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.


  1. Hi Susan
    Thanks for your interesting and exciting story; it must have been rather nerve racking and I’m not at all surprised you decided to leave. You have had an interesting life. Reading your story about the bartender, Jacques shutting off the heat when he went home reminded me of my barding house days in my youth. Our landlady, to save money used to set a timer so that after only about 45 seconds the gas heater shut off and you were left with cold showers in the middle of winter. We used to take in turns to manually switch it back on so that we could enjoy a warm shower for its duration. But ultimately she had the last laugh, as our piping hot tomato soup always tasted rather watery until one day we found out the reason. Carefully adding 2 part water to 1 part soup we observed her measured preparation from the kitchen bench.
    I remember Trudeau who was under 40 years of age, a brilliant bilingual Rhodes Scholar, who if I remember correctly was also good looking with a very attractive wife; somewhat of a glamour politician at the time.
    Best wishes

  2. tickets for crazy cats? i thought they had spent all their nickles in the slot machine... i bet they hid behind the sofa when the cops knocked down the door.
    the appearance of madness can be deceiving, especially in cats. it's the twitching.
    the bartender likely ratted you to the cops. i hope he got his face properly scratched by one of the crazy cats.
    i love your drawings, susan.

  3. And they say Canadians are low-key, ya buncha casino turrists. At least the heat would be a bit less of a concern in Vancouver.

  4. Awesome story. I didn't know that the Quebec separatists had been so violent.

  5. lindsay - Our moving there was funded by a grant proposal we'd written with a young Montreal native for a Canada Council Arts grant. Our teaching facilities were in a building just up the street and although the program was a lot of fun it did have a two year termination point. It would have been possible to re-apply but events in the loft led us toward a different path.

    Pierre Trudeau became Prime Minister in 1968 and was considered to be something of a northern reincarnation of JFK during his first years in office. His wife Margaret was well known among some of my friends as an idiot child of a wealthy family.

    sera - We took the nickles away from the cats when we caught them spending their winnings on beer in the bar downstairs. Yes, they probably were the culprits who ratted us out for free drinks.

    randal - The FLQ was the first terrorist organization in North America and LaPorte the first fatality. I'll eventually get around to some Vancouver heat - damp heat.. even wetter than here.

    cdp - The violence came as a big surprise to everybody but most of all to the young Americans who'd left places like NY and LA for the sanity and safety of Canada.

  6. Well, I meant if the heater was off, you wouldn't necessarily freeze to death. :) I have heard that it rains once or twice a year up there.

  7. randal - Yeah, it was a nice change living in a place where you could keep the windows open most of the winter ;)

  8. What a great story and accompanying illustrations.

    As a visitor,I have a special fondness for Montreal but the winters are so brutal, I can easily understand wanting to leave for that reason alone.

    Too bad about the cool slot-machine...

  9. Marvelous, as always. I love the illustrations, and the thought of your little one bundled up and happily shaking his crib side. Ours did that too. Alone time was fine with them for a good while after waking. We're all introverts - no surprise.

    I loved the story about rewiring the bar thermostat! Perfect!

    Do you ever miss Montreal? And did you miss the Frenchness of it when you went west?

  10. pagan sphinx - One fascinating thing was watching how they cleared snow in Montreal. They had giant motorized snowblowers driving slowly down the streets and dump trucks lined up next to the blowers. As each truck filled it would drive off to the St. Lawrence to drop the load and would return to join the line. They did much the same thing with the sidewalks so tons of snow wasn't much of a problem for traffic or pedestrians. I'm sure you must be aware of Underground Montreal in the downtown area where most of the businesses and big stores are connected by mall sized tunnels with shops and restaurants of their own.

    steve - I'm delighted you enjoyed the story and the drawings. It's a bit more serious than some of my others but very fond memories. Yes, I've always missed it since by the time we left I was comfortably bilingual (no longer - malheureusement).

  11. I am fascinated by your background. I love the idea that you lived a communal lifestyle. I can imagine that it took a lot of compromise to make it work.

    I really want to visit Montreal sometime. Especially since things seem to have calmed down somewhat ;-D

  12. dcup - So far I've done eleven stories and haven't done one about Vancouver, BC but I will. Yes, compromises are always part of living with people. Damn hippies :-)

    Montreal was and I'm sure still is tres cool.

  13. That is one knockout story. Illegal gaming house? Good lord! The sad thing is they were probably looking the other way on a score of real betting parlours around the city.

    Anyway, you and your adorable toddler weren't the only ones who wanted to get out. Even the terrorists were apparently looking for someplace warmer. ("Zee language is Spanish, but, mais oui, it is close enough.")

  14. I just came back to look again, and notice if you did, indeed, use more black in your illustrations. Yup. I like, especially, the way the floor in the cop illustration creates that sense of depth, and pops the figures out.

    And I love the expression, beard and outfit of the poor fellow chancing into the cop chase. I keep coming back to look some more.

  15. Fantastic story and art Susan.

    Brought back my political memories too - protesting the War Measures act and acting like a mini-subversive in London, Ontario.

  16. ben - Damn right they were looking the other way. There was a whole lot those clowns were missing.

    steve - The only way to indicate deep, dark night that I know of is lots of ink but you're right it is a cool effect. I'm glad you noticed the loft floor in the third drawing. It's interesting but each story requires a somewhat different technique and that's why they're taking longer to process.

    gary - London, Ontario - a well known hotbed of political activism, eh? We all did our bit. I participated in protests against the Spadina Expressway and helped to save Cabbagetown.

  17. Awesome story... I particularly liked the part with the threatened drug arrest. Sometimes the better part of valor is concession. Was the slot machine worth arrest. Likewise, I think this story recognizes an ages-old truth -- people are more important that place. Now, when do we get the Vancouver stories?

  18. spartacus - Those guys looked like they might be carrying a few kilos in their pockets and it wasn't like they didn't have a reputation. The slot machine was nice but not that nice.

    First a train ride, or maybe someplace else, but I'll get there. No rush :-)

  19. Well done, Susan. You caught the spirit of those days very well. Today, Bill 101, demands that all workers and immigrants in Québec speak French. In Montreal, all business window signs and names of streets and roads are in French only. It's a bit hard for tourists.There was a danger, of course, that the French-Canadian language would disappear. When I grew up, I couldn't shop, dine or be sick, in certain parts of Montréal unless I spoke English. But Bill 101 is a bit exaggerated. Yet, it's there to stay.

    Montréal is a great city to visit. I would suggest everybody learn a bit of French, and get ready to enjoy fabulous food, and fun discos.

  20. claude - You answered a question both of us had been wondering about with your explanation of Bill 101. I understand their reasoning but at the same time it just seems a little too much. Of course, it's also true that most of English Canada only paid lip service to Quebec's French speaking population for a very long time. Nevertheless, a bit of English on hwy signs wouldn't hurt the ambience.

  21. And it would be much safer and courteous for tourists. But as you say so well (with your fascinating stories and drawings) it's a marvellous place to visit. It has a very special atmosphere and unique character. It was a lucky day for Montréal when you decided to stop there for a while.

  22. claude - It was a wonderful place to live then and I'm sure it still is. Most French people are very kind and helpful when it comes to being patient with those who at least try to speak their language.

    Thanks for the nice words about my work. Adventure's Ink is still a work in progress but there are nearly 20 stories now.

  23. I'll certainly return and read more stories. And I'll say Allô... À votre santé!