CONFESSIONS OF A CALECHE DRIVER
Or how to lose your head in Quebec City this spring
“How about a buggy ride, sir?”
“Would you like a tour by horse and carriage?”
You get to know which people to ask. The shoes give them away. Loafers and brogues. You can’t go wrong asking loafers and brogues, and nothing beats a combination of loafers or brogues and checkered pants.
All these people are wandering around Quebec City in loafers and brogues and checkered pants; up and down the little streets, up to the Citadelle, over to the Plains of Abraham, in and out of the Chateau Frontenac.
And everywhere they turn someone asks them, “You want a buggy ride? How about a nice tour by horse and carriage?”
The place to hear it most often is the square in front of the Chateau Frontenac, Place D’Armes. Most of the calèche tours start here.
Right under old Samuel de Champlain’s nose.
You have to smile when you ask.
A big smile, and “Would you like a carriage tour?”
The young couple turns around. They’re classic: he’s wearing checkered pants and brogues, she’s got a skirt and pennyloafers.
“How much is it?”
“Eight dollars for the ride. We see the Old Walled City, the Parliament Buildings, New Quebec, the Plains of Abraham battlefields, and we come back through the Walled City."
“How long does it take?”
“About 40 minutes. I explain everything we see along the way.”
They think about it for a few seconds. The inevitable question: “Are you a student?”
“Yes, Em in mechanical engineering at Laval University.” (Almost all of the calèche drivers are in mechanical engineering, even if they’re really in law or business administration; for some reason mechanical engineers get bigger tips. Eve just graduated from a journalism course at the University of Western Ontario, but Em not about to tell them that.)
The husband turns and says, “Why not? Let’s go.”
Walk over to the buggy, get them settled in, and start. “Quebec is the oldest city in North America. It was founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608. That’s him up there on the monument behind us. The square here is called Place D’Armes.”
And on it goes. Eve done this tour at least 2,000 times in the three summers Eve been driving. It’s hard to think
about it now. It comes automatically. Sometimes I wake up and ask myself where I am in the spiel.
Paul Matte, another calèche driver, is coming down the other way through the arch of the Chateau. He’s standing up charioteer style in the front, pointing things out with his whip.
“Paul, have you seen Perrault today? How many’ve you got?”
This conversation is in French, so the tourists won’t understand. Albert Perrault is the municipal police detective in charge of the calèches. If he’s not working it’s safe to cut tours. Paul has done six tours.
Cutting tours is like surgery. If it’s well done it doesn’t leave a trace.
The first cut is at the Parliament Buildings. The official calèche tour outlined by the City Engineer calls for a detour up onto the Hill itself. If you continue straight up Grande Allée, you save three minutes.
“Over there on the right you can see the government buildings of the province of Quebec. Built in 1884.”
The Engineer has another detour outlined farther up. The route turns right off Grande Allée and goes to the Grand Theatre, Quebec’s performing arts centre. This detour is about a half mile long. If you continue straight on Grande Allée to the entrance of the Plains of
Abraham, you save about five or six minutes.
“Up here we're coming to the Plains of Abraham, where the historic battle between Wolfe and Montcalm was fought. If you look over here to the left you can see the Joan of Arc Gardens.”
The City route takes a right turn on the Plains just after the Joan of Arc Gardens, making a 10-minute loop down to the Wolfe Monument and returning along the same road to the Gardens. It can be easily omitted by turning left at the Gardens and heading back toward the Chateau.
As we turn left, the girl looks down toward the Wolfe Monument and sees a calèche returning from the loop.
“Where are they coming from?”
“Well, that’s the $12 tour down to the Wolfe Monument. We can go there if you’d like.”
The calèche tour prescribed by the City takes about 45 or 50 minutes, given a normal horse. We arrive back at the Chateau about 28 minutes after we left.
“Well here we are back at the ranch, safe and sound. I hope you had a good time.”
He takes out his wallet and counts out exactly eight dollars, no tip. He hands it over and asks, “Could you take our picture in the buggy?”
I can see them through the lens of the small Kodak film camera. The composi-
tion is great. In the background the Chateau Frontenac, in the middle ground the other calèches coming and going on Place D'Armes, and in the foreground my calèche and this smiling couple.
The calèche is far enough away that they can’t hear the whine of the camera, so they can't tell what I'm shooting.
First a good long 10-second shot of the top floor of the Chateau. Then a shot of the horse, moving ever so slowly back to the calèche.
I give back the camera and they leave, going back to Massachusetts tonight.
They’ll get home and have all the film from their trip developed. Then they’ll gather family and friends for the first showing.
The clip from Quebec City will come on. A 10-second shot of the Chateau. The horse, and the calèche, and no smiling faces.
The shot is cut off at the shoulders. The only recognizable things on the screen will be the checkered pants, the brogues, and the pennyloafers.
