Today, day 19 in my year of daily breaking old patterns, I got on Bus 18 to see where it goes. I chose it because, while I’m familiar with Montreal’s north/south buses that get me to the plateau and downtown, the east/west buses are more of a mystery. They seem less frequent too, so when a friend told me the Beaubien bus is the east/west bus that travels most frequently I decided to hop on and go west. It was exciting to go past all the familiar Italian cafes and the bistros, and I noticed details you don’t notice when you have an agenda: ludicrous pompoms, ancient friends arm in arm, banter of bus drivers changing shifts. I wondered how the bus would navigate past the barrier of St. Laurent. Unhappily I found out it didn’t – St. Laurent was the last stop. If I wanted to explore the real Beaubien route I’d have to go east. I didn’t like the thought. Last time I went east, it was to a summer festival with face painting and port-a-potties and nasty Quebec pop bands. While the western end of the Beaubien route was a glorious clash of cultures, I had it in my mind that the farther east you rode, the more homogenized and provincial things grew. But in the name of breaking old patterns I got on the eastbound 18. I took my camera so I could indulge in my occasional photo essays of feet on buses. Earlier here I have a slideshow of some lovely specimens on the north/south Parc and St. Laurent buses. But going east was another story when it came to footwear. You’ll see the dreariness of it below.
Once we passed the little skating park the passengers became older and more dejected. I felt like getting off. As the bus became crowded I felt like an impostor who was taking the seat of someone who needed it, but those standing weren’t older than I am, just sadder and more tired. Whose idea was this anyway? What sort of idiot was I? The street became dowdier. The cafes petered out and we passed brick bungalows that huddled and frowned. This went on and on, interspersed with the odd pest control business and graffiti-scrawled pharmacies. Who was I to expect beauty, or grace, or intrigue, wherever I went? Had I forgotten that vast areas of any city are completely utilitarian?
We passed miles of this, then came a sprawling strip-mall. I had been on the bus around 45 minutes, glancing all the time to make sure bus stops across the road displayed the number 18. The strip mall had laundromats, KFC, insurance brokers. There was a Thai restaurant. I could use a Thai lunch right now, I decided, and, looking ahead, I saw that once the strip mall ended came an atmosphere that looked about to degenerate into a military compound, or a hazardous waste disposal site. I got out and went to the Thai place, where a flat-screen showed an Asian film in which young men were fighting to a classical soundtrack. I ordered the wrong thing: a vegetable beef noodle dish whose noodles were an Asian version of frites: someone had deep fried them until they formed stiff mesh propping broccoli composed mainly of stems. If I looked out the window, the classical soundtrack became a background for a little brown bird roosting on the mirror of a red Datsun in the parking lot, some gulls swooping across the strip mall on the other side of the road, and a few snowflakes floating over the dingy meridian.
My grandmother wrote me an airmail letter from the north of England when she turned 65. Her birthday, she wrote, meant she could travel on the buses for free. She would go all over, places she had never been before. On the Beaubien bus I thought of her, and hoped she got to travel where heart-lifting sights outweighed the weary ones.