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Me-in-E-town

Me pretending to write a book at the busy intersection of 109th street near the Garneau Theatre in Edmonton. Photo: John Lucas, The Edmonton Journal

Six weeks. It seems like a lot longer, but in fact, it’s only been six weeks since Blind Spot became available as a book in the world. In that time, I’ve read to about one hundred and fifty people over the course of six events: four in Edmonton and two in Montreal. I feel that, in many respects, being a newbie in this business means building relationships with readers almost on a one-by-one basis. I’ve met many new people throughout this, and what brings us together is a passion for narrative. It’s very life-affirming.

A writer needs readers. A reader needs writers. We’re in a reciprocal relationship. Of course, readers and writers are often one and the same person. Whenever I read to a roomful of people, I always try to stay conscious of this. There might be somebody in this room who, unbeknownst to me, is also a writer — quite possibly a brilliant one. Maybe they’ve not been discovered yet. How does that influence how I read or answer questions about Blind Spot? At the very least, it means I try not to act like I am privy to any special knowledge. Sometimes I answer a question about the writing process with an answer that sounds like another question. I’ll finish my statement with, “you know?” As in, do you agree? I’m not entirely sure. This is what I think. What do you think?

Several great questions stand out:

What is the difference in writing process between a short story and a novel?

How do you know when you’ve finished a book?

I answered the former question by saying I believe a short story is like a brief glimpse at the world. It’s like opening a window and peeking out. The writer perhaps draws your attention to something you hadn’t noticed before, or you had noticed it, and maybe thought you were the only one. There’s that nod of the head, that sense of almost kinship you feel with the author sharing this moment with you. By contrast, I said, the novel is far more concerned with story-telling. Even if the novel appears plot-less, there is still a requirement to set up a problem and to resolve it between the covers of the book. A novel is a far better vehicle for bringing closure.

Then my interlocutor said, “But I asked about process. What’s the difference in process?”

And that’s where I had to admit, I was a little stumped. Is it a question of time invested? Hard to say. I’ve got one short story that took about three to four years to complete. I kept going back to it over and over again. It took me that long to figure it out. Hmmm. There’s the obvious fact that writing novels, generally, requires producing more words. So it’s going to take a lot more clickety-clacking at a keyboard. But that was the only true difference I could identify.

So how about the second question. How do you know when you’re finished? Well, ideally, I’d say, you get to the point where you can’t think of anything left you want to change. I genuinely feel this way about Blind Spot today. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m just saying that I wouldn’t change it, because the book that exists in the world today is true to the vision I had when I was drafting it. If I tinkered with it now, I’d likely end up breaking it. I’m a rather different person now, and so I want to write different kinds of books.

That’s why I’m writing a second novel!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Blind Spot is out in the world, and on balance, I am happy. I am particularly happy with how it has been received in Edmonton. My former hometown seems to have embraced the story with particular enthusiasm. At the time of writing this, I’ve been on the Edmonton Journal’s bestseller list for five weeks, rising as high as the number one spot.

BS#1Bestseller

THANK YOU, THANK YOU above all, to the independent bookstores. I was a big fan of independent bookstores before Blind Spot, I’m a lifelong devotee today. I can see how a city without an independent bookstore is diminished, somehow. Indigo and Chapter’s don’t care about books; they scarcely even have a passing knowledge of books. They sell products they don’t give a shit about in pursuit of profit, pure and simple. I hope I don’t live to regret these words one day, but there, I said it! Of course, I am one hundred per cent OK with people buying books from Chapter’s or Indigo — I don’t want to leave the impression that I am not. A bookstore — any kind of bookstore — is better than no bookstore. And even within these giant corporations, you will find individuals that care. I’m just arguing that caring about books is not key to the overall business model. Whereas for the stores that helped me launch Blind Spot — Audrey’s in Edmonton, and Drawn and Quarterly and Argo in Montreal — a love of books is integral to how they do business.

God bless those bookstores.

