Montreal Then & Now: Coming to Canada — Part I

After decades of teaching, Zsolt Alapi is a born-again writer, editor, publisher, who has made his home in Montreal for over four decades.

During the Vietnam War, young men gathered in college dorms and friends’ homes to listen to live TV and radio broadcasts of the U.S. Selective Service System drawing lottery numbers to determine who would and would not be drafted. 366 blue plastic capsules contained the birthdays that would be chosen in the first Vietnam draft lottery drawing on December 1, 1969. The first birth date drawn that night, assigned the lowest number, “001,” was September 14.

That day I won the lottery. My number was 146, and the cut- off for my district was 147. I was one number away from being exempted from the draft. Several months went by, and I had begun to think I was in the clear, but then, one day, I received my notice to report for induction into the United States Army. The choice was easy: I promptly packed a few belongings, met with friends for the last time, gave away my books and records, and began my journey to Canada.

I arrived in Canada with green hair, the result of a bucket of house paint landing on my head. The day before I was called in for induction into the United States Army, I was painting my friend Lee’s house, having been hired by his father out of some pity, I suppose. Lee was on the high ladder, while I was painting the trim along the porch, being notoriously afraid of heights. We had spent the afternoon smoking hash, and had rashly decided to make a half-hearted effort at working so that his father, when he came home, would not think we had wasted our day.

Smoking hash and then painting, I don’t need to emphasize, can be hazardous. In our case, Lee started laughing at something I had said, laughing so hard that he tipped the bucket and a huge splotch of paint had landed directly on my head, covering the left side of my hair, face, and shoulders. I had tried to wash it off, but it was oil-based, so the next day, when I walked into the induction center, I wore my green Army jacket (standard hippie wear) with matching green locks that reached past my shoulder.

The look on the Sergeant’s face registered incredulity, followed by disgust. When it was my turn to approach, he glared at me:

“So, tomorrow we’ll cut off all that hair and make a soldier of you…teach you the real meaning of ‘green’…….” He then murmured under his breath as he filled out my papers: “Goddam faggot….” I was now officially 1-A, fit for military service. All that remained was the final step, where we were taken into a room and asked to pledge an oath of loyalty to the United States, to promise to serve and protect our nation. When it came time for me to take the oath, I refused. Two noncoms looked at me in disbelief, one of them clenching a fist as if he wanted to drive it down my throat.

“You realize what this means?” the other asked, in a tone cold as ice.

“Yes…yes, I do….”

“You realize that you are in violation of section Z5204 of the Conscription Act, and that legal action can and will be taken against you?”

“Yes… I suppose…”

“You realize that you have twenty- four hours to change your mind, to report for duty tomorrow afternoon by no later than 3 p.m., or, failing that, there will be a warrant for your arrest put out by the District Attorney of the State of New York?”

“Ok…”

“Ok WHAT?”

“Ok… SIR?”

“That’s all. When you come back tomorrow, you will come back as a soldier, ready to do your duty. UNDERSTOOD?”

“I’m not deaf……SIR……”

“ What did you say? GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY SIGHT, YOU PIECE OF DRIED UP SHIT BEFORE I TEAR YOU A NEW ASSHOLE……. DISMISSED…..”

Yes, they really did talk like that.

I left the induction center and walked to the flat I shared with four of my friends. That night, we went for drinks at our favorite bar, “Brinks”. I paid for drinks all around, even for the old hustler, Charlie Brown, the guy who always ate a stick of butter before coming out to drink and hustling the guys at pool. Claimed it kept him sober, though his eyeballs were a vicious yellow tinge.

The next day, I slept in until almost noon. Everyone had gone from our shared flat, out to work or classes. I looked at all of my books: Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems, my Auden, Mann, Proust, the others, all the voices that had been ringing in my ears those past years. I packed a green rucksack, the one I had used on my first trip to Europe, and two books: Hart Crane’s Collected Poems and The Jade Mountain. I took a bus down Niagara Street to where the Peace Bride walkway began. When I got to the Ontario side, a disinterested Customs Officer asked me how long I would be in Canada, and barely listened to my stammered reply. He let me across the turnstile, green hair and all. I had just over eighteen dollars left in my wallet.

It wasn’t hard to hitchhike in those days to Toronto, and, later travelling east down the 401 I got two rides in rapid succession, the first to Kingston, and the next to Montreal. In the short space of 12 hours, I had gone from being almost a soldier to a longhaired, ex-American, now twice exiled. I rang the bell at my older brother’s flat in NDG, he who had left Hungary before us in 1956 and had taken the first available boat to Canada, eventually settling in Montreal. He opened the door and stared at me in amused disbelief.

“Shit,” he said. “My little bruder… look at your hair… welcome to Canada, the coldest place on earth, home of polar bears, igloos, draft dodgers, and all the assholes in the world that no other nation would take.”

My hiatus with my brother was brief. He has just gone through a messy divorce and had custody of his two boys, ages six and three. I was the designated baby sitter while he was at work; in return, I received food, a couch to sleep on, and a ration of cigarettes. When the boys were in daycare, I wandered the city streets and was shocked to discover that Montreal was French, beautiful, vibrant, and totally inaccessible to me. I had no job, no money, and no prospects. Even my green hair had been clipped by an Italian barber who mumbled curses to himself as he cut.

My brother was a man with plans, always on the make, always looking for the big score. He told me:

“There are millions of morons on this earth, and I have been put on this earth specifically to exploit them.”

One day, some three weeks after I had arrived, he came home and said he wanted to talk to me.

“I’ve bought 10 arpents of land just north of St. Jerome, around an hour and a half from Montreal. Cost me $800.00. Place is between New Glasgow and St. Calixe, or St. Colis, as the French up there call it. We’re going up there this weekend to start the digging.”

“What digging?”

“For the pond. I’m gonna make a trout hatchery in the woods. Dig a lake and put in six-inch fingerlings, young trout. If they’re fed daily, they grow two inches a month. By October, they will be ready to sell to restaurants. Big bucks for fresh fish.”

“What do you know about fish?”

“What’s there to know. You feed the motherfuckers for five months and then you fish them out. Easy.”

“Who’s going to feed them?”

“Guess! YOU…I am sick the fuck of feeding you and watching you feel sorry for yourself. It’s time you got to work. We leave on Saturday.”

To be continued: “ La Vie Québecoise”

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