Meet at the Saint-Hubert exit of the Jean-Talon metro, just inside the doors. The
audio dérive begins there and ends at Place Hector Prud-homme, a small park at
the corner of Rue St-Hubert and Rue de Bellechasse.
say smell is the quickest route to memory. Your walk, today, is as a future perfumer.
You see in scent, which is more than just smelling. What gets activated in your
mind is not scent or something other than scent but somehow both, plus more.
been thinking, lately, about how one plus one does not always equal two. Rosa
Alcalà, the American poet, dreamt of a woman who was not her mother, but was
not not her mother. This is how you open a third space. You used to
think there were only the room of “is” and the room of “is not.” Welcome to the
room of “is not not.” This is the space of scent.
a man behind you fixing the escalator. You’re relieved to be up here. Exiting
the metro car, you noticed two cops with flashlights leaning over a fence
beside some stairs, the tall one awkwardly bent to shine his light into an
alcove you’d never noticed before. Last night was the first snowfall. In this
season, there are fewer places to sleep.
to go outside. Push hard, the doors are heavy. Rue Jean-Talon is busy, as usual.
Turn to the right and walk to the intersection. The ground is wet with melted
snow and salt that crunches underfoot. Stop at the corner. This is the
beginning of the Saint-Hubert Plaza. There’s a café on your right. This might
be a good place to stop later, to warm yourself up. We have four blocks to go.
right. Notice the ground is cement brick and granite. A grey Oz, giving off a
mineral smell. Can you smell it? The stark awning above you makes sure it’s
always clear but doesn’t necessarily protect you. Makes you feel like you’re at
an airport bus terminal, eternally waiting to go somewhere. Stay with my
footsteps. Go past the first bench on your left, past the jewellery stores and
torso-less mannequins, and stop just before the fire hydrant. On your right is
a store called Même Prix Plus. In the window are the spinning moons of the
Plaza. The perfumer says each colour has a scent. What you see is disco but
what you smell might be or lime might be the ocean. Either way, a woman in a
cheap prom dress will soon meet you on the dance floor.
turn around. Look both ways and cross the street. Not too long ago you couldn’t
do this. The street was a void, a pit with a low metal fence around it
[construction sounds]. One night, after karaoke, on the deserted Plaza, you
came across a broken hose belching into the night. But wait, this isn’t your
There’s something beautiful about
the construction at night. Water trickling into the pit, like a fresh mountain
stream, emptying into a coulee. The smell of mud and water make me feel like I am
the staircase on the right of Bain St-Denis, the furthest one? Take a seat. The
music of this city is the sound of construction, but this is not its oldest
memory or the only music. Close your eyes and imagine the space before roads
and cars, when people lived off the land. Instead of listening to the cars
slush by, you are at the base of the St. Lawrence river, sitting on a flat
stone. Maybe these are not the birds that lived here before or the way sound
would carry through the fields, but the river sounds right.
WV: The trees came down rapidly—I
didn’t even notice until one hot summer day, the Plaza looked bare, like a
desert. The old sloped awning, the “rideau de verre” from 1984 was gone. There
was dust everywhere. Pigeons were flying into the spaces where the awnings used
to touch the brick. They’d fly towards the same spots on the buildings again
and again, hovering an inch away, as if just trying again would makes their
a thrift store across from you. Today, it’s a store of occasion. The brick wall
on your left has been recently painted over with grey paint. There used to be a
sign in big block letters that read 1 year: 148 femicides in Canada. Can
you make any of it out? It was swiftly painted over.
up. Time to move on. At night, there are patterns of light across this part of
the sidewalk. It’s gaudy, but beautiful. The Plaza has a different personality after
dark. It’s the woman at the disco. The fixation of the perfumer who may name
her new fragrance “The Plaza at Night.”
left. There’s music in the distance. Listen. They’re right outside the dollar
store. If not, this is ghost music. Keep
going. Past Bar Omega. Past the clothes and socks on display. You used to
imagine what it would be like if the only streets you knew were the four blocks
of the Plaza. As in you had to life off the Plaza for a year, starting with
nothing. Imagine what you might wear. What wigs you might choose. How many
different people you could be. Construct your identity as you walk. Here’s the
intersection. Stop. You’ll cross both ways, when it’s safe. Have you arrived
kitty corner, outside the bank? If you’re facing the bank, go left, toward the
teal bricks and the bridal stores. You’re entering the stretch of queens. The
first mannequins of the nineteenth century were made to look like real people.