In the course of these six weeks, I’ve been joined by other writers. I have read with Thea Bowering, PJ Worrell and Marguerite Pigeon. I’ve discovered great new Canadian fiction. I’ve read things I never would have read otherwise, because before Blind Spot I didn’t really pay much attention to new Canadian writing. Now that I am paying attention, I can see there’s a veritable flood of fantastic fiction. Even though I haven’t read with either of them, I want to also mention Greg Bechtel and Kathleen Winter, two other writers I discovered this year. They’re both fucking great! The kind great that makes you want to swear just like that!

But still, I’m not completely satisfied

There, I said it. In reflecting on how it feels to publish a first novel, I admit that I want more. I want to read in other places and reach a wider audience. Next year I may well get to Yellowknife and Vancouver Island, and perhaps I’ll get to Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg, too, and I’m excited about these prospects, but I want even more. I want to read to Americans. If any American is reading this and wants me to come to his or her city, let me know! I want to read to Brits. If you live in my former homeland, invite me in for a scone and tea! I enjoy readings. I really do. They’re exhausting, but I feel like I’m fulfilling my life mission when I do ‘em. I especially love talking to readers (who, as I mentioned, are also often fellow writers). I feel the social side of writing is often overlooked. I don’t want to overlook it. If books aren’t read, aren’t discussed, aren’t shared, there’s no point. We do this so as to feel less alone, less trapped in our own heads. We do this to make connections.

There is plenty more news about Blind Spot on the NeWest Press website, including reviews and media coverage, so I won’t repeat it here. I will make a brief aside, though, and say that the review in October’s Quill and Quire made my heart soar! Here is some of what they had to say about Blind Spot!

“Laurence Miall’s debut novel isn’t a cover version of L’Étranger, but you can hear Camus playing in the background… Blind Spot is the story of a minor failure, made all the more powerful by its honesty and restraint.”

I love this because I like to feel part of a tradition, part of a greater culture, part of something so much bigger than just little old me.  And I’m not at all adverse to wearing my influences on my sleeves. Albert Camus? Fuck yeah! I’ll take that.

So yeah, I feel like I am where I want to be. In 10 days, I turn 39, and I feel happy to have reached this promising juncture in my life. I still have a shit-ton to learn about writing and about the business of writing (less fun, still important) but as of today, I feel I’m doing OK. Above all, I am grateful to each and every reader that takes a chance on me and dives into Blind Spot and finishes it and tells me what they think. Even if the reader hates my protagonist, Luke, I’m still delighted that they make their thoughts known. We’re in this wonderful world of books together. Let’s live it to the fullest.

Dr_Martens,_black,_old

In 1988, I became a big fan of punk music — The Damned, The Sex Pistols, The Dead Kennedys, UK Subs, etc. All of these groups had, alas, already passed their prime, or disbanded, and I’d never been to any of their gigs. I lived in a small village in England that didn’t have any kind of musical venue — or in fact, a single shop. But one thing I was able to do to demonstrate my Punk Pride was, during a trip into town, buy a pair of Dr Martens boots.

Eight holes. Yellow stitching. Hot in summer. Slightly menacing!

Oh, how I loved those boots… for about eighteen months. Here’s what was cool about those boots. One, nobody else had a pair. I was the only punk in the village. Or maybe there were other punks, but they didn’t show it. Two, donning the Doc Martens was a non-conformist act! An act that could only be performed on Friday nights and weekends, because, of course, the school dress code prohibited such clonkers. Three, I had more courage when I wore my boots. Like the time I was playing indoor soccer at the Ashton-under-Hill Youth Club, and became over zealous with competitive spirit, and kicked the hand of Stewart Lemon, dislocating his finger. What a moment! Me, dislocating someone’s finger!  Lemon, the affable, tall athlete that he was, blamed the boots more than he blamed me.

Then, in 1989, I moved to Canada, and newcomer’s nerves claimed my Doc Martens. To my amazement, I was allowed to wear the boots to school, but everyone at school openly mocked them. Punk was even more out in 1989 than it had been in 1988. So I sold my boots to a skateboarder called David Ko, the only kid who had enough attitude to wear them.

Fast forward to 1992, and I became a big fan of industrial music — Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and Hilt. It was time to buy another pair of Doc Martens. This time, I went one step better, and on a trip to Germany, I bought some earrings in the shape of skulls and wore them proudly. Man, I was the real deal — in my mind!

