The night the city sang

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The Gazette
December 22, 2007

Late on Christmas Eve
The old musician sat
On the steps of Notre Dame de Bon Secours
Snowflakes melting on his wide-brimmed hat
Not exactly sure
Why he was there
Too tired to go anywhere else.
Snowflakes sparkled on his cape
Glistened in his beard and hair
Like the halo of lights that flared
Around the Virgin’s perch
On the roof of the church.
Lonely as the old musician
The Virgin listened with him
To the sounds of uptown riot
Above the quiet harbour streets.
No tape-recorded carols, no lights,
No children hanging stockings here.
A night like all other nights.
Bonsecours Market dozed with premonitions
Of demolitions and parking lots.
Rasco’s Hotel, a warehouse now
(Turnips where Dickens slept)
Remembered how Christmas was kept
A hundred years ago:
Steaming punch in the bar
Le Royer Street a-jingle with sleighs
Those were the wonderful days
In Old Montreal.
Sensing these memories
The old musician raised his head
Filled with distant harmonies
Lifted his eyes to see beauty
In the ancient buildings
Beneath the soot of centuries
Life and a longing to welcome another Christmas.
“My children,” he croaked, “tonight is not for dying.
“In your empty rooms echoes of music sound
“Remembered carols abound in your silent halls
“Tonight let us quit
“This patate frite century
“And all of you, my children,
“Sing with me!”
Weaving to his feet, he faced the empty church
Grasped an invisible baton
Tapped the swirling snow to command attention;
The storm seemed to catch its breath
As the old musician raised his hand
To summon music.
Within the chapel, the first notes trembled,
Softly from the altar to empty loft
Until, above the chords, within the storm
Warmly joyous, the voice of the Virgin sang.
“Exquisite,” whispered the old musician
And with burning eyes, flinging back his cloak
He waved his hands with remembered grace
To draw a rich bass
From Bonsecours Market.
The Calvet House sounded a silver tone
Papineau’s old home added a tenor
With the ringing baritone
Of Rasco’s Hotel.
Grain elevators boomed in harmony
Warehouses deliriously carolled
In the steeples of Notre Dame, bells pealed
Maisonneuve reeled on his pedestal above Place d’Armes
City Hall sang with the Bank of Montreal
The old seminary joined Joe Beef’s Café
Nothing sacred, nothing tonight profane
The Rodeo shared vocal parts
With the Place des Arts
As the music spread to Craig and along the Main.
The old musician ran, conducted, and ran.
At the end of St. James he paused in the square
Noticing there a demure and silent Queen.
“Your Majesty,” he panted, “dare I ask why?
“Are we unamused or merely shy?”
Victoria blushed. He raised his hand.
A regal soprano joined the band.
He rushed frantically
Cape streaming in the wind
To Place Ville Marie
Waving his arms like a prophet
He turned the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce
To a thin trumpet piercing flying clouds
Royal Bank clashed its aluminum walls
Like cymbals
CIL House was a black cello
Mellow as Casals.
Woodwinds from the Queen E
And timpani in the Archbishop’s Palace
John A. Macdonald’s tenor panicked his pigeons.
Even Moore’s tripartite lady across the street
Formed a resonant bronze trio
And clanged con brio.
People throughout the city were aghast.
They blamed the neighbours, hammered on walls
The police received thousands of calls.
Is it some kind of stunt?
An advertising quirk?
Has Musak gone berserk?
Is it Russia or Cuba?
Good Lord – what was that?
It came from the Oratory
But it couldn’t be a tuba!
There was Little Town of Bethlehem
Hark the Herald, Deck the Halls,
McGill led the city in selections
From Handel’s Messiah
And not to be outdone – oh no!
The University of Montreal replied
With Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
In original French translation.
Amid the pandemonium
A policeman noticed a singular sight:
An old man in cape and sombrero
Flapping like a crow through Ville Marie plaza
Around the lamp standards
Through the pine plantations
Gyrations incomprehensible
And – in the eyes of the law –
“Here!” said the policeman
Collaring the musician
“Come quietly now – no violence.”
And all of a sudden –
The music ended
The snow descended
The cop and the musician wended
Their way to a call box.
As the paddy wagon sirened
Through the suddenly silent night
After the hullabaloo
Constable 07482
Glared at the old man
And before long
Much to his annoyance
Burst into song.

From The Night the City Sang by Peter Desbarats. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
Reprinted by permission.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007

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