By: Eric Amber
In the days before I opened Théâtre Ste-Catherine, east Saint Catherine street, was still very much the sex district of Montreal and you could see hookers along the street at any hour of the day or night waiting for ‘work.’ I would regularly exit my building and have to squeeze past a prostitute who was hiding from the cops or escaping the rain by standing in my door well. Over time they began to recognize me and called me ‘hun.’
Prostitution is said to be the oldest profession. Where women employed in this business come from is not a question I can answer but they are often homeless, unwanted, orphaned or run away girls.
According to the list of saints I found on the internet:
Saint Catherine of Palma was an orphan.
Saint Catherine of Genoa was the patron saint of adultery.
Saint Catherine of Sienna was the patron saint of sexual temptation.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria was the patron saint of unmarried girls.
Saint Catherine of Sweden was the patron saint of abortion and miscarriage
and Saint Catherine of Bologna was the patron saint of temptation and artists.
My strip along east Saint Catherine street has been the sex district for over 200 years. In the early days, men wearing top hats and capes riding on horse and buggy would trot past in search of french whores. My own building was built in the 1890‘s and the apartments above were used as a halfway house for pregnant hookers. Montreal in those days was the Las Vegas of its time. The original sin city.
The years of prohibition and Montreal’s proximity to the U.S. fueled a golden age of cabaret, gambling, smuggling, booze cans and a sex trade that made criminal family syndicates like the Kennedy’s and the Bronfman’s billions. To this day, their heirs remain some of the wealthiest people in the world.
By the 1970’s, the DuBois brothers, a gang of notorious pimps and murderers held court in a building just two doors down from me. From there, they steered their criminal empire, trafficked drugs, traded flesh, bribed judges, bought politicians, paid police and terrorized Montreal. Until their eventual downfall, they controlled all the housing in my neighborhood for use as brothels and drug dens.
By the late 90’s, east Saint Catherine street was a festering rat’s nest of filth, human vermin and 99 cent pizza. Every doorstep along the way, had a beggar, asking for change. Most looked homeless. Many were not. In fact there were a great many street kids who bused in from the suburbs just to spend their summer holiday begging and getting drunk on the street. They were drawn to this part of town because the cops didn’t harass them but also because the depravity of the area came with an electric energy that is difficult to describe.
These street punks were rowdy, obnoxious, foul smelling and unpredictable. Although some days they were polite and nice, most days they would yell, fight and try to break into my building, thinking it was an empty, potential squat.
I remember one kid who hung around. He was covered in a full body skeleton tattoo, complete with skull face. If I
had not been born to carnival parents and grown up with street performers, I may have found him frightening to look at. I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s a life choice. How is this kid ever going to get a job, let alone a bank loan?’ Clearly, he had poor decision making skills.
Ironically, it was Lucky Diamond Rich, the ‘Worlds Most Tattooed Man’ (according to the Guiness book of world records) who years later, when meeting him on the street, said ‘He looks scary.’
One afternoon, I was walking towards the theatre past the coffee shop next door when I saw Skeletor with a beautiful punk rock chick. She must have been six foot tall, in her late teens and could have been a super model but for the extreme hard core look she carried. She wore knee high Doc Martin boots, fish net stockings, a black leather mini skirt, a studded denim jacket, a white t-shirt, a good number of face piercings and bright pink hair.
I stopped and stared for a moment, trying to look past her outward appearance. She was someone’s daughter. A young woman posing defiantly against her youth and beauty. What a shame, I thought as I carried on my way.
I remember what followed very clearly. I unlocked the door and entered the theatre. Setting down the box of supplies I had been carrying, I walked towards the back of the building. Exiting the back door, I then unlocked the chain of the rear gate and began to swing it open. That’s when I caught site of it. An ass. A bare human ass, pointed in my direction.
I’m not sure why I didn’t look away immediately. The shocked and the surprise of seeing that ass left me frozen on the spot just long enough to see that ass take a giant human shit, right on the ground in the middle of the alley. Then, I saw the pair of eyes belonging to that ass, look back at me. It was her! The punk rock chick.
Slowly, without wiping, she pulled up her fish nets, held my gaze and sneered at me.
‘Fucking pervert’ she said as she walked away, leaving me to protest my innocence to the air.
There is something dangerous and confronting about that part of Montreal. Some people thought I was crazy to build a theatre there. In my heart, I knew it was just a matter of time before things changed and I personally believe T.S.C. was the key to making that change happen.
Though maybe, it wasn’t. Maybe it was Saint Catherine herself. Just as she had watched over her flock of lost orphan prostitutes back in the 1890’s, now in a way, she was watching over a new gang of lost orphans. The artists of Théâtre Ste-Catherine at their new home in the heart of darkness.