Monday, November 5, 2012


In the summer of 1999 I rented a room on La Rue Paradis in Quebec City while I was studying French at nearby L'Universite Laval. It was a nice enough room I guess. There was a bed, a table and a metal folding chair. There was no dresser, but between the shelf in the closet and my suitcase I got along okay. The room was spartanly furnished to be sure, but I didn't mind. It was situated in the basement of a house along with three other rented rooms, and was accessed by a private entrance in the back. Upon arrival an elderly woman showed me to my room. She led me along the side of the house and through a wrought-iron gate into a backyard which was almost entirely covered in old stone pavers. Moss had grown up between the pavers, and it sticks out in my memory as the most aesthetically appealing thing about the house. I remember descending a dark stairwell which brought us out into a small, dingey looking lounge/kitchen area. Four rooms were located off of the lounge. One belonged to me. My immediate neighbor would prove to be a man named Bruno Routier, who owned a convenience store down the street. He owned his own home, which was located nearby, but it was being remodeled and repainted during the summer of 1999 so he too had taken a room in the basement. He was the only occupant of the basement who was not a student at the University. The other two rooms were occupied by Francoise and Nicole. Francoise was from Quebec. Nicole was from Toronto. What they studied, or what they were like, I don't know. Nicole, slightly overweight with red hair and a freckly face, ignored me entirely. In fact, I hardly ever even saw her. Francoise, thin with dark hair and a penchant for tank tops and skinny jeans, was local and spoke no english. A constant parade of friends and family were always popping in on her, but to a man they all acted as though I was not there. It was strange. The only conversation I recall having with Francoise had to do with a mouse she had seen in her room. She apparently hated mice and was concerned that the dirty dishes being left in the sink were attracting them. I found the whole conversation kind of amusing because, as best as I could tell, nearly all of the dishes being left in the sink belonged to Francoise. I was not yet comfortable enough with my neighbors to leave any belongings, including dishes, in our common area.

There was apparently no law or social norm keeping the occupants of the basement on Paradis Street from smoking cigarettes inside the house, which seemed to be their favorite pastime. They all smoked like chimneys. I spent a lot of time out riding my bike.

Quebec City stands alone in my memory as the most beautiful place I have ever lived. The old city, with its narrow cobblestone streets, stone walls, cannons, and monuments, was crowded along the bluff next to the broad sweep of the St. Lawrence river. It was evocatively beautiful. It is the only fortified city in North America, and everywhere your turned you were confronted by soaring ramparts and batteries. The walls bristled with heavy cannons which had oxidized green over the years of peaceful neglect. Interspersed liberally throughout the city were also parks, soccer fields, and museums. Bike paths connected everything. In fact, I never used my car the entire time I was there. Quebec city was also unique for its tunnel system, made necessary by the extreme Quebec winters. The entire university was connected by underground tunnels so that its students need never step outdoors in the wintertime. You could go from your room, to class, to the dining hall, and also to the supermarket without ever stepping outside. Artists had taken ownership of different sections of the tunnel, whose walls were lined with art, poetry and philosophy. It was very stimulating. I always took the tunnels just for the novelty of it. It felt to me like I was living on a lunar colony, and I enjoyed imagining that stepping outdoors would rip the oxygen out of my lungs.

My neighbor, Bruno, had a girlfriend. I don't recall her name. She was tall with curly reddish-brown hair and always wore a pair of lavender suede boots. She would come over occasionally to visit Bruno. I can remember the first time she ever came over. I was in my room studying when I heard a rhythmic banging against the wall, punctuated at intervals by throaty moans. I instantly deduced that Bruno and his girlfriend were having an intimate moment on the other side of the paper thin wall. I decided to go for a walk, but as I was moving about my room, gathering some things before leaving, the sounds form the next room stopped and I could hear Bruno's girlfriend talking to him in muffled French. I'm not sure but my theory is that when she heard me moving around on the other side of the wall she became a little more self-conscious. I was also uncomfortable. I left.

