On a summer’s day in the fifties, the boys and girls in my Montreal neighbourhood learned that we were famous for being bad. The startling revelation came in over the airwaves and across the TV. Our ragamuffin tribes, composed of Italians, Ukrainians, Poles, Armenians, Romanians, Eastern European Jews, and a smattering of Scots and Irish, were being singled out for wickedness.
We were tickled to learn that our district, Park Extension, had the highest rate of juvenile delinquency in the land. Such extraordinary status! The negative connotation skimmed right on by. Not that children were being universally initiated into criminal activity. Hardly. Apart from the steady stream of adolescents heading for the Boys’ Farm and older lads soldiering off to Bordeaux Jail, the district would produce more than its fair share of doctors and teachers and engineers, a plethora of auto mechanics and plumbers, a batch of media types, legions of solid citizens, idlers, and even a few artists and musicians. Still, we knew the rackets were hot.
My mom taught school and my dad was a clergyman, so I was on occasion privy to the sadder side of delinquency’s culture. One incident stands out. My dad had laboured to get a young man who lived down the block out of prison. He mentioned how this tough, pugilistic car thief wept uncontrollably in their private sessions, so desperate was he to be released, and how he solemnly vowed to change his ways if given the chance. My dad, good on him, succeeded in accelerating the convict’s parole. But within two days of being home, the young man was mowed down in a gunfight with police that he’d provoked in a botched attempt to murder his former girlfriend. My father was devastated; a discomfiting emotion to detect emanating from one’s dad.
The lesson: the criminal element can be stubborn in its way.
In my twenties, I returned to Montreal from years of work and travel, taking a job as a waiter in a Mafia bar. My younger brother was the bartender, which paved my way in. My bro kept a tire iron handy behind the bar, which he occasionally brought into the open, although he knew to hang back and wait for disputes to work themselves out, intruding only if absolutely necessary. Every male regular was an ex-con; many were on parole, others awaited sentencing. Virtually all of them came from my home district, an idiosyncrasy that would deliver a surprise to me one night.
Overall, I fared well among these gentlemen, despite their generally thuggish demeanour. Why they seemed to view me with an undercurrent of affection was something I failed to unravel at first. I’d been living in rough, all-male working camps, so the usual intimidation tactics were easily waved off. An occasional threat not to intervene in a fight, or an admonition that my tips obliged me to purchase beer the next time a patron was broke or between break-ins, were contentious issues. Naturally, I blocked my ears to any scheme to fence a dozen TVs or to heist a Jag. That things could turn rowdy in a twinkling was always apparent, and one night they did, more cruelly than I’d imagined. A young man from the upscale district nearby wandered onto the premises, ticked somebody off in a clash of cultures, and while the fight that ensued took place after closing, so that neither owner nor staff were present, the damage inflicted on that unfortunate soul went beyond what typically occurs in a punch-up. These men were cruel. The unfortunate boy would be hospitalized for months, and I learned why the bar was deemed a Mafia bar, a term I’d taken too lightly.
The pair who inflicted the damage were not seen again. I do not imply that they were buried underground, only that, upon sober realization of what they’d done, they likely skipped town. Beating a man would not be held against them, particularly, but bringing the bar into disrepute was an egregious transgression. One that provoked a change. That change came in the form of a sedate Italian gentleman, dressed in superior haberdashery, who seated himself at a barstool the following night, and on every evening for the next eight months. A smallish man, well-mannered, well-spoken, and pleasant, he’d sip a couple of free drinks and speak only to the staff. We chatted amicably, his mere presence tamping down any further misbehaviour among patrons. The man was feared by those who were fearsome themselves. His presence delivered a simple message: Cause a disturbance? Carve your tombstone.
Tough as these ex-cons and soon-to-be-convicts-again were, they presented themselves as even tougher and more fierce. And yet one evening I discovered a surprisingly soft spot in their makeup that also helped explain their affection for their waiter. A violent young man, just out of the can, was taking on all-comers in arm-wrestling duels and defeating them as if snapping toothpicks. Whatever time he’d done in prison had been spent lifting weights. I was impressed. He’d decided not to like me, however, and was giving me a hard time for no reason other than the belief that he could, and therefore should. Sitting at a table for ten, he lit into me with blistering insults as his inebriation level peaked. He was looking to fight. I hoped the man at the bar was noticing this, but to my surprise another ex-con spoke up before my skull could be ingloriously knocked off. “Don’t you know who he is?” my sudden protector asked my adversary.
“Him? No. Should I? Who is he?”
I was curious as well. Who was I to be worth a mention, let alone someone whose mere presence altered people’s conduct?
The reply arrived with the solemnity of an esoteric secret. “He’s Mrs Ferguson’s son. The bartender, too. They’re brothers, see.”
To this day, the transformation that took place within that aggressive man stuns me. From a brittle, hard-rock, venomous attitude, he capitulated and became my champion, my best friend for life. I returned to the bar to convey a drinks order and, flabbergasted, related to my brother what had just occurred. He laughed. “How do you think we survive in here? We’re untouchable. Mom taught grade one to all these guys. Because of Mom we get a free pass.”
Their grade one teacher had so affected them that, even after a life of crime and years in federal penitentiaries, they turned to mush at the mention of her name. Good on my mother, for sure, but my own compassion for these fragile hearts also expanded. Just the memory of a person who had cared for them as children was enough to transform their behaviour in a troubled present.
No one ought to dismiss the power of love.
In writing crime fiction, I find it useful at times, and a significant challenge, to touch upon that pinprick of love that might lie nestled in the otherwise wrecked and hardened.
Which brings me, circuitously, to my visit to a women’s prison.
Many (countless?) writers before me have made the trek to prison book clubs or writing groups, as I was doing. A few visiting writers have even found a spouse on the inside. In accepting an invitation from a support group for female prisoners, I was aware of that history. Although a crime writer visiting a prison—and a women’s prison at that—to discuss his own crime novel, potentially meant playing to a tough audience in more ways than one.
Driving out, I had minimal expectations. Female prisoners, right? Drug users, I supposed. Pushers, shoplifters, maybe jewelry smugglers, and of course sex workers, if they were still put away. At dinner beforehand, I learned that I would encounter a woman who had hacked up her daughter with a hatchet for staying out late with a boy. The daughter survived. I was to meet a young First Nations woman who murdered her father on her eighteenth birthday. A pleasant young woman had stabbed her best friend to death for flirting with her boyfriend. Another had offed her husband with poison. I’d be introduced to a smuggler, not of drugs or jewelry, but of heavy weapons for the mob. Holy …! This was not an audience of candy-stripers. The woman who’d apparently most looked forward to my visit would be absent as she had landed that day in solitary confinement. I was taken aback. And yet of all my meet-and-greets over the years, readings and storytelling performances, none was more magical than that night inside the walls of the Joliette Institution for Women.
The cake the women had baked for the occasion wasn’t the only thing on the table in the prison’s small communal kitchen. Their lives were, too. I was, of course, a diversion, and a male diversion was especially rare in their experience. Joliette, I’ll submit, seemed a good place to be if you’re an incarcerated woman. I say this knowing that some have complained about their treatment there. Prisoners live in groups of eight. They’re not locked up separately, but in organized clusters. They cook their own meals and order their own food within a predetermined budget. It’s still prison, and inmates are still sent to the hole, yet they wear street clothes, as do the guards, the difference being the guards keep a warning buzzer in their fists. When anyone walks from one section of the prison to another, the clamour of steel doors and locks is brutal. Yet overall there was a clear attempt, at least in January of 2017, to run a humane penitentiary, with prisoner activities all intended as preparation for a return to citizenship. The seven inmates (the eighth of their group being in solitary) I met that night often repeated, “We’re human, too.” And yet the statement was invariably followed by a heartbreaking question. “Aren’t we?”
They practised the refrain. “We’re human, too.” After agreeing several times, I eventually declared it in a short speech. “Yes, you’re human. We all are. Not just those of us who haven’t killed or maimed or committed other crimes. You are human, too, the same as everyone else.” They were trying the proposition out on themselves, of course, for what they took for granted at one time in their lives had been severed by their actions. Returning to it required effort and adjustment.
With the exception of a woman in for fraud, and the gun-runner, I noted that the prisoners had not lived criminal lives. Most, rather, had lost control in a momentary frenzy or outburst that would haunt them always. That they were not habitual criminals was, I suspect, critical to the selection process in having them shunted from federal penitentiaries across the country to Joliette. They’d arrived from all over. Some had lives to return to; others would be better off avoiding their pasts. Our talk went beyond our appointed hour to the limit of their curfew, and though I’d gained entry by passing muster with a sniffer dog intent on my anus, and had had my belt inspected by the mass spectrometry machine (belts are touched by fingers, as are drugs), and exited through the same labyrinth of slamming steel doors involving the endless insertion of keys into locks and hollers between guards to indicate safety, I did, in the end, sail out of there on a tailwind. I rode that high for days.
What had been so edifying, so rich, so transformative?
The question stumped me then, and I won’t pretend to have snagged the answer yet. I suspect we touched a niblet core of remembered love in each of us, and in gratitude and hopefulness it brought the room high. In time, a novel emerged from the experience. Lady Jail was published this February, 2021, and there’s that, but like the hardened boys who remembered my mother so fondly, I draw sustenance and inspiration from the soft, pained hearts of the women I met that night.
—From CNQ 109: The Crime Issue (Spring/Summer 2021)
Trevor Ferguson has written seven literary novels and four plays under his own name and nine crime novels under his pseudonym, John Farrow, most recently Lady Jail. He lives in Victoria.
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