Friday, December 18, 2009

The Big Picture

Maclean stands on St.-Viateur with a clipboard and a pencil, peering across the street. He's an artist, but at the moment he's not making sketches, he's on a reconnaissance mission for Car-Free Mile End.

"I'm taking down the names of all the stakeholders," he says, as he notes the name and address of each business for future reference.

The sun is starting to go down, the light is bouncing off the buildings and seems suspended in the heavy air. It's warm for late November and there's been a smog warning every day this week.

The mild, sluggish quality of the day dovetails with Maclean's project, a community initiative designed as a local response to global warming and peak oil.

"I'm motivated by big picture issues," he says of his plan to get cars off St.-Viateur between Parc Avenue and St.-Urbain. "We have to do something."

Maclean is soft-spoken and never seems rushed, even though he's the father of a two-year-old son, paints in his studio three or more days a week, works at an art auction house, transports his family's laundry and groceries on a bicycle cart, plays ball hockey religiously on Sunday mornings and, now, spearheads a grassroots community group dedicated to opposing car culture.

"I used to want to design cars," he admits. As a kid in Winnipeg, he wanted to be an engineer. Although he's since changed directions, he never left behind the question, or the problem, of the car.

Maclean first started re-directing traffic on St.-Viateur about 9 years ago.

One summer morning we woke up to find the stop signs at the corner of Waverly transformed from "ARRET" to "ART."

Alternating letters were blocked out with red tape. It was so simple and striking that it was surprising no one had ever seen the art in the stop signs before. "People don't think about what surrounds them because they see it so often," Maclean told the newspaper at the time. "But my altering a stop sign just slightly makes them think twice."

Friend and fellow artist Billy Mavreas is prompt and pithy when asked to describe Maclean's work: "It's constantly evolving around a constellation of central themes – the Canadian landscape and road system."

In 2007, as a response to global warming, Maclean launched the satirical website He made tiny chrome magnets, perfect replicas of the "Legacy" or "Denali" tags on SUVs, except the names he covertly stuck on the backs of neighbourhood vehicles spelled: "Excess"; "Denial"; "Obligation"; and "Kyoto."

"I thought I could be the cheeky artist and put these Kyoto Motors magnets on cars and then say, 'OK, I've done my part,'" he says now. Over time, he realized that if he really wanted to close the gap between SUV drivers and cyclists, cynical gestures weren't helpful.

"Matt helped me see that," he says, referring to Mathieu Vick, cofounder of Car-Free Mile End.

At Café Olimpico on the first snowstormy morning of December, he and Matt talk global as well as local and vent their frustration over climate change deniers.

"Ultimately, peak oil will change things, whether people accept global warming as real or not," says Matt who is finishing a PhD in Astrophysics on the evolution of stars. "Instead of wasting 10 years debating whether it's real, we should act now! If we get cars off St-Viateur, it's going to help." Matt gives an edgewise glance and smiles, shaking his head at the notion of this small project as a remedy for a potentially doomed planet.

"It sounds ludicrous," concedes Maclean. "But the best case scenario to come out of Copenhagen is for people to ask, 'What's going to happen on the ground?' It's people who decide what their communities are going to do."

In the five months since they formed Car-Free Mile End, which has a core of six active members (including Zvi Leve, an urban transportation expert) and hundreds of fans on Facebook, they have created a blog,, and a website,

If you think the idea of getting cars off St.-Viateur is dreamy and unrealistic, have a look at the website FAQs: The answers are detailed and grounded in research. They explain the draw of a vehicle-free area for local businesses; make provisions for commercial delivery vehicles during certain hours; and cite the importance of avoiding a tourist-trap atmosphere.

And, if the notion of getting cars off a four-block stretch of one street seems like a local drop in the bucket, think about how cities will need to be rebuilt to adapt to life after peak oil. This is one of Nik Luka's main areas of study. He teaches architecture and urban planning at McGill. Matt and Maclean met with him to make their case and Nik Luka liked the idea. He's assigned a group of graduate students to study the potential of a car-free St.-Viateur and help survey locals.

Maybe this century-old, high-density, foot and bike-friendly neighbourhood can set an example and un-pave the way to carless, or at least car-light future.

To begin with, Car-Free Mile End plans to organize several festive, temporary street closures in summer 2010.

"It's not enough," says Maclean. "What's enough requires dismantling industrialized civilization. Rant, rant, rant," he adds, self-mockingly.

It may not be enough, but Maclean believes in the repercussions of individual actions. He refuses to own a car. He observes a self-imposed ban on flying. He dreams of putting "delivery by artist" in the contract so that when his dealer sells one of his paintings he can wheel it to the buyer by bike. And, he is "very much against pens" since finding out about the huge plastic (including disposable pens) trash vortex in the ocean.

In his studio full of tools and canvases and road signs, there are globes; the earth, the moon and stars. He's been painting the heavens, piercing vivid blue and orange tarps with grommets to form the shape of constellations.

He finds some solace in the grand scheme of the cosmos and the cyclical movement of planets around the sun.

Today, as snow whips by the window, he'll be working on one of his Dead End paintings, inspired by the black and yellow checkered sign that denotes the end of the road.

"It's the ultimate human predicament," he says, as he considers the checkerboard grid. "Whether it's personal, or the end of a whole civilization, it's like, Whoa. Slow down! a) you're going to die, b) you're part of something bigger."

The artist is here to signal us: our lives, our neighbourhood streets are part of the big picture. Stop. Proceed with Caution.


Titles of artwork by Maclean above (not including work in progress in studio):
Untitled (ART - Hutchison and Van Horne), 2005
Northern Landscape, 2007
Winter Dead-End #1 and #2, 2005

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Subterranean Blues

When you step down into the cavernous basement warehouse of Jeans Jeans Jeans, owner Borys Fridman is there to greet you, like a maître d' at the front of a crowded bistro.

