What to do when given a choice like that? Any self-respecting non-masochist would readily choose option two: explain what is going on. But here, as with most stories, context is everything.
Earlier that Monday (Nov. 22) I had been covering the preparations for État d’Urgence (State of Emergency), an annual event organized by the art and activism group Action Terroriste Socialement Acceptable (ATSA) or Socially Acceptable Terrorist Action. The four-day event set up a 24-hour shelter for homeless people and provided the basics of food, shelter and medical attention.
The event’s theme was “Tout(s) Inclus,” playing on the fact that everyone was included, but also that the organizers were satirizing the idea of an all-inclusive resort. A martini glass with a parasol was pictured on the cover of the event pamphlet and activities were to include concerts, workout sessions, haircuts and massages.
After finishing my live hit from the event site, I headed back to Concordia’s Loyola campus for a meeting and a few more hours of work. I left for home after dark and got off the metro at around 8 p.m. But my evening took a strange twist just as I arrived in front of my apartment.
Under the stairs that led up to the entrance of my place stood a man smoking the tail end of a cigarette, just next to the door of the ground floor apartment. My assumption was that this was someone my neighbours knew and who was about to ring their door bell. But as I got closer, I realized that the man had been looking through the garbage that was due to be picked up the next day.
Tall, with wavy light brown hair parted in the middle and a full complement of facial hair, the man in his late 20s or early 30s glared at me.
“You’re all smiles aren’t you.”
I hadn’t even noticed I was smiling, but after realizing it wasn’t my neighbour’s friend staring me down, the grin no doubt evaporated. The man stepped towards me.
“I’ll give you two choices: either I smash your face in,” he said, as I tried to imagine what the next choice could possibly be. “Or you tell me what’s going on here.” That’s precisely what I wanted to know.
I wasn’t given time to respond. The Heath Ledger lookalike with sandy brown hair came at me. Exasperated, I told him I didn’t know and that I was sorry as I raised my arms to brace for a blow. He pushed me back and swung at me, hitting my arms which I’d brought up to block my face. I retreated as the man began yelling obscenities and charging after me.
I live on St. Hubert street, very near the corner of Ontario in the border zone between the Plateau, Montreal’s popular and trendy borough, and Ville-Marie, the downtown borough. Around the corner from my apartment the Cheval Blanc bar and microbrewery buzzes at most hours of the day. Trying to escape my bizarre persecution, I stumbled towards the bar, knowing that there are never fewer than two or three people smoking outside.
By this time I’d also flipped open my phone to call my girlfriend and explain why I was later than expected. Thinking the jarring experience was over, I let my guard down. But an instant later the man came around the corner towards me and yelling at me for calling the cops. I quickly told my girlfriend that I was coming home, loudly enough so that my attacker would hear and know it wasn’t the police.
Instinctively I tried to ally myself with the two men smoking as the man approached. He was not deterred. He bounded towards me, pushing and swinging fists, and I found myself calling out for help in French and English and yelling that I didn’t know the person who pursued me. The smokers glanced sideways, didn’t move and didn’t say a word. I can only assume fear compelled them to stay silent and do nothing. I backed away as the man yelled at me to go home calling me a few more names for good measure.
By now, I thought I was home free and I dashed around the corner and over to the alley that led me back to the front of my building. Halfway up the steps to my door he came around the corner and up St. Hubert. “So that’s where you live!” he called out as he headed in my direction. I didn’t wait. I flew back down my steps and up the street towards Sherbrooke.
I began to feel I was in a nightmare, for only in a cruel dream had I ever been chased like this. I walked quickly up the hill and glanced backwards. The man was running after me. I couldn’t believe it and I was suddenly gripped by a terrible survival instinct. I ran. I ran up the hill and turned sharply on Sherbrooke. I ran to the next street and turned sharply again, being sure to look behind me as I did. I ran wildly and broke into sweat, taking a lesser-known route back to my apartment.
I was frantic. I called my girlfriend, explained quickly and told her I’d take the back door. I ran into the yard, shut the gate and leaped up the metallic spiral staircase. She had the door open as I hurtled in. She closed it and locked it behind me. Drenched in sweat and heart racing, I peeled off my clothes and began to explain. With some perspective and some time between me and the incident, I’m able to write about it.
What happened was shocking, an attack with unclear motivations, but more than anything a bizarre coincidence involving a person in a socially vulnerable position. I can only guess that mental illness played a part in the attack, but perhaps also the misinterpretation of a smile by a person who rarely receives such an expression from strangers.
This brings me back to État d’Urgence (State of Emergency). The event is meant to bring, “street people and non-street people,” together, according to co-founder Pierre Allard, and has been doing so since 1998. This year, however, is likely to be the last État d’Urgence because Heritage Canada has removed $40,000 of funding that is crucial to the mainly volunteer-run event.
Held at Place Émilie Gamelin, across the street from the Montreal bus terminal, the event gives homeless people, “a break,” as Allard put it, from not knowing where the next night will be spent or if a hot meal is in the cards. Such living conditions are fertile ground for the development of depression and other types of mental illness.
And faced with societal pressures like high unemployment rates, a push for higher tuition fees and a drop in funding for events like État d’Urgence, there may be no choice but to fall into a life like that of the man whose path crashed into mine that November night.
Listen to Pierre Allard, co-founder of État d’Urgence, talk about what the event means and its goals: