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 Democratic Magic Democratic Magic

Democratic Magic

Convivium Publisher Peter Stockland visits a municipal election campaign in Montreal to discover small moments of magic in the cards.

Peter Stockland
6 minute read

I slipped his card into my pocket, imagining I’d done so with magically nimble fingers, fitting since it belonged to Mario le Magicien, star of children’s birthday parties in this long ago deindustrialized commuter arrondisement of Montreal.

Mario didn’t exactly hand me the card. As far I could tell, he wasn’t even present, though that’s obviously never a sure thing with magicians. But I didn’t exactly steal it, either. It was one of dozens pinned to a corkboard across from the cash register in a neighborhood casse croute where steady streams of fries and hamburgers were being served on a beautiful September’s end Saturday.

It seemed somehow apropos to pluck Mario’s card off the board and make it disappear when everyone else was distracted. I tucked it away, awaiting a timely reveal.

Not that I planned to perform feats of legerdemain. My wife had pulled me out of the crowd – well, away from my laptop on the front porch, to be truthful  – to attend a municipal political gathering hosted by candidates she supports.

Montrealers are in the thick of what must be the most byzantine electoral process on the planet. We seem required to vote for a multiplicity of mayors with one ballot, and to elect more councilors than there were hands to shake when Ville Marie was born 375 years ago. Nothing ever happens in Montreal without a healthy dose of zany. The pace of peculiar is picking up with voting day a month away.

Oddities into the bargain, municipal politics has a quality that fits perfectly with enjoying crispy fries and all-dressed burgers in a casse croute crowded with Saturday afternoon locals. Because municipalities are the level of organization closest to citizens, they feel naturally and safely secluded from the great world of mass murders, terrorism, daily catastrophe, Donald Trump.

Of course, it’s an illusion. If all history is local, how localized must all suffering be? Still, just as we know all magic’s a trick, there’s a joyful comfort in being politically fooled again.

Squeezing us between people bearing trays of food, my wife drew me to a spot where I was told to stand and have my hand shaken enthusiastically. I noted a sign on the serving counter that warned in French: "Watch out for wasps. Check your cup."

Mario le Magicien’s card suddenly felt like a talisman, though other-worldly protection proved unnecessary. The candidates were all salt of the earth people, rooted good citizens, eager and willing to serve. They were running on a platform of change, though most would probably jump at the chance to make the arrondissement what it was before every factory died in the 1970s and ’80s. Change is the fundamental promise of elections and magician’s tricks. Paradoxically, both prestidigitation and politics must offer reassurance of safely restoring things to what they’ve always been. 

A candidate approached. She supplemented her handshake with the quintessential Quebec two-cheek kiss that, for me anyway, always feels like my cat is head butting me to get out of bed and serve him breakfast. She and my wife fell into detailed talk about the intricacies of the local politics. I drifted into an awareness of how abundant the room was with the transcendent presence of Mario le Magicien.

Mario was clearly miles ahead in the business card count on the corkboard across from the cash register. But there were also sizeable posters of him on pillars supporting the low ceiling. They billed him as an expert in “micro magic” in addition to the culturally larger arts of mind reading and prophecy.

I wondered if he might suddenly materialize in the casse croute to buy fries or a hamburger and pop, then casually enchant the audience with a knowing forecast on how the election would turn out. If he did show up, I wondered, how he would arrive? I ruled out puffs of smoke.

In the photos on his cards and posters, Mario spurned the classic billowing black cape or deliberately ridiculous oversized top hat. The absence of both seemed strategically savvy for a “micro magician” whose act was more likely to be a crescendo of small amazements. What would grand, wand-waving gestures make a “micro magician” appear other than grasping and self-serving?

Instead of the usual magical accoutrements, Mario held a gold fish bowl containing a gold fish staring out at the world from the mid-point of the magician’s chest. The gold fish looked quite puzzled about being in the picture. It seemed uncertain how it might fit in with micro magic tricks suited to the Saturday afternoon birthday party demographic. If selected, would it serve? Or would it be served?

The candidate, finishing her conversation with my wife, caught my attention, and sought my support.

 “We need your help,” she told me. “We need everyone’s help. Spread the word."

“I will,” I said. 

One of her co-candidates passed by. He’d held office a few years ago, was voted out in the last election, and now sought re-election with a promise of bringing much needed change.

“Be there for us,” he said.

“I’m there,” I said.

“That’s good,” he said. “We need your help."

The candidates spoke to me in English, although I addressed them in French. Maybe they spoke to me in English because I spoke to them in French. There are more mysteries surrounding language in Quebec than even Mario le Magicien could unravel with all his prophetic powers.

Someone from the local paper wanted to interview the male co-candidate, which for some reason required everyone to go outside. A man took pictures of the candidate being interviewed. Then he took a few pictures of the female candidate who wasn’t being interviewed. 

A man eating a hamburger looked out the window at the candidates who had been inside minutes before, but were now standing outside in the courtyard. He had propped up the Journal de Montreal, opened to its 32-page special on the start of the Canadiens upcoming NHL season. The candidates milling around, coming in and out, being interviewed or not being interviewed, had distracted him. I sensed he was trying hard to avoid looking like Mario le Magicien’s goldfish.

He watched out the window as the candidates shook people’s hands and handed them campaign literature. He seemed to recognize what was going on, shook salt onto his fries, and lowered his head to resume reading about the Canadiens’ coming campaign.

Given the team’s dismal finish last year, and subsequent shakeups that seem of dubious wisdom at best, almost everyone agrees the Habs won’t get close to a Stanley Cup this season. There is always hope for the only kind of miracle it’s permissible to pray for in modern Quebec. Realistically, the whole organization must change, consensus has it, if there’s any chance of getting back the glory days of the 1970s.

A casse croute employee, who looked as if she’d been up all night soothing a colicky grandchild, came by with a cleaning rag to swipe at the tabletops. Someone had left the remains of an all-dressed burger and fries in a wrapper on a gray tray. She carried the works to the trashcan in the corner. A sign warned against throwing trays into the garbage.

“Ne jetez pas les cabarets à la poubelle,” the sign said. The meaning was clear, though the need was not. Who throws away the tray with the remains of their food and wrappers? Who throws away the cabaret?

In English, the cabaret is the place where you go to be served, sung to, shown a dance, or treated to some other promise of entertainment magic. In Quebec, the cabaret is also the tray used by a hard working server to bring your order.

Whenever I see the word “cabaret” written out in French, the jolly lyrics of “life is a cabaret” come into my head. But those are the words in my head. It’s not prudent to assume they’re the words in the heads of others.

The table-wiping woman with the up-too-late face wore a black golf shirt that was ruffed out of her black pants so a roll of white hip was visible. I wondered how she ended up working in a casse croute; whether she was getting enough hours to make it worthwhile. She did not seem particularly happy about people leaving partially uneaten hamburgers and fries on the tables. Then again, she did not seem particularly happy, despite being surrounded by this micro moment of democratic magic. What was all this election talk, the circles of her cleaning cloth seemed to ask, but going back to the past that was promised as the future?

I fingered Mario le Magicien’s card in my pocket as if summoning him to appear. Where, when all was said and done, was he in a life that needed him most?

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