Borracho y Loco
Really, this is all my fault.
Last night at a Brooklyn bar I talked my friend Sarah into joining me on an urgent trip to Montreal. The emergency? Itchy feet, hypomania, four shots of Johnnie Walker Red - didn’t matter. In my mind, I was already there, waiting for my body to catch up.
But after waking up this morning hung-over and suddenly unemployed, I’m having second thoughts.
Someone once warned me that 24 is one of the most turbulent years in the life of a manic-depressive person. I was initially diagnosed as a kid and since my relationship with that identity had been as fluid as the thing itself, pinballing from a feeling of affliction to a sense of pride to forgetting I had it to the emergency room.
Then I turned 24.
Suddenly all my actions look like they were photocopied straight from the DSMIV, or V, whatever we’re up to now. Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences, inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts are racing. The inertia to leave town struck with such immediate romance yesterday that I whoosh past all the red flags, quit my job and buy a train ticket.
I like living off the map.: writing, traveling and following my instincts with an open mind, street smarts and some cash to get by. Overcoming challenges and keeping it real. What I don’t like is the idea of my fortune being locked up in a bipolar closet. How else am I supposed to spend this year? Hiding out in my room with index fingers in my ears singing LALALAs? Nothing crazy about that.
Doctors and pharma reps and pretty much any narrative streaming from the mental health establishment say that my instincts are screwed. That the unmedicated manic-depressive mind is a time bomb. That I’m disabled. Wouldn’t leaving my job and home to wander around a city abroad with nothing but a manic mind just prove them right?
I should probably do the sensible thing: fix myself up and take the Times Square-bound train to work and plead for my job back. Get refunded for the ticket, apologize to Sarah for getting all worked up. La la la.
But we all know that’s not going to happen. Time can either lean toward or work against me, but it’s not going to stop here and skip a year.
I’ve got to go.
We are somewhere along the border, or on the border of the border, a bunch of invisible delineations in the dirt. I have vague memories of having slept last night, as vague as the sleep itself, where I wandered in and out of nightmares and half-conscious thoughts that refused to settle into the stale air of my room.
I often get lousy sleep the night before a trip, like a warning. I often get lousy sleep in general, but nights like last are when I need it the most, when faint anxiety mixed with excitement aggravates my consciousness, making me fatigued and restless at once. But what’s new.
Now we’re on a 12-hour Amtrak train ride lethargically inching toward Montreal, as slow as a bride’s steps down the aisle, seated by a pack of rowdy, drunk, hockey bros. I look over at Sarah, a 21 year-old Aquarian whose gaze is perpetually set on an unfixed point in space, and wonder how she agreed to this. Barhopping Thursday in Carroll Gardens. Or was it the West Village?
Sweating alcohol under the incandescent iris of dusty Christmas lights, in the corner of one bar or another, I romanticized the profoundness of this trip to the max, flaunting the opportunity to not just do something drastic, but something important, something to remember, that travel offers us these vestiges of freedom. Words were flying in all directions, but finally, via the tangled expressways of hyperbole spewed at autobahn-inspired speeds, I drove my point home.
“Think about it, this time tomorrow, we could be getting drunk-” whispering this last part with reverence for added effect, “In Montreal.”
And tonight we will.
This Must Be the Place
It’s the first day of April, and I’m never leaving Montreal.
For months I’ve been feeling gifted, like every action I witness could cause such exponential effects that the possibilities are blowing my mind, like my every encounter holds a magical, hidden meaning. Maybe they do, they probably don’t, but what better place to find out than here, ‘here” being a café in Montreal’s gayborhood Le Village, where I can fake French and freak out in peace. It’s like a municipal retreat for wayward folks.
Although the early spring sun rarely makes appearances, the city stays bright with one great expanse of cloud spread above like vellum acting as an absorber of light, keeping Montreal in a color story of perpetual grey. The monotone is broken up by subtle explosions of color that breathe life into the island, in floral displays that take up whole blocks infusing the city air with the aroma of gardens, in graffiti painted onto alleyway walls that veer off into perceived endlessness. Streets are spotted with eye-level windows offering glimpses into the private lives of others: candles, cats and wine along the windowsills.
Whatever the climax all this madness has been heading toward is going to go down here, I can feel it.
Fresh off that day-long train ride, after an anonymous black door on Parc Avenue shut behind us with a BAMN, two towering Canadians searched our bags but neglected to check our IDs, lending us an idea of the kind of bar we were walking into. One-third of the walls were covered in mirrors, and in the middle of one a polychrome sign hung announcing the name of the party, Faggity Ass Friday. The Talking Heads song This Must Be the Place played on a radio somewhere in my head.
