Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Caps for Sale

As soon as the laundromat turns into a bistro, or the garage on the corner becomes a condo, or the appliance repair shop reopens as a boutique, their old selves evaporate.

Sometimes I walk down St-Viateur trying to remember. What was the crèpe place before the big flat griddles and the paper cones for take-out crepes arrived? What used to be on the corner where the fancy ink and stationery shop is? The chocolatier two doors down sells tiny, pretty chocolates for $2.50 each. What was there before?

The neighbourhood is changing faster than I can remember.

Maybe that's why I'm so happy to find Barry Shinder at Maple Leaf Hat and Cap Company, on St-Laurent, north of St-Viateur. When I ask him how long he's been here, he crows, "Too long!"

He's stitching caps on the heavy black Singer sewing machine once used by his father when he started the business 78 years ago, on St-Laurent between Pine and Prince Arthur.

"I've been on St-Laurent all my life," Shinder says. "Me and my brothers used to lie on the sewing tables as babies." He lives, with his wife and daughter, in the apartment where he grew up, above the cap factory. He works weekends and nights, sometimes until 11 p.m. "It's convenient. I'm a workaholic."

Shinder, who is 61, with an athletic frame and a quick wide smile, picks up a flat cap, also known as a newsboy, or a Dutch cap, and admires it. "The beauty of men's hats? The style is what it was in my father's day in the 1930s and it's still going."

The caps are like the ones stacked high in Caps for Sale, the classic children's book about the cap vendor who falls asleep under a tree and wakes to find that monkeys have stolen his pile of caps. Shinder's 2008 models are dark coloured wool, tweed, or corduroy patchwork, with a brim and a button on top. Some have a snap on the brim.

Talking to Barry Shinder is like finding the living link between the neighbourhood's past and present. I've been in Mile End through a decade and a half of changes, but he's been here for 55 years. It's like stepping into the green-walled grilled-bologna-serving Wilensky's Light Lunch, or right into The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

Shinder remembers what used to be what around here: "The Mile End Station was over where Million Tiles is. Me and my cousin used to hop trains to Outremont...General Motors was on the corner of St-Viateur, where Yellow Shoes is...Before Cafe Olimpico was Open da Night it was Tony and Franco's." He piles up the layers of history like stacking caps, one on top of another and another.

He talks without stopping his work which at the moment is stitching sweatbands into poorboy caps. "I do the work of three and so we're actually six," he explains, gesturing to include the three Haitian women who've been sewing for him for a combined total of 39 years. Margaret, Jacqueline and Rose use words like "cool" and "respectful" to describe their boss.

"Every year it gets tougher," Shinder says of the business, citing the flood of inexpensive imports from China as a factor. "At one point I wanted my son to build it up. But why ruin his life? He's going to work 60-70 hours a week in here? Is there a future in this? I can't see it. I'm a dying breed."

After he stitches the sweatbands, one by one, into a pile of caps, Margaret takes them and sews in the label of a clothing company. As it was in Shinder's father's day, 90 percent of Maple Leaf's work is contract.

The caps they make will sell at the historic, high-end Henri-Henri hat store on Ste-Catherine, or at Hiver en Folie shops across Quebec. The hats get out there, but Maple Leaf Hat and Cap company remains strangely invisible.

You could be wearing a Maple Leaf Cap and never know it.

Unless you wander into the small one-room factory and convince Shinder to stop sewing long enough to sell you one himself. And if you do, that's a bonus, because then you know the story.

It's a little like knowing that the building on the corner of St-Viateur and St-Laurent, before it became the Cagibi with the tofu wraps and DJs, was a pharmacy, and long before the racks were stocked with zines, medicines and remedies lined the wooden apothecary shelves.

But in the case of Barry Shinder and Maple Leaf Hat and Cap Company, it's not just the story of what used to be what, it's what still is.


Maple Leaf Hat and Cap Mfg. Co.
5758 Boul. St. Laurent

Saturday, October 25, 2008


The neighbour ladies sit on their front porches next-door to each other on warm days. They sit like symmetrical flowerpots, unbudging. They chat without moving from their seats by the front doors. Their white plastic chairs might as well be welded to the porch. They sit on their separate stoops and turn their heads a quarter turn toward each other.

