“Can I count on you to do some painting on Wednesday at the Bistro Le Ste-Cath?”
By Colin McGregor
That’s an approximate translation of the brief courriel that I received from The Social Eyes and Reflet de Société publisher Raymond Viger on May 31st. Our Premier had just announced a reopening of terraces in front of restaurants, and I was being asked to help paint some walls inside the restaurant.
Raymond was putting together a “corvée,” which means “work gang” in the context. The Oxford Dictionary says that corvée means: Forced labour exacted in lieu of taxes, in particular that on public roads in France before 1776.
“D’accord” I e-mailed back.
I was assigned to paint walls.
As a Café Graffiti/Reflet de Société/The Social Eyes journalist, I am part of a larger organization. I am happy to help out anywhere I can. And eternally grateful for this opportunity to help, after 29 years behind bars. Being cut off from even helping out is frustrating.
In order to fund the Café Graffiti’s mission of aiding youths in distress, in 2014 Raymond and Danielle Simard, the co-creator of the organization, decided to create the Bistro Le Ste-Cath. It’s a family restaurant on Ste. Catherine Street in the heart of anything-but-boring Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.
There, they serve healthy food to the area’s residents, as well as to tourists. It also has become a venue for poetry forums, concerts from some of Québec’s best musical talent, and community meetings of all descriptions – though since the pandemic first struck, those meetings have been largely virtual ones. The place funnels all sorts of benefits to the community. And there is art throughout the place.
The inside is cozy and – this next one is bad for wall painters – high-ceilinged.
There is a small stage area, s ahowcase unique to the quartier. There is also a small bar (which my parole conditions say I am not allowed to approach, so I didn’t), tables, plexiglass dividers between tables to account for the new realities of our age, and a terrasse.
The two walls I had to paint were conveniently located as far away from the bar as they possibly could be.
That morning, I showed up in jeans, work boots and a battered gray sweatshirt, all garb from my prison days. One of our work details was, again before the pandemic, in Laval, cleaning up beaches and uprooting invasive species in parks. I basically wore what I used to when bombing around Laval, supervised of course, with other inmates, doing public works.
Several other Café Graffiti habitués were present to help out around the Bistro. There was a lot to do. As for my task, two red walls had to become white by the end of the day. I got to work.
“Now you’re a real artist,” Raymond joked to me as I struggled on my stepladder to lay down undercoating.
There is no feeling more gratifying than being able to contribute to society like any other citizen. But there what I felt while painting walls was a tiny bit painful. I am desperately out of shape. And as a wall painter, I’d make a good writer. My manual skills have always been on the low end of the scale.
But I gave it my dogged all, working alongside other local volunteers, restaurant employees and journalists, balancing on a stepladder to get the trimming done before coming in with the heavy machinery – the rollers.
I did not reflect on all the great Quebec music talent and all the wonderful poets that had passed through the place. No, I thought about how much my back hurt; covering up the holes I left in the undercoating; how much I hate heights…
Luckily for me there were sharp-eyed critics on hand to let me know where, as a wall painter, I could improve upon the coats I laid down.
So many good community charitable works flow out of the Bistro Le Ste-Cath that it seems the least I could do. If you pop by the Bistro after “le déconfinement” starts, just look at the two white walls on your right as you enter the bistro and, if you see a bead of sweat clinging to a wall, know that it just might have been mine. If that’s the price to pay to feel part of a worthwhile enterprise after three decades of being quarantined from society, no problem, I’ll pay it.
Besides, I sorely needed the exercise.