Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hipsters then and now

[This is a speciall cross-promotion post with my other blog Olman's Fifty (where I track and review the books I read), since it was the reading of A Fine Ending by Louis Rastelli that spurred me to write about Mile End hipsters. You can read my full review of the book over there.]

I just finished reading Louis Rastelli's A Fine Ending. It's a great chronicle of Montreal back when rents really were cheap and hipsters were actual poor artists who were mostly making art for the art and being a freak was cool. I apologize for dropping a negative post during this season of cheer, but reading about the 90s really helped crystallize why today's hipsters are so fucking annoying.

Every young, white, educated, first-world cultural movement is annoying in some way (and often many ways), from the hippies onward. Fundamentally what is annoying is that these scenes have a lot of righteousness and political rhetoric, but they are ultimately in existence because of society's wealth and the fortune of the particpants of being born to a certain class. You can't have these movements without leisure time and you can't have leisure time without material success. You can't afford to be poor if there is real poverty in a society. So these poor artists, squatting in their lofts and dumpster-diving can only afford to do so because of the wealth of society around them.

Despite that cynical foundation, there is still a difference between scenes. This difference often gets defined by authenticity, which then devolves into useless arguments of taste and experience (and the "when I was a kid" old guy argument). I'm probably edging dangerously close to that argument here, but since I was also just as critical and contemptuous of my own hipster age (in slacktastic Portland with its lame "grunge" scene and Oakland with annoying post-punks and scruffy white rappers and finally for the worst hipster hell of all which should be just fucking nuked, Williamsburg), I figure I'll have some credibility.

Reading Rastelli's account of the 90s and now having lived in that same neighbourhood the last 6 years, the main difference I see between his scene and today's are three things: the wealth, the conformity and the self-awareness.

The wealth is obvious. The kids in the hipster scene here in Mile End clearly have a lot of disposable income. The two big factors are most likely because they are working in the software industry (Ubisoft is the main engine driving Mile End's gentrification) and because they come from wealthy families. Back in Rastelli's day, there must have been a few trust fund kids, but the world (and urban north america in particular) is a much wealthier place today, thanks to the Clinton boom years. The kids back then seemed to often be drop-outs, whereas today they are post-McGill kids who stick around or other post-university graduates who are drawn to the coolness of Montreal. Logically, given the end of the cheap rents and the greater cost of living, they just have to be wealthier to live here.

With that wealth, which is based on a consumer culture, comes conformity. Today, youth cultures define themselves by what products they buy, what clothes they wear. Back in Louis' day, clothes and goods were less relevant. I passed two guys talking to each other on Laurier who were literally wearing exactly the same outfit. It was clear that they had just ran into each other. They had brown faux old-time logger leather boots, narrow jeans with wide cuffs above the boots, zipped hoodies under plaid jackets, big rounded bushy bears and black elf-toques on the back of their head. I really wanted to take a picture. Oh yeah, they each had store-branded shopping bags of newly purchased stuff (okay, possibly xmas shopping, so I could maybe give them a pass on that, but it just all fit in so perfectly). It looked like a parody of hipsterness.

[One other element of this conformity that is interesting is that it is also a manifestation of the growing feminization of males. Young men are encouraged to enslave themselves to fashion, where it is acceptable even for creative types to dress like everyone else as long as it is in the latest style, which then encourages a higher rate of consumption in order to keep up.]

Well who cares if they all dress the same, you may well ask. The problem with their conformity is that they define themselves as creative types. But they are all operating out of the same pre-defined rule books. Companies hire "cool-hunters" who then codify styles, brand them and sell them to these hipsters. And this is where the self-awareness comes in. These people are actively aware of being part of a scene. They all learn you have to have a track bike and wear a rollerderby shirt because that's what they are doing in New York. They actively create their own little marketing and publicity campaigns and make those things happen here. The existence of the internet is probably the one main reason for this change. When you go to a music show today, it's not to actually experience, but to be able to record it with your digital camera or cellphone (both of which are owned by most hipsters, if not also a videocamera; remember when Sting said "Too many cameras, not enough food) and then put it up on your Facebook page. That is the perfect example of consumerism (the camera) + the internet = what hipsters today consider cultural production.

The one positive outcome of this new rich, conformist and self-aware hipster scene is that they have gotten into actually creating real things, with a push for a more locally-based economy. This is an outgrowth of the more spontaneous musical and cultural events back in the '90s (and the Expozine is a great example of people doing a lot of cool stuff; you'll see a pretty interesting mix of hipster generations there). There is also a nice environmental element to that as well, with local cultural groups pushing for doing good things with green space, setting up composting service and so on.