What is keeping them apart?

All summer I see them in their spots. In the warm late afternoon we wave.

"How long have you been neighbours?" I finally ask.

"Yes!" the southernmost neighbour lady in black laughs. "Friends!"
The northern neighbour in the blue dress just stares.

Their story is locked away in Portuguese. I am left to wonder what the rules are.

Do they have symmetrical Portuguese husbands? I think there is only one husband, which explains why one lady is wearing black. Sometimes the husband sits out with the blue dress, but not during ladies' visiting hour.

He stays inside or shuffles up the street, picks a handful of plums from a front yard tree and eats one after the other as he leans against the door of a parked car.

I wonder what makes them keep their distance. Maybe they used to be closer, until one said something about the other's granddaughter being a little gordura, fattish, and the other thought, who is she to think she's so perfect when she doesn't even have any grandchildren or even a husband and mine has to repair the screen to keep the cats out of her crawlspace and grind and paint her railings every spring and I'll be damned if she's going to come sit on my stoop.

Or maybe they are just being neighbours.

If I step out onto my back balcony and my neighbour is out on his, I tilt
my chair toward the trees so I'm not staring right at him.

Sometimes we talk -- from our balconies. If we were to go into each other's kitchen, we'd be alarmed by just how much you can see from the other side. When there's not enough space for privacy you have to invent it by pretending.

Now it's cool out. Dry leaves whisper along the cold sidewalk. The chrysanthemums are fading. I wonder if visiting hours are over, or if the neighbour ladies take it inside for the winter. Maybe they'll suspend the good balconies make good neighbours motto and drink coffee and eat little yellow Portuguese custard tarts in one kitchen or the other.

Until next spring, when they'll emerge in front of their doors, like crocuses, or cats on mats.

(my apologies for blurry photos!)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mile End Street Life

Jacques Ferland, a gnomelike figure in a baseball cap and mirror shades from the dollar store, bounded up our steep front steps several times a week for years. He banged on the door with the urgency of a special delivery messenger. If we didn't answer right away he tapped the glass with a key or a quarter. Toc, toc, toc, toc!

His knock made us scramble out of our third floor apartment and down the stairs, shoelaces trailing. Monsieur Ferland was the bearer of a vital message: move the car this instant or pay. His knock meant the Ville de Montreal parking patrol was minutes away from handing out a ticket for obstructing the street cleaner.

Stripes of triplexes line our street like Neapolitan ice cream flavours and Monsieur Ferland made it his duty to match cars to apartments; he knew that we belonged to the 20-year-old gray Volkswagen Fox.

Up and down the block, Monsieur Ferland saved his neighbours from $42 parking tickets, inspiring devotion along the way. He hasn't often owned a car himself but he's drawn to them; he's worked as a tire changer at Canadian Tire and as a truck driver and if you ever pop your hood he materializes at your elbow like a cat who's heard the sound of the can opener.

I don't remember learning his name. It seems like everyone has always known who he was. We all call him Monsieur Ferland as if he's the teacher in the classroom of Waverly Street. After people move away, he's the one they reminisce about when they mention Waverly. When they come back to the block and bump into him within minutes, they talk about it as if they've seen Leonard Cohen on Marianne. "Guess who I saw outside?" they say, faces glowing. "Monsieur Ferland!"

Monsieur Ferland moved into an apartment in a Waverly Street triplex with his wife and teenaged children in 1970, long before Mile End was a trendy place to live, before willowy students started selling cupcakes from a table on the corner, before local designers offering purses made out of recycled vinyl took over the storefronts, before the laundromat turned into a restaurant that serves duck ravioli in cream sauce. The rent was $75.

He and his wife had to leave their original apartment six years ago when the landlord decided to renovate. Monsieur Ferland managed to find a flat for rent on the other side of the street. His son and daughter share a place next door, where his granddaughter lives with her young son.

A great-grandfather, Monsieur Ferland is Waverly Street's tiny patriarch. He grew up in the English neighbourhood of Pointe St-Charles, speaking English with his neighbours and French at home. I imagine him as a kid on the stoop, wearing one of those caps that newspaper boys wear in old movies, but instead of shouting, "Extra, extra, read all about it," the young Monsieur Ferland says "Regarde ça, les Michauds got a new char," or "Attention au chien là, he bites." Playfully bilingual he has a puckish way of saying "Bonjour!" when you say hello and "Good day!" if you greet him in French.

