We met at T-Poutine, a narrow hole-in-the-wall on Ludlow Street. Forty Canadians, a couple of Americans, there for that curiously popular French-Canadian specialty, poutine. French fries with cheese curds, covered in gravy. T-Poutine is run by an ex-Quebecer, Thierry Pepin, and they serve poutine in all kinds of flavors, from smoked meat to ‘tree-hugger’ (sliced mushrooms). In Montreal you always had poutine plain, so that’s how I had it. And it was the real thing, as close to the Montreal version as you’ll have in New York – or anywhere.
Memories of Montreal Pool Room in the early 90’s at the bottom of St. Laurent, just below rue St. Catherine, the long, long avenue that bisects Montreal east to west, English side to French. An area dominated by strip bars, and tavernes where they played hardcore porn on the overhead TV’s inside and everyone from the bikers (or would be bikers) and their women, to the old men who probably came in every day to the waitresses, totally ignored it. The once-great punk club, Foufounes Electrique, just around the corner, and after hanging out until two or three or four am, you’d drop into the Montreal Pool Room and join the line up of just out of the bar aficianados for poutine, hot dogs, or just the best fries in the city with the best cuisine in North America, hoping it would take off the worst of the hangover the next day. Which of course it didn’t.
Memories too of my first journeys to New York and America in the late 1980’s, riding the night train down the Eastern Seaboard. Drinking in a lounge car full of raucous, mostly blue-collar Americans from Vermont or Massachusetts, knocking back one dollar cans of bud with shots of Jack Daniels, and some big black dude with an afro playing Jimi Hendrix medleys on a farfisa organ in the corner. Arriving with the Bronx dawn spilling out the train window, those magnificent power station chimneys rising up beside the Hudson. Stumbling out into Penn Station with two hours sleep, still drunk.
I hung out on the Lower East Side in those days, drank just up the street. The Lower East Side was still mostly Puerto Rican, the dealers lined Rivington, the bars that cover the area just starting to make inroads on upper Ludlow. I had a friend down on Clinton and I’d stay at his loft space overlooking the Williamsburg Bridge. The doorbell didn’t work so you had to shout up and hope he heard you over the traffic noise from Delancey so he could open the window and throw down the key four stories down to the street, the key insulated with a felt glove so it wouldn’t fall on anyone and maim them. I don’t recall the LES being heavy exactly, but when you stepped outside, you were aware of being somewhere not quite America, with the Spanish on the streets, the stores with the religious icons, the music, the food. And the energy – so much energy and tension in those narrow streets. Going back to Montreal always felt like odd, like a deflation, and it would take me days to find myself again.
After the poutine, we drank vodka supplied by the good folks at the restaurant, then stepped onto a Ludlow I hardly recognized. Some of the old bars still there, Katz’s Deli still there, but I never imagined that the Lower East Side, like (to a much lesser degree), the neighborhood I hung out in up in Montreal, would become a hangout for the affluent. In this case, the very affluent. The same crappy streets, same wine-dark tenement buildings with the iron fire escapes – and a whole lot of bars, restaurants and very fancy cafes, the kind I would never have imagined down here even ten years ago. Even five years ago.
And on a day when the rest of New York was deserted with the holidays and the heat, the LES was packed. It had this strange gloss, like the gloss of a movie set, and I kept thinking of They Live!, John Carpenter’s godawful yet increasingly prescient portrayal of a world run by alien yuppies, because watching these folks, you’d never know there was a recession on, and I had to wonder, as I often do when I’m certain part of Manhattan or Brooklyn: who the fuck are these people?