"How we doing?" he says, and to his legions of returning customers: "Good to see you! What can we do for you today?"

This is no generic Gap-style greeting. Borys gives you his full attention, pinpoints your size exactly, and with his jeans ESP, reads your needs.

Then he calls out to his staff: "Maria/Vanessa/Fatima, can you show her something dark and simple, no bling on the pockets, straight leg?"

Here your eyes widen and he tells you, "I also read minds."

And this is how, from the fluorescent-lit cave of a million jeans, they bring you the ones you'll probably want.

"He's the Jeans Guru!" says my friend Merrianne, a long-time customer. "At first you don't understand why this older mustached guy is telling you what jeans to wear – but then you realize, he really knows!"

People come in and ask for him by name. One customer says that if she went into the store and Borys wasn't there, she'd come back later. As she puts it, "You want his stamp of approval on the jeans you buy."

Borys seems to know all there is to know about his chosen field. He started the business 35 years ago, when he was 21. In the 80s, he had 16 stores all over the city, including this one that he's kept, in a rue de Gaspé warehouse at the east end of St.-Viateur.

The garment district is being redeveloped and with plans in the works to extend St.-Viateur East, it's not yet clear what the future holds for Jeans Jeans Jeans. Borys, who grew up on Durocher and Van Horne, and has seen the neighbourhood through plenty of changes, says with a shrug, "We'll deal with what we have to deal with."

Once he announces your requirements to his people, Maria, or one of her fleet of helpers, squeezes between the racks of jeans and hops on a stepladder to pull down the right size from colour-coded hangers.

If Jeans Jeans Jeans is a three-ring circus with ladders, acrobats and jeans in every ring, Borys is the ringmaster. He juggles a dozen customers at once, reading their perfect and not-so-perfect bodies with his mind, funneling them into fitting rooms, chatting, charming, and kneeling at the foot of strollers to talk to toddlers.

"I multi-task," Borys says, as his eyes dart around, tracking clients. "I pay attention, make sure everyone is taken care of, that customers are happy, having a good time."

His father, Izak Fridman, who is 82 and works in the store five days a week (dressed not in jeans but in dress pants), says proudly, "He's very good with people."

"It's just a matter of paying attention," says Borys.

When he notices a red-headed employee searching through the racks with an energetic focus, he calls: "Talk to me, Vanessa!"

For a minute they confer about a customer who has so far rejected all the jeans she's been offered. "Try Miss Me," Borys suggests, naming a brand. "It's a little bit louder but it'll be nice on her." Vanessa climbs the ladder to do his bidding.

Most of the time, Borys gravitates to the front of the store where he can keep an eye on all comings and goings. The cracked concrete floor is covered with a strip of indoor/outdoor carpeting duct-taped at the edges. Overhead, a sign explains that zero spending on carpets and fixtures keeps prices low. All the jeans here are heavily discounted, often selling for half of what they'd go for in other stores.

It's not fancy, but the service is attentive.

"It's the opposite of the uninterested fashionistas at a posh place," says Merrianne. "You feel special the whole time!"

This kind of attention can be disconcerting if you're used to regular store clerks who traffic in indifference or the other extreme – the hard-sell. At his place, Borys insists, "We don't sell jeans, we make customers." You can try on jeans all day if you want, leave without buying, and come back the next day to mull over the decision some more.

The store is open six days a week and Borys is there every day. Mornings he visits suppliers to get the brands customers are asking for that week. At night, he's a barfly with a purpose.

"I go out to see what's going on and what people are wearing. I drop in or stand outside to get an idea of trends, of what moves the market."

Wherever he goes, Borys is recognized. He once ran into customers on a beach in Mexico. "They said, 'Hey, it's the jean guy!' I always get a little embarrassed. Outside of business, I'm a shy person."

I notice that he doesn't want to talk about himself. He would rather talk jeans, and this he does with moxie and innuendo:

"You try on a pair of jeans that's right for you, you come out with a little smirk on your face that says, 'Yes, I'm hot!' When it's right, it's right."

"Your assets are perfect," he says, when a guy turns to check the view in the mirror. To a woman, he'll say: "Your attributes look great," or, "You need to go a size smaller in those;" or sometimes even, with what he refers to as 'tactful honesty': "They don't look good on you."

People value his frank response – the confidence he's acquired through years of experience tends to give him the last word on the subject.

Borys tells me about Nudies, the expensive "dry denim" jeans you're supposed to wear for six months before washing (!) and True Religion, another pricey brand, with a Buddha on the label. He says his own personal preference runs to Rare Jeans or Edwins made with Japanese denim. "Guys are touchy-feely about that perfect pair of jeans. They're also brand-whores more than women."

All this makes me reminisce about the bygone era when all anyone had to do was buy new Levi's once a year.

Borys tells me that Levi's are back, big time, with young hipsters.

I get excited. "Really? Levi's are back? Can I get some?"

"Hm. Not at your age," he advises gently.


"You've done that," he tells me. "It's like old boyfriends. You see them, you want to be with them again, and within 30 minutes you know why you broke up. It doesn't work to do it again."

I try to argue this point, but he is unmovable, even smug, as if to say: go against my advice at your own peril, you'll only embarrass yourself.

On a grey Saturday afternoon at Jeans Jeans Jeans, the women's changing rooms are full. A small crowd is lined up and waiting as more people clomp down the stairs. The woman hidden at a sewing machine behind a clothes rack hems jeans non-stop.

Girls rotate in front of the mirrors, trying get a good look at their backsides.

"Tu les aime pas?" a slender young woman asks her boyfriend as she revolves in a skin-tight pair of dark jeans that are sparkly with rococo stitching.