For years he helped out at Café Olimpico, bussing coffee glasses, hauling bags of garbage out to the curb, bolting down the bike racks in the spring and removing them in the fall. He had jobs at both neighbourhood laundromats where he got attention for his personalized service.

"I used to deliver the laundry," he says. "I walked around with my red wagon. A lot of people who played on TV brought me their wash and Daniel Lavoie, a singer who lives in Outremont, he did, too."

His love of cars and his observant, helpful nature made him the public enemy of parking tickets. What began as a service neighbours paid him for, turned into a vocation. "Somebody around here had to go away in the winter and said, 'If I leave you the key will you start my car?' After that I started with the tickets. When I saw the city guy coming, I'd ring the bell. People appreciated what I did. One time I got a ticket." He reports this with the amazement such a shocking event deserves. "The city guys said to me, 'Monsieur, was that your car? We didn't know. We wouldn't have given you a ticket if we'd known!'"

But this summer Monsieur Ferland is not on parking patrol the way he used to be. He's had a number of small strokes and has been in and out of the hospital with a heart condition. His five-foot frame is even slighter than it used to be and his walk is less jaunty. "I can't do it now," he says with regret. "Not because I don't want to. I just can't. The doctor says I have to take it easy."

This is a blow. Not just the throw-your-money-out-the-window expense of the tickets that pile up as soon as street cleaning season begins. The absence of Monsieur Ferland's toc-toc-toc at the door hints at the end of an era. He's been looking out for us as long as we've been here and Waverly without the committed supervision of Monsieur Ferland feels unwelcoming, like a street without trees.

It was a different street when we first moved in. We were the new kids on the block and paid $162.50 each in rent, before our 94-year-old landlady, Mrs. Murphy, died and we bought the ramshackle building. In the old days, back in the mid-90s, the café was full of old Italian men and the walls were yellow from cigarette smoke and it was known as Open Da Night because of the faded letters over the door that proclaimed it open day and night. We were young then, back before everybody in Mile End was young, and Monsieur Ferland was here to show us how this urban street packed with triplexes was actually a village.

Even though he's supposed to take it easy, Monsieur Ferland still makes his rounds to the corner stores, the café, and back. He beetles up and down the sidewalk many times a day. "I have to keep in shape!" he says. He's not allowed to haul out all the garbage from the café anymore, but on garbage night, if I forget, he pulls my garbage can out to the curb. The next morning, I find it stowed underneath the steps again, as if by elves.

One day this summer he wanders by with a piece of wood and a hammer to fix the arm rest of an old church pew that sits outside the café. "Everybody sees it but nobody does anything," he points out. Little do the smokers know that they have him to thank for eliminating splinters.

When I don't see Monsieur Ferland for a few days, sitting on my front steps isn't the same. The corner seems blank. I start to worry. Then, one morning, the doorbell rings and there he is. I know it's not the parking, the car is sitting in front of the building in a good, unticketable spot, something which Monsieur Ferland likes to refer to as "une belle place."

"I was in the hospital," he tells me. "They can't get my heart right. I say to the doctor, 'if you can't fix my heart, I can go to Canadian Tire for a boost.'" He's cracking jokes, but he's not here just to chat.

"Did you find something I left for you?" he asks. He'd discovered a pair of sunglasses next to our car and deposited them at our front door. I'd noticed them folded carefully on the doorsill and suspected him of putting them there.

They weren't mine, not this time, but that's not the point. If I had dropped my glasses, or anything important, Monsieur Ferland would be the one to find them, and bring them home.

Postscript: That was the last time Monsieur Ferland rang our doorbell. He died a month later. Jacques Ferland, 1933-2008.

This portrait of Monsieur Ferland also appears in issue 8 of carte blanche, the literary review of the Quebec Writers' Federation, at
www.carte-blanche.org and in the journal Le Bathyscaphe.

