A street like this never sleeps. The bars hum till three in the morning and after that it is the turn of the all-night cafés. They are waiting for the drunks and the late revellers who will stagger in for a coffee, a burger or a shish taouk.
Around 3am, the cafés switch the food below the counters with stuff that was put away because it had gone stale. Even the shish taouk is is taken off and replaced with an older one that had been tucked away inside the mammoth walk-in fridge. All the stale food is commonly known around this part of town as the 3 o’clock junk. A drunk wolfing down a shish taouk that was spinning on it’s stand two days back and has just started to smell, won’t know the difference anyway.
Lesson-1 : Never eat anything in a café in the downtown bar district, post-3am, unless you want to get into an intimate relationship with a female named Sally (short for Salmonella).
I have seen it all. Six months after we landed in Canada, our cash ran out and I still hadn’t found a job. A guy who lived in our apartment building took me to a Lebanese all-night café named Falafel which was hiring. Falafel was like a set of revolving doors – it was hiring all the time. I worked the night shift for a year on minimum wage, from ten to five in the morning. That is when we shut the doors for an hour to clean up the mess and got the joint ready for the next day, handed it over to the day shift and staggered off to the metro.
When it is fresh, shish taouk is delectable. A Lebanese grilled chicken that has been marinated overnight in a lemon, ginger, garlic, mint and coriander paste, it is served on a piece of pita bread in a bed of Lebanese tahini sauce, tabbouleh salad, pickled turnips, diced tomatoes and onions.
The barbequing process for shish taouk is unique. You take marinated boneless chicken breasts and impale them on a shikh (skewer) in a special tapering configuration and mount the shikh on a motor with a reduction gear. Forming a semi-circle around the shikh is a set of red hot filaments. The shikh rotates and the chicken gradually cooks on the stand.
The chicken cooks in layers (the outermost layer cooking faster) and when it is done, you take an extremely sharp, long bladed knife that resembles one of those Arab scimitars from Aladdin in your right hand and slice off thin slices from the chicken directly on to an open pita bread that you have been holding in your left hand. Don’t try this configuration if you are a lefty, because then you might slice off a forefinger or a thumb and won’t ever be able ta tweak any nipples.
The important thing you learn preparing shish taouk is figuring out up to what depth the chicken is done and ready, so you don’t slice off meat which is still raw. Slicing shish taouk off the rotating shikh is an art and I mastered it, I’ll have you know. And I have no problems tweaking nipples, I’ll have you know that too.
Falafel was situated at the very heart of the Montreal night life, in the middle of a ten-block stretch of a street that is just one big frothing, seething, bubbling melting pot. Every metropolis has one street like this one, usually in it’s downtown core. If you happen to be flying in low, you will make out this street very easily. It is invariably the brightest string of lights. It isn’t the biggest street in Montreal. (That honor would go to Sherbrooke or Sainte Catherine). But it is the liveliest.
Welcome to Blvd St. Laurent in downtown Montreal – pronounced ‘Say Lawrang’ in French-speaking Quebec. But you needn’t bother about the pronunciation – no one calls it Blvd St. Laurent anyway. A street like this one will always have a more identifiable moniker, like ‘The Strip’ or ‘The Jagway’. Everybody calls Bengaluru’s MG Road Main Street and Kolkata’s Mother Teresa Sarani is unrecognizable because you and I know it as Park Street.
Likewise, Blvd St. Laurent is known to Montrealers simply as The Main. In French Canada, you have boulevards, pronounced boolvah and The Main is a boolvah. The French f—k with your mind constantly. They put consonants at the end of words and mandate you not to pronounce them.
The only redeeming feature about the French is their women – specifically the Quebecois girls that The Main is always teeming with. Audaciously forward and precocious, they can lead you right up to the edge until all that remains is your choice – whether to end the evening in her bed or just turn around and go home. I have lost track of the number of times when I ……. just turned around and went home.
Everything is available on this stretch of glitter – for a price. Whether you’re looking for a gun or a gal, some weed or ecstasy, a haircut or a hamburger or sex in the guise of a full-body massage or a lap dance, this length of asphalt has all these and more.
Every waiter and bartender along this street is a drug trafficker if you need to get high. And a pimp, in case you are horny. These gents have none of the furtive looks and the whispered directions to the alley out back, spoken in a hiss through the corner of the mouth. You come to expect that in a similar setting in India, not here. This is the west. Here, everything is hanging out in the open. You want to f—k, do some coke or buy some weed – you do all these things proudly. Folks here have eyelids that are unbattable. The police precinct that covers this street is reported to be ‘on the pad’. You are better protected from a mugger or purse-snatcher on this street than anywhere else in the city.