The radio blares "Young Hearts Be Free Tonight," and I watch the teenagers with the dazzling back pockets. I imagine a day in their far-off future, when they ask about the jeans with bling and Borys, still on the job as the denim authority, tells them: "You can't go back. It's time for something different."

p.s. November 2010
Jeans Jeans Jeans moved out of the basement and around the corner to:
5575 Casgrain



Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Live Forever

Lana Kim McGeary

My grandmother Adele grew herbs in her Vermont garden and hung bunches of comfrey, red clover, sweet cicely, lovage and lemon thyme from her kitchen ceiling to dry. Rosehips tangled by her back door through which the resident garter snake slithered often enough to be named Henry/Henrietta. Adele used to serve nasturtiums in a salad bowl the size of a baby's bathtub and was fond of saying, in reference to the healthy habits she energetically espoused: "You'll live forever if you're not careful!" and "Everything in moderation, including moderation!"

When I hear about a woman who gives walking tours of edible herbs in Mile End and on Mount Royal, of course I think of Adele.

A friend points out Lana Kim McGeary to me at the Social Club on St-Viateur. She's an herbalist who enjoys strong coffee. I sidle up to her and mention that my grandmother Adele Dawson was an herbalist. She says, "Of course I know Adele Dawson! She's famous!"

I love that she says this, and that she uses the present tense. It's as if Adele is right here, even though she died 17 years ago.

After meeting Lana, who says that Adele was a pioneer in bringing back the tradition of the Wise Woman or village healer, I go home. For the first time, I Google my grandmother –someone who never heard that term. It turns out that Adele is alive on the internet. I have a copy of her book Herbs: Partners in Life, but I didn't know it was in its third printing and available for sale online. There are even customer comments on Amazon that say, "I liked Dawson's voice," and "her writing style is friendly and wise."

This makes my eyes sting, although it shouldn't surprise me that Adele is still making herself heard. A few years ago, I transcribed some of my favourite passages from her book because I liked the way her personality bubbled off the page.

"No one wants to take a chance on having a parsley shortage," she writes, making me think I've been remiss not to have ever worried about this. In an assertion that sounds counter-intuitive, she says: "Another healthy and appetizing addition to the salad bowl is the stinging nettle." (That's if you get to the plant before it grows too prickly.)

She provides a recipe for a summer drink made with comfrey, violet and raspberry leaves and mint, and then advises the reader to "wait smugly for the inevitable delighted comments of your guests."

That's Adele –waiting smugly for the inevitable delighted comments of her guests! She was always so confident and satisfied with her efforts, it only made sense for everyone else to appreciate them, too. She liked to say she was a NBEOE –a Natural Born Expert on Everything– and, after a Vermont newspaper once referred to her as a state treasure, she often shamelessly augmented her status, declaring, "I'm a national treasure, you know!"

So, it's because of my grandmother Adele, herbalist, national treasure and NBEOE, that I find myself sitting on a sunny slope at the base of Mount Royal with Lana, who's leading a Mountain Herb Walk.

I've met Lana a few times by now and talking to her always feels like a little trip to Vermont somehow, or, as if Adele is making an appearance in my neighbourhood. Lana pays attention to the plants that grow in the cracks in the sidewalk and was able to identify the sprawling green overtaking our infinitesimal yard: "Ground ivy," she noted. "Very good for kids, for fevers."

Now it's early October and the leaves on Mount Royal are just starting to turn. It was a weekend like this, 24 years ago, back when I was a teenager, that I went to Adele's 80th birthday party. It was two days long, with guests spilling out of the house into the garden. There was a pig and a lamb roasting outside, and cake, and 80 bottles of champagne. Friends and family members from all over had every motel from Marshfield to Plainfield booked solid.

On the mountain, I feel the sun on my back and wonder how many people throw themselves a party like that at 80.

Lana is talking about the pharmacopoeia that is the dandelion. She mentions eating the tender greens in the spring and using the root for tinctures in the fall. "Some say there is nothing the dandelion can't heal," she says.

Her language is familiar to me and so are the names of the other plants she points out on our walk, not that I could recognize them growing. Burdock, wild ginger and stinging nettle –that healthy and appetizing addition to the salad bowl!

Further up Mount Royal the city recedes, the birds are more audible under the canopy of maples, the traffic fainter; it's more like Vermont.

I've been wondering about it and I realize I don't know exactly when Adele became an herbalist. I consult with my mother and my aunt.

They say that it was after she moved to Vermont, adding that it may have been inspired by a life-changing remedy of boneset tea that cured her of Dengue fever while she was in the West Indies.

Adele was almost 60 when she started a new life. That's when she planted a garden and threw herself into learning about herbs. She collected a library of books on the subject, studied hard and figured out how to use them.

"She would give out herbs, but also advice, " my Aunt Susie remembers.

"I never knew how much to take seriously," my mother says. "We were never sure. She had such utter confidence about everything. I do remember being impressed that she was able to identify so many wild plants."

Our family tended to see Adele as an unreliable narrator because she'd always been an extravagant storyteller, an instinctive embellisher, the ultimate self-appointed expert.

But as Lana points out, part of herbalism is learning as much as you can yourself so you don't have to rely on healthcare experts. It's DIY, and Adele was a natural on that front.

Of course, I'm only scratching the surface here. Many may want to weigh in, family members included, or especially. While I'm at it, maybe I should confess that I still have Adele's copy of Culpeper's Herbal that I borrowed from her library of books on herbs (a collection that really should stay intact) approximately 13 years ago. I may be unreliable myself.

Birthday parties aside, there were always people at Adele's. Artists, potters, dowsers, woodworkers, writers, travelers. She had housemates like a college student. And she had followers. I remember being surprised by the reverence they sometimes displayed, as if they didn't know she was a whole person with a sense of humour and mischief, a stubborn side, and a temper like a sudden hailstorm.

