One summer, after a few years of travelling, I decided to return to Montreal, where the living was cheap. While waiting for my flight in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, I arranged an apartment rental through Craigslist, and arrived that evening to find it located in the gay village. I was thirty and broke, trying to finish a novel slated to be published in a year. Every day, I wrote until the late afternoon and then went out looking for lower rent, hearing the occasional wolf whistle from a balcony. In the supermarket, a burly, shirtless man on rollerblades followed me from the apples to the crackers. At the soy milk, I called my mother. “Is this what it’s like to be a woman?” I asked.
“Until a few years ago,” she said. “Oh, how I miss it.”
For research purposes, I got a card at the McGill University library. Walking home one evening, I passed a drab century-old row house on Prince Arthur Street, in what’s known as the McGill Ghetto. A red For Rent sign hung in the window. I rang the doorbell, and Henry, a tall, balding man, let me in. (I have changed some names.) The house was divided into cramped student apartments. Henry showed me his: ninety square feet that smelled of bread and cheese, a chandelier occupying the ceiling like a dusty spider. He needed someone to take over the lease. He’d been selling gourmet pizzas to a caterer, using the tiny gas stove in the corner, but gambling had gotten the better of him. He was moving back in with his parents so he could regroup. I said I’d been through times like that, omitting the fact that I was going through one right then. I agreed to take over his apartment. With the rent only $400, I could afford to focus on the novel.
For the next few months, I rarely went out. As I struggled to write, a construction company began gutting the row house next door to create luxury apartments. I sat at the desk I’d bought in a church basement sale, my apartment shaking, dust and stale pizza flour drifting from the ceiling. The workers stripped all the floors, cut the joists out, and knocked down the back wall with sledgehammers. The long summer had ended in brutal cold, and, with the house next door open to the weather, the shared wall frosted over. I cut the fingers off a pair of gloves to type, my breath turning to mist. A few times, I ventured into the alley to watch the demolition. The foreman told me they’d bring in a backhoe to dig out the basement. Without its rear wall, the empty building looked like a dollhouse. I could stare right through it.
I didn’t go outside often. Instead, I wrote, trying to contain the hunger for living, for real life, that literature stoked in me. I prowled the stairs to the top floor and back, hoping to ease this craving, to find inspiration without straying too far from my computer. During one such prowl, I stopped on a landing. There were three apartments on each floor and one in the basement, but the only people I ever saw were two neighbours, whom I’d passed in the street and taken to be homeless before learning they lived in the building. The woman kept a shopping cart locked to the porch; the old man, who shared a wall with me, howled at night. We’d crossed paths in the hallway, his face the colour of ash, his eyes sunken.
Fred, the building’s owner, was a short, stout man with dark hair and eyes. He’d grown up in an anglophone village on the Gaspé Peninsula—the descendant, he proudly told me, of United Empire Loyalists who’d left America after the Revolutionary War. I met him when he dropped by to pick up the rent, and I asked who else lived there. “Only those other two,” he said. “They were here when I bought the place. The rest have moved out.” He’d been buying up property across the city and was now too busy to rent out the other apartments, he said. I proposed finding tenants in exchange for free rent, and he gave me a ring of keys. He also agreed to let me move into the apartment of my choice, which was on the top floor, a larger space with canted ceilings and dormers that looked down into the street.
The next day, I put out a sign. Snooping around the building, I found a blue baseball cap and a red flannel shirt. I used them to create a concierge persona, both for my own entertainment and to keep needy future tenants at arm’s length. When someone rang—often a young woman studying at McGill—out came the flannel. With the cap pulled low over my eyes, I slouched and spoke gruffly. Fortunately, there was a long lull in construction next door, and I soon rented out all the apartments.
The backhoe arrived with the spring weather. The building shook and heaved, and the tenants knocked at my door. I reassured them the noise would soon be over. We watched from the alley as the backhoe clambered out from the basement like an insect, crawled over the blocky hill of ancient compressed clay it had gouged up, and drove onto a trailer. “All done,” I told my tenants. We went back inside. That night, the building settled, ticking and creaking, producing an occasional hiccup in the floor or a loud crack in the frame, like the popping of an immense knuckle.
