The wind picked up, making the sidewalk litter tumble along. The digital clock on the cash counter of the cafe said 4:00 AM, 02 Fevrier 2003.
This part of downtown Montreal is called “The Main” – Blvd St. Laurent, the heart of the heart of downtown – littered and filthy, but exhilarating and lively. No one sleeps on The Main.
I remember every millisecond of the night of the 2nd February, like it happened yesterday……….
Slung high up on the rear wall of the cafe was a large flat screen TV that was on 24/7. It had a weather bubble in a corner that said “-27°C / -42°C”. Which meant that although it actually was -27, it ‘felt’ more like -42, a concept called “windchill”. (The windier it is, the lower is the windchill factor). If you were to be outside the plate glass right now, your body would experience all the effects of a -42° ambient, like frostbite, hypothermia, etc. You’d have 30 minutes with adequate clothing and 30 seconds without.
After a while, the litter settled back and there was a brief lull before the wind picked up again and the sidewalk outside turned white with those tiny balls of ice. Beyond the glass, it was now just a white swirl. The pole with the placard right outside the front entrance, that read Autobus-51(Des Pins-Atwater), was now barely visible.
“Wish I could split”, I said out loud, to the TV on the wall. Of course, I couldn’t. I worked here and tonight my nightshift partner, a 19-year old Salvadoran student named Hector, hadn’t turned up. I was by myself, manning the joint alone. Earlier Ben, the owner, had made noises about coming over and giving me a hand but it was the middle of the week and there was no rush.
No, I couldn’t split. I needed this job and the graveyard shift, 10 to 6, was the only one possible, what with the Immigration Quebec’s French course running till 9.15.
My eyes fell on those yummy falafels under the counter. I took two out, heated them in the microwave, slapped a dollop of humus on the side and sat down in a corner with a plastic fork.
It was now 4.30am. The drunks had staggered in after the bars had closed, gorged and long gone. The drug-addled fences trying to hawk GPSs and cameras to those drunks were gone too. This was the downest part of downtown. Any downer and you might poke through into China. You could get anything you wanted here at a price.
The slick, sharp suited gents were always the last to arrive, sometimes with flashily dressed women. They would sit in the shadows in the corner and speak in whispers, at times bursting out in laughter. A couple of them invariably pealed off and took another table, closer to the door. Ben had pointed them out earlier, whispering, “Rizzutos…” and told me to make sure they had whatever they wanted, it was all on the house. It didn’t bother me none. They treated me with a kind of old fashioned respect and thanked me whenever I set the tables for ‘em.
What I loved the most about those thugs was their seeming readiness to pay. At the end of the meal they always asked politely for the bill and when I shook my head and said,”It is a pleasure”, they would thank me. They knew I was just a waiter, I was nothing but a piece of say, lint, or a doorknob or some other inane, valueless object to them but they never took anyone for granted. It was this gesture, this little pantomime that I appreciated.
One time some drunks were crowding me at the till, getting belligerent, making me real jittery, when one of the two goons by the door came over and led the bunch out the door, wordlessly and sat back on his seat, giving me a nod.
Maybe Ben passed them weekly packets of cash, I don’t know. If these were indeed members of the Rizzuto Organization, then I can confirm I have actually met the Bonnano Crime Family of New York. Wow.
An elderly woman in a smart dress came in with a scrawny homeless guy in tow. She held out a twennie and said,” Please, can you prepare a full plate for this man here? I found him sitting outside the metro. I have to rush, thanks. And do let him stay in here until that blows over.” She pointed toward the now full blown blizzard outside, flashed a smile and made an immediate exit.
Soon as the lady left, the guy stepped forward and said, “I don’t want no chow, man, just gimme the dough she gave you, okay?”
“No skin off my back,” I said to the guy and I passed the twennie back to him and he shuffled out. I rose and locked the front entrance doors after him and made myself a coffee.
We always locked up after 4.30am for security reasons. The restaurant would still be open for business, but you would have to pass my scrutiny, to be able to enter. This was an all-night joint in a scary part of town, closing only from 6am to 7am for a thorough clean-up, which meant doing the dishes, cleaning, sweeping, mopping and cleaning out the toilets (you should have seen the state that the drunks left the toilets in). With Hector absent, all this would be accomplished by yours truly in the morning before I closed up and left.
