In Transit: "Prochaine Station: Part 1"

Greg Labrosse

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From Cartagena, Colombia, to Montreal, Canada, follow Oriana underground, as she discovers the architectural history of Montreal’s metro stations and embarks on a journey that takes her back to the 1976 Olympic games.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

Intimacy makes the world, the body, feel strange.

– Hilton Als

It was early June, and I was meeting Dominic for the first time. We had agreed to meet at a café next to the university and I was running late. I had only been in Montreal for a couple of weeks, so I was still having trouble finding my way around the city. He told me to get off at the Guy-Concordia metro station, which I did, but I took the wrong exit and ended up on an unfamiliar street. I asked a young mother pushing a baby stroller for directions. Upon hearing my accent, she answered me in Spanish:

Dos cuadras y a la derecha. Just turn right at the traffic light.”

Gracias,” I said, and gently squeezed her baby’s hand as it tugged at my skirt.

I walked the two blocks to the café, where I found Dominic sitting outside on the terrace. He looked to be in his early thirties, with short dark hair, a fair complexion, and thick stubble covering a handsome, angular face. He got up as I approached the table and shook my hand carefully, as a young boy might hold a shell found in the sand.

“Hello, Oriana. Thanks for coming.”

I sat down and smiled. “Sorry if I made you wait,” I said.

I leaned back in my chair and glanced at the people around us. The terrace was full of university students, drawn outside by the afternoon sun.

“So, you mentioned in your email that you’re studying here over the summer.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’m taking French classes for a few months, but I’m also looking into some graduate programs in architecture for next year. That’s how I found out about your lab. Your post said that you were looking for help on a project in the metro.”

Dominic took a sip of his coffee, his orange-brown eyes peering over the rim of his cup.

“That’s right. We were contracted to create tactile maps for the visually impaired in some of the city’s metro stations. We’re looking for a student who can accompany us in the preliminary stages of the work; someone who can do some site surveying and monitor the passenger flow on the platforms—basically, collect location data.”

He pulled out some folders from a shoulder bag, filled with design plans and pictures.

“Have you done this type of work before?” he asked.

“Nothing underground,” I said. “The only metro in Colombia runs at ground level, but I’ve done surveying work for the new hospital in Cartagena. It was designed by Moshe Safdie.”

“Really? I didn’t know he was still working. Have you seen his Habitat 67 building?”

“No. I actually haven’t been to the Old Port yet. I’m not a very good tourist,” I admitted.

“It’s worth a visit, but, you know, from an architectural standpoint, the metro has more to offer,” he said emphatically. “Each station was designed by a different architect, and the whole network filled with public art, which was rare in the 60s, at least in North American cities.”

He paused to see if I was following what he was saying with any interest.

I was, but I wanted to know more about the work he did.

“Does your lab normally focus on issues of urban access?” I asked him.

“Not exactly, but since we began working together, we’ve always been interested in public interest design.”

“Who else works with you?”

“There are three of us: Marcus, his wife, Naëlle, and me,” he said. “Our very first assignment was in Port-au-Prince, in the aftermath of the earthquake. We worked together on a community rebuilding project in the neighbourhood where Naëlle, actually, grew up. Just like you, as a young woman, she came to Montreal to study.”

He showed me a photograph from one of his folders. It was of two men walking underneath a partly collapsed bridge, carrying a plastic cylinder loaded with bricks. In the background, an elderly woman stood alone, examining the damaged structure.

“Tomorrow I’ll be visiting them at their apartment. You’re welcome to come,” he said.

“If it’s in the morning before my class, I’d be glad to,” I replied.

When he finished his coffee, we left the terrace and walked up to Boulevard De Maisonneuve. The sun was slowly setting and the sky was flushed red. People passed us on the sidewalk, speaking in loud, excited voices. Dominic was walking by my side, but he was slightly ahead of me. As he walked, the strap of his shoulder bag pulled down on his shirt and exposed the skin of his upper back, just below his neck. His muscles were tense and covered with freckles. As if sensing my stare, he slowed his pace.

