Updated: May 3, 2020
Haven’t been to Montreal in months. Our county, in the mountains north of the city, is sealed, enforced by police roadblocks. It is not unduly onerous, but as I sit and watch the squirrels and Junkos duel under the bird feeder, I take stock of what I miss most of the big city.
Friends, of course. Getting together used to be as natural as turning on CNN is now.
“Wanna get together for lunch whatever day.”
Food was secondary, though many missives went flying with times, dates and menu suggestions. After all, the island is a cornucopia of food from every part of the world. We paid just homage to its diversity. Greek and Portuguese in Mile End, Chinese in Chinatown, Cambodian in Ville St. Laurent, Korean in N.D.G., Punjabi in Park Ex, American barbecue on Notre Dame W. and many others time has erased.
I miss the restaurants but more, I miss the guys. Gentle humour and war stories of five former newspaper guys irreplaceable. We urge Earl to fly in from the West Coast to join us but he hasn’t hit the lotto yet. It’s just a matter of time.
But it’s left a hole. Our plans to meet for smoked meat at The Main – yes, it is better than Schwartz’s and the seating and menu more varied; give me that matzoh ball soup – was postponed. We like the ritual, just were not willing to die for it.
Knowing they were dying, Frank Zappa and Warren Zevon advised, “Enjoy every sandwich.” I intend to.
I miss the bustle and the TV soccer and the neighbours at my old café, The Social Club, Italian in tradition and hospitality. I moved away maybe eight years ago. I return from time to time and the brothers who inherited the place remember my name and how I like my coffee. We pick up the conversation where we left off six months before. The former neighbours are still there sometimes, those who haven’t been gentrified away, scattered like poplar seeds. But it was home for decades, the place to start the day or kill an hour in an afternoon. I miss the scent, the conversation, the belonging.
I miss Chinatown. Last time Reisa and I spent serious time in Montreal was in January. We took a break for a romantic few nights in the Hotel Nelligan in Old Montreal. Old Montreal is now a tourist trap, not the place I spent my early 20s, music at the Hotel Iroquois and Hotel Nelson are yellowed memories, as is the alleyway of art, but it was a short walk to Chinatown, the Beijing for dinner and the Kam Fung for dim sum.
Dinner was steamed fish and fried clams and sautéed greens and a few laughs with the men who work there and have been for almost 30 years.
Working a restaurant in Chinatown not for the meek. The hours are longer than long, customers are often less than respectful and are bound to become less so, but Eddy the manager and George and Jack who served us, treated us like royalty. The lighting is awful but the food was magnificent and the feast came in at under $65.
I miss the food and I miss the men who served us.
I’ve been hooked on dim sum since I was a teenager. They didn’t have carts then. Just a menu. Pieces were 25 cents. I took my extended family out, my first effort at being a real man, and picked up the tab for a bunch of us. It was maybe $25. My aunt, a real cook, marvelled at the lightness of the rice pastry.
Last visit we talked with the hostess, how and why she came to Montreal and how she enjoyed Canada and had no ambition to return to Hong Kong. She asked where we came from, seemed astounded we had moved to the mountains.
The waiter who served us joked about how he was dying his hair grey so he could look more mature. Was sure I was dying mine cause he saw no grey. I showed him.
The bang and clatter of a dim sum barn is harder to take these days but I still feel at home there. I yearn for chicken legs and fried squid, but I miss it all.
Reisa misses the hospitality and the noodle soup from the tall Korean guy who owns a basement joint in N.D.G. where he serves and cooks and washes dishes and tells me I’m his inspiration. I don’t look what he thought 68 should look like, he told me. He’s not even 50. I didn’t tell him about the knees and the neck and the back. Why burst his illusions? But I miss him, too, and the cozy wood booths.
I had a weekend ritual of hitting a pastry shop on Westminister in Montreal West. The coffee and Italian-style pastry are worth the trip. They have a flaky cream-filled killer called a Chantilly, the young man serving told me. So, how could I resist? I sang the first few verses of Chantilly Lace by the Big Bopper: “Chantilly lace, pretty face, a pony tail, a hangin’ down; a wiggle and a walk and a giggle and a talk…”
He stared at me as if I was crazy. Good coffee and pastry does that to me. Then asked me to write down the name of the song. The next week, when I returned with Marilyn for a dose of cherry and custard-filled flaky pastry, the staff pulled it up on their iPad and plugged it into the shop’s speakers and started dancing. Customers were smiling.
I sang along and a pretty young woman who was working the cash said it sounded better when I sang along. Would I sing it again when I came back? I haven’t been able to get back.
A while ago, I wrote a story about Ali, the guy who runs, with his brothers, Akhavan, a Middle Eastern grocer on Sherbrooke St. W, also part of my weekend ritual.
I pick up fresh greens, halal chicken and lamb and have a chat with Ali. I did him a favour once and he chased me around the store with coffee and then cookies.
We shake hands each time I come and when I cook my purchases and savour them, I think of the town and Ali.
I don’t miss the one-way streets, the construction, the sirens, the police everywhere ready to pounce, the parking metres, the impatient horns. No place is perfect.
But, I think of all these things as I make the rounds in our restricted zone in the Laurentiens, sizing up the line-ups of masked strangers outside the food stores, the Starbucks that only is serving drive-through, and during the eventual mad dash down the aisles of the IGA for stuff that’s over-priced and second rate.
And look forward to when I’ll see the guys and sing Chantilly Lace for the pretty girl in the pastry shop.