Fast forward to now, and I’ve just purchased my third pair of Doc Martens. These ones are just a little more low key. Four-hole, black stitching, instead of yellow — but nevertheless, excellent for walking to and from work. I still feel like a bit of a non-conformist, because nowadays, most men in Montreal’s downtown core are swearing sleek, close-fitting sneakers, or dress shoes. They’re not wearing clunkers like this.

But I can be trusted with clunkers — that’s what I tell myself. My days of kicking kids in the hand are over. I still love punk, though, and I still love to bug out to this fantastic video of comedian Alexei Sayle singing an ode to Doc Marten’s boots on the 1980′s hit British comedy, The Young Ones, released during the true heyday of punk — 1983.

11125

My parents recently moved out of the house at 11125-23b Avenue, Edmonton Alberta and returned to England. I spent 1989 to 1993 at this address, as well as six months in 2005-2006, when I was unemployed. Well before my parents’ departure, I boxed up all the stuff I wanted from the basement and shipped it here to Montreal. There was a box of books and a box of my own writing. Everything else went to Goodwill. You can’t afford to be too sentimental about material possessions when shipping is priced according to weight.

Today I looked at a binder of my writing from the year 2000, when I would have been 25. I can see myself struggling in one story to write like my hero, Dostoevsky, and totally failing. I can see myself in another story affecting a hardscrabble tone, describing the life of people living in a trailer park. That one seems more promising, except it is clear I don’t know how such people talk.

Excerpt from “Hijackers of Desperate Hearts”

“I’ll get a nice cool one, Charlie.”

“Not until you clear up your tab.”

“Goddamit! Just one more, Charlie. You know I’m good for it.”

There is one long poem in which I have found a stanza that encapsulates a lot of the fascination I had at the time about the (possible) connection between religion and insanity.

Excerpt from a juvenile poem

Paradise is
a mind that’s come unstuck
from the pull of this heavy planet
and refuses to be bounded.
It lives in absolutes and eternals
every light turns on and it’s a sign from God
to walk his way
yet his way is everywhere
and you can only walk so far
before your blistered feet give up on you
and you collapse in a ditch like a derelict.
People mistake you for a bum that drank too much.

Mostly, my writing from this time reads like a plea for a girlfriend and to get laid more often. So much yearning! If I had to re-live my early twenties, I would read and write a little less and live a little more. But thankfully, I don’t have to go back to that time of life.  I can use my writing more competently now as a way of embarrassing myself.

In celebration of National Novel Writing Month, I am writing about a novel that changed my life.

I first read Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles in 2004 when I was nearing the end of my twenties. The notorious misanthropist’s novel of big ideas had already provoked huge controversy in France; his follow-up, Platform, even more so. Houellebecq ended up in court, accused of hate crimes, of which he was eventually exonerated. So before reading him I had some notion of what to expect. Houellebecq’s major literary innovation had been to mount a sustained critique of advanced capitalism in the form of fiction, and in particular, to expose the sexual relations that arise in a society based on relentless competition and glaring inequities.

I was in France at the time of my Houellebecq revelation. One night I went to a nightclub in La Bourboule, a tiny town in the heart of the Auvergne. I was alone; I was a single man. Nightclubs are designed to frustrate the will of people like me. But no matter, there was a pleasant enough fellow, clearly learning impaired, sitting at the bar, and I had the chance to practice my French with him, while occasionally casting lascivious glances at the girls on the dance floor. An hour or so passed and a group of rugby players approached us and for a while made vicious jokes at the expense of my bar companion. When the rugby players turned their attention to me it was to ask if I was a homosexual who was sleeping with the learning-impaired man. They tittered at their own idiotic innuendo. When they left, my bar companion gave me the saddest and most defeated look I ever saw, as if this kind of thing happened to him every day, and announced he was leaving.

I thereupon started to drink heavily, and I approached a couple of girls to ask them to dance, but I was shot down unceremoniously each time. With a sense of rage building in my heart, I decided I’d have to at least do something reckless with my night, so I switched from asking for dances to asking for drugs, approaching the most gangsterish looking men I could find. After only five minutes I had “scored.” I left the club with a young guy who had driven up that night with a small posse from Marseille. He said he had cocaine for me. The cost would be eighty euro. I didn’t have that much on me, having left my wallet in my car.

