Sunday, August 24, 2008

how cold was it?

(raisons de partir or moving signs)

Cold, glacial chill seeping under the covers on a frozen February night woke me with the sudden realization that the heat had failed in our Montreal loft. I could hear our son squeaking a loose rail on his crib, a sure sign he was awake, but not sounding upset or uncomfortable. He had a tendency to throw his blankets off anyway so I always made sure he was well bundled for bed. Nevertheless, this wasn't the usual nip of a winter night in our drafty place but the portent of a numbing, pipe freezing arctic cold that would murder further hopes of sleep while we worried about how much colder it could get.

The loft was the fourth floor of a building on Boulevard St. Laurent with tall windows at front and back and lots of open space in between separated into personal living and work areas by painted partitions and hundreds of yards of extensive drapes. In the distant past it had been a nightclub but all signs of that were mostly gone and we were down to bare brick and supporting posts. The two floors below ours were clubs used by the Loyal Order of the Moose and the Royal Canadian Legion mostly on the weekends. The ground floor was an old fashioned Montreal bar. The guys went to the cellar and found the boiler working. As we sat around the central living area drinking hot coffee and talking we realized that our problem was that the bartender, Jacques, had shut off the heat when he went home. What made it a rather serious problem was that the next day was Sunday.

When it got light we called the landlord who drove in from his home 20 miles away to unlock the door to the bar. Sure enough he found the thermostat was turned almost all the way off and said he'd tell Jacques to leave it set at 70 so we'd get heat on the top floor. Everything was fine til the following weekend - a long weekend - when he did it again. Once again the landlord drove into the city, grumpy as would be expected, promising he'd tell the guy again to leave the heat on. By this time we'd begun to suspect the bartender was doing it deliberately and knew that action needed to be taken.

On Tuesday when the bar opened three of our friends dressed as electricians went in and convinced old Jacques they worked for the city and had to check the wiring for safety. While they were there they put a bypass on his thermostat and rerouted control of it to the loft. Our heat was no longer a problem - at least not the warm air kind.

That problem with heat was the night we got raided. One of my friends owned an antique nickel slot machine which had been providing amusement for months especially among the people who came to visit. Several months earlier an area of the loft we never used had been walled off and soundproofed for use as a small FM radio station with one result being visitors who weren't already friends. Word must have been passed along because one night at 3am we were awoken by the clamorous noise of heavily booted feet kicking open our lower door. Now that's a sound that'll get you out of bed in a hurry.

Mayor Jean Drapeau's long career as an old style city boss wasn't unlike the hold Richard Daley had on Chicago and his police force could equally be described as a corrupt organization simply because of longevity. The Montreal Vice Squad had arrived in force and they'd come for the nickel slot machine.. must have needed it for their policeman's lounge. It was a classic made by the Caille Brothers in 1936 and one of the last slot machines the company produced before going out of business. It was unique in having a circular jackpot window and streamlined styling - about 22" tall by 16" wide and equally deep. The coins traveled up an escalator device in the front window and dropped down into the jackpot window. You can understand why it was valuable before the days of personal computer fun.

It had taken two guys to carry it up the stairs the day it arrived but the night it left it was carried out by an overweight, red-faced, very distressed looking junior officer. He stood in the middle of the loft space with sweat glistening his jowls in the dim light as his captain threatened us with arrest for running a gaming house. My friend wanted a receipt so she could claim it back and he wanted the documents that would eventually guarantee his ownership. It was a standoff that lasted only until he added the menacing promise of a return visit to search for drugs he guaranteed he'd find. That was the end of it and off they all trooped but for the fact he never got the paperwork.

Politically, things had been pretty intense in Quebec in the early 70's with the rise of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), a revolutionary organization promoting an independent and socialist Quebec. They had kidnapped two government ministers in 1970 demanding a fortune in gold, publication of their manifesto and the old standby, a plane ride to Cuba. One of the ministers, Pierre LaPorte was found in the trunk of a car, strangled with his own rosary. Prime Minister Trudeau got serious at that point and a manhunt funded jointly by the provincial and federal governments ended with the successful arrests of the conspirators.

Nevertheless, things were still tense. The Parti Quebecois with its separatist ideal was gaining strength and momentum in the provincial government and regulations were passed outlawing the use of the English language in business as well as schools. Montreal had been Canada's leading financial center but there was a mass exodus of local US corporate headquarters 400 miles west to Toronto.

One winter afternoon one of our friends was downtown when a mailbox exploded on a street corner just a hundred yards behind him. Thankfully, nobody was injured that time but these terrorist incidents were still common. Half an hour later as he was still wending a shaky way back home he noticed puffs of dust at his feet and chipping brickwork of a building nearby followed by popping sounds and shouts. Turning to see what was going on he was knocked to the ground by a pair of fleeing bank robbers who were being chased by several policemen firing guns wildly in all directions.

That evening we had a long discussion. Montreal was a beautiful city but it might no longer be the ideal surrounding for a long term stay. Other friends who had moved to Vancouver the previous year were encouraging us join them in a climate that was gentle both physically and socially. It seemed reasonable and besides, a first class train journey across the country sounded like a lot of fun.

The next day we bought tickets for six adults, one child, two dogs and a pair of crazy cats. It was time to move on.