Archive for June, 2006

The Elusive Present

June 27, 2006

What is this construct known as the present? We cling to it longingly, as if it were here to stay, though it may never have been at all. It is part of the vernacular and comes in a wide array of colours: This moment, for the time being, right now, currently, at the present time. All this is mere illusion, for the present exists ephemerally, even though it is regarded as something greater.

We take comfort in the present because it is thought of as something concrete one can have a sense of control over. What is present, is. This in contrast to the past, which is foggy, sketchy or even forgotten — and the future, which is uncertain.

Yet, in truth, the present is a hollow, short-lived comfort zone. In the instant it comes into being, it’s real. After that, it’s past. What lies ahead is unknown.

We don’t truly live in the present, since such an undertaking is impractical. In fact, we are the product of our past, but for an instant, and are driven to continue by the hopes, dreams, and expectations of the future. The present is folly, offering princely rewards to those who understand it for what it is and isn’t.

The Anatomy of St. Laurent

June 25, 2006

As a historian whose subjects are, sadly, all long dead, I have the pleasure to practice other more lively arts on occasion. Sometimes the results are empirical observations, derived through years of dutiful carousing. If I can claim to be an anthropological observer in any sense, then it is in this one.

First of all, there are the basic facts of the matter: St. Laurent is the divide — the antidilluvian flow — between the “two solitudes.” In truth, on St. Laurent nobody is lonely, so there are no solitudes. It does, however, mark some nominally abstract Cartesian line of distinction between “nous” and “les anglais.” Whatever…my uncle used to live in Westmount and that was just fine. Still trying to live that one down in my cosmology.

The real mark of the character of St. Laurent is not an east/west, but a north/south schism. The corner of St. Laurent and St. Catherine is quite surely a ley line and gate to dark, otherworldly dimensions, and is perhaps best enjoyed at about noon on the coldest day in the middle of January. Special, that is. It almost seems peaceful.

The northward climb (with old school shout outs to Fouf and the Metropolis as one goes…) brings us to Sherbrooke. Lovely architectural details here, but the sense of movement can be disorienting. Good spot, however, to hail a cab in any circumstance…To the true breed of hipster, the run between Sherbrooke and Prince-Arthur can really be forgotten. There is a sad, ever revolving flow of trend in these parts, and it’s really all about the transients. That and the mob.

Prince Arthur has its charms, and there is a magic about that corner. The spirit of the street grows here, and the next block is what makes St. Laurent the place it is — an eclectic mix of bars, restaurants, and stores (anybody with a bit of the fashionista in them can get lost on this block for hours — I’ve heard of it happening). The mix of up-market and not is jarring yet effective. The two St. Laurents co-exist at this point.

Above Pine, the whole thing takes a turn for the bizarre. Here one enters a time-warp. The anchor of this deeply rooted mystique is the unchanging landscape. But for Warsaw’s, which has gone the way of the Dodo, there are still some real historical markers, whether measured in terms of bars (Copa) or restaurants (Schwartz’s). The heavy Portuguese flair also doesn’t hurt. This is a wonderful run.

Rachel marks the turn towards a quirky eclecticism…Social clubs and ungodly pretentious furniture stores are the order of the day beyond here. But this is also surely quintessential St. Laurent. The view up Rachel towards the mountain and the cross is striking; beautiful in so many lights and seasons. Used clothing, cool toys, a hardware store, a lamp shop, a porn theatre, and a bunch of great little eaterys — a special mix that is, again, unique in the city.

The dimension of space alters beyond this point, shifting perceptibly at Mont-Royal. St. Laurent hereafter gets progressively less dense. More residential elements prevail and the run up to St. Joseph is quieter. Some funky fashion spots along this stretch, but there is also a simple local flavour.

Further north one encounters a few gems — venues with their devoted clientele. Cafe Esperanza, on the corner of St. Laurent and St. Viateur, is a nexus of young artsy folks, aging hipsters and even older counter-culture types, crossing generations and reminding of what the Beats could have been. It’s also has pretty good coffee and sandwiches…

Lurching under the train yards, St. Laurent becomes, once again, newly transformed. The density increases here, and there are amazing spots sprinkled in among the auto parts shops and restaurant supply stores. There’s a basketball court, too, with all the energy of a diverse neighborhood concentrated on the concrete in the summer months.

One then passes through one of the most distinctive parts of the street — the St. Laurent of little Italy, a collection of sumptuous restaurants and local commercial flavour. That part of the St. Laurent journey ends up on Jean Talon and the nearby market.

Few of the denizens of the lower regions venture this far up, and certainly even more rarely beyond, but there are still a few noteworthy stops before hitting the Met, including Jarry Park and the best outdoorman’s store in the city. Baron Sport is a Montreal institution in a strange way, and was always such a treat to a boy from the city who loved hiking, camping and fishing. Their catalog is a sight to behold.

And thus ends our trip along St. Laurent. It is an admittedly brief and subjective portrayal, an ethnography of the street. But the street’s true charm is that everyone has their own version of this rambling panorama. Everyone has their own St. Laurent…

What’s yours?

Smoke ‘Em If Ya Got ‘Em

June 22, 2006

Smoking, in most parts of the Western world, has become an illicit act. It’s surely not as bad as shooting horse out on the street, but one definitely feels as if the outsider label is applied. I relish it. I’ll be that one sad motherfucker smoking a cigarette in late November on a cold Montreal night, when the chill has just set in and the “game” is all over except for the score. I’ll be sitting out there, hopefully not alone, like some teenager who just won’t dress properly for the winter weather, freezing out in the cold for the sake of something totally gratuitous. It will keep me young, I’m sure. There will be others, and we will find our common bond in the utter futility of the act.

Perhaps that’s the draw…The frustratingly fruitless event…Doing something that nobody lets you do in mixed company. Like smoking your first joint with a bunch of people you don’t know. It will be cool and beautiful. We will shiver and shake like mice under the cold floorboards, making noises of protest and derision in our own little way. That will be the act of smoking…Juvenile, irresponsible, illicit. Utterly destructive. They will become moments of life affirming silliness, out on the fringes of acceptable behavior.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. The archon of separation, Levesque, was know in legendary style as a man with a cigarette dangling jauntily from his lip, like some ancient hold-over from Orwell’s Wiggan Pier. A truly pointless example of wasted and undisciplined humanity. I feel as if Foucault were alive today (another dead one) he’d take up smoking simply because of the outsider cache it represented.

Most people won’t see it that way. They will ask “Why are you still smoking?” “What’s the point, really?” The only answer you’ll be able to give them is that there is no point. No purpose. It will become a totally surreal and abstract endeavor. The point of smoking becoming secondary to the act of smoking. Everybody will want to get in the game, be a part of this strange fringe group of people who just insist on getting up from the table, excusing themselves and walking out into the cold to bravely and boldly bear their burden…An elusive badge of honor that is at once both senseless and deeply purposeful. Most will be at a loss to understand the motivation, whether personal or political (or both).

Doubtless, there will be places where the downtrodden and the dispossessed congregate…Illicit spaces that accommodate the practice…It will be become a cultish endeavor.

Regardless, the true individual will continue in his solitary quest, excusing himself from all responsibility and rationality to enjoy a smoke, all alone, in the cold and uncompromising winter that comes only too quickly in this part of the world.

Ultimately, the great altruistic act of the smoker will be in his or her walk home — that last smoke, enjoyed lovingly and heartily in the company of one, the very act of breathing made diabolical…The demon within us all, becoming the worst and hoping for the best. The vitality of it is overwhelming. And truly beautiful.

N.B. More extensive and coherent ramblings on the changing role of smoking in our society can be found at the smoking section. Check it out.


June 20, 2006

Obsession is the driving force in human progress, if indeed there is such a thing. Perhaps it is better to say that obsession keeps Vico’s slowly upward twirling spiral moving, like a screw painfully and slowly being driven into a piece of old oak. Obsession is what pushes the human race to bore its mark into the timber of the universe. The uncontrolled and uncontrollable, willful, eternally recurring force that drives all things is the mark of obsession, of the groove that gets made in the mind through repeated firing of the same neuronal patterns. First it is fleeting. Then it is an impression. The answer to our unanswerable question comes into view. We know it is there, somewhere. We become obsessed with the possibility. Whether we actually find the answer out there, or if, in fact, the answer was always within us, matters little. It is the necessity of the process that is key. We are driven to it by the rational soul as much as we are driven to eat by our nutritive soul. It is the fire that burns within us all at points.

Of course obsession can also spiral us away from the heart of the matter, often taken there by matters of heart. That kind of obsession is a curse…For there is never any answer within. Truth be know, there is no actual answer in either case, but with the former it is at least possible to reach some meaningful point of termination for our obsession.

So, regain your sense of life and quit just going through the motions. Stop these flights of fancy and brief daliances. Don’t be a dilettante. Find an obsession, enter into it, and make your mark on the universe.

Ode to a Circuit Board

June 19, 2006

With apologies to Keats, and really to all the great romantics, I present you, gentle readers, with a poem. Barely. Actually, it’s kind of cute in spots, and overall, quite dreamily romantic (with heavy mechanical undertones). Whatever…

Near microscopic etched lines,
invoked technologically
in a patently clean room,
now become the arcs
and patterns
of three-dimensional

Pictures of perfect polygons,
assembled together
in complex forms.
Child’s play
accelerated to near-light speed.

The intricate tracks of silver
seem mystical,
but are really
altogether ordinary.

Dutifully assembled
by the dirty and flawed,
through a sterilized synthetic barrier.
No big deal.

Just a bunch of sand
put to use
for someone’s amusement.
in a cheap plastic box.

A pinpoint playpen
for phantasmal particles
put to some
pathetic purpose.

The question is,
can you feel it
trickling between your toes?
Maybe someday you will.

I know. Bad. Way too much alliteration, and bad.

Mon Pere

June 19, 2006

Happy father’s day Dad. I miss you very much. I probably always will.

Being a Regular

June 17, 2006

There’s a place I’ve hung out for years that has become like my second home. In truth, it is really my first home, since “home” has been a fuzzy concept in my life for quite a while. It’s a special place, where sometimes the hours seem to just fly by in a flurry of conversations, flirtations, and of course, libations. This place is even more special because it’s not just a business…There’s a quality about it that defies categorization. You have to know it, and be a part of it, to really understand.

The hardest part of being a regular at this place is stopping. You don’t want to give it up, break the habit, end the marriage. But you know that, like everything else in life, it must eventually end. And yet you want to have one more night to remember, one more silly or ridiculous happening, one more reason to be nostalgic.

The true nostalgia, however, will eventually overwhelm me when suddenly, I will no longer be a regular.

It can be hard to let some things go, and I realize that this will be one of the hardest. For now there is one more summer to truly appreciate and enjoy it, and all the other things in this wonderful city. A smile comes to my face just thinking about it…


June 16, 2006

That last entry was a little heavy…Tomorrow I need to get seriously drunk…


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