We’re here, we’re queer, let’s drink. Sarah and I spent the night pacing from the ATM to the bar and back, draining our expenses on top-shelf liquor we’re used to being too broke for in New York. We were impressed by the dandy, balding bartender that properly measured the contents of our booze with archaic little instruments, like an apothecary prescribing our materia medica. What’s he doing in a dive like this? We wondered.
At around 1am a drag show got underway starring a pink-bearded queen with feather boa to match. For the last number she invited audience members up on the divey semi-stage and a spontaneous moshpit took place, ultimately sending cheap jewelry flying up into the air. Transgender punks distributed radical sex-positive literature to the crowd adding to the ambience of community, with a spectrum of gender and language represented, where everyone seemed to know everyone.
We were staying with a friend of Sarah’s at the McGill University dorms, and hadn’t sorted out who would sleep where in her room yet. Actually, she hadn’t sorted anything out with security, and I drowsily fought with the poor guy on duty until he let us up. The elevator reeked of vomit and was packed with furniture and party goers, one of which kept asking me through bloodshot eyes what ‘that sound’ was. Gee, I thought, I’m really missing out on college.
When we finally arrived in the wee hours of Saturday morning our host was out like a light and I slept on my coat in the center of the living room floor.
The next night we visited Le Drugstore, a six-story lesbian Wonder of the World outfitted with 5 bars, a restaurant, gambling stations, candy dispensers, pool tables, a patio and the occasional electric blue-wigged drag queen offering free shots of an identical blue hue. Seriously, UNESCO, get on this.
From there we walked over to UNITY, another multi-storied gay club on St. Catherine East which was hosting one of their massive bi-monthly themed parties, Saturday night’s being Jungle. Well, that’s what I gathered from the dress of clubbers, as Rambo and Betty Rubble look-a-like’s passed by the queue to smoke outside. After a mandatory coat-check I was immediately hauled up onto one of several podiums where anyone who wanted could be the star of the party. I swayed awkwardly with an injured knee and gawked at the beautiful sweaty masses of queer people bouncing around beneath me, like some sort of dream.
Eventually I came down and found Sarah, spaced-out, sober and alone, and together we discovered the diverse levels of the club, finally reaching the roof where a crowd of smokers were gathered and we caught sight of Montreal’s illuminated landscape through the hash haze.
Last night Rosalind sang simple French songs with her guitar by the fire, in a house that seemed loved. Her boyfriend Francois owns it in the suburban city of Laval, just outside of Montreal. He was the first Quebecois sovereigntist I’d ever met, resolute but sincere with a proverbial beard and ponytail. It mystified me how a medical student (albeit on strike) could be the owner of a whole, real house. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in the States anymore.
Since Sarah returned to college in New York yesterday morning I had no reason to stay in the American ghetto surrounding McGill and instead found a Couch Surfing host, Rosalind Wong, in the working-class immigrant neighborhood beside Little Italy where the streets are lined with Latino and Asian-Canadian restaurants.
It was the beginning of a different kind of trip.
Rosalind has an open, steady stare that’s often interrupted by long bangs she quickly sweeps to the side. She talked about her work at a rape crisis center with a mix of passion and easiness that’s pretty rare, and I marveled at her in my mind in lieu of really listening. Then I asked her about the Quebec student strike and got seriously schooled.
University students in the province have been mobilizing against annual tuition hikes for the past five years, so in February when the Charest government revealed plans to increase tuition fees by 75% over the following five years, the movement in its preparedness responded with a provincial strike and acts of civil disobedience in record-breaking numbers-“300,000 in the streets!” says Francois-making it the largest student strike in North American history.
Today we all joined a solidarity protest of student strikers and supporters on the McGill campus. As we marched around campus I surveyed the energy of the crowd, marked by students shouting enraged calls and hopeful responses. Some spoke of feeling tired of fighting, but there was an undeniable sensibility of certitude fueling the gathering, like they know they’ll win.
I spent Tuesday at Quais du Vieux-Port, by accident.
I meant to visit the Chalet du Montreal but took a wrong turn at Place des Arts, got lost in the Quartier Chinois and found myself back in Old Montreal, a small tourist hood lined with souvenir shops, signs for poutine and maple everything sold on photo-ready cobblestone streets. A busker sang Hey Jude in the middle of Plaza Jacques-Cartier and Christian women invited me to a Jesus gathering in broken English. Just east of there by the St. Lawrence River is The Old Port of Montreal which was recently turned into another tourist spot; an Imax theater and shops or something. Following the train tracks to a meadow by the water, I sketched buildings in my book among a mob of loud ducks.