“Were you born in Montreal, Dominic?” I asked him.

“I was, and so was my father, but my mother was born in Serbia. Her parents immigrated here when she was a young girl, at the end of the Second World War,” he said.

He paused for a second as we crossed a busy intersection. Once we had reached the other side, he gently nudged me towards the entrance of a large concrete building. We had reached the metro station on Rue Peel, and we descended to the main platform. Almost immediately, the subway train appeared at the mouth of the tunnel. The muffled rumble of braking wheels echoed against the platform walls as the train came to a stop in front of us.

“What makes you so interested in the metro?” I asked him, as we moved to the double seats next to the window.

“I guess I enjoy watching the way people interact,” he said. “They try to maintain a certain distance from each other, but at the same time, they’re forced to share a physical closeness. And that interplay is a constant source of curiosity to me.”

“Couldn’t you say the same thing about any public space?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he answered, “but in the case of the metro, the proximity is heightened, and that’s what makes it all the more interesting.”

“Where I’m from,” I said, “public interaction usually involves a lot of physical proximity. Public space is where people do almost everything: work, meet with friends, argue, play, laugh, pass the time—it’s where daily life is played out.”

He listened to me attentively, and seemed to be mulling over a response, but the metro was arriving at Lionel-Groulx, my transfer station, and I had to get off.

“I’ll text you tomorrow to let you know where we’ll meet,” Dominic said, as the metro came to a stop, his formality reappearing slightly.

“Ok, see you tomorrow,” I said, and walked out the sliding doors.

I woke up early the next morning. The air in my room was heavy and the sheets stuck to my body as I got out of bed. I pushed the window open and looked down at the street below. There were a handful of people ambling silently on the sidewalk. A boy was walking his dog towards Parc Girouard. The sky was cloudless, but the morning was dense and still. I showered and got ready to meet Dominic.

He told me to meet him at ten o’clock outside of Place-St-Henri. Once dressed, I took the 105 bus in front of my building to Vendôme station. It was a station I was familiar with, since I passed through it daily on my way to the university. In the evening, after class, I often crossed paths with a particular group of teenage girls on their way home. They’d smile at me and say something nice about my outfit before wandering off, chatting loudly, oblivious to the other passengers around them.

I arrived at our meeting point and spotted Dominic standing across the street, next to an older brick building. Once we had greeted each other, he led me away from the building towards an alleyway that opened up into an empty schoolyard. Just as we were crossing it, a bell sounded and a swarm of children poured out of the school doors, their shouts bringing life to the bare patch of sun-warmed concrete. At the end of the yard, Dominic veered onto a quieter side street and stopped in front of a two-story apartment building. I followed him up a flight of stairs, and when we reached the second floor, he knocked on the door.

Bonjour ma chère colombienne!” Marcus exclaimed. He hugged Dominic and then placed his hands on my shoulders affectionately. “Come in, come in! Naëlle is on the balcony, watering the plants. Give me a minute, I’ll tell her you’re here.”

I sat down on a long sofa under the window overlooking the street. Light poured into the room and flooded the bookshelves that lined the wall. Dominic was inspecting the titles. He pulled out a few, read their back cover, and then carefully placed them back in their position on the shelves. He then stepped into the hallway and made his way to the back of the apartment, leaving me alone in the living room. I shifted my gaze to the framed photographs on the wall. They were similar to the prints Dominic had shown me of Port-au-Prince the day before, but on the wall facing me, there was a richly coloured canvas that caught my eye. It was a painting that depicted a Haitian market scene. As my eyes wandered over the canvas, Naëlle appeared in the doorway.

“You must be Oriana,” she said, as she entered the room.

I stood up to greet her.

“Hello, Naëlle,” I said. “Your apartment is beautiful. I was just looking at your painting. It reminds me of the market back home in Cartagena.”

Merci. We brought it back from my grandmother’s house,” she said, handing me some cherries in a small bowl. “I bought these at the market this morning. Have some before Marcus finishes them all.”

I received the bowl as she sat next to me on the sofa.

