Sign of the Times
By: Eric Amber
Sometimes people ask me why I chose to build a theatre. In truth, I don’t think it was a choice I made as much as it was a choice made for me. Like a verdict handed down by a higher authority as if its existence was needed to fulfill some unseen future event.
I look back on it now as a huge mistake and waste of money, but at the time, I felt the community needed something more interesting than just another bar or cafe.
The idea came as a visual image I saw in my mind, inspired by the sign on the front of the building. A monster, steel framed, carnival style marquee that would become Theatre Ste-Catherine’s online image.
Today, permission to install such signage would not be given but as it was added decades ago, its allowance was a grandfathered privilege and the envy of many other business owners in the neighbourhood.
The marquee was the last piece of the puzzle and the last thing I needed to fix before opening the Theatre. The years of neglect had not been kind however. It was a rusted out home to a family of pigeons, covered in bird shit and sun faded pictures of Donair meat on a spit. So when the time came to have the sign restored, I called a handful of signage specialists to assess the job.
At this point in the project, I was stressing about the cost of things so I took the lowest quote that came along. That was a mistake.
His name was Ofar Farkash. (Yes, as in: Offer For Cash) Apparently, his parents were Hungarian and so was his name. He worked for the sign company and said that the job was a simple repair. Ofar explained that they could reuse the original plexiglass for the theatre signs, give the frame a clean new paint job and replace the bulbs. As the wiring was still good, the job was done rather quickly but when the bill arrived, the final cost was over double what was quoted.
I was mad at myself. I got scammed.
Of course this is the typical dodgy business practice of dodgy Montreal, so I refused to pay. Over double? That’s fucking bullshit. I grew up in Alberta. The Texas of Canada. A land of conservative folk who say what they mean, mean what they say and don’t like being taken for fools. Fast talking swindlers give us a rash.
Ofar gave me the standard lines. “It took longer than normal” and “It was more difficult than we thought”.
I stood my ground. More than double was not what I had agreed to and was more than I could afford. Ofar nodded his head as if he understood and excused himself to make a phone call.
Of course I thought I had the right to dispute the bill. I thought I lived in a free country of laws and rules. Oh how naive was I? Montreal has its own rules and there are consequences when you don’t pay the piper.
Thirty minutes later, a black 700 series BMW with tinted windows pulled up and double parked in front of the building. From out of the car stepped a man dressed all in black. He wore a 3/4 length leather jacket, sunglasses and short cropped hair. He introduced himself as Ari. He told me he had come to collect on the sign bill and that if I didn’t pay he’d break my legs. He said it just like that. Not with the poetry of TV gangsters.
I blinked. I didn’t know how to respond at first but the cowboy in me defied him. I told him to fuck off and slammed the door in his face. Looking through the window I could see that Ari wasn’t going anywhere. So, after the initial rush of adrenaline had died and the fear set in, I called the police.
The first thing I noticed when the police arrived was that they were female. Two hot French cops. This fact should not matter but it’s a good place to mention that one sees this a lot in Montreal. (Which is kind of awesome)
The Police questioned Ari, then took me aside and (to my amazement) told me to pay the bill. I can’t really remember what the officer said to me exactly because I was too busy thinking about how she might look wearing only a gun and if it was a bad time to ask her out, but the words “Mr. Ari is a very serious man” stick out in my mind.
Montreal I would learn is run by the mafia and the police are in their pocket. In the end, my father wired me the cash and I paid the bill, but my experiences with the real Montreal were just beginning.
The sign itself would lead to another problem that would play a part in my future. Bill 101. Quebec’s xenophobic language law.
Later, when I dared to promote an event with English words, the language police and French-Canadian separatists would paint me as a national villain in a public character assassination that would make headlines across Canada.
For most, fame only lasts 15 mins. Infamy is forever.