Back at Rosalind’s house that night she was working on ten different political projects plus dinner, bouncing gracefully from one end of the living room to the other in the same sweater she’s worn for three days.
In coming to Montreal, I had no interest in poutine or hockey games, but I couldn’t visit and not try some local weed. Rosalind pointed to her roommate Alejandro’s door. He spoke only Spanish. She spoke English, French, Arabic and Cantonese, their other roommate Sophie spoke French, English and Spanish and I spoke English and Spanish. Their house was like a microcosm of how communication happens in Montreal: somehow.
After a few quick phone calls we boarded the Metro to meet the dealer, and, broke, walked back home on foot for hours. What do you say to your Couch surfing hosts’ roommate you just met and bought drugs with?
Alejandro’s from Aguascalientes, Mexico, tall with shadowy hair and small glasses. After living undocumented in Montreal for two years working as a restaurant’s cleaning guy, he’s getting ready to propose his case to legally stay in the country next week. All I could say was, “Buena suerte.”
We shared a joint in the house’s wintry backyard, overgrown with scandent vines that yield wild red grapes in the summer. A laundry line spangled with cotton underwear tied between tamarack trees hung over our heads like good luck. Alejandro told me about locking up his bike outside the Jean-Talon Metro stop three days ago and losing the key. Our laughter woke up the neighborhood dogs.
This morning I crafted a thank-you-and-goodbye letter to Rosalind replete with exclamation points, left it on her desk and walked four blocks south to Montreal’s coolest open-air market, Marche Jean-Talon.
I’m a pretty lazy traveler; my reaction to a new city is to take lonely walks all over it and daydrink in bars, so I made an effort to be a tourist just once to try and bore myself into a calmer state, only the market did nothing to relieve my nerves. The place is a massive whirlwind of edible infinity. I should have daydrank.
At first my eyes immediately went to baskets of berries garnished with petunias almost hot with redness, because so much of the rest of the place was green. Plants, Canadians love their house plants, and vegetables so fresh they were dirty while others looked to be scrubbed clean and finished in shellac, like the cucumbers and green peppers. Samples of avocado, mango and apricot slices spiraling in clockwise circles created a hypnotic effect atop their respective plates, and eggs came in so many sizes I had to pause and wonder what kinds of birds they had come out of. The scent of stinky fromageries clashed with that of neighboring chocolatiers’ and everything else was made of maple. Seriously.
Eventually I retreated from that sensory mess and got lost on the way to Le Republique, a cafe in the Mile End neighborhood of the city. A historically working-class Hasidic Jewish town, it’s long been gentrified by hipsters, punks, queers and students. Like a miniature Brooklyn but with hardly any black people. Montreal is really white.
My following host Sarala lived around there but wasn’t home yet so I wandered around and realized all the cafes had full bars. Sold. The downside is you have to buy food as well, and cheapest at Le Republique is the Caesar salad, like the loser of salads. A huge plate covered in a confetti of iceberg lettuce that’s smothered in mystery dressing and topped with an afterthought of bacon pieces, like an apology. Instead of flowers, say it with bacon! But I did it all for the sangria.
Glass after glass, I kind of fall in love with the place.
WALKED OUT ONTO SARALA’S BALCONY BECAUSE IT FEELS LIKE I’M GROWING WINGS. I THINK IT’S COLD. FULL MOON ROSE WITH SICKLY HUE. I AM IN BEST MOMENT OF LIFE, FRESH AND PERFECT. I WALK INSIDE, EVERYONE IS ASLEEP. UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING - SUFFERING, ENLIGHTENMENT. THIS IS WHAT I CAME HERE FOR. PACED AROUND THE ROOM AND READ A LOT OF BOOKS. NOW THAT I’M HERE, LIFE IS MORE DANGEROUS, MORE CARELESS, MORE ETHICAL. ASSUME TRUE DESTINY OF LIFE. ROOM SPINS WITH INNUMERABLE VOICES AND MEMORIES!
Sarala has two roommates, and they all brought men home last night. I listened to their music from the couch in the dark, and eventually managed to catch a few hours of sleep after two full days of none. I’m still recovering from the other night’s manic episode.
Everything felt crisp and incredible like being high until an alarm went off somewhere in my chest and I couldn’t breathe a full breath. My world shrank to a few racing thoughts on a loop like a rollercoaster on a single track.
