MAY 2000: The Rocket is niftar. In the penalty box of death. Shiva at the Café Cherrier. Overflow crowd outside Notre Dame Basilica. Salut Maurice Rocket Richard say the placards. Number 9 in the centre of a blue and white Québec flag."Il a porté le flambeau d'un peuple." To carry the torch of a people is a big gig. Never the Rocket's idea.
Les grosses légumes arrive: Bouchard, Chrétien, Parizeau. They know how to step out of a limo. Polite recognition from the crowd... The occasion rendered them irrelevant and they knew it.
The sky is clear, the anticipation in the air electric. The silence unusual in a crowd this size out in the streets. Without warning a police chopper begins to circle overhead.. Cops ride up on their Harleys. The hearse approaches. Pulls up. Rear door is opened, the casket slid out, lifted up, Elmer Loch, Jean Beliveau and brother Henri among the pallbearers. Muted applause. The Basilica bells begin to toll. I hear a voice close by say very softly Bravo Maurice and I feel an enormous emotion suddenly well up in my throat... Bravo Maurice.
Rare to experience a public occasion this true this authentic this powerful out in the streets... As if honoring the passing of a statesman or a general who has saved his people from destruction at enormous personal cost. I remember the televised funeral of Billy Martin and the sudden outburst of applause that took the professional observers by surprise.
The adulation is in part a Belmont Park time machine ride back to the ancient regime of abortion-less margarine-less small town order, rule of the mayor and the curate. Grown men struggling with grocery delivery bicycles on snow-packed winter streets to support ever expanding families. Pedophile clerics, thieves of childhoods, look on amused, encourage the cursing of les autres, the "No dogs or Jews allowed" signs in les Laurentides.
"When the NHL was six teams," said Jean Chrétien,"we knew every player like we knew our catechism."
In that time the Detroit Red Wings's Ted Lindsay was banished to the lowly Chicago Blackhawks for wanting to organize a players union. Doug Harvey, perhaps the greatest defenseman of all time, was traded by the Canadiens to the winless New York Rangers for the same offense. The trades seemed intended to deprive them of playoff money. Hockey players were mostly naïve young men at the mercy of team managers and owners, men in suits and ties making fortunes from television revenue. I was working at the new Channel 12 when Doug Harvey arrived for an interview about the trade in a chic grey suit and brush-cut, hockey god skateless with cigar, ill at ease. The great Gordy Howe remembers being injured in a game and told by Red Wings's coach Jack Adams to take a taxi to the hospital.
The Rocket never earned more than $50,000 a season, including bonuses and playoff money. After he retired in 1960, the Canadiens organization gave him a minor PR job: "I had two things to do in my office. I opened the blinds at 9 and I closed them at 5." The Rocket pursued some business interests, was featured in a Grecian Formula ad: Hey Richard! Two minutes for looking so good...
The proceedings were visible to the citizenry in the square on a huge video screen. The Rocket, said Cardinal Turcotte, was a fisherman and he was now on a celestial fishing trip with other fishermen who were close to Jesus. The Cardinal didn't say they were all Jewish, that the gathering could have taken place at a lake near St. Agathe. The Rocket happy to see the famous Jew up there.
A friend of the Rocket spoke in English. The Rocket he said feeling the need to explain had many English-speaking friends. In a moment of unscripted excitement he suddenly threw his arms around the Cardinal and for some seconds the embrace held them fast in an ecstatic scuffle for the puck along the boards.
This overwhelming feeling would nevertheless not convert into triumphal politics. Whatever it was that began in the Forum and out in the downtown streets of the city in March 1955 and endured for a half century was done.
Not many years later I ran into the Cardinal. Does he know the story about the Rocket and the kid in the hospital? Seventeen-year old Robert Abeele had fallen under a tramway car and lost both legs. The Rocket twice paid surprise visits to his bedside at St-Mary's. Said he would score a goal for him and did and brought him the puck. The people, said the Cardinal, loved him. Other fish to fry, the Cardinal walks on.
