Nonfiction

Al’s Story

Prologue

I met Albert Murray two years ago. I was working as a Community Chaplain for the Correctional Service of Canada. Al was just finishing a 26 year federal sentence for armed robbery and was living, as he still does, in social service housing on the west side of Montreal.

At 89 years old, Al leads a very quiet life. He can’t hear and can barely see.  His interaction with the world is extremely limited. Other than the couple that runs his house, I was (past tense because I have since moved to Connecticut) his all-but only visitor.

And, I was the only person who engaged Al in anything more than perfunctory conversation. Conversation? How do you converse with someone who can’t hear, whose profound deafness is beyond the help of auditory aids? For the first year, I brought my laptop to our meetings and wrote brief questions and comments in very large font, bold letters. (Remember, Al can’t see much either). Later, I began using inch-high printed letters on a handheld chalkboard instead.

As for Al’s half of the conversation, well, Al may be deaf, but he certainly can talk.  My simple written questions inspired a thousand tales of Al’s life, tales told with the traditional volubility and wit of his Nova Scotia/New England Irish ancestors.  What follows is a compilation of a fraction of these stories.   In transcribing Al’s stories by hand and by computer, I have tried to keep my editorial influence to a minimum, only changing syntax or grammar where necessary to maintain good English sense and ease of reading.

Robert Bergner



I’ve got to start at my first time in reform school.  The Lyman School was on the Worcester turnpike about 30 miles from Boston.  The first time I went there, I came in with three other kids.  While we were in the office being registered, a kid we knew came up to us and said, “Tell them you’re Protestant.  That way, you get out from polishing the floors on your hands and knees every Sunday.”

~ ~ ~

I had an old Chevy when I first came to Montréal and I didn’t have much money.  I was working for eighty-five cents an hour as a labourer.  It was raining and I had to go across the Victoria Bridge.  About half way across, I got a flat tire.  Me, I decided to get the tire fixed myself.  I didn’t want to run on the flat tire because that would ruin it.  It’s a narrow bridge, but I stopped my car, got out the tools and took the tire off with cars whizzing by me just inches away.  I carried the tire across the bridge to a gas station.  The guy there fixed the flat.  Then, I carried the tire all the way back to the car and put it back on with all those cars whizzing by.  I said to myself, “This is crazy.  I could get myself killed!  I’ve got to get some money.” That’s when I decided to get back into bank robbing.

~ ~ ~

When I visited Boston, someone asked me how I liked Montreal.  I said, “It’s great.  It’s got a church on every corner and a bank in between.  But,” I said, “it’s getting bad. There’s too many bank robbers.  Last month, one gang of bank robbers was about to go into the front of a bank while another gang was running out the back with all the money.”  That was in the newspaper.

~ ~ ~

In Boston, my brother was in the hospital having a cancer operation.  So I went down to the corner where I used to hang out.  I went into the tavern, and the owner was there.  And the owner told me, “Yeah, your brother comes in once in a while.  He picks up a guy’s glass and drinks it ‘cause he doesn’t have any money.  When I tell him to stop it he says that I better watch it or he’ll get his brother Al on me.”

I also went to see my first girlfriend.  I went to see her where she worked, in a supermarket.  I had a very nice suit on and the manager thought I was a cop.

Her husband came in to pick her up. They met when I was in the can.  She was going to a skating rink and met this guy and she married him.  I heard about it in the reformatory.  I was playing handball and one of the guys says to me, “Guess what?”  I said, “Yeah, I know.  Eda’s getting married.  I saw it in the newspaper.”

When she saw me she didn’t recognize me.  I had to tell her who I was.  She says, “I thought you were in Canada.”  I says, “I got a car.”  I had a nice Dodge Dart convertible — blue.  It was a hell of a nice car.  It looked like a Cadillac.

When her husband came up, she introduced me to him, whatever his name was.  He says, “Not the Al Murray!”

I said, “The only one I know.”

My old girlfriend said, “He’s the only one I ever loved.”  Right in front of her husband!