Monsieur Ferland

Pendant des années, Jacques Ferland, un homme aux allures de gnome coiffé invariablement d’une casquette de baseball et arborant des lunettes de soleil sorties tout droit du magasin à un dollar, montait notre escalier plusieurs fois par semaine et venait taper frénétiquement à notre porte comme s’il avait un message urgent à livrer. Si nous ne répondions pas tout de suite, il frappait alors sur la vitre avec une clé ou une pièce de 25 cents. Toc, toc,toc.

Quand il frappait, nous descendions à toute vitesse de notre appartement du troisième sans même prendre le temps d’attacher nos lacets. Monsieur Ferland était porteur d’un message vital: déplacer votre voiture tout de suite ou bien vous devrez payer l’amende. En frappant de la sorte, il annonçait que le préposé au stationnement n’était qu’à quelques minutes de la maison, prêt à verbaliser tous ceux dont la voiture stationnée en zone interdite empêchait le nettoyage des rues.

Notre rue est bordée de triplex multicolores et Monsieur Ferland jugeait de son devoir de savoir à quel appartement correspondait chaque voiture. C’est ainsi qu’il savait que notre voiture était une Volkswagen Fox grise.

Monsieur Ferland a épargné aux habitants de la rue des amendes de 42 dollars avec un grand dévouement. Rarement propriétaire d’une voiture au cours de son existence, il était néanmoins attiré par les autos. Longtemps, il a travaillé à changer les pneus des voitures au garage Canadian Tire ; il a aussi été conducteur de camions. Si jamais il nous advenait d’ouvrir le capot de notre auto, aussitôt il surgissait à nos côtés à la manière d’un chat qui entend ouvrir une boîte de nourriture pour chat.

Je ne me souviens pas comment j’ai appris son nom; il me semble que tout le monde a toujours su qui il était. Nous l’appelions tous Monsieur Ferland, comme s’il était le maître d’école de la rue Waverly. Si, après avoir déménagé, une personne mentionne la rue Waverly, c’est lui qu’elle évoque. De même, si cette personne revient dans le quartier et tombe sur lui, presque tout de suite elle en reparle comme si elle avait vu une vedette. «Devine qui j’ai vu dehors, disait-elle alors, le visage illuminé : Monsieur Ferland !»

Monsieur Ferland a emménagé en 1970 dans un appartement d’un triplex de la rue Waverly avec sa femme et ses enfants adolescents, bien avant que le Mile End soit un quartier tendance, bien avant que des étudiants aient commencé à vendre des gâteaux au coin de la rue ; bien avant que des innovateurs locaux se soient installés devant les magasins pour y vendre des porte-monnaie en vinyle recyclé ; bien avant que la buanderie ne se soit transformée en un restaurant servant des raviolis au canard dans une sauce crémeuse. Son loyer était de 75$.

Lui et sa femme ont dû quitter leur appartement initial il y a six ans, lorsque le propriétaire a décidé de faire des rénovations. Monsieur Ferland a réussi à trouver un appartement à louer de l’autre côté de la rue. Son fils et sa fille habitent à côté, là où sa petite-fille vit avec son jeune fils.

Arrière-grand-père, Monsieur Ferland est le patriarche en miniature de la rue Waverly. Il a grandi dans le milieu anglophone de Pointe-Saint-Charles, parlant anglais avec ses voisins et français chez lui. Je me l’imagine gamin sur son perron portant une casquette comme les livreurs de journaux dans les vieux films, mais au lieu de crier : «Dernières nouvelles», le jeune Monsieur Ferland disait: «Regarde-ça, les Michaud got a new char», ou: « Attention au chien là, he bites». Taquinant le bilinguisme, il a une façon malicieuse de dire «Bonjour !» quand on lui dit «Salut !» et «Good day !» si on le salue en français.

Pendant des années, il a travaillé au Café Olimpico, à s’occuper des tasses de café, à sortir les sacs de déchets, à installer les porte-vélos au printemps et à les enlever en automne. Il travaillait aussi aux deux buanderies du quartier, où l’on remarquait son attention personnalisée.

«C’est moi qui livrait le linge, dit-il. Je faisais le tour du quartier avec ma charrette rouge. Beaucoup de gens qui étaient à la télé m’apportaient leur linge et Daniel Lavoie, un chanteur qui habite Outremont, lui aussi.»

