Le Plateau Revisited

Of last night’s temps perdu, temps retrouvé, not from the couch and the cork lined-room, I argued, but from the pavement, the streets, and alleyways of the city itself. And therefore not a chronology of retrieved memories for old Terry, more a fortuity of impressions echoing things past. So, entertaining a vague itinerary, I exit our hotel at the corner of Chambord and make my way east along Rachel. Despite the voies cyclables, their miniaturized stops signs and signal lights, what I take in — bike shops, cafés, triplexes with galleries and bay windows — haven’t evolved into complete unknowns, but the faces I see aren’t the haunting faces of lost days.

Crossing at Calixa Lavallée and snaking down the avenue, daycare kids tagged and tethered to each other, tug along under the watchful eyes of their moniteurs. Silky skinned joggers cut out ahead of me and make for the canopy of the cool, green-dappled light that marks Parc LaFontaine. I played here under these trees as a kid, rowed boats, tossed footballs, tobogganed, and rolled in the snow. I accommodated the trouble I could not avoid. Later, post-pubescent cool with its own species of trouble strutted its stuff. Later still, trysts were idled away fine-tuning portable transistor radios and listening to musical requests sent in to the Dean of Montreal. The park was also for Terry, under the spell of Manot and her revanchist ideas, the scene of political protests on the verge of much bigger trouble.

Heading north on Papineau, I catch myself making the sign of the cross. The church is l’ église de l’Immaculée Conception. This reflex action of the right hand, as involuntary as a sneeze, is a deep-seated habit reinforced by having his ears pined back by Ma Maggie whenever little Terry forgot to acknowledge the Holy Presence. Her hand was as automatic as his was supposed to be.

“Not just St.Dominic’s, boy! Every Catholic church, English and French!”

Churches proved useful in the acquisition of knowledge. With Ma Maggie Terry learned about holy water, genuflection, confessionals, Stations of the Cross, votive candles, and Holy Eucharist. With his father he came to appreciate such things as nave, arch, buttress, stained glass, cornerstone, steeple, and differences in the character of bells. He thought clappers an amusing word

At rue Marie-Anne I turn east again, and get choked up when passing a dépanneur. As we unravel the coil of memory, the temptation arises, influenced by a sign-covered storefront and wafting tobacco smoke, to claim more for a given corner than is warranted. All in the name of recovered truth.

Delormier Avenue, 4300 block. I take up sketchpad and charcoals in an attempt to apprehend with the aid of filigreed lines the facade of the oldest building I know. My focus is the second storey flat with its curved exterior stairs, its balustrade, gallery, and doors. Admittedly, I’m trying to grasp the ephemeral, to capture with doodles what long ago vanished behind pulled drapes with the cold and howling wind clawing at the door. Fine! And the result, when all my grasping at the insubstantial lands in another bygone bin? The stairs, only the stairs, which reconstruct themselves in superfluous dark swirls. Stairs leading to a door that can never be re-opened.

Then again, I’ve returned to these streets to remember. Do I presume too much? Let imagination fly beyond the borders of what might really have been? Put the lie to Proust? Perhaps. Not surprisingly, I find myself composing notes for my sketches, articulating details the charcoal will not reveal. For instance, the door that once loomed so large above Terry’s little head, the staircase he descended backward, the sidewalk upon which he alone against unknown forces took his fist steps, the lane where he heard the ragman call like something out of a story book and where in pursuit of him and his nag-drawn wagon he bruised his knees. Moreover, memories merge with the recollections of others: little Terry saying he’d marry the angelic Madeleine next door before his brother did; the same declaring to the amusement of the informed that he had ridden every streetcar in the city. Streetcars on Delormier and Papineau. Streetcars to the Craig Street Terminus. Streetcars down to Point St Charles and Verdun. Streetcars heading up Mont-Royal. Best of all, streetcars along Ste Catherine on a mid-December evening, neon signs effulgent with expectation.

Winter, inevitable snow-bound streets: and then pulsing lights and the snow’s removal; and tales of how children were sucked in by the jaws of frightful mechanical monsters to be blown out in arcs of scarlet, then taken away in trucks to dump sites, or dropped into Back River never to be seen again. During spring run-off, finger-guided matchstick galleons coursed along curbs into city waterways leading down from le plateau to the St. Lawrence.

At the corner of Delormier and Mont-Royal, where youth and presumed maturity intersected, I get flashes from the past: to my right, a bank and first savings account; kitty-corner, a smoke shop, unlawfully purchased cigarettes, and pseudo-toughs coughing in the lane; ahead of me a tavern, scene of my first legal drink. With the green, I cross and continue north.

About mid-block I stop before an édifice municipal that once was, but definitely is not now, St Dominic’s grade school. No more pencils, no more books, no more —? Memories hide, will not be enticed by rhyme or reason. Any Terry emerging here would be as unrecognizable as the building itself.

South of Gilford, I watch locals weeding and watering small plots in a community garden. A plaque reads: “On this site from 1913 to 1975 stood the church and rectory of St. Dominic’s Parish, founded in 1912 for English-speaking Roman Catholics of De Lormier and neighbouring districts.” School, church, the constructs of early adherence, all gone. No need for charcoals here.

I walk up to Boulevard Saint-Joseph, and turn west, wistfulness diminishing with each homeward step.

Reed Stirling