One time one of her admirers asked me, "How does it feel to be Adele's grand-daughter?"

How to answer a question that was not really about me? I felt too dull, quiet and shy to be the granddaughter of a natural-born national treasure, but that didn't seem like much of an answer.

Meeting Lana spurred me to consider the question again. For my answer, see above.

Herbs: Partners in Life

For more information on Lana Kim McGeary's walking tours and workshops, contact her at: abundanceliving (at)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Field Custodian

Past the east end of St. Viateur and beyond a gap in a chain link fence, between the factory buildings and the railroad tracks, there's a grassy vacant lot crisscrossed with dirt paths.

This lot, a huge expanse of open space by Mile End standards, has been attracting attention lately, in part because of Emily Rose Michaud.

If you talk to her, she'll tell you it's not actually vacant at all.

"It's a wild space in the middle of the city," she declares. Emily and the other neighbourhood proponents of the area call it the Roerich Garden, The Maguire Meadow or The Field of Possibilities/Le Champs des Possibles, and despite its contamination from having been a railway yard, they say it has its own ecosystem and habitat.

Originally owned by CP Rail, lot #2334609 was acquired by the city in June of this year and plans for its development are under discussion.

Emily, who is 26, grabs my pen as we talk and makes sketches on my notepad to emphasize and illustrate her points. She says I caught her on a high-energy morning, but it's hard to imagine her lethargic.

She was initially drawn to the wide open space as an art student and enjoyed walking through it along with the dog walkers, workers from buildings on Casgrain and de Gaspé and the neighbourhood residents going to or from St-Denis.

Then, two years ago, she did a project there for her sculpture class and her relationship with the place grew more serious. "I paid hundreds of dollars for 4 tons of compost to be delivered. I figured lots of artists spend that much on paint and canvas," she says.

She recruited a dozen volunteers to help her layer the compost, plus hay, leaves and cardboard in a pattern she'd spray painted on the November snow.

In the spring, bright green new grass grew there, forming the Roerich Symbol, a design used during WWII to protect cultural landmarks from aerial bombing.

Emily's sculpture course was over, but she found she couldn't let go. She wanted to maintain the symbol and protect the life of the field. "It became an obsession," she says.

She formed the gardening ensemble Sprout Out Loud and a blog devoted to the field (, which she now called the Roerich Garden. She began to organize work on the site and the planting of donated sage and hosta, plus bee balm and red clover that she bought with her own money.

Diane Boyer, a Mile End gardener who became a member of Sprout Out Loud, says that Emily opened her eyes to seeing the space in a whole new way.

"I used to cross the lot to get somewhere and I never thought twice about it. Then Emily started mentioning it as a field with its own biodiversity. I'd bumped into rabbits there, something you don't usually see around here, but I didn't think of how much it balanced out the cement and asphalt and buildings around us. It is precious."

In addition to cleanups and planting sessions, Emily programmed and coordinated Sunday events there. Bronwyn Chester spoke on the field's trees, Lana Kim McGeary on the wild herbs and urban botanist Roger Latour on what he calls flora urbana.

"It takes a lot of energy to keep it up," says Diane. "Also, her symbol is huge. It's a big landscaping job. And with volunteering, it's always the same people who do the work. Physically Emily is very strong. I look at her with her long, long hair and I see a sort of Xena goddess!" she says, referring to TV's warrior princess who fought against the forces of evil in ancient Greece.

Emily, who squirms when likened to a goddess/warrior princess, persevered in her efforts to bridge art and science on the site and the Roerich Garden/Maguire Meadow project gained momentum. Last spring, Annie Cavanagh, who was working on a Masters in science, approached Emily about an experiment in bio-remediation, or decontamination through natural methods. To this end, Annie planted 100 willow sticks around the edge of the big Roerich circle where they sprouted and grew all summer.

Until August, when the city mowed them in an attempt to rid the lot of ragweed.

"It was very sad," sighs Emily, who recently met with the city (as part of the Mile End Citizen's environmental subcommittee) to protest the mowing of the wild space. The city has agreed not to mow the area for now, although it may eventually decontaminate the site through a massive soil removal operation that Emily calls "dig and dump."

There's a book on the Roerich Garden in the works and a website in progress ( ) and various citizens' groups are actively imagining and proposing ideas for the future of the field.

Between going to meetings and translating minutes, updating her blog and organizing events, Emily is looking for ways to support herself and do her art. "I told myself I was going to be more careful about my time and boundaries," she muses.

At the street festival on St.-Viateur East, Emily sits on the curb, next to a piece of brown burlap covered with green patches of sprouting wheat grass and red clover.

When the raucous drum troupe finishes its performance, she begins to sing quietly and cut into the material that's lying on the street. Gradually, she stitches a garment that's alive with green, attracting the attention of passersby who stop to look at what she calls her living armour.

On the grey street these tender sprouts are unexpected. When Emily steps into the burlap and sews it up around her it's even more surprising. It's become a sprouting dress and she's like some kind of wild fertility icon. Or the warrior princess of the urban field.


Postscript - November 2009: Emily announces that she will no longer be coordinating events in the field but will remain active on the Mile End Citizens' Field Committee. After two years of hard work she plans to wrap up the book project and focus on "personal/career things."

Saturday, August 29, 2009


In the alley behind Esplanade, there's an oblong oasis. Tomato plants, beans, squash and tall purple-flowered amaranth rustle behind a chain link fence.

Summer evenings I used to see the silver-haired gardener move along the rows, tending his plants. One time I stopped and stared.

"Are those lemons?" Large fruits hung from the branches of a potted tree on the patio.

