On Dorchester Boulevard

Photo by David W. Marvin, c. 1967, McCord Museum Archives

Photo by David W. Marvin, c. 1967, McCord Museum Archives

No one ever waited on you at home. If you want something, you get it yourself. They don’t like it, but you’ve always done pretty much anything you feel like. In the morning you tumble out onto the dusty streets to play. You drag along all sorts of getups, neglected garments you find tucked away in suitcases under your parents’ bed or in hatboxes on the top shelf of their closet, above the mothball-scented woolen coats. Some they let you play with, others not. You smuggle them out anyway. At first, you take care not to let them trail in the dirty gravel that litters the back alleyways and vacant lots of your domain. But sooner or later the moment catches you; you’re lost in your pretend world and the tulles and satins get as filthy as your soil-encrusted hands. You return them to their rightful places without remorse. You’re aware you’ll be found out, but not for days, even weeks, and those sorts of stretches have always been longer than you can fathom. To let the future affect how you feel today would be to go against everything that you are.

Because for now you are happy, puttering along beside the thoroughfare in all that taffeta and lace. The boy is a neighbour, and you’re the only girl he’ll be seen playing with. They all want to be seen playing with you. At school, they gather around where you eat lunch, try to swap for your baloney-and-mustard, giggle as you crack jokes about the teachers. This boy, the neighbour, is glad to be the one your charm has fallen on today. He just wants to ride it for as long as it lasts.

Later on, things will change. He’ll lose that puppy-dog look. You’ll want to rely on him, but he’ll pull away, fall back. He won’t know how to help you. You’re a fighter, but you have a hard time knowing when to stop. It’s started already: weren’t you sent home last month for pulling Marie-Christine’s hair out?

In the principal’s office, you bowed your head and apologized when prompted. But you weren’t sorry, not really. The head-shaking and calls home, that’s just something you have to get through, like the sting of a spanking. By next time you’ll have forgotten all about it.

Because you were raised to look after yourself, and that never changes. You’ll start at Eaton’s at just fourteen, folding sweaters from four in the morning. You’ll pick up extra shifts in the afternoons and spend the in-between hours in the luncheonettes. Sleep-starved but bubbly, you’ll chat with your girlfriends, make plans for the weekend, talk of bands and clubs and cocktails and boys. Plan out hairstyles, buzz with excitement. You won’t stick around at home too long. Downtown is bright and getting brighter, you need to be where the action is, it’s hardly even a choice . . .

See how you smile at the photographer as he snaps you in the street, in your mother’s dancing dress. There’s something natural in the way you look him in the eye. A presence, and a statement: attention isn’t something you want, but what you’re entitled to. You’ll never let it matter, where you came from. You were born to be adored.

So smile, chouette, bébé, Limelight princess, oneday disco queen. Smile, smile. Soon, they’ll all be watching.


Jane Gatensby is a Montreal-based writer and translator.