* * *
AFFIXED to an insurance company office building across from the Basilica, where the scent of horse manure is pungent and tourists gape, is a plaque with an inscription in both official languages: On this very spot, a dozen hardy French citizens beat the living shit out of a sick old blind old one-legged Iroquois brave for the greater glory of the Catholic Church and the King of France. It doesn't exactly say that, in fact it doesn't say that at all. though what the plague does say in both official languages amounts to the same thing:
NEAR THIS SQUARE AFTERWARD NAMED LE PLACE D'ARMES THE FOUNDERS OF VILLE-MARIE FIRST ENCOUNTERED THE IROQUOIS WHOM THEY DEFEATED PAUL DE CHOMEDY DE MAISONNEUVE KILLING THE CHIEF WITH HIS OWN HANDS.
O Canada - Car ton bras/ Sait porter l'épée / Il sait porter la croix. the hand that wielded the sword bore the cross, did the murders of religious conversion, the destruction of the tribes that could not see a common enemy. The assault on young bodies. Only the whiteman's language to be spoken at residential schools. Does the darker meaning of the lyrics sound a doomed political cause?.Mel Brooks's Indians speak a holocaust tongue. Tarantino's fantasy yid mauraders collecting Nazi scalps. An aging Nanook making the rounds, asking only for a modest piece of the action from the Robert Flaherty film, is offered a box of airplane glue and an oxyContin script.
Arthur Rimbaud in a letter to his mother and sister said the people of Harar were no more stupid, no more crooked than the white niggers of the civilized countries. The instruction from Pierre Vallieres was for the white niggers of Québec to cease playing the bent-over punk whores of anglo-saxon money thugs.
Some, believing French Canada to be a stateless culture destined to lose the battle with extinction the way the battle on those plains was lost - mes amis, there will be no re-enactment sur les plaines, don't rub our noses in that shit - spoke the order: Abandon the outposts of Francophonie in Ontario New Brunswick Manitoba B.C. come home to Fortress Québec, a sovereign ethnic kingdom, one language one blood one territory. Maybe not one blood. Perhaps with a high birth rate, an immobile population, little contact with the outside world. For a time the Cold War kept this Balkan consciousness warm...
Very few if any dozen-children families here now. T he pill in the fortress and l iberated from Church authority the girls just want to have fun.
Not that many French speakers now in Louisiana and New England. Jack Kerouac born Jean Louis Kerouac in Lowell Massachusetts March 12 1922, who was supposed to have told his mother she was the only girl he told her he would ever love or marry - did Jack ever actually say that? - is said to have spoken joual before he spoke English, On the Road a translation of the original joual Sur le Chemin.
Is the disfigured papiamento of the Dutch Antilles the future? The public debate over joual that erupted decades ago has more or less come and gone. The linguist Marc Picard tells me that on the one hand the character of the French spoken here is no longer of concern and on the other that, surprisingly perhaps, there has never been a comprehensive empirical description of joual's phonological, syntactical and lexical features. In any event, no more "bien parler c'est se respecter" notices are to be seen on the city's buses.
Bureaucrats claim the linguistic loss can be made up by Lebanese and Algerians and Moroccans, hijabed babes and Berbers aka Tuaregs from Libya, Mexicans and Romanians, anybody who may have French as a second or even a third language. Their children obliged to attend French schools. It may work.Though on the metro I only hear it from the Chinese kids... Some say the scheme has turned Marieville into a haven for terrorist cells from North Africa and the Levant.
In the U S A Latinos come in different varieties - European, African, Amerindian, Mestizo, Chinese, Japanese - have big families, feel no need to inhabit a single territory, or to demonstrate they can govern one, or that such a state is the sine qua non of their survival. Phone cards make it cheap and easy to keep in close touch with Spanish speakers back home. The forty million Spanish speakers in the USA constitute America's largest minority. Aside from the Latino populations of New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles, there are enclaves in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. The Cold War re-made America into a bilingual, bicultural nation. There are in the Americas 300 million English speakers, but 350 million Spanish speakers.
