My father, deceased for some years already, would have been very happy being in prison. Not because of the food, the filth or the confinement. But because in his salad days he was a crime reporter for the Montreal Star, a daily newspaper that closed its doors in 1978.
Our living room shelves in Sainte-Adele were crammed with dime novels: detective stories, spy thrillers… When veteran crime writers would come to supper at our house, the conversation would inevitably turn to tales of cops and robbers; of mobsters great and petty; of the many ways that the underworld would rid itself of dangerous folks with loose lips and active tongues. A rope is placed around the neck, one end is tied to a car bumper; the other, to a tree; an ignition key turns; a slow drive in the other direction…
My father was the youngest police reporter on the city’s active crime beat. His office was in the heart of the Quebec Provincial Police’s headquarters on Parthenais Street in Montreal. He never tired of complaining that because of his youth when wads of cash were discreetly left in brown envelopes at the end of the Thursday afternoon police briefing, his bribe was always the smallest
I suggest that he would have loved to have been here in prison because each federal jail is essentially a collection of media celebrities: names and faces known to the public, stars of page one news stories, folks played by actors on Quebec’s “Canal D” crime reenactment cable channel. Except that you rarely if ever talk about that sort of thing behind bars. Not if you have any common sense at all.
Now some inmates are genuinely proud of their crimes. They pin their press clippings on cell bulletin boards. One gangland chieftain had a habit of running around, TV Guide in hand, whenever his moment of glory was aired, making sure to tell everyone: “Don’t forget to watch the ‘me’ show on TV tonight!”
But the vast majority of those unlucky enough to find themselves behind bars don’t conduct themselves that way among their fellow detainees. They spend their days trying to forget why they’re here. They work in the factory, go to school, play cards and sports, all without mentioning the awful moment in their lives that put them on Canal D.
Crime eats away at your insides – except for psychopaths, of which there are blessedly few in jail. Conversations dwell on sports on TV, the next awful meal, books and movies, what to buy at the canteen that evening.
My father and I did not get along for many of the years we were alive at the same time. He frequented Montreal’s fashionable watering holes. Suave and dashing, he whiled away the hours with a colorful coterie of reporters, old mobsters, politicians, millionaires and billionaires, all of whom sat spellbound by his amazing talent as a raconteur with a near-photographic memory for embarrassing personal details. When my life unraveled and I was left with terrible, tragic issues to deal with, his response was to try to peddle his version of my story to a TV & movie producer interested in my court trial. I never forgave him for the contract he signed. And he never forgave me for my horrific single act. But during his rare prison visits, he was clearly in seventh heaven, swapping stories with the prison guards who searched him; his twinkling eyes would dart around the visit room as he wondered, in hushed tones, who had committed what crime. He never lost his reporter’s instincts.
For a long time I loathed the man. But I shouldn’t have. People are who they are. They are the product of their life experiences. In jail you judge people according to how they act and how they treat people, ever aware that we are the sum total of the events we have lived through.
My father was capable of enormous generosity. He taught me to love books, and it is that love, more than anything else, that has got me through my deepest valleys. We are all at once composed of good and bad, of light and shadow. No one can live up to, or down to, the image portrayed by our own Canal D. Nobody deserves to be judged entirely by the darkest hour of a much longer life.