“Go get the money, then,” he urged me.

I started walking toward my car.

“Run!” he yelled.

When I returned to the club with the eighty euro, people were spilling out onto the street and it was chaotic. It took me a while to find my drug dealer. When eventually I did so, he seemed agitated.

“There are police, let’s go over here,” he said. “Let’s make this quick.”

Sure enough, there was a squad car around the corner, its blue lights pulsing against the outside walls of the club. My heart racing at the prospect of closing this deal, I pressed eighty euro into the drug dealer’s hand, he pressed a white ball into mine, and then urged me, again, to “Run!”

Back at my car, I opened my clenched fist. Inside was a ball of Kleenex in cling wrap. This was an outrage! I marched directly back to the club. By this point, my drug dealer was locked in a passionate embrace with the most beautiful girl in the village. I called out, “Hey! You ripped me off!” The drug dealer glanced over his shoulder like I was a speck of dandruff, and then turned his attention back to the girl.

Of course, with police, gangsters and beautiful girls everywhere, I had no chance of winning my case. I went back to my car defeated.

So after having lived this very Houellebecquian moment, the following night I found The Elementary Particles, and suddenly saw all the most seemingly important themes in life – including my own life – laid bare in the most precise, funny, touching, poignant and daring prose. Here was a story that talked in a disarmingly frank tone about sexual frustration, about solitude, about shame, but also about the thrill in your chest of finally meeting somebody you care about – and about so, so much more.

The Elementary Particles follows the travails of two brothers, Bruno and Michel, abandoned by their hedonistic mother. Bruno grows up to be a moderate success materially but is perennially lonely. His attempt to find pleasure and meaning at a sort of hippy commune ranks among the most hilarious plot-lines of any novel ever written. Michel, meanwhile, is a molecular biologist, who is solving the sex problem in an entirely novel way, by developing ideas that will give rise to a race of post-humans – a perfectly harmonious new species whose members are of no gender but instead have erogenous zones all over their bodies.

The two brothers launch into protracted soliloquies about Aldous Huxley, the human genome project and consumer society. You get great memorable quotations, like, “If life is an illusion it’s a pretty painful one,” or “Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is so hard to give up hope.”

I dispatched the entirety of The Elementary Particles within 24 hours. To me it remains the most unputdownable book. It is a novel that has most definitely changed my life, teaching me that fiction isn’t simply entertainment or self-expression but a stage for dramatizing the most important ideas in the world.

 Top image: Still from the 2006 German film adaptation of The Elementary Particles

It took me a while to get around to writing about turning 37. Slowing down with old age. Chortle chortle! I was reminded that I wanted to write about this, appropriately enough, during this week’s writing class, when my instructor said that according to some psychologists, adolescence lasts until you are 35. From a very cursory Google search, I cannot immediately find a reference to this. However, I do find plenty of evidence of it in my own life.

One of the adolescent things I remember doing when I was 19 was packing up all my worldly possessions at frantic speed, running out the front door and piling everything into a jalopy and then hightailing it down Edmonton’s 99th Street because I wanted to skip out on my basement suite lease and go live with my girlfriend instead. This operation had the feel of a heist, except that the items I was stealing were my own. While I did this, my landlord was out back in the yard, watering the garden. He never saw me.

A few months later, in the dead of winter, my arguments with my now-roommate and girlfriend had reached a very testing frequency. But, as often happens during such periods of life, we had some great make-up sex. One night, while basking in the afterglow, I asked her if she would marry me. She said yes.

Three months passed and finally my girlfriend’s patience wore thin. She asked me why I hadn’t told my parents that we were, you know, engaged. The truth was, the prospect terrified me. I wasn’t ready. So I broke the whole thing off. And I found myself moving again. One of the few consolations of my new solitude was going back to the jewelry store, where I was paying for a ring on the installment plan, and asking for my money back. A nest egg of six hundred dollars!

When, at 29, I first met the woman who became my true love and eventual wife, I was still very much living for the weekend. I had a Friday night habit wherein I would get blinding drunk at Remedy Café on 109th Street, leave, and dial Pizza 73 from my cell phone. Then I would walk along Saskatchewan Drive and gaze at the blurry lights of downtown. Arriving home, I’d lie down on my couch and listen to my favourite music and then pass out.

Moments later the doorbell would ring. Startled out of my drunken doze, I would run to the door and count out the twenty-five dollars and a tip. “Thank you, thank you!” I’d half-shout to the pizza man, because I’m always so courageously loud when I’m drunk at three in the morning. I would assemble the pizza-and-wings deal on top of my coffee table; always marveling at the little plastic jigger in the shape of a table that separates the top layer (greasy wings) from the bottom layer (greasy pizza).

Around this general period of time, I had a Whiskey Night with a few friends of mine. I don’t know about my friends, but that night got me as pickled as a gherkin. Dave and I departed after midnight in a taxi-van. The driver dropped Dave off at his apartment tower and then headed to Blue Quill where I was temporarily living with my parents due to some fiscal problems. As the taxi-van lurched around the corner of 23rd Avenue, I felt my tummy wobble ominously. When the van jerked to a halt in the drive way, a hot wave of puke cascaded from my lips. My reflexes were too slow to open the van door more than a few inches. Most of my belly-effluent ended up inside the taxi-van and only a few token chunks made their way out into the snow.

Clearly I had not acquitted myself very well. But still being of an adolescent frame of mind, I had to try and make things worse.

“Extra fifty dollars charge for me to clean that up,” said the poor, disgusted cabbie.

“Outrageous!” I shouted. “I am not paying fifty dollars!”

“No sir, you make a mess, you pay.”

“No way!” I insisted. “I will pay you the full fare, and a generous tip, but I won’t be paying a cleaning charge because I will be cleaning this puke with my own bare hands.”

I thereupon handed him all the money I felt I owed him. I hauled open the van door and watched a few more dribs and drabs of my alcohol artshow drip onto the icy driveway. Suddenly I was moving very quickly. I ran to the house, fought with the key in the lock, won that battle decisively, and trooped through to the kitchen where I filled a bucket with piping hot water and some Mister Clean.

Back outside, I began my cleaning operation.

“Your van is going to be as good as new!” I called out to the cabbie.

I always enjoy a bit of manual work.

“There, see?” I called out, a minute later.

The van and the driveway were steaming from the hot water that I had poured liberally all over the place. I doubt the cabbie could actually see my handiwork. He probably wanted to get back to his wife and children.

What a spoilt, suburban shit muncher I must have seemed to him.

Two weekends ago, Monika sprung my surprise birthday present on me – a night at a bed & breakfast in the Eastern Townships – and we departed on a perfect, cloudless autumn day, arriving at the head of a trail called Le Diable Vert at 3pm, and we hiked into the trees, surrounded on all sides by mountains, and after a respectful rest to take in the sound of nothing more than the mooing of a cow, we drove into Sutton and went for dinner at Bistro Beaux Lieux. I got overconfident with my French and ordered Rognons de Veau, thinking Rognons were medallions, and so I ended up eating calf kidneys, which taste how I imagine eyeballs tasting, and the old Bohemian Saint-Emilion-quaffer next to us had a full-throated laugh at my expense, but I didn’t mind, because I knew I’d learned a word I’d never forget. I get off on that kind of thing. Our bottle of wine was very good, and because I was feeling decadent, I ordered a cheese plate. I knew that another bottle of wine was waiting back at the B&B, and not only that – a sauna, a clawfoot tub, a sumptuous bed, and – I’m just warming up to the best part – a night with somebody I want to share my whole life with.

It would be a boring and predictable conclusion if I talked about anything I’ve learned. Mostly I just feel very grateful to have made it this far and to have not exhausted the patience of the many people I care about. I like being 37. I like it a lot. I don’t miss adolescence. The adolescent is alive and well in me. He’s just not puking in cabs any more.