Other than that, though, it's a pretty depressingly empty scene. Today's hipsters are basically wealthy consumers with a lot of leisure time. Their non-labour energies are almost entirely dedicated to increasing cultural consumption. There is very little political will or social consciousness, besides reflexive lip service. Even the punks are apolitical today and the squeegee kids are more conformist than anyone. I know the hippies were super-annoying and basically a giant sausage-fest, but at least they were yelling for some fucking change. Punk Rock back in the day was about smashing shit up. Today it is about getting a record deal or properly managing your twitter account. Today's hipsters is fundamentally conservative (note the new emphasis on traditional women's domestic labour still being done by women, with hipster chicks baking, knitting and sewing, but now it is "crafting" and sold at a higher price point than the mass-produced equivalents).

They are nice kids on the individual level, these hipsters, I'm sure. But you can't help but want to punch them in the face when you see them. Here's why: it's that they think they are actually doing something positive and different. They believe the lies that go along with the products they sell to each other, as we all do. But their lies make them think they are actually part of a cultural movement, as opposed to being just another marketing demographic. When you see a dufus in an SUV with a trunk full of Ikea products, you can lament his wasteful lifestyle and be resentful of his wealth, but he's not trying to be somehow culturally superior. Same with the gelled guidos waiting in line at the club.

This is all inevitable. I find it hard to believe that Mile End could ever be a truly swanky neighbourhood, but it happened in SOHO (though that took decades) and happened almost right before my eyes in Williamsburg. The U.S. is much, much richer than Canada, so I don't know if we've already got the super-expensive chocolate boutiques on Fairmount, the high-end baby stores, condos going up everywhere and the rising property values and rents. Today's hipsters may well integrate themselves successfully into this evolution and become a new wealthy cultural elite. The big wild card is the language thing, which limits the amount of hipsters who can move here (and thank fucking god and the PQ for that despite some of the annoying side effects). That is one thing that keeps Montreal different. There is also the decline of America as a world empire, but I suspect we'll still see several generations of economic growth before it finally really comes down. And we still have decades of natural resources to plunder before the planet as a whole truly starts to suffer. In the meantime, we can watch Mile End become more and more fancy and the hipsters become more and more insufferable until it finally becomes, gasp, Park Slope.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Booby-trapped House

This is my kind of homeowner.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

La bonne bouffe Coréenne

I'm a big fan of all foods coming from Asia, but in recent years I've gotten particularly into the Korean. I think part of it is that there is no good Japanese food here in Montreal and we have only now started to get a nice little wave of interesting Chinese food in the Concordia ghetto (and most welcome that development is!). But there has always been one or two quality Korean restaurants here and we've been favouring them.

But I think another reason that I am favouring Korean food is because of the cold. I'm pulling this theory right out of my ass, but Korea has a real winter climate and many of their dishes are designed to have the best taste and be most comforting in the cold weather. I realized that today while having a hot ramyon soup (basically fancy ramen) at Miga. Korean food is served piping hot, with a special flat sipping spoon. It is also spicy, but not in an overwhelming way. Also, as soon as I walked in, they brought me a hot tea, not too strong. Sitting there, sipping away on my soup, listening to Radio-Classique, looking at the snowy day outside, I felt very warm and comforted.

The ramyon is an easy choice for new palates, but there are several other really delicious hot soups. I also like the little fried tofu balls to start out with at Miga.

Give them a try!

Miga is on Rachel and Rivard, just one block east of St.Denis. It's right across the street from Frite-Alors.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Two winter scenes: inside and out

This irresponsible bike owner helps us to see the total snow fall we've had so far this winter. The long term predictions for lots of snow and cold are looking good at this point!

The organization downstairs from us got creative and seasonal with their coffee station!

Monday, December 13, 2010

La chenillette me fait chier!

La famille Chenillette

The french of Québec can be quite elusive. Sometimes it seems that it's better to find out a bunch of words and then ask if they are the correct ones rather than just ask people what the word for something is. The relevant case in point is snow plow. Each winter, I ask people how you say snowplow and I never really get a solid answer. The most solid I've heard is "déneigeuse", but it seemed too literal. People also speak of the "chasse-neiges", but that refers to the entire range of snow-removing vehicles (and possibly non-vehicles as well).

