City of Losers: The Tradition of Loserdom in Downtown Montreal

The night manager eats like a 12-year-old and doesn’t gain a pound. He’s 6’2” with a skeletal frame. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night he drives me home to Verdun after we stop at one of a handful of 24/7 restaurants on Montreal’s downtown west side: Angela’s on Maisonneuve for fettucine carbonara, the Subway on Guy where the guy on graveyard shift always gives us the firefighters’ discount in exchange for a steep tip, or else Joe’s Panini on Drummond. There are photos of the staff and customers all over the bar where we both work. There are some of the night manager in the 1990s. He’s about 100 lbs. bigger and he has long black hair tied up behind his back. 

It’s early in the evening on my day off, a Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s. I’m drinking beer sitting next to the night manager watching the cartoons he always puts on TV on Sundays. I’m the only customer in the bar because it’s the day before New Year’s and it’s been snowing since the morning. From the upstairs window, you can barely make out the Sun Life Building through the fog that turns into crystals on your glasses. That day, after staring at his picture, I asked the night manager how he lost all that weight and he said, “I almost died of heartbreak.”

I work at a bar called Mad Hatters on the lower part of Crescent Street. I’m a busser, which means I spend the night running up and down stairs to all three bars restocking the beer fridge and the liquor shelves from the office in the basement, changing kegs, and cleaning up vomit. One of the highlights of the job is restocking the toilet paper in the women’s washroom when the line-up reaches out the door. At about a 50-50 ratio, I’m either greeted with creeped-out stares or cheers when I elbow my way through the line with stacks of TP in my arms. I sweep up cigarette butts and mop floors. I get paid $5 an hour cash and walk away with about $80 every night in tips, which is plenty to cover the $650 in rent I split with my girlfriend for a 4 ½ in Verdun. It’s 2012, the winter before the student strikes.

by Annie Spratt

by Annie Spratt

Like a lot of Anglos over the age of 40 in this city, the night manager has a chip on his shoulder. He speaks French fine, but he’d found a pretty succinct way to describe how Quebec politics had affected his life: “In 1980, I showed up at school and all my friends were gone. In 1995, I showed up to work and my job was gone.” He started managing Mad Hatters a few months after it opened. The owners had known him forever and brought him in because he was unemployed and he was a teetotaller. He’d met a girl working at the bar. The staff were always hooking up with customers or with each other. The night manager had learned pretty quickly not to chase after the staff because it made scheduling a nightmare, especially when everyone lost shifts in the winter, but their friends were all fair game. He fell into the kind of love story people reserve the word “fate” for. When the girl left him, he “got sick,” in his words, and went down to 90 lbs. in the hospital. He still smokes like a chimney, stewing down in the office and staring at the security camera screens, mostly just to watch for people he wants to avoid.

In her book Translating Montreal, Sherry Simon walks into the Church of St. Michael and St. Anthony’s on St-Viateur, a place built by the Irish and frequented now by Poles and Italians. She uses the experience to introduce the idea that Mile End is a crossroad of cultures and a neighbourhood that embodies Montreal’s cultural hybridity. That’s how I want to use Mad Hatters, a two-storey bar that occupies a mansion on the south end of Crescent Street. It was there that I fell in love with another side of Montreal: the part called Ville-Marie, where you’ll find tourist bars, exotic dancers, fast food chains, office towers, and a string of subterranean malls. I call it the “other” side because, if you’re an Anglo from outside of the province and at all artistically inclined, you will inevitably fall in love with, and write about, Mile End. It is everything a North American suburb is not: walkable, lively at all hours of the day or night, and hip. In Simon’s words, “If a neighbourhood can be said to have a sensibility, then Mile End’s has to do with polyglot interaction, transience and exchange.”

Ville-Marie is much more than a single neighbourhood and I doubt it could be reduced this way. It’s the symbolically dense centre of the city, home to the Musée des Beaux Arts and the Bell Centre, McGill and UQAM, Holt Renfrew and Chinatown, the Eaton Centre and the Bonsecours Market, the Gay Village and the Grand Prix. But if I were to say it had a sensibility, it would probably just be about getting to work (or school) on time and blowing off steam afterwards. Its bilingualism has less to do with cultural exchange than being too busy to wait for someone to ask you to repeat yourself. On the subject of Ste-Catherine Street in her 1941 essay “Est-Ouest,” Gabrielle Roy writes:

Avant d’aller mourir à Westmount, elle fait de grands efforts de bilinguisme … Les contrôleurs des tramways font preuve du même bon vouloir. Ils ne cessent de chantonner, oubliant parfois de changer d’accent en passant d’une langue à l’autre. <<Bleury-Park-Avenue-l’avenue-du-Parc… University-Université… Inside, s’il-vous-plait …>>

STM workers may work more formally in French today, but in any store along Ste-Catherine you will still be greeted with “Bonjour-Hi” and served in whatever language the man or woman behind the counter can speak.

