Last week I was cycling down Sherbrooke Street, dutifully wearing the never cute but always lifesaving bike helmet, when I passed a group of dapper young men in their late twenties or early thirties. They were wearing suits and standing in front of a church--presumably there had been a wedding. I found myself lingering, watching: there was something undeniably sexy about this Moores ad come to life. Why was a shirt and tie (and a well-fitted suit, mind you) suddenly such a turn-on? I used to like boys in hooded sweatshirts. I checked myself as I sat on my bike with my clipped-up pant cuffs, a young lady of twentysomething, gallivanting around town in a sailor-boy black and white striped shirt (with boat neck). I knew myself to be fanciful and free, a happy girl, a single girl, a girl who likes the idea of shopping around. But then these men in black caught my attention. Was I having a matrimonial urge? Luckily, no; it was just that the put-together look suggested something. Something I liked.
Everyone knows that Montreal is a different kind of place. It’s not just the bring-your- own-wine restaurants and the European flair for fashion. It’s that here we have a wholly different code of living. The question “So what do you do?” is rarely asked. People don’t define themselves by their work, because what they do isn’t what they do for money. Montrealers paint and sing in rock bands, they write novels with cigarettes dangling from their lips. They make telemarketing calls or work in the kitchen at Pistol to pay the rent, which is low anyway and controlled by the Régie du Logement. Montreal is teeming with cool, interesting people--people with more joie de vivre than you can shake a stick at. They just don’t have that look of angst, the one that screams, “I’m in the rat race and I can’t get out.” It’s more rat pack than rat race.
This is a wonderful way to live, if--here comes the disclaimer--you make things happen. My girlfriends are making things happen. The women I know are disproportionately successful for their age (all in their mid-twenties). Case in point #1 is a chocolatier who has set up shop on St. Denis. Case in point #2 works in a hip loft designing knitwear for Rugby North America and just bought an apartment in the Plateau. Case in point #3 so impressed her boss that he gave her a $1,000 clothing allowance, with which she bought a stunning pinstriped suit to wear on her recent business trip to Vancouver. Or take my friend Phillipa, who started her own freelance catering company and hand-delivers her goods to clients around town. Not only does she have business savvy, but she is also known to be one of the best-dressed girls in Montreal. In her new robin’s-egg-blue fitted raincoat, she could rival Audrey Hepburn.
So these are the young women I know. And then there are the men we date.
Being an anglo in Montreal means the dating pool is pretty shallow. Though they can easily date a French man, many English girls end up with an anglo boyfriend because they want someone who gets their jokes. The problem is, a lot of the English-speaking boys in Montreal are chronically unemployed drifters. Bohos, in other words. The boho boy wears his hair a little long; he has a retro record player at home. He owns and rides (sans helmet) an antique-looking bicycle.
Take Phillipa. Her boyfriend is a lovely, charming man of thirty-two. When her parents asked what he does, it took Phillipa over five minutes to explain. He promotes events at clubs. He hands out flyers so that cool people will come to the party. When they arrive, he gives said cool people shots of vodka. He shakes hands and laughs at people’s jokes. He gets by doing this twice a week. Phillipa’s mum still thinks he is some kind of DJ.
The tenets of the boho boy are pretty simple. He will wear a shirt and tie, but only as an ironic fashion statement--never to work, only to play. And he never really has to work. These boys are not career-minded. They saw what their fathers did and decided it’s not for them. Who wants to work at an insurance company for thirty years? And they don’t have to--because they live in Montreal, where the rent is cheap and cute successful girls date them anyway.
Last weekend my younger brother and his girlfriend, Pam, came for a visit. He arrived with a whooping kitty of seventeen dollars in his account, and so relied on the Bank of Pam while he was here. What in the hell is going on? Are women playing the role of breadwinner? Do we want to? Yeah, so we all throw our hands up when Beyoncé cries, “All the honeys making money.” Making money is great. But there is also the dream of going Dutch. Or even the dream of a guy who makes enough money to take you out to dinner every now and again. There is even the hope that when you get pregnant you won’t have to work with swollen ankles and a chip on your shoulder because your boyfriend can’t hold onto a job.
In the end, it is not about the money (maybe a bit, but not really). I would take a great guy who carries tangerines in his pockets and makes me laugh over a swaggering suit any day. But that suit still looks great. Not because it suggests money, but because it shows some productivity. It says, I woke up and did something today. It says, I am willing to work so I can enjoy nice things (with you). Plus, it is great to see a handsome man loosening his tie on his way home from work. There is a sense of directionless dread, a tint of sadness, in people who wake up and don’t know what to do with themselves. Even if they leave the house wearing really cute shoes.