But pretty soon they started removing human elements: no more hair, fewer eyes
and limbs. They figured they could sell more with mannequins that were so
abstracted that more people could see themselves in them—the way a stick figure
could be practically anyone. Has been you in the past. They painted their skin in
blues and golds—and it worked. Do you notice a difference? Which mannequin, if
any, looks like you? Keep going, past the weed store. There are two men outside
it, not in line, talking. You give them a nod. One of them is putting his dog
in a winter coat.
until you get to Il Bolero—the Hyde to the Jekyll of all the wedding stores. From
the street the store looks more innocuous than it is. Inside it’s a kinky fairy
tale. Walls lined with latex and leather—a secret backroom of wolf masks.
SB: Did you know a dog has a
different sense of time than a human? It smells what just was, and so is living
in a past we no longer have access to.
JJ: I was in a room that had a
picture on the wall of another room, the office of someone who had recently
passed away. I felt that just by looking, I could enter that other room, find
more space in the room I was currently in. This is what perfume does. But the
room it opens isn’t always welcoming.
WV: Maybe in the back of one of
these bridal stores is a door that leads to the fetish shop. A hole drilled in
the iceberg from ego to id.
JJ: It is night. I am walking down
the Plaza, coming home from the Mile End. On the ground are spinning lights,
like arcade tokens inviting me to play a game. But I don’t yet know the rules.
keep going. Everywhere are hard plastic body parts. Their unreality keeps them
from being grotesque. The amputations are tidy, bloodless. Smell-less. Even the headless children don’t bother you.
See the bookstore by the parking sign? Look across the street toward the
benches. In the top floor window are several angels floating among flowers.
Guardians of the Plaza.
WV: Are you happy with who you
SB: I’m sorry I can’t hear you…
WV: Is this who you want to
be? Or who you’re allowed to be? Would you like to switch bodies?
[Gens du pays fades in and out]
JJ: Suddenly, I had
a precise memory of the formations of ice underfoot on my walk back from
Ausgang, three years ago. Pastel smoke, the colour of cotton candy, obscures
the stage. A man on a leash is being pulled through the crowd on all fours.
When the magician gets on stage, I am unable to suss out any deliberate irony
in his being there. Right before his act, I had congratulated him on the birth
of his granddaughter. He smiled. I could just make it out through the pink fog.
In English, he said, With her, there is nowhere else. Something was lost in
translation, but it made sense to me…
Keep walking. Continue down the
street, the way you were going. What do you smell? They say smell disappears as
demographics change in a neighbourhood. New builds often have an “odorless
look”like a laboratory or space station. See the dresses? There’s a blue one today.
Across the streets some shopfronts have been defaced. When you get to the abandoned
store with the gold trim that’s set back from the street, on your right, look
up. A friend said this place used to be a luxury fur store, in the sixties,
when the Plaza was one of Montreal’s biggest attractions. The pigeons sleep
here now. Look higher. Some tiles have fallen off the ceiling. The glue makes a
pattern like the inside of a far-off fruit.
Keep going. There’s construction
happening on the other side of the street. Don’t let the children and baby
mannequins frighten you…
WV: This is not your
story but the story of a version of you. On the same day, you burn your hand on
a coffee pot. You take the coffee back to bed with a book. The bed is too hot. You
spill some coffee on the white sheets. You become distractable, a felt sense of
giving up saturates your skin. The light enters the window and illuminates the
dust—motes of ‘what might have been’ fatten in the light of ‘what has
There’s someone looking at you from
the car window. Keep walking.
Get to the next street corner.
