I am determined to find some place in Montreal where people meet talk and smoke and talk and drink and talk. I recall that Mordecai Richler was famous for his bars and so I google: Richler Montreal bars. And that’s why I am standing outside Winnie’s at 1459 Crescent Street.
The bar itself, I mean, the very bar is whirled walnut. That can’t be right. There is a copy of Sir Winston’s portrait, the one that shows him sitting with his arms “astride” his armchair, the way heroes use to stand astride a patch of ground. They are playing that song from the 80s, the one by a one hit wonder, a man of indeterminate gender, a disco number that featured the lyric “pump it.” This is playing real loud (and that’s louder than really loud). “Where’s the cigar bar?” I ask. “There’s a box of cigars in the corner,” the bartender says. Now they are playing “take my breath way.”
The bartender gives off a whiff of fetal alcohol syndrome. Some people claim they can tell by looking. I’m not one of them. There is a hockey game on, tiny, hyper active figures gliding over translucent white. It’s real dark in here. There’s one table of guys who look like they might be talking talking (as we say). They are of Richler’s generation, girth and inclination. Now the music is Under my Thumb by Lionel Ritchie. Ritchie meet Richler. Can the tape really be as old as this? Or is this a “programming” choice?
I ask the bartender if there is a day in the week when people come to talk. He stares at me wordlessly. A guy enters the bar shouting, “yeah, baby,” his tribute to Austin Powers. They are sitting across the bar in what I took to be a no-space created by the mirror image of the bar. Ghosts? None of them looks like MR. “Is there another place people go to talk?” “I think it’s like this up and down the street.” The newcomers have a great appetite for life and for popcorn. They keep jamming their meaty fists into whicker baskets. They are drinking beer.
There is a deeply worried looking Asian guy at the far end of the bar. I am beginning to get a little worried myself. This reminds me of my one moment in a bar in Cologne when a table nearby suddenly burst into song. A Dutch companion said quietly into his beer, “Any second now they will start marching.” The “yeah baby” man is now making dancing motions.
I happen to know that Richler also used to frequent the bar of the Ritz Carleton. I believe I may be safe there. It proves to be subdued in exact proportion to the frenzy of the Winnie. I have not yet popped the Richler question to the bar staff. But I have a felling I will get another look of incomprehension. Americans would be bursting with a boosterish joy at a celebrity association.
Oh, there is something crawling on the bar, a tiny little bug, so small its hard to say what is is, and all those years with my mother spent at natural history meetings in church basements conducted by men with dry hands and aggressively bad clothing who would comment with great and grave dignity on the wonders of the natural world. (This is what I will do when I grow up, I promised myself.) The lessons do me no good at all. No sooner do I see the little bug than he disappears into a crack in the bar surface, black laminate (no whirled walnut here!).
The music is smooth big band, horns and drums huge but syncopated. Now a jazz solo. When I can I struggled to move one of the bar chairs. The wait person says, with a wide gaze, flawless skin, and a certain vacuity of her own, “it’s heavy.” “Yes,” I say, “that’s my exercise for the day.” “Well,” she replies, “Now you can relax.”
There is no one here. Just two tables. The first is occupied by an older man with a cigar and a spectacularly coiffed woman of indeterminate age (but, between you and me, way younger than him) and a table in the alcove concealed from view. I struggle to listen “in” but I cannot make out what they are saying. I am getting a “tone” however and I am guessing it might be Charo or one of those notorious Charo imitators.
The waiter is in his 30s, plain, obsequious, and probably, originally, a Spanish speaker. He has no neck so his head and shoulders very nearly shared the same plane. He is talking to another man at the bar, a chap, who is, I’m guessing, Middle Eastern in origin. He has a newspaper, a sheet of paper, a glass of water and a glass of beer. A moment ago he answered the bar phone. He is discussing whatever he is reading with the bartender. The young beauty has fled.
It’s a least space exercise. Who here is most likely to have knowledge of the history of the bar? The alcove has disgorged itself. They are putting on expensive outer coats. It is cold outside. Both have beautiful gray hair. “yeah, cause I’m leaving” says the man. And his wife replies, “that’s ok then. So they are in the car.” As they leave, they are replaced by 4 thirty somethings who sit in the far corner and warm to conversation in a way that suggests that the spirit of Richlerian conversation is upon them. Though, to be honest, I have no idea what this style was. Though surely it was engaged, careful, garrulous, and smart. Them, too.
I ask the ME guy about MR and he is courtly in his interest in my question but no help at all. “What period?” He returns to his bar stool and after a moment he leaps us and says, “I think I know who you should talk to.” In a moment he returns with Antony, a man in his 60s, perhaps 70s, with the last of an aspirating Irish accent and a controlled comb over. He wears a high buttoned suit and a concierge’s badge.
Yes, he knew Mr. Richler. He drank here often. And Antony then spoke uninterrupted for about 5 minutes, bringing a pretty coherent stream of recollection out of memory but only by a process of constant encouragement directed first at the body that then returned to the mind. Antony worked so hard to remember that he rocked in a place and he held his hands away from his body on either side, so that they looked like rails designed to keep the rocking steady. And they did.
No, I was wrong to think of Winnie’s as a place that Richler would drink at night. The place changes its tone depending on the time of day, Antony explained. No, it might be lunch at Winnie’s and then drinks at Vinnie’s. I know, I know. The ME guy and I listened with interest and I was thrilled to think that some part of the oral history of the hotel was passing from one generation to the next. Lots of interesting details including references to a Rabinovitch, who was Richler’s friend. “He always asks for a 30s suite,” I thought I heard Antony say. 30’s suite? Could they really have rooms untouched since then. Daz and I will have to smuggle in and investigate. Daz can detect olfactory evidence as far back as the mid 19th century and is positively Holmesian in the things he can deduce therefrom.
So nothing and then a gusher. And then another gusher. The ME guy and I returned to the bar and introduced ourselves. His name is Ghazi, a last name he uses as his all purpose name. I ask him if he can remember the names of the rooms in the hotel that Antony has mentioned. He gives them to me: Grand Prix and Maritime. And then he says, “would you like to see them” and away we go. First to the front desk to retrieve a man with keys and then down a stairway and into a wainscoted piano bar (the Grand Prix) and on to the oval Maritime room, passing through a mirrored doorway that proved first to have a very discrete lock and then to roll invisibly into the wall. Rooms waiting. No sign of the ghosts to whom the young beauty had referred when she heard where we were going. Just embarrassed glances as couples parted and departed the space they had made their dance floor. Ask and ye shall receive.