My agent told me today is supposedly the year’s most depressing day, and I did feel unaccountably low this morning but had a coffee with Dear One, worked a couple of hours on my murder mystery, meditated unsuccessfully with the Chinese meditation balls I wrote about here a few days ago, played a couple of songs on my guitar in the kitchen sunny patch with the cat, then went out to see what new thing I could do on this, day 17 in my year of daily doing something I’ve never done before. I was worried about Dear One, because after two years in Montreal he has not found work. I try to be supportive and patient but today I felt worried and frustrated, and, to be truthful, irritated: how hard could it be to invent a new work life for yourself in a new place. The more I thought about it the more depressed I became, and what new thing was I going to be able to do today in that frame of mind. “Your project must be exhausting,” one friend told me. “I love doing the same old things every day.” As I approached a particularly ugly corner on Jean-Talon I felt like agreeing.
European architects had visited the corner and pronounced it a lost cause. There’s a gorgeous old building at the back of a big square, but it has become a low-end discount clothing store, and the big square is one of those bereft affairs lined with doomed saplings and comfortless benches. Add dingy snow, a Tim Horton’s and a McDonalds, and you get the kind of picture that plummets me down the dark pipes.
I knew that just beyond this nastiness were Pushap Tali and African fabric shops, and I thought maybe for day 17 I will get a henna tattoo, but the idea seemed frivolous and pathetic; what would it solve? Dear One would still be unemployed when I got home with my decorated forehead. I tried one of my depression antidotes, singing in the street, and noticed a transparent full moon in the 3 o’clock sky, with city starlings flying across it. I looked in the McDonalds window. The place was full of men Dear One’s age and older, drinking coffee. The other day Dear One told me he was standing outside a shop and someone walking by tried to give him a few coins. The men in McDonalds reminded me of this.
There’s something you’ve never done before, said Jiminy Cricket. You’ve never gone in this McDonald’s with the old men. In fact you’re too much of a smarty-pants to have gone in any McDonalds since you got to Montreal. All you care about is Café El Mundo with its nice expensive almond croissants. Maybe those men in there will give you some insight into what’s going on with Dear One.
The atmosphere inside was like some sort of social club. There were no laptops and all the faces were beautiful in that they were etched with life. I bought a coffee and a raisin bran muffin for how much? A dollar fifty-eight! The place was full. Men did crosswords and talked. I sat at a window stool, which was much more comfortable than El Mundo’s chairs: for one thing, there was no spiky plant sticking in my neck. I heard a man say, “I hate winter. The zippers, the coats, the boots, don’t you hate it too?” He spoke warmly to the room at large. I showed him the button on my coat that reads Enjoy Winter.
“It’s my name,” I told him. “I have to enjoy it.” We got talking. He and his wife had a little yellow canary that died on January the 13th and she missed it very much.
“She’s having it stuffed,” he said, “at one of those places.”
“Is that the word in English?” He turned to the men, “Taxidermist.” To me, he said, “We’re all Greek. She gave him the canary and he’s going to stuff it. He’s a male bird. He used to sing, sing, sing – only the males sing, not the females. They sing to catch the females. Two weeks, we go back, and it will be done.”
“How did your wife find a taxidermist?”
“I don’t know! Women, they give birth, and their brains give birth too, to all kinds of ideas. Women are the ones with new ideas. I went in the place. The taxidermist. Down his stairs. He had a bear.”
I asked him what he did and he told me he’s a pensioner. “I worked in a hospital until four years ago. Hospital work. Now I get up at nine and have my breakfast. I watch tv in the morning and stay in the house and then, from two to five, I come here.”
We got talking about our daughters and when I said mine plays violin he proclaimed it the king of instruments. “Anyone will tell you that.” He turned to the man beside him, “What is the King of Instruments?”
“No! The King of Instruments is the violin.”
“The violin is the instrument of love.”
“It may be, but it is also the King of Instruments.”
I told him my husband was finding it hard to find work and he asked how old he was. Fifty-three? He understood!
He gives his neighbours yellow and red rose plants for their gardens, and in spring he moves for four months to his caravan outside the city, where he pays $230 a month to watch the flowers grow and hear the birds sing, which lifts his heart. Next September, instead of coming back to his routine of television and McDonalds, he intends to go to Sun Youth soup kitchen on St. Urbain and Marianne and volunteer. He came to Canada when he was twelve, and his brother went to Florida, but the grass is not greener on the other side. To be human is to be dissatisfied: there is an emptiness in us.
By the time my coffee and muffin were done, I felt I’d been in a summer meadow. This man had lifted my own heart with the way he spoke. When I got home, Dear One went as he often does to the Metro station to meet our daughter coming from school; an unnecessary but loving ritual she can one day look back on and contemplate. My grandfather used to do things like that. He went to a tavern where he played dominoes with men he saw every day, and when his grandchildren came to visit him he waited for us at the end of his street.
When I saw my first acupuncturist earlier in this daily project, he asked me to remember the difference between who a person is and what they do. I think maybe the Greek man with the yellow canary was showing me the same thing.