Anyone who stepped through The Yellow Door at 3625 Aylmer St. a couple of weeks ago may be forgiven for thinking they had slipped down a rabbit hole and into another world.
In the basement, known simply as “The Coffeehouse,” a single yellow light shines on the bouncy platform that serves as a stage. The light hides chunks that are missing from the ceiling tiles and a paint job that probably hasn’t been redone since the ’80s. The orange chairs are the kind that felt uncomfortable even in elementary school, and the ceiling in the one-toilet bathroom makes one feel like a giant in Alice in Wonderland. Somehow these odd elements add to the atmosphere of the tiny space.
The audience was made up of friends of the musicians, a folk duo called The Calm, and opening guitarist Derek Olive, who took the stage with a fifty-cent red McGill coffee mug and a Grandma’s Molasses cookie in hand. Yellow Door visitors found it easy to strike up conversation in the homey setting, and the audience drifted into a musical dreamscape as Olive started to play. There is a promising future for his flying fingers that pick the notes clean and slap funky harmonics into the air.
“Most artists find it almost daunting to play here because it’s so intimate, because the people here really listen. Elsewhere, the music is more of a background because people are drinking and talking over it,” Holly Fleming, the newly inducted Coffeehouse coordinator, said.
The main duo, supported by Olive on guitar and banjo, treated the audience to a folk concert featuring a series of musical poetry about relationships. Max Comeau, on rhythm guitar, and Rachel Diablos, on vocals, have been playing together for four years. Their voices blend together with original songs such as “Look at You”. Their set was all original material, with the exception of the encore, a cover of “Gold Dust Woman” by Fleetwood Mac, which showcased Diablos’ soulful vocal ability.
During the short break, William J. McNally, a regular contributor who has been playing his guitar at The Yellow Door for 20 years, commented that “people seem to be coming back to the troubadours and the spirit of storytelling, because they want stories. We’re burned out on Britney Spears.”
The Coffeehouse holds a surprising wealth of Canadian cultural history. Nestled in McGill territory, it opened in 1967 when activists, peaceniks and just plain artistic folk gathered to carve out a space for discerning ears.
Legend has it that Bruce Cockburn, Margaret Atwood, Joni Mitchell, Stan Rogers and Gordon Lightfoot have all paid a visit to the humble basement. The notorious, but talented, Jesse Winchester, a Vietnam war-resister who found refuge in Montreal and later settled in the Eastern Townships, is also said to have stopped by.
But, The Yellow Door does not exist solely for artists: it is also a very socially active organization. The “Elderly Project” was born in 1972 when several McGill students, led by Reverend Roger Balk, carried out a grant-funded survey to investigate how the elderly were fairing. They started matching student volunteers with elderly people who needed help with simple tasks like getting groceries or getting to and from appointments. Volunteers also offered encouragement to elderly clients with regular friendly visits.
The project has grown to its current base of 200 elderly clients. Each client is assisted by a volunteer for 2-3 hours per week. 80 percent of the volunteers are McGill students.
Pietro Bozzo, the director of The Yellow Door, has spent years drummin up support for the program because he firmly believes in it.
“[Helping] the elderly is not a glamorous cause. It’s been my song for a very long time. There’s nothing glamorous about heart disease, or cancer, or children’s diseases; but for whatever reason, the public seems to be more prone to giving to those causes. [Issues of] aging – these don’t sell,” Bozzo said.
In a June 2004 press release by the National Advisory Council on Aging, Chairperson Patricia Raymaker stated, “Seniors are the fastest-growing age group in the country, and every Canadian needs to realize that aging is here to stay. We all have a stake in bettering the situation of seniors and caregivers. Sooner or later, we will all be seniors or need to care for a loved one.” NACA is an advisory body to the federal Minister of Health on matters related to the aging of the Canadian population and quality of life for seniors.
The manifesto, published in October 2005 by Lucien Bouchard and eleven other Quebec personalities, was an alarm bell to Quebec about the aging population and the challenges they face.
“The group of older seniors … is growing quickly. Today, there are 430,000 Canadians over 85 years old, more than twice as many as there were in 1981, and 20 times the number in 1921. These numbers will swell even more in the coming decads as life expectancy continues to increase, and baby boomers begin to enter their senior years in 2011.”
Because the health care system is now more inclined to leave seniors in their homes than to place them in a home, the burden of caring for them has fallen more heavily on community organizations, such as The Yellow Door. Volunteers are sometimes in a unique position to signal for help when it is needed.
“If we’ve been sending a volunteer to a client for a long time and all of a sudden they notice that the place is not clean anymore, the clothes are not too fresh and on the floor there’s a can of tomato juice that she still hasn’t picked up, they would alert the social worker and say, ‘Mrs. X looks like she needs some help.’ This is something we can do. But there are other things that we can’t notice, like if they are still paying their bills. It’s a problem that seems to be worse now than when we started,” said Bozzo.
People who volunteer at The Yellow Door give out of pure altruism. As is often the case, the volunteers find they receive much more in return. It’s a warm, bright – and yellow – place that buzzes with the rewards of its cause.
“It’s very enriching to watch each of these individuals come away with something; to know that in a year’s time when they leave there’s going to be something that they take from The Yellow Door to another organization that I know is positive and realistic. It’s not pie-in-the-sky,” said Bozzo.
The Yellow Door also has a weekly meal program called the Rabbit Hole, run by coordinator Heather Unger. Unger works with Carmen Martens who coordinates Food for Thought, a food security program that provides groceries to students in an emergency. They get donations from their Chaplaincy, The Yellow Door, McGill’s Organic Food Co-op and Marche Lobo.
For a complete list of The Yellow Door’s services, was well as information on how to volunteer, go to
or call: (514) 398-6243