“I’ve been coming here since the beginning,” he said conspiratorially, leaning towards me from the stool next to mine.
I had noticed the white haired gentleman earlier, as he was shouldering his way through the Sunday brunch crowd at Beauty’s Luncheonette. He took a seat on the chrome-and-blue pleather stool next to me. As he carefully placed his folded Montreal Gazette on the formica countertop, he caught the server’s eye. “Hi hon!” she sang out as she filled his coffee cup.
He didn’t even have to place his order. In a matter of minutes, “the usual” was set in front of him. Side of home fries, black coffee, and a Beauty’s Russian Black Special. Most people who come to Beauty’s get the Beauty’s Special – smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomato, and onion on the infamous Montreal sesame bagel. But The Regular clearly prefers the Special on on a Russian rye bread so black that it looks like it is made of dark chocolate.
“You’ve been coming here since 1942?” I asked.
“Sure, I went to high school just down the street. I used to buy my school supplies here back when it was a stationary shop. There was always a poker game going on back in the back room.”
He pointed towards an open door behind the kitchen to a small room where they now store the mops and brooms and cleaning supplies. (You can see it in the background of the photo above.)
“They won’t tell you THAT in the history.”
He gestured vaguely towards the blue and white menu, which contains a detailed history of Beauty’s. How newlyweds Hymie and Freda Sckolnick bought the shop on the corner of Mont Royal and St. Urbain and started serving lunch to the garment workers from the factories in the neighborhood. The name “Beauty” came from Hymie’s bowling nickname. It grew so popular that the workers started bringing their families on the weekend. “And the Montreal brunch was born,” to quote the menu. Indeed, there was no mention of the poker game in the back room.
“I’m in my 80s,” he confided, “so Hymie must be into his 90s. You met him when you came in, right?”
I had indeed met Hymie. He was guarding the door when we arrived – literally standing in the inner doorway and quizzing the groups of Montreal hipsters queued up outside. Since we only had two in our party, we scored an immediate seating at the lunch counter. “I like American money,” Hymie told me as he resettled, ever vigilant, on his perch by the door.
“Hymie opened up this morning,” The Regular told me. “That’s the son, Larry.” He waved dismissively at a white-haired man with black frame glasses who was dashing about with a pot of coffee. “He just showed up now.”
We talked for a few minutes. He told me how he grew up to be a lawyer and a politician. He represented the neighborhood for a number of years before returning to private practice. He lives downtown now, but he made it very clear that he is not retired.
“What’s your practice area?” I asked. Corporate, I thought.
“Immigration,” he said. “There’s always work and it’s interesting.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m a human rights lawyer at a non-profit, but I started out practicing asylum law. We always look to Canada as the better asylum system. Even now in the debate about immigration reform, we are using Canada as the example of why we should provide counsel for indigent asylum seekers.”
“Well,” he replied, “It was a hell of a lot better before the Conservatives took over. Now I’m not sure we’re a model for anyone anymore.”
As he paid his bill and gathered up his car keys and his black leather gloves, he asked, “What are you going to do today?”
“We’re thinking of going up to the top of Mont-Royal.”
“Mount Royal? How are you going to get there? Do you have a car?”
“No, we’re planning to bike,” I said.
He looked at me for a few seconds, as if assessing whether I was truly insane. Then he moved on.
“Well, you’re going to want to go to Schwartz’s Deli, so here’s a tip. Don’t bother with the line. Go across the street to Main Deli. It’s just as good, but without the wait. We call it “smoked meat” here. There’s no such thing as “pastrami” here in Canada,” he said emphatically.
“Thanks for the tip,” I said. As a vegetarian, my interest in cured meat – whatever you call it – is minimal.
It struck me later that, based on the facts that he dropped, I could easily pin a name and full bio on this guy. It would just take a couple of quick internet searches. But I have not chosen to do that.
As he said good-bye, I felt I had been privileged with a small glimpse into not just a life, but also into a unique time and place and people in this city’s history. I saw in a flash the habits of a lifetime, traces of a distinctive community. The institution of Beauty’s Luncheonette will certainly continue, but someday in the relatively near future it will be without Hymie and the others who were there from the beginning. On this, my first visit to Montreal, The Regular had given me a rare, small gift.
He put on his long, black wool coat and headed for the door, threading his way through throngs of young people – young people of all races and backgrounds, chatting energetically and switching effortlessly between French and English. In the midst of this microcosm of contemporary Montreal, The Regular turned back, eyes twinkling, and winked at me.
“My wife is in Florida. Don’t tell her I was here.”