Showdown on Rue Buvardier

Posted by on May 26th, 2010 at 6:28 AM

[ Warning: real facts, made-up names ]

I spend most of my time at the nearest edition of Red Saucer, Canada’s answer to Starbucks. The neighborhood, at a crossroads of Montreal, is tame compared with here I come from (New York City). But we get our share of derelicts, nuts and miscreants, and the kids who man the local cafes have to deal with them.

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting outside the cafe at one of the tables where Red Saucer patrons can gaze upon the brick wall of a neighboring rival, Cafe Nuit. Just to the left of Cafe Nuit is another brick wall, this one belonging to a state-subsidized housing unit populated by schizophrenia victims and other unfortunates. Red Saucer looks upon these buildings across rue Buvardier, a side street with no traffic but lots of cigarette butts.

On this particular evening I sat with the lovely and vivacious Gabrielle, who was working her last shift at Red Saucer before she and a buddy set off for travel and adventure in British Columbia, way off on Canada’s Pacific coast. I’m not kidding when I call Gabrielle lovely and vivacious. She’s a doll, and I was honored when she asked me to stop by every evening to keep her company for her cigarette breaks. Middle-aged men love young women, especially good-looking and charming young women, and especially good-looking and charming young women who enjoy our company. How many girls like that can one dig up? Not a whole lot, or so I find. Knowing Gabrielle has been a treat and I just hope she finds her way back from the West Coast.

The point of this story is that I met Gabrielle because I spend most of my time sitting around, pecking at my keyboard or dawdling on the Internet, whereas she met me because she is active and engaged. I’ve always looked for a corner in which to barricade myself, and Red Saucer is my deluxe equivalent of same. I sit there and fuss over commas or the stupidity of Internet commenters. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was there to take action. She ranged about freely, brooming the floor, wiping the counter and shelves, preparing lattes and boissons, calling out greetings to customers (“Salut!”), and making friends with lost souls like myself. When done, she would dash off to the clubs found up and down boulevard St. Laurent. There she danced with her pals until it was time to travel the bus home to her mom’s place and bed. The next day she would work on costumes for the latest fancy-dress ball she was planning with friends. (She means to get a degree in costume design for the theater.) Twenty-year-olds have a lot of energy, but I didn’t at her age. Far from it. I was getting ready for my life of sitting around and pecking; the Internet just had to be invented and then I’d be ready to go.

Back to Gabrielle and me at our table. Spring eases its way in up here, so on most evenings we had rue Buvardier to ourselves. Not this night. It was warm and the neighboring tables had filled up. A hard-looking fellow in his 40s chatted with a friend. No problem, of course. Then another hard-looking fellow came steaming up, fire in his eyes. He was furious about something or other, possibly involving the DVDs he carried in his hand. At any rate he waved them as he shouted at the fellow who was seated. The seated fellow shouted back. The whole thing went from zero to 60 in seconds, the two of them yelling in joual (the local version of French) at the top of their lungs.

Gabrielle leapt to her feet. She’s five-two, five-three, a little thing. But she confronted the newcomer, her hands on her hips and her head craned back. As far as I can tell, the exchange would be translated like this.

Gabrielle: “Hey, you can’t do that! This is a cafe! You’re disturbing our customers!”

Man: “Shut up, you little bitch, mind your own business! If you don’t like it, call the police!

Yes, all exclamation points, Stan Lee style. It was a high-pitched episode.

Gabrielle: “Perfect! The police!”

Which, in French, can carry quite a fillip. “Parfait! Le po-lice.”

She spun on her heel and marched into the cafe for the special Red Saucer cell phone. The man shouted after her, in English, “Yeah, fuck you!”

When Gabrielle came marching out, the seated hard case had led his enemy away from cafe property and onto rue Buvardier, where the two of them carried on with the help of a squat woman who had white hair down to her shoulders. I don’t know where she came from; possibly the housing for schizophrenics. At any rate, she threw in pleading interjections on the order of “Sois tranquille, Jean! Ah, Jean, Jean! Jean, sois raissonable!” Or: “Be quiet, Jean. Oh, Jean be reasonable.” Jean was the hard case who had started all the trouble.

I asked Gabrielle if she had called the police. She shook her head and we watched the show a while. She seemed entirely unfazed by the fact that the man had called her a bitch, yelled at her, told her to go fuck herself. She was a bit agitated and unhappy to see two men acting like fools, but her own amour propre carried not a dent.

During a lull she turned to me and explained that they were now off cafe property, adding, “I am sorry, Tom, but there is nothing I can do.” English is definitely not her language, so it came out “I am zor-ree, Dom, boot dair’iz,” etc.

Me: “They’re grown men. I wouldn’t try anything.” As if I were the gold standard of masculine assertiveness. In fact either of them could have beat me into the ground.

Gabrielle then delivered the closest thing this story has to a punchline: “But dah-tizz why I emm ‘ere.”

A lovely 20-year-old girl whose first instinct is to protect me. Sometimes it’s a wonderful world.

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