Girlfriend, who’s that with you?

montreal apartment building

THE perfect stranger’s brother sent me an email.

“He doesn’t speak much English. Do you speak French?”

“I can follow along somewhat. I know how to talk food. But no,” I wrote back.

He replied, “He’s the same way with English. It’ll be fine.”

The other perfect stranger I was to drive was a soon-to-be medical student at McGill but, meanwhile, during summertime, would be coming with me to Boston to learn genetics while working for free at some professor’s lab.

I drove downtown to their apartments to pick them up. A black german shepherd stuck his nose between the ornate cast iron bars on a balcony in an old brick 3 family apartment. Wisened maples lined the streets. The dog wagged his tale when my finger brushed the doorbell.

A lanky bearded man descended the stairs. I had a tendency to think of every tall man who wore a beard as ‘Beardo’. I only ever said it out loud once, though I’d been tempted to many other times.

He took off what Angelique called a “Pack Sack”, engorged like a European coming to a new land, and heaved it into the trunk of Gretchen the Pug.

“Nice neighborhood,” I said, nodding.

“Ah I live here with my mother and my girlfriend.” A large-ish park, smaller than La Fountaine Park, but still generous stood across from his apartment.

“Your girlfriend and mother live together? Your mother must be a really easy person to get along with.”

He laughed like an animal, bearing his white fangs.

“My mother and girlfriend are the two sweetest human beings ever.”

“Nice to meet you.” I said, slamming the trunk.

“Likewise,” he said, and went to assume his place in the shotgun position.

The Plateau part of the city still lay quiet then, too early for anyone but the occasional homeless artist, and taxi drivers. In Montreal the city did sleep, but it slept in because it went to bed really late. There were times when I’d arrive the Thursday night before, untangling myself from some unexpected rush hour weirdness in Boston, or those with cabin fever heading north of Nashua, New Hampshire, or rush hour in Burlington, Vermont . There were times when I dropped people off on rue Ste Catherine in Montreal well after midnight, and the place would still be teeming with party goers, business people, people chilling, people on the move.  Montreal was the only city I’d driven in where I continually hit traffic jams on the highway at 2 in the morning.

That morning was absolutely my favorite time of the day, the late spring dawn, sun not at its full strength. I felt a passing heartbreak for being unable to sit in on one of the benches and enjoy an hour right there.

I looked down at my notes to get to the Francophone’s place.

“Turn right here and take St Denis up maybe 5 streets.”

I was kind of used to it now, the narrow streets, cars on either side. It strained me, all that looking for potential trouble so close to my car, but gradually my body grew accustomed to that level of scrutinizing. Having driven down streets like Marquette and Duluth, Fabre, and … all over Montreal really, feeling the squeeze became commonplace.

This second guy, the French guy whose brother had emailed me, was smaller and darker than the med student. Clean shaven, ducking his head. “Allo,” he said.

“You are not Canadian,” the Med student asked in French.

“No, I’m from Algeria,” he replied in French. And then he sat back and looked out the window while Beardo told me all about his mother and his studies and how he should present himself at the border, an hour later.

We passed the last possible exit, the one with the flashing yellow light, rounded the corner, passed what looked to be a horse farm, and then some small businesses that I’d never seen open: a gem store with a slackened and flaking turquoise facade, and some delivery offices.  Next up the duty-free shop that offered Lancome parfume at a slight discount from prices … that could be located from the nose bleed section of cosmetic concerts.

“Passports,” I called out, holding my right hand up and back like Hitler.

The two guys handed me documents. I pulled out my birth certificate, the third one in my possession since the previous two were threadbare due to constant folding and unfolding.

“You don’t have one?” Medical student asked, pointing to my hand.

“I lost it and haven’t had the money to get a replacement. Too bad since it had a stamp from the DDR when I took a day trip to East Berlin.” I showed off my bona fides. “Before the Wall came down.”

I made it my practice to insert doubt into my riders’ minds about what an American did or seemed like. The country, my country, was either rapidly changing into something extremely different, this was a few years after September of 2001, or was merely putting a different colored lip gloss on what was already there.

“You don’t need one for the border?”

