A Week in Culture: Joe Ollmann, Cartoonist, Part 3


The Culture Diaries

This is the third and final installment of Ollmann’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1 and here to read part 2.


Recently, I went to Bar Pam Pam, a mysterious old-man bar in my neighborhood that I have often passed but never had the courage to enter. My friend Murray and I asked what was on tap, and the owner said, “Vieux Montreal” and stopped there. I liked that—it was like an old-time saloon. What kind of beer do you have? Just beer, stranger. This bar was wonderful, genuine, unmanufactured focus-group atmosphere, no loud music and a welcome refuge from hipsters and young people. The old-man bar, like many old men, is an institution that is dying out. It made me think of all of the other old-man bars that I know and love in Montreal. Come with me, I’ll show you …

Bar Pam Pam

I’ve already told you the appeal of this little gem, mere footsteps from my home! But a few notes from my visit there are worth the telling. A tipsy woman took out her guitar, randomly sang “Me and Bobby McGee” in heavily accented English, put the guitar back in its case, and continued drinking. No one else clapped or even seemed to notice this performance. Later, a heavy, bearded dude came in, and the bartender immediately brought a pitcher and glass to his table.

“Why you bring this? You never see me before,” said the bearded man.

“My friend, every night you come, this I know,” said the bartender, with a smile that was met by one from the bearded man. This was obviously their ritual.

Verres Stériles

The name of this bar, Sterilized Glasses, is enough to win over most anyone. Dirty beer glasses here? Never, they’re sterilized, man. They may only wash the glasses, but I imagine that even this rigid cleaning was once a big issue. This bar’s been around before TB and before polio was cured, it’s that old. The only food available: a jar of pickled eggs? Check. This dark, quiet spot isn’t air-conditioned but manages always to be cool in the middle of a heat wave. Old French guys that love hockey abide here. Sensitive cartoonist types who despise sports, nationalism, and noise should stay away on the nights the Montreal Canadienes are playing.

Snack and Blues

This may be the best old-man bar in the world. I should not be telling anyone about this gem. Young people will come in and take over, with their ironic facial hair, trucker hats, tube tops, and pants slung well below their ass cracks (arguably a less comfortable fashion statement than the whalebone corsets of Victorian ladies. Forget not being able to breathe properly, imagine your pants ALWAYS falling down!)

When you enter the bar, there is a table laden with bowls of various candy, with smaller bowls to transport them to your table. Candy and beer seem strange bedfellows, and indeed after a night in there, you can never be sure what the source of your general nausea is. A balance is presented in bowls of every imaginable salty snack throughout the bar. (I am told that in the days when smoking was still permitted in bars, there were also bowls of complimentary cigarettes available!)

But the truly sweet thing in Snack and Blues is the owner, a humble man visibly bursting with pride at his bar, who greets you at the door, thanks you for coming, assists the waitresses, and continually replaces bowls of snacks when the levels drop. He always wears a white turtleneck and a blue blazer, and looking at him, you suspect that he is living the realization of a childhood fantasy. Everything about him says he is a man truly livin’ the dream.


I suspect they play blues music there, but I have never noticed it.


Le Biftek

Half and half on the old-man versus hipster mark, Le Biftek deserves inclusion here based on its free wicker bowls of popcorn and its unhealthily cheap drink specials. It holds a special place in my heart as the first bar I had a drink in with my lady love when I visited her in Montreal. We were too early for a movie, so we skootched into the Biftek and shared the special, which at that time, as I recall, was ten shots for ten bucks. Insane! Is that even possible? Is it possible that two civilized people could order and drink that much? I don’t remember what the movie was.

The Copa

The Copa in Montreal was overtaken by the hipsters long ago, but it still bears a mention, as it was the bar frequented by Ryan Larkin, the Academy Award–nominated animator, who lost it all and panhandled change that he rapidly spent in the same bar. I sat beside him once, bought him drinks, and told him how much I hated that computer-animated travesty Ryan, which was made about him. He was too polite to agree wholeheartedly (or to commit to the counterdocumentary I planned), but he did say that he was “uncomfortable” about how the movie presented him. Poor old Ryan is a lesson why you should stay away from bars.


Today, I have an actual cultural event to report on! The fact that it is children’s play should not lessen the impact of my actually reporting a cultural event on this Web page on which I have been asked to report on my cultural life.

