A Montreal Life

Between the ages of twenty-eight and forty-four, I lived for Montreal. Nothing could have budged me from this town. Pure blind love, I was utterly faithful and happy to offer up my youth. I had my heart broken a few times, and tried to break away, finally succeeding in mid-life. But I came back. I’m still here.

Photo credit: Rana Bose

This story took root during a bad winter when I was overcome by a fierce desire to flee again, an urge made all the more troubling by the fact that I was and still am personally happy. Happy in love, beyond anything I could have imagined during those earlier years, when simply being here, walking up St. Laurent Boulevard alone on a Saturday afternoon, was thrilling. After months of furious typing and a few tears, the urge to flee disappeared. But I’ve kept on writing, propelled by a desire to understand the strange pull of place. How it can so easily turn into repulsion, and you blame your whole life on having stayed put – in the wrong place.

 

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My daughter was born in January of 1978, five months after I started my first real job as Hull bureau reporter for The Ottawa Journal, at 24. Desperate to escape the grind of single motherhood and working full-time for a daily newspaper, I moved to Toronto in 1980 to do an MA in drama at U of T. Reading plays and talking to smart people about big ideas was bliss. Toronto seemed like the obvious choice to begin again. But I’d spent the previous summer in Montreal, loved it, and decided to go back, see how long I could survive as a free-lance writer.

A man I’d met in Toronto was kind enough to drive the van bearing belongings, my three-year-old and I down the 401 to a vast apartment on Roy Street east, two blocks east of The Main. In those days, whenever an opportunity to form a couple presented itself, I would be overcome by negative thoughts – not so much for the individual, as a feeling that things would not work out, that I was on my way somewhere, and would become a different person and have to break up the household. Instead, I existed on unrequited love, which is available on every street corner. There was rarely a time when tumultuous emotions played no part in the rhythm of my days and nights, though until I left Montreal in 1997, I was on my own.

Raising a child on the avails of free-lance journalism was not has difficult as it would have been in a normal urban economy, or even in Montreal today. The Plateau, a decaying immigrant neighbourhood around St. Laurent Boulevard, was insanely cheap. From an outgoing tenant, I sublet what is called a seven-and-a-half on the ground floor of a triplex, 1200 square feet plus an enclosed back yard, for $250 a month. The landlord who lived upstairs was away on vacation. When he got back he said there’d been a mistake, he intended to open an art gallery, we would have to move. Nothing happened for three months, so I suggested he take back the double living room at the front for a gallery and leave me the rest: two bedrooms, a large living room, kitchen and bath. He put new locks on the doors and dropped the rent to $175. After a couple of years, when the gallery hadn’t materialized, I convinced him to let me rent the double room back, which I was able to sublet, lowering my part of the rent to $150 a month.

Cheap it was, but also run-down and impossible to heat. I pasted wallpaper over cracks in the plaster, set up my card table as a desk in the living room, and started pitching ideas to editors. We got through the first winter without a fridge by keeping butter and milk in the space between the kitchen window and a wobbly storm. In spring, our neighbours, Nancy Marelli and Si Dardick, mysteriously produced an “extra” fridge, my only major acquisition during the five years we lived on Roy Street. Nancy and Si are legendary Montrealers. Si and Guy Lavoie founded Véhicule Press in 1973, part of the Véhicule artists’ co-op, to print art books and poetry. Si and Nancy took over in 1980, and made it into a vital cultural institution, publishing a long list of Montreal poets, novelists and non-fiction writers.

It soon became apparent their three-storey cottage was a social and intellectual hub of post-WASP, post-European immigrant Montreal. Nancy, second generation Italian, and Si, a Jew from Kingston, Ontario, were bona fide flower children who preserved the best of Sixties ideals and after forty years are still thriving, still true to their ideals. What forces brought me to rent the draughty flat next to their house? It if was sheer luck, then it is pointless to count on anything else. They made my early Montreal years as close to easy as possible. Our daughters were best friends. They wore nothing but top-quality kids’ clothes we picked up on seasonal jaunts to church rummage sales. Nancy was a collector with impeccable taste in vintage, long before the word was coined. All of our best meals were consumed at their table; my social life revolved around their gatherings. I can’t recall the face of a single official babysitter from the days we lived beside them.