They wanted me to go to their home on Cape Cod for the weekend.  But the cops had a watch on my car.  There weren’t any warrants out on me, but they wanted to know where I was whenever I went to Boston because I had done so many crimes there.  I didn’t want to cause my girlfriend and her husband any trouble so I didn’t visit them on the Cape.

~ ~ ~

April fools is an appropriate birthday for me. A joke on my mother.  My mother had eight kids, one died in childbirth.  Later, when she must have been in her sixties, an Italian contractor fell in love with her.  In the end, he committed suicide.  He had left his wife for her.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the sex drive gets you in a lot of trouble because you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.

~ ~ ~

Once, I was working for my girlfriend.  She had a bar and I used to mop up the floors the next day.  One morning, I found a wallet.  A guy called her and said he had lost his wallet.  I knew what it was like to lose a lot of money, so, me, I said I found it.  I should have kept twenty dollars for a reward.  When he came to pick it up he didn’t even say, “Thank you”.  It turned out he was a prison guard.  If I had known that, I would have kept it all.

~ ~ ~

I got in a poker game in Boston with some of the guys I knew when I was younger.  One of the guys there was a card manipulator.  He could deal you a hand and tell you what cards you had.

Someone had a pair when I had three of a kind.  He got mad and threw the cards at me.  One of the cards hit me on the ear.  I said, “Hey, it’s the weekend we can’t get more cards.  No more card throwing or I’m going to get a gun.”

He said, “Anyone can get a gun.”

“Yeah,” said one of the other guys, “but Al will use it.  So no more card throwing.”

~ ~ ~

At the reform school, there were six or seven cottages holding thirty or forty kids each, all between the ages of about ten and sixteen.  After sixteen, you went to a reformatory where the population was from seventeen to old age.

At thirteen, I wet the bed every night.  The shame of coming down the stairs with wet sheets made me run away.  I hitchhiked a ride when I got about five miles back towards Boston.  The guy turned the car around and went back to the reform school.  When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was the assistant superintendent of the school and he was taking me back.

I had changed clothes with a scarecrow, but he said, “Take a look at your socks.”

They had Lyman School printed on them.

~ ~ ~

When we got back to the school, it was assembly time and all the other kids were in their daily assembly.  When they saw me come into the meeting hall, they all laughed at my appearance. I was assigned to the disciplinary cottage.

Each of the cottages was run by a husband and wife team. In the disciplinary cottage, in the evening, you had to stand in line from supper to bedtime with your face four inches from the wall.  At bedtime, we went to the dormitory where we slept with a night watchman in a cubicle that overlooked us all.  This night watchman was supposed to give care to anyone that got sick.

The superintendent of the school came to see me and asked why I had run away.  I told him that I had been scrubbed with a scrubbing brush to stop me from wetting the bed.  He didn’t believe that anyone would do that to me.

He was a doctor and I took off my shirt to show him my back, which was covered with bruises.

He immediately took me out of the disciplinary cottage and sent me back to my own cottage where he gave the master a warning not to use physical means on me.  He asked me to promise him that I would never run away again without coming to him, which I did.

Three months later, he died in an automobile accident and I ran away again.

~ ~ ~

After I got shot in the leg, I was laying in bed in traction and the doctor came in to see me.  He said, “I did the work on your leg. Who’s gonna pay me?”  I answered, “You get paid by Medicare.  I’m facing twenty years in prison, do you think I care who pays?”  He just walked away.

~ ~ ~

Anytime there was a runaway, the boiler room blasted a horn to notify the surrounding countryside. They gave five dollars to anyone who returned a runaway.

I was again picked up on a road several miles away and was sent to the disciplinary cottage for the older kids.  Some months later, at that cottage, three kids faked a toothache, knowing that the watchman would come in and give them medicine for relief.  They took the weight off the toilet seat return, put it in a pillowcase, hit him on the head when he came in and killed him.  They each got twelve years.  One of them was later in the gang that robbed Brinks.