The horse walks very fast heading back to the stables in the evening. He’s got every right to be in a hurry. He’s been working for 13 hours or so, and he’s looking forward to a day off tomorrow.
The road to the stables is where the driver figures out his money. So much
for the boss, the owner of the calèche, and so much for me. Let’s see, I started at nine this morning, and it’s nine-thirty now. Twelve and a half hours; I’ll give him nine tours.
Nine is what the boss expects. He knows the length of the regulation tour and how long the driver’s been working that day. He knows from his occasional visits to the Chateau whether this has been a busy day. He calculates this information and comes out with nine tours, $36.
Perrault wasn't working today, so I have 13 rides. Not one of those longer than half an hour.
It’s the same little melodrama every night. I turn into the yard of the stables. The boss is in his office waiting for the drivers to come in and pay.
I swing down from the calèche, walk into his office, and look him in the eye as I hand him $36. “Which horse shall I take tomorrow, boss?”
“The roan mare. Be here early.”
My boss never says good-night. Just “Be here early.”
The owners might think that the drivers are holding out, but no owmer has ever suspected the extent to which it’s done. There’s no way he can check all his buggies all the time. There’s so much coming and going on the route, so many drivers cutting tours in so many places at once, that he just /continued on page 56
CALECHE DRIVER from page 29 can’t keep track.
No one could say how many rides a given driver has at a given time except the driver himself. And even he gets confused occasionally when things get particularly busy.
But the basic equation is simple. You cut your tours so that you can cut your boss.
The drivers don’t have it all their own way.
The City has a watchdog, in the form of Detective Albert Perrault of the Quebec Municipal Police.
He’s in charge of enforcing the bylaws dealing with tourism-related activities. He watches over the calèches, the taxis and buses that give city tours and the artists’ street, la rue du Trésor.
Perrault is easy to recognize. He drives a 1967-68 yellow Envoy Epic with a police radio. He stands about fivefoot-seven, heavy set, dark curly receding hair, no distinguishing scars or marks.
He’s about 40, married, and has five or six kids. He’s a likable fellow, always polite, and nearly always friendly. We always got along well, he and I.
He seemed to spend most of his time watching the calèches. He’d lie in ambush where the drivers were likely to cut their rides and, if he caught you, you paid a fine of at least $25.
In each of the first two summers that I drove calèches, I paid more than $125 in fines. The procedure was always the same. You’d cut your ride and out of nowhere would come Perrault. He’d be wearing a big smile, and he’d say, “Hello, Mr. Grenier. Could I see your license, please? I guess you know what this is about.”
There was no argument possible. You were caught dead to rights.
That’s the way it happened the first time Perrault caught me in 1972. It was early spring, and 1 didn’t know he’d started for the season.
First tour of the day. Turning left at the Joan of Arc Gardens, not even bothering to look around to see if Perrault was there. The horse was in good shape and it was a beautiful day. And all of a sudden, there was Perrault and his smile.
“Good morning, Mr. Grenier. I see you’re off to a fine start this year. Could I see your license, please? I think you know what this is about.”
The tourists didn’t say a word. Perrault always speaks in French, and they don’t understand what he’s doing.
When he was finished with the license, Perrault handed it back saying, “Beautiful day, isn’t it. You can go now. Oh! Just one more thing — this year if you get two tickets, you lose your license. That means you’re only allowed one more. I’ve warned you, I can’t do
The tourists were still puzzled.
“It’s just a routine check,” I told them. “The police do this all the time, just to be sure you have your license, that your buggy’s registered, things like that. It’s not important.”
And it really wasn’t. This was the third year I’d been working on the calèches. They told us the same thing every year. Two tickets and you’re out.
I got six tickets the first year, five the second. I saw no reason that this year should Be any different.
As it happened I saw Perrault again four or five days later. .
I had a new horse. A big black mare my boss had given me that morning to try out. New horses are pretty tricky to drive. Most haven’t been in the city before, and the cars and trucks tend to scare them at first. This one was calm, but still you never knew how it might react. I was experienced, and wouldn’t get scared if the horse got nervous.
This particular day was busy. There were a lot of tourists in town, and they’d all decided to take buggy rides at the same time.
Perrault was working, so no one was
“YOU CUT YOUR TOURS SO YOU CAN CUT YOUR BOSS”
cutting tours at the Joan of Arc Gardens. That’s too obvious, and there are several other places where you can cut just as effectively.
My tourists were French-Canadians. A nun and some of the kids from her school in Trois-Rivières, down to Quebec for the day. Having kids on a tour is great. The ride can be as short as you want, as long as the horse runs a lot. If the horse runs, the kids are happy.
This new horse was fast, and the kids were yelling and singing all the way to the Gardens.