Most of what I wanted to write about as a journalist concerned the kind of things people like Nancy and Si were doing. Some of my best ideas came from them. I made culture my beat, writing features and theatre reviews for the Globe and Mail and The Gazette, occasionally reworking a piece for publication in the Winnipeg Free Press or The Ottawa Journal, until it folded. I did a series for The Gazette on “the new Anglos”, Montrealers (mainly young) who were working in the francophone milieu, and later summarized the material for the Globe and Mail. In the 1980s, the subject of linguistic crossover was a curiosity amid the blizzard of controversy around Bill 101, head offices leaving town, Alliance Quebec vs St-Jean Baptiste Society, that sort of thing.

Occasionally a similar theme would turn up in the French-language press, always presented with the same faint aura of incredibility, as it to say, yes these weird few are doing this; now back to our regular programming. Despite decades of change, Quebec remains one of the few places where it is necessary to read at least two newspapers, if you are going to read one. Although on a few issues, both linguistic camps are equally blind and deaf.

Political ferment had been my original attraction to Quebec. My first glimpse of Montreal was from a high school bus trip to Expo ’67, enough to convince me this was a place worth getting to know. Like thousands of other teenagers across the country, I volunteered for our local liberal candidate when Pierre Trudeau ran for prime minister, and became convinced that only by learning French could I participate in the most interesting debates to be had about the future of Canada.

Settling in Montreal, I did not at all identify with wounded Anglo pride; I had no sympathy for their lost status and wealth. I found it astonishing, even shameful, that so many people could have lived here for decades and never bothered to learn the language spoken by eighty to ninety per cent of the province’s population. What held them back?  I couldn’t see then how similar their experience had been to my own.

In Ontario, you could pass five years of language classes and come out barely able to decode a restaurant menu, which was why I decided to spend a year in France, where there would be no choice but to learn. By the time I moved to Montreal, I was functionally bilingual, no more. My sympathies lay vaguely with the independence movement, on the theoretical level at least, although by 1980, politics in general had started to bore me. Doing a BA in political science at Carleton University had begun to look like a four-year mistake. My last year at Carleton, I read mainly political philosophy, and decided that the grand ideas shaping public life had basically been forged in the 19th and early Twentieth Century (with considerable recycling of Classical Greece and Renaissance/Reformation). What it all came down to in our time was leadership and the galvanization of public attention around a few key bureaucratic nuances that might make common life slightly better, or slightly worse. I’d come off the farm believing I knew nothing about Canada, and left university convinced there was not as much to know as I’d imagined. Expect for Quebec.

In the 1980s, Quebec appeared to be headed for political rupture. Every corner of society was galvanized in the effort to demolish ethnic/linguistic structures that had dominated society since the Conquest of New France by Britain in the late 18th Century. French was replacing English as the public language. Francophones were taking over major institutions and changing the power balance of business and culture. Some Anglos were leaving, but many more stayed and were coping with change in their own fitful ways. They were showing what I thought from my corner of the Plateau was a pretty amazing readiness to recognise that change was not only inevitable but necessary. And good. I felt part of that minority, and was proud to be.

You couldn’t live on the Plateau Mont-Royal in the Eighties and Nineties and not notice change. French was spoken everywhere; everybody I knew put their kids in French daycare, then French immersion schools or, in my case, straight into the francophone system, although as a Canadian-educated Anglo, the option existed to have my child educated in English. The Plateau was a kind of gregarious no-mans-land where you were as likely to hear Greek, Portuguese or Spanish as you were English or French.  The public language definitely was French, the one you had to speak in order to get even a barmaid’s job. English was a keep-your-head down fact of life.

