Ode on a City Wall

The first time I came to Montreal I was 21. It was summer and I’d just spent a season planting trees in the bush, getting sunburned, blistered, and bitten by black flies. The city was hot and steamy, full of traffic and bicycles. People crowded the parks and sidewalks and ate in restaurants that opened onto the street as if there wasn’t enough room inside to contain so much life.

I ran through a sprinkler park wedged into the middle of a block of rowhouses, walked up and down the Main, bought beads in a shop by the bus station, drank the best coffee I’d ever had and ate things I’d never tasted before – Chilean avocado sandwiches and heart of palm salads. I was so hungry for all of it, for the whole city full of languages, the clatter of old Portuguese guys playing dominoes, the cold beer for sale at every dépanneur on every corner, the way people looked and talked and danced. I was in love.

When I came back the following year it was November. The city was frozen, snowless, bleak and ugly. I walked all over looking for traces of the things I loved. There were only grey streets, à louer signs in storefronts, barren rings of hockey rinks waiting for ice. Montreal was on the skids and I was without prospects. But somehow, it was all exciting.

I got a job as a waitress and then as a reporter for a tiny newspaper that paid me by the column inch. At the top of my stories they misspelled my name. My roommate and I lived on reduced-price cheeses from La Vielle Europe and frozen perogies. Our landlord controlled the heat in our cheap St-Urbain apartment and it was the warmest place I’d ever have. I slept with my window cracked open; swaddled up in bed I could feel feathery snowflakes kiss my nose. We lit our kitchen and its ugly linoleum with a desk lamp and a string of fairy lights. Though the green shimmering Montreal I’d first met was nowhere to be found, it was still the early days of love. Nothing could get me down.

The “i love you…” graffiti on the walls of Mile End makes me think of all this. The first time I glimpsed it, I crossed the street to get a better look. It was on St.-Viateur East, low-down, close to the sidewalk. As I would later notice on other walls, the writing was loopy, the way a schoolgirl would write in a diary. Sometimes the i is capped with a heart, and the words are always followed by a pensive dot, dot, dot.

There is something wistful about the loopy writing. Or maybe it’s the dot dot dot that sends me back to when I first loved this city, before I ever got my bike stolen, or my brakes stolen off my bike, or my handlebars stolen off my bike, before I ever got sick of bagels and waiting for the 55 bus. It takes me back to when I used to go out late and come home later and we seemed to subsist on beer and ginger candies; back when our Greek landlord greeted us shouting, “Beautiful girls! Beautiful girls!” (The way he pronounced girls made it sound like he was complimenting us for having breathing organs like fish.)

It’s like a little valentine. A note scrawled on a garage door or on a bit of stucco close to the ground. The words are like seed bombs that guerilla gardeners throw into fenced-off vacant lots, planting flowers in cracks in the concrete.  These messages are surprise gifts, company in an unexpected place.

I asked people in the neighbourhood if they’d seen the “i love you…” and they nodded and smiled, saying, “Oh yeah…” as if it reminded them, too, of falling in love.

I took pictures of the graffiti, which really seemed too sweet and gentle to call graffiti. I started a small collection. But after a while, the writing on the wall turned into one more familiar thing that I actually knew nothing about, like so many of my neighbours, people I saw all the time without knowing their full stories.

Then I noticed the i love yous are fragile. When I go back to try to find them again, I discover they’ve been scrawled on top of or painted over. This is to be expected, not much stands still, untouched. Bikes get stolen, businesses change hands, and my giddy infatuation with the city and the neighbourhood has turned into something more complicated. Yet in the noisy blur of snowplows, car alarms, and bike thieves, someone is still out there, writing love on the wall, surprising us and triggering a thousand different thoughts, with the words, and the dot dot dot…

Sarah Gilbert is a frequent contributor to carte blanche and her stories have also appeared in Matrix, Le Bathyscaphe, and Taddle Creek. She also writes for The Gazette and for television, and sometimes she produces radio. She has been writing, a tell-all life story of her neighbourhood, for several years now.