* * *
ON our money a sea-to-sea duality, the archipelago of separateness declared a wedding of two. We say A Mari Usque Ad Mare but we don't mean it. There is no great republic or dominion in our hearts, only local allegiances. We do not readily extend ourselves.
The prodigal Mordecai could have lived out his days quite happily in London. Unbeknownst even to himself, his one-street universe, really just a few blocks, might have been an unconscious attempt to imagine a re-incarnation of the shetl sacked by Babylonians.
How many patriotes can dance a jig on Michel Tremblay's mother's kitchen table?... One afternoon I spot Michel strolling north on la rue St. Denis. Why is there no mention of the Church on the DVD? It's in my plays he says and besides I've been away for 40 years. In the film of the Nelligan premiere in Québec City we see as the curtain drops composer André Gagnon barely able to stand, Michel holding him up.
The Guyanese writer Wilson Harris thinks the American motto - e pluribus unum - is of medieval origin: "The point I want to make in regard to the West Indies is that the pursuit of a strange and subtle goal, melting pot. is the mainstream. tradition in the Americas. And the significance of this is akin to the European preoccupation with alchemy."
In our mosaic consciousness the pieces keep their distance. When I lived in Ottawa in the mid 1960s I was surprised by the hostility to Québec and Québecois from people arriving from other parts of the country. Is it that we all look like the drivers of the getaway cars?... Spanish made its way across the USA in a way French could not here. Pierre Trudeau's repatriation plan didn't change that, didn't make the many Canadas into one Canada.
* * *
OUR bank stickup men had ninety seconds to get in and out before the silent security alarm brought the cops to the scene. One guy holding the shotgun, one cleaning out the cash, a third counting loudly to ninety, all three the sons of endentulous mothers. dentists pulled all those teeth out by the mouthful, every last one, bleeding low-rent young women stumbling out into the darkening winter streets.
* * *
DECEMBER, 1970. Backstage at the Gesu Theatre with le tout Québec: Raymond Levesque, Yvon Deschamps, glaring at me, apparently taking me for a cop, Gilles Vigneault, Pauline Julien, Jean Prefontaine and the Quatuor de Jazz Libre de Quebec. Jean QdJLdQ alto sax man tells us it's Operation Fuck le Piaster. Apologizes to Jeannie for using the f word. I tell Jean to call it "fuck the buck". Jean smiles his saintly smile. A psychology prof fired from his gig for smoking weed. What happened to Jean? Where is he? I ask around. No one can or will say.
My pal Albert - his mother and my father children in the Montreal Hebrew Orphans Home in Westmount - performs on bass clarinet with the Quatuor. une chanson pour Jacques, Paul and the other two.
A few years ago Albert's mother told me Albert was dead. Of cancer happened in Frisco a dirty city, she said.
I own an original Lise Rose, a sister's work of art put up for auction to support the jailed brothers. The purchase perhaps a gesture to escape the refugee feeling. Though born here my father born here my citizenship feeling only statistical.
* * *
SNOWBOUND Tangiers, where Gatsby was counseled to hide out, Harry Fabian learned the wrestling game, Lee Oswald handed out fair play for Cuba flyers, Edie Beale settled in for French lessons, Lenny Bruce did three days in the Pavillon Room of the Hotel LaSalle, Robert " Bobby Bacala " Baccalieri, Jr. on Tony Soprano's orders whacked a guy in a laundry room on Stanley Street.Kilroy was never here but a depressed Arnold S was, dragged his defeated ass north from Florida to be molded into muscular greatness by the builders of body Ben and Joe Weider. Jimmy Caruso, who took the famous Arnold photos, told me Arnold is Catholic, the first thing he wanted to do when he got here was visit the Oratory. After Arnold moved to California a message arrived at the Caruso Gym: "To Jimmy Caruso, Best wishes and thank you so much for all your help, Your Friend Arnold Schwarzenegger." James Earl Ray passed through on his way to England a bogus Canadian passport lounging in a jacket pocket. The Nazi Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop paid a few visits. Friends got him work in the Molson bank, he went home came back went home again came back to open a wine shop in Ottawa. Headed home one last time for the war, was posted by the Fuhrer to London where he dated Wallie Simpson.