To some extent, that’s still true. You don’t very often encounter people on the street shouting in English, and if you do, they are probably American tourists.

If political ferment provided the surface tension that made life in Quebec seem interesting from a distance, up close it was the artistic climate that affected – maybe even infected – our lives. Forged my life – that much is certain. Those first few years on Roy Street, I tasted a kind of freedom that can only come from low income and low overhead – a life were making and spending money do not significantly

bite into one’s day, dominate consciousness. A variety of freedom to which, for better or worse, I’ve become addicted. Not that I don’t have to work hard, or make sacrifices. I do. But unless there’s a plane to catch, I don’t often wake up to a ringing alarm. Haven’t done so since, well – high school.

In recent years, those undeclared Bohemian days on the Plateau are beginning to seem like a mythic time and place, thanks to a growing number of good novels rooted in the ever-changing community of youngish immigrants from all parts of Canada and abroad who come here (still do), drawn by a human-scale urban landscape and the presence of many other people like themselves, or like people they wanted to become.

No work of fiction has tackled Anglo Montreal’s big story: the demise of an historic ruling class which began after the Second World War, accelerated during the so-called Quiet Revolution and culminated with the departure of some 200,000 English-speaking people and their money during the 1980s and ‘90s, though it’s a subject worthy of a Balzac or Zola. But the generation that moved in to take advantage of the havoc this exodus wrought on Montreal’s economy are telling their stories. Louis Rastelli’s A Fine Ending is one of my favourites. His account of the ice storm of 1998 is magical; the protagonist’s attachment to his cats and having a good time pretty well sums up the mixture of poverty, innocence and revelry dominating Plateau life during those years.

We were living in a bubble, no doubt about it. While the rest of the country struggled with recession, we basked in marginality, relishing monolithic youth, indifferent to success and dedicated to creative living. Occupying some exceptionally grand – if decrepit – real estate, we battled extreme weather while living beside Portuguese, Greek and sometimes even Jewish grandparents, people left behind or determined to stay put when their prosperous offspring fled to the suburbs. Virtually everyone I knew in those years was living for some artistic project or another. Theatre, poetry, music; prose writers weren’t that visible, but of course their typing went on anyway.

While I wasn’t wrestling with a newspaper or magazine deadline, I worked on my first plays and short stories. Summers were spent on my parents’ farm in Prince Edward County, where my daughter could free-range with her many cousins who lived nearby while I typed away in the solitude of an empty chicken coop.

In August of 1984, the entertainment editor at the Winnipeg Free Press, to whom I’d sold a few recycled pieces, tracked me down on the farm with an invitation to be interviewed for a job at the Free Press. Naturally, I took the Managing Editor’s call.  At the end of a friendly conversation, he asked how I would feel if, after a few months in Entertainment, I got “dropped into the ledge”.

I’d never been to Winnipeg, and at first the image struck a mixture of panic and vertigo, until I realised he meant the Provincial Legislature. This I knew to be a huge compliment, as arts reporting was considered a junior or at least a ladies’ ghetto, whereas to be considered for the all-important role of political reporter meant I’d made a good impression. I think I mumbled something about being a dedicated arts reporter, but definitely open to moving around. He asked for a reference. I named Mel Morris, Managing Editor of The Montreal.

The next day Mel called me to say a position as feature writer had just opened up at The Gazette, could I come back right away and take it. He wanted me to write about “trends”, along the lines of the New Anglo series.

I said yes, but could I start in September? Apparently trends were breaking out left and right and he’d been left in the lurch by the trend reporter. Reluctantly, he agreed to wait. So I turned down the Free Press and went back to my chicken coop, excited about the possibility of heading into my fourth Montreal winter with a salary and a heated office.

 

From A Montreal Life, 1980-1997