Oh, the Red Light District, once a shimmering neighbourhood brimming with erotic good times and endless nights of pant-offs and rub-outs. Or so I was told by city historians and the like, because I have mainly known it as a decrepit, yet lively little part of town populated by junkies, prostitutes and whatever crawls into the Peace Park late at night.
Things have changed since Quartier des Spectacles took over, in the name of legitimizing Montreal’s love of culture and music. Supposedly, “culture” needed an official home, with giant light fixtures, swing installations, expensive pop-up SAQ bistros and over-crowded free concerts. Many of the so-called Red Light District’s fixtures were directly or indirectly tossed aside as a result to make way for sleek buildings and lifeless architecture enjoyed by people with “real jobs” and the type of responsible social activity that entails.
One of these beloved fixtures was the Bar Salon Midway, a lovable crusty remnant of the city’s heaving underbelly, a complete divey shitehole decorated in the style of most divey shiteholes, with glowing VLTs at the back, an empty DJ booth and neon signs spelling out “Bar,” promising “Spectacles” that never happened and urging you to just “Enjoy yourself!”. The bartender was middle-aged and belly-heavy, quietly and rudely serving you ice-cold glasses of terrible beer for a handful of dollars. The patrons were scarce and usually alone, an eccentric cast of characters rolling in and out, from the local prostitutes looking to warm up to the lonely old men hoping to be the ones to do so. Other shady characters would come in through the night, stay long enough for a brief exchange with the bartender before walking back out, suggesting some kind of illicit side-trade that possibly explained the low cost of beverages. The archaic jukebox was always stocked with almost-timely hits of the moment, just in case you felt like performing an adult contemporary dance number to Adele’s Someone Like You in the middle of the place.
We, “the youth,” or so we were considered at the time, would saunter in twice or thrice a year, to sit in a corner and proclaim that “this, THIS was Montreal.” It was seedy, ill maintained, you could get drunk for $20, and it had LOADS of personality. “Thanks for bringing me here,” your friend from out of town would say, as if he had just had an authentic taste, the taste of a perpetually clogged toilet and an over-flowing ashtray. “This is my favourite bar in Montreal,” another would state, because even if it had been there for years, it somehow felt a little bit secret, like a hidden lair in downtown Montreal where you could enjoy a quiet beer with the guarantee that no one in a V-neck with a terrible personality would ruin your night. There are countless other empty dive bars in the city where old men who’ve given up congregate to commiserate or sit together quietly, all life goals substituted by the main objective of making it to the bar at the same time every day. Bar Salon Midway had that indefinable quality that made it stand out from the bad, perhaps it was simply its location, or the fact that it had loads of character, as one would describe a shitty place approved by hipsters.
Today, in its place, stands Taverne Midway – its name a throwback to the bar’s supposed glamour days. The entire interior has been gutted, polished over with shiny, varnished wood and vintage-inspired décor to hide its many cracks and holes. It’s usually packed with clean guys and gals standing around in huge groups of friends, laughing at each other’s jokes and sipping on expensive cocktails. During its first weeks, a doorman stood guard outside, supposedly to block access to any of the former bar’s riffraff. “The bar had seen better days,” said the new owners about its past incarnation when interviewed in articles about the “rejuvenation” of Montreal, or in blog posts listing the city’s best bars to bring your Tinder date. One might assume that its new clientele’s definition of a “better day” would simply refer to one of those wild nights where you order a 3rd cocktail and make it home a bit late on a week day.
I tried having a drink there once, only because I was lost in the Bermuda Triangle of nightlife near the Metropolis and my mood wasn’t punk enough for a $3 Budweiser at Foufounes Electriques. I sat at the bar in my shabby coat, desperately trying to get the stick-thin mustachioed bartender’s attention. He looked to the left and right of me, above and beyond, past my messy hair to the shiny-faced youth with disposable income and great enthusiasm for this spiffy new hot-spot they just discovered and would soon Instagram with the hashtag MtlMoments. I gave up and left, thinking I’d probably also seen better days.
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