“I love your hair,” she said. Her voice was gentle. “I’ve been trying to let mine grow out, but it’s taking forever.”

“It suits you short,” I said.

She was tall and muscular in build, but her elongated eyes softened her expression. I guessed that she was about five years older than me.

“So, how long have you been in Montreal?” she asked me.

“A bit more than a week,” I answered. “I guess I’m still getting adapted.”

“Dominic tells me you might help us with the research in the metro,” she said.

“I don’t have that much experience, but I’m interested in the project,” I said.

“So you’ve decided to work with us?” Dominic asked, as he entered the room with Marcus close behind.

“Yes,” I said, “but I’d like you to help me with a project of my own.”

Un service en vaut un autre. You’re absolutely right, Oriana,” said Marcus. “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

He began scratching Naëlle’s back playfully and put out his hand for some cherries.

“In Spanish, we say, hoy por ti, mañana por mí. Today for you, tomorrow for me,” I said, happy to see Marcus encouraging me.

“How can we help you, Oriana?” asked Dominic.

“Well, I’m not sure, but let me show you.”

I reached into my handbag and pulled out a small notebook. Tucked away between its pages was an old Polaroid photo. I handed it to Dominic. It showed a man and a woman in their early twenties, smiling eagerly into the camera. They were wearing what looked like official uniforms of two different sports teams.

“Who are they?” asked Dominic.

“It’s a picture of my father,” I answered. “The picture was taken during the Montreal Olympics in 1976. My father was competing for Colombia as a track and field runner. His specialty was the 400m hurdle race. He didn’t win any medals, but he was a local hero when he returned to Cartagena. This is the only picture we have of his time in Montreal.”

Naëlle and Marcus approached to get a better look.

“Your father was very handsome,” remarked Naëlle. “Is that your mother next to him?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “My parents got married years after he returned from the Olympics, and they were only together for a few years. When I was two years old, he moved to Medellín, and sort of disappeared after that.”

The three of them were huddled together, peering at the photo of the two athletes.

“I would like you to help me find out who the woman in the photo is,” I said.

Without hesitation, Marcus pulled out his phone and started typing rapidly.

“She must have been competing at the Olympics too,” he said.

After a moment, he read out loud: Female participation in the Summer Olympics has increased steadily since women first took part in the Games in 1900 . . . In 1976, 20.7% of participants were female, for a total of 1,260 women.

“Well, that narrows it down a little,” Naëlle said, rolling her eyes. “Marcus, I doubt that you’ll find a picture for each one of those participants.”

“Don’t worry, Oriana,” said Dominic graciously. “We’ll ask some of our students from the history department to do a bit of research. I’m sure they’ll come up with a few leads. Let me take a picture of the Polaroid.”

He held out his phone, snapped a shot of the photo, and handed it back to me.

“Thanks for helping,” I said. “I know very little about my father, and I’d love to find out more about him while I’m here.”

Bonne chance, ma chère colombienne. In the meantime, try to enjoy the summer,” said Marcus. “It goes by quickly, and we have a lot of work to do.” He took out the design plans, and for the rest of the morning, we went over the timeline and logistics of the project.

Sometime before noon, Dominic and I kissed our hosts goodbye and made our way to the nearby market for lunch. It was full of midday shoppers, strolling up and down the aisles. We ordered some chicken skewers from an open-air stand and found a spot at one of the picnic tables. I had to eat in a hurry, since I didn’t want to be late for my French class, but I happily would have spent the afternoon there with him. He was in a talkative mood and had started telling me about the working-class history of the neighbourhood. He was still in professor mode when I got up to say goodbye. As I stood, a young man took my place at the table. He was with a teenage girl who appeared to be his sister. They were wearing matching tracksuits, and I noticed that the girl’s hair was slightly wet. I smiled at them and left Dominic nibbling at the rest of my chicken.

