Street Life

Jacques Ferland, a gnomelike figure in a baseball cap and mirror shades from the dollar store, bounded up our steep front steps several times a week for years. He banged on the door with the urgency of a special delivery messenger. If we didn’t answer right away he tapped the glass with a key or a quarter. Toc, toc, toc, toc!

His knock made us scramble out of our third floor apartment and down the stairs, shoelaces trailing. Monsieur Ferland was the bearer of a vital message: move the car this instant or pay. His knock meant the Ville de Montreal parking patrol was minutes away from handing out a ticket for obstructing the street cleaner.

Stripes of triplexes line our street like Neapolitan ice cream flavours and Monsieur Ferland made it his duty to match cars to apartments. He knew that we belonged to the 20-year-old gray Volkswagen Fox. Up and down the block, Monsieur Ferland saved his neighbours from $42 parking tickets, inspiring devotion along the way. He hasn’t often owned a car himself but he’s drawn to them. He worked as a tire changer at Canadian Tire and as a truck driver and if you ever pop your hood he materializes at your elbow like a cat who’s heard the sound of the can opener.

I don’t remember learning his name. It seems like everyone has always known who he was. We all call him Monsieur Ferland as if he’s the teacher in the classroom of Waverly Street. After people move away, he’s the one they reminisce about when they mention Waverly. When they come back to the block and bump into him within minutes, they talk about it as if they’ve seen Leonard Cohen on Marianne. “Guess who I saw outside?” they say, faces glowing. “Monsieur Ferland!”

Monsieur Ferland moved into an apartment in a Waverly Street triplex with his wife and teenaged children in 1970, long before Mile End was a trendy place to live, before willowy students started selling cupcakes from a table on the corner, before local designers offering purses made out of recycled vinyl took over the storefronts, before the laundromat turned into a restaurant that serves duck ravioli in cream sauce. The rent was $75. He and his wife had to leave their original apartment six years ago when the landlord decided to renovate. Monsieur Ferland managed to find a flat for rent on the other side of the street. His son and daughter share a place next door, where his granddaughter lives with her young son.

A great-grandfather, Monsieur Ferland is Waverly Street’s tiny patriarch. He grew up in the English neighbourhood of Pointe St-Charles, speaking English with his neighbours and French at home. I imagine him as a kid on the stoop, wearing one of those caps that newspaper boys wear in old movies, but instead of shouting, “Extra, extra, read all about it,” the young Monsieur Ferland says “Regarde ça, les Michauds got a new char,” or “Attention au chien là, he bites.” Playfully bilingual he has a puckish way of saying “Bonjour!” when you say hello and “Good day!” if you greet him in French.

For years he helped out at Café Olimpico, bussing coffee glasses, hauling bags of garbage out to the curb, bolting down the bike racks in the spring and removing them in the fall. He had jobs at both neighbourhood laundromats where he got attention for his personalized service. “I used to deliver the laundry,” he says. “I walked around with my red wagon. A lot of people who played on TV brought me their wash and Daniel Lavoie, a singer who lives in Outremont, he did, too.”

His love of cars and his observant, helpful nature made him the public enemy of parking tickets. What began as a service neighbours paid him for, turned into a vocation. “Somebody around here had to go away in the winter and said, ‘If I leave you the key will you start my car?’ After that I started with the tickets. When I saw the city guy coming, I’d ring the bell. People appreciated what I did. One time I got a ticket.” He reports this with the amazement such a shocking event deserves. “The city guys said to me, ‘Monsieur, was that your car? We didn’t know. We wouldn’t have given you a ticket if we’d known!'”

But this summer Monsieur Ferland is not on parking patrol the way he used to be. He’s had a number of small strokes and has been in and out of the hospital with a heart condition. His five-foot frame is even slighter than it used to be and his walk is less jaunty. “I can’t do it now,” he says with regret. “Not because I don’t want to. I just can’t. The doctor says I have to take it easy.”

This is a blow. Not just the throw-your-money-out-the-window expense of the tickets that pile up as soon as street cleaning season begins. The absence of Monsieur Ferland’s toc-toc-toc at the door hints at the end of an era.

He’s been looking out for us as long as we’ve been here and Waverly—without the committed supervision of Monsieur Ferland—feels unwelcoming, like a street without trees.

It was a different street when we first moved in. We were the new kids on the block and paid $162.50 each in rent, before our 94-year-old landlady, Mrs. Murphy, died and we bought the ramshackle building. In the old days, back in the mid-90s, the café was full of old Italian men and the walls were yellow from cigarette smoke and it was known as Open Da Night because of the faded letters over the door that proclaimed it open day and night. We were young then, back before everybody in Mile End was young, and Monsieur Ferland was here to show us how this urban street packed with triplexes was actually a village.

Even though he’s supposed to take it easy, Monsieur Ferland still makes his rounds to the corner stores, the café, and back. He beetles up and down the sidewalk many times a day. “I have to keep in shape!” he says. He’s not allowed to haul out all the garbage from the café anymore, but on garbage night, if I forget, he pulls my garbage can out to the curb. The next morning, I find it stowed underneath the steps again, as if by elves.

One day this summer he wanders by with a piece of wood and a hammer to fix the arm rest of an old church pew that sits outside the café. “Everybody sees it but nobody does anything,” he points out. Little do the smokers know that they have him to thank for eliminating splinters.

When I don’t see Monsieur Ferland for a few days, sitting on my front steps isn’t the same. The corner seems blank. I start to worry. Then, one morning, the doorbell rings and there he is. I know it’s not the parking, the car is sitting in front of the building in a good, unticketable spot, something which Monsieur Ferland likes to refer to as “une belle place.”

“I was in the hospital,” he tells me. “They can’t get my heart right. I say to the doctor, ‘if you can’t fix my heart, I can go to Canadian Tire for a boost.'” He’s cracking jokes, but he’s not here just to chat.

“Did you find something I left for you?” he asks. He’d discovered a pair of sunglasses next to our car and deposited them at our front door. I’d noticed them folded carefully on the doorsill and suspected him of putting them there.

They weren’t mine, not this time, but that’s not the point. If I had dropped my glasses, or anything important, Monsieur Ferland would be the one to find them, and bring them home.

Postscript: That was the last time Monsieur Ferland rang our doorbell. He died a month later. Jacques Ferland, 1933–2008.

Sarah Gilbert likes to walk around Mile End where she's lived for an ever-increasing number of years. She recently started, a blog of stories about the neighbourhood.