* * *
DUDE from Manila says the place suits him and his girlfriend, but only for now affordable cultural chic culinary, beautiful Paris meeting Manhattan. Oblivious to all the glorious trees taking the sun and the rain and the snow on every balcon and street.
Hardly Manhattan or Paris. Montreal, said Witold Rybczynski, is definitely not Paris: "Though Montreal is sometimes described as the most European city on the North American continent, and though about half of Montrealers are descendants of immigrants from France and still speak French, no one would ever confuse Montreal with Paris. Unlike Paris - and like all North American cities - Montreal is ringed by suburbs comprised mainly of individual houses, and it has a clearly defined commercial downtown of tall office buildings that surround it. The centre of Paris is made up of eight-story masonry buildings, which provide a pleasant uniformity of colour and scale. The centre of Montreal is a typically North American free-for-all: tall buildings of various shapes, steel-and-glass buildings interspersed with empty lots and parking lots. Paris, unlike almost all North American cities, shows evidence of having been planned according to an aesthetic vision... Montreal, too, has boulevards, but they're boulevards in name only. René Lévesque Boulevard is a windy downtown artery whose chief adornment is a bleak concrete median strip."
Something ugly everywhere you look. Jean Drapeau Johnny Dee, crackerjack salesman of genealogy, sold himself an ancestor tree. Totalitarian forms growing out of his brain go ahead he said buy up the greystones on Sherbrooke Street tear them down in their place erect a bootlegger's box for stupendous business studies.
* * *
CANADIAN men fought in the American Civil War, 30,000 with the Union army, 10,000 with the Confederacy. The British urged Confederate sympathy. There was speculation in Southern cotton by local entrepreneurs looking to corner the slave crop for the mills of Manchester. Men of the Confederacy who travelled north drifted this way. They gathered in the bar of the St Lawrence Hall Hotel on St Jacques Street to sip mint juleps and perhaps plot the murder if not the kidnapping of American president Abe Lincoln. In October, 1864 John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Lincoln, arrived in the city, by then a well-known outpost of surreptitious Confederate activity. He spent ten days here, part of the time at the St. Lawrence Hall Hotel meeting with Confederate agents. What they talked about no one seems to know.
A plaque on the Union Avenue wall of La Baie picks up the story:
A LA MEMOIRE DE JEFFERSON DAVIS PRESIDENT DES ETATS CONFERERES QUI SEJOURNA EN 1867 AU DOMICILE DE JOHN LOVELL ALORS SITUÉ AU PRESENT EMPLACEMENT/PLAQUE ERIGEE EN 1957 PAR LA SOCIETE DES UNITED DAUGHTERS OF THE CONFEDERACY.
Curious, I wrote to the Daughters. Tommie Phillips LaCavera, Historian General, United Daughters of the Confederacy emailed back this account: "The marker was to have been on the site of the house where Davis lived for a period. However, it became necessary to change the location when it was reported that the house was in a bad state of repairs. A substitute location was offered by Henry Morgan and Company, Limited. According to records, a mansion that stood on the site now occupied by the company was the home of John A. Lovell, a successful printer and publisher, who offered his home to Jefferson Davis as a haven following his release from prison. There were Confederate families living in Montreal before and after the war. The marker was unveiled in June 2, 1958... In 1983, it disappeared. The Daughters decided it should be replaced. It was rededicated on September 5, 1986, the new marker in French as all signs and historical markers were required to be in the French language in accordance with the laws of Québec. The rededication was given by a great, great Jefferson Davis grandson."
The Davis family did not long remain. Unable to manage the winter, the family left for Havana, traveled on to New Orleans. They did return but again departed to travel abroad.
Some Québecois who joined the Union army are buried in an unidentified gravesite on the north side of Mount Royal in a military section near where men who fought in the Crimean War, the South African (Boer) War and WW1 lie. The mother-in-law of Jefferson Davis, Margaret Howell, is buried in the same cemetery though in a different section, at a certain distance.
