Don Bell was what you might consider a kind of boulevardier back in the 1960s and 1970s, keeping abreast of the freaks and geeks which make urban living so goddam enjoyable. He compiled a variety of anecdotes into the aforementioned compendium which became a big local and national hit back in 1972. Though I can imagine almost everyone interviewed by Bell is likely dead by now (save for a few old hippies), the characters are paradoxically products of their era and somehow timeless as well. We don’t have the same calibre of local eccentrics like we used to, in my honest opinion, but we’ll never be short on characters. Bell demonstrates clearly the source of so much creative inspiration in his honest and down-to-earth portrayals of a host of characters from early 70s Montréal, from local big shot showbiz types in their halcyon days to the silent and methodical Greek pool-sharks, from old-money dilettantes to new age gurus and the caffein-addled over-night crew staffing the Mile End bagel shops. Don Bell was looking for what the creatively-inclined see in the people and faces of this city, a never-ending supply of complex reactions and adjustments to the human experience. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, at times ill at ease with those living on the fringes of our society, the stories and scenarios he relates seems to steer away from the pulp curb-side reporting of Al Palmer in his Montreal Confidential as though he was interested principally in offering a societal and cultural almanac.
It’s been something I’ve been looking for for quite some time now – to capture that fleeting feeling of knowing the spirit, hydra-esque though it may be, a location may generate. In another sense I find myself looking for the zeitgeist in the built and natural environment, and by extension how such an environment may impact the people and colour their character. I think Marsan was looking for this, and Richler was certainly aware of it, and yet for some reason I don’t think we care as much about it anymore. That or we have forgotten what we came so close to defining. Either way, the people always seem to be at least able to feel in their spines, and know it to exist if only to know its indelible imprint. Don Bell saw the city in the citizen, and how the city, as a living, breathing super-organism, defines lives and lifestyles for its inhabitants. He demonstrates the beacon-esque qualities of a modern city in its prime, and the seedier elements of the underbelly, the harsh-realities of the lives of the people in the guts of a gigantic machine. Required reading for any boulevardier, urbanist, or Montreal history & literature enthusiast. Also, it caused a fair bit of controversy, but you’ll have to read it to find out why.