“Not yet. Vermont and Canada are in talks. I know I’m gonna have to just get one soon.”

There were only two cars ahead of us. The beauty of my driving system was avoiding as much traffic as possible through the various cities. Picking people up at 6 in the morning in Montreal and getting to the border at 7ish meant a trip of constant movement rather than waiting and sighing.

I looked at the documents in my hand. Algerian guy had given me a laminated card the size of a driver’s license.

I asked him, “Just this will get you in? You don’t need a passport?” It was a permanent resident card for the US. I had never seen one before.

“Oui,” he said.

The Medical student asked, “How did you get it?”

Algerian guy said, “My uncle sponsored me. He’s in Boston. Everett.”

A bolt of anger and jealousy passed through me, leaving as quickly as it entered me. It was not Algerian guy’s fault. Angelique’s family lore included some distant members from her mother’s family who had ventured away to California, a very long time ago. But Angelique did not feel up to the task of locating them to see about sponsoring her for a green card partly because it seemed so ridiculous when there I was.

The car ahead of me pulled away, indicating that we should pull up. I handed the guard in the booth all of our papers. “Good morning,” I said dully.

He rearranged everything, opening up and looking, before leaning out of his window and pointing to Algerian guy. Looking down and then back at Algerian guy, he yelled, “How long were you in prison?”

I had only recently started taking passengers with me from Montreal to Boston. For some reason I felt ok taking people with me from Boston to Montreal. Angelique had admonished me, “You don’t want to mess with the US border, You don’t know what anyone is bringing in!”

I did not think about this too hard for a year or two. But the price of gas began kicking my arse around the same time when the value of the US dollar began a precipitous drop. I no longer had as much money as before.

My thumbs hit the steering wheel. Shit, I thought, we’re in trouble.

“Qua?” Algerian guy asked, his face puffing, his eyes bulging.

Medical student grasped for his French. “He is asking you how many days you live in the house of…” he explained to Algerian guy.

I add on, “how many months perhaps you live against the law in the house. The house of war. No wait…”

Medical student says, “Prison?” I think the Medical student is just being lazy, for using a french accent for an english word, but as it turns out, prison is indeed prison even if the vowels are a bit exaggerated.

The guard’s whole face is red. Veins erected on his neck make him look super angry. “What are you saying to him?”

Medical student and I open our palms up as though searching for water in a desert. “He doesn’t speak much English so we’re trying to help you out.”

Algerian guy finally gets it and responds, “No! Never! Never! Prison Never!” He says this in English.

The guard makes more accusations like, Who gave you this ID; What kind of job do you have if you don’t speak English; Why don’t you speak English better?

Algerian guy answers the questions with one and two-word sentences which I think are not sufficient, but I don’t say a word.

Medical student is fidgety.

The guard turns to us in the front and asks how I know Medical student. I don’t, I tell him. It’s rideshare through a university, where I work. This makes his neck look less bulgy. He asks Medical student, What’s the purpose of your visit to Boston?

Medical student says crisply, “To visit some friends. I expect to be there for maybe 6 weeks before I have to go back and start medical school at McGill University in Montreal.”

The guard flips and flips the passport and the card and my driver’s license and my flimsy birth certificate without saying anything. Gretchen the Pug is putt putting, putt putting in neutral. Were I to put down the hand brake she’d not wander off far. Finally the guard tosses all of the papers at me and shuts his window. Without saying a thing, like OK or Go on. Nothing.

I grab my IDs from the Medical student who helps me pick them up from between the seats and the floor. I say out of the right corner of my mouth closest to the Medical Student, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

He whispers, “Can we leave?”

I whisper back, “He didn’t say we could.”

“Maybe he did and we didn’t hear it.”

“Is it a trick?” My lips are barely moving.

“Maybe just goooooo,” he says in his lowest whisper, his coffee halitosis making a loud debut, “real slow.”

Eventually I do. I put Gretchen the Pug into first gear. I rev up the engine more than I need to. I want to vomit, and fast, as I lift off the clutch to get my car to creep forward.

One car inch. Then five car inches. My neck is killing me from the bent Sigma position my body has assumed. I pick up some speed, passing the toilet building, and then free and clear in Vermont.

