I set out with sketchpad, charcoals, and the hope that in some circuitous way I’ll come to understand why I’m walking these streets again. The neighbourhood of my earliest years still holds deep-seated memories beyond my ability to recall clearly and organize into a coherent personal map, a topographical record, so to speak, of childhood discovery and loss — broken bike spokes and bleeding knees, the ragman in the alley crying out from behind his bony nag, the sweep of wood and rubber across the icing snow. I am mindful of Proust’s warning that remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were — a precaution against stumbling down memory lane. Not every step need be a faux pas en route to a supposed yesterday lying beyond the next corner. So I meander, retracing half-remembered sidewalk patterns. I stop occasionally, as I once did with JB, to watch workmen finesse storefronts and facades.
Youth! Its rickety scaffolding long ago jettisoned!
Reaching Mont-Royal Avenue I turn west. Contemporary kohl-eyed figures crowd out the shadowy ghosts playing hide and seek with me as I amble along. Passing through the Métro plaza, I’m surrounded by Gothic Chic, too much of it as improbable as it is imposing. I turn south when I reach Parc Jeanne Mance.
JB always referred to the area as Fletcher’s Field and, with an instructive nod in my direction, doffed his fedora when he caught a view of the cross on the mountain. Beautiful old apartments adorn the east side of rue Esplanade. I walk on slowly, appreciatively. Eventually I stand regarding a second storey address: Marian’s once. Midnight rendezvous in the park, snow angels and hill-rolled embraces, demonstrations, all with their own kinds of reward. Weekend plonk parties with large potted cups forever half-full. Jam sessions when Danny Callahan played. I malinger, indulging the reverie.
I really don’t expect it to be Marian when the door opens and a woman in black appears and starts down the stairs, but in the realm of wistful remembrance it is Marian. The woman offers me a smile when she passes.
A Greek flag hangs from the gallery railing. The fleur de lis serves as curtain in a window of the third storey. Colours match.
“Are you lost?” a man wearing a turban asks when I turn to cross the street.
I walk through the maples and playing fields up to Avenue du Parc. A funeral cortege emerges out of the traffic flow, and then heads up the mountain, giving me a metaphorical nudge. I am reminded of where I ought to go—Notre Dame Des Neiges Cemetery. Perhaps before I leave the city I’ll muster the courage to do just that.
“Notice the swan’s neck pediment. That’s rustication there.”
Where exactly? Further north on Parc: JB observing architectural particulars of The Rialto Theatre to his somewhat interested teenage son. Today I rest on a bike stand, sketchpad and charcoal to hand, but I don’t know where to start. I pack up and keep walking, while faces continue to materialize out of the passing moment to be contextualized by electro-chemical impulses operating in their own brainy force field. At the Café Souvenir on Bernard, I grab a coffee and a fresh Mile End bagel. Returning to Parc, I catch a bus for downtown.
The McGill ghetto is the draw, and I slowly make my way through its canopied recollections. I respond to individual streets, synaesthesia working overtime: grey-stone porticos, bicycles bells, the aromas of pizza and smoke meat all evoke heightened impressions in the here and now of what once was. Sensation interfaces with memory, reproducing the emotional highs and lows of long ago.
Marches, St Patrick’s Day antics, compositions à la mode, amicable perambulation through the new-fallen snow, and sweet abstraction reduced to hack poetry aimed at seduction. Those chance encounters where the forsaken furtively watched the other from across the street, or from behind a library stack, or from the edge of contrived conversation? Merely the ruse of former lovers intent on one last one-night stand? Annie’s old digs on Durocher, I notice in passing, have new stairs. The bookstore on Milton, however, has changed little but its display window titles. In Ben’s Delicatessen window down on De Maisonneuve, I make out the effigies of bygone personas, and realize how time takes what was and turns it into what will be, not all of it to your liking. Wistfulness passes as no more than a kind of added seasoning when you’re sampling all these flavours of the past.
During my years at university in the mid-sixties, I lived in a small, street-level sanctuary on Tupper Street surrounded by evangelists, rue Saint-Mathieu on the east, rue Saint-Marc on the west. The simple accommodation was more grotto than flat, having a hide-a bed next to a bathtub, and a very hot hotplate that I used frequently to cook up excuses for poor academic performance while justifying an over-indulgence in living out fantasy. We certainly lounged about here, Danny, Annie, Vanessa, and me. The place has no doubt had many an upgrade over the intervening years, and along with the adjacent structures resting quaintly among the neighbouring Beaux-Arts apartments, the new signage indicates, it forms part of Shaughnessy Village. Worth a sketch? I can’t decide. But did authorities take into account our little history here when they designated the area a heritage location? Is this street in fact a personal lieu de memoire that the city fathers overlooked?
A nude in charcoal drawn from the past: Vanessa, a study in solitude, Tupper Street, 1967. What might I read in her features today? The powdered wrinkles of her apotheosis? Or something akin to wisdom that age supposedly bestows? Proceed cautiously, Proust reminds me as I make for the next corner, because as we revisit past experiences, we alter the facts to fit the present narrative.