Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Nightly Battle on the Streets of Montreal

Montreal is a pretty clean place. Maybe not quite as clean as I imagined, but clean none the less. This is in large part due to the creepy machines that they set loose to prowl the streets for garbage every night. They look like something that Doc Oc from Spiderman would have invented. It's basically a tractor with a big nozzle vacuum cleaner that is attached at the back of the tractor and comes up over the head of the driver, bending low enough to pick up each individual piece of garbage one piece at a time. The driver can manipulate the big hose like an elephant tusk to pick up stray Doritos bags and such. In the evening you start to see them appear around the city, stalking the sidewalks. It's a little spooky. It looks like some sort of sort of mad inventor experiment gone wrong. Far be it from me to criticize a city that is obviously doing so much right in terms of urban maintenance, but these vacuum machines seem a little inefficient. I have never seen a machine so large that was designed only to clean up, for example, one individual tissue or candy wrapper. It's sort of a U.S. military approach to garbage pick up, employing overwhelming force to waste removal. It seems a bit like overkill, like a tank being sent to arrest someone for jaywalking. Wouldn't a person with a broom and dustpan do the same thing without the cost of this large machine? Then again, it seems to be working. And how can you argue with success?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Accosted by French Nannies in Montreal

Montreal is a lovely city. I have heard this many times from many different people and now that I am in Montreal I can attest to the fact that it is, indeed a wonderful city. Today I was walking around with my cheesehead on, which is what I do when I am at a festival and need to promote my show. Montreal is great, people yell things at you in both French and English. The anglos yell, "Cheesehead!," the francophiles yell "tete du fromage!" I had a French speaking butcher yell something about the Green Bay Packers at me. At first I thought he was yelling something nice, maybe he was a fan of the Packers. Then he ripped open his butcher's coat and revealed a Pittsburgh Steelers shirt. That's when I realized that he was taunting me. For some reason I find it hard to tell when someone is saying something mean in French. It seems like such a nice, soft, open language with lots of beautiful vowel sounds that I tend to think everyone who is talking is saying something really intelligent or really polite - as if everyone is speaking impromptu love poems into their cellphones while walking down the street. It took the butcher ripping open his coat for me to realize that is not always the case. Later I was walking down the street and I ran into 5 women all wearing pink aprons. They appeared to be on a coffee break. They started speaking excitedly to me in French, pointing at my cheesehead and laughing. When they realized that I was an English speaker they asked me to play a song on my guitar, so I got it out and started playing a tune. I am not sure they totally understood what I was saying, because when i asked if they wanted me to sing a song about cheese, they started making a song up themselves, in broken English. One of them grabbed my cheesehead and put it on her head, much to the delight of her friends. That is when one of the other ladies ran into a storefront near where we were and dragged out a man who looked to be there boss. I saw that the building they came out of was a nursery for children. They were daycare workers, kind of like preschool nannies. Somehow, I had found the nannies. I asked them if they worked with children and they replied, "Yah." I told them that I teach music to kids in New York. They said, "Yah." I told them that they should have me visit the nursery and sing for the kids. They replied, "Yah." I asked them what they thought of my cheesehead. They said "Yah," then laughed and walked away. So I am pretty sure that I was mocked by both a butcher and a group of nannies. Not bad for my first day in Montreal. It wasn't so bad though, because after the nannies left I saw that one of them had left around 50 cents in my guitar case. Playing my guitar for nannies, getting yelled at by crazy men who wield knives on a daily basis...being in Montreal is starting to remind me of my life in New York.

Friday, June 02, 2006


When most people in the US think of Canada, they don't picture homeless people wandering the streets asking for change. But that is exactly what you will find in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is about 8 hours north of Minneapolis by car. Of course, any city of this size (the Winnipeg metropolitan area is around 700,000) can be expected to have it's share of homeless people. The shocking thing to me is that, as a New York City resident, I think I am much more likely to be asked for money on the street in Winnipeg than I am in New York. I have been to Winnipeg several times and noticed the abundance of panhandlers, so this time I decided to keep track of the number of incidents in which I was asked for money on the street. This does not include people just sitting on the street corner with an paper cup outstretched, hoping someone will drop a coin in. This is just the number of times an individual has spoken directly to me and asked for money. After 7 days, my total stands at 18. Think of it. Roughly 2.5 times a day I have been asked for money. Would this happen in Minneapolis, which is roughly the same size? Having spent plenty of time in Minneapolis, I am confident that it wouldn't. In fact, I can only remember one time in which I was asked for money in downtown Minneapolis. I don't begrudge people for asking for change. If I was homeless, you can bet I too would do whatever I could to survive. The real issue is why Winnipeg has such a large homeless population for it's size. Also, this homeless population seems to be overwhelmingly "native," as Canadians say (they also sometimes use the term "first nations"). In the US, we would refer to them as Native American. Regardless, you can't help but notice that in Winnipeg extreme poverty seems to disproportionately affect the descendants of native peoples versus those of European ancestry. I went to hear coloumnist Margaret Wente of the Toronto based newspaper the Globe and Mail speak last night and she referred to the treatment of natives as "Canada's national shame." I know that that comment would not take most Canadians by surprise, but as an American who finds himself more and more drawn to the way Canada conducts itself on the world stage, it struck me as pretty shocking. It also struck me as true, based on what I have seen in Winnipeg. I have not seen much of the rest of Canada, but I can't help but think not only does that extreme poverty disproportionately affect natives, but it seems to disproporitionately affect Winnipeg versus other Canadian cities. Not surprisingly, a city with a lot of poverty is a city with a lot of crime. The province of Manitoba has the words "Friendly Manitoba" on it's license plate. Last year Winnipeg was proclaimed the murder capitol of Canada. They may have to change that license plate.