Witness

The building stands along the rue de la commune,

A sentinel on the waterfront of Montreal.

A few tourists walk by and the silence of morn

Is broken by the clack of cobblestones under the hooves

Of a horse pulling a caleche;

But the building is mute and observes.

 

It wears the marks of its hundred and fifty years

And hearkens back to Dickensian times.

The brick no longer white but stained

With the soot and rain of life in the city.

The windows are small, clouded irises

Through which pass the events of history.

The doors of the loading docks have been long painted shut

But the wood bears the scars of wagons poorly maneuvered.

She is a silent witness.

 

The wind blows ever so gently on an autumn’s morn

And the breeze passes the cracks and crevices

Of the wood and brick.

If you listen closely, you can just make out

The echoes of yesterday.

A foreman, en français, berates the workers

For being too careless with today’s papers

As they toss them into the backs of waiting wagons;

Threatening that the cost of bundles too damaged to sell

Will be deducted from their wages, mere pennies,

A meagre mouthful for the hungry families.

 

As your eyes scan up from the street

And you pass the windows,

You can see the signs of former residents.

Amongst the jumbled letters of words over words,

Signs painted over signs, you can still make out

The once proud letters of

Le Standard: toute la monde, tout le temps

A car drives by and the rhythmic beating

Of its wheels on the bricks echoes against the building;

Reviving the forgotten sounds of a printing press

Bringing the news to thousands of Montrealers.

 

Your eye continues skyward to a large bay window

On the top floor and you are startled by a reflection.

In the early morning sun, the light glints

Off dust-laden windows

And a spectre appears behind the panes.

Old Monsieur O’Toole, proprietor and publisher,

Still stands at his window, looking out over the river,

From his office and apartment above the presses.

The throb of the machines is a lullaby for the old man;

A mother’s heartbeat in the womb

Formed by the newspaper’s walls.

He smiles as he listens to the rantings of Gilles Garnier,

The foreman of the dock, remembering him

As an eager young lad who delivered the paper

For a much younger O’Toole

When Canada and The Standard were new.

 

These windows and this paper have been witness

To the founding of a nation,

Its history both ancient and new.

The presses have described the rhetoric of politicians,

George-Etienne, Wilfred and John A.,

Arguing the desirability of a union, a confederation.

It has announced the call to arms of Canadian boys

To fight for British guns in the fields of South Africa

And told of the death of a mighty monarch, la reine Victoria.

She has counted the bodies at Vimy Ridge

And, from these windows, has cried with joy

Of the end of the “war to end all wars”,

Only to weep at the start of the next one.

She called for calm on that infamous black Tuesday in October

And was instrumental in the programs to feed and clothe

The poor in its aftermath.

 

But now the building is silent,

A victim of post-war modernization;

A derelict in a sea of decay, the city fathers calling

For yet another committee to decide its fate.

A cloud crosses the sky, disturbing the light,

And O’Toole vanishes from the window.

The breeze dies and the Frankish rantings subside.

The presses have stopped and are long gone.

History proceeds.

Fading history clings tightly to the crumbling facade on Montreal's river front.

Fading history clings tightly to the crumbling facade on Montreal’s river front.

With the passage of time, Montreal's history fades into dust.

With the passage of time, Montreal’s history fades into dust.

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