Beardo says, “What a fascist. Assuming you to be a criminal!”

Algerian guy mumbles something I can’t understand.

We’re going 70 miles per hour. The vista ahead is glorious with a view of the green mountains slightly to our east. For a short time we can see the Champlain Lake on our right.

I pull out my ipod from the compartment between the driver and passengers seats and toss it to Medical Beardo. I have found doing so to be an intimate gesture, telling people I’ve just met, here, take a look at what I listen to in private. I say, “Can you find a song called, ‘Girlfriend I have no idea’?”

He laughs as he scrolls through several things, ticking them off with his voice. “Bridge Over Troubled Water. California Stars. Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk. Glory Bound. OK, Girlfriend…”

I pop in the cassette tape that allows my antiquated car stereo play digitized music, and pop on the volume button that activates the whole thing to receive the music.

Arabic Music Retreat 2010

I say out of the corner of my mouth, indicating to the Algerian guy that I’m addressing him, “This is apparently a famous Arabic singer but the gal I got it from could not remember her name. Maybe you do?”

Medical Beardo hits the play button and we hear a plaintive, crying melodious soprano singing out in what sounds to be a high-ceilinged room or church or temple. A cappella. You can tell that she is singing to people by the thick echos but there isn’t a peep from anyone as she takes them all on the tour of her song. There isn’t a single word I recognize. Girlfriend, I have no idea what she’s singing about. Girlfriend, I have no idea who this is. But she concludes the song to a rainstorm of clapping. I later learn from Angelique that she says, “Thank you, thank you,” in Arabic, at the end.  No doy. The whole three minutes give me chills every time I play it.

The Algerian guy begins talking slowly in English, “Yes, I have heard her sing before. The name comes to me later.”

Beardo says, “I was very curious to hear what a song called,’Girlfriend I have no idea’ would sound like.”

We ride more relaxed now. Beardo chooses another playlist with different songs.

We talk about Klezmer music. About drums and marching bands. I say, “When I worked for a nightclub in Harvard Square, one of my favorite things was managing the Arabesque nights, one night a month. Have you heard of it?” I crick my head back at Algerian guy.


“Famous Arabic singers and musicians playing to an audience I would never see at other shows. The folk shows. Sometimes I had to mic an instrument built 400 years ago that was never meant to be amplified. Oh my God was the board ever hot. The challenge was to make sure that there sound enough for everyone to hear the stringed thingy over the tablas and other singers without going into full meltdown.”

Algerian guy asked, “Meltdown.”

Beardo said, “A terrible noise called feedback involving microphones connected to a sound board.”

I said in my worst voice, “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

Algerian guy laughed, “OK.”

We exited in St Alban’s to get gas. Algerian guy took the wiper out of the container near the gas pump and washed all of my windows, while I filled my tank. The two guys gave me $30 each. “Thanks for making this drug interaction so smooth!” I said, poking the bear.  I figured there were cameras everywhere watching everything.

Beardo went in to the spacious cafe inside the gas station. He came back to the car carrying a cup of coffee and a muffin. I went in to wash my hands and pay for the gas. The station was one of the few places still remaining where I could gas up first and then pay afterwards.

By the time we got to Boston, we all felt a little like friends. Beardo said to Algerian guy, “You know, you’ve got a clear American accent. You don’t sound like other native Muslims when you speak in English.”

I said, “Yeah, all you need now is vocabulary.”

I dropped them both off near my work office in Boston. It felt as if we had travelled through worlds to get to where we were then: fables and geographies and battles from a different time.

It was a bright noon, busy with people walking around for lunch, wearing lots of khaki pants and various blue button down shirts. Many people sported ID cards hanging in lanyards around their necks like jewelry. It was all high security but casual. Or trying to be.

The best parts of Boston were not near my office. No water, no trees, no old buildings or public art. Just a lot of pavement and nondescript buildings.

Algerian guy promised to email me with the name of the singer. Which I think he did but I lost due to meltdown, not involving a microphone and musicians.  Another kind of engineering.

Click to listen to what we listened to that day: Girlfriend-I-have-no-idea

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