Those special people:
Michael and the Wagon-Nomads
I lived in the Mile End district of Montreal from the 1970s to the 1990s and loved it. Mille End was a relaxed neighbourhood full of diverse people of multiple ethnicities, co-existing and tolerant of ‘odd’ or ‘peculiar’ souls. But, eventually, the hood transitioned and I saw the warning signs. The fuck they staring at? I asked Nick about a couple in the corner store, and he shrugged, new to strit, he said, first time see woman in nightgown in shop. Oh, I got it - they were offended by my Saturday morning buy-the-newspaper look, soon they’ll demand yellow stars, I said, but Nick didn’t get that one. A second omen occurred at a party when a new resident to the neighbourhood asked me for my address: 264 rue Villeneuve, I told him, and then he informed me that I lived on Lower Villeneuve, unlike the part of Villeneuve in Outremont that he called Upper. This hood is doomed, I thought, gentrification was slowly seeping in.
A fond memory I retain of the hood was my friendship with the wagon-nomads - an itinerant group who symbolized to me all that was special about Mile End. I frequently encountered the group - consisting of Michael the human who walked his bike, from which trailed a wagon, and behind that, a baby carriage. During the day, a black dog was attached to the side of the wagon and three cats slept in the carriage while Michael made the rounds of the hood. The three-sectioned caravan was often parked in an alley, and the cats could hop out for exercise while Michael stopped at various back doors. For example, my neighbour, friendly Georgia from Lafayette Pizza, would give Michael leftover Greek food containing impressive levels of garlic; dog and cat scrunchies were contributed by Christian’s Vet clinic on Laurier(excuse me, Lower Laurier); and sometimes the Portuguese fish shop on St-Urbain contributed day-old fish. Michael was permitted to use the bathroom facilities at the corner Van Houte coffee shop on Jeanne Mance, and when evening came around and they had all eaten, he and the group settled down for the night, usually in the entryway of the closed coffee shop.
The first time I said hello to Michael, he was wearing a wide-shouldered once-formal jacket, with a slightly soiled, ragged ascot around his neck - it gave him a look of tattered refinement - of a European gentleman going through hard times. He said my hair made me look like an angel(I think it was permed in those days). After that, he called me my angel, and we would sit and visit at the curbside, or, I would get him a coffee at the outdoor cafe, where we could sit at a table.
Michael told me stories about himself, and I listened. He said he was a painter who had inhaled too much turpentine, and, as a result, his head bent forward a little and he didn’t like to be indoors. Sometimes, he saw things that were not visible to others, and he might gesture to an ‘unseen’ party and initiate a dialogue. He explained that Mile End was his favourite place in Montreal, and he lived outdoors as long as he could, then, during the coldest months of winter, he stayed in a small rental room in a building where the owner accepted pets. His caravan contained all his possessions: urban camping gear, some clothes and his rolled-up artwork. Michael had adopted the dog called Raven years before, from an Alberta native who was passing through the alley at supper time. The man reached into his knapsack and extricated a small pup which he offered Michael in exchange for some money, and asked Michael to look after Raven until he could get back to Montreal. That was years ago and he’d never returned. Michael and Raven developed a good human-canine working relationship; the former spoke and the latter listened as they roamed around the streets. Sometimes Michael would shout at Raven - but no harm was intended, it was just that Michael could get very worked up about politics and needed to let off some steam.
Raven knew the neighbourhood well and particularly liked Christian’s veterinary clinic on Lower Laurier Street. When passing in front of it, he would bark and claw at the glass door trying to get inside, which distinguished him from other dog clients who had to be pulled or carried inside. Raven developed a patient wisdom, and on occasion when Michael became overwrought by the ironies of life and began to shout at passing cars or lead the caravan into the middle of Park Avenue, Raven could coax him back to the curb where they would settle and calm down in an unoccupied parking space. I never witnessed the local cops being intolerant towards the wagon-nomads, they understood Michael’s lack of filters and noisy but harmless outbursts.
One afternoon I was walking by the café and saw Michael busily writing in a notebook. He told me he was composing the libretto for a street opera, although he had not yet decided on which street it would be performed. When a stanza filled his head, he would hum and jot down some notes, then cut back to talk to me. Sometimes he forgot where he was and spoke to me in Italian. In this sporadic and unusual mode of storytelling, I learned how his three cats, Barton, Nesmith & Tsunami joined his caravan.
The cats originally lived in an alley off lower Laurier Street, in a big cardboard box containing old files from the neighbourhood Legal Aid office. During a long winter, the trio had acquired a good jurisprudence, but, come spring, their box was soggy and they needed new digs. Michael came by and showed them the baby carriage and they hopped in, and there, they established their practice: “Barton, Nesmith, & Tsunami: Feline Legal Consultants”. They mostly worked evenings when clients could approach with anonymity and confidentiality was ensured. Barton specialized in territorial disputes, Nesmith in family issues, and Tsunami in grooming and litigation.
Although specialized in feline issues, they periodically took on a canine case for compassionate reasons. Raven, both warm-hearted and delinquent, asked them to help a puppy tied up in a backyard for days. That evening, while Michael was discussing early Renaissance art with a passerby, Raven and the cats approached a fence behind which rested a very unhappy canine. Barton hopped onto the fence and after a few minutes of careful paw work, was able to lift the latch. Upon entry, Nesmith spoke to the pup about the relationship between regular meals and captivity, and sporadic meals and liberty, after which Tsunami outlined puppy rights in the province of Québec - all this jurisprudence occurred while Raven watched from the alley. The puppy was overjoyed by the legal expertise and did not hesitate to follow the group out of the yard. The impeccable Barton pushed the gate closed again and waited until he heard the latch click. When the group returned to Michael and he saw the puppy, he was delighted, and, because of his love of opera, he called the newcomer Poochini.
Years later, I heard that Michael had died, I wondered what became of the caravan and its inhabitants. In those days, the wagon-nomads were a part of the decor of Mile End, a community able to accept a different and sometimes uncomfortable presence - and of course, I miss being called my angel.
Please stay tuned for February's offering: Morning exercises
Barton, of "Barton, Nesmith, & Tsunami: Feline Legal Consultants”.