Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fire on Mont-Royal

Man, there are a lot of fires in Montreal, especially in the winter. It seems that not a week goes by where you don't hear about some building burning down. It's often a plex building with several apartments and a storefront. They usually tend to happen to the north or east of us yuppies here in the Plateau, but last night the building that housed the Pitt shoe store caught on fire. It's on Mont-Royal and St. Dominique, about 3 blocks from our place. The firemen here kick some ass and respond really quickly, but it still seems worrisome with all these attached units and so many of them being so old. I think the age is part of the reason there are so many fires, but I've heard also that a lot of them are started by people supplementing their heat with space heaters. A dangerous practice!

I'm not normally too sympathetic a person, but my heart really goes out to those poor souls who lose their home, all their stuff and their warmth and comfort in the middle of friggin' winter. That must be just terrible. I renewed my home insurance this week, but I seriously think we should get some fire extinguishers for our place.

This picture doesn't really capture it because the street was closed off around it and we're in the middle of a snowfall, but this is a very busy, commercial part of town, with shops and restaurants up and down the street. The shoe store was one of those that sells all new cheap non-brand name shoes, mostly made in China. I bought my nephew some Winnie-the-Pooh snow boots there once which his mother detested. But the kid needed some boots! There must have been a lot of burning vinyl in the air last night.

Bonus snow lion picture!

"I will protect you and your kind. But for god's sake keep those batteries in your smoke alarms charged!"

Friday, January 23, 2009

I do enjoy my job!

The building I work in is actually the presbytère of one of Montréal's grand old Catholic churches. The presbytère is the building where the nuns and priests used to live and I imagine it was once bustling with church activity. As the role of the church in Québec society declined, so did the need for staff and this building eventually got transitioned over to be rented out to non-profit organizations. When I first started working here, there was one locked door on our floor that I eventually learned led to an apartment where a single remaining priest was living. He accessed his apartment through a side entrance. I never saw him and he finally moved out (or died) and his apartment was opened up to some other organizations.

The building is old and beautiful. There has been some minor renovations (like a hideous, grimy linoleum in the hallway, white paint everywhere, lead windows) but not enough to ruin the spaciousness and patina of age that makes it such a pleasant place to work. I've spoken of all this before and taken some pictures which, if you are so interested, you may read about by following this link.

I wanted to recount a little adventure I had today that makes me really enjoy my job. Mostly, I keep the computers and equipment running and make sure all the employees are physically happy in their workspaces. A certain part of my job is low level handiwork, like fixing tables, hanging pictures and lights, building shelves, etc. These are often a pleasant diversion that get me away from my desk and the computer.

We have a cool attic here where we store a lot of our action equipment. It has a trap door on the roof, a 2' x 2' framed square lined on the outside with metal flashing. The thing is pretty heavy, maybe about 30 pounds, but not heavy enough to withstand the big gusts of wind we sometimes get here in the winter. I went up to the attic earlier in the week and noticed it had blown off again. Unfortunately, it must have happened before the big snowfall of two weeks ago because I couldn't see it anywhere on the flat plain of snow that is our roof. I had to go back down, get my boots and toque and a big pole and then go on the roof and poke around like an explorer looking for crevasses. I checked immediately around the hatch, but it wasn't there, so I walked in ever outward-increasing concentric circles, poking with the pole until I found it. Fortunately, it didn't take too long and it's a great vista from the roof, which I will share with you below.

I've worked in many different jobs in my life. The majority of my working years took place in an office. I've never had the need (or right) to go on the roof of the building and poke around in the snow with a pole before. It's pleasant.

Looking south towards the river (with downtown peeking on the right):

If you look closely at the bottom you can see the disturbed snow where I found the hatch cover.

Looking Southwest towards Mont-Royal:

And the hatch cover in question:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Snow Fort!

There was a flurry of activity coming from the downstairs neighbours around 1 in the morning a couple of nights ago. They are a mother and her college-age son (though not currently attending college; he is seeking direction) and I think the mother has been away since the holidays. Things have been pretty quiet downstairs, but I guess in a fit of winter productivity, the son decided to build a snow fort. They spent one night building the base structure, which was a rough teepee-like affair, using cardboard boxes as the frame. Two days later, just before the big freeze, they went for the expansion, building it outwards and making the entrance way a narrow tunnel. It lacks a chimney. I would also suggest that they pour water over it, to get a nice hard case on the outside.

My girlfriend thinks they built it in order to get up to nefarious activities, ones they aren't allowed to do in the house. I think it might have just been a fun project. Either way, this is a project which gets my full stamp of approval. They do something productive with the mass of snow filling our backyard (the problem which inspired the title of this blog in the first place). It looks cool and the cats are totally psyched, can't stop checking it out and inspecting it. Even at -20 and below, when they won't go out, they still stare at it out the window. I do worry that they may be encouraged to use it as a litterbox, so when it warms up, I'll tell the guys they should put a grate up or something. I'd hate to see them sitting in their snow fort, up to "no good" when they realize it smells awfully uriney in there.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cold Snap!

