taking flight

Guy Champagne’s son, Mark, is entering CEGEP-John Abott College for a diploma that’ll help him be an ambulance technician/first-responder, a job that pays top dollar but is still considered blue-collar. He’ll learn to drive ambulances and be a paramedic. The 3-year CEGEP tuition is free, funded by the Quebec government.

Guy cannot afford university tuition and neither is Mark willing to slog it out for five years to acquire a bachelors degree. Honestly, under-gaduate programs have always been not a very attractive way to get ahead in live, over here in North America. The tuition fee and expenses in slogging it for five years are daunting. Overwhelmingly immigrants, especially Asian immigrants, insist on sending their children to the university, come what may.

Besides, even being in a blue collar job affords you two cars, a small cottage with a swimming pool and annual vacations abroad, if both partners are working (which is usually the case). Couple that with the fact that, above a certain level, the Canadian exchequer grabs almost 50% of your salary in income taxes, in order to support all the free goodies like school and CEGEP education and healthcare. In the end there is little difference between the take-home pay of a factory worker or a technician and a white collar exec – for the first decade after graduation at least. Young guys fresh out of CEGEP rarely look further ahead.  The incentive to earn more in a paid job just isn’t there.

Mark has had a more than decent childhood and he’s content with the prospect of being an ambulance tech. Hey, his father is a cop with the vice squad and his mum is a lab technician, collars as blue as they come. He is excited to be finally on his own, that’s all.

In a wealthy nation like Canada, if you don’t have very high expectations, your future is taken care of. You get laid off and the government looks after you and provides you with an income called unemployment insurance disbursement. You retire and the government pays you a pension. Even folk who have never held a job, like housewives, get a pension that can work out to almost a grand a month.

Then when you’re over 65, old age benefits kick in. In the end, when you can’t look after yourself any longer and have no one who is willing to take care of you, the government does, by putting you in a residence where you spend the rest of your days with others your age. Of late, government residences have earned a bit of notoriety but one hopes that these are stray happenings. (Recently an 86 year old resident was found in her room after she had been dead four days).

An Indian friend, Pranav Shankar, just retired and settled back in his home town of Lucknow for a while. The six thousand dollars a month that he and his wife, Sheila, get as pension is a royal sum in India. For a few years, they spent the hot summer months in Montreal with their children and winter in India. Of late, however, they’ve found the chaos of Lucknow too hard to bear and their trips back home have become less frequent. Besides, most of their siblings and friends have passed away and the Lucknow they knew has lost its old world charm. Increasingly, they find themselves aliens in their own home town. Earlier, Pranav had wished he’d be cremated when he died – in Lucknow – and his ashes scattered on the Gomti, but now he will be content if the St Lawrence accepts them when the time comes.

Guy sought my help to drive him and Mark to Mark’s new apartment. It’s a cute little 2-BRHK with a tiny balcony overlooking the leafy bike path next to the St.Anne locks. Guy will be loaning his son the money for the rent till Mark gets part-time work somewhere nearby, probably waiting tables or something. It’s de riguer . Every young man here begins his college in this manner. The apartment is also bang opposite the John Abott College where he will be doing his ambulance technician’s course.

Unlike boys his age, Mark is a quiet and respectful young man, determined to make a life for himself. The freckles are gone but the eyes remain clear blue and the straw colored hair is just a bit overgrown. He had enrolled in the West Island gym last year and consequently has developed bulging biceps. Someone had told him that, as an ambulance technician, he might find himself in a situation where he has to lift and carry an obese old lady down the stairs – therefore the muscle building program.

Rental apartments over here nearly always come with the basic amenities such as a cooking range, fridge, clothes washer/dryer, shower and window curtains and Venetian blinds, ceiling fans, phone and cable TV fixtures. The ones that are situated close to colleges even have stuff like book shelves and computer tables. Mark’s apartment is similarly endowed. Plus, over the previous weekend, Guy has already installed a bed, basic living and dining room furniture.

I backed up into the driveway and we unloaded the stuff and carried it inside one by one. As we approached the front door, it was opened by a petite red haired girl, Mark’s girlfriend, Annie. Annie busied herself giving us a hand, smiling and giving Mark tiny pecks on his cheeks whenever she passed him by.

Arranging everything in its proper place took almost no time and we were done in an hour. It was late, around half past eight in the night and I noticed that the winds had picked up, blowing snow over across the balcony and the window panes. Everyone suddenly seemed at a loss for words. I took that as a signal.

“Guy, I’ll wait in the car. Bye, Mark, bye, Annie. Be good, you both.” As I shook the boy’s hand and turned and descended the stairs at the entrance, I noticed that neither the dad nor the kid were laughing.

I sank back in my seat and started the engine, the heating immediately making the interior pleasant. I turned to look over at the building. Through the glass of the living room window, I saw Guy with one of his arms around his son, his chin resting lightly on the boy’s head, which was buried in his chest and the other round Annie.

Afterwards when he climbed in and began to strap on his seat belt, his chest gave a heave and his eyes were averted. We sat in silence for a minute, staring out into the blowing snow.

“It seems like just the other day…. when he would clutch my little finger and drag me to the swing in the Benny Park…,” Guy’s voice broke. I switched on the radio.

The drive back was long and we made it back in silence.