Last Night at Chapters Centre-Ville

The man who entered the four-storey-spanning glass elevator looked like any other: corduroys, boots, trench, scarf. Male pattern baldness. But as the doors shut and the car began its ascent, it was like being locked in a peep show booth, except he was the star of the show, his own private dancer. He dropped his pants, loosed his privates, spread his arms wide, and started to… pee. And dance. And pee. And dance. On the glass walls, for everyone to see.

The employees at Chapters Centre-Ville Montreal, of which I was one for almost four years, came to know him, not surprisingly, as the Dancing Pee Guy. He was one of our less savory regulars, and the bane of J. on the second floor’s existence, for obvious reasons. Involving a bucket, a mop, and a whole bottle of Windex.

My station was the information desk, a sort of mini-fort beside the cash. It was, to my mind, the best of both worlds. Proximity to the cash significantly reduced boredom, which happened when you were alone on one of the upper floors with little to do. The hub of the store, it gave you the chance to interact with customers, managers, guests, and fellow employees from all the other departments. For every pithy interaction with someone who couldn’t understand why a book with the word ‘hospital’ in the title might be hard to search for, there were the hours spent with serious book-lovers, discussing philosophy, art, literature, cinema.

Our store was special. For one, it looked like an old-fashioned library, all faux mahogany stacks and attractive but uncomfortable chairs. Little nooks that became your oasis on a snowy day. Unlike the Indigo down the street, it was a haven for artists who needed a day job that didn’t entirely stifle their souls and grad students who didn’t want to just punch a clock while they completed their degrees. We were, as a group, way too smart of their own good. I spent many a break involved in a passionate debate in the staff room, many a weekend going to someone’s poetry reading, concert, or exhibition. These people knew their books—if you knew what you wanted, they would give their all to find it for you, even if that meant a special order or calling another store. Of course there were nights where we dicked around—what’s the point of having a retail job if you can’t occasionally dick around?—but we were devoted, to the books if not always to the company.

We resisted the top brass’ desire to cut down on books and amp up the home decor section for as long as possible. When we found out that the web site was selling a book by a local psychologist that explained how to de-program gays, the staff—a good 50% of which were LGBTQ—collectively wrote a letter of complaint to the CEO (Chapters-Indigo famously has a policy against carrying hate literature). Ditto decorating the entire first floor in rainbow balloons for pride.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, of course. There were break-ins and broken hearts. You grew to love some books so much you’d pimp them to every customer (Shadow of the Wind), but despise others simply because of the amount of copies they sold. I used to joke that if I got paid a nickel for every Da Vinci Code I sold, I could have retired at thirty. The night of one of the Harry Potter launches, when everyone was celebrating, I accidentally miscalculated the change required from the bank to the tune of losing us $200, and spent a good hour crying in the office, terrified of being fired (spoiler: I wasn’t).

And now comes the news that my store, our beloved store, the one I love to revisit a few times a year even though I haven’t worked there for almost a decade, is closing. In its place? A Victoria’s Secret. If that doesn’t perfectly exemplify what’s wrong with our contemporary world, I don’t know what.

I visited last night, for the last time. It closes tomorrow. The cliche was true, it was a shell of its former self. All the upper floors and the basement were closed off. The Starbucks had already moved out. The last of the stock was collected on the first floor, where the bestsellers and recent releases used to be, divided into sections marked by handwritten signs taped onto the edges of tables, the sides of shelves. The two front doors were flung wide open, as if they didn’t even mind if you stole.

Though I was sad, I couldn’t help but smile. So much of the person I am was formed between those walls. There, I got my first taste of real responsibility, real challenge, real camaraderie among co-workers. I don’t think I’ll ever work anywhere where I like the people so much ever again. Chapters gave me one of my best friends, a lifetime of dinner party repartee, the courage to dip my toe into the publishing waters, and, with any luck, fodder for at least one madcap novel/television series.

I checked the elevator, but the Dancing Pee Guy wasn’t there. His legend, like the store itself, is now a thing of memory.

On home, bilingualism, and dogs

The holidays are a time for reflection. It’s a well-worn cliche, but I think that most people do indulge in a bit of introspection this time of year, especially if you live, like I do, in a place where winter weather forces you into a state of semi-hibernation. Especially if you are, like I am, home-bound by the first snowstorm of the season (curse you, weather gods!).

I live in Quebec, a province that has seen its share of tumult over the past two years. We are a French enclave in an English/Spanish continent, a source of constant social tension between the Francophone majority and the English and Allophone minorities. I won’t go into the gory details, but let’s just say the current political scene bears a striking resemblance to that of Berlin circa the 1930s. I wish I was exaggerating. So the question that’s been hanging over my head like the blade of a guillotine this year is whether I want to stay in a place where the political leaders privilege one language/culture over the rest.

Montreal has been my home my entire life, except for the one year I fulfilled all of my prim and proper anglophile fantasies by studying in England. It’s artsy. It’s historic. It’s multicultural. The countryside is near, if that’s your thing. The mountains are near, if that’s your thing. I feel safer walking its streets than in any other city I’ve ever visited – including rural southern Ontario towns. I love my neighborhood, a melange of rich and poor, hipsters and closet suburbanites, blue collar families and business folk, where everything I need is within walking distance and the downtown core is only a bus ride away. But what I love best about my neighborhood, my city, my province is the very thing that’s tearing it apart: language issues.

What I really wanted to talk about today was dogs. Don’t worry, it’s all going to come together in the end. I have a little Pemmie – aka a tri-colored Pembroke Welsh Corgi – who is the light of my life. This will not be the last time I mention her. Something I learned while she was training me (okay, so the second thing I learned after ‘dogs train you, you don’t train them’) is that dogs don’t have an agenda. They are true innocents. They have wants like any other creature – food, affection, exercise, sleep – and they are not above being sneaky to get those things, but the rest is remarkably black and white. They take the world as it comes. You have to work to make a dog aggressive; I don’t believe they start out that way. When they meet another dog, they like them or they don’t: the end.

You would think dog-walking in a city with language tensions would be problematic, but no. Somehow, when it comes to the dogs we adore, it doesn’t matter if you’re French or English – or Russian, or Portuguese, or Japanese, or Muslim, or whathaveyou. I have never once met a foreign language-speaking dog owner who was rude to me. I am bilingual, but with a slight accent when I speak French. In a city where people develop ‘language radar’, I stand out as an Anglophone. My fellow dog owners and I still do the awkward dance around ‘What language will we speak to each other?’ – a daily occurrence here in Montreal – but once we figure out the steps, our conversation finds a rhythm. Our dogs, as with any pair of pet owners, are our common ground. It’s easy to respect someone who loves what you love.

Why is it so much harder to respect someone with a difference in opinion, life experience, religious practice, upbringing? Why does something as essential and valuable as language divide us? Why can’t we embrace both English and French, cherishing the fact that bilingualism makes us stronger, smarter, richer, more cultured? Why does the best thing about this province have to bring out the worst in its people?

Thanks to humans, there are dozens of types of dogs, and most of them get along just fine. This issue, this province, its conflicts are anything but black and white, I know. But as the year comes to a close, and I once again consider leaving this city that I love, I can’t help but think that we could do worse than look for answers at the dog park.