Montreal is a city of balconies, and leading up to the balconies are stairs, and lashed to the balconies and staircases are bicycles; so many bicycles, balconies and stairs you would think all anyone ever did in Montreal is pedal, ascend, or sit suspended over the street behind a wrought iron balustrade. The wrought iron is ornamental, as if someone went over the whole city with a black pen and decorated it with ornate lines and swirls. Why have a plain street when you can cover it in what looks like music notation: treble clefs and lines and staffs and sixteenth notes written all over the avenues? The bicycles have the same lines as the wrought iron: slender, metallic, delicate yet strong. There is something aerodynamic about them, especially the ones whose owners faithfully carry them up three flights of stairs to rest on the highest balconies.
There are spaces between the lines; spaces for starlings, clouds, flowers and vines. A Montreal balcony, staircase and bicycle will never obstruct a view. Their raison d’etre is to expand a view, to extend vision into the distance.
My father practiced and taught metal work, and taught it to my brothers, so we had blow-torches blasting in the basement, and lengths of black iron glowing red, and tongs for bending and curling the iron, and barrels of water for plunging the hissing wrought metal back to coolness. No one invited me to the molten iron party because I was a girl: for me, my father blow-torched lengths of copper pipe, which we cut and hammered in ovals and kiln-baked into enameled jewelry. The person who gave me pieces of wrought iron (sinuous Ss from which I drape pots of ivy) was the brother of mine who is not a writer. I have always loved the idea of architectural calligraphy; ornamental iron work that drips over a city. It represents a surplus of aesthetic currency instead of a dearth; a generosity of the social collective. A departure from the tyranny of the straight line.
I once watched a bird making a nest, and understood how the circle (and by extension, the half circle, the spiral, the curlicue, and all the variations visible in wrought iron and other decoration) comes not from whimsy but from tender toil and a lust for survival. The bird stands in the chaotic mess of leaf and fibre, and it turns, standing in the same spot, its body a compass and its beak the point of that compass. The circle arrives though the bird does not think about making a circle. The circle is an unconscious result of standing in one place and turning around, just trying to make a sympathetic space to bring up your young.
There is something tender about the delicateness with which Montreal staircases cling to the sides of the triplexes of St. Denis and Papineau and all the other streets of the city: if you look at them from even a short distance, the stairs and balconies appear very fragile and slender, which adds to the feeling that the whole story of the street is about ascension. The whole street points toward the sky; the city wants you to rise up off the pavement and float in the air. And there’s another thing: a likeness, in the calligraphy of wrought iron, to the alphabet itself, as if the balconies and staircases were trying to write a letter to the person who is cycling or walking on the street below.
Dear one, says the letter, can you count the stairs, the balconies, of Montreal? There is no counting them, because they are part illusion. Do you really think a city needs this many balconies, this number of stairs? If you look away from the staircase above the patisserie on Rue Belanger, it disappears. Do you know who put it there, and why?"
The letter is torn here. A person can’t read the last part, because on this kind of calligraphy you have to walk, to get the meaning. You have to walk on the lines and curl your fingers around the ribbons and tails of the lettering. You have to become part of the text; fragile, ascending. Like the bird who draws her circle, you help create the beauty.