Downtown Winnipeg, 1989.
I do not watch cop shows very often. I do not want extra nightmares put into my head, and I object to the portrayal of many of the officers. Lots of real police officers are very good looking, of course, but if all of them were that good looking, they’d have pursued careers in acting. And no police force in the real world tailors the uniforms of its female members quite so snugly. They’d never last a day on the beat so constrained.
For a few years after leaving home I’d lived in an excellent three bedroom apartment on Corydon that had become something of a revolving door for brothers and cousins and friends of friends and itinerant actors. It was fun for a while, and then it wasn’t. I had some kind of a day job for a change and a friend was subletting a one-bedroom downtown, so I snapped it up.
The building, a three storey 1920ish brick number called, mysteriously, the Florida Apartments, overlooked Memorial Park. The park adjoins the grounds of the Legislative Buildings in downtown Winnipeg. I had a view of the Golden Boy from every window. If you are not from Winnipeg, the Golden Boy is a statue that stands on top of the Legislative Buildings for reasons that very few people understand. He is the god of agriculture or commerce or something. He is on every postcard. My mother, when I showed her around the apartment and pointed out the view, took pains to inform me that the Golden Boy has no genitals. That, by the way, is almost everything the good lady has ever told me about sex, and it isn’t even true.
What I didn’t realize when I rented the place was that Memorial Park was where they had all the parades, and the Reggae Festival and so on. To be clear: I knew that’s where the parades and festivals happened, but I had failed to realize that this fact would now be of intense personal relevance to me. On Remembrance Day that first year I was sleeping in when they fired the 21 Gun Salute. Good morning Vietnam.
That was a charming and cozy apartment and I liked it very much. The only things I didn’t like were the colour of the kitchen (a trying, institutional shade of blue), and the radiators used to knock. They knocked often. They knocked all the bloody time, in fact. They knocked so loudly you could feel it, and it could wake you up at night.
My good friend PJ lived upstairs. This was ideal. We had many of the benefits of having a room-mate: someone to keep your extra key, someone who might have some coffee if you ran out, someone with whom you could stay up late to eat chips and watch Hill Street Blues. But we had none of the usual room-mate tensions about dishes and noise and the other person’s boy/girlfriend. He introduced me to the joys of Hill Street. That was a good cop show, and all the cops looked like people. PJ was and is one of the best friends I ever hope to have.
I met some other people in the building too. The caretaker was a solid type. His name was Al Mountain, which is a perfect name for a solid type. There was a nice little lady in the apartment below mine. If it was raining and I happened to see her in the hall, she would smile radiantly and say “it’s a nice day for ducks!”
Many of the other neighbours I saw only rarely, until late one night when someone had a kitchen fire and pulled the alarm, and the whole population ended up on the sidewalk in their pyjamas. Almost everyone was holding a cat, and if Al Mountain cared about enforcing the building’s “no pets” policy, he had the sense, and the grace, not to mention it at 2:00 AM with the air full of sirens.
Standing inside the back door one evening waiting for my ride, I chanced to meet a guy I had seen in the building often enough to know that he lived on the first floor, but that was about all I knew. He was around my age. After chatting for a few minutes he asked me if I wanted to go for coffee sometime and I said no. I’m not sure why; I’d said yes to coffee dates with worse bets than this guy seemed to be. Perhaps I just felt it was better not to get too well acquainted with a neighbour.
Reader (as Charlotte Brontë would have called you), I love thinking about you. I love thinking about you there in your comfortable chair. Or your uncomfortable chair. Perhaps you are reading this on the bus, or in some snooty hipster coffee joint while you wait for your friend, or at your desk when you should be working, or in the waiting room of a garage while you get your oil changed. I like thinking about what you are thinking while you read. I wonder: when I said “waiting room of a garage” could you smell the oil too? Stories happen by accident, but they are told on purpose. I know you know there is something up with this guy by the back door: I told the story that way deliberately. You could tell the story wasn’t going to be about Al Mountain or the duck lady but it must all be leading to something. What’s this guy in the hallway going to do?
Incidentally, that is likely the only time I will ever sound even a little like Charlotte Brontë.
What the guy did was this: he came into our building one morning with a sawed-off shotgun in a guitar case, knocked on the door of another tenant on the first floor, and shot her three times. In my blue kitchen, I reflected that the radiators were being particularly percussive. They didn’t sound louder than usual, just different. For the tiniest moment I thought: was that a gun? Then I sort of laughed because of course I would have no way of knowing what a gun actually sounded like. Up to that point in my life the only gunfire I’d heard besides Remembrance Day Salutes was when Dennis Franz was chasing down a bad guy on the Hill. I went out into the hallway to see what was going on, but all was quiet.
I went to work, and a couple of hours later PJ called me to say there’d been a shooting and the place was “crawling with cops.” As it sunk in that what I had heard that morning was not the radiators, he called back to say that he’d seen them take out the body bag, so it was officially a murder.
More hours went by. I had the presence of mind to call my father at some point to say I was okay, and it was a good thing I’d had some presence of mind for a change. When I got home, there on the evening news every local channel showed footage of the Florida Apartments, crawling with cops, while the reporter said “a twenty-six year old woman was killed in this downtown apartment block today.”
You have three guesses: was I, or was I not, twenty-six at the time? Three guesses for a yes or no question? Reader, I like your odds.
Here’s a measure of my father’s optimism: my brother had heard about the shooting on the radio and called Dad while I was still at work, before I had the presence of mind to call him. Dad immediately dialled my home number and when no-one answered, he deduced that I must be okay because if I was the dead one, the police probably would have picked up the phone. Way to spin the facts to your advantage, Dad.
PJ and I stayed up most of the night eating chips and drinking whatever we had on hand and watching Hill Street Blues and talking. He had heard that the guy turned himself in to police at (not making it up) a doughnut shop on Pembina Highway before anyone knew it had happened. He surrendered to them saying “I did it! I did it!” and the officers had to ask “did what?” as they brushed the doughnut crumbs from their moustaches (okay, I made up the moustaches part). The news reports all said that the murderer and the victim had “known each other slightly.” Maybe she said yes to the coffee.
People asked me if I was going to move. Everybody asked me that. I figured the odds of it happening again were pretty slim, so I stayed. The guy was “safely behind bars.” I did start using my peephole more often. A couple of months later a co-worker came in to the office all excited because she’d rented an apartment in my building, and I never told her how I knew which suite it was. She’d already signed the lease. I warned her about the radiators.
Dear Reader, I try not to give advice. I’m richly under-qualified to do anything of the kind. But could you do one small thing for me? The next time you hear some loud bangs, if you are not sure what they are, could you perhaps NOT walk out into the hallway to see what’s going on? Some of your neighbours might not turn out to be the best friend you ever had.
And if you have a father, call him regularly. He puts a good face on it, but he’s worried sick.
Let’s be careful out there.
©2016 by Ellen Peterson. Please note the guy with the sign on his shopping cart in the photo at left.