Today's Reading

I was incarcerated in Bordeaux Prison the very day Barack Obama was elected, November 4, 2008. For me it was a long and trying day with my transfer to the courthouse, the waiting in the corridor, my appearance before Judge Lorimier, who, despite his seemingly benevolent questioning, seemed preoccupied by a chattering crowd of personal concerns, the phantom plea of my depressive lawyer, who called me "Janssen", inventing "heavy psychiatric baggage" for me, and who gave the impression he had just happened upon my case, either that or he was arguing someone else's, then the verdict pronounced by Lorimier, who chewed and swallowed his words, the quantum of the sentence, two years without parole, quickly forgotten in the memory of the courtroom, the deluge of rain during the return trip, the traffic jams, the arrival at the prison, identification, the unpleasant search, three in a cell as big as a closet, "shut your trap, here you shut your trap", a mattress on the floor, rat droppings, used Kleenex scattered here and there, a vague smell of urine, the meal tray, brown chicken, black night.

A month before Barack Obama officially settled into the White House, I was transferred to my new lodgings, the condo that Patrick Horton and I still share. The move freed me from the hellish entrails of Block A, where violent assaults set the tone for the day and even the night. Though an incident can always occur here, thanks to Patrick's pedigree and stature, life is more tolerable. And when the weight of being myself and the refusal of time to move forward become too heavy a burden, I simply give up and give in to the slow stubborn beat of the prison clock, and submit to the schedule of its "daily regimen": "7.00 a.m., cells open. 7.30 a.m., breakfast served. 8.00 a.m., sectorial activities. 11.15 a.m., lunch served. 1.00 p.m., sectorial activities. 4.15 p.m., dinner served. 6.00 p.m., sectorial activities. 10.30 p.m., lights out and cells closed. Smoking prohibited inside and outside the establishment. Also prohibited: game consoles, mobile phones, pornographic photographs. Beds must be made by 8.00 a.m. and cells cleaned every morning by 9.00 a.m."

* * *

It is a very strange sensation to have been put in a box and stripped of all responsibility. For twenty-six years, in the Ahuntsic district, less than a kilometre from the prison—at the beginning it was terribly troubling to be locked up so close to home—I practised the very demanding trade of superintendent, a combination of magician and jack-of-all-trades, a top-drawer factotum who could restore and repair a whole little world of specialised operations, a complex universe made of cables, tubes, pipes, junctions, derivations, columns, traps and dating devices, a playful little world always eager to go haywire, create problems and induce breakdowns that had to be solved immediately with a reservoir of memory, knowledge, technique, observation and sometimes plain dumb luck. In the apartment building called the Excelsior, I was a sort of deus ex machina to whom the place was entrusted, along with the maintenance, surveillance and good conduct of the condo and its sixty-eight units. The residents owned their apartments and enjoyed the use of a yard planted with trees and bushes, a heated pool filled with 230,000 litres of water purified with salt, an underground parking garage with an area for washing cars, a gym, a lobby with a waiting room and reception desk, a space for meetings called "the Forum", twenty-four surveillance cameras, and three lifts of generous capacity supplied by the Kone company.

For twenty-six years, I carried out this Herculean task, both stimulating and exhausting. The work was never over, and practically invisible since it consisted mainly of maintaining sixty-eight units in perfect balance despite the erosion of time, the climate and obsolescence. Nine thousand, five hundred days of watchfulness, vigilance, involvement; nine thousand, five hundred days of investigation, verification, trips up to the roof, excursions to every floor; one hundred and four seasons during which I went beyond the call of duty to help seniors, console widows, visit the sick, and even watch over the dead, since that did happen twice.

My father Johanes Hansen was a Protestant pastor, and I believe the education he gave me had much to do with the sense of abnegation I displayed during those years of keeping the ship afloat. To practise in that way, in the shadows, every day carrying out humble tasks with serious intent and attention to detail, seems completely in the spirit of the Reformation such as Johanes defended in his churches.

I know nothing of the man who, after me, took on the burden and agreed to live in the bowels of the Excelsior. And nothing of what those bowels look like today. I know only that the small imaginative world of sixty-eight units, with its capacity to produce infinite combinations of breakdowns, concerns and puzzles to solve, is something I miss enormously.

At times, I would speak to the objects and machines, and I believed they could understand me in return. Today, all I have is Patrick, his rotten tooth and his dual forks.

I, who once administered and assured the good conduct of the Excelsior, am now forced to fit into the emollient "life regimen" of my new condo: 8.00 a.m., sectorial activities. 4.15 p.m., dinner served. 9.00 p.m., biker stools. 10.30 p.m., lights out and cells closed.

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