My theory was confirmed the next time Bruno's girlfriend came over. Bruno came and knocked on my door, and without any embarassment he told me frankly that he was going to have sex with his girlfriend and that I should go watch TV or something. Francoise was smoking a cigarette and watching Musique Plus, which was the Quebecois equivalent of MTV, with a surly looking boy in the lounge.  I thanked him sincerely for the warning and went for a bike ride instead.

That became the routine after that. She would come over. Bruno would knock on my door and I would go for a bike ride.

One night, I was feeling tired after a long day of classes and bike riding, when Bruno came knocking on the door. He jerked his thumb toward the lounge, not in a rude way, but just with an easy familiarity. This was a well-established ritual by that time which required no words. In truth, by this time Bruno and I had become something north of mere association but still south of true friendship. He had given me a tour of his home which was being remodeled, and would occasionally bring me things from his convenience store, hot dogs, pizza, and slurpees, which he explained would have been thrown away anyway. One day, I even helped him install some base boards in his dining room. He would also routinely offer me beer and cigarettes which I declined. Hot dogs, pizza and slurpees were my vice of choice. He never offered me any of his marijuana however, which he also smoked liberally and often. I would have declined, of course, but still I found it odd that he never offered any. Anyway, when he came knocking I was feeling exhausted so I opted to sit with Francoise and one of her friends in front of the TV in the lounge. True to form both ignored me. After a few moments we were joined by Bruno and his girlfriend. They rolled a joint and began passing it back and forth. Francoise and her friend were likewise sharing a bottle of wine and smoking cigarettes. The room was filled with smoke. I decided to go for a bike ride after all.

I rode toward a pay phone near the university. Using an international calling card I spoke briefly with Sarah who was back in California for the summer. I was sick from missing her. Her voice was like food and drink to me. The amount of time left on the calling card forced the call to end sooner then she or I wanted it to. Ah well! Such was life for poor college students in those days. The calling card put a necessary governor on the amount of time we spent talking on the phone. If we had cell-phones we would have racked up serious charges, of that I have no doubt. After hanging up I was faced with a difficult decision- either return to the smokey basement on Paradis Street or continue prowling the night on my bike. It was then that I decided to just stay out all night. Why go home? The thought was liberating. I had no classes the next day. I had my health, a good bike and money in the bank.

I rode across the university to a 24-hour grocery store where I wandered around for a while before buying some postcards, a pepsi and a box of fig newtons. I love fig newtons. Then I turned my bike toward the old city down by the river. The bike paths were well-known to me by then. I chose one that dropped down off the heights to a wide path along a smaller river that flowed into the mighty St. Lawrence. According to a historical landmark placard placed alongside the path, the course of the bike path followed that of an old indian trail. The indians eventually led me out along the St. Lawrence itself whose broad expanse had been whipped up by a stiff wind into large waves which ran contrary to the river's current. Music, light, and laughter spilled out of the many eateries and bars which lined the river. I pedaled against the wind before turning toward the narrow streets that climbed the bluff. Riding over the cobblestones was tough going, especially going uphill, so I dismounted and walked my bike up through the city and out onto the plains of Abraham. Near the citadel, and not far from where General Wolfe died in the French and Indian War I sat down on a bench overlooking the river. Despite the wind it was a warm night. I produced my fig newtons from my back pack and ate them, washing them down with my pepsi. I watched for a long time as large ships bound to or from the ocean made their way up and down the river. They were all lit up like birthday cakes on the black sheet of the river.

All night I rode my bike through the quiet city until the bells from the Catholic churches peeled out a welcome to the dawn,  and as the sun rose up over La Rue Paradis, I chained my bike and descended the dark stairwell into the basement. Everyone was just exactly where I had left them, smoking in front of the TV.

1 comment:

steve said...

Excellent. Proud to have supported your re-election.