Miles from Mile End

A Montreal Meander

From the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous: looking out from the viewing deck of the grand L'Oratoire St. Joseph Du Mont-Royal, I saw the giant orange orb beckoning in the distance. The retro fast food Gibeau Orange Julep looked like one of the remnants of Expo 67 strewn around Montreal, which we have come to know through three years of visits to our son, a McGill University student. We had walked five miles and it would be another three miles to reach the Orange Julep along a bleak stretch of the Décairie Expressway.

The Chef is an urban hiker and so is our son, Angus, but here’s the thing: they have a penchant for exploring the unloved seamy back ends and edges of cities, finding unlikely beauty and, often, incredible food. I remember when they walked from Flushing Queens through the ugly clutter of College Point to land at Little Pepper for lunch, where the Chef texted me happily, “Our mouths are under nuclear assault from Szechuan peppercorns!!” In truth I would have opted for a stroll through the more shabby chic neighborhoods of Mile End and the Plateau, ducking in and out of hipster shops for twee letterpress cards and expensive cloth-wrapped soaps. However, there is something so infectious about the enthusiasm my college student son has for his adopted city. He wanted to be our guide, so I happily agreed—and of course, my love of kitschy snack venues made the Orange Julep a must-see destination.

Angus and the Chef cannily seeded the route with enticements that would keep me heading to the orange, albeit several yards behind their fast clip: Atwater Market, with its vibrant stalls of Québécois meats, cheeses, and chocolates, the picturesque summit of Anglophone Westmount with mansions that rival those of Riverdale and L'Oratoire, a giant basilica built into the rock of Mont Royal and known to house the heart of its patron Saint Joseph. My love of kitsch extends to churches with wax- scented chapels lit with hundreds of flickering votives and crypts, skeletons or body parts on view. A garish red light made Saint Joseph’s heart difficult to see. It looked like a dried porcini mushroom wedged between Plexiglas. Maybe the prayers of earnest parishioners, like the one kneeling on the prayer bench while I crassly angled for a photo, would make the desiccated mushroom plump up?

My own heart plumped up en route to the Orange Julep. When we started down from the grandeur of the Oratory to the grey urban sprawl of multicultural Snowdon ahead of us, I felt old, crotchety and tired. I considered Ubering back to the refuge of our Marriott Residence Inn, to our pristine bed with its tight white sheets. Instead, we walked sandwiched between the expressway and ugly low-income apartments, squat commercial strips with hardware stores, Portuguese and Spanish restaurants and old-fashioned hair salons. Pointing to yet another outmoded salon sign, Angus said, “Doesn’t this remind you of ‘the beauty parlor time forgot’?” I liked that he remembered Encore Salon, hidden in the basement of an ordinary apartment building. You entered, as if into a speakeasy to see three pink bubble dryers. “Doesn’t this remind you of home?” Angus persisted, sweeping his arm to encompass the motley venues across the expressway. And I knew what he meant: it resembled the colorful, rag-tag array of shop fronts and awnings on Broadway near City College or on Northern Boulevard, Queens. I loved how our son had connected the dots between reference points of his old home and his new. Throughout his time in college in a part of Canada that is almost belligerently foreign, Angus’s resilience and can-do enthusiasm have taken me by surprise: doggedly learning to speak French,  venturing to the outskirts of Montreal as a paid medical lab rat and savoring the long walks home, and taking on grade school guitar students whose families augmented his reasonable rate with homemade samosas and lassis. “He’s making his life,” I thought, as surely as he and the Chef made a map for our day.

But, as usual, I’m meandering off the course of our well-mapped route, which, for this part of the journey took us in a beeline to the Orange Julep. With each step the orange grew and grew until there it was before us: forty-feet around and three stories high--and illuminated at night. Its bold orange magnificence dwarfed the tatty surroundings of the parking lot, the picnic tables with peeling green paint. In 1932 Hermas Gibeau built a two-story high orange from which he sold his trademark drink and intended to live with his wife and kids (but presumably they talked sense into him). In the sixties it was expanded to its present size, and roller-skating waitresses whirled up to your car window to take your order. Now gulls wheeled around pecking at stray frites and poutine curds.  You enter a small plastic enclosure to order what turns out to be…duh da dah: another hallmark of home, Nathan’s hot dogs. I had mine plain with vinegary slaw, and the chef and Angus had chili dogs, and after our eight-mile walk, they tasted more terrific than they normally would. We all tried Angus’s light, foamy Gibeau Orange Julep, pleasantly surprised by the flavor, liquefied Creamsicle with a tinge of orange Pez. Then again, it reminded me of the frothy orange drink at our own New York City Grey’s Papaya. Like my son, I was connecting the dots between these two cities 332 miles apart from each other. But mainly on our walk I was marveling about the connection between the boy we raised and the man striding confidently in front of me.

Gibeau Orange Julep
7700 Décairie Boulevard
Montreal, Canada