Son amour des autos, sa nature observatrice et serviable en ont fait l’ennemi numéro 1 des contraventions pour stationnement illégal. Ce qui avait commencé comme un service rétribué s’est transformé en vocation. «Quelqu’un dans le coin devait s’absenter pendant l’hiver et m’a dit: ‘Si je te laisse ma clé, est-ce que tu feras démarrer ma voiture ?’ Après ça, j’ai commencé avec les contraventions. Quand je voyais le préposé de la ville s’approcher, je sonnais ma clochette. Les gens appréciaient ce que je faisais. Une fois, j’ai eu une contravention.» Il rapporte cela avec tout l’étonnement que mérite un événement choquant de la sorte. «Le gars de la ville m’a dit: ‘Monsieur, c’était votre voiture ? On ne savait pas. On ne vous aurait pas donné de contravention si on avait su !»

Mais, cet été, Monsieur Ferland ne patrouille plus pour prévenir les automobilistes en faute comme c’était le cas auparavant. Une série de petites attaques cardiaques l’ont conduit à l’hôpital. Il est de retour dans le quartier, mais du haut de ses cinq pieds il est encore plus fragile qu’avant et son pas est moins assuré. «Je n’y arrive plus maintenant, dit-il avec regret, ce n’est pas que je ne veux plus, mais que je ne peux plus. Le docteur me dit que je dois y aller doucement.»

C’est un coup dur. Pas seulement parce qu’on va se ruiner à payer des piles d’amendes dès que la saison de nettoyage des rues va commencer. Mais parce que l’absence du toc-toc-toc de Monsieur Ferland marque la fin d’une époque. Il s’est occupé de nous depuis que nous sommes ici et la rue Waverly sans la surveillance régulière de Monsieur Ferland est aussi peu accueillante qu’une rue sans arbres.

C’était une rue différente quand nous avons emménagé. Nous étions nouveaux dans la rue et nous payions chacun 162,50 $ de loyer, avant que notre propriétaire âgée de 94 ans meure et que nous achetions l’immeuble délabré. Dans le temps, vers le milieu des années 90, le café était plein de vieux Italiens et les murs étaient jaunes de fumée de cigarettes. Il était connu sous le nom de Open Da Night à cause des lettres à demi effacées au-dessus de la porte qui proclamaient l’ouverture jour et nuit. Nous étions jeunes alors, bien avant que tous les habitants du Mile End le soient. Et Monsieur Ferland était là pour nous montrer comment cette rue urbaine pleine de triplex était en réalité un village.

Même s’il est censé y aller doucement, Monsieur Ferland continue de faire sa ronde aux dépanneurs et au café. Il s’affaire le long des trottoirs plusieurs fois par jour. «Il faut que je me tienne en forme, fait-il remarquer.»

On ne lui permet plus de sortir les déchets du café, mais le soir des ordures, si j’oublie, il tire ma poubelle jusqu’au bord du trottoir. Le lendemain matin, je la retrouve sous l’escalier, comme si des lutins étaient passés par là.

Un jour cet été il se promène avec un morceau de bois et un marteau pour réparer l’appuie-bras d’un ancien banc d’église à l’extérieur du café. «Tout le monde le voit, mais personne ne s’en occupe, fait-il remarquer.» Et les fumeurs ne se rendent pas compte que c’est grâce à lui qu’ils évitent les échardes.

Si je ne vois pas Monsieur Ferland pendant quelques jours, être assise au pied de mon escalier ne me semble pas pareil. Le coin de la rue semble vide. Je commence à m’inquiéter. Puis, un matin, la sonnette retentit et le voilà. Je sais que ce n’est pas pour le stationnement : la voiture est garée en face de l’immeuble à un endroit sans problème, une position que Monsieur Ferland aime à appeler «une belle place.»

«J’étais à l’hôpital, me dit-il. Ils ne peuvent pas soigner mon cœur. J’ai dit au docteur : Si vous ne pouvez pas réparer mon cœur, je peux aller me faire survolter chez Canadian Tire.» Il plaisante, mais il n’est pas seulement venu pour bavarder.