Stop. Be careful when you cross. Make your way to the other side of the street
and then cross again so you’re kitty corner. It feels like everything is set up
for a celebration. Gowns, suits, shoes covered in diamonds, jewellery. There’s
also everything to wear under a gown… silicone stick-ons to create smoothness, corsets
and spandex to hoist you up or flatten you out. Small crinoline dresses for
little girls. Larger versions of these in white next door. Across the street is
a perfume seller. You can’t stop thinking about the perfumer, telling you about
the other room, the one that scent lets her into. Is scent our access to the
fourth dimension? You can hardly smell anything here.
As you walk, the Plaza offers you
more identities. A new set of wigs on display dares you to choose. Pick one.
JJ:What colours do you smell when you look at the wigs?
WV: Red licorice,
balsam soap, my grandmother’s perfume, body spray on a boy I knew in high school.
JJ: I smell bath
beads and cigarettes. Do bath beads still exist?
As you move down the Plaza,
something goes missing. The street has gotten wider. The stores, bigger. Why
are there fewer people here? The angles of the displays’ glass walls suddenly
make you dizzy. The cars are slowing down. Time to get out. Find the tunnel on
your left. A portal to another street. Enter it quickly. Someone has painted
the desert all along this tunnel. You’re not sure why. Do you smell the dry
air? The desert becomes brighter and more formless as you move along the
tunnel. Try not to get hypnotized. Finally, you reach Rue Saint-André. You are
at the Plaza’s back door.
Go right. What images do you see? Here,
there’s a driverless bus that could come to pick you up. See the stop? Wait
there. 3…2…1…not there? Keep going. There’s construction happening on your
left. The names of the Plaza stores appear in banners along the brick, like you’re
in the Plaza’s alternate windowless universe. Suddenly an enormous pigeon
wearing an imperial crown appears on a wall to your right. Get closer. Its eye
follows you. The artist has painted the iridescent blues and purples into the
pigeon’s neck. You are always taken by how beautiful those colours are in such
a denigrated bird. Does no one else see them? Is this who the Plaza belongs to,
really? The judged?
Keep walking. Beaubien street is up
ahead. Some of the backs of the shops are covered in brilliant graffiti. There
are some apartments for rent. You try to imagine these stores from the inside
or from the front, and it’s impossible. Though one shop installed glass windows
at the back, so you can’t miss anything. Move on. Go past the two heavy
staircases that fold toward each other. This is the back of the Plaza’s
Theatre, a once-glamourous cinema from the early twentieth century. There
aren’t many in the city. Take a look at it when you walk back to the metro.
When you get to the Beaubien street, turn right. The sun is burning off some of
the water from the pavement, but not much. That mineral smell again. Go to the
street corner then cross twice, toward the bank with the clock on its face. Do
you see what time it is? Look up. It’s 2:47. This is how you know you’re in an
If you’re facing the clock, go
left, back under the awnings, to walk the final block of the Plaza. Past the
hair and nail salons, the charcuterie, the dad with his child, ready to go home.
You took a dance class once on the Plaza before you really knew it. Now you can
never remember where that studio was or if you dreamt it. Wait, this is not
your memory. See the toys and gadgets in the window on the right? Why do they
WV : Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des
miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se
passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé,
sans la notion de sa cause. Il m’avait aussitôt rendu les vicissitudes de la
vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire, de la même
façon qu’opère l’amour, en me remplissant d’une essence précieuse : ou plutôt
cette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi.
Keep going. Past the fantasy store,
the bird cages, to the hundred-year-old candy store with the sugary display. Stop
here. A lot of women’s perfumes are made to smell like candy and come with
names like Flowerbomb Nectar or Pink Sugar or Viva La Juicy. It seems that some
women hardly get the chance to part from their girlhood. The crinoline just gets
wider. Do you see that little room in your mind’s eye? What happens when you
enter the smell of caramel or vanilla, of cherry blaster or toffee? Who do you
see? Turn around. More sex shops across the street. Keep walking. A church on
your right says, “Stop Suffering.” You know it’s meant to be a promise, but it
hits you like a command. Stop suffering. When you get to the furniture store,
look across the street. Is Venus there? Carefully get to the other sidewalk to investigate.
