Joe Cirone calls it his soft spot.
Any time he gets a free minute at his Queen Street grocery store, Cirone likes to peek over the tomatoes in the window and look straight down to the foot of Munro Park Avenue, where he has a clear view of Lake Ontario.
It’s a beautiful view, and the same one that convinced a 19 year-old Alex Livingstone to buy the store back when it was still just a foundation, in 1904.
This January marks a full 50 years since Cirone bought the store and opened Cirone’s Foods. When he got the keys, in 1965, he and his wife Grace had just got engaged – they now have nine grandchildren.
“I feel good,” said Cirone, who turns 75 this year. Standing at the counter in a wool cap and red grocer’s coat, he said it’s hard to imagine retiring.
“This is my vitamins here,” he said. “My lake, my view, my people that come in, ‘Joe, Joe, how are the kids?’”
Groceries were a natural fit for Cirone, who grew up in Modugno, Italy, then a small farming town about 13 km inland from Bari and the Adriatic Sea.
His father owned a wholesale store where farmers brought in cases of cherries, walnuts, olives, and olive oil.
Cirone remembers his father hiring people to crack walnuts by hand, and seeing his future father-in-law deliver barrels of olive oil on a huge cart pulled by three horses.
As the oldest child among his five brothers and one sister, Cirone got an early dose of responsibility.
“When I was two, I knew exactly what life was about,” he joked.
Cirone helped teach younger kids at his first school. Run by two of his aunts, the uniform was a black smock that had white stripes to show each student’s grade. Today, he and Grace still argue whether she had one or two stripes the first time they met.
By 16, Cirone had a teenage dream job – spray-painting cars at an auto shop outside Bari.
“I was young, but hey, tough,” he said, smiling. “I never lost that zest, you know.”
The day before he flew to Canada with his brother Dominic in search of better work, Cirone got to paint an Alfa Romeo in custom beige.
“There were guys older than me, but the masters, the owners, said, ‘Joe, you do that,’” he said. “No mistakes.”
In Toronto, Cirone and his brother joined their dad at an apartment in the Upper Beach. It was 1956.
Finding good work was tough at first. Cirone started painting cars again at a Bay Street Chevrolet dealer, but although he had studied English in Italy, he struggled to keep up with the customers.
For a while he worked at a Danforth car wash, making just 95 cents an hour.
“We made do,” he said, adding that on days off they sometimes fished near the docks at Leslie Street and sold baskets of smelts to their neighbours for a few dollars.
They also picked dandelions along the railway tracks north of Gerrard.
“We cooked them,” Cirone said. “Hey, Vitamin C! Even back home we did that.”
Eventually, Cirone got a job as a mover with Tippet-Richardson and finished his Grade 13 in night school.
“I couldn’t keep going,” he said. “I worked, and I gave all my money to my father.”
But by the time he finally caught up with Grace, whose family moved to Toronto a few years after his, Cirone was working as a produce manager for Power Store, one of 32 Toronto supermarkets run by Leon Weinstein. Business was thriving.
“Once he gave me some tickets and a cigar,” he said. Cirone told Weinstein he didn’t smoke, and besides, he didn’t think they should light up in his basement office.
“’If I tell you to smoke, you smoke,’ Weinstein told him. ‘Light up with me!’”
Cirone coughed like crazy, but he enjoyed the tickets, which were for a Toronto symphony show at Massey Hall. Weinstein gave him nine, enough for his parents and all his siblings.
“They couldn’t stay quiet,” he said, laughing at how his younger brothers giggled through the whole show.
When Joe and Grace were ready to start their own family, they didn’t have a lot of room at first – the suite above Cirone’s Foods has three bedrooms, but it wasn’t long before they had four children, two of them twins.
Eventually, they would move to a big house in Scarborough, but even when it was a bit crowded, Cirone loved the suite above the shop – mostly for the lake view out his bedroom window.
Bob Fullerton is a long-time friend and neighbour of Cirone’s, who met him at about that time, shortly after Fullerton moved onto Munro Park.
The two would chat when Fullerton came to pick up his newspaper and, when his kids were at Balmy Beach School, Cirone would step out to help them walk across Queen.
Over the years, Fullerton said he has seen Cirone go quietly out of his way to help several people, in big ways and small.
At one point, a man who had fallen on tough times was sleeping in a car on Munro Park. Cirone and another nearby family helped him find a place to live, and for a while he hired him to work at Cirone’s Foods.
Today, the man is doing much better, working and caring for his elderly parents in B.C. and planning to visit Cirone in the summer.
“He just does that kind of stuff,” Fullerton said.
“He just wants to help people, and doesn’t want anything for it.”
Knowing Cirone as a man of strong faith, Fullerton recently told him who his two favourite Catholics are – Pope Francis and Joe Cirone.
“He just about flipped,” Fullerton said, laughing.
“But he really is like the new pope in the Catholic church – he’s got regard for people who need help.”
Msgr Sam Bianco, pastor at Corpus Christi, said Cirone is head usher at the 9:30 Sunday mass, but also a great help to people outside his formal role.
“He’s both an usher and a welcoming committee,” he said. “If you came to our parish at that mass, he’d be the first public face you’d see.”
Standing by his store counter, wearing a wool cap and his trademark red grocer’s coat, Cirone said he has had offers to buy Cirone’s Foods.
But when he looks out at the lake, he said, it’s hard to think about leaving.
“I’ve been blessed, because I’m never lonely,” he said.
“I look at the lake and say, ‘Hey where’s God? Walking on the water.’ I say my prayers there, and He listens.”