In the morning, sunlight flashed against my eyelids. I looked up at a six-foot-long rift in the wall. With my eye to it, I could see through two rows of bricks and out the window of the gutted house next door. I dressed and took stock of the apartment: cracks in the walls and ceilings, window frames askew. My door was stuck, and I used a hammer to knock the pins out of the hinges. When I pried it from the frame, the surrounding wall emitted a groan. I helped release the tenants, who had not yet realized they were prisoners.
Fred arrived just after the firefighters, who determined that the backhoe had cut several feet beneath the level of our foundation, leaving little support for four storeys of brick. The exposed clay had begun to dry and shrink. With the joists removed, the shared walls sagged. Fred threatened the owner of the future luxury apartments with a lawsuit. A construction worker said the wall was fine, but when he put his hands against it, the bricks seemed to ripple like a tapestry. The firefighters let us get a few possessions before they chained up the house and closed the sidewalk with metal barriers. It took them a while to convince my neighbour, the one who howled, to leave. Social services arrived to relocate the tenants into government housing.
“Why don’t you stay at my place?” Fred asked me. “You’ve been such a help. My wife and I would be happy to put you up for a while.” Fred’s two blond boys, maybe four and six years old, were waiting in his car. He drove us to his suburb on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. His wife, in her twenties and also blond, touched my chest as she asked me what I wanted for dinner. Fred offered to get a film at Blockbuster.
He suggested I come along for the ride. On the way there, he complained about the owner of the luxury apartments. “I’ll show him in court,” he said. “I’ll sue his ass. And if that doesn’t work, maybe I’ll just burn my place to the ground. See how his fucking luxury apartments like that.” He laughed and pulled onto the highway.
“How far away is Blockbuster?” I asked.
“Fuck Blockbuster,” he said. “I want you to meet some guys.”
Crime has never been far from my mind. My father, a French Canadian from a village in the Gaspé, gave up logging for safe-cracking in Montreal, then hold-ups in the Canadian West, and, finally, the armed robbery of banks and jewellery stores in California. He spent seven years in prison and was deported to British Columbia, where he met my mother, who’d dropped out of art school in Virginia to run off with a draft dodger. My father was still manufacturing and dealing drugs and involved in petty crime when my mother got pregnant. Then he went straight—which, for him, simply meant committing pettier crimes. When I was ten, my mother ran away with me to Virginia. We lived on couches and then in a trailer park, until she found me an alcoholic stepfather, who enjoyed proving that I was no match for a soldier who’d served in Vietnam.
I was almost fourteen when I learned about my father’s crimes, and the man I imagined stepped straight from the novels I’d read. I became a thief myself. I shoplifted chocolate bars to sell to classmates. I broke into cars, storage sheds, and a house. I made off with a moped and a motorcycle. All the while, I dreamed of being Steinbeck, whom I’d discovered in English class and now read instead of doing my homework.
When I was fifteen, I decided to move back in with my father, telling my mother I would run away if she didn’t let me. But she did, agreeing that I needed to decide for myself. Over the next two months, I discovered not the outlaw hero I’d dreamed of but a bitter fifty-year-old man who lived from debt to debt and dated teenage girls. He illegally bought salmon to resell, sometimes from Indigenous people, sometimes from the guy at the fish farms responsible for disposing of batches that “went bad”—meaning, got cancer from the foods that were supposed to make them grow quickly. My father and I would cut the tumours out of the meat, and he’d sell the fillets to restaurants.
At one point, he handed me a baseball bat and asked me to collect from someone who owed him money. But a pregnant woman answered the door, and I couldn’t go through with it. He told me I had to drop out of high school and work for him, or else move out and pay my own way. I moved out, too proud to tell my mother. I was still obsessed with Steinbeck. I finished high school and went to college as far away as I could, in the mountains of Vermont. I became a straight-A student to prove to myself that I belonged there, and, though my father often asked me to return, I refused. That Christmas, he took his own life, shooting himself up with heroin and washing down a handful of pills with antifreeze.
