by Wanda Waterman
I’ve been living in Montreal for a year now. I’m outside on a small landing facing a back alley and softly strumming my guitar. Without thinking, I start playing and humming the theme from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
I look back into my apartment. I have no furniture. I’m sitting on a fire escape playing a guitar and singing “Moon River” with a heart full of tender longing.
I’ve become Holly Golightly.
Except that instead of being a glamourous escort girl hitting up rich men for milk money I’m a jeans-and-baggy-sweater digital nomad, working online to earn my groceries. Instead of a handsome gigolo living upstairs there’s a jolly old Greek named George who can’t remember my name but who crushes me painfully to his bosom every time he sees me on the street. And instead of being a delicate little waif nibbling at croissants I’m a husky Maritimer with a taste for dulse, rappie pie, and Solomon Gundy.
Holly Golightly (spoiler alert) isn’t her real name, which happens to be Lula Mae Barnes, and, as the name suggests, she’s a poor rural southern gal who’s come to New York to become a fine lady. She’s done well: Her diction is flawless, and she successfully apes the dress and comportment of a Fifth Avenue debutante. All she needs now is a rich husband to make it all legit. Technically.
Under all the veneer, Holly’s an amazing human being. As her agent says: “She’s a phony, but she’s a real phony.” It’s a line that resonates with meaning on several levels, saying as much about the nature of art— of film in particular— as it does about the character of this poor rube who’s miraculously managed to remake her persona in the image of her ideal woman.
Dare I stretch the comparison? Okay, I do hail from Boondocks, Nova Scotia where as a girl I milked cows, hauled water, and threw in wood while wearing my dad’s buffalo plaid jacket and bitterly moaning to myself, Is this work Barbie would do? Ever?
Of course I got away as soon as I could. Halifax wasn’t Mecca but it was a leap. Eventually home called me back and I settled there for good, or so I thought.
Neighbors remarked, “Jumpin,’ always thought yid move away. Too smart fer here.”
So I left again— for another small rural town.
One day a friend asked, “Why are you always living in terra incognita? Look at yourself! You’re a poet! You love jazz and art films! You wear too much black eyeliner! Go live in a big city!”
I was Jed Clampett, and kinfolk were saying, “Move away from there.” (By the way, Buddy Ebsen, the actor who played Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies, also played Doc, Holly’s estranged husband in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. See how the universe all gloms together sometimes?)
Montreal had always been my poetic dreamscape, my fantasy planet. I’d long imagined walking down a wintry Sherbrooke street, collar turned up, cold, hungry, and glad to be alive, “Bird on the Wire” playing on the mental soundtrack as I make my way to a coffeehouse rendezvous with kindred spirits, fellow creative monsters with their fingers on the pulse o’ what’s happenin’ now.
I make it happen. Six months later I’m in Mark Twain’s “City of a Hundred Steeples” trying to make a mark for myself as a poet in the town that had spawned my hero, Leonard Cohen, and wishing I had his money so I could afford to join the intelligentsia at a bohemian café.
One day I scrape together a little espresso money and head out to visit a local hangout, a place where all the pipes are showing, the cement floor bears scratched paint of varying hues, and the clients wear outfits no mother could love.
I run into my building’s handyman, Yves, and invite him to join me.
“I do not go to dat cafe,” he says disapprovingly. “Dey are red communist! Dey want separate!”
It’s just before the 2014 provincial election and his habitual ire against reds, separatists, and red separatists has peaked. He starts pointing out signs, remarking that those that were once bilingual are now French only. Yves’s father is Hungarian, his mother a separatist Quebecoise. The marriage hadn’t lasted long.
“I am sick of dis!” he spits. “Damn separatist ruin de Quebec. I go to Toronto!”
I finally get to perform my poems in public. The event is at a chic jazz club during Nuit Blanche, Montreal’s annual all-night citywide arts event.
The francophone poets get the first shot. The anglophones arrive early and sit there for hours trying to decipher what they’re saying. They’re done at 2:00 a.m., and it’s our turn to go on, at which point all the francophone poets and audience members leave en masse.
There are only about ten of us left, and we’re all performers. It’s just as well; I’ve picked poetic poems, not angry, ranting poems like everyone else, and my reading goes over like a lead balloon.
Back home it’s poor me, sprawled on the new chaise longue, the back of my hand resting on my forehead, bewailing the fact that here, even here I can’t win the adulation I so richly merit. I must be just too precious, too brilliant, too gifted for anywhere.
I fill a thermos with green tea, wrapping a nylon shopping bag around it to keep in warmer and in case I want to buy something on the way home. I wander up to Little Italy for a while and stop to sit in Dante Park to drink my tea. I talk to the statue:
“I know you’d understand, Dante. You’ve also been to to hell and back.”
I try not to move my lips so passersby don’t feel threatened. I avoid making eye contact for the same reason. Eye contact on the street is fine, but eye contact in a park from a solitary woman is suspect, and I’ve gone out in rather a sorry state, which doesn’t help. Neither Barbie nor Holly Golightly would be seen in public in the baggy clothes and disheveled hair I’m sporting right now.
It doesn’t matter. They’re all philistines, no one’s cultured anymore, everyone’s wandering around gabbing on hidden cellphones like Bedlam escapees jibbering away to themselves, oblivious to the beauty around them, beauty that includes my radiant presence on the same street.
Then I recall the husky gal in buffalo plaid. I squeeze my eyes shut and wince, driving the memory from my mind. I imagine there one day being a Mindful Bard Park, a kind of Zen garden encompassed in empty space, and then I remember that it’s this line of thinking that always gets me into trouble.
I ask the statue, “Did you find a ring in hell for pretentious bohunks?”
But Holly and I do have one important thing in common: we’re thrilled to be living where we want to be. Never in my life have I felt more of a sense of belonging than I feel in Montreal. My pipe dream was exactly where I needed to be. When I hear about conflicts in the Middle East I have only to look up to see a hijabi going one way and a rabbi going the other. When I hear about the troubles down south I have only to talk to my Portugese landlord to realise that no, the whole world hasn’t gone mad. When I stand on a corner in Park Ex and see all nations swirling about me, it’s as if I’m at the top of the world. In spite of the political frustrations everyone looks happier to be here than in any place I’ve ever lived.
The Dante bust smiles in agreement. I have just one more question for it:
“Will I ever get to be a real phony?”