Illustration by Andres Garzon
In 2010, I moved into a place that nobody in their right mind would want to live in—a second-story walk-up in a crumbling building on one of the worst streets in St. Henri. It was an apartment haphazardly cobbled together from odds and ends. Leftovers from other projects became slanted paint-stained floors and grey linoleum panels where a ceiling should have been. This ceiling wasn’t entirely solid. The panels lifted up when poked. The building’s foundation was sinking. Something or someone had chewed at the walls. The people who lived here last must have had pit bulls, like everyone else on the street. My friends politely declined to visit and when I showed them pictures of my new place, they asked me if it was a squat.
“No, I pay rent,” I insisted.
My downstairs neighbours were a young, married Spanish-speaking couple and their newborn son. You could tell they were horrified by their surroundings but were too polite to say anything. Every day I watched the husband set off for English classes in the morning, with a backpack and a plastic coffee mug. He looked determined. The same toughness emitted from his wife’s face as she pushed her baby stroller up and down St. Ferdinand on her own, ignoring the yapping dogs that at any moment could have broken through the flimsy fences.
The wife never integrated with the other new mothers on the street—the ones who asked me to buy them a bottle of rum the first day I moved in. I did and watched from my balcony as they passed the bottle around while their children drew on the sidewalk in pastel chalk.
One day I watched the young couple push a twin mattress out their window. Through the same window, I watched a new queen-sized bed being assembled. They weren’t going to be staying in St. Henri for very long. They had too much aspiration for upward social mobility. You could picture them in the suburbs many years later, comfortably settled; in their backyard, with BBQ burgers and margaritas, regaling their friends and neighbours with the story of their very first mattress in Canada, and other such quirky anecdotes about slumming it on the bottom rung.
It came as no surprise that they left without saying goodbye. A French-Canadian single mother of three moved into their apartment. I don’t remember much about her. Only that I thought she was pretty and one of her children was named Brunette. Her only possession, apart from her clothes and the baby clothes, was a huge flat-screen TV. I know this because she didn’t have curtains.
My neighbours across the hall sold pot and eventually got arrested. Even so, my landlord insisted that the building consisted of “mostly students.” It was flattering that he found me so upstanding as to have to lie like that.
St. Henri doesn’t come to mind when you think of the good things about Montreal. I couldn’t tell you why I loved it there. It had nothing to do with the draw of post-collegiate poverty tourism. I’ve lived in other working-class neighbourhoods. And some sub-working-class neighbourhoods. I’ve lived in buildings with appliances in the front yards, windows that wouldn’t open, doors that stuck, landlords that were never there, neighbours who looked either frightened or frightening; where men in sneakers were always shuffling in and out and passersby looked like they hadn’t known a day of joy in their lives. That wasn’t what I was after. Nor was it the French-Canadian joie de vivre that I was so taken with. Hell, I barely even like Montreal. It’s cold and cruel and unforgiving in a small-town sort of way. Past mistakes hang in the air like a thick fog. In a larger, faster city, the bad air would have long dissipated. Your wrongdoings would be broken up and sent in a dozen different directions by the city’s massive subway system. People would have forgotten because they’d be too busy worrying about what to do with their own dirty laundry. But not in Montreal: where everyone’s so laid back and no-one’s ever too busy to point out that dumb thing you did years ago–where you wear your past like a beehive over your head.
Out of town friends ask whether there is anything there. “Is there a landmark? Something I would notice?” Well, as far as amenities go, there’s a strip club, with a sleazy dive bar adjacent. There’s a Dollarama and a pharmacy, a bank and all of that normal stuff. Maybe there is more than the usual number of futon stores. There’s a farmer’s market near the flossier quarters. More importantly, there are train tracks and memories and overdue library books I still have.
The trains brought with them a special kind of traveller; punk kids that fashioned outfits out of fur and aluminum cans and settled around the Fattal Lofts, which was a microcosm all its own. But I didn’t interact with them much, apart from picking up their empties some mornings to return for small change.
“But what’s it known for?” Factories. Factories that used to make all sorts of stuff and then stopped and now exist as is, like dinosaur carcasses, decaying beautifully. There is something peaceful about that. About being in a place where purposelessness and empty lots still exist.
They call it the working class but I didn’t know too many people who actually worked. Meaning that, in the summertime, you got the sense that somewhere someone was drinking sangria on their porch and you could probably join them if you really wanted to. There was always a sense of adventure. That something might happen. Something fun! You might meet someone who shares your views on stuff!
People kept their doors open; let you peek inside their lives. From the street, you could see tiny, well-loved kitchens or bedrooms with fleur-de-lis flags and TVs they don’t make anymore. I liked that. I liked the way it was slightly cut off from the rest of the world. It felt like living in the fringes. I liked the way the sidewalks were cracked and bumpy and uneven. It was a place where you would occasionally see a dead cat on the street. People hung their laundry outside to dry. Everywhere you looked you’d see evidence of lives being lived.
I lived there for a year. Not nearly enough time to claim it as my own. Maybe I haven’t lived in too many other places. Maybe NOLA is nice and Detroit is nice but I can’t get my shit together enough to get a passport and find out. My mom came from Toronto to help me pack the place up. My very accommodating landlord wasn’t so much concerned with cleaning the place (we both knew this was impossible) as me just getting all the stuff out of there. My mom had a real flair for throwing out my favourite things and packing up just the trash.
“This is no way for a person to live,” she observed sharply.
By the time we were done, there was so much garbage, my curb space alone couldn’t contain it. So, we started putting my trash on other people’s curbs. We snuck a little bit of garbage, just a bag here, a bag there, into everyone’s piles, until the whole street was overflowing with my garbage. My whole life spread out like that.
The next morning the garbage man diligently shoved everything into his truck. Mostly everything; throwing my old couch in with one arm. After he was done, some of the garbage was still strewn about the street. I recognized a mannequin’s leg and a plethora of pizza flyers I was supposed to deliver for a local deli, lining the sidewalks.
I moved back to suburban Toronto to live with my parents. There I was confronted by houses and people and dogs and strangers that all spoke different languages. And roofs that all looked the same. And past that suburb was one just like it, but with a different name. I no longer saw pitbulls. Not that I particularly like pit bulls. I just got used to seeing them. They are a part of the scenery that I have grown accustomed to, like the chirping of birds. In the suburbs, there were no sounds here that I recognized as familiar. The noises that I was used to were gone: the train tracks, the dogs, the elderly French-Canadian couple yelling at one another, the police sirens that made me sit straight up in the middle of the night.
Suburban dogs don’t yap or snap. They wag their tails; they obediently follow their owners. They don’t try to jump over the fences. In the suburbs, people tried very hard to be nice to me, and I tried very hard to be nice back. I made small talk with those people. I smiled and said, “thank you.” I was overly gracious with them because I didn’t care about their dreams.
I am no longer in the fringes because when you live in the fringes, it’s acceptable not to work and to drink rum in the daytime and live off of dollar store chocolate. And what’s more, I heard some kid from Fattal built a fully functioning guillotine. The welding shop on Rosa De Lima takes apprentices sometimes if you were looking for something to do. The graffitied walls of the Death House. In the fringes, I’d walk to the dep to get coffee at 8am and would end up at a bonfire that was still going. The old couple down the block who sat outside their house playing cards and drinking Coronas day in and day out. They’ve been doing this for the last 35 years and will continue to do so until their dying day. For them, the sun rises differently. More happiness is possible.
VERA OLEYNIKOVA is a set and costume designer, props master, carpenter and freelance writer currently living in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Though Catalog, The McGill Daily, The L Magazine and online music publications.
Copyright © 2019 by Vera Oleynikova. All rights reserved.