the garage. They had devised bolos by putting two hardballs into a pair of complicated string bags and then running a thin rope between them. Bolos were used to wrap around the feet of runaway cattle. We didn’t have any cattle. Still, we might have cattle one day, and if we did and the cows ran off, we would have bolos to stop them in their retreat.


Andy swung the one ball around over his head while holding on to the second, and when he finally had enough momentum, he let go.


His aim must have been off.


I had never been hit by two baseballs in quick succession.


My footballs wobbled and never flew very far. Nor could I ever get the hang of catching one of them. I held my hands up, but the ball always flew between them. I was more goalposts than receiver.


Seeking to emulate my brothers, I played on the elementary school hockey team, and I was the only kid in grade four who was often asked not to bother to dress for the game. My enraged immigrant father would shout down at the coach from the stands, but the coach was indifferent. As for me, I was relieved. All skates seemed designed to hurt my ankles. In my four-year career on the ice, I scored only one goal, and it was disallowed by the referee, based on no rule I had ever heard of, unless it was to grant a career shutout to a hockey player who was not even a goalie.


This difference in temperament extended to other parts of our family life. Andy and Joe ate hamburgers, potato pancakes, and roast pork with gusto. I preferred sautéed mushrooms and could only eat eggs if they were scrambled dry and served on lightly toasted bread that was quartered diagonally.


It drove them crazy to watch my mother prepare special meals for me, the baby who came into the family when my parents had finally reached middle-classdom after years as struggling immigrants. My brothers still remembered the bleak DP camp in Germany and the dreary farm outside Fort William in their early years in Canada.


They had helped my father build our house. At first, they all lived underground in the basement while the place was slowly banged together above them, scattering sawdust on them daily. As for me, I grew up in the completed house in my own bedroom with cowboy curtains and an electric train set. On warm days, I could open my window and listen to the real trains that passed through Weston a half mile away and imagine a better place than the one I inhabited, a place where sports were not the measure of a boy’s success.


I escaped into books and became the household reader, occasionally driven outside by my mother, who thought it wasn’t healthy for a boy to be inside so much on fine days.


I was no better in sports with boys my age than I was with my older brothers, but the street presented many more options, especially in the empty lots and farm fields that had not been developed yet. There we built catapults and, if we had any money, bought cannon crackers to blow up toy soldiers. War games were played every day, and once my mother called me indoors and gave me two dollars because she was embarrassed that I was using a Luger plastic water gun while the other boys all had long guns. She was mortified to be the mother of the most underarmed kid on the block. We built go-karts whose wooden disk wheels always fell off because we had no axels and used nails instead. We kept up low-level gang warfare with kids on other blocks, using dirt clods as our main weapons. We took child prisoners whose hands we tied up with clothesline, and we held them until they wet their pants or it was time for supper. Indoors, we built telegraph systems using scraps of wire, an old door buzzer, and my electric train transformer. But we never learned Morse code well enough and had to run up and down stairs to confirm the dots and dashes with the sender.


As my brothers and I grew older, the difference in temperaments persisted.


We couldn’t really fight because they were so much bigger and stronger than I was, but they had taught me a few tricks. If you can’t beat someone with better strength or speed, then beat him any way you can.


I was in grade eight when the friendly janitor, probably bored down in his vast boiler room in the school basement, grudgingly let a few of us boys hang around with him. He was a sincere and effusive Italian and all of us, although on the edge of high school and coolness, still loved boyish things. He opened up the furnace to show us the jet of hot flame that heated the boiler. He let us try on fifty years’ worth of costumes from plays and arcane Catholic processions. There were silk capes, tiaras, crowns of thorns, crosses of many sizes and materials as well as dozens of broken plaster saints that he didn’t have the heart to throw out. And among these riches, we found a near complete set of boxing gloves.


There were three well-worn twenty-ounce sparring gloves, fuzzy leather pillows. We couldn’t find the fourth glove no matter how hard we looked. The janitor was a boxing enthusiast, and he had us try them on and spar. The missing glove was a left, so the boxer who wore only one glove on his right wrapped a towel around his left hand and was permitted to use that hand to block, but not to hit.


Down in that cellar, Vaughn Currigan and John Varneckas and I became enthusiasts, learning to keep our fists up, pulling our punches on the instruction of the janitor. We were all aware that one bloody nose would bring down the wrath of our principal, Mother Cecily. We learned to keep our fists close to our faces, like we’d seen in the movies, and we already knew that hitting below the belt was forbidden.


We boxed before and after school. We learned how hard it was to keep our hands up. And we learned restraint, never going in too hard for a punch.


We took turns taking the gloves home. On my day with the gloves my luck was good because I found my brother Joe there after school before our parents came home. Down into the basement we went, where the Ping-Pong table and the hockey sticks were stored. I was the one with the single glove, and we started to spar.


Joe was bigger and faster than I was, yet I could block most of his punches. But not all. He was being particularly light with me, careful not to hurt me, but he kept making it in with taps on my cheeks and kidneys. He was getting on my nerves and a decade of helpless-little-brotherness was about to be cast off. Joe tended to swing wide. He hadn’t been trained by our janitor.