After his death, there was nothing for me to push against, and I began to admit that I saw the world as he did: every law and convention—anything short of complete freedom—looked like an impediment. Some nights, after weeks of studying, I couldn’t tame my desire for chaos. I ran blindly through the forest or took my uninsured truck as fast as I could over back roads, crashing into snowbanks, pirouetting through parking lots until I’d released whatever was in my brain—and then I just sat there, the engine idling, steam rising from the hood. I determined that the first novel I published would not be about my father. I would not echo another man’s failures.
But, like my father, I was restless. I could fit what I owned in a backpack, and, after college, whenever I exhausted myself writing, I set off. I rarely lived anywhere for more than a few months. During those years, I moved to Montreal several times. Garishly lit strip clubs paint Saint Catherine Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. American businessmen and college students stumble drunkenly on the sidewalk and befriend you in bars, rambling about how cheap the escorts are, how easy it is to get drugs. Montreal doesn’t have America’s puritanical varnish, its police state, its harsh sentencing. Most people I knew had few degrees of separation from the underworld. One friend sold cocaine for the Hells Angels; another sold hash for the Italian Mafia and was beaten after he dealt on a rival gang’s turf.
Every time trouble reared up, or whenever I felt stagnant, I left. Changing cities, even neighbourhoods, I breathed easier. I criss-crossed America as if on a quest for this air alone. I worked construction, took on manual labour jobs like building flea-market booths or pulling nails out of old two-by-fours. As soon as I earned enough for a month or two of writing and reading books, I quit. Throughout my twenties, I lived on $10,000 a year. Some friends—those who’d found stable careers and gotten married—drew on pop psychology to diagnose me. They referred glibly to familial dysfunction and used words such as trauma, though I didn’t feel traumatized. I was a pretty happy person. Still, somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that I was drawn to the pleasures of deviance. I saw this pull in those I knew from the Montreal underworld—an unquenchable desire for a freedom they couldn’t name. For many of them, the only outlet was crime.
The people Fred wanted me to meet were sitting in the basement of a triplex, watching Predator and passing around a rank, blackened bong. Fred and I joined them on the couch. Growing up, I’d had a hard time resisting bad decisions, and remaining sober when things got dicey had been my basic strategy for staying alive. The habit stuck. I sat and watched Schwarzenegger and the Predator stalk each other through a jungle in Central America. Fred drank beer after beer, his nostrils flaring.
One of the guys said, “Man, call next time or BYOB, motherfucker.” On each of the bong’s circuits, Fred took a long, hard hit. His cell rang, and he flipped it open. A distant voice screeched. “Aw, fuck you,” he said, and hung up. The film ended. We switched to The Terminator , but there was nothing left to drink. Fred was nominated for a beer run.
“I wanted you to meet those guys,” he told me in the car. “They can hook you up. You don’t need to be living the way you do. But tonight, you know, right now, fuck ’em.” He raced the car onto the highway and kept accelerating.
“Hey,” I said, “why don’t you let me drive?”
“Good one.” He laughed. “Like you’re my fucking mother.”
His profile, with its angular nose and lantern jaw gone to pudge, flickered against passing street lights. It was after midnight, and we were soaring for the American border, toward where Autoroute 15 turned into Interstate 87 and made a straight shot south to New York City. We passed exit after exit. The highway was empty but for the occasional fourteen-wheeler. Green roadside signs gave a kilometric countdown to the border. The crossing blazed in the distance, like a ship at sea.
Fred slowed, braking hard, and turned down a narrow road between cornfields. “I want to show you something good,” he said. A low-slung, unpainted cinder-block building came into sight. Dozens of vehicles were parked in its gravel lot, many of them pickups, one a yellow school bus with the name of an American university on the side.
