Friday, February 28, 2014

Boring Me

In grade seven, in science class of all places, our teacher Monsieur LaPlante, before he settled into his habit of spending the entire class writing out paragraph after paragraph of biology lessons on the blackboard for us to copy down, would encourage the students to take five minutes and write down our thoughts in a journal. He would not read this journal. It was for us, to express ourselves. We had five minutes at the start of every class to write our thoughts in our journals. Every class I would spend the five minutes expounding on how boring school was, how bored I was, how boring M. LaPlante was, how boring writing in the journal was. It is surprising to see, many years later, that it took me almost a whole year of writing virtually the same boringness every day before I started getting fanciful with my typography. Boring in Superman letters. Boring in KISS letters. Boring in bubble letters. Boring melting or Boring in flames. Boring getting smaller and smaller or bigger and bigger. Every letter of Boring punctuated with boring periods. It is surprising to me, upon finding and reading this journal many years later, to reveal to myself how utterly incapable of verbal expression or even thought I seemed to be as a twelve year old. No mention of Stacey Katsampas. No mention of Monsieur Mardikian saying the f-word in class. No mention a wasp crawling down my shirt in Mme. Assoulin's homeroom. No mention of any of the one hundred distinct memories I have of grade seven. The food fight. The Jimmies getting expelled. The fact that Robyn smoked. Her supremely tight Sergio Valente jeans. Or how I swung and missed Anthony Pio's face by one centimetre. Only boring entries of how bored I was. Only variations of Boring.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Mile-End, Always Beginning

I wrote this piece last April for Hyperlocal
It's about my neighbourhood.

I've lived in Mile-End since 1995. When a friend and I first struck out on our own to find an apartment we told ourselves we wouldn't go north of Mont-Royal. That wasn't where the action was. Our friends were all to the south, huddled around a few seedy bars on The Main.

We couldn't find anything so we ended up on Parc Avenue below Van Horne, blocks away north of our stated borderline. Since then I've happily endured the nicknames 'Chief', 'Sheriff', 'Mayor', 'The King of Kensington'  & 'Mile-End Billy'. I've walked around a lot and insisted on eye contact. I know the place. Not all of it and not everyone. This village, for all its tinyness is quite large.

Saint-Viateur, or Sesame Street as I like to call it, was my domain. Too many coffees at Olimpico, co-funding the vehicular lifestyles of its barristas via tip money. Too many hand waving, smiling, bisou laden walks up and down that strip. I awoke into a new role when, in 2000, I took over the family business on St-Laurent. I wasn't just another coffee hippie now, I was a local merchant. I couldn't recklessly add to the street art anymore, I had to step up, go adult.

As a shopkeeper, I've had to represent the hood, acting as gatekeeper to all the tourists looking for Little Italy to the north. I'd tell them, and still do, to hang a left at the corner and get a coffee and a bagel, do some people watching, that this is the 'hood you need to see. Recently a student called me up and asked me if I'd like to speak on the gentrification issue for an article she was writing on Mile-End. I spieled into the phone for a good half hour, mentioning Anglo artists and musicians who flock here for cheap rent and creative vibrancy. I was rewarded with some garbled misquotes. Maybe my Franglais was to blame…or the caffeine  in me, jumping from one detail to the next about the neighbourhood I love. I've been interviewed a lot, for my art, for our shop. I've never been misquoted, or at least never cared if I was. This time it was different. I prided myself on knowing my 'hood and now it seemed like I didn't.

It's a theme that never gets old. How much the neighbourhood has changed. It's always changing. How could it not ? We long ago lamented the loss of the second laundromat, we witnessed expansions and chi-chi makeovers of local grocery marts and the coming of newer upscale niche businesses. The old places I remember from my youth - Greek owned deps full of toys and nights out with my family at the Travailleurs Grecs du Québec social club - are gone or atrophied. My dusty junk crammed brocante has also transformed into an uptown gallery-boutique. My partner Emilie walked into a hoarded mess and we, very slowly, transformed the shop into something that isn't just a weirdo art project but maybe, just maybe, a livelihood. The neighbourhood changes, we change. Or is it vice versa ?

Recently some of the newer businesses on St-V were hit with hate posters wheat pasted on their windows, screaming "die yuppie scum!". I scoffed that the vandals were at least ten years late in their misdirected gestures. These new shops, like all shops, are simply making a go in what is hopefully a suitable environment. St-Viateur has evolved to be able to harbour such intentional, well designed spaces. But there have been Ferraris up and down that stretch before the new slew of college kids knew how much tattoos actually cost, before any of us used the H-word constantly.

Not everything can or should reflect the charming decay of neglected architecture. This was all pristine forest once. Retail chains do look out of place, but to who ? A few crusty locals bitterly cursing 'change' and 'gentrification' ? Locals like me ? Jerz, A friend from out west visited last summer. We walked around and visited all the new shops. We spoke of the changes. He said, 'It's a drawbridge situation, as soon as you get into the castle, you yell "Raise the drawbridge !" and everyone who follows yells the same thing.'

Sure, deke the sandwich brigade swarming the sidewalks looking for lunch, wait 20 minutes for your coffee (2nd or 3rd wave ?), dodge the strollers and mousey dogs and rock stars piled atop of each other. I'll do all that gladly. I love my hood, I complain night and day about it and always have. Somethings never change.

Our Hippie Fence in the Asphalt Jungle

 I wrote this short piece for Hyperlocal, a Canada WRITES project, in april 2013.
 You can also read it here

We live in a building with no balconies and no yard to speak of, just a 3 foot wide stripe of earth running along the back alley. For years it was the place to piss or for all the good people next door to stack their discarded mattresses. Next door is a legendary 50 unit flop house with a thousand short stories that should be left for another time, a time when you bring over the drinks and I can relax and really get into it.  

My partner Emilie built a charming hippie fence made with found woods and the odds and ends we’ve collected over the years. We reclaimed our little corner away from the trash piles and pee boys. We tried to sit in our 'back yard' with a drink and a snack one hopeful summer night but an over friendly drunk ambled over and draped himself around our rickety fence, sharing our space and kinda spoiling the mood.  

This alley is the hottest alley in the neighbourhood. It opens to a popular cafe and a new bar tailor made for young loud professionals. The café doesn’t have a liquor license so the kids gather in the alley under our window to drink dep beer and smoke joints and laugh in loud undergrad voices. Often. I’ve become the old man who sticks his head out the window and asks them politely to move along. Why politely ? Even at 2 in the morning ? Because we’re sitting ducks.  

One late winter night some stoned young man was railing against the back fence, wrenching a part this way and that. His friend was skating blissfully in the yard across the way. I'd guess acid but who knows. Our neighbour across the alley (the good neighbours) had made an ice rink for their kids. I poked my head out of our window and calmly asked the fence beater what we was doing. He said, "fucking shit up". From some weird place of deeper calm, I gently asked him why. He retorted "uuuh..fuck you. Good night" and left.  

The large red plywood letter 'B' I salvaged years ago from a now defunct local resto, and making up a nice part of the fence, was recently unscrewed from its casings and hauled off by some careful bastard with an eye for the finer things. The fence has been abused and broken by the many denizens of the alley. The cats use our garden beds as litter boxes. The vines we planted are wildly overtaking the spindly wood. The good-time charlies lean on it, idly pick at it, sometimes tend to the vines. The tulips are often disappeared by zealous garden ladies of another generation.  

Our tiny zone is an uphill battle. Until we finally split for some greener pasture, it'll have to do. It’s charming and awkward and broken. But we must have it, we must stake our little claim and try to pretty up the alley, almost against all odds.