It’s true: the further west you go, the more English you hear. Many move to Montreal to reinvent themselves and that means leaving behind the freedom to order a beer instead of une bière. Everyone with a job between Peel and Atwater knows each other. The bartenders all visit each other’s bars, the office workers are all regulars at three or four places, and everyone went to high school together in Greenfield Park or NDG.

Compared to Mile End, Ville-Marie is more business-like and more violent, dirtier and meaner, more corporate, and more visibly policed. At Mad Hatters, I got beaten up in the bathroom trying to unclog a toilet. After one Christmas party I pulled myself out of the same porcelain bowl at 6 a.m. and stumbled in on two other employees naked on the pool table. I fell in love with people whose only common interest was getting through dollar beer Thursdays without quitting on the spot.

It’s here, sitting at the bar, looking out on a street where the snow is falling on Sunday evening without a hope of a customer coming in for hours, that I want to make my own claim: Montreal is a city of losers.

Leonard Cohen is the first author who comes to mind when I say this over to myself. Beautiful Losers is the seminal novel of loserdom in a literary tradition that sprawls out from there, but he was not the only pioneer. Michel Tremblay is as much responsible for introducing outcasts like Carmen in Sainte Carmen de la Main or Pierrette Guérin in Les Belles Soeurs to the public. Azarius Lacasse, the grand parleur and out-of-work father of Bonheur d’occasion, is far more a prototype for the charming, hopeful losers that now populate Heather O’Neill’s world than anything Cohen wrote.

I fell in love with people whose only common interest was getting through dollar beer Thursdays without quitting on the spot.

I hope I have already given you an idea of what I mean when I say “loser.” They are people who have lost and people who simply are lost. They can be as wealthy as Mordecai Richler’s Barney Panofsky or as poor as Dany Laferrière’s pickup artist. Some losers are born into their circumstances, like Monsieur Émile, the Plateau street urchin who becomes a fixture in Yves Beauchmein’s Le Matou. Some push up against what keeps them down, like Tremblay’s Carmen, who wants to give up the Nashville country repertoire and sing about her own people: the sex workers and drag queens of The Main. Others just drift downward, unable to go any other direction, like Cohen’s scholar or Étienne Tremblay, the washed up chansonnier from The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.

The loser is a recurring character in Montreal literature, sometimes on the periphery of a story and sometimes at its heart. The loser is as much a trope of Montreal as the Mountain, the cross, and the winter.

Let me pretend for a moment to join the ranks of taxi cab drivers in these books, like Alfredo Carone, shuttling his passengers across the Jacques Cartier Bridge into the fool’s bargain of the night. I will show where you can find all the greatest losers in this city. The fat woman of Lise Tremblay’s Danse Juive is getting a second souvlaki at the Arahova on St-Viateur and Parc, or she is out with her boyfriend Mel who has taken her to a Chinese restaurant where everyone speaks English that she does not understand, and they eat snails in black bean sauce. She wanders through Mile End staring into the stores that sell tchotchkes and she avoids Chez Claudette because the waiters are too much like her: immigrants from the woods, hoping for another job, or like the owner, “waiting until she’s saved enough money to return to her native Saguenay.” But Mel is roaming St-Laurent and the old Jewish ghetto in his van. He stops in the Portuguese bars where he drinks and eats and, above all else, tells grand stories. He is a palaverer like the kind you find in Bohumil Hrabal’s Prague pubs, a Jew whose homeland stretches from Jean-Talon to Duluth on a few thin blocks, a homeland he holds on to even though it’s long since been handed over to other exiles.

The loser is as much a trope of Montreal as the Mountain, the cross, and the winter.

You can see Max Kravitz kicking thugs out of his car for asking him to drive to the airport in Dorval. Fly is driving his own taxi east from the expensive strip clubs to the corner of St-Laurent, where there are still a few sex workers who need the business in his backseat. But the tourists complain that he’s ripping them off when they see that the prostitute is missing some teeth and he has to scare them off with his feathered stick. Rawi Hage’s carnival town is Montreal in the surreal summer of festivals, when the city seems to spend every day making up for the carnival it doesn’t have. It spends months drinking and dancing. Fly cruises through a city filled with masks and costumes. He drives Sally the Magdalena home from her downtown club. She tells him about how she goes to sell her body to factory workers on the South Shore. She tells him how they adore her, how they live miserably from one shift to another, humiliated, and how she has to scold them like little boys when they don’t want to follow the rules.

Nelly Arcan is in the Plateau mustering up the courage to masturbate in Cinema L’Amour, a porn theatre on St-Laurent on Duluth. Or else she can be found in the Boîte Noire on Mont-Royal Avenue. She is renting the fourth season of the X-Files and the staff are laughing behind her back because that is the fourth day in a row she has rented a new season. She still calls herself a “whore” even if her first novel is a bestseller in France and she no longer waits for her father to appear among all the men who enter the room where she works on Docteur-Penfield.

