My First Apartment: A Tale of Robbery, Arson, and ‘Living Like the Dolphin’

by Dan Nosowitz

I went to school at McGill, which is a very large and largely broke public university in Montreal. McGill boots you out of the dorms after your first year, turning you out in the city to find an apartment on your own. This is a good idea, because you save money and figure out how to do adult things like pay rent and cook for yourself. It’s also a bad idea, because 19-year-olds are idiots.

My two friends and I went looking for an apartment in the lovely, brownstone-and-park-filled Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood, one neighborhood away from campus, so it would be clear to exactly nobody that we were not much-loathed English-speaking McGill students. The ground-floor apartment we’d found on the McGill website’s classified ads was big but shabby, with a bright blue door and cheap, Soviet-looking wall-to-wall carpeting in a shade somehow dirty brown, dirty gray, and dirty blue, all at once. I often wondered what its original color was. White? Pink? Taupe? All possible. It had a back patio and a yard overgrown with weeds. It cost $1,500 for three bedrooms. (This is unspeakably expensive in Montreal. I lived in two other apartments there, and each was significantly nicer and significantly cheaper. A fair price for this place would have been half that.)

In Montreal, finder’s fees are both very common and completely illegal, and the tenants in the place before us — three beautiful, intimidating fourth-year management girls — decided to try their luck. Not knowing any better, we paid $500 each, and secured an utter shithole. The girls did not remove the condom wrappers that were under their disgusting couch when they moved out, but they did sell one of my roommates a used bed-frame for about what it must have cost new.

The Plateau neighborhood is in the foothills of Mount Royal. The whole thing is on a steady, mild incline. (Oddly, Montrealers refer to uphill as “north” and downhill as “south,” which is not even accurate, and left me very confused when I moved to San Francisco, in which literally every direction is both uphill and downhill.) Most buildings compensate for this, because it is the 21st century and we are pretty good at building buildings at this point. Ours did not. If you sat in a rolling swivel chair and lifted your legs off the ground, you would slowly roll across the floor until you crashed into a wall.

A few months into our lease, a giant chunk of the bathroom ceiling fell onto the bathroom floor. This is not an ideal place for a piece of the bathroom ceiling to be. It took literally months for our landlord to fix, as we called it, our skylight. For the last week or so, a cheerful French handyman with no English worked on the skylight. He would peek his head through the hole while I sat on the toilet. “Bonjour,” I’d say. “Ah, pardon,” he’d say. We had fun.

We decided to make our living expenses mildly communal. We would each keep our own bank accounts, but all household expenses, including rent, bills, and food, would be split evenly in three parts. For some reason, we also decided that when we went grocery shopping, we would all have to go together. This happened approximately once every six weeks, and the food ran out after maybe five days. One roommate lost weight due to the very unusual problem of unnecessary negligent malnutrition. I gained weight, thanks to subsisting mostly on poutine and Stouffer’s frozen chicken pot pies from the depanneur, or bodega, next door.

Our landlord had a second handyman, whose name was Artur. At one point Artur came by and said he was asked to change the locks. We said sure. He asked us to pay for the locks. We said no, because even as 19-year-old idiots, we were aware that that is the landlord’s responsibility. “I really think you should pay for this lock,” he said. We refused, probably rudely. This, in retrospect, was a mistake.

Two days later, our apartment was robbed. Two laptops were stolen, along with a camera and a passport. We called the police. They gave us a note to give to our professors to get us extensions on any papers we had due, then left. We called the landlord, whose name was Nader and who until this point had seemed an normal absentee landlord, perfectly content to wildly overcharge three teenage idiots for his shithole apartment from afar.

Nader was not normal.

Nader sat down in our living room, on an easy chair only six inches off the ground because, for reasons I have forgotten, it no longer had any legs. We told him what had happened. He threatened to “slit the throat” of the man who had done it. We muttered that we hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Nader stayed to chat, feeling guilty that his asshole handyman had robbed us, I suppose. First he mentioned offhand that he had spent time in Iranian prison. Then his mother called (Nader, I should mention, was at least 45-years-old) to, according to Nader, warn him “not to do anything stupid.” Like slit someone’s throat over a couple of $600 laptops.

We chatted some more. Nader told us, in response to some environmental cause popular in Canada that week, that our whole environmental strategy was wrong. “Earth is water planet, you see. Much more water.”

We agreed that this was true.