Here it comes! Like the freezing, invisible (except for its effects), rolling wave of cold from The Day After Tomorrow, we have been enveloped by a cold bubble. It went from a balmy -1 degrees celsius yesterday evening to -21 this morning. I did not let the cats go outside last night for fear they would get caught by it and rightly so, for what did I see outside my window this morning? A small song bird, frozen in mid-flight, suspended in the air, its wings halfway through the upswing. It must have been trying to make it to its nest under the hood of the electricity junction on my roof and left it just a little too late.

I survived my 10-minute walk to work, though my nose was in a lot of pain by the time I got there. Now I look out my windows and see a bright, still day with a thin blue sky. Steam, smoke and vapour pouring from rooftops in thicker clouds than usual is the only indication of the cold. This thing is supposed to last at least through Saturday, so I worry a bit about the state of our building. The differential between the inside and the outside could become so great that I envision windows exploding, concrete flaking off in great sheets, beams cracking.

I'll try to keep posting but I'm hearing that in the eastern parts of the city, where the pipes aren't well insulated, the internet has frozen down to the point where it's like using a 14.4k modem.

And for God's sake, don't lick anything!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

My response to the Vancouver Olympic budget crisis

Okay, it's a bit cruel of me. It's going to be the taxpayers and the city who will end up paying the costs for this debacle, but I can't help but ask how the hell the last city council (and the provincial Liberals) got voted in in the first place. I love how the natives and the lefties fighting the Olympics and all the accelerated and subsidized development around them were marginalized by the politicians and the media from the get-go as a bunch of negative has-beens who hate progress and economic development on principle. No, instead, let's make deals with developers where they get to reap all the potential economic benefit, but the government is on the hook if things don't work out. How could anyone make such a deal? How are these guys not in the stocks in front of the court house for daily floggings? Oh yeah, it's B.C., where everyone walks around acting all righteous and protestant, until they think there's a chance they might be able to get their snout in the trough. Yes, B.C., wannabe Los Angeles sitting on 200 years of short-term greed, cheapness and and unfettered resource exploitation. Most of you voted for those scumbags and criminals because you thought you might get a job building some piece of shit concrete monstrosity and accrue some false pride for living in a "world-class" city. Clearly nothing was learned from Expo 86.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sorry Toronto, Liane Balaban is sleeping in our bed now

Up and coming Canadian arthouse actress Liane Balaban is getting some press this week, thanks to the release of Last Chance Harvey, starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.

She has a cover piece on last week's Hour(one of 4 free weeklies in Montreal) and was also on the front page of the Review section of this weekend's Globe and Mail.

Check the pull quote from the Globe and Mail article:

It's not every day you wind up on a film set with Dustin Hoffman as your personal tutor. Then again, Toronto's Liane Balaban isn't your everyday kind of actress, Gayle MacDonald writes:

"Toronto's Liane Balaban"? (In the article, they also refer to her as the "the 28-year-old Toronto actress".) Um, sorry dudes. Read on:

Balaban, who grew up in the Toronto suburb of North York, went to high school at Lawrence Park Collegiate, and now lives in Montreal...

Toronto's and Toronto actress imply that she is currently living in Toronto. That's how it works. You could have said "Toronto native" or "originally from Toronto". The article is already pathetic enough. Who gives a shit about Dustin Hoffman? He's been mailing it in for years. Why do you have to use this is a lead to make the story worthwhile? She's a succesful Canadian actress. Isn't that enough? (To be fair, Melora Koepke does the same thing in the Hour piece.) Not only do you have to start the article sucking up to Hollywood fame but you also have to lie and suggest that she is living in Toronto.

No, she is not living in Toronto and we all know why. Because Toronto sucks. I mean it's a great city if you want to run around and pretend like you are all important and busy and wish you lived in New York. But for a young and hot actress like Liane Balaban, it's going to be Montreal all the way. You may have made out with her in high school, Toronto, but she's sleeping in our bed now!

Friday, January 09, 2009

thumbs-up to the cols bleus!

We had a decent little snowfall in the middle of this week. It reached around 30 cm. In typing that sentence, I almost wrote "snowstorm" because this is the term that the media uses, even in french (une tempête de neige), but a storm means terrible winds, crazy stuff happening. If this precipitation had been rain, it would not have been called a rainstorm. This manipulation of language is just another example of the continuing alarmism and excessive spassiness around the weather that we must fight against constantly and vigilantly.

The snow itself is beautiful. Just the right combo of density and fluffiness. Very easy to sweep and shovel, as it stayed in big, but not too heavy, chunks. I have kept my stairs competitively clean during the last two days.