David McGimpsey is skipping art class at his Anjou high school and cutting through the backwoods that lead to the metro and to the downtown movie theatres. He takes the crosstown journey west as far it will go: to a Toronto-cum-L.A., to “see the palm trees of the Don Valley,” “the carpark view of the avocado groves of Etobicoke.” An older (and fatter) man walks back from Ville-Marie to Anjou. Along the way he admits, “The way McDonalds stopped calculating / how many hamburgers they’ve served / I stopped counting the times I was called ugly.” McGimpsey has fashioned a poetic persona out of loserdom. His narrator is made from every put-down you can imagine an honour roll sophomore flinging at an enthusiastic TV-watcher and overweight couch potato.

“Le bison bourré” is stacking his junk in the yard of his apartment in Centre-Sud. He is the subject of Richard Suicide’s “ethno-éthylique” documentary of life by Papineau station, Chroniques du Centre-Sud.

Nouschka Tremblay is eating in a Chinatown restaurant with young prostitutes and I wonder if she has ever met Mel speaking English in their back rooms. She visits her father in the Montreal Pool Room, a famous chansonnier living in the Mission on St-Laurent. You can always recognize him from his trademark top hat and his shabby suit – a dollar store Gilles Vigneault.

Where did all these losers come from? Why are Montreal’s chronicles so full of people who have been abandoned, who have failed, who are lost? There are down-and-out stories set everywhere, but somehow they’ve become part of Montreal’s blood, even part of its romance. I don’t know if there are more sad stories in this city than any other, but heartbreak and failure are closer to Montreal’s narrative than any other place I’ve lived or read about. The city draws people in with dreams and illusions and leaves them out in the cold. It makes outsiders of its own citizens, who feel as though they are on the wrong side of life and looking in, like a calèche driver passing back to the stables, staring up at the brightly lit condos in Griffintown.

The city’s economic decline from the ’70s to the 2000s is an old story. It gave Montreal a new identity: from Canada’s metropole to its local basket case. Even while many of the city’s writers complain about rising rents and condos today, everyone from Macleans to the National Post has recently rehashed a narrative of declining tax revenue, corruption, mobsters in City Hall, and a growing infrastructure maintenance debt.

Why are Montreal’s chronicles so full of people who have been abandoned, who have failed, who are lost?

But the city was still in its heyday when Roy and later Cohen and Michel Tremblay were writing about Azarius Lacasse, F., and Carmen. Economic decline, failed nationalist dreams, and the Anglo exodus all make up the landscape of Montreal’s contemporary loserism, but its literary founders were outsiders in a time of prosperity. It would be easy enough to point to their biographies to see how they themselves didn’t fit in. Cohen grew up wealthy in Westmount but turned into a bohemian frequenting Hungarian cafés on de la Montagne. Roy came from a poor family that belonged to the diminishing francophone minority in St. Boniface, Manitoba but lived a comfortable and successful life as an adult. Tremblay, who grew up on the working class, religious rue Fabre, is more at home in the St-Laurent nightlife, at clubs like Café Cleo. But they weren’t just strangers themselves. They were fascinated by a city that was big enough, and strange enough, to make anyone feel like an outsider, whether they felt alienated peering into the Ritz-Carlton or into an east end gargote. The position of the outsider and the loser are similar, but rich or poor, losers intimately know some part of the city where they are welcome and known. Sometimes you can only see that they are lost when you see them in a place they don’t belong, but in Montreal, that place is never far away.

Mad Hatters is one of those places that the lost can claim as their own. It’s also a mansion full of stories, and most of them are sad. Only a year before I started working there, one of the two owners had died of liver failure. Everyone had loved him. He’d always given them Christmas gifts like VHS porn tapes from the ’80s or bottles of liquor. Since he died, the living partner, Maurice, had picked up drinking in his stead. Whenever Maurice showed up, the bartenders learned to hand him a bottle of Jameson and tried to keep him away from any of the customers who weren’t just there for the free booze. Every night that I drank too much working at the bar I worried that I would up end like Maurice. He’d started out wanting to be a writer and his career had peaked in 1990 as the screenwriter for a high school slasher called Night of the Dribbler. He kept the VHS on his desk.

On those nights the night manager didn’t drive me home, I’d leave the bar at four or five in the morning and eat at Moe’s 24-hour Casse-Croûte du Coin while I waited for the bus. I never saw anyone who looked unhappy at Moe’s that late, when the people ending their shifts crossed paths with the people about to start them. I wasn’t either. But I knew what I was every time I sprinkled coffee grinds over vomit on the carpet or unclogged a urinal. I knew that everyone compelled to stay up that late was in the same boat. The night always starts out with a promise that something could change. Everyone’s life has changed in a night. They’ve met the right or the wrong person. They’ve been assaulted or they’ve been raped. They’ve discovered whole planets full of humans just like them. And there are always enough people at the end of the night who refuse to go to bed, who put off for another hour or two the return of their own thoughts, for whom nothing has changed in too long. At the end of the night, I’m a busser waiting for the 350 Verdun/Lasalle line to show up, a loser in a city marked by disappointment and failure.


Jason Freure is the editor of The Town Crier, the literary blog of The Puritan. He has also published work in Maisonneuve, Vallum, Lemon Hound, and Spacing. Find him on Twitter @JasonFreure