"Those are lemons, these are grapefruit," he said, gesturing to another tree. Casual about it. As if that stuff grows on trees around here.

Years ago, in Spain, I traveled on an old train with wooden seats and open windows, through lemon groves. The sight of citrus trees in the alley is like magic, a sudden secret passageway to the Mediterranean, a quick ticket to the Limón Express. I carry around with me the image of luminous fruit growing here. When I finally go back to tell him how much his trees mean to me, I arrive too late.

I find a young couple out in the garden. George Moumouris tells me that his father, Spyridon Moumouris, the keeper of the lemon tree, died in 2008.

"When I was growing up, he was out here until it was so dark you couldn't see anymore," George remembers. "My mom would be inside, yelling: 'Come in! Come eat with us!' "I didn't used to get it," George confesses. "But now I do."

Weekend mornings he's out in the gardens, front and back, with the watering can. "My dad is all around me," he says.

Spyridon Moumouris, or Spiros, as he was known, was born on Corfu moved to Mile End from Athens in 1969. He worked at a chemical factory and later switched to construction. In 1986, he bought the fourplex on Esplanade and hired neighbourhood kids to help him break up the pavement in back. His garden was born.

In the front yard, George notices the first ripe fig of the season and picks it to share with his wife. The branches of the beautiful pear tree are laden with fruit although he says it's no good this year, too much rain. The grape arbour, thick-leafed and studded with bunches of grapes shades a bench and a table on the patio, a cool place to sit. It reminds me of another shady grape-arbour haven up the street, north of Latina. I discover that Spiros helped plant it.

It seems there are traces of Spiros all along the block; stories of things he grew or helped along.
Derek Reade, who lives near the corner, with a garden full of black-eyed Susans and dahlias, says he once asked Spiros for advice on a fig tree. 'In the winter, put it in the closet. Just don't forget to water it!' Spiros, fig oracle, instructed.

Reade followed this directive and to his surprise, the tree produced actual figs that summer. But the second winter, once the tree was relegated to the closet, the watering was forgotten. In the spring, when he discovered the dried up fruit tree, Spiros' words came back to him.

Linda Morrison remembers Spiros parading up and down the street with a giant zucchini from his garden. "It was an amazing conversation piece-- like a new puppy or something. He was so proud...He gave me a pear once," she adds. "It was delicious."

Jane Churchill used to live across the street from Spiros, who renovated her house. "He could do anything, but his specialty was plaster," she says. "Curved walls, straight walls, ceilings." He enjoyed the work, because from her place, he could look out on his home and front garden.

"He was like the king of the neighbourhood," Jane says. "Everyone stopped to talk. He loved telling stories. He'd stand in front of his house with his little cup of coffee, a swirl of citrus around him."

He shared heirloom tomatoes and armloads of basil with her. "He was always out there in his garden or his front yard, keeping an eye on all his growing things. He'd squish bugs with his fingers," she recalls. "He hated people leaving dog poop in the alley and graffiti made him crazy. He'd be out there trying to scrub it off."

One of Spiros' famous passions was his olive tree. "Fruit-bearing olive tree beats odds: Esplanade Ave. man puts his heart and soul into sapling from Greece," ran the story in the Gazette in 1997. It described him hugging the tree, and admitting "sometimes I'm crazy and I talk to her."

"That was the first thing I noticed," Linda remembers. "His little olive tree. He built what looked like a phone booth to protect it during the winter."

"He brought it over from Greece as a cutting in his pocket," says Jane.

"The olive tree got sick when he did," recalls George, pointing out a planter at the side of the front garden, with a skeleton of branches in it. "It was weird."

The olive has faltered. But the rest of Spiros' grove goes on – the fig, pear, grapefruit and lemon trees; the vegetable garden that Spiros started when George was a kid; and the grapevines –the ones with the actual grapes, and the kind made up of stories that neighbours tell each other about him. They continue to thrive.

I missed the chance to seek his counsel myself but I can still see him in his oasis, king of the neighbourhood, grower of lemons.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Tommy, the barber with the blue walls, museum piece barber chairs, the tonics pickling in jars, said no to me. He was holding his newspaper when he said it. “No. I don't want. I have nothing to say. No, no. No.” He fanned me out of the shop with his paper.

The bicycle sharpener, who I’d heard of but never seen, also said no. He appeared like a mythical creature out of a billow of blowing snow one Friday afternoon this spring and I yelled out to him, "I've been looking for you!"

I'd been wondering how I would find him, before he stopped riding around the disappearing garment factories sharpening scissors. And finally, there he was, with his grinding wheel in front of the handlebars and a hinged wooden box behind his seat.
It was like running into a horse-drawn ice cart.

He agreed to meet me when it wasn’t blizzarding. I asked if I could take his picture. "No, no, not today,” he said and pedaled off into the flying snow, down toward the underpass, vaporizing like the Sasquatch or the Snuffleupagus.

And then he stood me up.

Barry Shinder at the cap factory, who gets his gigantic antique scissors honed by the bike sharpener, guessed it was because he works under the table and didn’t want publicity or problems.

Over on Parc Avenue, at Chez Rose-Marie Lingerie, they didn’t want to spill the beans either.

“It’s a boring life but it’s my life,” said Rose who has wavy grey hair that tumbles around her shoulders. She’s an Armenian-born, Paris-trained corsetière who’s been working in Montreal for close to 50 years. Her arm is in a sling from the strain of decades of bra-fitting, and sewing alterations. Obviously a fountain of stories and inside information, she refused to give them up for me.

“It's an intimate thing,” Rose said. “It's not like selling dresses.”

She and her daughter, Nora, are as discreet and enigmatic as special agents. The way they tell it, bra-fitting is an undercover operation. “Sisters come in together, but they don't even want the other to know what size they wear,” said Nora, on why they keep their customers' secrets.

