"Where do you live?"
Border guards are intimidating by design and training. With all the Montréal trips I take, you'd think by now I'd be used to the routine. But the moment I pull up to the booth, I'm certain my cabbie cover story will fall apart, unmasking my true identity: drug smuggler, gun runner, money launderer, international terrorist.
I took a deep yoga breath and responded, "I'm from Burlington."
"And you?" the border guard continued, directing his question to Josh Gagnon, the man sitting beside me.
"I'm living in Las Vegas," Josh replied, his accent revealing his Québécois roots. "I'm visiting my friends and family in Laval."
The border guard asked him another question, this time in French. Josh laughed out loud, and there ensued a jolly back-and-forth en français.
Once clear of the border and cruising north toward Montréal, I glanced over at my customer, a barrel-chested, gruff-but-not-really man with a shock of gray hair and an easy, hearty laugh. "What did the guard say to you that made you crack up?" I asked.
"He asked me why I wasn't speaking French. I told him I've been in Las Vegas for 30 years and was losing my French! He told me not to worry, that it would come back to me on the streets of Laval."
For the next hour, Josh regaled me with stories of his upbringing in the suburb just north of Montréal. Now, it's entirely citified, but when he was growing up there, it still had patches of farmland. Josh and his 10 siblings would roam far and wide, making mischief and raising havoc. His dad owned one of the town's early auto garages, started by his father, and basically knew everyone in the neighborhood.
Josh explained, "My father, people called him the 'mayor' of Vimont, the section of Laval where we lived. Vimont was actually a separate city until the mid-'60s, when a number of municipalities merged with Laval."
Montréal occupies the whole of an island — Île de Montréal — surrounded by three rivers, so entry requires a bridge or tunnel. We took the Jacques Cartier Bridge, which spans the St. Lawrence River into Montréal, and then the Papineau-Leblanc Bridge across the Prairies River into Laval. That city, too, takes up an entire island — Île Jésus.
Soon we reached the Boulevard des Laurentides, the broad thoroughfare running through the heart of Josh's old Vimont neighborhood. Every second block, I observed, seemed to feature a business with Vimont in its name.
"How's the Vimont Pizza Restaurant?" I asked, pointing to a place that looked like a neighborhood fixture.
"Oh, it's superb," Josh replied with a big smile. "My uncle owned it. I guess now it's my cousin's."
Indeed, every store we passed seemed to hold some memory for Josh, who hadn't been back to his childhood home for more than a decade. He may reside in Las Vegas, I thought, but it is clear from the delight in his eyes that, at heart, he remains a Laval homeboy.
I dropped Josh at his father's garage, which two of his brothers now run. They proceeded to welcome him with enthusiastic and extended bear hugs.
My workday was not over: In one hour, I had a pickup at Trudeau Airport. In a remarkable stroke of good luck, I had booked a Montréal round-tripper, the first in all my years of hacking!
Bonnie Rollins had arranged for me to pick up Mason, her 24-year-old son, who was flying in from Reykjavik on WOW Airlines, a discount carrier based in Iceland. When she gave me the flight information, I said, "Wow!" which I thought quite funny.
In a rare moment of digital inspiration, I suggested she text me a photo of her son and I'd reciprocate with a photo of me to forward to Mason. Though I'd be meeting him with a sign, I figured that each having a photo of the other could only help. Bonnie thought that was a splendid idea.
The photo I texted was of me looking oh so dapper in my brand-new Carhartt jacket. She texted me back with an apology, confessing that she couldn't figure out how to text a photo (I could relate) but that I would have no problem recognizing her son: He was six-foot-four with blond dreadlocks. I texted back, "Oh, so he's a Burlington guy?" To which she replied, "Exactly! [smiley face]."
In the airport terminal, I positioned myself on a bench by international arrivals. As predicted by Bonnie, I had no problem identifying her son — a tall, wholesome and handsome young man — as he came through the gate. In a professional faux pas, as I jumped up to shake his hand, I scattered the order of ketchup-drenched potato wedges I had just purchased.
"Good to meet you, Mason," I said, attempting to reestablish some modicum of ketchup-free dignity. "Usually I try to avoid greeting my customers with a barrage of food."
He laughed, to my relief, and in no time we had cleared the airport and were speeding back to Burlington, Vt., USA.
"So, what were you up to in Iceland?" I asked.
"I hooked up with Hazel, my girlfriend, who's from Scotland. We try to get together every few months or so. It's not easy because neither of us makes, like, a lot of dough. But we're both committed. I love that girl."
"That's great, man," I said. "Did you enjoy Iceland?"
"Oh, it's an amazing place — ravishing, actually. We didn't like that they continue to eat whale there, but I guess that's a cultural thing."
"So, the lovely Hazel. That's quite the old-fashioned name. Do you have a nickname for her?"
Mason chuckled. "As a matter of fact, I do. I call her Basil. You know — like, sweet basil."
Ah, young lovers, I mused. Even continents can't keep them apart.