It is break time at the prison upholstery shop. We work in a large, brightly lit room with a high ceiling and concrete floors. Along one cinderblock wall, chairs are lined up, mostly facing outward. This is where we sit for the 15 minutes we get to rest in the middle of our morning shift.
I sit down, pick up a book, and start to read. On my radio earphones I’m listening to a sports talk show from the States. I am totally sealed off from the outside world.
A face looms over my book. It is kindly, mid-30s, jet black hair parted to one side. Its owner is a tall man, his square features reminiscent of Frankenstein, or the British actor Stephen Fry – or a cross between the two, perhaps. This is the man who assembles office partitions on the table next to mine.
He smiles at me. His lips are moving. I take off my earphones and ask him to repeat whatever he just said.
“You were homeless too, I hear?”
I was, for a time before my crime.
“Where are you from?”
I tell him.
“Saint Matthias, right?”
I nod. That was the Anglican Church I attended as a boy.
“Best Thursday lunch in town.”
I shrug. I had no idea.
“Too bad. If we’d had met I could have shown you the circuit. You’d never have ended up in prison.”
I look puzzled. What’s the circuit?
He goes through a whole schedule of the free meals available across my area of Montreal. Most are served by different churches.
Monday lunch, he explains, the sandwiches are thicker here than there. At 4 p.m., this church serves great soup. A shelter on Sainte Antoine has thinner blankets than the Accueil Bonneau in Old Montreal. One convent is staffed by caring nuns; another, by tough old birds. But the bad nuns are more generous with food and clothing than the nicer sisters…
As he talks, he sounds calm, educated, and very precise. I feel as if I’m listening to an experienced restaurant reviewer. He switches back and forth from perfect French to barely accented English with ease.
At his homeless shelter, he says, they kicked you out during the day. So he and his friends had their schedules pinned up beside their bunk beds. They’d debate the merits of each charity spot, then go there, careful to keep their privileged info to themselves.
He is in the middle of critiquing the chicken stew served at a downtown church when I interrupt: How does someone as together as you end up on the street?
“Bad divorce,” he says. “And…” He motions his hand towards his mouth, bending his wrist. The international symbol for drinking.
“So why didn’t I ever see you anywhere?”
I was homeless in a different city. Confused. Fewer resources. Didn’t know the place too well. If there was a circuit, I had no idea.
He arches an eyebrow. He’d like more details. I smile and shrug again.
“You should have come back to Montreal,” he offers helpfully. “You would have been fine, whatever the problem was.”
I hold my head in my hands.
“Why didn’t you just hop on a bus?”
Everyone asks me that question, I tell him. And I ask myself that every day.
The bell sounds. Break time is over.
I glance over at his table. It is not easy work, and as the clumsiest man alive I am constantly slipping up, cutting myself with sharp edges, ripping fabric. But I work quickly.
He works methodically, slowly, stopping to close one eye to check the line of fabric stretched over the edge of a partition. His movements are deliberate. He looks forever sad when he works, as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders.
Another bell sounds – lunchtime. We file out into the hallway and out the door towards the cafeteria.
I pass him. My normal walk is more of a run. His gait is slow but massive, one foot at a time thrown forward under slumped shoulders.
A few weeks later, he is released.
I hope, not to rejoin his circuit.