“Welcome to Porkies,” Fred said. He stumbled out and crossed the parking lot, and by the time I got through the front door behind him, he’d disappeared into the crowd.
The woman on stage wasn’t a stripper; she was a naked acrobat. She spun her body around the pole, flipping over repeatedly. She suspended herself upside down and spread her legs, clenching her muscled ass for the audience’s admiration. Then she lowered herself like a drawbridge until she floated, tits to the stage lights, legs wide to the gawping crowd. The audience was composed mostly of rednecks, with a scattering of young jocks I suspected must have come in the school bus. Women in lingerie walked by, turning men’s heads as they passed. There were a few different doorways through which the women entered and exited. One would speak to a man and leave through one door, and he would follow her through another.
I leaned on the bar, and the bartender, a brunette—the only fully dressed woman in the room—came over and said, “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Fred’s told me all about you. You’re that writer who runs his building.”
“How do you know Fred?”
“He’s my brother.”
Fred joined us. “Had to hit the can,” he said.
The woman left to serve a beer, and I asked, “Your sister works here?”
“Oh yeah, she does. And that’s my cousin up there.” He motioned to the diva on stage.
“Does your wife know about this place?” I asked.
Fred cackled. “I met her here,” he said, punching my arm. “And if she hadn’t given me my two boys, I’d bring her straight back. Jesus, she’s a pain in the ass.”
When Fred told me that he and some friends owned this place, I tried to mask my reassessment of him. His apartment building had been sitting empty for so long, in a neighbourhood where finding tenants was easy, that I should have realized it was a front.
We feasted on bags of salt-and-vinegar chips from behind the bar. Fred told me there was a girl he’d wanted me to meet, but she didn’t seem to be here tonight. I asked how the place worked, and he said the girls paid the bar $500 to come in for an evening. The bar provided clientele and helped organize visits for frats across the border. Each girl had a small room in the back, where she charged and did what she wanted. “You should give one a go,” he said.
“Nah, that’s cool,” I told him, as if I’d done it a thousand times.
On the way back to his house, the Volvo glided through the yellow pools beneath the street lamps. Fred was in no rush. Criminals, I’d learned from experience, are lonely people.
“You’re a reliable guy,” Fred told me. “How would you like a job?”
“What kind of job?”
“Making deliveries. Packages. I’d give you the money for a car, but it would be your car, under your name—no connection to me.”
“And the packages?”
“You don’t ask. You’ll be well paid.”
“That’s okay,” I told him.
“Come on, man. It’s easy money. Good help is hard to find, believe you me.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
We arrived at his house, and I went downstairs to the guest bedroom. Shouting echoed in the floorboards. I fell asleep, woke briefly to the thudding of sex through the ceiling, and then closed my eyes again.
The row house reopened within a week. The owner next door had speedily built a concrete retaining wall and poured a new foundation. The fire department inspected the building, and one of the firemen told me that it was probably safe. “I wouldn’t let my daughter live here,” he said, “but I can’t prove there’s anything seriously wrong with the place.”
A building chained up and barricaded, even for a week, draws attention. There’d been a few break-ins while it was empty, a window pried open and syringes left on the floor. But even after we moved back in, the thefts continued. They were always small—CDs, whatever money was lying around. Someone tried to break into the basement apartment, leaving a screwdriver jammed between the door and the frame; a few days later, someone smashed the door down and stole a laptop and a jar of change. Unsolicited, Fred told the tenant that he had nothing to do with the burglary. “I would move out if I were you,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to be caught asleep down there if a fire started.”
Fred kept offering me jobs. He finally admitted that the packages he wanted me to deliver contained heroin. “But so what?” he said. “People are going to do it anyway, and someone has to make money on it.” Then he said he’d pay me $100 twice a week if I took pictures of the construction progress inside the building next door.
“That would require breaking in,” I said.
He shrugged. “I guess that’s part of the job, eh?”