We (myself, my lady friend/wife Taien, and our son Sam) went out for dim sum and a play with our friends Murray and Natalia and Neptune.

Dim sum was at Kam Fung, a giant restaurant in Montreal’s pathetically tiny Chinatown. Seriously, for a city as big as old Montreal, its Chinatown has serious shrinkage issues. Kam Fung has carts wheeling around food. As far as I’m concerned, without the damn carts it’s not dim sum, it’s just eating Chinese food for breakfast. Most of us were vegetarian, so we relied on my wife, who speaks Cantonese, to play mom and not let the servers sneak us a little pork “just for flavor!” as my Chinese mother-in-law likes to say.

A white-guy thing I do that always endears me to my mother-in-law’s friends is to lean back after eating, pat my stomach, and say the only Chinese words I know: “Ho Bowah” (I’m full). Try this one with your Chinese friends—it rarely fails.

We saw the Centaur Theatre’s production of Beethoven Lives Upstairs, a play based on a series of insanely popular Classical Kids CDs that introduce children to the works of great composers through a narrative and snippets of the composer’s scores added throughout. It’s kind of a precursor to the Baby Einstein kind of kids entertainment that is designed mainly to make the parents feel superior to other parents who are totally letting their toddlers smoke crack and play Grand Theft Auto. So I was feeling pretty superior and was also prepared to be slightly bored.

But it was enchanting. The kids, who are both five, loved it and sat rapt through the whole thing. I liked the inventive staging, use of puppets, and genuinely funny moments.

Murray and I snorted derisively at the beginning, but shit man, I actually wiped a tear from my eye at the end when the deaf Beethoven meets the little boy who lived downstairs on the street, and the kid tells Beethoven he will become a doctor and cure the master’s hearing. Choke …

Then we went back to our friends’ house for Murray’s homemade ice cream with a maple syrup reduction. You know, to me, ice cream is for the kids, but damn girl, this was fine ice cream. There was some Quebec still cider as well, and we talked about the play and how our reactions might have been tempered by having kids.


“Sunday morning” is maybe the prettiest song by the Velvet Underground and with nary a mention of heroin or cross-dressing hookers. It’s also the best day of the week.

I spent the morning watching videos with my five-year-old son. He’s feeling nostalgic and brings out Thomas the Tank Engine vids and his wooden train toys, which of late have been eclipsed by pirates. I never thought that would happen. I actually envisioned him as a teenager and me, his elderly father, wearing matching engineer hats and building model-train setups in the basement. I’m dozing on the couch as Sam beckons me to play trains with him. As usual, I find that I’ve lost the ability to pretend in this way, and my play is so fake and halfhearted, I feel like I’m a friend-for-hire, watching the clock.

We watch Thomas and I’m cursing the producers and their “new and improved” CGI bullshit version of Thomas, which replaced the elaborate tiny sets that, yes, did reek of jolly old England, a protestant work ethic, and the patriarchy, but the fact that the trains spoke without moving their mouths demanded an endearing suspension of disbelief. I mean, the tiny villages and farms were the ENTIRE charm of these goddamn things, and they take that away. Did they really think it was the story lines? Oh, Thomas has gone too fast on a dangerous turn again, he’s bound to learn a lesson. (Again!)

I’m thinking all this when my son opines, “I like the new Thomas, where they talk and everything moves.” Truly, youth is totally wasted on these young bumpkins, non?

My wife makes popovers. This is an event. She’s an academic and less a Suzy Homemaker than I am, but she makes a fine popover. If you have never made popovers, do so!

After Thomas, we watch My Neighbor Totoro, my favorite movie by Miyazaki, though all of his Studio Ghibli movies are so far above most of the crap made for kids anywhere in the world. So, of course, they fail at the box office. I read somewhere that if Myazaki’s next film doesn’t make money, he’ll be forced to close his studios. The children’s film industry in general is okay, however. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakqual did some serious numbers recently. So no worries there.

Looking at the calendar, Sam asks, “What are those words?” It’s Victoria Day in Canada, but a holiday celebrating an ancient, dead English queen does not rate high as a festival in French Quebec. We do take the day off, however.

Indicating the calendar, I show Sam other words. These are the days of the week, this is the month …

“Oh, Sam, what a world opens up to you when you can read,” I smugly enthuse.

“I can read pizza and taxi,” he says.

I guess he could survive in New York.

Joe Ollmann is the author, most recently, of Mid-Life.