So, as it turns out, there are still some secrets in Mile End.

Recently, a journalism student asked if she could talk to me about “hyper local” news.

First I thought, no, no, no! I reacted just like Tommy the barber, Rose the corsetière, and the phantom bicycle sharpener. The prospect of being interviewed reminded me that I, too, am uneasy about revealing too much.

She wanted to know what my goal was, my hope, when I started this “hyper local” project.

I suppose that doing my neighbourhood sort-of-newsletter gives me special dispensation and nerve to ask people questions, even if they don’t want to answer.

And I get to write a portrait. A portrait of my neighbourhood, in pieces. Like one of those big pictures made up of a thousand little photographs.

Got any pieces for me? Any secrets?

You can tell me...

Postscript: September 2009

At Chez Rose-Marie Lingerie they remained mysterious until the end. In August, CLOSING SALE signs appeared on the windows. I thought this sudden turn of events was my chance: now they'll want to tell all! But they didn't, at least not to me. Inside, for a few weeks, the store was packed with shoppers buying up bras at reduced prices. September 1, it was empty, counters and displays gone, pink walls bare of vintage Wonderbra posters. "We are now closed," read a handwritten sign on the door. "For more information, call..." I dialed the number, and got a recording. Rose's voice, telling me to leave a message. No information, no stories, no secrets.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Call of the alley

On a warm evening when I open the back door and the whole alley seems to be in bloom I hear him. A crazy burst of tuneful whistling. A loud whit-whoo! as if in appreciation of a real looker.

It's my favourite and most mysterious neighbour across the alley: the parrot.

This time of year his calls loop out of his third floor window and into our lives.

He has captured the beep beep beep of a truck backing up, and the screee of a squeaky clothesline. In the beginning, I didn't know these noises were coming from a parrot. But there's a reedy resonance to the toots and squeaks. Plus, he remixes the alley sounds with trilling whistles and sends them spinning back out again.

His loopy sounds are part of my summer. Yet inside his third-floor window, the parrot has always been invisible to me.

There's something strange about introducing yourself to people you've lived next to for a decade and a half. 'Hi, I've been meaning to say hello for a while now...' ?

The thing is, since I've become a mother, I talk to neighbours in a way I never used to. It feels natural, maybe even important. Our daughter opens gates, toddles up front walks and expects to go inside the neighbours' homes. Everyone is someone to wave at and every doorway is there to be explored. Like the parrot, she has no sense of boundaries.

She's my incentive and my role-model as I walk out my door and around the block to the front of the parrot triplex. Some kids are playing on the stone patio with a toy glider.

One boy's mother, a pretty, shiny-haired woman named Bia, turns out to be the parrot's owner. I tell her I've been hearing her bird for years. She thinks I'm there to complain. "It bothers you?"

"That's how I know it's summer!" I say. "I love it."

Bia tells me the parrot is an African Grey named Max.

Max was a gift to Bia from her husband Mario, 17 years ago, not long after she moved to Montreal from Porto, Portugal. Now they have two sons, but back then Bia was home alone while Mario went to work. She didn't speak much English or French and felt isolated.

"My husband works a lot," she says. "Probably why he got me the bird," she adds with a wry smile.

"Max is company. When you have no one to talk to, you talk to the bird. In the morning you say good morning, the bird says good morning back."

It has taken me 15 years to get this far, so now that I'm finally on Bia's patio, I go all the way. I ask if I can meet Max. Bia shows me upstairs, past shelves of bird figurines, through a spotless apartment where her teenaged son is listening to music in his room.

"I always thought Max was a male --until last year when she laid four eggs!" Bia tells me, adding that if she'd known, she might have mated her. African Greys are highly sought after and she says she could have sold the chicks for $1500 each.

She opens the door to the utility room at the back of the apartment where there's a washing machine, a step ladder, a window out onto our shared alley, and a spacious bird cage.

Max surprises me by being smaller than I imagined. Her soft, grey, white-rimmed feathers look like petals and she has a brilliant red tail.

I stare, not sure what to do now that I'm face to face with the invisible --almost mythical--alley creature.

The bird ruffles her feathers, wary of me. "She's afraid," Bia explains. "That's what she does when she sees someone she doesn't know."

Max doesn't realize I'm a devoted listener. She cocks her head to examine me with one yellow eye and then the other.

Then she gives a quiet squawk, "Hola."

Another surprise. I didn't know my-neighbour-the-parrot could talk. Apparently, when you're within talking distance, she does.

"Hola! Hola! Hola!" I reply, I'm a giddy fan with a backstage pass.

"She speaks Portuguese, like me," Bia explains. "She imitates Mario's whistle, the phone, everything."

While we're in her room, Max is not loud at all. No beeping or hooting or screeching. She looks at us, makes a little Portuguese conversation, and listens.

"She makes a lot of dust," Bia is telling me. "Dander. Every three days I have to clean the cage. And she has to have showers. And her wing feathers trimmed. You get tired," she confesses, about the parrot care. "And they can live for 95 years!"

Max shifts and twists on her perch, eyeing us with curiosity.

When Max is an old parrot, my daughter will be an old lady. They have so much in common. Just this morning, when I was changing her diaper, she heard the sound of a truck backing up, and hooted along à la Max. "eep, eep, eep, eep!"

Improbably, I imagine them as neighbours in the far-off future. Max will have new sounds in her repertoire by then, but every once in a while she'll call out a piercing beep beep beep, and this will remind her neighbour, a baby-faced old lady, of the olden days, of growing up along the alley, back at the beginning of the century.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Mission: Mile End

For years, Luboslaw Hrywnak and I were neighbours without knowing it. Then, once I meet him, I see him everywhere. Our paths cross on Parc Avenue near his apartment building, or along St. Viateur, or outside the Mile End Mission where we first spoke.

