In the early seventies I saved up my employment insurance cheques and boarded a train from Montreal to the West Coast, and spent the next three days and nights detoxing from methamphetamines in the bar car.
My plan was to score some meth - better known on the street as speed - before leaving Montreal, but my drug dealers never showed up at the train station. They were a rather frightful looking couple in their mid-fifties with double rows of track marks on their arms, legs and hands from years of shooting up meth. They also protected the huge stash of drugs they kept in their house with guns propped against the wall near their front door. Although they had already lost most of their humanity, for some reason they seemed to have a conscience where I was concerned. They told me they did not show up with the meth because I was still young enough to have a chance at a better life. They said the drugs I was ingesting for the past year would be out of my system by the time I reached Vancouver. I am still not sure if they were trying to secure entrance through the “Pearly Gates” of Heaven before the Grim Reaper came calling, or if they were too stoned to get to the station.
I was hesitant to board the train without any meth, because I knew withdrawal symptoms were extremely unpleasant. After being coaxed by my travelling companions, I finally got on the train with only a small amount of mescaline and half the money I had saved for the trip. The other half I spent partying and saying good-bye to my friends. I was accompanied on the trip with Dave and Gaby, a bisexual swinging couple and Bob, a long-haired peace-loving hippie. Other than the fact that we were all in our early twenties, the only thing we had in common was the four of us were speed freaks.
The memories of the train ride are a bit hazy, because we spent most of the next three days and nights in the bar car getting wasted, and experiencing a bad case of the shakes as the meth slowly drained from our system. However, there were a couple of memories that made a lasting impression. The train was rolling along the rails smoothly until all of a sudden we experienced a severe jolt that landed us on the floor, along with a few glasses that went down with us. We found out the back part of the train had derailed. We were stuck for over half a day outside a small town situated near the border of Ontario and Manitoba. We were less concerned the train derailed than the fact the bar car was closed for the day.
There was not much to do in the middle of nowhere, so my friends played Frisbee, while I went exploring. I came across an middle-aged Indigenous woman who looked much older than her years, wearing rags for clothes. She was sitting on the ground outside the small train station drinking a bottle of dandelion wine. She offered to share her bottle with me, so we quickly became friends. I remember some of the stories she told me about her life and how she ended up living on the street. She opened my eyes to how difficult a life it is for people of her culture. When she told me her life story it was in the early seventies, when the residential school system was still at its peak of corruption. She was one of its victims and after years of abuse and loss of self-identity, she could only find solitude with the help of a bottle of booze. I was able to relate to her, as I too was fleeing from emotional and physical abuse at the hands of my adopted mother. Alcohol was her escape plan and mine was meth. Looking at where she ended up made me a little nervous about my future.
Once back on the train we resumed our seats in the bar car. Although my hippie friend Bob was unaware of it at the time, I had a crush on him. I never told him because I did not want to risk losing our friendship, however, fate took over. Apparently, Bob had a lot less tolerance for alcohol than the rest of us. He became violently ill and needed some help. I spent the day holding a plastic bag under his chin and cleaning up his mess. I was always told the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but in this case playing Florence Nightingale for a day had the same effect. I just needed to clean-up what came out of his stomach, rather than putting anything into it. After he was feeling better, he asked me to be his girlfriend because he thought I was the most compassionate person he ever met. Of course, I let him believe whatever he wanted to believe, as long as I won him over.
By the time the train pulled into Vancouver station, we looked like drunken zombies. It was the middle of the night and we were starving and broke. We sat on the sidewalk outside the station and worked out a plan. The next morning we panhandled for a few hours then boarded a ferry to Victoria island, where Dave’s sister lived. We arrived at her house, raided her refrigerator and crashed on the floor for the next couple of days. Because our bodies had just gone through such a metamorphosis we all had serious gastrointestinal problems. In other words, her living room smelled like someone had set off four stink bombs all at once. For some reason, I think she was happy to see us leave.