~ ~ ~

I broke into a house with some friends on a Sunday.  A neighbour called the police who surrounded the house and got us to come out.  The service in the church across the street from the house was just ending, so the congregation also gathered around the house we’d broken into.  When we finally came out, one of the cops grabbed me rather roughly and I hit myself intentionally on the nose, causing my nose to bleed in front of all the people.

When we got to the police station, they told us to empty our pockets.  When I emptied my pockets, I had a set of rosary beads there.  One of the cops pushed me into the telephone booth and started to hit me calling me a protestant bastard.  I immediately I started stomping on his feet causing him to drag me out of the booth where all the cops were laughing and saying, “That’ll teach you a lesson.  Don’t take a tiger in a telephone booth.”  Famous, famous words.

The judge was my father’s Sunday school teacher and they came to some kind of an agreement so that I could stay at home.  But, when the judge saw me, he remembered that I had been before him a month earlier.  He said, “All bets are off.  He’s got to go to reform school.”

~ ~ ~

While I was on parole from reform school, I got caught with a stolen car.  They sent me to the Concord Reformatory where they sent men 17 years and older instead of the state prison in Charlestown Massachusetts.  All this time, in reform school and in reformatory, I was making friends with men who I met again and again all through the system.

~ ~ ~

Between the reform school and the reformatory, I had my first girlfriend. She was the head of a group of girls who didn’t pay much attention to the law.

I was coming home late one night.  I had a stick and I was hitting a can with it and two girls stepped in front of me.  One of them said, “We’re going to give you a beating.  You’ve been telling everybody that she [the other girl] was in the hospital with a miscarriage.”

I said, “I don’t even know you two.”  They had got me mixed up with my partner whose name was the same as mine, Al.

I later began to visit her in her house, in the evening when her father was working in the shipyards.

I wasn’t 17.  And she introduced me to sex.  That was like opening Pandora’s Box.  I couldn’t get enough.

~ ~ ~

I was told about a beer joint where, at the end of the day, the bartender put the remaining cash in an empty bread package and then put it in a wastepaper basket.  I went by when they closed.

The beer joint was on a corner.  I got in by breaking a window on one of the side streets.  It just happened that a Special Service Squad of the Boston police heard the noise.  They came to the broken window and told me to come out.  I picked up a full liquor bottle and threw it the length of the bar and out a window at the far end of the room.  The whole Special Service Squad ran to the corner and around it, thinking I was coming out at the other end of the building.

When they left the side window where I had broken in, I ran out and got away.   Some Special Service Squad!  They’re supposed to be the best of the best!

~ ~ ~

What made me go to the gun?  I was stealing with two guys and they told me they were going to crack a safe in a theatre.  One of them said to me, “It’s hard to get in there.  Will you stay inside when the theatre closes and let us in when everybody’s gone.”

So I went into the theatre and sat in the toilet until I couldn’t hear anybody.  When I came out, the theatre was dark except for a light in the manager’s office.  I went over and saw that he was counting the money from the evening.  If I had had a gun I could have just taken the money.  But I figured we were going to crack the safe, so we’d get the money anyway.

I waited until twelve midnight and let the other guys in. They had said that they knew how to crack a safe, but we spent a couple of hours banging away at it.  Finally we had to use a hanger to push the tumblers out.  And, when we got in, we only found 16 dollars in the safe.

I told the guys, “If I had had a gun earlier I could have gotten it all.” So that’s why I started carrying a gun.  From then on we had plenty of money.  I think a must have held up every liquor store in my hometown and half the liquor stores in the next.

~ ~ ~

In downtown Boston, I noticed a fur store across the street from the Ritz Carlton Hotel with a fur coat in each side window.  There was a fur jacket on a chair and a mannequin with a full-length coat.  I found a driver and a stolen Lincoln Zephyr.  We went back that same night.  There was no one on the streets after six o’clock.  I told the driver to pull up in front of the store.  I said I would break both front windows and he should take the jacket and I would take the long fur coat.  When I went to get the coat off the mannequin, it was too hard to take off, so I picked the mannequin up with the coat still on and took it to the car.  The driver took off in a hurry with me in the back seat.  I told him to slow down, but, at the corner, he took a wide screeching turn.  A police car happened to be passing by and saw that we didn’t stop at the stop sign.  The chase began.

