Alon Ozery’s tale of 1980s Toronto, before the bakery: Coleman’s Deli and high school hideaways

Born to an Orthodox Jewish father and a British mother, Toronto-born Alon Ozery was raised in Israel, and educated in Canada. Ozery Bakery, which he co-founded in 1996, spawned from the Pita Break restaurant he started with his dad on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. His new memoir, Even the Sidewalk Could Tell, focuses on his experience coming out of the closet after he had a wife and three children. But before that, he got a teenage job in a deli…

My family landed in Toronto with nothing but our suitcases. We spent the first few months living with family and then moved to a small bungalow of our own in a middle-class neighbourhood. We also got a secondhand Lada, a boxy car from Russia that I was deeply embarrassed by. On the days my dad drove my brothers and me to school, we insisted that he drop us off a couple of blocks away so that our classmates wouldn’t see us. The school was located in a fairly affluent area, and most of the other kids our age were driving their own Golf GTI convertibles.

Shortly after we moved into our new home, I decided I needed to find a part-time job. My parents never asked my brothers and me to work, but we didn’t have much money, and I wanted the ability to buy nice things for myself. One afternoon, I walked to a small strip mall plaza located on the main street. The first door I came upon was a small but bustling Jewish deli called Coleman’s. Up until then, I had only known Canadian food as burgers, pizza, and hot dogs. Suddenly before me was a whole world of Jewish traditions right here in North America: corned beef, pastrami, knishes, latkes. It was all there. The smell of steaming brisket filled the entire restaurant.

I walked up to the cash register, where a young guy greeted me. My hesitation and nervousness must have clued him in to the fact that I wasn’t a customer. He introduced himself as Steven. Little did I know how lucky I was that he was filling in for the student who was supposed to work that day. I also didn’t know that this marked the official beginning of my long career in food.

It was a red-banner day for me because that day in Coleman’s, I also learnt something about myself that continues to be true: when I want something, I have the ability to get it without overcomplicating things like I normally do. I can just go out, knock on doors, and get what I want. As an adult, I can recognize that as one of my strong suits. Sometimes I get a no, but rejection doesn’t bother me because I’ve learnt that every negative response gets me that much closer to a yes.

I was hired as a dishwasher, and a few months later, both of my brothers began working at Coleman’s too. The job provided us with spending money and also meant that we could contribute to the family money pot when necessary. With that first taste of financial freedom, I was determined to be successful. To be honest, this desire to succeed would prove to be a great burden as the years went on. The drive to succeed took first place on my priority list. I discovered that I loved buying myself brand-name clothes. I wanted people to see that I could afford to buy them. There were other things about myself that I didn’t want people to see, so perhaps in some ways I used the veil of success and everything that came with it to divert people’s attention (and my own) away from other issues.

But of course, I didn’t yet know all of this when I started at Coleman’s, back in the days when bread and red meat weren’t yet the root of all evil.

In some ways, Coleman’s introduced me to a bigger world. It was there that I had my first encounter with a gay person. Terri, the front-of-house manager, was a happy guy who liked his booze and his Latin guys. Every few months, Terri’s latest boyfriend would join Coleman’s waitstaff just as Terri’s previous boyfriend disappeared. I noticed that Terri’s and his boyfriend’s lives seemed to involve a lot of drinking. Other than that, they all seemed nice enough, but I had nothing in common with them.

Work, school, and my emerging drive to succeed didn’t leave a lot of time or energy for dating. Before my family moved to Canada, I noticed that a couple of girls suddenly hung out around me more than they had before. While I noticed, I didn’t think too much about it. Then one of them began writing to me when I moved to Canada. I liked her and responded, but the exchange didn’t last long. Maybe because I sprayed my mom’s perfume on my letters to her?

During my two years in high school in Toronto, I had a few other encounters with girls. I was so lonely in this new, large high school that I welcomed friendship of any variety, platonic or romantic. A cute girl of Czech descent started visiting me at Coleman’s. We ended up going out a few times, and then one night she invited me to her house. Bon Jovi played on her tape deck as we talked over a glass of wine. So sophisticated. In the middle of the conversation, as “Bad Medicine” thrummed in the background, I suddenly found myself being wrestled down onto the carpet, pinned under this girl. I think we kissed.

What I remember most about that night is feeling incredibly uncomfortable. To this day, I still sort of think that I owe this girl a bouquet of flowers and an apology for that evening because I feel as if I led her on. I wanted to spend time with her, but not in a romantic way. I never expressed that, though—probably because I generally liked the idea of having a girlfriend, despite the fact that I felt nothing for this specific girl. Our relationship felt like having a girlfriend in a play. She was right there next to me, but what was happening wasn’t for real. I wanted a girlfriend, but not enough to make it happen. More specifically, I was never attracted enough to a girl to make it happen.

There were other close encounters, though. Another time, I was on a break at school, roaming through the corridors and looking for a quiet place where I could spend the long forty minutes until my next class began. I often looked for escapes at school to avoid empty conversations with students who knew me only from the classes we shared. One of these sanctuaries existed at the end of the school building, next to the gym and janitor’s room. Few students used the stairs over there, and I loved the dimly lit, cool, and quiet space. I spent my time in the stairwell either reading a book or getting lost in my own thoughts as I daydreamt about being somewhere else. Usually that involved faraway places I hadn’t been to that I could only assume were idyllic, if not perfect.

As I opened the door to walk into the stairwell that day, I noticed someone behind me. It was an outgoing Muslim girl who wore a hijab. I knew her from one of my classes. She had always been chatty and nice to me, but I had never really thought much about it.

My heart fell as she waved. Shit, now I will have to talk to her, I thought. Still, not wanting to be impolite, I waved. Then I let the door close behind me.

Undeterred by the closed door, she followed me into the stairwell and approached with a smile on her face. “How are you doing, Alon?” she asked.

“I’m good,” I replied, perfectly cool. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, just looking for a quiet place to chill. Can I chill with you?” she asked.

I was so uncomfortable, but I said, “Sure.”

She appeared to take my response as a cue to come even closer. I had nowhere to escape, thanks to the table that was randomly placed in the stairwell, blocking my exit. Who put this fucking table here anyway, I wondered.

She continued moving closer and closer until she closed in on me, wrapping her arms around me. I began to sweat lightly, which I always do when I’m uncomfortable. She tried to kiss me. When her face was just a few centimetres away from mine, I frantically wiggled out of her reach.

My heart was pumping as I walked quickly towards the door, apologizing and saying that I really needed to go. As I walked away, all I could think about was how pissed I was that my sanctuary was no longer safe and now I had to find a new one.

Needless to say, that girl never talked to me again.

Excerpted from Even the Sidewalk Could Tell: How I Came Out to My Wife, My Three Children, and the World by Alon Ozery, published by Regent Park Publishing. Fifty percent of the profits are donated to Friends of Ruby in Toronto, which is dedicated to the progressive wellbeing of LGBTQI2S youth through mental health services, social services and housing.