Even more elusive is the word for the little guy that does the sidewalks. These, as my longtime readers will well know, are a favourite of mine. Little diesel smokers that tear up and down the sidewalks, mangling bikes, scaring pedestrians and (as we will see) smashing fences. Well I just learned about the word "Chenillette".

Un chenille is a caterpillar. It's also used to describe any tracked vehicle (like a tank or a snow plow). So you can say "une véhicule à chenille" or even use it as an adjective, "chenillé". So a chenillette is a little tracked vehicle and was used for those small, tracked gun cars in WWII as well as snow plows on mountains in France. I polled the office and only a few of the Québécois referred to the sidewalk plow as a chenillette, but definitely one or two of them did. Also, chenille is not pronounced shuh-nee, it's pronounced schneeyuh. And you can use it to refer to a tractor just like we do in english (though I'm not sure if that is because of the brand name; which may in turn come from their mode of transportation).

In this conversation, I also finally learned the word "la charrue" which means snowplow! Why was this a big secret? How come when I asked how you say snowplow in french, nobody just said charrue? It's so weird. In any case, une charrue is also a big old ugly woman and quite offensive. There is also the very good phrase "placer la charrue devant les boeufs" which is the french equivalent of placing the cart before the horse. Good to know!

La famille Charrue [does this go too far?]

The building I live in has a teeny front yard, which is the right and responsibility of the owner of the Rez-de-chaussée (ground floor). It has a small wooden fence in front of it and every year, because of the closeness of the sidewalk tree, it gets damaged by the chenillette, who has to maneuver closely by it. Last winter, our neighbour moved the fence's rail on the backside of the post to create another 4 inches of maneuvering room. She also put up some orange flags. So this summer, we went for the same. I did the work and also re-attached the missing vertical slats. The downstairs neighbour's daughter's boyfriend re-did her front gate entirely (and did quite a nice job; he was surprisingly handy).

I don't know if there was something exceptionally difficult or if we have a new chenillette driver, but after the very first snowfall, the dude just went absolutely hogwild, took out half the slats and an entire gate. And then last night, he took out half the slats on the other side. And despite that, he still can't seem to properly clear the sidewalk in front of our place. There remains a mound a good 10 inches above the rest of the sidewalk. I respect these guys and their work, but come on! How come we only lost a few slats in the last few winters and now all of a sudden the whole thing is taken out in the first snowfall? I did notice that the chenillette is red and I think the one last year was yellow, so it could be that this model is bigger in some way and harder to maneuver.

I really don't feel like fixing the fence every year. I had suggested just getting rid of it, but the downstairs neighbour said without a fence, you get way more dogs taking a shit and other stuff. Now I'm scheming of perhaps a removable fence, which we can just lift up and store in the backyard for the winter. Might be a cool project.

So to my francophone readers, what do you call the little sidewalk snowplows?

And for your visual pleasure and edification, here are some images of the damage:

Look at our stubbornly proud little reflecting flags, trying to so hard to be helpful and yet looking pretty guilty for their failure at this point. It's not your fault, guys! You did your best.

You can see how the snow rises here. Our fence was destroyed but they still didn't manage to clear the snow.

Well the gate itself is intact, but the entire post holding it in the ground has been sheared off.

It's the fencacolypse!

I tried to capture the mound here, where the plow didn't get down to the sidewalk. You can't really see the different levels, but you can see where the sidewalk is exposed on either side of it. This, combined with the excessive amount of leaves and garbage we accumulate relative to the rest of the block is starting to make me feel kind of paranoid.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Au printemps, mes amis!

I stepped out of my office in the very beginning of the way-too-early evening and heard the haunting cry far above me of a flock of geese heading south for the winter. It always amazes me when I think of those birds just flying together like that for days at a time, traveling such long distances, somehow knowing how to stay in formation.

Have a safe journey!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Get 'er done!

Good work fellas!

Also, saw these dudes through my office window, shoveling around on the roof, trying to find something buried under the snow, maybe another trapdoor or a leak. The snow makes more work for humans!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

4-5 cm of snow

The word according to the meteorologists was that we were expecting 4-5 cm of snow overnight and partly throughout Monday. Instead it snowed and snowed all day Monday and all night and we got a pretty serious dump of over 30 cm. The city (and its citizens) was caught a bit off guard. They are saying the snow should be cleared off in at best 5 days (a tip of the hat to the always reliable Montreal City Weblog for that link). Only problem, we're supposed to be getting another 10+ cm next weekend! Bring it on! Man, the commute must have been a beast this morning!