He wears a blue parka or windbreaker, depending on the weather, and ambles as if lost in thought. He has wire-rimmed glasses and a white beard and takes drags on a cigarette with the intensity of a committed smoker.

I'd walked past the Mission on the corner of Bernard and St. Urbain a thousand times. When I finally go in to find out more about it, Mission director Roslyn Macgregor gets Lubo to fill me in.

"There are other places around town where you can get a free meal," he says, drinking coffee as the sun shines through the storefront windows filled with spider plants. "But this is different. It's smaller. More intimate and friendly. People get to know each other. For weeks in a row you sit at the same table, you recognize people by face. People are treated in an affable, personal manner."

Just like one of the neighbourhood cafes—although possibly friendlier.

Lubo sits at the edge of the room and people walk by saying, "Hi Lou," "Bonjour Lubo."

"I know everyone here today," he remarks.

Lubo has been coming to The Mission for almost 20 years, since it started as a soup kitchen in the basement of The Church of the Ascension (now the Mile End Library) on Parc Avenue.

He tells me he fell ill in his 20s while studying literature at Concordia and that he's on medical welfare which exempts him from work. "I don't have a paying job but I like to see people. I can come here and socialize and help out." Sometimes he carries in bags of donations or helps with the dishes.

Roslyn Macgregor is an Anglican priest at the Church of St Cuthbert, St Hilda and St Luke. She runs the Mission part-time and often sits at a table in the middle of the room, her eyes bright, white hair bobbing, as she juggles brainstorming and problem-solving with the staff.

To her mind, Lubo occupies a special role at the Mission. "He is for me a measure that what we do is of value," Roslyn says. "Being there for individual people, creating a home."

At noon, a volunteer cook comes out of the kitchen and asks if someone can wipe off the tables. People pull chairs out of the closet and pass cutlery and napkins around. Roslyn welcomes everyone, getting the crowd of a couple dozen to applaud for the volunteers.

Lubo stands to her left. It's a ritual they've been practicing for years. When she finishes, he says grace.

"God bless this food before us and give us the grace to get through what we have to," he begins, before switching to French and then Ukrainian. "Amin," he concludes, in Ukrainian and Roslyn echoes, "Amin!"

Macaroni salad is served.

From a certain angle, when you look at the fancy
bakeries, pricey restaurants and baby boutiques, 21st century Mile End doesn't seem like a place that needs its own soup kitchen or food bank.

But bordering the streets of triplexes and little gardens where à vendre real estate signs turn to acheté! overnight, there are low-rent apartment buildings on St-Laurent and Parc Avenue where eviction is routinely spelled by supers pitching mattresses off fire escapes into the alley.

Some members of the Mission, like Lubo, live in these buildings, some in the area's dwindling number of un-gentrified apartments, and some sleep under the Rosemont bridge.

"If you have a financial problem or a landlord problem the priest can help," Lubo tells me. "Rosyln has helped me in the past," he adds. Roslyn has been Mission director for 14 years while the neighbourhood has turned into a trendier and wealthier place.

Currently there's a lot of local discussion about the development and potential upscaling of St-Viateur East. Factories that once housed the garment industry may be turned into multimedia studios and new housing.

"What about the poor?" Roslyn wants to know. "Whatever new housing is developed, a percentage of it should be social housing."

After lunch, people browse through the jumble of clothes for sale. The stray gray cat the Mission has adopted wakes up from a nest of sweaters and jumps down from the shelf.

"I'm getting $10 - $11,000 on welfare," Lubo says. "My survival is guaranteed. Still, I can see room for improvement. The poverty line in Canada is $25,000.

"One time in my life I begged a guy for a dollar. He refused. I decided never again. When I see someone eating calmly in a fancy restaurant I don't get mad at them. But I could. It's unbalanced. "

Lubo and I have the same little notebooks. Like me, he's filled up a lot of them. He says he has hundreds of pages of journal entries. Unlike me, he writes his in Ukrainian.

I ask him to read a page and he translates a few words in a low voice. "Today is Easter and I read a little bit of the Bible...I feel my own goodness often..." he reads.

"I write every day, " he says. "I don't work but I have time to develop as a human being, to grow in consciousness, have compassion." He closes his notebook and puts it back in his pocket.

"If I had money, I would buy more tobacco, better food more often and live in a better quality apartment. I wouldn't buy a house, I would rent an apartment, a nice one. I like my apartment but there's no romance in poverty."

Lubo looks around the room that has a colourful Bienvenue-Welcome banner strung up on a clothesline.

"I'm lucky I can come to the Mission," he says. "It can't fit all the poor people in the city."


Mile-End Mission 99 Bernard Ouest, Montreal The mission operates a foodbank on Fridays, serves three hot lunches a week and sells donated clothes for $1 a piece. It also offers computers with internet access, a free phone, a community art group, yoga and sewing classes, and a legal clinic. For more information go to:

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The blessing of the baskets

Easter eggs (dyed pink or blue or yellow), chocolate bunnies, slices of bread, shakers of salt and surprising hunks of kielbasa sausage.

These are some of the things in the baskets that people bring to St. Michael's Church on St.Viateur the Saturday before Easter. Hundreds of people of all ages and shapes come carrying baskets of food to be blessed by the priest, a Polish Catholic tradition.

All day long, they troop down into the church basement where long tables are arranged in a horseshoe shape. They place their baskets on the table and take a seat. On the hour, two candles are lighted and from the back of the room, a priest in a black gown appears.

Every hour, the 60 chairs arranged around the horseshoe are filled. For the blessing of the baskets ceremony there is standing room only.

