The first time I saw snow, I walked into a February version of Montreal in a t-shirt. When I saw what was happening with my breath, I remember looking at my parents, thinking that they were going to accuse me of smoking – and right in front of them. It took a while for them to explain what was happening.
The last days of Florida included swimming lessons, trading cards, and saying goodbye to the Incredible Hulk wall-paper in my bedroom. I packed my own luggage. Three nights before the move, I went downstairs and turned on the television. A movie was playing. It had little mini-cars whipping around, and I spit a bit of milk when I saw them drive up the roof of a stadium. They were driving through sewers. They were going down staircases.
Benny Hill got on a bus, and that was the end of his involvement in the tale. I was happy to see it, because I had never understood that man. Michael Caine embodied a role that I imagined my father playing at work: commanding, confident, and really focused on making a good living. He was a gold thief, and those cars were stuffed with stolen property. He’d orchestrated a heist in the middle of the street, and then a traffic jam through which those agile little vehicles escaped. Italian police wrecked car after car in pursuit.
I had never watched a movie alone before. I had never stayed up so late. I clung to the couch as the cars drove their gold onto a moving bus – and then those beautiful miniature vehicles were pushed out the back door, tumbling down the sides of cliffs in balls of fire, the evidence destroyed, the deed done.
The bus drove a mountainside road as music blared. It was going to end well, I thought, until the bus swerved and the back end – laden with the gold – found its way over the edge of a cliff and hung like a see-saw over space. But I knew they would get away. They had to make it, escaping to a new land with their riches, there to live under glorious sunshine. Michael Caine told the boys to hold on, that he had an idea. The bus teetered. He stared at the gold.
The lights went on. My mother, I think, expected that I was watching something worse than I was. Gold bars hanging in the air, she turned off the television and rushed me back to bed. The Incredible Hulk wall-paper looked dull and uninteresting. It was still there in the morning, when I woke up thinking that I had dreamed a dream of Italian streets. But the dream had no ending. I complained to my mother that she’d interrupted the movie, that I hadn’t seen what had happened to the gold or learned what Michael Caine’s idea for saving the day had been.
“I don’t even know the name of the movie!” I’d said. Later that day, we sold the television.
You cannot understand the size of North America by flying over it. You need to study it on a globe to fully appreciate its size and what it touches. At the other end of the continent, we found a February version of Montreal, the sun shining with such confidence that we thought it would be fine to walk outside without coats or hats or gloves. I learned something that day.
I always remember Montreal as a city of slush. Thanks to Bill 101, I ended up in French school with kids who had been speaking the language since birth. I did my best. One day I found myself in the playground with my sister, sitting under a window. We had hidden as children had entered the building, and stayed outside all day wondering if anyone was looking for us. We picked at the gravel coming off the asphalt. Got hungry. Dreamed of Florida.
My dad bought a Chevrolet Impala. Eventually, it was too much for my parents to see their kids come home from school every day agonizing over what they were required to learn and just couldn’t seem to. We went to English-speaking Manitoba and bought a station wagon. Every time my father got a new car, it was bigger. He peaked at a full-sized van, one that could have stored vast quantities of gold had he had the inclination to pull a heist through the jammed up streets of Winnipeg.
In high school, I still snuck downstairs to watch television. Sometimes, I landed on Benny Hill and watched for a bit, hoping that Benny would transform into that genius before-his-time computer programmer who loved fat women and that could reprogram the Winnipeg traffic lights to be green all the time. I learned to drive in a Pontiac Bonneville, baby blue with a black bra. I cruised the streets, practicing donuts in parking lots, pushing well past the speed limit on the quiet dark highway that, had I followed it through, would have taken me back to Montreal.
I went west for university, to a place that still had too much snow. Found a girl, lost a girl, repeat. Learned some things. Forgot some things. Took public transit everywhere, because a car is actually a very expensive thing to own.
And one day I sat down with a newspaper and read about the best car chases in movie history. They were all there, those heroes with their cowboy hats and gunfire, their Camaros and Mustangs. I was on the bus when I got to the last part of the article, about a gold heist in Turin, where little mini cars were used to escape the police. The movie was called The Italian Job.
There aren’t stores like this anymore, but once there were shops that specialized in obscure VHS tapes. I found one in a mall, and had to order the movie. Two months later it showed up, and I biked it to my apartment, sliding over the snowy road, skidding to a halt at the stop signs.
The VCR clicked. The basement was dark. I had a blanket and a chocolate bar. A glass of milk. This time, I saw the beginning of the movie and understood what had made Michael Caine the man he was. “Yes, I used a machine gun,” he said, when someone displayed amazement at his tale of hunting large game in Africa. “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” he screamed as his munitions expert overdid the charge. Charlie Croker was his name, and this was his movie.
I didn’t forward to the end. I watched it all; I watched right until those minis crashed down the mountain and the bus swung over the edge of the cliff. Then I hit pause. It’s not often that you get a chance to stop before you are about to learn something significant – for instance, how a movie you saw fifteen years ago actually ends. There was Michael Caine, staring at his booty, telling the boys that he, balanced between life and death on the side of the mountain in that bus, has a ‘great idea’. I was sure this was going to be the moment that my mother called to interrupt the moment. But she didn’t. And anyway, the movie didn’t go further than those last words and the image of that gold hanging over the edge of the cliff. It ended right there.
Credits rolled. I finished my chocolate bar. It’s funny what you can convince yourself of. You can imagine that the world across the continent is a magical place that doesn’t know hardship. Or you can imagine that it’s a terrifying place that will play with your childhood and stamp it with the strange burden of not understanding what anyone is saying – as though they’re aliens, or you’re the alien. Or we’re all aliens. You can even convince yourself that it was your mother that got in the way of you seeing the end of a story, when in fact it was just you in the darkness, trying to understand how something can end without actually ending. I had seen it through all along, and just needed fifteen years to understand it.
A year later, I bought a car. Black and sporty, perfect to drive fast late at night. Found a girl, lost a girl. Repeat. Considered being a gold thief. Or maybe a banker. Twenty six years after I first watched The Italian Job, they rebooted it. New cast, new plot, new setting, same fast cars. This one actually had an ending. You would think that would make all the difference. That it would make it better. I suppose that could have been the case.
You might even argue that it should have been.