My great-grandfather was in his 20’s when he brought his young family to Canada in the early 1900’s. He was a millwright, which meant that he understood machinery and structures. Being a millwright in those days was like being on the cutting edge of technology. He could build and fix anything and the New World needed building. So they hopped the SS Megantic to Canada, since his skills were very much not in demand in Revolutionary Russia where being dead was quickly becoming more popular than being a tradesman.
As the story goes, his plan was to get the family on a train in Quebec City, and travel down to Texas where work was plentiful. However, when the train stopped in Montreal, he saw a lot of activity.
He stepped off the train, dipped a sheet of rolling paper into the pocket of his well-worn coat, and produced a freshly rolled smoke a few seconds later. Indeed, rolling cigarettes with one hand was also a skill he possessed, and I always imagine the tip igniting spontaneously as soon as he finished rolling it. He was that good.
So he took a drag, looked around, and decided this was it. “Fuck Texas”, he said in Russian. “Plenty of work here.”
It’s funny, because whenever I lose another toe to frostbite, I always think to myself, “Fuck Montreal”. We’re so similar that way.
They settled in the suburbs, which in those days was a mile from today’s downtown core. The family rented a flat, while my great-grandfather worked various jobs and bartered for materials. There were enough ex-pat Russians around so that he could get by without knowing a word of English or French. Sometimes he got into a jam, but when he did, he’d just dazzle them with the one-hand Jedi smoke rolling trick and walk away with a bunch of free stuff.
It took years, but when he’d gathered enough materials to barter with, he secured a parcel of land for nothing. But nothing in those days was something, so they still had to sacrifice while he worked out his next plan: build a series of flats on the land, and then move the family into one of them. No more paying rent to The Man.
He built everything with the help of his son Jeff. They did the woodwork and electricity as well as the masonry. My great-grandfather was not a big man, but at 5’6″, he employed stone quarrying techniques known only to the Egyptians and people like Edward Leedskalnin, who I’m pretty sure he met on the boat to North America. I have no doubt that Leedskalnin disclosed some trade secrets.
In a few months, the apartments were complete and the family moved in to one of them. This is where my paternal grandmother grew up, and my father later on.
The apartments were home. Other row houses sprung up around my great-grandfather’s strip of flats and a working-class neighborhood was born. The sky was often the colour of soot thanks to the nearby coal fired factories and there were blacksmiths on every corner shoeing hooves for the local horse population. The streets were hot and treeless. For a new neighborhood, it got gritty and tough in a hurry.
Life was still hard, and my family collected modest rents from their neighbour tenants. When the late 1940’s rolled around and the city declared war on lead piping, they were met with a choice: Replace the lead pipes with copper, or sell everything. It was going to cost a small fortune for the changeover.
As the deadline approached, my great-grandfather was confronted by a city official. He looked him in the eye, pulled out a sheet of rolling paper and with a flurry of fingers, produced a perfectly rolled cigarette from behind the city official’s ear. He was impressed but not as impressed as my great-grandfather had hoped. They ended up selling everything for a song.