I turned right after the Gardens, heading in the direction of the Wolfe Monument. I intended to go down the hill here about 100 yards and make a Uturn, cutting most of the loop from the tour. So I started up the horse; got her going at full trot, and threw her into the U-turn.
As I pulled out of the turn, heading back toward the Gardens, who should I see behind me but Perrault! He’d been following me in the little Envoy.
I continued the U-turn at full speed, making a 360-degree turn right there 50 yards in front of Detective Perrault.
He accelerated, passed me and screeched to a stop just under the horse’s nose.
He was visibly upset. To the point that he dispensed with formalities. “You’re not going to make fools of us all sum-
mer,” he said. “This is it, we’ve had enough. I’ll see you back at the Chateau.”
He was there when I got back. Before he could say anything I jumped from the calèche, ran over to him and began explaining.
“Well, you see, the horse I have today is new. This is the first time she’s ever worked. She just got scared up there, that’s all. She jumped so far over that I had to turn around to get her back on course. That’s all that happened.”
He just listened. I argued, badgered and persuaded as long as I could, and then I shut up to see what he’d do.
He said, “Look, you’re a student. You have to work here this summer to earn next year’s tuition. I can understand that. So, this time, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. But next time is final. You’ve been warned, don’t let me catch you again.”
And he let me go.
So I didn’t cut a single tour for the next four days. I had good horses and by pushing them a bit I could do the full tour in 35 minutes.
But old habits die hard. Five days after my narrow escape, there I was, cutting at the Parliament, on Grande Allée, at the Joan of Arc Gardens, and a few times, pulling U-turns on the road to the Wolfe Monument.
One morning my boss asked me to take up a new horse called The Kid. He was small, fast, and nervous.
The Kid and I had a fine morning. The weather was warm, there were lots of tourists, and Perrault hadn’t made an appearance.
Late in the afternoon I picked up three middle-aged ladies at the Chateau. We were having a fine time. Straight at the Parliament.
“Over there on the right you can see the government buildings of the province of Quebec. Built in 1884.”
Government workers were on summer hours, and just getting out, causing rush-hour traffic on Grande Allée.
Straight on Grande Allée past the detour to the Grand Theatre.
Now, to get to the entrance of the Plains of Abraham, I had to wait for an opening in the traffic coming the other way on Grande Allée. The road has a slight downhill slant here, and The Kid was getting impatient. Horses don’t really like to wait around with the weight of a loaded calèche pushing them down a hill.
The Kid wanted to go. He was pawing the concrete and snorting. I was standing up in the calèche and pulling as hard as I could on the reins to hold him in' till there was a break in the traffic.
The break finally came. I very gently started to slack the reins so that the horse could advance. He felt the slack and gave a terrific downward jerk with continued on page 58
CALECHE DRIVER continued
his head, causing me to loosen the reins
He now had all the slack he wanted, so he pushed off from a dead stop to a full gallop. The force of his start was so great that it tore the harness right off his back. The wooden bar holding the harness to the buggy snapped with a loud crack. The only things holding The Kid to the calèche were the reins in my hands.
I just barely held on, and managed to get the calèche out of the Grande Allée traffic onto the hill leading up to the Plains of Abraham. It was a hopeless effort. You just can’t hold a horse galloping uphill to a loaded calèche with your bare hands.
The Kid pulled me right off the front of the calèche.
There I was, being dragged along by the horse. The calèche, with the three middle-aged ladies who had by now recovered enough from the initial shock to scream, was heading back downhill into the Grande Allée rush-hour traffic.
By the time I stopped the horse and looked back, the whole incident was over. Someone had gotten to the calèche in time to turn and jam the wheels before it rolled into traffic.
None other than Detective Albert Perrault.
He’d been there the whole time, waiting for a driver to cut the tour just as I’d done. He didn’t waste any time.
He called a cruiser on the Envoy’s radio. As the ladies were being loaded into the cruiser to be brought back to the Chateau, I watched the sweat drip from Perrault’s brow. He slowly and calmly told me he’d have to make a report to the Municipal Executive Council recommending that I lose my license. He’d warned me, he said, he’d already let me off once. There was just no way to avoid it. This was the end.
A few days later I found another, more legitimate job. I moved to another city. A few weeks later I received a letter informing me that by authority of Municipal Order in Council #5937 my calèche driver’s license had been revoked for the period ending on the last day of 1973.
I returned to Quebec City recently. To visit old friends, relatives, and to try and rid myself of a vague nostalgia.
I walked the streets of the Walled City, explaining certain historical things to my female companion.
As we walked near the Chateau on Place D’Armes, a young kid I’d never seen before came up and asked, “Hey! You want a buggy ride, sir?”
I looked down. We weren’t even wearing brogues or loafers or checkered pants.
“No thanks. We’ve already been.” ■