You see, you might wonder, as you pass the elderly man who used to live in your neighborhood as you’re strolling down St. Laurent on a cloudy day in June —
June-uary, they called it in Portland when it happened, and it did — if he might not also remember you. Ten years ago. Nine at best. When you were still not a stranger here.
In more than four years here, I learned how to master two phrases. (I’ve probably said this before, which makes this fitting, in a literary way.)
- Je ne parle pas francais.
- Quell heur est-il?
- Un pichet de Boreale rousse, si tu plait.
It’s the fact that I’m so good at saying, “Je ne parle pas francais” that gets me into trouble. That just rolls off the tongue like U’s off of W’s. A woman, her small daughter, and her smaller son approached me today at the airport in Montreal. They wanted to use my phone. I don’t really know what had happened to theirs, and I was going to be like, “Sure, yeah, mine’s got gas in it,” but then I remembered I was in Canada. And that this was a terribly expensive proposition. And that if I’d seemed so approachable so must a lot of other people with phone plans that don’t charge $2/minute to make a call while roaming.
So I said, “Desole, je ne parle pas francais.”
And she looked at me as though I had just put up three fingers wrong at the end of Inglourious Basterds, as though I’d sunk my own battleship with that tell. And she replied in kind — maybe? — and I was like, “Seriously, lady, I just went to McGill. That’s the only phrase they really teach you there.”
She asked a French woman who also said no, and I was like, really why would you say “no” you were just looking at it whatever excuse you’re babbling can’t possibly be true this is kind of gross i’m going to walk over there now.
Maybe it was the politest interaction of all time. Je ne parle pas francais.
And the hours were always, of course, ticking. First in the morning, which had really been the night, because I binge-watched that “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” show instead of sleeping. I also slowly, slowly packed. Like a pair of underwear one show and a dress shirt the next, concluded by twenty minutes of thinking I hadn’t done enough and rushing around and getting anxious, me calling a cab two and a half hours early just because I was going to CANADA and that’s INTERNATIONAL — which of course led to the inevitable let down of me not noticing 1) I was TSA pre-checked, and 2) proceeding to wait inside the airport for 45 minutes more than necessary.
I could have at least taken a nap, is my point.
I did, though, so I’m just whining because I can. I dozed for about an hour, leaning against the window, my window-aisle combo-coach seat all to myself, or whatever the fuck. I guess other people had to live there, too. I couldn’t, for the life of me, get comfortable. The “NY-based flight attendants (sic — there was only one!)” flirted kinda like old-style (?) gratuitously with the Delta Diamond guy in front of me, and I wanted to be like, “Hey. Hey! I’m Delta Silver and you should see some of the schmoes I’ve seen make diamond, pal!”
I actually didn’t want to say any of that at all. I just made it up. But I did think that playing that role for a guy who probably just flies around the country selling people widgets all the time was kinda fun.
Anyway. We landed in a plane and we didn’t die.
There are no planes here. Is one thing. Also? Where are the black people? Also, why are your Customs People so slow? They took a really long time with the black dude in front of me. I looked like a person who hadn’t 1) slept in 24 hours, 2) put a comb through his hair in 48, and 3) had a green vegetable in 72. I spent twenty seconds, tops, with them.
But there are no planes, and the loudness, such that it is, is terribly, remarkably, cunningly restrained.
I’ve lived in three places that I’ve loved. In chronological order: Montreal, Portland, New York. I’ve been extremely fortunate to get to know wonderful people in all three. New York has been the most incredibly difficult and rewarding experience of my life. I gave up all I dreamed about my whole life, realized that I was really good at certain things, really really really terrible at others, and so far I’ve made it. Maybe it’s just Jay-Z, but there isn’t anything I’ve seen that’s like New York.
Portland is the most photogenic monochrome music video I’ve ever seen. I love the people I met there. But aside from one or two, Mad Maxes in their own right, still able to pick up that lizard and shove it in their mouths instead of setting it free in the old growth to eat the plant culture that feeds the lower mammal culture which in turn feeds the larger, predatory animal culture, which maybe I dunno balances a food chain or whatever, who cares, go raise some chickens.
