By: Eric Amber
It was the 6th of June 2001. I had driven straight to Montréal from Alberta in two days, fueled by coffee and painkillers, with a friend of mine. I wasn’t sure what to expect at the time. All I knew was that my family owned a small property east of the main on Ste- Catherine street and that it had been torched by arsonists in the late 80’s.
Originally built by a group of nuns in the 1890’s, the upstairs apartments served as a half-way house for pregnant hookers while the shopfront served as the neighborhood hardware store and then a series of boutiques until the 1970’s. Then René Lévesque got elected and people began to leave. The seedy east side got seedier and soon the little building my family owned became a souvlaki stand run by a couple of dodgy Greeks (the only people willing to pay the rent). Elsewhere in the city, buildings were abandoned and in true Quebec fashion, occupied by squatters, communists and revolutionaries – or simply burned down for the insurance.
It was a cold winter night when it happened: someone kicked in the door that led to the unused apartments upstairs and set the building on fire, destroying it along with the book store next door. In Quebec, arson is as common as rioting after a hockey game. The two go hand-in-hand and in this case the job was so sloppy the fire department immediately pointed the finger at the Greeks downstairs. (Maybe because they weren’t French.) It was tough to prove and it didn’t matter anyway. On that one day, less than 24 hours between one insurance policy ending and another starting, the building went up in flames. What are the odds? In a city like Montréal? When any and all information is up for sale? Pretty damn high. As soon as the smoke had settled, the Greeks offered to buy the property – at a reduced price of course. The situation was a disaster, a complete zoofest, and it took years to settle. Eventually the book store next door was rebuilt and a family of Turkish Kurds cleaned up the lower half of the building to sell pizza by the slice.
Some may remember Pizza Sipan, home to students, homeless people and a great deal of prostitutes. I remember walking down Ste-Catherine Street from the west end. It was a vibrant street full of shops and cafés and history that I excitedly soaked in. Soon however, the street changed. Just after Place Des Arts at Clark, you could see them – like zombies circling. The junkies scratched themselves and mumbled incoherently as I crossed to the east side of the main, while prostitutes with sores and scars revealed by the full daylight standing on the street called at me. You could tell it was spring in Montréal because the street kids all had puppies. I kept walking and the excitement I initially felt turned to a mild fear. This was a war zone unlike anything I’d seen in Canada. It felt more like Harlem or Baltimore.
The first thing I remember when I arrived at the building was seeing a homeless man pissing on the front door. Next to him, through the window, I could see a pizza was being made. I walked inside and through to the back where I bumped into a man getting a blow job on the fire escape while shooting heroin. “I’m home” I thought to myself, and quickly excused myself.
Three and a half expensive, hard and dirty years later, that little building became Théâtre Ste-Catherine. A venue that would become a mecca for art and controversy. Years on, I sit and do the math. 200 pizzas a day. 8 slices a pizza. $1.50 per slice. That’s $72,000 per month, not including pop and kababs.
Fuck theatre. I should have sold pizzas.