The Puzzle Smothers A Montreal Refuge

By Ray Mwareya

“Seen him? Ticks his puzzle, hides a beer in a coffee mug. Think he fools the train driver?” Wallis, my landlord, gossiped about an untidy laborer on my maiden ride on Montreal underground metro.

Wallis scanned his eyes over rows that contained a bridge´s name that I insert into the crossword puzzle of the Montreal Gazette, the only English daily in Canada´s French-speaking province of Quebec. “I´m puzzled you too are obsessed with the word-search,” Wallis continued. “Thought puzzles are joys of old-bumpers and construction industry riff-ruff.”

I am elated to hear that being a black African refugee in Montreal who forages through clue-lists of newspaper puzzles on the 5 AM. metro is an honour. “Us refugees, old Canadians, macho men, the crossword-puzzle is a riddle of our lives,” I tell him. The logjam of words on the puzzle mirrors my courage,  waking up at 4 AM; bumping heads with hundreds other immigrants on the 5 AMMetro going to the meat factories in Montreal industrial parks.

“That´s black privilege,” Wallis said.

I snap and agree with him. The crossword puzzle in the Montreal Metro carriageway gets whiter as the clock ticks towards 7 AM. More whiter Canadian faces show up later when immigrants are already sipping tea in factories’ steam rooms.

Wallis is perplexed when I squeeze the words “Carrier” and “Fray” on the puzzle’s vertical and horizontal grids. “But Ray, children of immigrants, 5 AM puzzle-players, will likely wake up at 7 AM if they acquire Canada diplomas in 10 years’ time,” he said.

True. I nod at him. When I pencil in lightly any guessed others I (a black refugee and factory labourer) can be less envious of the perfumes of the gilded civil servants of Place-d´Armes Metro Station, the ones that speed-read popular books each time they find the evening metro over packed. The crossword puzzle gives me brief mental power.

The puzzle is a democracy that unites all Montreal immigrants: Haitian Creoles, Tunisia Arabs and quiet Russians. The crossword puzzle turns whiter, French and imposing from 7 AM. At 5 AM,, rest assured, we immigrants own the metro puzzle!

I am a refugee with a factory floor job in Montreal, Canada. I battle chronic back pain but the daily 5 AM crossword puzzle proves the best psychiatrist. I overcome my challenges with grace and discipline whenever I refuse to consult a Google dictionary for the crossword puzzle´s numerous English words that share the same spelling but have contrasting meanings.

My days are not pleasant. I wake up at 4 AM. I commute two hours each way for a minimum wage, 8-hour-a-day job  cutting clothes and footwear fabrics.

The crossword puzzle makes me forget the back pain that prickles like hugging needles. A doctor has put me on painkillers: a cocktail of acetaminophen and naproxen. I fear looking at the labeling: “Taking for two weeks plus may cause liver damage.” So I tick the puzzle every morning and still binge the pills three months on. I am desperate to prove myself worthy of my adoptive country. When stumped by pain I am tempted to abandon the crossword puzzle for a while and resume later, but because the joy of the crossword puzzle confuses the nephropathy nerves of my back pain, I keep at it.

I need this factory floor job. The alternative is not necessarily straight homelessness. Canada has a really good welfare protection system for the truly down and out. Rather, I frown at being a burden to this wonderful country which has done so much for me. I already feel this sense of patriotism. So, a crossword puzzle, especially a Sudoku, makes me look at life and logic. Look, I am from Zimbabwe, a broken country where its money is so worthless that citizens wash and hang to dry old U.S. dollar bills. The logic of the weekend Sudoku puzzle reminded me that where I come from (Zimbabwe) opioid pills addiction isn’t common as in North America. Painkillers are luxuries. I am bemused that as a refugee in Canada I could be on the edge of my first painkiller addiction. In the factory, I see women in their 40s with braces strapped around their spines, packing boxes of underwear fabrics with gritted teeth. Their backs are finished.

I laughed this morning when the factory owner asked me to fill out insurance paperwork. In case I get fatally hurt on the fabrics-cutter machine. $20,000 will be paid out in the event of my passing away. “Do you have dependents? she asked.

No, I said in the tea room, whilst struggling to memorize the capitals of Canada´s ten provinces on a trivia quiz puzzle. “Fill me forms, next of kin details and stop doodling useless puzzles,” she said. “If something occurs the factory needs to pay your survivors.”

I know from experience as a player that crossword puzzles irritate and misdirect the emotions of those who watch them with little passion. So, I grinned at her. “Nothing survives me.”

Ray Mwareya is a freelance journalist in Ottawa, author and receiver of the UN Correspondents Association Media Prize. His works is published in Ricochet Media Canada, Friends of Canada Broadcasting, The Financial Times, The Guardian and Coda Story Magazine.
He tweets at @rmwareya