I remember how new everything felt to me in those first weeks of the summer. I took in all the mundane details of my surroundings: the layout of my apartment, the small shops in my neighbourhood, the unadorned university classrooms, the busy streets, and the animated people around me as I went about my daily routine. After class, I would sometimes walk for hours exploring the city. The days went by quickly. I tried to concentrate on my classes, but I was eager to start my work on the project. Dominic sent me a text at the end of the week with instructions to meet him the following Monday morning on the platform of the Lionel-Groulx station.

When I arrived at the station I decided to wait for him on the mezzanine, just below the entrance. Behind me, there was a panel of polished metal that reflected the movements of the crowd as they made their way up and down the stairs. In front of me, in the middle of the mezzanine, stood a sculpted tree trunk, towering above the orange-coloured floor tiles. At the top of the trunk, instead of branches, five sculpted heads jutted out in various directions. A plaque on the base of the sculpture displayed the name of the artist and the title of the work: Joseph Rifesser, L’arbre de vie. The tree of life. An elderly woman carrying shopping bags stopped next to the base of the trunk, a young boy following a few steps behind her. The bags were obviously too heavy for her and she was reproaching him for not helping. I watched them as they waddled up the stairs with their load.

“Today it was my turn to make you wait,” said Dominic, as he appeared by my side.

“You should’ve told me to meet you by the tree of life,” I said playfully. “It would’ve sounded more dramatic.”

He smiled and then walked to the railing to get a look at the platform below us.

A subway train arrived, suddenly interrupting the silence of the station. A stream of passengers drifted up towards the station’s exit as another raced down the stairs to make it inside the waiting train before the doors closed.

Once it departed, Dominic took advantage of the lull in movement to show me the app he had designed with Marcus. It produced measures of spatial clustering based on the patterns of passenger traffic. He explained how density levels had to fall below a predetermined range before they could begin the installation of the new tactile maps. My main tasks would be to record any random disturbances that interfered with the flow of passengers and to document the map sites by photographing the existing structures, in order to create 3D models of the panels. We had a dozen stations to cover, which meant that my work on the project would last until the end of July.

For the first few days, Dominic would accompany me on-site. He was patient and generous with his knowledge, and did everything with great care. We usually met after the morning rush hour at the station of his choice. After meticulously going over the design plans, we’d inspect the conventional maps already installed at either end of each platform. His movements were unhurried and precise, and at times he was slightly aloof, but I enjoyed working with him; things always flowed smoothly.

By the end of June, after working closely with Dominic for a few weeks, I began to work on my own during the day. Dominic focused on the administrative tasks. Quickly, we fell into the habit of meeting at Marcus and Naëlle’s apartment in the evening to go over the project’s advances. Those meetings were always a pleasure. Naëlle was a sweetheart, and Marcus always had delicious food waiting for us. As we ate, he wanted to hear about the day’s events. Although my mornings in the metro were usually uneventful, I’d make an effort to share my impressions with him about the people I encountered.

After a particularly long day, I told him about an experience I had at the end of the orange line. I was taking pictures just inside the entrance to the Côte-Vertu station. Two women, about my age, were standing a few feet away from me, arguing over a decision one of them made the night before. The tallest had her hair covered in a colourful headwrap and wore a loose green dress, while the other kept her long black hair uncovered, and wore a white shirt over a pair of faded jeans. They were speaking French––too quickly for me to fully understand––but the sight of them gesturing at each other reminded me of when my mother and I gossiped back home. Every Sunday evening, the two of us would sit on the balcony and swap stories like two schoolgirls after Christmas break.

Marcus asked me to recall a few of the sentences from the conversation between the two women in the metro station. As he reviewed the digital models, I practised my French with him. I appreciated the help, because when I started to work alone, curious strangers would often ask me questions about what I was doing while they waited for the metro to arrive.

After the evening meeting, Place-St-Henri station was relatively quiet. The facial expressions of the few people gathered on the platform were less weary than those of the morning rush hour crowd. When the train left the station, the cars were mostly unoccupied. I took out my notebook to go over what we had done in class that day, but by then, my mind was clouded and I had difficulty focusing. A recorded voice interrupted my thoughts as it sounded through the intercom:

Prochaine station, Vendôme . . .  

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