Before saying our good-byes, we borrowed some money from her that we used to rent a house. We were so happy to find a home, we did not bother to ask what was included in the rent. Apparently, it had all the amenities imaginable. The walls had so many layers of wallpaper that if you got tired of one pattern, you could simply rip it off and in an instant have a whole new look. The house also had eco-friendly air conditioning. There were enough holes and cracks in the walls to never need an artificial air cooling system.
The bathroom was even more unique, because it had its own garden. Grass and weeds, along with the odd wildflower, found their way through the floor boards lending a natural ambience to the decor. As for the bathtub, it was an antique that stood on four legs. In fact, it was such an antique that it no longer produced water from its faucets. We had to boil water on an old metal wood stove in the kitchen and carry it downstairs pail by pail whenever we needed a bath. The problem was that by the time the tub was full the water was cold. Despite all its defects it was home, not only to us, but to many stray cats and dogs. At one head count there were ten cats, a small mutt and a St. Bernard. There is nothing like waking up with a hangover to a menagerie of howling cats and dogs eagerly anticipating their breakfast.
Although I could easily go without nourishment for a few days as a meth addict, I discovered that being straight required a regular intake of food. This meant I needed to find a job. I finally managed to secure a position as a bookkeeper at a potato factory. I applied for the job on a lark never actually expecting to get it, as I had no bookkeeping experience. I later found out that the job was not keeping books for the potato factory, but rather for my boss’s sideline business of horse racing. He was a gambler and a bookie, and needed someone to maintain his records. Because I appeared to be a person who was open-minded, he thought I was perfect for the job. As for my lack of bookkeeping skills, he figured he could easily train me. In return for my expertise, I was paid an hourly wage, given bonuses when he won at the races and fed a meal of potatoes every day.
While I was still living in Victoria, the Redpath Sugar company went on strike, so we secured as many sugar shakers as possible off restaurant tables. We managed to accumulate a fair amount and stored them in our pantry, until one day a disaster happened. We set-up a two burner stove on the pantry shelf, which we used to heat the tips of our knives to burn hash. We figured this was a bad idea after the pantry went up in smoke and the sugar along with it. Fortunately, the fire department was not far away.
Growing up in Montreal, I had never learnt to drive because the Metro took me everywhere I needed to go. Dave’s brother was willing to give me his old car if I could learn to drive, so he offered driving lessons. After driving around the parking lot a few times he thought I was ready for the road. A few friends got in the back and I sat in the driver’s seat. Feeling confident and eager to show off my new skills, I slammed the gas peddle to the floor and the car took off full speed ahead. Looking back, I think I switched gears and transferred my love of speed from meth to cars. My friends were so terrified, they yelled at me to stop the car so they could get out. I thought I was doing just fine, until I had to slow down and turn a corner. I slammed on the break a few seconds too late, and crashed into someone’s nice white picket fence. Needless to say, my friend refused to give me his car.
Another adventure I had while living in Victoria was on a horse. I was the kind of person that liked to prove I could do almost anything, so when we visited a horse ranch I told everyone I knew how to ride. They were so amazed that they wanted to see this for themselves. So I mounted a full-grown high-spirited horse and took off like the wind. I figured that as long as I gripped the reins I was in control. Little did I know that horses have minds of their own, especially with inexperienced riders. The horse dragged me through hanging tree branches, jumped over tree stumps and refused to stop no matter how much I pulled on the reins. The stableman and my friends thought I was doing great and cheered me on, until the horse brought me in earshot of them and they realized I was screaming for help. The stableman quickly mounted a steed and chased my runawy horse until he caught up with us and safely escorted us back to the barn. My friends still commended me for my bravery, so my pride was not completely squashed
I remained in Victoria for close to a year, but eventually grew bored. Gaby was no longer happy in her relationship, because Dave kept bringing home too many pretty young men and she began feeling like an outsider. As for myself, my relationship with Bob had turned as cold as the bath water, so we decided to leave the guys behind and head to Vancouver. We found a rooming house in Chinatown with a bathroom down the hall, and a window view of a red brick wall. Every morning, we ate breakfast at the local Chinese diner, and resumed using our panhandling skills. Chinatown is part of the Downtown Eastside, which was considered the seediest part of Vancouver for its prostitutes, drug addicts, homeless people and crime. Even though I indulged in meth in Montreal, I had never been exposed to so many ghostly white and emaciated faces desperate to find their next fix. I wanted to get out of the area as soon as possible, but with very little money I could not figure out how this was going to happen.
