Thursday, 14 April 2016

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

This Town Was My Town

What looks large from a distance, close up, ain’t never that big – Bob Dylan, ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’

Childhood memories are deceptive. Growing up, everything around me seemed massive. Visiting Montreal last week, I went home again to the Town of Mount Royal for the first time since I can’t remember when. Thirty years? Thirty-five? Forty? How long have I been addicted to cigarettes since that first and ultimately fatal puff on a Kent behind the clubhouse at Mohawk Park?

My big sister Anne drove us back in time through the wind, the rain and the snow in a Mazda. We paused in the centre of town so I could get my bearings. Sunken train tracks: check. St. Joseph’s School was still there but the doors were no longer painted green and the name had been changed. Monsieur Poirier’s subterranean barber shop was gone. The Bluebird store where my mother once humiliated me by informing the tittering gals who ran it that I was now old enough for underwear with a ‘window’ for tinkling was gone. (Anyway, it’s easier to just tug the elastic waistband down, always has been. I’m a quick study.) The balcony of Nana Kirlin’s apartment on Regent Road used to face the meat department receiving door of the ‘big’ Dominion store. Nana took me to my first Canadiens game when the expansion and garish Los Angeles Kings visited the Forum on February 7th, 1968. God, she loved hockey; God, she missed Rocket Richard since his retirement in 1960, the year I was born. Her husband Charles (my middle name) died shortly after my birth; generations come and go. Her balcony’s still there, the grocery chain is defunct. The post office next door is now a bank.

We drove down the alleys that run parallel to Graham Boulevard toward Dobie Avenue. They were so narrow. We paused behind 1217 Graham where Nana and Papa Moore lived. Their green Rambler must still be in the garage. I looked up at their third storey kitchen window. I saw a stick of butter softening in a dish on the hot water radiator. I smelled bread toasting for cheese sandwiches at lunchtime. In their living room George the canary is in his cage and Rommel the cat is on ‘Coronation Street.’ On the floor beside Papa’s chair is that day’s La Presse; he’d been trying to learn French since he emigrated from Bristol, U.K., prior to the First World War. Nana was from Brighton originally; a summer holiday in Canada turned into a life because war broke out in Europe. Nana and Papa met in Outremont, in church. Papa told me he once asked himself, ‘Who is that beautiful lady in the choir walking up the aisle?’

We turned onto Dobie. Seventy-seven was where Marty lived. We played together before we were old enough for kindergarten. He lives in North Vancouver now and has for years. I live in Edmonton. We are still close friends. One-eleven, that was us, the Moores. The house has been renovated, but man, it seems so small. (We also lived at 145 Graham across from the 7-Up factory but I’ve no memories of that even smaller place.) My old bedroom window is over the front porch. There used to be a bit of tin outside of it, sort of a pan before the shingled slope, I loved the sound of rain pocking the tin sheets. Over my bed hung a crucifix, and a portrait of my guardian angel, fetching in a blue gown, who kept the monsters confined in the closet. (I cannot to this day be comfortable enough to fall asleep in sight of an open closet.) I’d lay in bed and watch the searchlight beam from Place Ville-Marie all the way downtown on the other side of Mount Royal pierce the dark. Early on I got an AM/FM radio for Christmas; there was magic in the night, rock ‘n’ roll and Expos baseball or Canadiens hockey broadcasts from the west coast.

Mohawk Park is at the end of the block and the block used to seem so long, we recited family names as we splashed past their former homes, the Clelands, the Chowns, the Hanchets (I wonder what’s become of my friend Mark). The park’s tennis courts are still there but there was no evidence of hockey boards. In 1971 my older brother Robert encouraged me to become a decent hockey player. ‘Go to the rink and play with Marty because he’s better than you. That’s how you get better, by playing with guys who are better than you.’ He tracked my progress on a calendar; my rink attendance record was 42 consecutive winter afternoons or evenings. Marty still plays; he’s still better than me, slick.

Dunrae Gardens School is still there. The first girl I was smitten with went there. Not only was she, fittingly, named after an opiate flower, she was Protestant too. I remember her performing in ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’ I went to see it in a gym filled with rows of folding chairs, a sophisticated, buck-toothed, pimply and awkward pre-teen. We spent hours on the telephone together; there was a sleek (and often clammy) Princess model in my parents’ bedroom. If I’d had an ounce of savvy back then I would’ve just biked over to her house and called on her, but she had parents and an older brother and they would’ve squashed me like a bug.

I once asked my sister Anne about the difference between Catholics and Protestants. She said something like, ‘Prods don’t believe in the Virgin Birth.’ ‘What’s a virgin?’ ‘Someone who hasn’t had sex.’ ‘What’s sex?’ ‘Shut up.’ Dad was Protestant. He didn’t come to church with us on Sundays. No, he put his Columbia Record Club copy of ‘Johnny Cash at San Quentin’ on the hi-fi, opened a beer and got down to his chores. I thought Protestants had a pretty good deal.

From the top of  'the Hill' (Where'd the evergreens come from and who moved the baseball diamond?) at Mohawk Park I could see the green and white façade of what used to be Mount Royal Catholic High School on Rockland Boulevard. Robert and Anne went there, I was sent to Loyola because ‘Rock High,’ as my brother referred to it, was repurposed as a French school. Beyond it I imagine I can see the chain link fence along l’Acadie Boulevard, the demarcation between our town and grittier Park Extension where the Expos played at Jarry Park, about a half an hour or 40 minute walk from 111 Dobie Avenue. As a member of the Bank of Montreal Young Expos Club (President: Rusty Staub) I could buy a bleacher seat for four bits instead of a whole dollar. The trouble was leaving the safety of the Town for the Saint Roch Street gauntlet. Townies were like chum to Parkies, they enjoyed beating the shit out of us. I had two strategies to reach the ballpark in one piece: sprint or stealth.

We trudged through the slush back to the car in the Mohawk Park parking lot. I pointed to a big house off to the right, beyond where the putting green used to be. ‘Didn’t somebody important live there? I remember soldiers during the October Crisis.’ My sister shrugged, ‘Probably. Anyway, they’re long gone.’ Anne added, ‘I couldn’t live here now. It’s too small.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it was good place to grow up.’ My sister said, ‘We were lucky.’

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the memories our paths must have crossed. We lived at 18 Henley. I practically lived at the courts but never had a puff. I'm married to Peter Newell whom you may have played hockey with.

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  2. Chances are... Hope this notes finds you & Peter well.

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