Big Guy is staring down the needle checkin out the in-progress tattoo. A heart, in black and grey, with two miners tools crossed like bones within. Big Guy’s got little grey denim shorts rolled up and his mock-Jack Daniels tee on, with skater sneakers. He’s tan, tall, and inked up. Short hair, booming voice; the kinda guy who pokes around any chance he gets. But staring down the needle he’s silent. I can tell he likes whats going down. I decide to start with him.

“It’s my grandfathers coal miner tattoo.”

“What kind of?”

“Coal miner. From Hungary.”

“Hungarian, eh?” He sits down behind me on a physician’s table, the parlour girl fingering his thigh with a small patch of trace paper. He’s already got a tattoo of tools, but these are lumbermans tools. Probably why he digs mine.

“Yeah. My family is from Budapest. Grandpa mined in the fifties there, and stick-n-poked this tattoo on about fifteen others, including himself.”


“Then the Russians came.”

“Did he run?”

“Yeah, he ran.”



The Mile End area of Montreal is not dissimilar from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We are staying above Mile End, in Mile-Ex, a little Italy mashed up against an industrial area, slowly being torn down and renovated. It’s a known story to anyone living in New York: old businesses closing, construction teams carving out new loft spaces from former factory wastelands. Our lodging here isn’t a hotel. We are staying on the top floor of a storage unit facility. Our host has redecorated a loft space into a warm, rug-strewn unit with Reggae and outdoor imagery. In fact, at this moment I am listening to Robert Plant croon The Crunge through vinyl. It’s nice.


And in a way, Mile End — the proper neighborhood we travel to daily — is an expanded version of this loft. There is a distinct warmth to this area of Montreal: a wooden, edison bulbed, painted glass wonderland. Go into a restaurant, a cafe, and you’ll see the youth graciously slinging coffees, eager to engage, under the nostalgic eaves of old jazz, funk, rockabilly, and soul music. Any place willing to blast hip-hop somehow flags themselves as the wannabes, wishing they were somewhere else. Like Brooklyn, perhaps.


There’s even a place on St. Viateur called Cafe Brooklyn. We went in yesterday. I ordered toast with Labne and Fig jam. Kate ordered an Americano with her banana. There was not a thing Brooklyn about it, but the food was fresh and pleasant. Strewn with mid-century furniture, lovely teak tables and desks, and all the locals walking by it and bee-lining for the outside benches and tables. I don’t blame them either. It was 70 degrees and absolutely crystal clear. Think country skies gleaming pure blue above Brooklyn. You can’t, can you? This might be first thing to imagine when you think of Montreal.





Big Guy, with the girl placing and replacing the little flower tattoo on his thigh, presses on.

“Hungarians are some — I know a guy, I dated a girl from — they are some hard core people.”

“Yes, indeed they are.”

“I knew a Hungarian guy. His name was Gypsy.”


“He like to eat spiders. Anywhere you see him he is walking and he just grabs the spider and puts it right in his mouth.”

He makes the motion of plucking a spider from a tree and eating it.

“Well he liked to ride. And so one time he was on the bike and suddenly he became, eh — paralyze — right here…”

And he sweeps his hands along his chest.

“…all here he was a paralyzed. And so he could no more control the fuckin’ bike because of all the spider venom in his body. So he went and crashed in a — he crash right into the, yah…”

He never said what, exactly he crashed into.

“And so he goes to the hospital and he has the blood inside, the chemmor-hage and the internal blood. Well. Fucking Gypsy. Two days later he walks out of the hospital and the doctors don’t know what happened.”

Everyone in the parlour is fixed on him now.

“And this one time Gypsy wanted to kick you know, alcohol and the drugs. So he took his dog and went into the woods and he chained them both there in the middle of the woods you know, for three months. He had to eat his dog you know… to survive.”

“He died a few years back. And that was Gypsy. He was not insane you know, but he was always in his own world.”

My tattoo guy, Vinny, finally looks up.

“That is the definition of insanity right there my friend!”

Big Guy laughs, loud and endearing, a giant.

“Hungarians. They so hard core.”



The street art, the food, the aesthetics, and the people of the Mile End all are very friendly. People will make time to talk to you, which is much different than the speed and voracity of Brooklyn, where you are serviced like a hole punch through a time card. The effort here is honest and engaging, but without the toothed desire that drives the peoples of New York. It’s a different pace of life up here, one I found myself desiring after a year away. It’s slow, careful, but deeply satisfying. And it’s cooler. Seventy degrees during the day ain’t half bad, the air whipping through you as you ride a bike down St. Laurent is really something.

We spent most of our time eating and drinking, chatting with local bartenders and restaurant owners over the nerdy approach to food and drink. There is a movement of food up here that emphasizes the slow, simple, and textural cooking of the young and passioned eater. The kitchens in places like Manitoba’s or Au Pied De Cochon are open, utterly transparent, and energized with a youth culture bent on injecting their pure love of flavor, and often playful ingredients, to the plate.


Poutine with Fried Fish and Ink.

It has been a real pleasure to indulge my senses at this pace. After all, when I spend all my time in New York unable to stop and smell the roses, it can a week in another country to find my internal clock again. One of the hilights has been the MAC — the contemporary art museum — which featured a retrospective of David Altmejd’s beautiful metamorphoses. His work has a coldness to it, a deconstructed dip into the pond of the infinite. Here are some of his grotesque, dreamlike sculptures.





And here is my tattoo, fresh and swollen.


I will leave a little piece of my heart here when I return on Saturday to New York. Back to work, back to the city, back to Magic. I’m looking forward to seeing what clarity my little break has provided me. Or, with all the alcohol consumption, what setbacks!

I’d recommend this place to anyone looking for the unfamiliar details within a familiar context. This place echoes so many things about America, and is at once yet so French. It’s the mirror world, as Gibson said, and it’s a soft and disarmingly friendly place where everyone loves where you are from and wants to tell you where they’ve been nearby your home. They’ll watch you smile, and share that warmth with you, as you both are away from there, remembering.

Derek Gallen lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. 

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