Whether you prefer to dive into a Diet Pepsi, a bag of off-brand Sour Patch Kids, or a bottle of rosé with a Chilean cowboy on it, there is no denying that life in 2013 is full of simple pleasures. More often than not, these simple pleasures are calorie-laden, made with dozens of unpronounceable chemicals, and readily available from every glowing street corner.
If you have five dollars (okay, more like eight) then you have just about anything your insatiable, impulsive side could want. Squeaky clean or grimy, part of a chain or independent, open nine to five or 24/7, there’s no denying that deps are essential to Montreal life. According to a 2008 article in the Gazette, there are 1127 dépanneurs on the island; one for every 1500 people. Despite their ubiquity, every dep holds its own charm and character but, obviously, some are better than others.
For instance, the one nearest to my apartment, Dépanneur Fleur Bleue, sells freshly-cut flowers, small potted plants, handmade sandwiches, and even has a self-serve buffet. These specialties elevate it above and beyond the standard convenience store, characterized by limp chili dogs, fountain pop, and aggressive fluorescent lighting. But it’s not just the fleurs that make Fleur Bleue so memorable, it’s the people.
The owner, an eccentric woman named Madame Lee, who perpetually dons a white beret, massive sunglasses, and a variety of beige sweaters, is an essential part of the neighbourhood and, not to mention, a local celebrity. Once, while walking by, I saw her eating lunch through the window and, without knowing what came over me, I decided to wave to her. To my surprise and extreme delight, she smiled and waved back.
Madame Lee may well have mistaken me for someone else or simply acted out of courtesy. Nevertheless, that small moment made me feel like part of the neighbourhood. It made me feel like a real Montréalaise, instead of an import from the prairies. In a city so readily divided by language and political tension, it can be difficult to imagine something that brings us all together. The truth is, no matter what language you speak, or what your political beliefs are, all people can readily be united in their love for the vices of the 21st century: junk food. Physically, all are conditioned to desire the treasures resting inside those glowing little storefronts. Your stomach loves the combination of corn syrup, carbonation, sugar and red dye number two.
But the appeal of the dep doesn’t end with you filling your belly with tasty snacks. If that were the case, any dep would serve as a perfect substitute for any other, provided it sold what you were craving. Logically, that should be true, but logistically, that’s not the case. The dépanneur invites a sense of loyalty unmatched by any other store. I would buy my groceries anywhere but I wouldn’t indulge my little vices in just any old place. I want to buy them from my place. Slipping through the doors of a different dep, with a different name and floor plan, with the chips to the right of the door instead of the left would be unsettling. It’s doable if you’re hungry enough, but the grime that seemed endearing at your dep is now only making you wonder just how frequently they sanitize the ATM keypad.
Why do we feel loyal to these meccas of casual consumption? It’s because of the people. It’s the steadfast and familiar faces behind the counter who see that the shelves are stocked just so. Odds are, you don’t know their names, and they probably don’t know yours. The likelihood that you will ever be Facebook friends—and have uncomfortable levels of awareness of their day-to-day activity or the fact that they like, say, Two and Half Men—is virtually zero. But you know that they exist, and they know that you exist. And in a bustling city like Montreal, perhaps that’s all you really need…along with your bi-weekly dose of Pringles, obviously.