I love Square St. Louis in Montreal. Project for Public Places calls it “The closest thing to a European neighborhood square you’ll find this side of the Atlantic.” That may or may not be true, but one thing is for sure: it is a crazy, mixed up, and odd place — at times peaceful and gorgeous and other times overrun by thugs and druggies. Most of the time it’s somewhere in between, which is how I like it.
I’ve lived most of my Montreal life within a few minutes walk of the square and have spent countless afternoons and evenings there, plunked on a bench by the fountain, reading, or just people watching. It was my favorite place to pass the long days during my frequent bouts with unemployment in the first few years I lived here. Weekdays were the best, because it wasn’t so crowded with weekenders. It was just me and the other idlers.
Square St. Louis is a small park, as urban parks go, but it crams a lot in. At one end is an old stone pissior that was built in the 1930s as a make-work project for unemployed victims of the depression. It’s now an ice cream stand. Dead-center is the spectacular two-tiered classic Victorian fountain. The fountain and its pool attract most of the weirdos, which is why it’s always been my favorite place to sit.
I used to see a guy on a bicycle playing the harmonica. I could hear him playing the blues from about a block away. The sound would get louder and he would ride — while playing — right up to the fountain, and circle around it once or twice. Then he’d stop and put his foot up on the wall of the pool and wail away for five minutes with the most rip-roaring blues you could imagine. Then he’d get back on the bike and pedal away, still playing.
One hot day I saw a well-dressed man in a shirt and tie stand up from his bench and leap into the pool with a magnificent belly-flop. Even though the water is only knee deep, he swam — fully clothed — across to the other side, got out, and sat down again. Later, dried by the sun, he stood up and walked away.
Another time, I saw one of the local drunks sitting in the lower pan of the fountain. How he got up there I’ll never know. He sat there for a while, laughing and having a good old time, and would occasionally stand up and pound his chest like Tarzan. He was a funny guy — one of the more sociable of the full-time boozers who spent all their time in the square that summer. I even took a few photos, which I found last week when I was digging through some old slides.
Eventually he decided it was time to come down, but how? Being one of the blunter knives in the drawer, he decided to jump. Remember, the water is only knee deep. Down he came, feet first, with a big splash. I didn’t hear the crunch, but there must have been one. He just sat there in the pool for a while, with a forlorn look on his face. Eventually he dragged himself over to the edge, where all his buddies were doubled-over laughing and guffawing. A few of them pulled him out, after which he just rolled onto the ground and moaned.
About ten minutes later the ambulance showed up and took him away.
A week later I was back in the square, positioned as usual near the fountain. I heard a bit of a commotion and turned to look. There he was, triumphantly returning to re-stake his territory. He rolled around the fountain in his shiny new charity wheelchair, letting out whoops and cat-calls, the full-length casts on both legs signed with dozens of illegible scrawls and cigarette burns. The other boozers were happy to see him, and so was I. With free entertainment like that, who needs a job?
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