Strange Cargo

Lessons from the Jack London Finishing School

Saturday, August 05, 2006

7306 - Squeaky Cheese and Beautiful Girls


My stay here in Montreal has been quite pleasant. I'm here at the house where Spoke, Oks, and Dave live. On getting up in the morning I go out to get some onions that Spoke mentioned were in the next door grocers dumpster. When I open the lid there is also a fair amount of packaged goods, lots of sour cream and couscous salads. The onions and the couoscous come with me and after getting some Carling Black Label I go to work making some onion soup. This ends up being a bigger project than I had anticipated, but it's OK. There's something about a well stocked kitchen that always puts me at ease. To say that I'm a good cook would be a stretch but I seem to make out OK most of the time. Anyway, I figure that I should do something to make myself useful around here. These folks are all complete strangers but don't seem to mind a traveller staying, or invading their kitchen.

Oks is still sleeping, he's more of a night owl and frankly reminds me in appearance of Tim Roth portraying Vincent Van Gogh in the film "Vincent and Theo". Oks is cool and we get along pretty well, I think we may actually have similar personalities. Oks doesn't say a whole lot but one on one he opens up quite a bit. Spoke and Oks have ridden trains quite a bit and I find this reassuring for some indescribable reason. I suppose it's just another familiar experience that we share as people. Scary & Piano are Spoke's two dogs, they are actually brothers and seem to be attached at the hips. Sometimes they sit next to each other in one of the open windows and watch the street down below.

Later on I go back out for more Black Label and discover that this part of the city is lined with shops, bars and cafe's on the street level and apartments directly above. Most are specialty shops, meaning that there are no variety stores a la Walgreens or 7-11. As I find out later on, there is a strong grassroots movement here to stop the gentrification that has decimated other neighborhoods in the city. As I walk down the street and experience the ambiance of life here it becomes very clear to me that urban renewal would not leave any room for the qualities that make this a way of life for those who live here now. The old men sitting in wooden folding chairs on the sidewalk, drinking coffee laced with the contents of silver flasks unveiled from under a vest or out of a coat pocket already seem to know what I'm thinking as they watch me go by.

Spoke is an attractive woman with a lovely voice and she seems to be quite articulate and informed. She also sings lead vocals in Ballast. Unfortunately I'm a little too shy to engage her in much conversation so I guess I'll never know what she knows. Her hair is a wavy, dark chestnut swath, loosely tied back over her shoulder in a way that makes me think of old dusty photographs from the depression years. She cuts a short but proportionally enticing figure that by the looks of it is bursting with life. The cadence and texture of her voice is what gets me though. Imagine opening a closet and finding a smoky black suede jacket with the crystals of spilled whisky on the cuffs and the dry remnants of white lilacs picked long ago in the pockets...

Oks and I go to a park on the St. Lawrence river right next to the CP line to see if there are any familiar faces there. Trains are being switched back and forth only a few yards in front of us and the noise is actually comforting, almost like a soundtrack playing in the background. There's a few travellers but none that I know. We hang out with them for a while drinking and talking. Everybody is pretty psyched about going to a viking festival tomorrow up in Quebec City. I find this kind of amusing that these Canadians are so excited about a chance to parade around in horns while getting smashed. Most are trying to figure out if they can catch a freight to Quebec City in time to get there for the opening ceremony. I would like to go but kind of want to stay here in Montreal to see more of the city. Pretty soon a girl shows up that has me in some state of confusion. For whatever reason, the impression I get is that she is very similar to me right down to the way she dresses. She is ofcourse much better looking than I am. Oks informs me that her name is Megan and that she lives here in Montreal. I'm too taken aback to try to initiate any contact with her, but the feeling that we are one and the same persists, I've never had this happen before... and I really don't understand what it means.

Another evening, Oks and I go down to a switchyard to streak up some cars and we end up on the top platform of a tanker drinking beer and just hanging out. There is a crew switching as we sit there but the yard is dark and they don't see us until a string gets pushed right by us and there is a worker standing on the rear platform. He jumps off, climbs the ladder to our tanker and then stands there bellowing at us in french. Eventually I tell him I don't understand and he says in a very heavy french accent "These trains, they cut you in half!" while pointing out of the yard. We get off and make like we're leaving but loop back to actually do the streaking. We were just taking a beer break you see...

One of the culinary curiosities of the province is Poutine. This is french fries doused with an onion based brown gravy and then sprinkled with fresh cheese curds. It's quite good, if somewhat dubious in nutritional content. If the cheese is fresh it will squeak when you sink your teeth into it. If sitting on a sidewalk patio while eating your Poutine you may watch the passing people and I must say the ratio of extraordinary female beauty is very high here. I won't venture as to an explanation to this phenomenon. It's quite remakable however.
Later on in the day I go back to the house and end up watching "Emperor of the North Pole" with Lee Marvin playing the part of "A No.1", a resourceful hobo determined to ride No. 19. Ernest Borgnine plays the part of a maniacal and blood thirsty bull determined to keep the hobos and especially A No.1 off his train. Classic Ernest Borgnine, this is a must see for anyone even remotely interested in the railroad.

Up in the top story apartment above us, Oks tells me a bunch of bikers from Amsterdam and Paris have made their home there. The other day while I was hanging out on the balcony, reading and drinking, a couple of them decide to stop by. These guys look exactly like the Hells Angels I know from Norway, long hair and beards, greasy jeans and leather vests, square toe boots and chain belts. It was always sort of funny to me how the European bikers have emulated the look of the Oakland, CA bikers from the 60's to the point that they appear like caricatures to anyone used to seeing what passes for biker culture in the States now. In many ways the Europeans are way more pure to the outlaw tradition as becomes evident when they offer me free drugs of my choice. I politely decline and explain that I'm content as I am. They understand and actually introduce themselves at this point; I'm in the company of Gert Jan and Phillipe. After offering up some onion soup, which they happily accept and slurp up with gusto, they go back up the wrought iron spiral stair case to their lair overlooking the city.

The last night of my stay here is at the International Fireworks Competition hosted by the city of Montreal every year. For six weeks in the summer there is a major fireworks show twice a week, and tonights show is the closer. This is the same park where I saw Megan so we're hanging out with some more travellin' kids again, but the numbers are diminished due to the viking festival. Otherwise the park is packed with people everywhere. The show commences and lasts for close to an hour. It is by far the most amazing fireworks show I have seen. The smoke hanging over the launch pad on the other side of the St. Lawrence looks like a giant piece of moss with it's green tendrils stretching skyward looking for light.


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