Tap, tap, tap across my cheek and shoulder, and finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought of the backswing of the baseball bat. I remembered the bolos. The next time I saw an opening, I went in using the forbidden left hand, wrapped only in a tea towel. I went straight to his nose, not too hard but hard enough.


His moment of shock was all I needed. I went tearing upstairs to the ground floor and then up another flight to the bathroom, the only door with a lock on it. He wasn’t far behind me, but I had enough of a lead to lock the door and put my foot against the bottom on the inside.


It was like being in a horror movie. He banged on the door and threatened me at the same time that he ordered me to open the door. Any fool knew how to open a bathroom door lock with a bobby pin, but it wouldn’t work as long as I held my hand on the inside knob and didn’t let the lock mechanism turn.


“My nose is bleeding!” he roared.


But that was a good thing. The closest other sink was in the kitchen, and he eventually had to go down there to get a towel.


I would have to come out eventually, but my parents would come home from work soon and protect me from him. I sat tight and waited.


He couldn’t get me then, but we all had long memories. Brotherhood was like the Cold War of the time, mostly uneasy peace with occasional skirmishes. Nuclear war never actually broke out. We saved those conflagrations for exchanges with our father. And at the same time Joe took me under his wing after Andy moved out. We went to James Bond films, and if he couldn’t turn me into a good sportsman, at least he turned me into a reasonable fisherman.


We grew older and missed the whole hippie thing because they were too old and I was too young. I felt as if the French Revolution was happening, but I couldn’t take part because my parents had grounded me. Worst of all, my mother worked for the Feds as a chemist on street drugs, and she warned me that every police sample came into her building with the name of the accused on it, and it wouldn’t do to have the last name we shared on the brown paper envelope.


We may have missed the cultural explosion but we didn’t miss the fashions. For a while Joe wore long sideburns and a Fu Manchu moustache, and eventually all three of us had beards. Photographs from this time are painful to look at, decked out as we were in wide ties and long collar points.


Then brotherhood under one roof was over. We all went our own ways. Suddenly, there was nothing to argue about, unless it was politics, and the only sports that ever appeared in our common lives were occasional Super Bowl games we watched together. Even then, I never knew the teams or the players and watched the games as if they were some sort of spectacle, say Kabuki theatre or ballet. But it was better than OK to sit around with them.


They liked to remind me that I was the spoiled one, and I would remind them about how they had beaten me, but these were old stories by the time I turned forty.


There was a big surprise party for me. Such a surprise that I needed two shots of vodka to calm down. Sixty people gathered together from all parts of my past to celebrate the middle of my life.


Near the end of the party, when we were getting ready to go home, my brothers held something out to me.


It was a blue velvet bag with a gold string. I knew it well. Crown Royal whisky used to be sold in those bags. We kids had all loved the bags and put marbles or other treasures in them. They hadn’t been made for quite some time.


My brothers didn’t say anything and I took the bag. It was kind of heavy. I jerked it up once and heard the clink of coins inside. I looked up at them, uncertain.


“The quarters we owe you. Thanks for the Kool-Aids.”


1969: The Rocket


The town of Weston was the victim of the City of Toronto, half-consumed but not yet fully digested, still visible like a freshly swallowed frog inside the body of a snake. Not much happened in Weston that would register on the national news, but what happened in the world outside found its muffled way into Weston.


Our high-school principal, in a burst of newfound liberalism, now permitted jeans to be worn to school, and boys with long hair were no longer given the choice...

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Book Description ECW Press,Canada, Canada, 2017. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. A rollicking memoir through the shifting zeitgeist of the last five decadesIn The Barefoot Bingo Caller, Antanas Sileika finds what?s funny and touching in the most unlikely places, from the bingo hall to the collapsing Soviet Union. He shares stories that span his attempts to shake off his suburban, ethnic, folk-dancing childhood to his divided allegiance as a Lithuanian-Canadian father. Antanas has a keen eye for social comedy, bringing to life such memorable characters as ageing beat poets, oblivious college students, the queen of the booze cans, and an obdurate porcupine. Passing through places as varied as the prime minister?s office and the streets of Paris, these wry and moving dispatches on work and family, art, and identity are ones to be shared and savoured. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9781770413429

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Book Description ECW Press,Canada, Canada, 2017. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. A rollicking memoir through the shifting zeitgeist of the last five decadesIn The Barefoot Bingo Caller, Antanas Sileika finds what?s funny and touching in the most unlikely places, from the bingo hall to the collapsing Soviet Union. He shares stories that span his attempts to shake off his suburban, ethnic, folk-dancing childhood to his divided allegiance as a Lithuanian-Canadian father. Antanas has a keen eye for social comedy, bringing to life such memorable characters as ageing beat poets, oblivious college students, the queen of the booze cans, and an obdurate porcupine. Passing through places as varied as the prime minister?s office and the streets of Paris, these wry and moving dispatches on work and family, art, and identity are ones to be shared and savoured. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9781770413429

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