Les Main Sur La Table

So I'm working at a cafe one night about 10 p.m. and the about 20 cops come in with guns drawn and yelling "les main sur la table, les main sur la table!" It's 1974 in Montreal; the brasseries are hopping 'till the wee hours, the french-canadian youth of the province are pouring into the city lookng for work and opportunity, the separatist partisans have been bombing metro stations, and the Parti Quebecois is on the rise. Montreal is an international city with Portugeuse, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Americans rubbing shoulders up and down Rue St. Laurent. The cops are getting in the habit of making themselves visible in the cafes and bars on the French side of town along St. Catherine and St. Denis.

This particular cafe, which doubles as a chess club, sits on the west side of Carrie St. Louis, a block or two to the north of the big party district. Most nights things started to pick up about 2 a.m. when the bar crowd would pile in, bringing their own booze and drugs and in-your-face politics. Things would quite down again by 4 a.m. and we'd close the place around daybreak and head out for breakfast across the street, or go cruising around the city enjoying the empty streets and uncluttered views.

Anyway, these cops are half city cops in regular dark blue cop outfits, complete with shiny-visor caps and drawn hand guns, and half RCMP in suits and trench coats with fedoras pulled down close over their eyes and machine guns at the ready. Very cloak and dagger, very Rick's, and very odd, really. The cafe is pretty full for being so early in the evening, with maybe thirty or forty people scattered from front to back, but nobody panics or looks very put out, and most people just look bored.   Even the cops, despite the fact that they burst in with loud shouts, seem to move without too much hurry from the front to the back of the cafe, pinning people to their seats with stares and waved guns, and stationing themselves through the three large rooms that made up the cafe.

When the cops arrived, I was serving a woman at a table in the center of the cafe. The woman knew I was an illegal. She spoke to me in a quiet normal voice and said "Just keep working; push them out of your way, and don't speak English, and they'll probably leave you alone." The cafe was not overly busy, but even so I was behind about four tables, bringing coffee and serving sandwiches as I made them to the patrons. I was a little nervous, but not too concerned. I'd been a wetback for a few months already, and was concerned about getting popped with the "borrowed" IDs I had for health-care. I didn't want to get Claude in trouble (he was the real Quebecois who gave me his health card.) My french was limited to just a few words, but my accent was solid, and I'd recently faced down an angry drunk who objected to me working a job that could have been held by a Quebecois. We yelled at each other in French for a few minutes and I made my point that borders were bullshit and lots of Quebecois work illegally in the US all the time, so he backed off. Anyway, I just went about my business, saying "excusez moi" and "allee" and s'il vous plait" and serving coffees as if nothing were amiss.

My friend was right. The RCMP seemed to be looking for somebody, but they didn't seem to be looking for me. In those days I was scrawny and scruffy, but I wore a clean shirt and jeans to work, and I'd learn to hide my gringo background, if only to avoid the endless questions from the tourists. The cops made everyone else show some sort of ID (everyone except me), and eventually took away some hapless academic type with leather patches on his tweed jacket. I think he might have been one of the chess types who didnt' come in often and was sitting alone when the cops arrived. I was told they let him go the next morning, and had only taken him to save face in front of the rest of us. The cafe was, after all, a known late-night haunt for intellectuals, radicals, and students, and as likely a place as any to find terrorists in those days in Quebec.

I knew some strange folks in those days, but I don't know if I ever rubbed shoulders with anybody fanatic enough to be a terrorist. It's possible, of course, but while the folks I knew then were passionate and committed, they were civilized and considerate and coherent, and I believe most (if not all) would have deplored indiscriminate violence.


Copyright 2003, Owens Communications