All work and no play? That doesn’t sound like me. This is not only a book tour: I’m already scraping together information for another project, one that promises to be quite exciting. And today, I’ll be interviewing Ruben in Montreal. He, in his late nineties, sounds perfectly coherent on the phone, and I’m meeting him at the retirement home where he now lives. The place is way out somewhere—who knew this city was so huge, so spread out? It’ll take me hours to get to him on public transportation, but Ruben has the information I need—or so I’ve been told by an archivist in Toronto who helped set up this meeting two weeks ago.
Ruben is ready and waiting for me, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, grinning from ear-to-ear. He’s quite excited that an author has come to talk to him, and he likes me too, I can see that right away. That’s a good thing; it means the interview will go well.
“You married?” asks Ruben.
“Ah, no, not exactly, but I—“
“Then you’re free to go out on a date with me.”
“Well no, not—“
“Why? What’s wrong? You doan wanna date older guys?”
“I have nothing agai—“
“So you got nothing against dating older guys, why don’t you wanna go out to dinner with me?”
“Ruben, I’m here to interview you. And right after we talk, I’m getting on a bus and heading for Halifax.”
“So you get on a bus tomorrow, not today. Tonight, we go out to dinner.”
“I can’t possibly do that. I have a book talk to give in Halifax. What I would really like to do now, though, is hear your story.”
“Ah, come on,” says Ruben. “That old stuff is history. Who cares about crap that took place seventy years ago? I doan even wanna talk about it. What matters is now. You gonna go on a date with me or what?”
At the bus ticket counter, I smile, am polite, but this is one of those days when life wants to show me that nothing is easy. The highly unpleasant-looking witch facing me is hostile: she hates me at first sight. Is it my face, my smile, my very existence she loathes? Or is it my accent when I speak to her in French? I’ll never know, and, frankly, do I care? I hand her my perfectly legitimate bus pass purchased a week ago, and ask for the coupons for the Halifax bus.
“I want ID,” she says.
The pass isn’t enough? But I’m not arguing; the Montreal bus terminal is not the hill I want to die on. I hand over my French driving license.
She smirks happily, punches one sausage finger down on the hapless card. “The names aren’t the same.”
“What names aren’t the same?”
“The bus pass is issued to Culiner,” she spits, furious. She isn’t going to let any run-of-the-mill con-woman get by her.
“Yes, that’s my last name.” I try to keep my voice level.
“The license belongs to Jill Arlene.”
“Those are my first names.”
“So it’s not the same person.” She pushes the license back at me, turns away, begins doing something else.
“How about you?” I yelp. My irritation now matches hers. “You don’t have a first and last name? If you just take a look at the next line on the license, you’ll see my last name.”
This pronouncement results in her total fury—she isn’t going to give in with easy grace—and the rest of the transaction is carried out with dizzying rudeness.
The bus rolls through towns with wooden houses, and some are truly lovely. However, aberrant renovation has destroyed many, converting fine Victorian and Edwardian structures into those of banal suburbia: Canadians are far inferior in heritage preservation than Americans, I think. And this also true in Rivière-du-Loup where I have decided to spend the night.
I don’t know the town, but I’ve decided to spend the night here, break up the 22 hour long bus journey simply because I like the name Rivière-du-Loup (Wolf’s River, in English) named after the resident loups-marin (sea wolves or seals) although humans managed to exterminate them a long time ago. Another local disaster took place in 1950 when, due to engine problems, a USAF B-50 was forced to release a nuclear bomb it was carrying. The bomb was destroyed before it hit the ground, but the explosion scattered at least 100 pounds of uranium over the area.
Still,I have imagined a beautiful town along the river, and despite the gloomy weather, I set off for a little sight-seeing. Of course, nothing is the way you expect it to be—shouldn’t I know that by now? Outfall pipes are disgorging a brown liquid sludge into the St. Lawrence River, and where there should be a beautiful waterfront, the Trans-Canada Highway roars by. And, running alongside it, are the usual fast food joints, car dealerships, motels, and gas stations. Yes, this was a beautiful place…once upon a time.
“I want to be a writer,” says the young woman working at the hostel. “That’s always been my dream.”
“Do you write?”
“I really want to, but I don’t have time to write.”
“In order to be a writer, you have to write.”
“I have so many ideas, I know I could get a whole book out of them.”
“Write the ideas down. That’s the way to begin. It’s called doing your apprenticeship.”
“But I have family commitments.”
“Then get up half-an-hour earlier each morning, sit down and write something.”
She stares at me, horrified. “Half-an-hour earlier? Are you joking?”
“Well…if you don’t take the time to write, you’ll never be a writer.”
“Of course, I will be. I have all these ideas. For one, I want to write a book about my mother. She was raised by her grandparents instead of her mother, can you imagine? That must have been very hard for her.”
In the morning, I trudge through the freezing streets. The only place open for breakfast is a sterile chain type restaurant. Still, in here it’s warm. I take out my notebook, prepare to write—I am, after all, a fairly disciplined writer. But my pen stays poised above the page: I have nothing to say.
J. Arlene Culiner on Amazon:
Jill Culiner on Amazon: