October 14, 2007 § 15 Comments
Between my last post and this one, The Smoking Section turned three. With rain drizzling outside and a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen, I thought I’d take a moment to mark the occasion.
It has slowly dawned on me that the tone of this blog has shifted, which probably has something to do with the fact that smoking sections no longer physically exist in this city. So much of what I have written here came from those spaces, and especially from The Café, which was the meeting place for some of my favourite characters. Although I still stop in for a drink every once in a while it isn’t nearly the same, and I have grudgingly accepted that it won’t be again.
Of course, it isn’t just the smoking ban, just as this blog was never really about smoking. As I’ve written elsewhere, Mile End has changed dramatically since I found my way to it in the summer of 1999. In drinking parlance, the regulars are gone, displaced by a process of gentrification that came late to Montreal but which has transformed it with breathtaking speed. At root, a place is characterized by the people who live in it, and in the absence of many of the friends I made here, the neighbourhood feels irrevocably different.
I watched the same process unfold in Toronto in the 1990s, and it was, in part, what caused me to leave my hometown and move to Montreal. As the rents went up and the condos took over, there was less and less room for the worlds my friends and I had created, which were economically dependent upon the city’s overlooked spaces. You could rent a whole house then for less than eight hundred dollars a month, and so we did, pooling our money to start bands, activist collectives, and performance spaces, modest endeavours which nevertheless made a mark on our city and sometimes, to our amazement, others as well.
I met one of those friends for coffee last week after a lapse of almost fifteen years, and he reminded me of what was important about that time. As he put it, remarkably unselfconsciously, we were “non-elitist bohemians,” a condition that had everything to do with our limited means. We were, many of us, the children of low-income urban families, some deeply dysfunctional and brutally violent, others merely broken and struggling. We came to art and music and books from a sense of desperation, at a historical moment when cities were still places that accepted the poor as their own. As we stumbled onto the paths that would take us into adulthood, some of us had unwittingly forged bonds for life.
I am only now realizing that our life experiences are far from common, and that many of the things I have always taken to be givens aren’t. Most people didn’t leave home at sixteen. Most people didn’t go to alternative schools. Most people haven’t survived on welfare cheques. Most people, at least in my generation, grew up in suburbs and not cities. I am starting to understand that, because of it, the city means differently to us: what others interpret as a narrative of pathology and neglect is, is for us, a story of belonging, and therefore, of home.
Over the last year, this story has found a place in my scholarly work, not as its primary object of inquiry but as a wellspring of inspiration. I want finally to be able to explain the value of the city I came of age in in a language that others can understand, even as it is slowly disappearing from the streets around me. If I can pull it off, it will be both a form of remembrance and a small act of defiance. At its best, that’s what storytelling is.
I’m not quite sure where this leaves The Smoking Section. I’ve occasionally wondered if it isn’t time to call it a day, but I know I’d miss it if I did. I like having a place to talk to myself, to force myself to translate impressions into words that I can look at from the outside. Maybe it’s just time to tell some different stories, ones that are as much about other places and moments as this one. At least, I can try.