«Avez-vous trouvé quelque chose que j’ai laissé pour vous ? » me demande-t-il. Il avait trouvé une paire de lunettes de soleil à côté de notre auto et l’avait laissée sur le pas de notre porte. Je l’avais remarquée, soigneusement repliée sur le seuil, et je l’avais soupçonné de l’y avoir posée.

Elle n’était pas à moi, pas cette fois-ci, mais la question n’est pas là. Si j’avais laissé tomber mes lunettes, ou un objet important, c’est Monsieur Ferland qui les aurait trouvés et me les aurait rapportés.

Post-scriptum: C’est la dernière fois que Monsieur Ferland a appuyé sur notre sonnette. Il est mort un mois plus tard. Jacques Ferland, 1933-2008.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pigeon Man

Every day, late in the afternoon, in the alley between Parc Avenue and Jeanne Mance, John takes his position near the dumpsters, and waits for his flock.

Pigeons flutter down from the rooftops and wires and flap up from the pavement where they've been pecking at stray sesame seeds. They whir through the air to land on his wrists and knees.

John pulls a peanut from the pouch around his waist and cracks it open. A white speckled bird on his hand bobs for the nut in the shell. John murmurs to it and strokes its neck.

Two small blond Hasidic boys stop and watch , fascinated, until their father pulls them away.

Other people aren't intrigued. "He must be so dirty with them all over him like that," remarks a 14-year-old girl who says he's been on that corner with the pigeons for as long as she can remember.

"People think pigeons are dirty," John shrugs. "They're dirty because people are dirty. People spit, throw garbage on the ground and the pigeons walk in it. I wash my hands after I touch them," he gestures with a yellowed thumbnail. "They don't spread disease.

"I've had warnings. It's against the law to feed pigeons in Montreal. But I like to feed them. It's my hobby."

John wears a yellow windbreaker and has a trim white beard. His grey hair curls out from under his baseball cap. His standards of cleanliness might not be everyone's but apart from the birds cloaking his arms and legs, he's neat and self-contained. He's lived on this alley, in the apartment building next to St-Viateur Bagels, for 25 years. In addition to the alley full of pigeons, he has two pairs of doves at home. He's originally from Hungary and says dove like the past tense of dive.

John speaks quietly and to hear him you have to get close which means getting into pigeon space. The pigeons hover at elbow height, wondering if I, too, might offer something as enticing as peanuts. One flaps against me and I jump at the surprising feathery touch and wave my arm so it won't land on me.

They are iridescent gray, or soft purplish brown, or white with speckles, they're beautiful and grimy like the alley.

All different colours of pigeons perch on John's shoulders, arms and hat, and their wiry red talons curl around his hand.

The owner of the St-Viateur Bagels, Joe Morena, strides by without a glance.

"He doesn't like me," John says. "He doesn't want me to feed them. But they come for the seeds from the bagels," he explains. "People eat their bagels, the seeds fall down, that's it."

If he didn't feed the pigeons, wouldn't there be fewer of them?

"Maybe a few less," John concedes. "But you can't get rid of them. They know where the food is."

He's not inclined to give up his hobby, even if it's unpopular with one of the street's most prominent entrepreneurs and also against the law. He goes through about eight pounds of peanuts a week during his regular shift. "I'm here from 4:00 to 8:00," he says. "They wait for me."

Sometimes John can be seen arriving at the lane behind his apartment by bicycle. He walks his bike through the patch where pigeons are scavenging for seeds. He hates the cars that kill them by speeding down the alley. He takes his time and looks down fondly as the pigeons crowd around his ankles.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Voice of the Tree

On St-Viateur East, in the shadow of an old factory building, a tree has a small sign around its slender trunk. It is part announcement, part polite plea heralding the tree's point of view. "The tree says: 'There is now, at the corner of St-Viateur East and St-Dominique Streets, a slew of bike racks for you to lock your bicycle. Why not take a few seconds and use them? I thank you!'"

In the square of earth around the tree, there is a tiny flower garden full of carefully kept marigolds, geraniums, nasturtiums, tall grasses and daisies. Along the block between Casgrain and St-Dominique there are three more trees with signs and neatly tended squares of garden around them.

