I have the great good luck of being able to come to work in Montréal in the late fall every year. Being away from my family is at least a little soothed by how much I like this city.
I know this is idealizing, but it does seem that Montréal has resisted the breakneck speed of gentrification I feel everywhere else. I can still feel the layering of history here, the simultaneity of decay and repair, change and conservation. I can see how the tradesmen jerry-rig, how foodies improvise, and I have friends who still know what rent control means and feels like.
On Friday night I walk with my friend to get breakfast bagels from the Fairmont bagel works, which is is open 24/7. Orthodox men hurry by in their high fur-trimmed hats, heading to synagogue. The smoke from the wood-fired ovens is now contested by the eco-concerned, and the bakery has agreed to chimney filters. Yet the bagels roll out, placed warm in my hand by a woman who’s maybe from North Africa. I look behind the counter and one baker is a younger white woman, maybe from the old family, and the other is an older Indian man. He draws a line of forty bagels out of the oven on a 12-foot long narrow wooden paddle, blackened by the years, then flips them into the air to land in the basket below for sorting. Like he’s done it forever, or as if a bagel oven is just a flat tandoor, while fire is fire the world over.
That morning, I had cappuccino pressed out for me at Olympico on Ste-Viateur by the same red-haired tousled insomniac who’s been working there for twenty years. I sat at the window and imagined seeing Uncle Leonard or Irving Layton strolling past.
After coffee I took a long walk. I stopped in at the curio shop on St-Laurent that’s crammed with old ephemera, mostly from the Cantons de l’Est: a thousand crucifixes, packs of pinup playing cards, 45 records, smoking paraphernalia, countless wristwatches in golden tangles under dusty glass. The place reeks of turpentine: the owner keeps opened cans of the vintage wood stain to touch up the vintage furniture pieces. The things we use to preserve things must themselves be preserved.
I bought a tacky toy Jesus action figure for our older boy and antique dinky cars for the younger. I also bought two old cigar boxes I’ll woodburn their names into for Christmas. They need secret boxes, just like I did.
The old man has been there forever. I finally chatted with him. I do more of that now, because time is always getting shorter and the point is to connect with people. I never knew he was from Barcelona. He said he got his landing visa in 1963 and bought the building in the 1966 for 10K dollars. He doesn’t know how long he’ll keep coming to work. With all the heart problems he’s supposed to give up coffee and sugar and salt and everything he loves, but is it worth a few more years? He shrugs. I told him that if I didn’t see him next year that I hope he will have enjoyed the coffee. We laughed and laughed and then I bonked my head on an old wooden sled hanging over the door.
Leaving the shop, I remembered that I used to sing in choir events at L’Oratoire Ste-Joseph. I hopped a bus for an impromptu pilgrimage. Montréal seems to remember, on my behalf, what it meant to grow up Catholic in the 1970s and 80s.
The Oratory is such a weird building. The basilica rises up on top of the crypt church, which is turn is above the crypt. “Yo dawg, I heard you like churches…”
It’s so big you actually take escalators between the dreary floors, like in a department store, but going from the piety section to the penance section. The architecture is neo-fascist but with melancholic statuary, as if the builders knew that the empire was hollowed out, leaving nothing but the depression of its idols.
The whole scene basically sums up the somatics of my early adolescence, when the ideology demanded awe, but the dead saints and the men who towered above seemed so distant.
I texted my partner to tell her I was visiting the “Temple of Emotional Avoidance”, and she texted back: “Overseen by the High Priest of Preoccupied Guilt?” Yep. Nailed it.
Check out that pipe organ. I don’t talk about this much but the first job I had was as a church organist. By the time I was 22 I must have sung and played for a thousand funerals and about half as many weddings. I never played this particular instrument, but I played organs like it, and now I look at it and understand why the whole thing always made me so uncomfortable. It’s like some kind of Nazi war machine with a seat for a single lonely man at the centre to pull all the levers and make himself feel like the entire universe is singing for him, or forced to sing because of him. I remember the nausea of waiting to start playing, gathering myself for the grandiose takeover of space.
Down in the crypt a tourist from Senegal asked me to take his picture, posed beside the altar to the virgin. I imagined he thought I was one of the faithful, and so I adopted that affect for the moment, and believed along with him. I made sure he was happy with his smile, and that his rosary was visible.
I handed back his phone and strolled on to pause before the main altar to Joseph, “Patron of the Church”. The full absurdity finally hit me. The whole complex is dedicated to the father of Jesus. Stepfather, I guess. It’s a multimillion dollar monument to fatherhood, and it’s cold, remote, eerie. It’s both clichéd and self-fulfilling. At least the culture is transparent about these things, if not about the fact that whatever money and social power is sitting in that building came in part from payment and political tribute made to the Catholic admins of residential schools.
It’s a mark of great privilege that I can walk through this part of my past with detachment and stylized irony. I was physically abused in a Catholic school, but I wasn’t violated, not in that way, in a building like this. Many were. I had my emotions mocked and twisted into the jagged shapes of toxic masculinity. (Yoga helped roll these out.) But I wasn’t forced to give up my language or forget my ancestors.
With this privilege I’ll withdraw my attention from this architecture, and pour it into who has survived it. Because survivors know what it means for everything to collapse, and what works when it does.
I don’t know if I’ll ever bring my boys to this place. With the little time we have it seems more important to help them find new spaces of awe, built by people who survived rather than imposed control, by people who played in forests instead of cutting them down.