We were being chased by a very fast police car, but it wasn’t as fast as our Lincoln.  We took off along Tremont Street just as people were coming out of the theatres.

We couldn’t shake the police car, so I again told the driver to slow down.  This time he did.  I got the coat off the mannequin, opened the rear door and booted the mannequin out.  It slid under a car parked on the side of the street.  The cops chasing us screeched to a halt to pick up what they thought was a fully dressed person.  We took off and got away.

About a month later, when I got caught for another crime, a cop came up to me and told me that he was the one that had stopped for the mannequin.  He said that the local newspaper had used the headline:  Cop Stops For Dummy.  Everyone at the police station had laughed at him.

~ ~ ~

When we were in Virginia, the hotel we were in was half hotel and half whorehouse.  While we were drinking a couple of sailors came by – our door was always open – and said, “We came here to get laid, but all the girls are busy.”

I said, “I’ll take care of that.”

I went out in the hallway and yelled, “Shore Patrol!”  All the doors popped open and the sailors came stumbling out, trying to get their pants on, and ran out into the street.

‘There you go,” I said. “Take your choice.  There no more sailors here.”

“Thanks,” they said.

Later, one of the ladies came out and asked, “Who shouted Shore Patrol?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t know anything about Shore Patrol.”

“Well, whoever it was, it gave us a break.  We get paid in advance.”

~ ~ ~

I worked for a guy who founded a church in Park Extension in Montreal. He was a contractor, building houses.  One of the church members came to him and said,  “Will you build a house for me?  How much will it cost?”  The contractor gave an approximate figure.

Halfway through building the house, the price of steel beams skyrocketed and the contractor said to the church member that he would have to charge more for the house.  The church member said, “Oh, no!” and took him to court.  So, then you had two church members fighting over money.  For all the good intentions and for all their pious mouthings, Church people are just like everybody else.

~ ~ ~

I started four AA groups while I was inside.  I was the chairman of the groups.  We used to have outside people come in every week and they said that my groups were the best that they attended.  I asked why.  They said, “Because you have them open up and admit why they are alcoholics.  In our outside meetings, there’s a little of that, but here everyone of your guys speaks.”  I started with just couple of guys in a group and ended up with as many as sixteen.  Not bad, considering that in one of the places I was there weren’t that many English guys.

One time, the prison Chaplain got a letter from Ottawa.  I was doing all his paper work, writing all his reports.  Ottawa said that his reports – which were my reports – were the best in all of Canada because they covered so many angles, such as the number of English and French guys in the institution, the percentage of the English guys who attended Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.  In the end, I didn’t get that high of a percentage in my groups because most guys wouldn’t admit they were alcoholics.

~ ~ ~

I go back over some of the things I’ve done and, when you’re broke and somebody’s bugging you for the rent and you don’t have a job, you only have one alternative, which is to go out and steal some money with the least chance of getting caught.  You get caught; you do the time.  If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

I read the paper every day and someone is stealing from the big companies, their own employees are doing it.  And they’re supposed to be the straight people.  But, my father told me, “Wherever you find a lot of money, you’ll find somebody’s stealing.”  I’ve found that to be true.

I’ve asked a couple of straight people if they would rob a bank if they knew they wouldn’t get caught.  And they said, “Yes, if I knew how.”

Raconteur Albert Murray was born in Nova Scotia, raised in Boston, and currently resides in Montreal. Mr Murray loves to exercise his linguistic prowess in a hard-fought game of scrabble and is a dedicated player of the lottery. "If you don't play," he observes dryly, "you can't win."

Musician, dancer, actor, writer and Anglican priest, Robert Bergner is currently working as a chaplain at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.