Wednesday, January 27, 2010

End of an Era

The sign in the window of Maple Leaf Hat and Cap Company reads, "Closing. Everything Must Go."

I can't believe it. I was in here just a month ago. Barry Shinder was sewing caps and telling me that business was slow.

He's being saying that since I first met him a year and a half ago, so it's a scenario I could comfortably imagine repeating itself for years to come. I would go in to buy gift caps and visit my favourite piece of living history (see original blog post) and Barry would be there, sewing away as he's been doing for his entire life.

But he's closing up shop.

The little factory on the first floor of the St.-Laurent triplex is more chaotic than usual. Bolts of fabric are heaped willy-nilly on the cutting tables next to half-sewn caps, boxes of brims and big juice jars full of snaps. Orange For Sale or Sold! stickers dot the old metal shelves and cabinets.

Barry Shinder's manufacturing costs became too high.

Last week his main client, the garment company who contracted him to make their caps, said they couldn't afford his prices anymore.

They offered him a job. So now, instead of sewing caps in the business his father started on the Main 80 years ago, Barry will commute to work in the Chabanel district and get paid a wage. No overhead, no staff (for years he's employed three workers during his busy season).

"I'll be a worker instead of a boss," he says. "I'm losing money here so anything I make will be better. It'll be money with no headaches!"

Barry Shinder doesn't look like a man without headaches. He's losing weight and sleep worrying about how he'll manage to get rid of everything, rent out his 1800 square feet of factory space, pay off his debts and change his life.

"I've never worked anywhere else. This is my whole life." Then he pauses and adds optimistically, "At least I'll get up in the morning knowing I have work. And imagine, an 8-4 job! Instead of seven days a week!"

He'll be bringing his dad's old Singer sewing machine with him to sew caps. "That is one thing I'd never sell," he declares.

While we're talking, the owner of a hat shop in Côte de Neiges comes in to scoop up some stock at reduced prices. Usually, he goes to a wholesaler where all the hats are made in China and sell for a maximum of $5 each. "Five dollars, and that's top quality!" he tells Barry. "A simple cap, like this," he says, picking up a cotton flat cap, "20 cents."

"But the plastic in that brim costs me 45 cents!" Barry objects. He turns to me and sighs. "There you have the whole story."

A triplex in Mile End is valuable real estate these days, yet Barry says he can't imagine selling. So at least there's that. The rows of sewing machines, the stacks of caps and the dust from decades of fabric-cutting will all be gone. And what will become of the shelves of old blocks he used for shaping caps? At least Barry will still be around.

"If I had to move out of this area it'd kill me," he says of the block where he's lived since 1953 when he was six years old. "I could walk around here blindfolded."

As I leave, wet snow is falling and I notice that just north of Barry's place, in what used to be a neighbourhood tavern full of battered wicker chairs, a fancy new bar has opened up. Change is everywhere. Everything must go.

link to original blog post on Maple Leaf Hat and Cap

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ode on a City Wall

I came to Montreal for the first time when I was 21. It was summer and I'd just spent a season planting trees in the bush, getting sunburned, blistered and bitten by blackflies.

The city was hot and steamy, full of traffic and bicycles. People crowded the parks and sidewalks and ate in restaurants that opened onto the street as if there wasn't enough room inside to contain so much life.

I ran through a sprinkler park wedged into the middle of a block of rowhouses, walked up and down the Main, bought beads in a shop by the bus station, drank the best coffee I'd ever had and ate things I'd never tasted before – Chilean avocado sandwiches and heart of palm salads. I was so hungry for all of it, for the whole city full of languages, the clatter of old Portuguese guys playing dominoes, the cold beer for sale at every dépanneur on every corner, the way people looked and talked and danced. I was in love.

I came back a year later. It was November. The city was frozen, snowless, bleak and ugly. I walked all over looking for traces of the things I loved. There were only grey streets, à louer signs in storefronts, barren rings of hockey rinks waiting for ice. Montreal was on the skids and I was without prospects, but somehow it was all exciting.

I got a job as a waitress and then as a reporter for a tiny newspaper that paid me by the column inch. At the top of my stories they misspelled my name. My roommate and I lived on reduced price cheeses from Vielle Europe and frozen perogis.

Our landlord controlled the heat in our cheap St.-Urbain apartment and it was the warmest place I'd ever have. I slept with my window cracked open; swaddled up in bed I could feel feathery snowflakes kiss my nose. We lit our kitchen and its ugly linoleum with a desk lamp and a string of fairy lights. Though the green shimmering Montreal I'd first met was nowhere to be found, it was still the early days of love. Nothing could get me down.

The "i love you..." graffiti makes me think of all this. The first time I saw it, I crossed the street to get a better look. It was on the no-man's-land of St.-Viateur East, low-down, close to the sidewalk. The writing was loopy, the way a schoolgirl would write in a diary. Later I saw that sometimes the i was dotted with a heart. The words are always followed by a pensive dot, dot, dot.

I ask people in the neighbourhood if they've seen this writing and they nod and smile, saying, "Oh yeah..." as if it reminds them of something, too.

A note scrawled on a garage door or on a bit of stucco close to the ground. It's like a little valentine. The words are seed bombs that guerilla gardeners throw into fenced-off vacant lots, planting flowers in the cracks in the concrete. Like the hearts that someone (the same someone?) is putting in the stop lights, the messages are surprise gifts, company in an unexpected place.

But who is this, "I", this "you" ? I wonder.

There's something wistful about the loopy writing. Maybe it's the dot dot dot that sends me back to that time back when I first loved the city, before I ever got my bike stolen, or my brakes stolen off my bike, or my handlebars stolen off my bike, before I ever got sick of bagels and waiting for the bus. Back when I used to go out late and come home later and we seemed to subsist on beer and ginger candies; when our Greek landlord greeted us shouting, "Beautiful girls! Beautiful girls!" The way he pronounced girls made it sound like he was complimenting us for having breathing organs like fish.

I take pictures of the graffiti, which really seems too sweet and gentle to call graffiti. I start a small collection.

But after a while the writing on the wall turns into one more familiar thing that I actually know nothing about, like the mystery of so many of my neighbours. Where does he go every day? Why does she leave the lights on all night? What are their actual jobs?

Then I notice the i love yous are fragile. When I go back and try to find them again, I discover they've been scrawled on top of or painted over.

That's to be expected, not much stands still, untouched. Bikes get stolen and my giddy infatuation has turned into something more complex. Yet in the noisy blur of snow plows and bike thieves, someone is out there, writing love on the wall, surprising us and triggering a thousand different thoughts with the words and the dot dot dot...