Tanner's Tiger Page 5

“You should of told me, I would of come for you,” he said. “Why waste money on a cab? Listen, you want a beer?”


“How about the kid?”

Minna said beer was fine, and I said it wasn’t and asked if he had any milk, and he didn’t. We settled on a Coke. Jerzy Pryzeshweski – or Jerry Press, if you prefer – drank four cans of beer while I worked on one. I told him that he would be doing tremendous service to the cause of Polish independence by taking Minna and me across the border.

He said, “I don’t get it. Canada?”

“That’s right.”

“Where you going? Toronto?”

“Yes.” Why complicate conversations with the truth?

“So why not just go?” His brow furrowed. “I mean, somebody wants to go to Canada, what he does is he just goes. Get in your car, or if you don’t got a car, well, just get on a bus, or a train, or if you want to take a plane-”

“We tried that,” I cut in.


“We were recognized. They deported us.”


“That’s right.”

“No kidding, deported? From Canada ?”

“Yes, and-”

“You some kind of a Communist or something?”

“Certainly not. We-”

“I mean, the hell, deported from Canada for chris-sake. What did they try and do, send you to Italy?”

It was a tedious conversation. Jerzy’s commitment to the cause of Polish independence seemed highly theoretical. Just as single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints, neither do beery clods in bowling shirts contribute much to the ranks of conspirators. The liberation of Poland was something for him to drink toasts to at Polish weddings, in case they ever ran out of other things to drink to, which probably never happened. The cause, too, was something for which raffles were held and money raised, something to which prospective congressmen pledged undying support if they wanted to carry Cheektowaga, something that everyone favored but evidently no one was ever forced to do anything much about.

So Jerzy drove his bakery truck and plucked his crab-grass from his lawn and drank his beer – you better believe he drank his beer – and, unlike most of his fellows, he actually knew one true-blue revolutionary, Taddeusz by name. But as far as penetrating at once to the core of an action problem, as far as being instantly ready to come to the unquestioning aid of a fellow revolutionary, he was a little slow on the uptake.

I wasn’t getting through to him at all. It was Minna who ultimately made up his mind for him. “If we don’t get to Canada soon,” she whispered urgently to me, “they’ll catch us here.”

“Catch you here?”

“We may have been followed,” I said. “If we’re captured in Buffalo -”



“Jesus God,” he said. He looked over his shoulder. I don’t know why; all he saw that way was the door of his own house. “One thing I don’t want,” he said, “is to get involved.”

“I don’t know where we can go, really. You’re our last chance.”

He looked over his shoulder again. I wondered if it might be a nervous tic. “I gotta start the bakery route in a couple hours. The customers don’t get their bread and rolls on time, they can make a lot of trouble. You wouldn’t believe it.”

Ah, a spirit filled with revolutionary zeal. “I suppose we could wait here until you’re done-”

“Jesus, that’s all I need. You and the kid getting arrested here, in my house, with a fifteen-year mortgage still on it, that’s just what I need. Listen a minute, I could run you across the Peace Bridge. There’s Fort Erie, Crystal Beach, you could get a bus there.”

“Just so we get across the border.”

He drove us there in a year-old Dodge station wagon. He took the spare tire out of its well and put our suitcase in its place, then filled the station wagon’s luggage compartment with bathing suits and towels. “We tell them we’re going to Crystal Beach,” he said. “Just for the day, just to go swimming, see? We don’t want ’em to see no suitcase. Got it?”

We had it.

“They’ll ask, you know, where you were born. Say Buffalo. I always say Buffalo. Lodz I was born in, you think I’m going to say Lodz when they ask me? I should show ’em proof of naturalization, all that crap? I say Buffalo, I speak good English. You do it the same way. Where were you born, you say Buffalo. Buffalo, New York, even. That’s how you can say it, or just Buffalo. I just say Buffalo most of the time. Don’t matter.”

He drove us through the heart of the city to the Peace Bridge entrance on the lower west side. We crossed the Niagara River, and a Canadian guard asked us where we were born. Jerzy was shaking as if suffering from Parkinson’s Syndrome. We all said that we were born in Buffalo and we were all evidently believed. Jerzy announced that we were going to Crystal Beach and would be back by nightfall. No one even looked in our luggage compartment. We drove on into Canada.

“This here’s Fort Erie,” Jerzy said. “I think you can get a bus from here to Toronto. The downtown’s over this way, I’ll see if we can’t find the bus station and-”

And the tire blew.

Of course the spare was in the garage in Buffalo. I had begun anticipating a blowout the moment he went through his act with tire and suitcase, and had merely hoped the tires would hold until we crossed the bridge. “Wait here,” I told him. “I’ll pick up a tire at the nearest gas station and help you change it. Do you know the tire size offhand? I-”

“No.” He was shaking his big head with great determination. “You just go on,” he said. “You just take the suitcase and go on, you and the kid. I can manage myself with the damn car.”


