Thursday, August 27, 2009

"People think Montreal is wild today. Hah! They have no idea what wild is."

Another Montreal bar story ,or more accurately a BarKeeps story,with lot's of experience in Montreal's the story of Omer Brousseau.......

Without missing a beat, the diminutive Brousseau checks his watch, shoots back, "Sixty-five years," then continues making a vodka martini for an appreciative patron at the ornate L'Autre Saison bar in downtown Montreal.

It's safe to say, there are few 65-year-old bartenders in town, let alone those with 65 years' experience. Now, I haven't canvassed every saloon in the city - although it's not for lack of trying - but I've never run into a bartender about to turn 80 and still mixing with a vengeance.

Math geniuses will have deduced that Brousseau started plying his trade when he was just 14. Evidently, liquor laws were looser then, or Brousseau got his hands on some forged ID. His first place of employment was a restaurant called Drury's, all the rage in Montreal in the 1940s but long since defunct.

The secret to his longevity: "Women and vodka," Brousseau says with a big smile. "I really cannot tell a lie at my age," says the man who is as diplomatic as he is dapper in his formal bartender attire. And the secret to a good martini: "No vermouth. If a customer requests vermouth, simply touch the glass with the bottle."

Brousseau confesses that he never appreciated vodka until his 12-year stint at the Troika, a (local) Russian resto.

"That's where I learned to enjoy vodka and I developed an addiction to caviar. And that's why I continue to work and will never retire, because I have to pay for my caviar habit," he says with a wink.

Brousseau has been behind the bar at L'Autre Saison for the last 12 years. Over the decades, he has served just about every major politico, celebrity and athlete, not to mention a who's who of rogue's gallery patrons. Not surprisingly, his most loyal customers today, not counting the adoring women, are restaurant owners. George Lau, proprietor of the popular L'Orchidee de Chine, is a regular at Brousseau's bar when not making the rounds at his own place.

"Omer used to tend bar at Roma Antiqua, which is where L'Orchidee is now. I begged him to come work with me," Lau recalls at the L'Autre Saison bar. "I would have made a million with him. He has the touch. There's not a drink he doesn't know how to make. And he knows just about everyone in town. He is a true Montreal original."

Dotting the bar are photos of Brousseau with everyone from baseball star Sammy Sosa to Paul Newman: "One of the finest gentlemen I ever had the privilege of serving."

Brousseau also remembers mixing drinks for late Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis and film star Dorothy Lamour. "Those were the days bars never closed in Montreal," Brousseau reminisces, his eyes twinkling. "If the walls could have talked, what stories they would have told.

"People think Montreal is wild today. Hah! They have no idea what wild is.

"Those were the days Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis would show up regularly and play clubs like the El Morocco. Then there was Lili St. Cyr, the classiest stripper of them all, at the old Gayety Theatre.

"What I always liked about actors and performers is that they spent their own money," Brousseau says. "Politicians have a habit of spending the money of others."

Ron Blair, another of Brousseau's regular customers, asks if he has a philosophy. Brousseau replies: "They say, ‘Drink to forget,' but I say, ‘Don't forget to drink.' " Pause. "But the real key to working this trade is to leave your problems at home. A good bartender listens and only talks when asked a question. Not unlike a psychiatrist."

Brousseau has been married twice. The first, nearly 60 years ago, lasted six months. The second is still going after 11 years. The math-savvy will note there is a huge gap in between. "Let's just say I was having fun then."

Brousseau was one of seven kids. His family left their native Windsor, Ont., for better prospects in Montreal when he was 3. His mother passed away when he was 6, leaving the family in disarray and compelling him to start working before he was a teen.

"There was no question about that," he says. "My oldest brother became a missionary. Another brother became a priest. Someone had to help pay for food and rent.

"But as tough as those days were, they were still better for me. Montreal was considered one of the world's great cities in those days. Then, around 1970, everything seemed to come to a standstill. Politics got really intense. People moved away..." His voice tails off.

Kazim Toural, co-owner of L'Autre Saison, recalls being served by Brousseau in the mid-1970s at Montreal's Tour Eiffel.

"I was so impressed with his style," Toural says. "I was determined to get him to be bartender at our place. It took about 25 years. I told him I wanted him to retire happy with us. He said maybe he'd do a year here. That was 12 years ago. Now he's got a fan club. And he'll outlast us all. They just don't make them like Omer any more."

The cabaret music of Jean Gabin wafts ever so gently in the background as more customers head for the bar. Time nearly stands still. The scene could almost pass for Montreal of a half-century back. When Edith Piaf would shuffle in for a martini. When Charles Aznavour would warble a few tunes.

"Those were the days," Brousseau says with a sigh. "But we can't look back at what was. We have to move forward and make the most of what we have now. That's life."

                          Have Fun & Remember Verdun..............................Cheers !!!

No comments: