THE FEEL OF THE PLACE
What is Montreal, anyway? Well, it's buildings and pretty women and young cops and fan-tan games and Gallic traffic jams and penthouses and slums and 5,000 bars and several million rats. Here is a portrait of the city that is also a portrait of the human condition
MONTREAL IS A CITY of young women. On the island there are 175,000 women between the ages of 18 and 35. Almost 100,000 work downtown.
Every weekday morning they move, fresh and lithe, tap-tapping on their high heels through streets that still carry the littered taste of yesterday, turning the concrete landscape that is downtown Montreal into a fascinating and exotic world.
Every morning before 9 a.m., 35 commuter trains, carrying 18,500 passengers, converge on Montreal’s
Windsor and Central stations. And by 8.30 on this particular Thursday morning, which is like any other Montreal morning, a river of young women spills out of the depths of Central Station and onto Dorchester Boulevard. And André Lavallée, the young traffic cop on duty at the corner of Dorchester and University, sweating in the early-morning sun, shrugs and curses in despair at this river of women crossing against the traffic lights. But he also smiles because Montreal is also a city of young cops. The average age of the 3,595 men on the force and the 129 in training is 24 years and seven months.
By 8.45 some 2,800 women are threading their way into the 1,600 offices of the Sun Life building, which sits squat and ugly beside Dominion Square. Others are getting off the 15 elevators that soar at express speeds of up to 1,000 feet per minute through the 45 floors of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce Building. They are swinging their silent castored chairs behind massive bronze Olivetti-Underwood electric typewriters in the offices behind 9,088 windows of the stark cruciform of the Place Ville Marie . . . more than 100,000 women infiltrating and warming the cold concrete and metal viscera of all those masculine buildings in downtown Montreal.
Then there are all those fantastic French girls, jaunty, evocative, frivolous, and suddenly darkly serious: “Tu ne me comprends pas. Je suis une personne sérieuse.”
“Oui, mon ange . . . je sais ... je sais . .
They have la tenue . . . style. And they know it, wearing their European clothes and hardly any makeup. Fat little bosoms bobbing around in bras designed by middle-aged men to provoke, to stimulate desire. Black hair down over their shoulders, making men wonder how it would look spread over a pillow. Montreal is their city. It really belongs to them. And they know that, too.
Montreal is a city of eating-drinking-thinking-peoplewatching bars. There are more than 5,000 bars and restaurants — a figure the tourist bureau reluctantly admits to: “It might be bad publicity.” At noon in the Carrefour, in the basement of the Place Ville Marie, all the 62 tables are packed. Everyone is talking. Glasses are clinking. The sounds go up and spill against the dome of the roof and cascade like a fountain of noise on the heads of the people. The noise is so bad that the defense mechanisms of your mind go to work to strain out the sounds. At the same time the visual images become more intensified. The place is filled with junior-executive types.
Smartly dressed. Lots of teeth. And their office help in nice cool dresses. There’s the director of the language school, holding court, flashing sentences in six different languages like rings on a finger. Here comes a Pernod, colorless in the shot glass. “Sur glace, m sieur?”
Poured over the ice it starts to smoke. Add a little water. Now it fumes in a delicate yellow. Then the cool smokiness over the tongue. A great drink — a Montreal drink.
A few blocks away on Stanley Street, in the Pam Pam, the atmosphere is completely different. The long L-shaped room, dim and with a low ceiling, is packed with tiny Arboritc-topped tables and even smaller and more uncomfortable chairs. The food is, well, almost . . . Hungarian, but good and inexpensiveIt is just as noisy here, too, but there are tiny pockets of silence. In one of them sits a middle-aged Central-European woman with a sensitive face. She is reading Anthony and Cleopatra in an English paperback. At the next table a fragile young girl with dark shadows under her eyes shyly tells her psychiatrist, “Yes, things are getting better now. Mummy doesn’t have to make all my calls for me . . .” Across the aisle a couple are talking softly in French. He is almost elderly, but gentle and smiling. She is 20. Her face is alight with warmth and tenderness. On the other side of the room is le patron, Eugene Gottlieb. He is short and slight and has a deep voice. With immense courtesy he explains what Sauerbraten is to a young girl from Minnesota who is taking a summer course at Sir George Williams. All the while Gottlieb holds his cigarette, pointing upward, between the first two fingers and thumb of his right hand.
A few blocks to the south, in the dark oak-paneled Queen’s bar, with its deep leather chairs, the afternoon passes quietly and without recognition. Gaston, the stooped and white-haired waiter, has been there 40 years and remembers the time when the Queen’s was the hotel in Montreal. The whisky sours, says Gaston, are just as good now as they were then.
In Montreal the afternoon ends and the evening begins in a thousand different ways. It can be in one of those third-floor walk-up apartments French working girls are so fond of. This one is on Overdale Avenue, just south of Dorchester Boulevard, just north of the railroad tracks.
The area is a slum but Carmel has decorated her three tiny rooms with taste. And from her living-room window she has a penthouse view of the St. Lawrence spanned by Victoria Bridge, one of the 17 bridges that connect Montreal to the mainland.
From Carmel’s window you can see across the tracks and onto a vacant lot beside the Welcome Hall Mission at 1490 St. Antoine. On the lot about a dozen men in shabby dark clothes are sitting around on heaps of rubble. A few are tossing horseshoes. At 8.30 p.m. the mission doors will open and inside the men will get a free plate of stew and one of the 42 free beds for the night.
On the table inside Carmel’s apartment there is a bottle of Valpolicella, cold cuts, and some Reblochon cheese. Somewhere someone is playing Jean-Pierre Ferland’s haunting song, Ton Visage. The song comes to an end. On the tracks an engine shunts idly by.
“Pourquoi voudrais-tu apprendre le français?” “Peut-être, serait-ce bien pour mon cime.” “Ton âme a besoin d'une seule langue.”
PERHAPS IT’S TRUE that the soul needs only one language to express itself. But Montreal in the evening needs all the languages of the world. At the sidewalk café of the Hotel Berkeley on Sherbrooke St., /continued on page 37 behind green flowerboxes of red geraniums, two German businessmen in expensive blue suits quietly share a bottle of Moselle. The bases of their wine glasses make little damp rings on the snowy - white tablecloth. The Germans seem oblivious of the beautiful Danish girl at the next tab'e. Her clothes are expensive and her diction perfect. Her companion is a young, silent Frenchman. His clothes are rumpled. His tie is . . . ropy. His bare feet are thrust into battered sandals. But he has the face of a poet. And all the time the Danish girl talks, she is stroking his shoulder-length hair with one elegant white hand. “The bleeding eye of a streetlamp avainst the early dawn . . . ” she quotes. Baudelaire would be pleased. Christos, the Greek waiter, serves them gin-and-tonic with disdain.
continued on page 37
GREAT CITY continued from page 11
Down a lane, over tracks—and suddenly, a nightmare scene
Down on St. James Street in the financial district the buildings are spooky and quiet . . . like business districts are in every big city in the evening. But The Pub at 380 St. James Street has already begun the second half of its split existence. By day it is filled with stockbrokers and bankers in dark pin stripes. After five it becomes the favorite watering hole for members of the Seafarers’ International Union. The SIU hall is just down the street, at 634. and if you’re a seaman waiting to ship, The Pub is as good a place as any to pass the time. Or there’s Joe Beef’s tavern a few blocks to the south. Or The Nelson where the longshoremen hang out. They sit . . . quiet, morose, over the 22-ounce bottles of Molson’s beer. Their heavy bodies, with shoulders that slope bearlike down from their necks, seem to be anchored to The Nelson’s heavy, dark-oak chairs. Tucked in their belts are those vicious - looking loading hooks. The wooden cross handles of the hooks gleam, polished by sweat and dirt. And it reminds you that Montreal is a harbor city. That its 14 miles of waterfront make it the biggest in Canada. That the 23 million tons of shipping handled in 1965 make it the busiest inland port in North America.
Up from The Nelson, you turn right past the ancient Chateau de Ramezay and walk down that stretch of Notre Dame which is an odd collection of warehouses for spice importers, whose wares exude sharp aromas that catch in the back of your throat. Walk past the shabby offices of Le Devoir and Au Pierrot Gourmet — a one-man restaurant but one of the best in Montreal. His Doré à l’amandine is délicieux. Keep walking along Notre Dame until you get to Rue Visitation. Now you are in a slum that is like a discarded piece of orange peel. It is the rind that circles a 20-city-block area that has been leveled for the new $71-million Radio-Canada studios. Just past Visitation there’s a pedestrian tunnel that goes under Notre Dame. You try it. but the foul stench
drives you back and you take your chances with the traffic. On the other side you duck down a lane and over some railway tracks and suddenly you’re in a weird black - and - white nightmare scene. Half a dozen teenagers are sitting on upturned boxes, fishing for eels off the wharf. The St. Lawrence here is covered with floating garbage and oil sludge. Unless you live here it’s almost impossible to understand the French these kids speak. It’s guttural and full of slang. Two 10-year-olds are frenzied with excitement: they’ve just caught an eel. One of them scampers around on legs already malformed by rickets. He puts four bricks together. Inside the box form he tosses old cigarette packages, orange peel, a bread crust, anything that will burn. They’re going to barbecue their eel. The other is sawing off the eel’s head with a piece of broken glass. He is happy. He looks up at you and laughs and you see that his teeth are yellow and already rotting. He stretches the eel out to about two feet. “He’s a big son of a bitch, eh!” he says in English.
GREAT CITY continued
You enter. Everyone freezes. “Chinese only,” you’re told
It’s getting dark and up in the sky a beacon flashes. It comes from the top of Place Ville-Marie. Just under the beacon is Altitude 737, the highest bar in Montreal.
Up there in Altitude 737 Maria sits and broods. She is almost 38. And although she still has a classic Latin profile and a stunning figure, life seems to be getting tougher all the time. She has just flown in from Mexico City. She wears a silver mesh dress with dime-size see-me-through holes in it. She was once an acquaintance of South American playboy “Baby” Pigniatelli. In her purse she has an airline ticket made out for London. Stockholm, Munich. The Armenian waiter hazards a guess and asks her a question in Turkish. She answers without a pause. She can speak seven languages. “The world is too small.” he murmurs in English. But she doesn't pay any attention. She has just caught the eye of a businessman at the bar . . . perhaps this encounter will solve the little problem of her hotel bill.