The Main is a hybrid, between Kolkata’s Park Street and Free School Street. Except for the graffiti and the murals. Nothing Kolkata matches the wall art you find on The Main. The talent is simply awesome, at once gaudy and then beautiful. Business owners with building walls facing out, gladly pay for the scaffolding and the paint and let amateur painters go to town on them.
Falafel, the joint where I manned the counter for a whole year, was like a half-way house for immigrants with degrees who hadn’t found a position in their field of work and who, like me, had run out of cash. You slogged a bruising 8-hour shift, rubbing shoulders with more PhDs than you would find even in McGill. There was more enlightened conversation and wit in there than the College Street Coffee House in Kolkata.
Ben, the proprietor, himself had been a respected metallurgist in Yerevan before he came to Canada and started out as a dishwasher in Falafel while he looked around for a job. Then 9/11 happened and the slump hit Montreal hard, this city being the Canadian hub of the aerospace industry. Jobs vanished overnight and Ben quickly realized he was going to be there at Falafel for a long while.
The slump however proved to be a blessing for Ben. The owner of Falafel, an old Tunisian guy, had made some risky investments in the stock market that left him deeply in debt, following the stock market crash. Falafel went into receivership and Ben took out a bank loan, bought the owner out for a song and took over the joint.
The other day I was out on a jaunt in this part of town, taking photos and gathering masala for this blog post. I wanted to breathe the air before I put stylus to Ipad. To my dismay I found that the joint had been boarded up, sold to a high-end eyeware retail outlet called Harry Toulch. Instantly I felt a pang of nostalgia. I remembered the last time I was there.
I had been in Falafel exactly a year prior, Christmas 2014. I had ordered a shish taouk and was sipping a coffee, staring at the crowd milling at the counter. Ben had come and sat with me for a while sharing the usual gossip about what the rest of guys were up to and then zipped back behind the counter.
That’s when I spotted a disheveled guy with a backpack at the entrance. He was leaning against the handrail and scoping the joint with furtive eyes. I knew him well – that was Nick, the fence. He was thinner and paler than the last time I had seen him.
I had stopped working at Falafel in 2004 but when Nick’s eyes fell on me, he slouched over, ‘Hey man, where you bin?’ He looked me over with watery eyes that danced around incessantly, the mark of a regular drug user. You had to watch it with Nick.
“Need a GPS, an SLR? How about an Iphone?” He unzipped his backpack halfway and I was looking at a pile of cellphones, GPSs and cameras in there. For guys like Nick, there is only one way things usually go – in a back alley with knife in the gut.
I shook my head and tried on my street tone,” I doan have no dough, Nick. Maybe some other tam?”
“Suit yoreself. dude, but I could give you a great deal. Pick any GPS for twennie. Here, take this Iphone, 64 gigs, brand noo, man. Only thuree.” He quickly realized I wasn’t buying and he zipped up and went back to stand by the doorway, so he could make a quick exit in case a cop happened by. Nick was the son of a low-level associate in the Rizutto outfight and therefore no one messed with him. Even Ben had better sense than to ask him not to loiter at the entrance.
Falafel was a part of my life that felt like another universe, so difficult it is now after more than a decade, to imagine it actually happened to someone like me. For a brief moment of one year, I was washing dishes, manning counters, cleaning toilets and I was rubbing shoulders with junkies, prostitutes, teenage drug addicts you wouldn’t believe so young, fences, assorted hoods and Mafioso. For a year I was in the middle of the madness known as The Main. Every moment of that one year, I was like ‘is this really happening to me?
There were some fleeting moments too, that are etched in my heart – moments when I crossed paths with living, breathing, vulnerable folks during that graveyard shift. One such moment that I decided to chronicle is the blog post titled Turning the corner. I hope you will enjoy reading it.
In the south, The Main ends up at Chinatown, a most interesting place that I have reserved for another blog piece when I have the time.
In the north, The Main reaches into Little Italy, an area that I am not very familiar with, even though I have been there once and found that it could be quite inviting, if you happen to dig Italian food. Otherwise, Little Italy seems too wrapped up in itself and it’s own.
Besides, I never did develop an affinity for Italian women – after the Almighty Lord stopped making Lorens and Lollobrigidas.