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.