The English have their favorite bars. One of them is the Venus de Milo Room on St. Catherine Street. And tonight the Stormy Clovers, a Toronto folk-rock group, are having a good night, and their female singer, Susan Jains, makes the hair crawl up the back of your neck with, “. . . I told you when I came I was a stranger” —• a strange, new song written by Leonard Cohen, the Montreal poet.
La Tour Eiffel on Stanley Street is a bilingual place. At the bar two English-speaking executives are arguing loudly.
“Let me tell you something . . .”
“You wanna know something?”
There are always two Englishspeaking executives arguing loudly at the bar of La Tour Eiffel. The maître d' hushes them up. And Lucie, who is from Martinique, tells the diners, “Now I’m going to sing for you the love song from Black Orpheus. This is the only place in the world where you can hear this song translated from the Portuguese into French Canadian.”
It’s midnight in the Chez Cathay restaurant on La Gauchetière in Chinatown. And Don Niiya, a 240-pound Japanese judo champion who teaches at the Seido-Kwan on Decarie Boulevard, is ordering his second dinner of the evening. For Niiya. this is a serious business. He has spent 20 minutes discussing with his friend Wing Wong, the Cathay manager, what should go with the roast stuffed duck.
Outside, through the open windows, you can hear the slap-slap and whirring noise of the Mahjong games. You want to get in a game. All the Chinese freeze as you enter the room. There’s no money on the table. They just have these pale-blue little cards bearing Chinese characters. It’s the scrip of Chinatown. They learned to use it after the police would raid and take all the money that was lying on the table. With those little blue cards you could eat, drink, and sleep in Chinatown. but only if you were Chinese. Now one of the Chinese unfreezes, and with his beautiful Oxford-English accent says, “I’m sorry. No Occidentals are allowed here. This is a social club for Chinese only.” And even as you’re going down the dark stairs you can hear the game starting again.
And so it goes on. The songs, the laughter, and the cries in the night. Because under all that gaiety Montreal is a violent town — 400 accidents a day. one murder every two weeks, 35 armed robberies every month.
Then suddenly it's 3.30 a.m. And the city is a campo santo, a forgotten burial ground. It’s the only time footsteps hear their own echoes. The folkrock fans have gone home to Montreal West. The transvestites have left their café on Craig Street and have gone wherever transvestites go. The Negroes have left Rockheads Paradise on St. Antoine and are drifting to the Black Bottom, an after-hours jazz boite.
GREAT CITY continued
It’s 4 a.m. A squeal, a rifle shot—and the squealing stops
At 4 a.m. the city is grey, silent, exhausted. Then as you walk along Burnside just west of the Mount Royal Hotel, you hear this ugly little thuck sound, followed by soft plaintive squealing.
On the parking lot on the northside of Burnside two young men are leaning against their beaten-up Ford Meteor. The headlights are shining against a wall. And in the penumbra of light an enormous grey rat lies writhing, its back broken.
John Boychuk, wearing a grubby white Stetson, takes a pellet from between his lips, loads the Daisy air rifle, sights, fires. The squealing stops. And you see there are five other dead rats. “Did you see that mother jump?“ says John to nobody in particular. Then he hands the air rifle to his 19ycar-old brother Eddie. They're both from Edmonton, and they're staying around the corner in a rooming house on Metcalfe Street. They're going back home in a couple of days.
You tell them that the rats come from a maze of unused dry sewers under the city. But they're not interested. They’re sipping themselves into a deep quiet mood with the bottle of western rye they pass back and forth, waiting for another rat to be drawn to their car lights. The bottle comes your way and the raw, hard taste of the rye in your throat floods your mind with memories of the prairies at harvest time, dusty country roads, and quiet farm boys like these two, driving into town on a Saturday night in a pickup truck.
You give the bottle back and you think about this city. And that underneath all these fantastic buildings, underneath the feet of all these beautiful women are all these thousands and thousands of rats. Because you remember what George Worth, who runs one of the 40 exterminating companies in the city, told you, “You can figure there are two rats for every person.” Five million rats. Montreal is also a city of rats.
At 6 a.m. the massive, yellow garbage trucks are grinding around the downtown streets. They stop outside the restaurants where the overflowing garbage cans have been piled up on the front sidewalk. And the garbagemen go through a noisy, mad ballet of clanging garbage cans, shouts and whistles as they empty the cans into the rear of the slowly moving trucks. Waitresses, with light raincoats thrown over their shoulders to cover their black uniforms and frilly white aprons, hurry to work, only to have to wait for a sleepy-eyed manager to open up the restaurant. The first early-morning office workers begin to lili the empty streets and with them come Montreal’s women. The cycle is complete. In the daylight, the city’s grimy nighttime secrets are forgotten. Montreal is once again an exciting, enticing city. ★