I have been a very reticent blogger. I maintain my sporadic outbursts of political cynicism over at the Paltry Sapien, but here I’ve been silent.  Today I’ll briefly interrupt that silence to announce that I have a new job. After 2 years and 2 months of doing some of the most interesting work of my life at McGill, I’m off to pursue new opportunities and fresh challenges at the university just down the road here in Montreal — Concordia University. Also in the “new” theme, I have a new story that I’ve put online. It’s called “The Snapping Turtle,” and it is the shortest short story I have ever written. It isn’t as short as it is because I have become lazy. This story started out nearly 5,000 words, and is now under 1,200. It isn’t at all the same story as the one I started with.  Characters and plot utterly transformed by my megalomaniacal self!

I posted a brand new short story here called Fourteen, I’ve posted the Monthly Review’s excellent critique of the Internet and capitalism in the old readin’ room, and I’ve made my first blog in months at the Paltry Sapien, joining the conversation about Occupy Wall Street.

More later as time and enthusiasm permit.

The very, very good news is that I am engaged to be married to the girl of my dreams, Monika Sawka. After more than five years with someone I love more than I feel comfortable expressing on a blog, one morning in early September I gave her a diamond ring. We were in Hawrelak Park in Edmonton, the city where we met, and the plan is to return there next summer for an August 27th nuptial ceremony with oodles of friends and family.

I am among the luckiest men alive.

Further late-summer adventures included a brief trip to Los Angeles, where the matrimonial theme continued for the wedding of my dear friend Teena Apeles to the man of her dreams. It was a splendid long weekend; I enjoyed it and will in all honesty treasure my memories forever, even the memory of finding myself on L. Ron Hubbard Way!

The company of good friends gathered for a festive occasion is something that gladdens my heart every time.

The other news is that my blog is on hiatus. That all sounds pretentious and stupid, as if somehow the blog had been hard at work all this time!  Or as if my blog were cool like Fugazi, and believe me, my blog is not even one iota as cool as they are.  But it has entertained me writing this thing, and at least two people have stopped by on occasion to watch the tumbleweeds float by, or to hear me yak on about Karl Marx or some stupid idea I had about something. I will return with my Marxist project, I just do not know when.

I am currently up to my eyeballs in work; over the summer I successfully balanced shit, but now I just can’t anymore. Also, I have been working with increasing dedication on another novel. This here is sort of a sign of what is to come, although believe me, the finished product is going to read very differently from this scrap.

I think I might be able to get back to blogging next summer.

For now, here are some photos from the last few months. They capture a certain moment in time so it seems appropriate to leave them up here for posterity for a while. It is a nice opportunity to leave something positive instead of all my usual grumblings and cynical snarks!

 

Together the day after the big engagement

 

 

Me in L.A. with palm trees

 

On the road to Mount Mansfield, Vermont

After the kind of week that I would hope not to repeat any time soon, I needed some time to myself.  So I hit the road yesterday and went back for a solo hike up Mount Mansfield, Vermont, the same peak that Matt and I conquered last week. The morning border crossing was easy as 1-2-3, as Michael Jackson would have said — if he’d braved the countryside in preference to his oxygen tent, that is — and then it was onwards into verdant and lovely Vermont. I reached the Underhill State Park by 10 a.m. and was on my hike shortly thereafter.

Old codgers slowly making their ascent. "Toot toot, old codgers," I said. "I'm coming through!"

With this climb, the fitness level of North Americans appeared to have bifurcated into two very different streams since just last week: the superfits and the supersloths.  I even saw one group of men puffing on cigarettes while they moseyed along amiably. Then there was the woman of approximately forty years of age who was literally running along the trail; her walking poles striking the stony ground with the hectic rhythm of a speed addict on a snare drum.

Reaching the very pinnacle of Mount Mansfield (and realizing that Matt and I had been about 10 minutes short of it last weekend), I found a multitude of daytime amblers relaxing and picnicking, and, in many cases, loud-talking in Quebecois. I wanted to yell “Get off of my mountain!” because like every selfish, hippie nature-lover, I wanted that view to myself.

Oh well, I sighed, let’s see what that long ridge over there is all about. So I progressed along the ridge and discovered that it was primarily the preserve of cheats and sloths who had taken the gondola up to the mountain’s other flank. Here were entire families, grumbling ankle-biters included, who wanted all the glory — but none of the gruellingness — of conquering a mountain. My cynical side enjoyed watching a young girl berating her father. “You promised you’d bring food on our next hike… but you didn’t!”  She was prostrate on her side, clutching her torso, as if she were about to die.

