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first person

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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

Once in a while, Facebook, rather than being the royal time-flusher it usually is, steps up, and a random post ends up filling a hole in your life where you never before noted a deficiency. It’s like when the doctor scans your bloodwork and prescribes a pill for a condition that’s yet to exhibit symptoms. In 2016, I read about William Helmreich walking every street in New York: 120,000 blocks, 6,000 miles. I thought, “I can do that for Montreal.” And with less reflection than if I were dithering between ordering sesame bagels or poppy, I plunged into the project that’s consumed five years of my life.

I’m a keen walker, but my preparation, or non-preparation, for this undertaking was pure amateur hour. All I did was buy a map. Yes, a physical map. I’m a Luddite so let’s get that out of the way. I can’t tell you how many kilometres I covered or how many steps I totalled. My goal wasn’t to quantify, although, now that it’s over, I wish I could rattle off the numbers.

My map didn’t even truly encompass all of Montreal. Its perimeter conforms to no known geographical or political boundaries. It covers less than the Island of Montreal, and as to the city of Montreal proper, it only includes a raggedy chunk. The map looks like what results when you leave a junior cartographer unsupervised with a pair of scissors; the equivalent of the Island of Montreal with a bowl cut. So when I say I walked every street in Montreal, it’s a stretch. I actually walked the full length of every street on my map. I figured I’d knock off all the streets in a year. My map must have had a good chuckle over my hubris.

Reactions from my friends fell into two categories, the wow-what-a-great-idea category or the oy-aren’t-you-terrified? category. Glutting the latter were the Americans, who assumed a woman walking all over a big city was just asking to get herself murdered. Well, I’m here to tell you my project wasn’t dangerous at all. Unless you want to be picky and count the time I got hit by a truck and ended up in hospital with a cracked skull. But it wasn’t dangerous in the way they meant.

Never did I walk through any look-over-your-shoulder neighbourhoods. I passed houses on the modest side, natch, but from one end of my map to the other, they were well looked after, gardens tended. People went to great efforts to doll up their homes, and in this came one of the greatest pleasures of my walks: observing the quirky measures they took to individualize their frontage.

I discovered that pigs are a popular decorative element throughout the city. The anthropomorphized kind, I mean. I passed pigs in aprons, bikinis and in varying states of déshabillé, draped seductively across porch railings or nestled between nasturtiums instead of a gnome. Are Montrealers harking back to some rural past when every home had a piggy out back to fatten up for the Christmas tourtière? Dunno. But when it comes to ornamental mammals, pigs rule. Not that other members of the animal kingdom go unrepresented. My favourites are the larger-than-life-sized moose in the front yard of a bungalow near the Botanical Gardens. You could mount one of those babies and be high enough to reshingle the roof. As decorations, they wiped the floor with the assorted shrimpy penguins and cows I passed.

Since it’s clear I have a soft spot for the monumental, let me slip in here my favourite entry in the inanimate objects category. That Oscar goes to the egg-beater on Avenue Gascon, a two-storey-high kitchen gadget that was probably swiped from Gargantua’s pantry.

Every outing has its wonders. Never assume a neighbourhood has little of interest to offer. If I, with my librarianship degree, can presume to talk physiology, it’s not the legs that do the heavy lifting on a successful walk, it’s the eyes. You can’t just plod along and expect the likes of a sumo egg-beater to whomp you over the head. You have to be trained to seek out oddities. Otherwise, you might never spot the fossils hiding in plain sight, waiting patiently for millions of years to be noticed, poor things. Passersby must have wondered what I was doing going nose-to-nose with stone walls, but I was just eyeballing prehistoric critters.

Then there are the random bizarreries – clothes strewn about on sidewalks, for instance. If I stopped to collect all the garments I saw lying around abandoned, I could outfit a small country. Where did they come from? A rebellious toddler ditches a mitten. That I get. But how do adults lose their underwear while out walking? Or their shoes? I can’t count how many pairs of footwear I came across – pristine, shiny pairs that looked as if their owners had simply walked out of them and never noticed they were gone. A puzzlement.

There was enough fun fodder on my walks that I’d have a few laughs and come home lighter-hearted than when I left. But walks have moods to them, moods that are beyond your control. This I discovered when I encountered my first ghost-bike on Rue Saint-Denis, a stark white-painted bicycle commemorating the spot where a cyclist was struck by a car and killed. Confronting the tragedy that took place exactly where I stood smacked my walking bubbliness right out of me.

As my project progressed, I felt like I owned the city. I could get off at any metro stop and my feet remembered the route to the best patisserie. They also conveniently recalled the location of the closest washrooms, another essential when you’re far from home.

Anyone can get in on this walking game. Just stab your finger at your local transit map pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey style. Then head to that neighbourhood to nose around. So many cities have divisions historical, metaphorical and linguistic that residents seldom nerve themselves up to cross. Though there’s no physical barrier, a mental Berlin Wall holds them back from crossing to the other side. I admit with some shame, I used to feel completely fulfilled huddled on my side of town, close-minded to Montreal’s full menu, but walking its streets has lifted the blinkers. If you’re suffering from that hesitancy, I can only exhort you, get thee out and explore. You’ll feel like a pioneer with the discoveries you bring back to the uninitiated.

Phyllis Rudin lives in Montreal.

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