“Listen, all I want is the two of you the hell out of the car and out of the house. Money is one thing, a donation is one thing, but I could lose my job, I could get in all kinds of trouble. You get the suitcase and you keep walking that way and you get a bus.”

He was being ridiculous, but it was his car and his problem and, the border safely crossed, no longer mine. I reached out a hand. “You are a good comrade, a faithful worker,” I began.

“You crazy man, speak English!”

“And Poland thanks you,” I concluded in English. I took the suitcase with one hand and Minna with the other, and we left him there. Downtown Fort Erie was not of sufficiently great size to make the bus station hard to locate. It sat there on the main street. We had to wait three hours for the next Toronto bus, and could make good connections there for Montreal. I bought tickets and sat down next to Minna.

“Why did we need him?” she asked, reasonably.

“He got us across the border.”

“Could we not have walked across?”

“Perhaps. He seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“He was a very nervous man, Evan.”

“Yes. That was a good idea of yours, somebody chasing us.”

“Thank you. I did not know if it was the right thing to say, but I thought it was funny how nervous he was and that perhaps we ought to make him be more nervous.”

Evidently Jerzy’s nervousness was contagious. We were almost monotonously safe by that time, but I couldn’t entirely avoid stiffening automatically every time a policeman entered the bus station. I bought Toronto and Montreal and Buffalo newspapers, partly to read and partly to hide behind. Minna, bless her, closed her blue eyes and slept.

Chapter 4

Our hotel was not exactly that. All the advance planning in the world could not have prepared Montreal for the task of housing the horde of visitors drawn by the fair, and the citizens of the city had responded to the challenge by renting out broom closets, bathrooms, and back porches at staggering rates. We had been comparatively lucky, working our way east on St. Catherine Street from the center of the city into an area on the periphery of the old French quarter, ultimately finding a large room with a double bed in a building that probably should have been condemned. The rate was twenty-two dollars a night. It was a frightening room and a terrifying price, but by the time we found it, neither the time (late at night) nor Minna’s physical state (exhaustion mingling with hysteria) tempted me to go further. We took the room, paid two nights’ rent in advance, and Minna fell asleep on the way to the bed. I tucked her in and went outside to have a look at Montreal.

The two-stage bus trip there, via Toronto, was every bit as bad as I had expected it would be. As a general rule, I try not to spend more than an hour on any bus, ever. Coming as it did on the heels of three plane rides and Jerzy Pryzeshweski, this particular trip was less welcome than most. The roads were good, but the bus’s shock absorbers were not. The only good thing about the bus was that it got us to Montreal, and I wasn’t entirely convinced that that was good, either.

Outside our hotel I turned left and started walking toward the downtown section of the city. It was late, but Rue Ste. Catherine remained brightly lit, and thick with pedestrian traffic. There was something very unreal about the area, and it took me a few blocks to realize what it was. Everything looked very American – supermarkets, car lots, stores with such exotic names as Woolworth’s and Rexall Drugs – but absolutely everything was written in French. This left the place with the air of a What’s Wrong With This Picture? feature, as unreal as a brace of Beefeaters promenading to and fro in front of the Eiffel Tower.

The city was officially bilingual, of course. So, for that matter, is all of Canada, but outside of Quebec one encounters French only on government forms and the like. Here in Montreal, where the city was officially 65 percent French – probably a low estimate – an overwhelming Gallic accent predominated. Some stores had signs only in French, others supplied English signs as well, but French was always the major language.

I walked through the streets, letting my ear accustom itself to the language around me. Quebec French is not nearly as much of a corruption of the original tongue as a Parisian would have one believe. A Cornishman and a Northumbrian Geordie, both of them living in England itself, would have considerably more difficulty communicating than would a Montrealer and someone from the French mainland. There is a distinct Canadian accent, certainly, a definite tone and rhythm to Quebecois speech, but anyone who speaks French and has any kind of ear for languages can pick it up in a hurry.

I let myself hear the language and forced myself to think in it – if you can’t think in a language, you don’t really have it down yet – and as I did this, stopping at a lunch counter for a smoked meat sandwich, stopping at a tavern for a glass of wine, an odd thing happened.

I found myself becoming very firm on the subject of Quebec autonomy.

As a matter of fact, I had almost forgotten about that particular cause until the border clown at the airport had forced it upon my attention. Some causes make more noise than others, and the MNQ had been lately quiet. A few years back, when some loyal activists had been using plastique to blow hell out of mailboxes, I had been more firmly committed. (Anyone who fails to find beauty in the systematic demolition of mailboxes has no soul.) But things were quiet, and there was little MNQ activity in New York, and, if I had not precisely lost interest, at least the extent of my emotional involvement had receded.

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