Billed as a literary festival for the 21st century, next week’s Pages Festival + Conference, Unbound gathers mixed-media events that combine contemporary Canadian artists and writers with practitioners from the worlds of film, graphic design and digital media. Kicking it all off is the book launch of Davy the Punk, a charming, Runyonesque portrait by folk singer-songwriter Bob Bossin of his father Davy Bossin, a colourful character involved in the gambling-world underside and Jewish subculture of Toronto the Good in the 1930s and ’40s. On March 13, Mr. Bossin will perform excerpts of his one-man show Songs and Stories of Davy the Punk and be interviewed by former Ontario premier Bob Rae. We spoke with Mr. Bossin from his home in Gabriola Island, B.C.
In your book, you tell the story about how you learned, in your early 20s, that your father’s nickname was Davy the Punk. How did it make you feel?
I found it kind of interesting. Years later I began to think about it, and I thought the story about me finding out about it could be the kickoff point for the book. My father was an interesting guy. In most social situations, he was virtually mute. What he said to me was, “What you don’t say can’t be used against you.” But among his pals and his family members who he knew and trusted he was a very good storyteller. He was not secret or private. So, long before I found out that he was Davy the Punk, I knew something of his story.
He was involved in Toronto’s gambling underworld in the 1930s and ’40s, but we wouldn’t call him a gangster, would we?
He was a lawbreaker, there’s no way around that. But in that era, the gambling business was relatively honourable. Toronto, at that point, was not a mafia town. And gambling was a relatively victimless crime.
Why did he get into gambling?
At that time, gambling was a largely Jewish and Italian business, and, I suppose, Chinese as well. They were all immigrant groups that were barred from normal industries. So, a lot of these guys formed the gambling business. Jews couldn’t get a job in an insurance company. Eaton’s wouldn’t hire them. There really was a level of racial prejudice, particularly anti-Semitism, which blocked just about every white-collar avenue.
How about journalism? Your uncle was Hye Bossin, a prominent writer.Yes. And at one point he went to one of the Toronto papers and was told they already had a Jewish reporter, and that they didn’t need another one.
Dr. Gabor Mate described your book as a poignant search for an “infinitely resourceful, elusive and wounded father.” What do you think he meant by wounded?
I’ve thought about that. My father never showed that aspect of himself to me. But it was probably true. How could you grow up in the kind of poverty he did, with a dad that beat his kids – though that was pretty normal in those days – without being wounded?
It’s easy to root for criminals, probably because they’re seen as the underground. Is there a danger of romanticizing the lives of people such as your father?
No question. I grew up on Damon Runyon stories, and his crooks were quite lovable. I believe my father was an honourable man, though, and I think he had that reputation. Certainly I’m biased in my father’s favour. But he was my dad, and he was a pretty good dad.
This interview has been condensed and edited.