To your surprise, beside the cobblers is a Sex Museum. Less than two months ago
this space was for rent. The museum makes an earnest collector’s attempt and
offers works from twelve countries: pictures and nude sculptures, erotic
objects, aphrodisiac tinctures, a 5000$ wolf mask… suddenly you feel like
you’re in the Paris Arcades. But quétaine.
Look to the left. Cursive on the
cobblers’ window reads: Nothing is lost.
Keep walking. The shops on this end
of the Plaza seem more upscale. A little parking lot will come up on your left.
Be careful when you pass it. Have you noticed people look at you? Wondering whose
voice is in your head?
WV: “‘Street,’ to be
understood, must be profiled against the older term, ‘way.’ With respect to
their mythological natures, the two words are entirely distinct. The way brings
with it the terrors of wandering, some reverberation of which must have struck
the leaders of nomadic tribes. In the incalculable turnings and resolutions of
the way, there is even today, for the solitary wanderer, a detectable trace of
the power of ancient directives over wandering hordes. But the person who
travels a street, it would seem, has no need of any waywise guiding hand. It is
not in wandering that man takes to the street, but rather in submitting to the
monotonous, fascinating, constantly unrolling band of asphalt.”
JJ: I found a
(soma)tic exercise in The Arcades Project that Walter Benjamin had copied out
from Dumas’s The Mohicans of Paris. The exercise was to cast a piece of paper
to the wind and follow it to the subject for a novel.So I did. That day, I returned home with a small object that resisted
narration. A light. A spinning light, rather. Like half a disco ball on a
little black stand. It hurled green, red and blue geometry across the walls of
my small apartment in a slow circling motion until I pushed its only button and
the light returned inside. The whole universe was about the size of a
At the end of the Plaza is a little
park. Cross over to it. There’s a sculpture in the middle, the mast of a boat
perhaps. No, this is the Plaza’s ultimate gown and symbol. The little red
triangle on top is the tiniest bodice possible for such a heavy dress. The
skirt is incomplete. Its story full of holes. Turn around. Across the street is
a mural of a woman playing a banjo. Is this your other version? Perhaps not. The
bus pulls up. Time to go back now.
[“St-Hubert Plaza” par Les Froeurs starts
I recently listened to a podcast (“Sparkbirds,” This American Life) in
which a birder complains about Hollywood using “generic” bird sounds in their
films which often include birds that would never be in the region they are
filming. Being an amateur birder at best, I wanted to admit my ignorance, but also,
I am proud of having a recording of the Saint-Laurent River.
El-Khoury, “Polish and Deodorize,” 18.
 Proust, Du côté de chez Swann, 140.
Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 519.
“Noteworthy connection between flânerie and the detective novel at the
beginning of Les Mohicans de Paris: ‘At the outset Salvator says to the
poet Jean Robert, ‘You want to write a novel? Take Lesage, Walter Scott and
Cooper….’ Then, with characters like those of the Thousand and One Nights,they cast a piece of paper to the winds and follow it, convinced it will lead
them to a subject for a novel.’” Régis Messac quoted in Benjamin, The
Arcades Project, 441.
S O U R C E S
Walter, and Rolf Tiedemann. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass.:
Belknap Press, 1999.
Rodolphe, “Polish and Deodorize: Paving the City in Late Eighteenth Century
France.” In The Smell Culture Reader. Edited by Jim Drobnick. Sensory
Formations. Oxford: Berg, 2006.
Froeurs, “Plaza St-Hubert.” Track 1 on
Deux Froeurs le Matin. Released on Bandcamp, March 2010. Used
Proust, Marcel. Du côté de chez Swann. Paris : GF Flammarion, 1987.
C R E D I T S
The two other voices in the audio
walk were Jessie Jones (the perfumer) and William Vallières. We recorded on
December 17, 2021. The three of us are singing “Gens du Pays” at a certain
point in the walk. (Somewhat clumsily) sound-engineered by myself with the
invaluable assistance of Jordan Robson-Cramer. The ambient music is by Jordan
Robson-Cramer. All recording was done on a Zoom H4N Pro.