* * *
NORTHERN horsemen resided in a suburb, stables of polo ponies. A Maserati runs nothing like those hooved athletes galloping across a polo field. In 1896 Hayter Reed, Deputy Minister of the Interior, with assistance of the Governor General, the First Marquis of Aberdeen, brought the sport to Canada.
Hartland MacDougall, a member of the Montreal Polo Club until it folded, described for me the end of an era: "War was declared on Sunday, September 2, 1939 and we played polo on Saturday. On Monday, the day after war was declared, we scrambled around trying to sell our ponies. That was the end."
The activity never resumed.
"For one thing everybody was five years older. Fathers had disappeared. Also, it would have been a great capital expense to get into the game again. Everybody was trying to get his feet back on the ground in business. It was a whole new pace of business after the war. Before the war, we played Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Tuesdays and Thursdays we were on the field by five-thirty. After the war, I didn't leave my office until about six-thirty. Everybody was more or less in the same position. What I really enjoyed as much as the game were the ponies. People challenge me but if you pay enough attention to a polo pony you can almost have him behaving like a dog. And they'll kick the ball. and deliver a body check! At full gallop you are allowed body checking. You'll feel that pony. of course they are competitive. If we are galloping abreast you and I, you can feel your pony stretching. You really get so attached to your ponies. You look after them like children. And they have tremendous courage. I never went to bed at night whether I was on a party or not without first of all going to the stable. I'd walk into the stable at one in the morning and three or four of them would whinny, expecting me, you know. I think the ponies are one of the greatest pleasures of polo. They are beautiful horses to ride. They call them horses now. We always called them ponies. Seems they've gotten a lot bigger than they used to be."
* * *
Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, Mary Queen of the World, stone saints looking down on the St. Patrick's Day Parades of my childhood. Riding the Beaubien trolley-bus to my grandfather's place on Rue De Normanville. Hey, hey, hey, sang the caisoman, It's The Montreal Tramways. City Councillors, Windsor-Peel, rue Guy (French pronunciation like ski)-Guy, and Beaver-Hall Hill.
* * *
FRIDAY nights we went to the Swiss Hut with Ron and Marie, Vanya, clan chief Russell Demitro. Pitchers of beer, burgers loaded with pepper. Song: "...before me lie two roads: the gypsy road, the gahzu road." The immigrants and the first nations and us, Ron would say, are the third solitude. Hut regulars included poets and politicos, long-haired sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, possibly the first man to wear a leather suit. A generation and a half later, the Hut is dust, Hut refugees, aging grey long ago militants, take long lunches at the Cherrier under an impish photo of René Lévesque, bowls of moules and bottles of wine. Busy with lunch they do not pay all that much attention to the student crowd ambling past on la rue St. Denis or the cops who come in to use the can or the cry of Bloquons la hausse from a vehicle equipped with a P.A. system or the absence of a demand for un Québec indépendant.
Jean-Paul Desbiens, Les Insolences du Frère Untel, Les Editions de l'Hommes, 1960.
Wilson Harris, Tradition, The Writer & Society: Critical Essays, New Beacon Publications, 1967.
Correspondence with Tommie Phillips LaCavera.
Craig MacInnis (ed.) Remembering the Rocket, Soddart, 1998.
Marcel Martel, "A Disturbing Debate: Did French Canada Exist?" Lecture at McGill University, 1999.
Fabrice de Pierrebourg, Montréalistan: Enquête sur la mouvance islamiste, Editions Stanké, 2007.
Witold Ribczynski, City Life, Scribner's, 1995.
Graham Robb, Rimbaud, W.W. Norton & Co., 2000
Pierre Vallières, Nègres blancs d'Amérique, autobiographie précoce d'un « terroriste » québécois . Éditions Parti pris, 1967 (translated as White Niggers of America: The Precocious Autobiography of a Quebec Terrorist by Joan Pinkham, Monthly Review Press, 1971 and McClelland & Stewart, 1972).