One morning Gaby and I came across a few hippies in Stanley Park. We stopped to chat with them and after telling them our plight, they invited us to move in with them at their farm in Surrey. We were a bit hesitant, but considering where we were staying we figured it was worth the risk. I lived at the farm for a little over a month picking mushrooms, while being chased around by their pet goats who had full access to the house.
The first morning I was there, I was asked to pick mushrooms for breakfast. I proudly returned with a basket full of huge fungi. My new friends laughed when they saw it. Apparently, these were not the kind of mushrooms they requested. They wanted the very tiny ones with the tips about the size of pinheads. I told them I saw a lot of them, but thought they were too small. I was unaware that they wanted me to pick psilocybin mushrooms, not the kind you put on steak. I was amazed, because I only saw these kinds of mushrooms in small plastic bags that I bought from a dealer in Montreal. By that time they had been chopped into little pieces, so I had no idea what they looked like in full form. Growing up in an urban environment, it also never occurred to me they were actually grown somewhere. Although these were not the kind of mushrooms a person would normally add to a pasta dish, my new friends added them to everything. By the time dinner was over, I was not only full, but felt like I was a passenger on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. In other words, I was in psychedelic heaven.
I eventually grew wary of being chased by goats and living in dreamland, and began to get homesick. I decided to head back to Montreal, so I borrowed money for the train ticket and to buy some bread and cold cuts for the trip. As for my friend Gaby, she decided to remain at the farm for awhile longer, because she was enamoured with one of our roommates. This time I did not have enough money to spend in the bar car, so I found a seat in the economy class section of the train. I expected to sit up for the next three days and nights while slowly starving to death, but once again fate intervened. When the train stopped for an hour in Jasper, Alberta, I went to a grocery store to buy some ingredients for my sandwiches, but when I arrived back on the train the bag not only contained the few items I bought, but also hamburger, buns, and hash browns. I do not know to this day if the clerk intended to help me, or if he mistakenly added my groceries to someone else’s bag. I knew the meat would quickly turn bad, so I asked the cook if he could refrigerate it for me. He was quite amicable and offered to cook me a burger and hash browns for dinner every day. He even served free apple pie for dessert.
Although I knew I was no longer going to starve, I still thought I would have to suffer sitting upright for the next few days and nights. To make matters worse, a pervert a little older than myself sat in the seat beside me. For the first part of the day, I put up with his verbal advances, but when his hands started working their way to my leg I ran out of patience. I went to the conductor and reported him. He said he could not throw him off the train and simply moving me to a different section would not prevent him from following me. His solution was to put me in a sleeper cabin free of charge, where I could lock the door. My journey home ended up being quite pleasant. I had my own cabin with a bed and served a hot meal every day.
When the train finally pulled into Montreal, I still had a few dollars left, so I took a taxi home. I arrived at my front door with fifty cents in my pocket, drug free and a lifetime worth of hazy memories. Wait, did I say drug free? I was once again on my old stomping ground, so how my future would unfold was anyone’s guess?
Joan is a professional writer, photographer, animal advocate, and environmentalist. She holds a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of Toronto, and a Masters of Environmental Studies from York University, in Toronto, where her thesis focused on Indigenous culture and the environment.
Joan was a photographer and journalist for Metroland Media Group, and has also written numerous animal-related blogs, articles and product reviews for various commercial clients and nonprofit animal organizations.
When Joan is not musing over words, she can be found on her 'urban farm' cuddling with her three cats and three rabbits.