Portland is a beautiful twisted fantasy. Dreamt up by Ken Kesey and Steve Novick on acid while barbecuing with the guy in Grant’s pass with the giant sign on the 199 that says, and I fucking quote: “Get U.S out of the U.N”
Drops mic, American flag background, hundreds and hundreds of beauty all around.
I know why the fly fisherman votes against his own economic interests.
And then there is here. This first love. It’s funny, I always thought a woman named Liz was my first love. It’s funny because I don’t know that you ever have one. The thing that most defines this place for me is change.
Which is super cliche, I get it. Let me try and explain.
St. Laurent is like, I dunno, the Newbury St. of Montreal? The 5th Ave? Or would that be St. Denis?
What it is, and what is undeniably true, is that it is the divider. Of east and west. I mean that literally, by the way. Not, “The west is better,” so much as “The East is a bit different.” I worked in contracting here for precisely one summer. I had just graduated. I was a stupid 22 year-old, much as I am a stupid 31-year old, and even I could see the difference! The nice old lady in NDG who didn’t want her feet to face the doorway, who showed me a clip of my graduation — my exact moment of graduation (McGill apparently put the whole ceremony on the site those days) — and, God, Jesus, that first time climbing over the top of a ladder. People just being like, “You’ll be fine! Don’t be a pussy about it!” Shit I would later repeat, even though I knew it was sexist, stupid, and detrimental. Shit that I would later repeat because, who cares? I’m not going to be a college. I’m going to try and get these people paid.
I believe, to this day, that Jack was the best boss I’ve ever had. Matteo comes close. No one in corporate comes within a mile. The thing about Jack, about Matteo, was that they knew that you weren’t going to get stuck in it like they did. They knew — and they showed it with the trust they put in us as 19, 21 year-old kids — that we’d be more than okay. That we’d maybe even flourish once or twice. I’ve probably told this story before, too, but, again, I don’t care:
Matteo, 6:30 in the morning: “Hey ToMAAS!.
Me: Holy fuck, god no, I promise I’ll get a cell phone.
Matteo: ToMAAS, I need yr help toDAY. To MAS.
Me: Matteo, holy shit, I just woke up you’ve got to be kidding me i can barely function let alone walk over to sling gatorade and hot dogs to high school kids i’ll die for crying out loud.
Matteo: I’ll pick you up!
I worked for two weeks in a kitchen in the more Centre part of Centreville. Some dude taught me how to make mashed potatoes and some dude was like, as I made twenty overcooked burgers for staff lunch, “The most important thing is that you didn’t freak out.”
The boss didn’t fire me, but I eventually had to come clean and say that I had no idea what Canadian labor (labour [sic]) law actually said, and so I think I maybe quit? I don’t even remember. All I know is dude would probably give me a decent recommendation today.
I walked by two of the holiest places in my history. The house where I became a man and the house where I there was no way to do it.
My last summer in Montreal, and God have Mercy may That not be So… My last summer, we watched the World Cup. And sometimes after a game, I’d just say, you know, kinda, “Fuck it.” The Portugese would inevitably win and the parade through my neighborhood would last for days, and I did NOT need to watch the game for that. I remember watching some goddamn game with a woman I liked, and she was rooting for the other team, and that kind of killed it.
What is my point? Here.
Here is Montreal.
There is a punching bag and two couches, one bigger than the other. Both Ikea. So is the dresser. And the desk upon which I’m writing. There’s a fan looking rather menacingly at me. An empty bottle of water. A set of contractor lights on a stand. Some fucking towels on top of the Ikea bureau. A single stool. A full size mirror for sad-syruppy sucker-punching bag.
For a lot of us, even most of us — who’ve moved on, left, abandoned whatever it was we were pursuing there — Montreal remains this place — and it’s very much a “here” not a “there” — where even some of the people you believed in are probably still “here,” so to speak. They didn’t just say, “Meh, it was a dream and it didn’t happen and see you later.”
Shit, I saw Mark at a coffee shop today. His French is getting better.