Friday 9 April 1999

- Column - Page Four Column -

Tribute was right up Nick's alley

L. IAN MACDONALD
Freelance

Nick would have loved it. He would have loved the attention, and the argument. The attention over the unveiling of Ruelle Nick Auf der Maur, and the argument over whether all of Crescent St., rather than an alley next to Winnie's, should be named for him.

He would have been slightly annoyed, and amused, at the incorrect spelling of his name on the street sign, with an upper rather than lower-case "d" in "der." Nick, as his long-suffering copy editors can attest, was not very big on the spelling of names. Details, details.

Such as whether, in translation, it's a lane or an alley. A lane suggests something residential, even suburban, which Nick definitely wasn't. An alley is something downtown, and connotes people on the prowl, which he definitely was. Auf der Maur Alley is much more appropriate than a park - Nick was allergic to trees.

There's no mistaking the sign. It sticks out like one of Nick's trademark Borsalinos in a crowded bar. Two crowded bars, actually. Winnie's, which played host to the unveiling at happy hour Wednesday, and Ziggy's, across the street, to which Nick was known to repair after dinner.

Both joints were jumping, with a dollar from every drink earmarked for the Nick Fund for cancer patients at the Montreal General Hospital.

"We've got more than $50,000 in it now," said Nick's doctor, Roger Tabah. "It's getting to the point where it will throw off a few thousand dollars a year."

This is for cancer patients who can't afford wigs after chemotherapy treatments, or a hotel room for visiting family. Not a big thing. But a neat thing, the largest contributor being Nick himself, with the author royalties from Nick: A Montreal Life, his best-selling book of columns.

As for Ruelle Nick, it's something that Gerry Weiner pushed through the executive committee at city hall, without a dissenting word. Nick's friend and executor, Stephen Phizicky, phoned in the suggestion, and Weiner, who represents Nick's old downtown district of Peter McGill, got it done in a few weeks.

'Positive response'

"I've had more positive response on this than anything I've ever been associated with in politics," said Weiner, vice-chairman of the executive committee in the Bourque administration and a former Tory cabinet minister in Ottawa.

As for the larger goal of renaming Crescent St., Weiner pointed out that no one has asked, but that Nick's Alley doesn't preclude a lobbying effort for Nick St.

And on that, opinion is sharply divided, an argument that Nick would have hugely enjoyed.

"Nick didn't approve of renaming streets," Bob Keaton said, "though I'm not sure he would have applied that policy to himself."

Keaton was elected to city hall with Nick, a quarter-century ago, in the opposition class of 1974. They were then in the Montreal Citizens' Movement, the first of several parties to which they belonged. They even started one or two of their own. Along the way, as Keaton says, they had a lot of fun.

Keaton is quite right. Nick wouldn't have wanted a whole street renamed for him, but he would have taken it.

Nick had a highly developed sense of occasion and a strong sense of history. He was offended, not to say incensed and outraged, by Mayor Jean Dore's rush to rename Dorchester Blvd. for Rene Levesque after his death in 1987.

Nick thought the city should have honoured the requisite one-year waiting period after Levesque's death, as the Bourque administration did - Nick's alley was unveiled on the first anniversary of his passing. Then there were many late-night rants about the historic and positive role of Lord Dorchester, governor-general of Canada for two decades, and father of both the Quebec Act of 1774 and the Constitution Act of 1791.

Strong Advocate

Nick was also a strong advocate of the English side of Montreal's character. And so with all his affection for Robert Bourassa, Nick vehemently opposed a move to rename Sherbrooke St. after the former premier died in 1996. (The appropriate gesture would be to rename Maplewood Ave., which runs past Bourassa's house in Outremont, and his school, Universite de Montreal, in the city).

Finally, Nick was always sensitive to the problems of small business. There are at least 100 bars, boutiques, restaurants and apartment hotels in the three blocks of Crescent St. A name change would require all of them to change their letterheads and legal address. All of which costs money, and Nick wouldn't have liked that.

On the other hand, if all the merchants on the street bought into the idea, if that's what the public really wanted, and if the Grey Nuns approved, he would probably bow to the will of the people.

In the meantime, as Nick well knew, politics is the art of the possible. Nick's Alley was possible. It got done without cost or controversy. And it's right at the heart of the buzz. Everyone who walks on Crescent St. will walk under Nick's street sign.

Ruelle Auf der Maur is no more than 50 metres of pavement, and it's a dead end. Somehow it seemed appropriate that three young girls decided to inaugurate the alley with a footrace to the end of it.

The Auf der Maur clan, with Nick's mother in a wheelchair, posed for a family photo in Nick's Alley.

"My grandmother wants to talk to you," said Nick's daughter, Melissa, who flew in from Los Angeles where her band, Hole, is in rehearsals for a summer tour that will include Montreal.

"How old is she now?"

"Ninety-six."

Theresia Auf der Maur wanted to pass something on.

"My son, Nick," she said, "was here, is here, by remote control."

1998 The Gazette,
a division of Southam Inc.


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