Yeah, I took a picture of my smug face at the top of a mountain that took only 90 minutes to climb. Gotta problem with that?

On the descent, there was one moment — one blissful moment — when the trail entirely cleared up, and I stopped, realizing that I could not hear a single word of conversation, nor even a squeak of a hiking boot or the click of a walking pole. In front of me, New England was laid out like a map.  There was a profound and total silence. Aahh, that’s more like it. That’s worth its weight in gold. That is, in fact, priceless.

New England landscape, in all her green and rocky and pristine loveliness.

Keepin' it real in Villeray

I’ve never been any place that can rival Montreal for the sheer delight people take in simply being themselves, and Villeray is about the pinnacle of Montreal’s achievement in this regard. At first glance, it’s street after street of brick duplexes and triplexes with the standard winding staircases and rows of maple and Siberian elm and ash trees; very comfortable and completely unpretentious.

You notice just how at home people feel in their streets. They act as if the streets belong to everyone; as if everyone is equally welcome to them. With apparent effortlessness, they enjoy the streets but don’t impede others’ enjoyment.

I still get a kick out of the rough-looking skinny guy who walks up the street with the most exquisite classical music waltzing out from the radio that is either held in his hand or – when he’s not alone – mounted on the back of the wheelchair in which his wife sits, getting pushed along.

I’m a fan of our neighbourhood homeless guy who is always holding the door open for customers at Jean Coutu pharmacy. I think he’s been making money this way for years and years. He has a dodgy leg, a walking stick, a nicotine-stained beard and always a smile on his face.

Today as I walked home from the gym, a boisterous black kid came running down the sidewalk with his arms held out like he was an airplane. He ran a few metres and then turned around and passed me again. He announced this proudly. “I overtook you!” Then his significantly older brother came out of his duplex and walked to his car. “Au revoir, Vincent,” said the little boy to him. “Au revoir, mon petit frère,” said the brother.

On several of the lightposts on the same street, a mysterious message has been taped up – crafted, I think, by a child. It reads (spelling mistakes and all):

Le gorille

Les gorilles ons été menaser en 2008

Une famille d’humain ons adopté une gorille

Lui apprendre à conduire une voiture et autres choses

Les gorilles sont un des plus intelligent des animaux

The Gorilla

The gorillas were under threat in 2008

A human family adopted a gorilla

Taught him to drive a car and other things

Gorillas are among the most intelligent of animals

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Villeray

I enjoy the crazy guy who sits outside his apartment on Drolet and conducts all sides of a conversation, replete with peals of laughter, at high volume. Passersby just smile at him. He smiles right back.

Then there’s the guy who sits two blocks down on Berri, always on his porch, drinking beer, wine, or pastis for hours on end – any time of day except for the very earliest hours of the morning. He seems to know a lot of people. One time somebody passed by and said, “Not drinking yet?” To which the guy replied, “No – it’s still too early.” You can see him there Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and he doesn’t even take weekends off.

I marvel at the old women working in the patisserie on Jarry, two blocks west of St. Denis, who will take five minutes to wrap a three-dollar slice of cake, tying on a ribbon and bow unless you explicitly ask them not to. What a company policy – present every slice of cake like a present!

James' cat catches up with some well-deserved shut-eye.

I love the cat who looks like a bigger version of Banchi, sans tail. The cat doesn’t seem perturbed to have no tail. I also really get a kick out of the cats belonging to my neighbours Marie-Ève and James, all three of whom are fat. The white and grey one likes to climb up the stairs to my balcony and stare at Banchi. He used to slip through my open window and take a nap on my couch or on my bed, but I put a stop to that. Now I leave the window open just a sliver; a waif like Banchi can get through but old fatty can’t! I think that made him cross for a while but now he just accepts it. Just a few minutes ago he was asleep on the balcony with Banchi a few feet away keeping watch over the Villeray alleyway. There’s always something interesting going on there, whether it’s just the breeze rustling the grass, or bumble bees like Zeppelins coming into land, or the neighbours across the way coming out to sun themselves, or children hurtling past on bike or on foot, yelling and laughing.

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