Politics of Looking on the Main

Yesterday, as I walked back from my Au papier japonais art class on St. Laurent Boulevard, I was subjected to a young man sticking his head out the window and yelling something garbled about my attire or physical appearance. This behaviour struck me as odd. For one, the car would lose all of its heat; two, it was January and cold and whatever fashion law I had transgressed, I'm not sure that his baseball cap on backwards was scoring any aesthetic points; and three, I'm on my way home from an art class in my own neighbourhood and obviously not out to be seen.

Unfortunately, this type of behaviour on the Main is common in the warmer months. St. Laurent Boulevard is physically part of my neighbourhood, but in the Montreal mindset, "the Main" belongs to everyone in the Greater Montreal area. In fact, it is not unheard of to be snubbed in a shop or restaurant, even though it's just around the corner from your home. But this affected attitude towards area residents only accelerates the merchant's commercial demise. Closure of failed businesses on the Main is a regular occurrence.

As we all know, St-Laurent Boulevard is the place to be seen, particularly further south towards Sherbrooke. The incident yesterday had me thinking about the main protagonist in Rawi Hage's Cockroach, the story about a troubled young immigrant from a war-torn country who experiences Montreal in a very different way than the city's rank and file.

Our main protagonist is walking down the Main and passes by a chic Italian restaurant (Buonanotte perhaps...) where he stops to look at the opulence of the restaurant and a couple having dinner. A few minutes later, a man in an expensive suit emerges from the restaurant and asks him to leave. An argument ensues. Our protagonist is on the sidewalk, he explains, a public space, and he has a right to stand there. It makes sense. People are there to be seen, so why can't he look. He informs the bouncer that he has broken no law. A few minutes later, two cops come by and demand to see his papers. This creates a scene in front of the restaurant, and our protagonist glances up to see that the couple he was watching earlier is now intently enjoying some unexpected dinner entertainment, and he's the star.

I would not be the least bit surprised if this story were based on fact. I've always been under the impression that there is an unwritten code about looking on St-Laurent Boulevard. It goes something like this: You may ogle, gape at and comment on whoever is on the sidewalk on the Main. However, you can only glance at people paying top dollar in the restaurants. In fact, the glance of a passerby is expected and even encouraged, as it increases the business's status and ultimately its bottom line. But the view of the street from inside the restaurant is the exclusive right of the patrons eating their pricey carbonara. They can gawk to their heart's content, or at least they can look if they feel so inclined.

Unsurprisingly, I take St-Laurent only when I have to and frequent restaurants elsewhere in my neighbourhood, where being seen is not a concern and even a cat can look at the queen.

Other hood-related posts

What it is by Lynda Barry
The True Gender
Almost a Visit to Gender
St-Viateur: the Polish Bazaar
The Mile End Buzz Around Beekeeping
For the Love of Vinyl
Airing Our Dirty Laundry
Filming on St-Viateur
A Sense of Humour With the Wilensky's Special
S.W. Welch: the Nicolski Coincidence
The Lure of Fishing on Bernard



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