The Coldest Summer
They say the way you look at things changes the things you look at. That saying may be grounded in quantum physics but it’s verifiable through my own perceptions, changing as they are. Montreal isn’t the same city it was when I moved here nine years ago. I doubt the city has changed as much as I have. True, it has undergone reconstructive surgery. The re-paving of Avenue des Pins was finally completed (three years for two kilometres); the Royal Vic has been transplanted to a brand new sparkling hospital on the other end of town, and the St. Viateur sidewalks have been expanded to fit pretty wooden benches shi shi enough to make even Outremont jealous. There are more examples of other such roadworks that have actually ended (despite our notorious corrupt construction industry) and new ones that have begun. But these outward changes do not speak to the changes in the city’s soul.
In my early days here, way back in September 2009, Montreal was sleazy. Picture a sleek navy blue BMW exiting a university parking lot on Peel Street. Picture the driver, a middle aged, red faced man, laying on his horn while I make slow circles in front of him. I know it should be obvious which way you go -it’s either up or down the hill - but I managed to still be lost that day. It was the end of my first day of law school, didn’t I have a right to be that way? He didn’t think so at all. Some kind of exchange ensued. Him cussing me out and me flipping him off. Maybe I cussed him out too. I only remember a few choice words coming from him as he tried to drive up the rest of the hill. I say tried because I do remember smiling and waving at him while I walked past; he was stuck in a red light and did not appreciate my taunts. “Oh yeah, real funny. Ha. Ha. FUCKING BITCH!!!”
Those were the rat-a-tat-tat days. The days of landlords illegally charging extra rent money up front for flea infested basement apartments in the McGill Ghetto - money eventually forfeited for the sake of letting the fleas take exclusive occupancy. The days of being confined to one institution that seemed to hold an entire world in its historical-meets-modern brick and concrete walls, a world of young to not-so-young adults riding the first or last wave of ambition. Those days had some variety, some warehouse parties with Mexicans and the children of diplomats and a house party where I met a living breathing incarnation of Mordecai’s Richler’s Duddy Kravitz. Of course if you have ever found yourself at a party with Duddy, you probably also then asked yourself why the hell you were in the same place as that guy. But at least he was transparent about what he wanted: money, sex, and, above all, to do absolutely nothing according to ethical standards. The Montreal wave was moving fast and although I didn’t know where the hell it was taking me, I was going there fast, too. Rat-a-tat-tat.
Then, it slowed and turned cold; the longest Montreal winter. It started in spring and lasted for several years. It was the coldest summer. I had been forced to remove myself from the rat-a-tat-tat, and I’ll be damned if what I saw wasn’t ugly. I saw clusters of desperation collecting at the intersections along St.Laurent, all the way down from St. Viateur until you hit des Pins. The hospital route. Street upon street of people, who, I observed from the car window, were all desperate to prove their unique contribution to the city. In those cold summer days, Montreal reeked of conformity and mediocrity of the worst kind.
Perhaps that was her awkward growing stage; Montreal hitting puberty. Puberty isn’t comfortable, but it’s necessary. A lot of questioning takes place in those years. I questioned what we were doing here, in this city. All of us. In any city. There seemed to be no authenticity, no below the surface friendships to hold you up. It’s similar to the difference between watching a storm from your window in a coffee shop and being in it. And not just frolicking through the plowed sidewalks, but being stuck on a dirt road late at night with no streetlights and your car ditched. And no, no cell phone.
Most of us choose to live in the city. It’s a not-new-but-still-growing trend around the world. Urbanization is on the up and up, ruralization is way down. Some countries try to limit this trend by implementing visa requirements on locals even when just travelling from one state to another (Cuba) while others actively encourage it by uprooting entire rural communities and moving them to newly built cities (China). Either way, cities are the trend and we’re not going to stop that. Someday, we will have to honestly address what is gained and what is lost in choosing to live in one or the other.
My parents made the decision to leave the city and go back to the land. I have gone back to the city.
Now, Montreal is my friend: we have moved to adulthood together. She is a city that embraces creativity and recognizes the limits of human solitude. Of course, it’s not Montreal that has changed as much as I have. For every new experience, the city takes on new meaning. Now she holds as much promise as pain. Now it’s clear - we are neither la creme de la creme nor a desperate festering cesspool. We are all just people doing the best we can, dammit. And I’m just trying to make my winter warm.