The city as well, really got off the mark this time. I suspect they were stung a bit by the criticism from the last two snowfalls, where they didn't do such a good job. Both the street-cleaning teams and public transport have done an excellent job so far. Where during the last storm, I waited 40 minutes for a bus, this time, two came one after the other. The sidewalk plows were going all day yesterday on all the side streets. And the main roads are already mostly cleared, even for parking.

It's true that the last two snowfalls involved a lot more ice, so the clearing is harder and the effects on the citizens way worse. Nevertheless, it's nice to see the city on top of it's game. Well done!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Northern Conscription

In responding to the flood of comments I received in response to my Thaw Day post, I came up with an excellent new idea. Canada should have a mandatory one or two-year public service in the north, similar to the military conscription they have in Israel and many European countries. It could have a nominal military facade, such as "defending our arctic sovereignty" (otherwise known as throwing rocks at Finns while the Russians and Americans cruise back and forth between us in their subs and oil tankers), but most of the work would be of a more social and economic nature: teaching, building houses and community structures, maintaining infrastructures.

You would involve the leadership of the territories and the native communities at a very high level, so that their input would really drive the direction of things. There would be barracks and bases, but the conscripts would also spend a certain amount of time billeting with local families and dedicating a certain amount of time helping them with their daily work. This would give both sides an opportunity to get to know each other and create future connections (so if a kid from the North wanted to come to the big city and look for opportunities).

Most importantly, it would train our youth to learn to live and deal in a truly cold environment. This would occur when they are at their most stupid and lazy and annoying and instead of moping around all day or walking around with ripped jeans (like a character I saw today on the way to work; big holes in his now red knees, trying to look like he wasn't freezing his ass off), they would be working hard in a disciplined structure.

However, despite the denial of certain comforts, there would be a huge incentive for the conscripts. It would be a giant partying opportunity. It will be totally co-educational, of course and there would be facilities set up for hanging out. From what I hear, tons of hooking up goes on during the mandatory military services in other countries.

This would of course further cultural cross-pollination and provide great fodder for Canadian cinema. You can already see the star-crossed love between cute Jewish girl from Forest Hills who instead of spending two years at McGill talking on the cell phone goes to the north, learns how to work and live and meets a cute Inuit boy who is struggling against his situation. They fall in love, the families are against it (scenes of each visiting the other's family), laughter and tears ensue. We learn about the meaning of the North.

I got off track. The main social benefit would be generations of winter-trained youth, who would be more open to the idea of living outside the major metropolitan areas and who were ready to deal with a bit of snow. It would be a start on the road to Canadians actually living up to their reputation as being a winter people.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Thaw Day

Twice now, since winter began, we've had a decent quantity of snow and then a day where the temperature goes well above freezing. The result of this, when there is enough of a base of snow, is that you get some melting, but not enough and when the temperature freezes again, all that snow becomes ice and the streets and sidewalks become incredibly slippery. My understanding from old-time Montrealers is that the increased frequency of this is relatively new. It used to stay cold here all winter.

It's very frustrating for me, because what could be an awesome opportunity to work collectively and clear the streets and sidewalks, becomes instead another burden for the city. It's just another example of how as a society we have become less and less self-reliant, less and less socially aware and more and more dependent on the government (about whom we all complain).

The thing about those thaw days is that the snow becomes incredibly easy to move. It breaks off of concrete easily and can be scraped (or broken if it's ice) and swept off to the side. It's much easier to handle than when it is just piles of cold snow. Furthermore, the warm weather is actively melting it, doing a lot of work for you.

What I do on these days is to clear off my stairs and the walk around my house, throwing the snow towards the sidewalk and curb. Then I do the sidewalk, pushing the snow and ice out into the street. Not just into the curb, but into the lanes of the street. As the cars go over it, they break it up and increase the melting rate. The water flows into the curb and then the drains. The job takes me no more than hour for my classic Plateau triplex and the sidewalk that runs its width.

Since Montreal is mainly multi-unit dwellings, almost every building has at least one person physically capable of doing this. Of course, other than me and the old Portuguese guys, nobody does anything. Instead, they just wait for the city to come by and drop gravel on it. Then they all bitch and complain about how slippery it is.

The city's primary expense for snow removal, I imagine, is fuel (with labour a close second). So it's really a question of how much volume they have to cart out. It pains me to see so much snow and ice still sitting on the ground the day after it reached 6 degrees celsius. Think how much fuel could have been saved if we all went out and did our part, throwing the sidewalk snow out into the street and getting it to melt? An hours work, which will give fatties some much-needed exercise, as well as some social camaraderie with your neighbours, is all it would take.

Then maybe the city could save a bit of money, moving it into public transport, to get more cars off the street in the winter.

Here's a great post by Alanah Heffez in SpacingMontreal critiquing our negative approach to winter. Great stuff.