“So we should live like the dolphin,” he concluded. Even this, we thought, could be normal, or normal-ish. Maybe he had some thoughts about sustainability and living in tune with the natural world! But Nader meant it literally. “We should build skyscrapers, but under the ocean. And then we will wear backpack with motor to travel between them,” he said. We glanced at each other and quickly agreed this was a very perceptive and forward-thinking plan.

The water and electricity lines for the three-story building were in a crawlspace under our floor. To access them, you pried up a two-foot-by-four-foot trap door just beyond the second entrance door (Montreal apartments often have two doors, to help keep people sheltered from the ridiculous elements). The trap door, several feet deep, remained open for several days at one point. Several people fell in the hole. I was one of them. It hurt like hell.

In February, the toughest month in Montreal, where the temperature drops to the point where it no longer matters if you talk in Fahrenheit or Celsius (the two cross at around -40), we had guests, friends of my roommate’s girlfriend from Wellesley. They were politely horrified by our shithole, I think. They slept on our pull-out sofa in the airy, poorly-sealed living room. At some point in the night, both front doors blew completely open. Independently, all three roommates got up, cranked up our personal baseboard electric heaters in our bedrooms, and went back to bed. None of us thought anything unusual was happening — it’s cold, turn the heat up. That happened sometimes.

When we emerged the next morning, we found that the inside of our apartment had reached temperature parity with the outside, and the entry hallway was covered in snow. The guests told us they noticed it was getting very cold, but they never thought to check if a door was open. I think they assumed our shithole apartment would naturally offer no resistance to the brutal weather outside. They were very nice about the whole thing. I never saw any of them again.

The electricity and heating bills — which in Montreal are often extraordinarily high, as the city is inconveniently located in the god damn arctic — were mildly confusing. Two separate bills came to our apartment. It was unclear why there were two, but one of them was for about $15 per month, and the other was well over $100 in the wintertime. We paid the cheaper one. Why wouldn’t we?

In our last month of residency, Nader told us we owed him some $700. Apparently we were paying the bill for the upstairs apartment, which was unoccupied for pretty much the entire year and only warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing. We held off paying him for so long, convincing ourselves that if he wanted us to pay the bill that obviously corresponded to our electricity use, he should have told us, that eventually he just told us not to worry about it. I think he still felt bad about the robbery.

Montreal has very odd renter’s laws. For example, a landlord cannot raise the rent of an apartment without the written permission of the tenant, even if something happened to obviously warrant it (like the installation of a washer/dryer, or a new kitchen). The landlord must politely ask the tenant if the tenant agrees to the proposed rent, and the tenant can just say nope, don’t agree, and then the landlord has to, at his or her own expense, take the case to the Regie du Logement, the housing bureau, and convince them that it is a fair raise. The tenant can just kick back and keep paying the old rent while this mess is going on.

One of the side effects of this heavily tenant-favoring system is that security deposits are not always required. In our shithole, there was no deposit. I was the last one to leave the apartment, and I was by far the biggest idiot of the three of us in terms of cleanliness. I left some unwanted furniture and some food in the apartment, with the back door unlocked, telling my friends who were staying in the city that summer to come by and help themselves. I did not bother cleaning anything, because the place was dirty when we moved in (though not as dirty as I left it). I’m not proud of this. I was an especially big idiot that year.

The next year, I moved into a place in a different part of the Plateau, where the floors were hardwood, the building had security, my bedroom had a lovely fourth-floor view of a park and the mountain, and my rent was, of course, $425. (I live in New York now. It’s hard to talk about Montreal rent without breaking down.) My parents dropped me off at my new apartment and drove around trying to find a parking spot. When they came back, they asked me what happened to my old apartment. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s all charred and burned up!” my mom said.

I took a walk there a week or so later. My mom had exaggerated a little. Certainly there had been a fire. The windows were missing their glass and were now covered with black garbage bags. I took a peek around one of them and saw that the inside of the apartment, while structurally okay, was smoke-damaged and not livable. I asked one of my former neighbors what had happened.

A week or so after I left, the place caught on fire. Suspiciously well-contained fire. Suspiciously not-damaging-or-dangerous fire. The neighbor was convinced the landlord had simply torched the place. If so, he was slow to collect the insurance. It stayed that way for almost a full year.

It’s been about six years since the fire. According to Google Maps, it now looks exactly the same as it did before the fire. Except the door is white now.

Dan Nosowitz lives in Brooklyn and writes words for money, mostly at Popular Science. He has serious opinions about fruit. Illustrations by Charrow

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