I often say that going for a run clears the mind. As if my cramped attic room gets cluttered with furniture and inessentials between runs, and an hour on the road helps to blow it all into a pile in the corner.
A “lower-body injury” and the flu have prevented me from running much over the past several weeks, generating more-than-usual clutter. But I did manage a therapeutic run the other day, under a brilliant sun and over fresh snow.
All better now. And the run helped me focus on the 1969 NFB documentary, The 80 Goes to Sparta, which I saw some years ago and that friends have been telling me to revisit. (The other one to revisit is last year’s Return to Park Ex, by Tony Asimakopoulos. Perhaps in another post…)
The 80 is my agora
For me, the 80 was always something of a village on wheels. When I lived in Park Ex, I would often hop on the southbound 80 on Saturday mornings, a fat weekend Gazette under my arm, and grab the last two-seater on the right-hand side. This gave me a chance to catch up on the news, eavesdrop on people getting on and off, and enjoy the familiar sights of Jean Talon, Park Avenue, Mount Royal and Bleury. There was nothing more comforting.
By the time we got to the end of the line, at Place d’Armes, the 80 was nearly empty. I’d exit through the rear door and immediately line up to get back on. My seat was still warm when I sat down again and unfolded the paper. The driver would then head north, to the other end of the line, at Crémazie Boulevard. A third ticket (student tickets were cheaper then) got me home, by which time I’d pretty much read the entire paper.
I knew this was an odd thing to do. Now that I’m older I realize it was a very odd thing to do.
The rich don’t ride the 80
A friend came for breakfast last Sunday, and we talked about the documentary and the memories it evokes. For her, it’s personal: she recognized her mother, family members and friends, and had a chance to revisit the now vanished world she grew up in.
The 80 Goes to Sparta opens with a close-up of classical busts. As the camera pulls back, the carvings are revealed to be mass-produced souvenirs on a store shelf — the Hellenic clutter familiar in every Greek home.
We like our myths served up warm and without irony. The irony here is unmistakable and easy — the disparity between gauzy national myths and hard reality — but also un-enlightening. It doesn’t address the main irony of the film, which is about the sharp divide between the haves and have-nots, and the very human impulse to create myth.
(Inadvertently, the documentary is also revealing about women, who are barely acknowledged as thinking, speaking beings. But that’s a subject for another time.)
In the documentary, the Greeks who arrived pre-War are dismissive of more recent arrivals: the newcomers have high expectations; they are ungrateful; they don’t understand that things are different here.
Montreal’s own shipping magnate, Phrixos Papachristidis, comes off poorly on camera and he hardly knows it. He’s too busy tending his personal myth to notice: compared to today’s immigrants, he started off with less money, worked harder, received no charity, endured more hardship.
But look at me now, he seems to say beyond the grave, in my chauffeur-driven limousine and Westmount mansion. Let that be a lesson to you.
My parents were part of the wave of economic migrants shown trudging across Fletcher’s Field in the dead of winter, to save a bus ticket on the 80. They began to arrive in the mid-Fifties and their numbers surged sometime in the early Sixties.
Family legend has it that my father began a dishwashing job the morning after arriving by train from Halifax’s Pier 21. In those pre-PETA days, his next job was tending research animals in the basement of the Royal Victoria Hospital (I dimly recall a galvanized iron tub full of squirming white rats).
Backbreaking work and punishing hours went on for decades, in various jobs, for the Greek women and men who made the crossing (with women, for the most part, working that much harder). But there’s nothing unique or noble about the Greek immigrant experience. Montreal’s Chinese and Portuguese, Italians and Ukranians and Poles — they all endured something similar.
Years later, I listened in as old men of my father’s generation gathered at Tim Horton’s on Jean Talon to grumble about “government handouts” to Park Ex immigrants — the Sri Lankans and Pakistanis and Africans who had replaced them.
When our generation arrived forty years ago, one of them said, knuckles rapping on the table to make his point, we didn’t have welfare and medicare and soup kitchens. Now, everything is served to these newcomers on a silver platter.
We’re still suckers for myth, and tone deaf to irony.