I spent the night like that, pacing the room, trying to breathe, or lying still on the couch with a sheet pulled up to my nose like a kid afraid of monsters, at first resisting the urge then simply unable to call an ambulance. In the morning I stopped trying to sleep and walked outside in a daze.
The next few hours are foggy, but I remember buying an energy drink (of all things) way on the other edge of town. Someone in line for the register spoke to me in French, and the cashier said something too, but I didn’t understand. Totally paranoid, I slammed change on the counter and darted out. Then I realized they had been speaking in English.
It’s all downhill from there.
Overstimulated by the psychoactive effects of that godforsaken drink I went from feeling like a zombie to a zombie on crack. Staggering in circles back to the Mile End I ducked into Drawn and Quarterly, an indie bookshop, where it took hours and a ton of focus to settle on a few Henry Miller, Cesar Aira and Plato books. From there I visited almost every shop of every kind in the neighborhood, leaving possessions in each one and running back and forth to retrieve them in a breathless and frenzied blur.
At night I got stoned with Sarala’s friends until they retreated to their rooms and I passed out on the couch, completely drained.
Have completed first week of April 2012 in one piece, kind of. Slept like the dead for eleven hours on my last Couch Surfing host, Walker’s couch. He’s got a mohawk, an enormous cat (no joke: he walked into a shelter and asked for the fattest, fluffiest cat they had) and a kitschy apartment in the Plateau borough of Montreal.
We drank a lot of wine last night but I didn’t feel a thing. He brought the bottle to a noise music show (it is just as it sounds) at a church renovated into an alternative art space in a far off suburb of the city. We followed a crowd to the basement where a performance was underway by a woman named Ghost Taco.
From her website, “The human body becomes a feedback chamber when you put a microphone in a squishy orifice. You can hear my voice through the mic...There is a LOT of feedback.” Now I can check ‘watching a woman make music by having sex with a microphone’ off my bucket list. After looking around I was relieved that everyone else was also a little giggly, a little into it and totally impressed. Watching her made me feel just a wee less crazy. Won’t be able to top that one for a while.
Before I left the house today, Walker relayed directions to a vegetarian café with slouchy couches, high prices and the heavy aroma of hot coffee in the air, but I opted for a cheap and grimy diner with loud punk rock competing with flat screen TVs playing sports on every wall at full volume. There are no empty seats in the gambling area by the bathroom (it’s 11am) and, of course, there’s a full bar.
To every order I make, the cook/server/bartender responds, “With pleasure!”
“Can you add sausage instead of bacon?”
“Can you scramble my eggs?”
“I’ll have lemon tea, and can you put honey in that?”
“It would be my pleasure!”
His bald head gleams with sweat as he scrambles away with glee, the Zen diner dude of Le Plateau. I sat by a window and caught my reflection - just beginning to look alive again. But not too alive. It’s a narrow shot but riding that wave itself is an art.
On the other side of the glass people pace up and down St. Viateur’s skinny blocks, one man with books in his hands and stains on his shirt, another with white hair and skin-tight red pants walks into a café. Very, very big dogs are in. The sky is overpowering in its muted brightness, with one single cloud-veil obscuring the skyward world.
This is my last day in Montreal.
The familiar New Order song Ceremony plays on repeat in this cafe-bar on Fairmount, one of the last Ian Curtis wrote with Joy Division before he committed suicide and the band continued with a new name and this old song. World will travel, oh so quickly, travel first and lean towards this time. I brood over the lyrics and drink whiskey, like many a Joy Division fan before me. Of course, I had to order a taco to buy the drink, but I don’t trust tacos made by white people so I’m bringing it home to Walker.
I got lost a lot, sometimes on purpose - accidentally through a blackout - wandering down dark alleys and dark residential streets, no lights on save for some moon-shaped streetlamps floating at a distance. Vines grow around everything reminding me of the inevitability of time, how useless it is to try and fight against it. I walk past black balconies, black plants, black cobblestone, winding steel staircases leading to second, third and fourth stories. A small boy reaches his little fingers through the bars of his balcony, saying, “Le ball, le ball.” After handing it to him over the balustrade, a small “merci” is whispered back from the dark. I could actually feel the whiskey seeping into my bloodstream, like when the river joins with the sea.
Bani Amor is a queer mestiza travel writer, zine-maker and photographer from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador. In 2012 she founded the platform Everywhere All The Time with the aim to "decolonize travel media" and her work focuses on diaspora, international communities of outliers and the intersections between race, place and adventure. Her work has been published in Nowhere Magazine, Word Riot, Bluestockings Magazine and Matador Network, among others outlets. She is a VONA/Voices Fellow. You can follow her on Twitter.
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