On a recent Monday morning, Diane Boyer was kneeling on the sidewalk, deadheading the flowers and tending to the plants. She wore gardening gloves and knee protectors and had a bucket of gardening tools she moved with her from square to square.

A man wandered over to say good morning to her. "I'm not awake yet," he said, looking like he wanted a cup of coffee. "Gilles is a woodworker," Diane explained. "He donated the bamboo and made the fences." She pointed to the tiny fence posts protecting the flowers.

"We just had some good news," she continued. "There's an Eco-Quartier contest about embellishing your neighbourhood," she said, using the French word for beautify. "And we won! Helen Fotopulos, the mayor of the borough, is going to come give us a plaque."

Diane has lived in the building, which was once a piano factory and then a shirt factory, for 11 years. She shares her fourth-floor loft with her cat Picolo who has extra toes on each paw and stalks around with big-footed entitlement. Diane has plucked many sewing pins, relics from the shirt manufacturer, out from between the hardwood floor planks. Her sunny space features a purple painted leather couch and bright blue, green and red walls adorned with wooden sculptures.

"I paint, draw, sculpt and grow plants," said Diane, whose day job is coordinating dubbing at a sound studio. "I used to have a community garden but I gave up my plot and I thought this space in front would be my garden. My neighbours pitched in and lent me hoses. I hook up to a water outlet at the loading dock on Casgrain and when I connect two hoses together they reach all the way to St-Dominique."

Since she started the gardens in late June, people have been receptive to the trees' message about using bike racks instead of locking up to the tree trunks. As a result, the trees are doing better. Diane indicated a spot where the tree bark had previously been worn away and showed how a fresh sprig was now poking out of the same trunk.

"The only thing we can't control is the cats and dogs who wander at night. The cats use the gardens as a litter box. But there's very little damage."

As Diane adjusted one of the laminated signs on a tree, two women walked out of the building. "You're the one who did these gardens?" they asked. "They're great!"

Diane smiled and plucked a dry leaf off a daisy.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Our Lady of the Cherries

Once I start looking I notice it everywhere. Urban fruit.

The postage stamps of green along the streets and alleys of Mile End are home to trees bursting with plums, pears, apples, crabapples, cherries, even surprising peaches -- and in one special spot, luminous and unlikely, lemons (more on the lemons soon).

It's almost magical for fruit trees to thrive in this dense patchwork of row housing, street and sidewalk where the tiny yards are only 25 feet wide and often just 10 feet deep.

Ivan Apotic has a white mustache and a watchful look and stands in his front yard like a security guard on duty. I've walked by him at the his end of the block many times. His manner is not inviting, but today I am on an urban fruit discovery mission.

I ask if those are cherries on his tree with the shiny dark bark. He makes a face and tilts his hand from side to side.

"Not sweet. Too much water. Rain." The next thing I know he's stepping over the feathery cosmos to pick some. He gives me a handful of soft fruit. They are not the dark colour of bing cherries but that special bright red that says poison. I'm hesitant. Maybe this is the security guard's way of discouraging intruders. Bravely, I taste one. Sour but juicy. I can imagine a tangy sour cherry jam.

It turns out Ivan is not unfriendly but his English isn't great. When I ask where he's from originally, he says, "Religion? Catholic." That's when the shrine behind his cherry tree comes into focus for me. I've half-noticed this virgin in the shade, framed by her slender string of lights, every time I walk up the street. Ivan must have been the one to put it up.

Ivan has lived on Waverly for 33 years. He planted his cherry tree 18 years ago. Originally from Slovenia (I asked again), he used to work at furniture and fur coat factories in Montreal.

As Waverly Street overflows with young professionals there are fewer and fewer residents like Ivan who've been here for decades. You're more likely to see a baby jogger or a Mclaren stroller or an organic vegetable basket next to the front steps than a shrine.

I used to hear a cricket under the apple tree across the street through my open window on summer nights. It's amazing to hear a cricket in the city. Somehow its resonant chirp created a vaulting cathedral of space.

They cut down the apple tree and bricked over the rug-sized lawn that used to surround it. I can't hear a cricket from here anymore. Maybe there's one under Ivan's cherry tree, in its tiny oasis, next to the virgin.