I ask what the priest says in the Polish ceremony that lasts about 10 minutes.

"My mind wandered," confessed one man who was there with his family. "Something about the Eucharist."

After the priest finishes speaking, he dips a small straw broom into a metal urn and walks around tables, flicking drops of holy water on the baskets.

Then everyone collects their baskets and covers them up with lace doilies, or cloth napkins, or plastic Toys "R" Us bags and files out of the basement.

A few of them go up the outdoor steps to the lofty church sanctuary.
One woman steps outside and says, "We did it!" to her family, as though it was an exciting first.
For Szandra, who is 9, it's a holiday ritual. Her basket contains small sausages, carrots, an orange, an onion, a decorated egg and a stuffed pink bunny.

As quickly as they came, people leave, with their blessed baskets of coloured eggs and sausage, as if they're all going on a chilly picnic.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The bread next-door

On a bright March morning J.J. Heffring, who looks like a homespun version of movie star Kate Hudson, makes bread deliveries on St. Viateur. She carries two big shopping bags of loaves and Sophie, her three-year-old daughter, scoots along beside her on a pink bike with training wheels.

The first stop is Salon Dorothy, where J.J. gives a loaf of warm homemade bread to owner Josie Paris who hands her $5 and refuses change saying, "No, no, no! You bring it all the way here, no!"

J.J. and Sophie move on, waving and calling out "Hi Tommy!" as they pass the barber who still has the postcard they sent him from their summer vacation on display in his shop.

It's as though J.J. has been living here happily forever, but when she and her filmmaker husband Jesse, first arrived in Montreal in 2001, she cried. She was three months pregnant with their oldest daughter, Zoe, and the grey streets and grime of the city made her want to turn the car around and go back to Calgary, where they'd been living, or to rural Saskatchewan, where she'd grown up.

Now she knows all the shopkeepers along St. Viateur by their first names. "That's how I've tried to cultivate a community for my girls because I don't have grandparents or parents here," explains J.J. who's named after her two grandfathers, Joshua and John.

The organic, multigrain bread she sells for $4.00 a loaf is her way of transporting the flavour of the prairies, and the traditions of her family, to the neighbourhood.

"It's a prairie bread," she says. "It's gentler than many multigrain breads. It has a light crumb and a great taste with a sweetness from the wildflower honey. It's a good morning bread, a breakfast bread. A lot of the French bakeries here are fancy or artisan and it's not that. I don't do decadent. I do wholesome."

When J.J. talks about baking she inspires visions of loaves and pies cooling on a windowsill, an eyelet curtain rippling in the breeze. She is the blond blue-eyed farm girl a marketing department would invent to sell baked goods. She calls her daughters "lovey" and says things like "son of a biscuit, where are my gloves."

J.J. grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, eight miles outside the village of St. Brieux, a field away from her grandmother. "I have memories of stubble under my feet. It tickled," she says.

"I grew up watching Grandma bake pies in the early morning and bring them out to the men working in the fields. It was normal to haul a roast out of the oven at 11 in the morning. We put hot tea in sealer jars and stuck them in wool socks to keep them warm."

On her St. Viateur bread route, J.J. hooks a bag of bread onto the door at S.W. Welch's Bookseller's. Stephen Welch got to know J.J. when she came in to browse cookbooks and, as fellow foodies, they bonded. He's been getting her bread for a year now. "It's healthy, good bread. It's really not expensive and it's delivered," he says. "I like it fresh, with my natural peanut butter."

Sophie and J.J. cross Parc Avenue and head to the YMCA where a dozen mothers at the play-group are waiting for their fresh loaves. These are her core clients.

"It all started when I brought a loaf and jam to a casual play-group at someone's house last winter," J.J. says. "One of the moms there, said, 'oh can you make me one?'"

"I think it's a cool idea, a farm girl from Saskatchewan baking in her house," says Stella Furquim, J.J.'s first customer. "The price is fair and the most important thing, my son likes it. It's so hard to get kids to eat healthy bread! Maybe it's the honey in it." Stella told two friends about "J.J. bread," as it's called in her household, and they told two friends and so on.

By April 2008, J.J. was making six loaves a week for moms she knew. From there, word of mouth spread. She now bakes three dozen loaves a week, some for people she barely knows.

At 6 a.m. while her family is still sleeping, J.J. blends ground flaxseed, quinoa and millet together with stone-ground wheat, eggs, honey, salt and yeast. The quinoa is her variation on a recipe from her dad, the bread baker in the family. He's given her a Bosch mixer for the process and also a mill that she hopes to use to make her own fresh flour, once she can find a wheat supplier.

"My dad always said a good loaf squeaks when you knead it," she says, punching the dough into loaves in her compact, sunny third-floor kitchen. In her narrow apartment-sized oven, she can only fit six loaves at a time.

Her Monday customers pick up their loaves from J.J.'s doorstep and leave money in the envelope provided.

"I started to get upset because I hadn't met all the people I was baking for," says J.J.. "So, I'd hover around the door waiting and say, 'Hi, I'm J.J. and here's your loaf.' I like a hands-on approach."

She's crunched the numbers and found she really isn't making much on this venture. "But it's not about that right now," she says. "It's about getting me out there, getting loyalty, then maybe eventually opening a bakery."

In the meantime, she'd like to expand, but not by too much. Given her current set-up, she could increase her output by about 24 more loaves a week.

All the customers I talk to are fans of "J.J. bread" and they especially like taking part in this most micro of local businesses. "I want to support her. She's sweet," says Nancy Ho, whose one-and-a-half-year-old son, Louis, loves the bread.

Postscript - November 2009: J.J. has suspended her bread baking and pick-up/delivery service. She and her husband have bought a place and are moving out of the neighbourhood. Little do the residents of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve know what's in store for them...