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Feature: Bobby’s story

by The Concordian February 16, 2016 0 comment

By Sara Breitkreutz with Bobby Vaughan

Do you remember the first time we met? You were singing. I think it was “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band. Some people call me Maurice… It was almost four years ago, a cold day in February. I was handing out steaming bowls of soup and pieces of bread in Cabot Square, a small park at the corner of Atwater and Ste-Catherine, in the heart of Shaughnessy Village. The incessant, metallic sounds of the construction site across the street drifted around us as you pulled an oversized plastic beer bottle from your winter coat and drank a toast to the towering bronze-and-marble statue of John Cabot that still stands in the middle of the square. Your friend Ced was giving you a hard time for drinking in front of me, but I laughed it off, and then you started telling me about the ‘old days’ when the Forum still hosted the Habs and the square was filled with crowds and pot dealers and line-ups to get into rock concerts.

Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

These days Ced is in the hospital and the construction site is now a tall grey condominium with a Starbucks on the ground floor. New cranes have popped up on the other side of Ste-Catherine, promising more condos and more coffee shops. Cabot Square has been completely renovated, despite fears that the neighbourhood’s rapid gentrification is pushing low-income and precariously housed people further out into the suburbs.

But you’ve been sober for six months now and you look great. You’ve shaved your beard. You’ve lost some weight. Everywhere we go people are telling you how much better you look. How are you doing?

Me? I just live day by day.

I’m just happy you remember me and don’t mind if we take a quick walk around the neighbourhood together. What do you think of how Cabot Square looks these days? What do you think of the ‘facelift?’

I miss the old park.

Leaves crunch under our feet as we walk across the porous white pavement that was installed to replace muddy grass.

They say this is the future, but what’s the future? It’s so ugly. Five and a half million dollars for that. They said well, at least when it rains the water goes into the ground, it don’t stay on the cement, but who gives a fuck about that?

I personally think they did the park like that because of people on the street, people drinking and partying in the park. I think the only benefit about the park is that the police can’t go in there in their cars no more.

You have a point. Since the square reopened last summer there have been more police in the area, but the new design at least prevents them from driving through the park in their cruisers like they used to.

Like so many others, you’ve been a regular in Cabot Square for a long time now. It’s not because you have nowhere to stay, but because, as you’ve told me, you struggle with alcoholism. You’ve seen this place go through a lot of change and as we keep walking this becomes the theme of the hour. Shaughnessy Village has gone through drastic socio-economic and architectural transformations in the last few decades. Every five minutes or so, it hits you, and you have to say something.

It’s so different now!

You tell me you grew up on Souvenir Street, behind the now-vacant Montreal Children’s Hospital that looms on the south side of the square. You and your 10 siblings were raised by your father, who worked at the Forum Tavern as a waiter, and your mother, who relied on welfare supplements to make ends meet. You’ve lived around here almost for almost 50 years; your birthday is next week. How did it used to be?

It’s not like the old days.

You gesture north towards Ste-Catherine Street and I turn my head as you take me back in time.

There were stores everywhere, it was lit up everywhere. You’d go along and there was lights everywhere. Now you don’t even see the lights no more. Back in the days, like in the ’70s and even in the ’80s, you’d look down Sainte-Cat’s and it was lit up like a Christmas tree! Everywhere you’d go there was nice lights and clean stores and that. It’s all changing. Maybe you see a lot of lights further down, but everything here’s too dull.

From where we’re standing we can see the blocky monstrosity of the Forum. These days people go there to see movies at the multiplex, but from the mid-’20s to the mid-’90s it’s where people went to see the Canadiens play hockey. And the concerts. Did you ever see anyone big there?

I think I saw Janis Joplin, I saw the Stones, Jimi Hendrix. I saw them all there. It was amazing. But it looks so different now. I miss the Forum. Especially Saturday night hockey. There were thousands of people, the streets were blocked off!

You point to the SAQ at the south-east corner of the building. It used to be an old brasserie where you could go and drink a couple of beers before the game.

The brasserie was cool, everybody went in there. It was basically a lot of old people in there, you know. All the ladies would go in there with their husbands. I think they closed at 12 o’clock at night. When you wanted food they delivered it from the deli.

You look to the next block over, where the condos went up in 2012.

There, right on the corner was the Forum deli. I loved the food in there, especially my club sandwich! Ah. And then beside it you had the… like a Chinese place, they made their own muffins and that…

Like a Chinese bakery?

Yeah! But it’s gone now, pfft!

Here you’ve got a bank, you’ve got the Adonis. It looks like there’s no life there, there’s no nothing.

What else has changed? Has anything stayed the same?

You point to the Forum Tavern where your dad used to work and you would sneak in as a teenager to play pool. It’s boarded up now and crowded in by construction scaffolding.

You point to where the old Seville theatre used to be, where you and your friends would go every Saturday to see the movies. Now there’s a towering grey condo.

And then there’s Moe’s restaurant, maybe the last place that remained from the ‘old days,’ a tiny casse-croute on the corner of de Maisonneuve and Lambert-Closse where the hockey announcers used to go.

It’s still called Moe’s.

As we amble back to Cabot Square, we run into David Crane, an outreach worker, whose new field office is in the square’s renovated lavatory. You and David talk almost every day. You tell David what you’ve been telling me, and start to wax lyrical about the old days and all the things you miss in the neighbourhood.

David is pragmatic. “There are a lot of guys around here who miss the old days, but you know the old days are never coming back,” he says.

You nod. The old days were rough sometimes, too.

No one is sure what is going to happen to Cabot Square and the neighbourhood. The Montreal Children’s Hospital closed last year and even more condos are being built. As we walk back to the Cabot statue we look up at the massive brick hospital building.

Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

Photo by Marie-Pierre Savard.

I’d like to see them do something with that hospital.

I keep hearing they might convert the hospital to public housing. But no one seems to know for sure.

You know, they’re always saying, ‘Oh, they’re gonna build city houses.’ What do they want to do, put us near the river? What, ’cause we’re poor you want to put us off the island or something? What the fuck is that? We’re human. Like, duh. You know, it’s sick the way the world is now.

I don’t know. I guess that’s the way of the future. You ain’t smart enough, or you ain’t… I don’t know. You gotta be educated in the world now. If you ain’t educated you ain’t gonna move on. It’s very simple. Me, I don’t care. Me, I’m fine. I just live day by day. I’m happy the way I am.

What do you think people who remember Shaughnessy Village from the old days think about this place and what’s happened to it?

I think they’d want the old things back that were here. It was so nice then. There were a lot of stores. Now you’ve got the Tim Hortons, but they’ve got them everywhere. I like the old style, like the old Chinese bakery where they had the muffins and that, donuts, and they’d make your own bread for you, and you’d come back in a couple of hours and it’s freshly made for you. You don’t have that no more. Everything’s gone, I don’t know. I think a lot of people miss that. I guess a lot of people like that are older people, but even the younger generation would have loved it like that.

As we stand here together in Cabot Square and I get ready to leave, I think that maybe if you’re still around, remembering how things used to be, then the lively, well-lit streets of the old Shaughnessy Village won’t quite have disappeared. You and your memories will still be right here at home, as Steve Miller sings,  Right here, right here, right here at home…

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