This is what you see when your toque has blocked your hearing until it's too late while stumbling along the narrow rut of an uncleared sidewalk snow path. It's a stoned and drunk sidewalk snowplow operator barrelling up from behind you and he is stopping for nothing! Quickly find some balcony stairs or dive into the snowpile on the street side!

Phew, you just made it. And you happened to arrive at the foot of my stairs. What a pleasant suprise, a frail, shivering university lad! Why don't you come on in and warm yourself up some, sonny boy? That ferocious snowplow must have given you quite a scare. Here, have some hot chocolate. Go on, drink it up. Yes, that's right. Drink it all down. There's a lad. You're safe now...

I think I saw a dude stealing a bike yesterday

I was riding home for lunch and right on the corner of my block a dude was bent over a bike attached to the pole. When I stopped and looked to see what he was doing, I saw that he had a short piece of rebar and was using it to leverage out the U-lock. He was about 6' tall, with polarized glasses, a beard and a big hooded blue puffy coat. The bike was a newish, standard-quality silver mountain bike and there was a red helmet attached to it. It looked sort of feminine and he definitely did not. So I asked him why he was doing that (in french) and he said "I lost my keys" (in accented english). I stood and watched him and he definitely was watching me. I was maybe 20' away. He succeeded in breaking the lock. He picked up the rear fender he had knocked off and the helmet and quickly rode away. I followed him, but he lost me heading the wrong way on St. Laurent. He rode on to the sidewalk and since I am trying to abide by the law on my bike, I hesitated and got blocked by oncoming traffic.

This whole episode has left me with bad feelings. I really feel like I should have stopped him. The problem and most reasonable people agree with me, is that I had no way of knowing for sure that he was stealing the bike. It could have been his girlfriend's who lost her keys and he was pissed about having to go get it. But now looking back, I'm pretty sure the guy was a thief and I should have just jumped in and beat him with my own u-lock. It doubly bugs me because this was right on my block and it would have been a very good opportunity to send a message about where junkies and thieves should and should not feel comfortable getting up to their shenanigans. And finally, I'm bummed that the guy got away from me. There was a time when I could have stuck with him all the way to hell and back, but I'm getting older and careful and I was aware that I only had 45 minutes left on my lunch hour. If I had followed him to an address and it turned out the bike was stolen, then I could have left a sign on the pole and the police could have tracked the dude down.

So what should I do next time? Get more aggressive and ask more questions? Pretend I know whose bike it is? Just prevent anyone trying to unlock a bike with a piece of rebar as a general rule?

Monday, December 06, 2010

Petition to improve animal welfare services in Montreal

Actually, more specifically, it is a petition to force la Berger-Blanc to improve its services. Le Berger Blanc is a private, for-profit animal shelter and euthanasia center (i.e. "the pound") that has the municipal contract for all stray animals that are found in greater Montreal. For those of you who have never looked for a lost animal, or found one and tried to deal with the system of handling lost pets or their corpses, I tell you now that it is a terrible mess.

My first experience was when I found a dead cat in the gutter right around the corner from my house. I knocked on some doors, but nobody seemed to know whose it was and it didn't have a collar. I spent hours (really, literally hours) on the phone going from service to service, trying to find what you are supposed to do. My hope was that we could find out the owner but at the very least, it had to be taken away as it was the summer. It ended up being a failure, but later that day somebody did recognize it and it was taken care of. I spoke to my vet about it and she said that usually the garbage men just pick up dead animals and they are thrown into the dump. Sentimental issues aside about respectfully treating the body, they should at least have a system to see if there is a collar or an RFID tag (which all animals taken from the SPCA get) and let the owners know the fate of their animal.

My quest did lead me to le Berger-Blanc and I learned that they are basically the pound for all of Montreal. The allegations in the petition are pretty damning and I have heard similar concerns from a past vet. But I do wish the people behind the petition would be more transparent. In any case, it looks fairly thoroughly done, correctly written in both french and english. Some of the items are totally basic and it is insane to me that they don't provide those services. For instance, the petition claims the Berger-Blanc doesn't even have an RFID scanner. It sounds like they have had this contract from the city for a long time with no real strings attached beyond "be a place we can send the animals we don't know what to do with". The result is that it the euthanasia rate is super high and lots of people don't get their pets back.

Ultimately, the problem here is with the city administration. We should be spending money on a better system of licensing and sterilization. We should also have smaller, regional shelters within public transport reach of everyone. In the meantime, putting pressure on le Berger-blanc to start to provide decent services to the public is a good start.

You can find the petition here.

(scroll down to the english details of the petition.)