From Fred, I learned that my two homeless-looking neighbours were now enjoying the munificence of social services, getting treatment and counselling, and living in new apartments in a city housing complex. Though the nocturnal howler was content with his new home, the woman tried to move back, but Fred told her that, owing to structural problems in her apartment, she couldn’t. He changed the lock on her door. She had the home of a hoarder, stacked floor to ceiling with boxes, newspapers, and folded grocery bags, and I saw him poking through them, as if searching for treasures. “This is a real fire hazard,” he said.
Every few days, just before dark, I snuck into the construction site with my camera. The company was building quickly. Each time Fred dropped by, I gave him a CD burned with photos. He looked them over on my computer. He pointed to the material covering the wall next door. “See that?” he said. “That’s not to code. That’s not fire grade. This guy’s cutting corners on his luxury apartments. Shooting himself in the foot, if you ask me.”
The next time I showed him photos, he said, “See all the equipment right there?” He pointed to an image of some saws and drills left at the construction site at the end of the day. He called someone on his cell. In the morning, I watched the confused construction workers mill around the back of the building, looking for the tools, palms turned up in confusion. I told Fred I wouldn’t be taking photos anymore.
Summer at last flooded the city with heat, and Montrealers packed the streets wearing the garments they bought for those two sunlit months alone. I was close to finishing my book but wanted to live it, to be sure every emotion on every page was real. I couldn’t see it as complete, ready to be put into the world. If I just left, I thought, everything in my head would come into focus. Since the return to my apartment, the offers from Fred, and the break-ins, the criminality I thought I’d escaped as a kid had encased me like rank, humid air.
One day, at the gym, I struck up a conversation with a young man who described himself as a weapons collector. When he found out I had a Vermont driver’s licence, he asked me to run guns across the border so he could sell them. I called a friend and asked why people so often approached me about crime. “You have no knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “I’ve seen you. You talk to people about anything. You’re interested. You look like you would do it. It’s how you grew up. The things they’re saying are normal to you. You don’t even realize that most people would run away. Most people would sense the danger and never get in those conversations to begin with.”
When I was fifteen and crossed the continent to live with my father, I’d interrogated him for stories. I’d looked down on his life as a crooked fishmonger and forced him to conjure up his past. He’d rarely been caught for the crimes he so carefully planned. He claimed to have robbed more than fifty banks and fifty jewellery stores. I believed him. There are still 5,000 bank robberies in the United States each year, mostly by serial robbers, and back then, in the golden age of heists, that number was even higher. But when he had been arrested, it was often because he’d done something reckless: punching out a pimp in a bar or driving like a maniac and making the police chase him for hours as he careered over medians and through parking lots.
There are many types of criminals: those who want to move up in the world fast, those who feel society owes them something, and those who crave a thrill, to name a few. My father fell into all three categories, which made him particularly scary. In myself, it was the craving that concerned me. Although I was polishing a novel I’d been obsessing over for eight years, part of me still hungered for danger.
The hammering of construction carried on next door, and I revised my novel, looking over the copy editor’s notes while considering the money I could make running guns or drugs. That kind of money would support my writing for a long time, though it might also mean I’d launch my book from behind bars. I was infuriated with myself for even considering it. I believed in gun control. I didn’t do drugs.
During a telephone conversation with my editor, she asked about my life, and I was horrified to find myself telling her about these offers and their strange allure. I imagined that we’d make some jokes about Arthur Rimbaud, his transition from poetry to gun-running in the Horn of Africa—that she’d understand the amoral impulse to adventure. Instead she was silent. She said, “Mm-hmm.” We changed the subject.
One evening, after hours of walking, trying to exhaust my restlessness as the sun set over Montreal, I stopped at the grocery store. In the checkout line, I noticed my former neighbour in front of me, the one who howled. He was no longer ashen. He wore a new trench coat, clean black shoes, and a beret. When he turned and saw me, his eyes popped wide. He paid the cashier, took his bag, and hurried out.
This appeared in the January/February 2016 issue.