A great storyteller, Stuart McLean, died today. For over 20 years I loved listening to his stories on The Vinyl Café, his show on CBC radio. After learning he was suspending the show in December I decided to write a letter of appreciation. As I wrote the letter it turned into a story in Stuart's style of storytelling. I mailed it to him a few weeks ago. The story, meant to be read aloud, is:
BILL AND THE VINYL CAFE
It was a cold December morning in Melfort. The kind of day you know it’s cold by the crunch of the snow under your feet. Having lived in Saskatchewan all his life Bill knew it was at least -25, maybe even -30, but probably not more. The chill on his face wasn’t that cruel -40 cold demanding he cover up with a scarf. It was an average winter day.
Bill started walking down the street to his office. It’s a nice walk. The street is lined with elms. In the summer they form a green arch. Now the branches are bare and spare and etched against the sky.
In winter it’s a walk made for thinking. During summer all the shades of green and birds and activity keep him busy just watching what’s around. In winter there are no distractions. He might meet someone walking their dog but it does not happen often. Bill enjoys the chance to think.
And what Bill was thinking about was the Vinyl Café and Stuart McLean. His older son, Jonathan, had just told him that Stuart had announced the Vinyl Café was no longer going to be on the radio. That Stuart was not writing new Dave and Morley stories. That the show was ending and Bill was sad.
He knew Stuart had suspended his Christmas tour a year ago because of a diagnosis of cancer. He had hoped that Stuart’s treatment would be successful and there would be new shows from towns and cities across Canada. Now it seemed worse. Jonathan said Stuart was undergoing further treatment and was optimistic but he was canceling the show and writing about letting other creative people have the chance to fill the time on CBC occupied by the Vinyl Café.
Bill was sad because he did not want the Vinyl Café to end. It had been part of his life for years, even decades. What would Sunday at noon after church and brunch be like without the Vinyl Café?
We all have our rituals. Stuart talked of rituals in his stories. The show had its own rituals. Now Bill realized the Vinyl Café was one of his rituals. It had become woven into his life.
The Vinyl Café was not a huge deal for Bill. If he missed a Sunday episode he did not fret. Bill knew he could hear it another day or on a podcast. Still it was very much a part of his life.
And then Bill arrived at his office. Walking a few blocks does not take long when you are thinking.
It was time for Bill to focus on legal matters and the issues of his clients. There was no time to think of Stuart and the Vinyl Café for the rest of the morning.
It was a Tuesday and Bill did not go home for lunch on Tuesdays. He went to Rotary at the Salvation Army building. Both Bill and his wife, Sharon, are Rotarians and most of the weekly meetings are at the back of the Salvation Army Church. Tables are set up. Janet cooks them a good meal in the adjoining kitchen and serves it through the large cutout in the wall.
Bill thought about how Dave in Stuart’s stories often goes for lunch at Wong’s Scottish Meat Pies where his friend, Kenny Wong, provides him with good meals.
Dave loves Kenny’s rice pudding. Bill loves Janet’s lasagna, especially on a cold winter day. It is hearty and rich and thick. Some Caesar salad and warm bread sticks and what could be better.
At lunch Bill sees Gail Marie, Brian and Dale from the Museum. He knows they love the Vinyl Café. They even listen to the show while they are working at the Museum. A year ago at the annual Museum Christmas Supper they had another Museum guy, Gary, read the story of “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.
They are sad too. The Vinyl Café has become a part of life at the Museum. Just like there is a gap in Bill’s life there is now a gap at the Museum. They hope Stuart will get well and maybe the Vinyl Café can come back. Yet Bill and those from the Museum know that is unlikely. Who stops a show if it is coming back?
Bill returns to work feeling the same emotions as those from the Museum. It is a busy afternoon with call after call and documents and letters demanding his attention. It is not until he is walking home that Bill has time to think about the Vinyl Café again.
Bill cannot recall how many times he has listened to “Dave Cooks the Turkey”. It does not matter. He has enjoyed it every time. Dave’s self-inflicted struggles with the family Christmas turkey bring a smile to his face as he walks down the street.
His thoughts of that story turn to Stuart’s recounting of protests the show received that somehow the story was making light of animal mistreatment. There had been anguish in Stuart’s voice as he talked about analyzing the story. As he listened Bill thought the protests were overblown and misguided. He was glad when Stuart decided not to change the story. He did think Stuart was being overly analytical but Bill, on further thought, realized that such extended reflection is Stuart and that Stuart had to make a careful and thoughtful decision about an issue raised by his listeners.
And then Bill arrived at home for supper. That evening it was curling and Bill joined fellow Rotarians Mike and Wayne and Don at the rink. His thoughts were concentrated on out turns and in turns and missed turns and sometimes even a great shot. The Rotarian curlers want to win but they could not tell you how many games they have won and lost this winter or any other winter they have curled together.
The next morning was even colder and Bill bundled up in his heavy winter parka and his padded red Russian cap and his Hudson Bay scarf and headed for the office.
This morning was one of those perfectly still winter mornings when every sound is magnified in the cold.
Crunching along Bill reflected that he had thought about going to one of the live shows when the Vinyl Café was in Saskatchewan but had never made it. For several years it always seemed there was another event that had a greater priority.
More recently Bill had wondered if going to a live show would affect how he liked the shows on the radio.
Bill had come to have his own images of Stuart telling his stories. The Vinyl Café was part of his imagination. He had barely even seen a photo of Stuart at a show. Would his pleasure have been diminished if he actually saw Stuart? Was it best to have his memories of the Vinyl Café just from the radio? Was part of the magic in just listening?
Listening to Stuart was a quiet pleasure. Bill and Sharon would often just sit and listen to the show on Sunday.
His thoughts drift back to summer when he would take his IPhone with him outside as he does yard work and listen to the show on podcasts. Working outside on a warm day he found the Vinyl Café a good summer companion.
By now Bill is at the office and it is time to unbundle and deal with office matters.
At noon Bill walks home for lunch. One of the reasons he appreciates Melfort is being so close to work.
As Bill walked he thought about how the Vinyl Café has accompanied him while driving in the family van. For the past 25 years Bill has been driving a van; almost the same amount of time the Vinyl Café has been on CBC radio. It feels right to him to listen to the Vinyl Café in a van.
Every summer and fall Bill and Sharon drive to Regina for Roughrider games. When it is a Sunday afternoon game listening to an episode of the Vinyl Café makes one of the three hours to Regina quickly roll by.
Other Sundays in years past Sharon and Bill would have been driving one or both of their sons to baseball or for snowboarding or some other activity and everyone would listen to the show. The Vinyl Café was a family pleasure as well as a personal joy.
Most recently Bill and Sharon have been listening to podcasts on the van’s media system. It took Bill awhile to figure out how to download the podcasts onto his IPhone and the right buttons to push to get to Auxiliary on the media screen of the van and how to use the Bluetooth settings of phone and media system but he succeeded. Now they sometimes listen to a couple of shows at a time and if they are on the long eight hour drive to Calgary to see their sons they may listen to three shows.
After lunch Bill puts his IPhone in his pocket and a head set over his big red cap stretching the headset to its maximum width to get it on. As he walks back to the office, he listens to a podcast of the story of Dave desperately convincing a store in Cape Breton to open on Boxing Day as he is flying off to meet Morley and needs a Christmas present. Dave buys a pair of suede gloves for Morley for his first Christmas present to her. Years later, Sam is 12, Dave and Sam are outside that store and Dave tells Sam the story. Without telling his Dad Sam takes a photo of Dave from the back looking into that store window. That Christmas Sam gives a copy of the photo to his mother. After receiving the photo Morley goes upstairs and returns with gloves. They are worn and torn but still full of love.
At the end of the afternoon with the sun setting behind him Bill walks home thinking about why he likes Stuart McLean and the Vinyl Cafe.
Bill does not like the stories because they are life changing. He realizes what he likes best is that they are stories about people like him. He can see Dave and Morley living down his street.
The stories about Dave and Morley have made him laugh and made him cry, sometimes in the same story. Their lives are not perfect. In particular, Dave is continually bound for the disasters that come from good intentions. Yet he does his best. He cares about people. He loves Morley.
Bill could never see the stories of The Vinyl Cafe being made into television episodes. They lack sex and violence. They are not filled with action. They are not edgy. They are neither stories of the famous nor tales of the marginalized. There is no profound angst over the state of the world.
Not every story Bill enjoys and listens to has to be about people like him. He thinks back to another CBC radio show about a Café. He enjoyed the stories of Indian people in the Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour with Thomas King, Jasper Friendly Bear and Gracie Heavy Hand. The Dead Dog Café stories were like the Vinyl Café stories in that they had the feel of real life experiences. The Dead Dog Café stories captured the teasing, sometimes sarcastic, often pointed humour of indigenous Canadians. The show’s sign-off has stayed with Bill:
“Stay calm! Be Brave! Wait for the signs!”
Turning his mind back to the Vinyl Café Bill thinks it was nice to listen to stories about people he can identify with who are dealing with life. Stories about people he can care about and root for. Stories about Canadians in the city and Canadians in the country.
Bill still hopes the Vinyl Café is not gone but just on a hiatus. If he is wrong he is glad to have had the chance to listen to the Vinyl Café. He knows the shows already broadcast will continue to be heard on podcasts and be read in books. More important to Bill The Vinyl Café will live on in his memory. Stuart and Dave and Morley will always be part of his life.
Bill reaches home, opens the back door and calls to Sharon “what are we doing for supper?”