I was sitting well back in the shadows of a recess next to the cash register and as I sipped from my mug a wave of melancholy swept over me. Last week, the money we had brought along with us had run out and there was still no decent job in sight. We had been forced to down-size to a tiny one-room cubbyhole. When you folded down the bed, your nose bumped against the kitchen counter. On Fridays, our neighbors, a Pakistani family, cooked biryani. Fridays smelt good. Better than the tinned stuff we opened day after day.
Everything pointed to only one thing – this mad adventure known as migration had probably failed. Land of opportunity my ass. Was this it? Was this going to be the way the rest of my life would slip by? Was that cubbyhole going to be home from now?
I must have dozed off, I don’t know for how long. But as I sat in the shadows, my eyes began to notice this hooded form of a person. He was leaning against the locked glass doors, while around him the blizzard had turned into raw mayhem.
The figure outside the glass was rocking back and forth. I couldn’t trust my eyes but he appeared to be in just a T-shirt. Hands outstretched, he was trying to tap on the glass and steady himself at the same time, against the howling wind. The moment I started toward the door, a voice inside me began telling me I was being a schmuck. This could be a hold-up and I shouldn’t be opening the door to this creep. I should be calling 911 instead. There must have been more than two grand in the till. On The Main, restaurant servers got shot for much less.
As I approached the door, a sudden gust sent the man sprawling on the sidewalk. His cap went flying and his hood came off and a mass of auburn hair cascaded out. It was not a he, it was a she and as she lurched back up to the glass, I noted that she had only socks on.
Scrambling desperately I unlocked the doors and they swung open with such force that I was knocked clean off my feet. I got up, ran across and helped her in from the blizzard. And then, pushing my whole weight against the doors, I slammed them shut.
She was cold, real cold and as I held her, she shivered uncontrollably. I sat her down and brought in the spare hooded parka from the employees’ closet and draped it round her. She smelt awful but I somehow managed to hold her tight allowing her body to get warm. Gradually the shivering passed.
I moved her to a corner table and reached for the phone, “I’ll call 911, hang on” and the next thing I knew, she had her hand clamped tightly over my wrist. “No, please,” she whispered. That was when I noticed the multiple puncture marks running down the sides of both her arms.
“OK, relax, take it easy, are you hungry?” She nodded and after a while, I had a nice heaped plate of shish tauk, humus, fries and salad laid out in front of her. And a steaming glass of coffee. As she wolfed the food down, I couldn’t help noticing how pretty she was. She couldn’t have been more than 14, maybe 15. The eyes guileless, the bluest I’d seen. The hair, all messed up. Auburn- brown.
The hood of my parka encased an angel.
When she was done eating, she looked much better. “I don’t have any….cash”, she said, “but if you want…we can…I can…you know…I’m good, really good.”
I tried not to show the consternation I felt, at what I’d just heard. I simply shook my head. “It’s on the house, relax. Try to get some sleep” is all that I could manage. She laid her head on the table surface and was out like a light in no time. I balled up a couple of clean aprons, lifted her sleeping head gently and slipped the makeshift pillow under.
It was just past six and I was cleaning the serving counters and getting ready to close up and go home, when the girl stirred. She padded up to me in her socks and kissed me on my grey bearded cheek. Even though she smelt yucky as hell, it was hard for me not to smile.
“Can I use the loo?”
“Sure, it’s that way, to your right”, I nodded toward the back. I hoped she would be done and ready to move out soon. Ben, the owner, would be in any minute, to start the daily ritual of getting the restaurant ready for the first customers. I didn’t want to have a lot of explaining to do.
She didn’t take long and I couldn’t help stealing a glance when she emerged from the washroom. The grubby face was creamy and radiant now, the curls luxurious and the eyes the most beautiful I had seen in a while. If I had the means I would adopt you, I thought.
She didn’t mind waiting as I closed up and soon we were both on the sidewalk. The wind had subsided, but it was still bitterly cold. She looked comical, a pixie, in the large shaggy parka and those huge old snow boots an ex-employee had left behind a long time back and never returned to collect. In one hand, she held a brown paper bag filled with shish tauk and fries that I had prepared for her to take along. In the other, she clutched a 5 dollar bill I’d given her.
We stood there, at the bus stop, not saying a word. After a while, the 51 came up Des Pins, grunted to a stop and the doors sighed open. She was about to get in, when she hesitated, as if she wanted to say something. Then she turned and with a brief wave, disappeared into the bus.
I stepped off the curb to cross over to the metro entrance and as I did, I caught one last glimpse of the bus as it turned the corner. And I wondered, if she would turn hers.
I hoped I would turn mine. Some day soon.