3½ Years a Slave
By: Eric Amber
It’s hard to describe the complete and total destruction a building fire can cause. The charred wood, twisted metal and disfigured brick tell a tale of nature’s fury. That’s why builders and developers prefer to demolish and rebuild new. The romantic notion of those who want to ‘preserve the past’ are lost on the men who actually have to do the work. The logistics, time and money spent on renovating fire-damaged properties is a nightmare, not to mention dangerous. Every layer removed reveals a new unseen problem or pitfall and even after all the rubble is removed that fire smell can linger for years. If I knew the monumental task building the theatre would be, I would never have done it.
In truth, my idealism made the project take much longer than it should. I recycled all the scrap metal and reused as much of the old timber as I could, but cleaning, cutting and removing nails from every board by hand takes time. I peeled back the years, pulling up one floor only to find another beneath it. The confused structure – or rather structures – that were built over the decades were a puzzle to undo. Day in, day out I cleared soot, debris and layers of time. Like a kind of archeological dig, each step revealed a different era in the property’s history. I uncovered lost treasures in the form of glass bottles, tin cans and newspapers with Hitler in the headline. One wall revealed a perfectly preserved rat that could have been on exhibit somewhere if it wasn’t so vile to observe, with its expression of menace forever trapped in a silent hiss.
The mountain of rubbish I removed filled fourteen industrial sized dumpsters, each 20 feet long and 8 feet high. Dumpsters I never had permits for because the city made them so difficult to get. Instead, I had them delivered and placed in the alley behind the pizza shop on Friday afternoons, filled them over the weekend and had them hauled away again on Monday morning before the city had time to question their presence.
To save money, I slept in a tent in the half-built apartment above the restaurant. Water bottles filled with urine lined the walls because I didn’t have a toilet. At first I bathed at the YMCA but I wasn’t interested in gay sex so I washed at the cafe next door. (On one occasion, while standing at the sink wearing only my underpants, lathered in soap with a sock on each hand, a patron walked in. He stopped short and made eye contact with me through the mirror. Without saying a word he slowly backed out the door and left.)
Two years in, all the work and endless dirt began to wear me down. I recall during a low point, halfway through the build, I was losing enthusiasm for the project. So I took a little time off and went to the countryside. My aunt, a chain-smoking, coffee-guzzling, card-carrying Christian spinster lived nearby and I paid her a visit. I told her how I was feeling and that I didn’t know if I could continue. Of course, I should have known what she would say – to her the answer was obvious. “Ask Jesus” she replied and produced an English language bible she just happened to have on hand.
Reluctantly, I took the book, placed it in front of me and closed my eyes. I didn’t really know what to say but my aunt put her hands on mine and said a prayer to Jesus, asking him to guide my work and offer his thoughts on the subject. When she was finished I said “Amen”, opened the bible to a random page and chose a passage.
The first three words I read were “You are doomed”. I read them out loud. My aunt was incredulous and took the book from my hand to read it herself. She seemed baffled, then closed the book with a snap, lit a cigarette and changed the subject. Such is the way with members of my family when they don’t like what they hear.
Still, I carried on. Maybe I had to prove something to myself. I think a person can become a slave to an idea. Like a fever you have to sweat out. Regardless, I persevered and eventually finished what would become Théâtre Ste-Catherine. A 17 foot wide, 80 foot long, bare bones, multi-purpose art space with painted red floors and 24 foot high ceilings that would one day almost get me murdered.
If I ever meet Jesus, he’ll probably say “I told you so.”