I didn't know Leonard Cohen but I felt I did, like many in our Plateau neighbourhood. Years ago I'd see him walking the streets - dressed like an elegant beatnik - and I'd nod and he'd nod back sweetly. I never approached him, like many others, because we wanted him to feel comfortable in our 'hood.
Yet Cohen always seemed only one degree of separation from my life. It started in my mid-20s when every interesting woman I tried to date was smitten with this sensitive guy down the street named Leonard. He recited poetry with them, while I just wanted to see a film.
Others loved him from afar. To this day a married woman friend still has a photo of him in her wallet, along with her husband and kids.
Everyone in the Plateau feels some connection. There's a vigil outside his house on Vallières St. at Parc du Portugal, where hundreds visit hourly, weeping or leaving mementoes by his door. Said one: "I was at the pupusa place with my child and this man waved and I said: 'Omigod. It's Leonard Cohen!' "
Others recall sitting beside him in La Cabane bar, just another guy saying hello. "He was the nicest gentleman," says Simon Rosson, owner of my local breakfast place, Bagel Etc., across from Cohen's house. Cohen had breakfast there every morning he was in town for decades, Rosson says.
"The first time I met him maybe 15 years ago, I see this guy coming across the street holding a plate - his own plate! - and he asks if he can take out some bacon and eggs."
"I say: 'Listen, if you don't like paper plates you can borrow my plates'- and he did. He brought every one back - I think we're even."
Rosson spent 100 mornings at the counter yakking with "Leonard - we talked TV shows and he taught me how to find them on my computer, I'm not good at that stuff." "You'd never guess he was a world celebrity."
Customers often tiptoed over to whisper hello, "trying not to interrupt his breakfast — which was usually powerful espresso and more espresso.
"Leonard would always say 'hi' - but then on his way out, he'd stop at all their tables to shake hands and say: 'thank you friend, thank you for coming over.' "
My friend Bill Furey, a musician, recalls Cohen as "a friend to everyone, he had no airs." Furey, who had occasionally met Cohen in the '80s, was down-and-out when he saw the celebrity on the street.
He approached Cohen saying he was broke and looking for work. "A few days later I hear a knock at my door and it's Leonard Cohen. He comes in, sits at my kitchen table and says he's sorry, he doesn't know of any work. "But he left an envelope on the table with $100 for groceries."
Furey eventually ended up working in Cohen's home for a year, organizing his archives and he recalls how hard Cohen worked. "He'd go upstairs to write at 8 a.m. and often not come down till 3 a.m.
"Dylan wrote some songs in 15 minutes, Hallelujah took Leonard five years."
At Schreter's, my local clothing shop, Steve Schreter says Cohen came in regularly to buy one thing - black foam slippers. "He never wore shoes -only slippers, Size 9."
Schreter recalls the day Cohen mentioned it was his 75th birthday; Schreter said it was his mother's 75th, too.
Cohen insisted on writing her a note: "Dear Paula, Happy birthday from another 76-year-old. 120 years more. Love, Leonard Cohen."
Schreter still has a photo from that day, the shmata guy beside the legend.
Many at the vigil identified profoundly with Cohen's music, which made them "laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again."
Like me, many once went down to the river looking for the spot Cohen went with Suzanne, while Marianne conjures up the street near his home.
I'm no major music buff, but I've played his albums hundreds of time from his early years on and gone to Montreal shows where his croaking, aging voice, grace and humour left me in awe.
Some 12 years ago, I heard he'd been cheated of his life savings, but I didn't know how badly till a mutual friend started collecting contributions so he wouldn't have to sell his house.
That pushed Cohen back on tour, to all our good fortune.
Rosson, the bagel guy remembers Cohen was nervous about the tour and had a small pre-concert with his musician girlfriend at a small venue.
"He worried no one would come so he invited me and I went. I'm not a music guy and I'd never seen Leonard anywhere but the counter - but when I walked in, his presence on stage was unbelievable - the way he played, the way he talked to the crowd like they were friends.
"He was a different person - a star! But next morning there he was back at the counter, just Leonard again."
At the vigil, someone mentioned how painful a week it had been, between Trump winning and Cohen dying.
But perhaps the bigger point is that while Trump has been a force of constant division, Cohen united people of all kinds and classes - with his grace, his generosity and his wonderful, intelligent humane music.'
He will be missed by us Montrealers and by people everywhere, for he touched our imperfect bodies with his mind.
Josh Freed: In the Plateau, Cohen was 'just another guy'
JOSH FREED, SPECIAL TO MONTREAL GAZETTE
Published on: November 11, 2016