Last week, when the dead of winter was still upon us (it will be again, have no fear), hunger forced me out of the stale comfort of my office. As I often do, I walked to my lunchtime destination with my head thoroughly immersed somewhere else completely. Somewhere I had just been reading about in the news, and not in one of the cute places the free daily tabloid Métro, likes to write about; somewhere dark. Somewhere with Ebrahim Toure - somewhere - but not the Old Port which always, snow or sun, brims with beauty.
I crossed the semi-deserted parking lot in front of the semi- abandoned/semi-renovated condo that's semi-built just south of Notre Dame. BAM BAM BAM! A woman hit the driver's window from the inside of her car. My heart beat out a similar rhythm in fear. Something's wrong, I thought. She hit it frantically again and when she saw I'd stopped, she reached across the passenger side to fumble with the door, trying to open it as fast as she could (so of course she ended up taking much longer). I must have held my breath, but I also held my ground.
What will I see when she opens it? Somebody slumped over in the back, dying? Maybe they need an ambulance, I should get my phone out, be ready. Or what if she's crazy, what if this is a trap? What could I protect myself with? The hot soup in my hands? It's not even hot anymore in this cold, dammit.
Finally the door opened.
"Excuse me" she said, in a thick, from somewhere out east, American accent. New York state, I'm thinking. She's not bleeding, I noticed right away. In fact, not only did I not see any blood, I saw a very healthy woman with a long ponytail and glowing skin. Like she'd just been exerting herself at Mont Tremblant.
"Yeah," I'm so nonchalant. This is Montreal, after all.
"I'm just wondering about parking. Do you need a permit to park even where you have one of those meters? Like those big machines, where you put in the number of your license plate, do you know if you still need a permit?"
"You mean, like, in a parking space?"
"Yeah. Do you need a permit for those?" Her eyes are wide, she is determined to get to the bottom of this.
"You don't," I explained to her, "all you need to do is pay."
She smiled widely, turning to her companion in the backseat (whom I couldn't actually see, but I trust someone was really there) and said, "see, that's what I told him. I was right. Ok, thank you," and she waved me on, perfectly satisfied with the result of our encounter. And so was I.
I was perfectly satisfied that this woman, in the midst of all the madness of this world - her American world even more so than my Montreal one - still believed in the importance of her parking problem. To this lovely American woman, her parking problem was the biggest problem in the world and it had to be solved. Now! So satisfied that she believed her parking problem merited banging on the window to get the attention of a seemingly local pedestrian stranger (moi), just to prove to her friend that she was right about how to park in the Old Port (it ain't easy, I'll give her that). So satisfied that all this encounter required of me was to say, "nope, you don't need a permit to use the parking meter." And yet that was enough to be of help.
Those are the moments that make me think, I love Americans. That earnestness that we all know Brits cannot comprehend. Montreal herself has an intimate relationship with the United States. New York, New York to be more specific. This City just wouldn't be the same if it didn't neighbour the bustling Big Apple in the south. Would Montreal be so confident in its swag without the strength of its neighbour's style to hold it up (New Yorkers say style has gone down the toilet, hmmm - reminds me of my blog co-author's complaints of Montrealers' own lack of style).
The Jewish community in the Mile End/Outremont would be a little lost, a little less diverse. Who knows if the architect who designed Central Park would have come here to help design park Mont Royal if the two weren't so close. Even I, to be perfectly frank, am the result of an intimate relationship between the two cities. Back in the best of times and the worst of times (the 60's, when else) my parents met in the sunshine of Parc Mont Royal, my father escaping the New York City madness just for a weekend (which turned into a lifetime, but more on that later).
So while the whole world loves to bitch about America, I'd say Montrealers have a different kind of relationship with it. Of course, there's much to bitch about. But that could be the advantage the US has over any other nation, at least for now. Just like nothing can make a person grow like a little criticism (done in a healthy way, mind you), so too can nothing make a Nation grow like a little forced self reflection. But will it work, will it ever learn? So many critiques have come from inside, for many decades, if not centuries, and still we end up here, where truth becomes negotiable and eerily retractable. Well, my American friends, let me say this: Montreal will always welcome you with open arms, but good luck figuring out the rules of parking.
Flag Photograph - American Flag by Les Cunliffe