By Jeff Otaku
I eyed the stack of dusty LP’s in the back of the crowded room. “C’est combien?” I asked as I began to flip through them.
“One dollar each,” the grey-haired man at the cash replied. “But I don’t have to sell them to you.”
Montreal. The rent is so cheap that middle-aged men rent storefronts to sell off their lives after their wives finally leave them. Rather than sort everything out they put everything on the floor and decide what to keep only when a customer wants to buy. They display the remains of their own personal apocalypse, and take a liking to it.
This ‘trouvaille’ (a word play on “find” and “work”) was one of half a dozen junk shops on Ave. De L’Eglise, near my house. Translated the street name means ‘of the church,’ but its namesake looked more like a cathedral. Its hulking frame anchoring the East end of the street, another relic of the province’s crumbling devotion to Catholicism. It’s been over thirty years since the Québécois began abandoning their church like a sinking ship. A few neighbourhood women regularly fill the pews, but only those with white hair remember the rush that comes with fearing God.
Avenue De L’Eglise has fared little better than it’s eponym though it remains the central artery of Verdun, a neighbourhood with a rich history which decayed appropriately. All fall I had to dodge speeding cars since the crosswalk signs were broken. An old man posted his open letter on telephone poles, lamenting days gone by when it was blue collar and both French and English took pride in the neighbourhood. He derided the mayor’s “surrender of once thriving Verdun to the woes of careless fiscal planning.” As if to assuage the poor crank, further down the road a decade old sign in front of a burnt out rowhouse optimistically predicted, “coming soon: condominiums!”
Walking up De L’Eglise the first time I found a closed up movie theatre, a closed bowling alley, an “authentic British fish ‘n chips shop” where the waitress didn’t speak English, and a post office where the two moustache wearing men bickered like an old married couple. One man’s moustache was white, the other’s black. I also found six barbershops, where haircutters in white shirts sat in their spinning chairs reading Le Journal.
The empty buildings were covered in graffiti. Unlike the author of the open letter, the last generation had grown up knowing their neighbourhood as an empty husk. I studied the faded tags in blue and green krylon.
I have a record which was recorded that fall in Montreal and tapes of creaking short-wave voices fade in and out over the droning songs. Listening on my headphones I can almost hear those epic leaden clouds plodding across the Montreal sky. I can almost see the spotlight that swung in circles across the skyline every night, giving the impression of a city at war. But a war against whom? The past? Itself?
Five years ago the latest exodus of Anglophones began. Most thought the city doomed to deflate like an old helium balloon. This came in the wake of Quebec’s latest referendum on sovereignty. In the end the province’s troubled marriage to the dominion was saved, by a margin of less than one percent of the vote. It was a hollow victory.
The new millennium was on final approach and the sense of apocalypse chic grew in the city. Among the Anglos too broke, stubborn, or indifferent to flee, a certain romance with collapse took hold. The city was decaying and some days the end of the world did seem just around the corner. The signs were everywhere. One day at the Salvation Army my purchases plus tax totaled $6.66. The Jamaican cashier jumped, “oh my, my,” she said, scrambling to add a penny. Were these the end times?
Alex said it best, “Montreal looks like the future, as imagined in 1973.” Banks were concrete renditions of spaceships, the crumbling Stade Olympique was their launchpad. Concrete autoroutes towered over the city, one could only hope the architects saw them as a despairing stopgap measure, to be torn down after the advent of flying cars.
But after three hundred and fifty years of smallpox, religious strife, fascist government, bombs-in-the-mailbox-style terrorism, and military occupation it would take more than a stalled economy and an Anglo exodus to do our hero in now. Along the Lachine canal the outline of cranes could be seen. For the first time in two decades the skyline was dotted by skeletons of new buildings.
Ghost Pine: (114 Canter Boulevard, Nepean, ON, K2G 2M7)