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Mission soup for the night-traveller’s soul

December, 2010

The best meal I ever had was eaten with half-frozen fingers, inside a bus shelter on one of the coldest nights of the winter.

I had missed my métro after leaving work in Old Montreal. I walked the four blocks to the night-bus stop at Beaver Hall Hill and René Lévesque only to find I’d missed that, too. It was 1:15 am and minus-32 degrees Celsius, so what could I do but keep moving? I walked to Atwater, where I could catch another night bus. My legs, especially the tops of my thighs, were numb. My cheeks felt like delicate crystal that would crack with one gust of wind. I had to concentrate on the part of me that wasn’t cold – a spot behind my knees.

When I finally made it to Atwater, it was only to discover – of course – that I’d missed the bus there, too. Waiting time: 50 minutes.

Inside the large bus shelter was a tough-looking Latino boy in his 20s and a man with a scraggly beard and the sway of a drunk, probably homeless. I had a moment’s trepidation, but I am known for fearlessness and besides, it was cold. I pulled out a cigarette and slipped inside, trying to light up. I mentioned the cold, didn’t I? Minus 32 and my legs were numb and my lighter was in deep hibernation. Damn thing wouldn’t work. Before I could even curse, the homeless guy, who was ranting to the Latino about a friend who’d been picked up on warrants, caught drinking a forty, stepped up and lit my smoke with a match.

“Lighters don’t work in the cold,” he told me. “Gotta let ’em warm up.”

A third man, also with the drunkard’s sway, joined us and asked where he could urinate without being picked up by the cops. Scraggly helped him out, watching his back while he pretended to use an outdoor phone.

“Be quick, man!” Scraggly laughed. “This cold’ll freeze yer Wally off.”

Scraggly had gotten out jail in Ottawa the day before, he said. He’d been in for eight years and told his mother he didn’t want her at the gates when he got out. Instead, he got on a bus for Montreal. At one time he’d had a chauffeur’s license and the right to drive anything he wanted. He chose a big rig, but: “I got stupid. Don’t ever get picked up in Ontario, man. They’re rough sons of something in Ottawa, Ontario.”

After a while I handed out cigarettes and joined the conversation. “She’s one of us,” frozen-Wally decided.

Scraggly snorted. “Don’t tell me that, man. I knew that soon as she came in, trying to light that cigarette. I used my match. I know she’s one of us.”

After 20 minutes, these hard-edged men had accepted me as one of their own, no questions asked, no judgments based on my appearance or my multicoloured, pompomed toque. Where else in society does one get that sort of unconditional belonging?

I was getting cold again, though. While the relative warmth of the shelter had been sheer heaven when I arrived, chatting with the three gentlemen had done nothing to circulate my blood and I was so envious when the Dans la Rue van pulled up and Scraggly left us to go sit inside.

Wally lay down to try to get some sleep and the Latino and I were left to talk about the weather – as Montrealers do. I tried sitting, but it just made my legs shake. Wally couldn’t sleep. I was handing out cigarettes like candy, just to keep us warm. My fingers ached and my voice wavered.

I might have been one of them, but the van wasn’t there for me. I watched with growing envy as Wally entered its warm confines.

He returned within three minutes, with two Styrofoam cups of hot soup, smiling as he handed one to me. We sat together on a concrete overhang and ate the best meal of my life. I was halfway through mine when Wally finished his. “Don’t be shy about that, girl,” he said. “Don’t be proud. Just eat it.”

Dans la Rue’s van criss-crosses downtown from 8 pm till the wee hours. To donate: 514-526-5222.



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