Monday, May 31, 2010

A line of poetry

On a warm breezy spring morning François Pilon heads out to the back lane. This is where he works, in yards and alleys all over the city.

"It's another world," he says of his alley turf. "The back lane doesn't appear on any map. There are no laws in this territory."

The way he talks about it, he sounds like an outlaw, but he's no criminal. He's a superhero of the Right to Dry movement.

He's Monsieur Corde à linge: Mr. Clothesline.

He wears blue work clothes, bright red suspenders and a headset so he can answer calls while he's two or three stories up his extension ladder.

His constant companion is Ricky, a quiet Doberman who waits in the truck or sniffs the perimeter of the yard while Pilon works.

In the back balcony of a 15-year-old building in Villeray, Mr. Clothesline looks around, sniffs and nods. "Condo lifestyle. No clotheslines, except for the person with young kids," he says, pointing to a line full of diapers.

He installs posts, ropes and pulleys all over the Montreal neighbourhoods of Mile End– where clotheslines are part of the landscape, Outremont, Villeray, Rosemont, Ville Emard, NDG, Montreal Nord, Ahuntsic, and even in Hampstead, where clotheslines are technically illegal because they're deemed unsightly.

Websites like oppose municipal restrictions on line drying and advocate clotheslines as a way to save electricity and reduce emissions.

Last year, Monsieur Corde à linge put up 550 clotheslines.

It all started in the mid-80s, when he was working for a cable company and damaged a few clotheslines by grazing them with his ladder. He had to buy a length of rope and a few pulleys to repair the damage. That's when he noticed how precarious the laundry lines were. He'd found his vocation.

Before long he quit his day job. "I didn't want to die a cable TV guy. The pay is low, the hours are long and there's no security."

Today, as Monsieur Corde à linge, he works under essentially the same conditions, except he's his own boss.

"If I were doing it for the money, I'd do something else. I do it because I love being outside and I love clotheslines. The clothesline is my baby."

Francois Pilon's other baby is The Green Party. He's run in the Outremont riding in the last three federal elections. He was motivated by what he saw as collusion between government and the forestry industry.

"I got upset," he says. "I thought, OK. What do I do about it? Keep bitching? Or get involved." He doesn't expect to ever get elected, but says it's important that someone run for the Green Party in every riding, partly to push the other parties on their environmental agendas.

In the Villeray backyard, Caroline is happy to be Monsieur Corde à linge's first client of the day. "It's my third time using him over the years, because we keep moving," she says. "He's really busy! I called him weeks ago but he was booked up until now."

Pilon installs a five-foot post on her second floor balcony. Then he goes down the back spiral staircase and climbs his ladder to attach a hook and pulley to the Hydro pole in the corner of a yard. He dismounts and climbs the ladder again with a silvery clothesline in tow.

The day is perfect, the small orderly backyards are still, except for a few gardeners, a pregnant woman and the spinning drift of poplar fluff from a towering tree that provides a high canopy over most of the block.

"For me it's important to have a clothesline," Caroline says. "It's ridiculous to use a dryer when it's 30 degrees outside. And I love the poetry of a clothesline; there's something I like about seeing the diapers of the baby next door.

"Today I'm paying $250 for the best quality line and a good post on my balcony. Worth it! That's two hockey tickets and it will be good for years!"

While Monsieur Corde à linge goes out to his truck to write her bill, Caroline scrunches up her shoulders in anticipation. "I can't wait to do a load of wash. All I need is clothespins!"

She can't contain herself. She steps out on her front steps. "Hey!" she calls out to a neighbour. "I got a clothesline!"

A young guy, wearing New York T-shirt, looks at her and gives a blank nod, indicating that not everyone understands the poetry or the point of a clothesline.

"Women are my bread and butter," Pilon has told me, and judging from this exchange I can see why.

He hands Caroline her bill, and with it a complimentary packet of clothespins. "You've made my day," she tells him.

You might think a single guy in this line of work would get a lot of dates. But François says he maintains a professional distance and is careful not to mix business with his personal life. He always vousvoyers his clients. A bit of a performer, he likes to joke and do the odd stunt on a balcony railing (he says he only takes calculated risks and almost always wears a safety harness).

In a different yard a few blocks away he works with a helper, Gerald, to dig a hole for a new steel post to replace a rotting wooden one. The afternoon is boiling hot and François takes a break, instructing Gerald to "keep digging!" (-continue à creuser, toi!)

Out in the alley, he notices something and points. Behind the leaves of a climbing vine, it's his red and white sticker, two doors north of the yard he's working in today.

"I've been here before," he smiles with recognition. He's put up so many clotheslines in the past 18 years that the jobs and alleys all blur together.

"There's another one!" he pulls aside a leafy branch to show a pole across the alley bearing another one of his stickers: Montreal Corde à linge, with his telephone number and email.

As Caroline said, there's poetry in a clothesline.

Each one is particular, but somehow they all offer a ripple of hope.

Undershirts. Bras. Pillow cases and flowered sheets. Diapers and tiny socks. Enormous panties billowing in the breeze.

Now when I see clothes waving on the line in my alley, I look for Monsieur Corde à linge's stickers. There's one now.

Monsieur Corde à linge Montreal
email: francoispilon at


Merrianne Couture said...

...a vivid and loving portrait of the quotidian, and there's always poetry in that.

Unknown said...

i love the image of the enormous underwear...(almost) anything goes on the clothes line. and i ditto juliet - sarah how DO you find these people? this is great.

Marianne said...

Depuis que je vis à Montréal, ces cordes à linge, qui misent bout à bout doivent faire les kilomètres, ont toujours étaient un mystère. Maintenant, je sais qu'il y a des hommes (des femmes?) qui les installent. Loin d'en enlever le mystère, ton Monsieur corde à linge y participe et l'alimente car tu en as fait un super héros de quotidien.

Victoria said...

I loved it! I wish he could come to build me a clothesline! Another amazing Mile End champion!

Molybdenum said...

This is beautiful! How did you find him?

OlmanFeelyus said...

Great article. I've recommended him to a co-worker, based on seeing the stickers when I took a dog for a walk. I am a little suspicious about his motivation of running for the Green Party but until someone more focused comes along, at least he gets the name on the ticket!

I am grateful that I live in a part of a city where clotheslines are not just allowed, but accepted as part of the landscape.

Leila said...

He put up my corde à linge about 12 years ago. What a sweetheart. Great piece, Sarah!

Anonymous said...

wow. great blog! :-)