From the Archives: Behind the Scenes with Stuart McLean

From the Archives: Behind the Scenes with Stuart McLean

In 2006, journalist Trevor Cole wrote an unconventional profile of Stuart McLean, the iconic Canadian storyteller who died this week. Cole accompanied him on tour, spoke to friends and colleagues, and produced this feature, told in first-person from McLean's point of view, as if he were presenting a Vinyl Café episode about himself

Stuart-McLean

(MUSIC UP)

From a rented motorhome on a highway somewhere in Nova Scotia, it’s Behind the Scenes with Stuart McLean!

(WAVES OF APPLAUSE)

Thank you. Thank you so much. That was Joe Grass playing guitar during the introduction, by the way. Thanks, Joe. You can go back to sleep in the bunk over the driver’s cabin if you like.

Well, it’s great being here with you in this motorhome. We’ve been driving from town to town in the Maritimes for more than a week now, we’re sorta at the midway point of our spring Vinyl Café tour, and the whole production’s really started to hit its stride. Last night we wrapped up our three-show stay in Halifax, where people really seemed to love what we do. And now we’re headed to Glace Bay.

I have to tell you, I’m a bit nervous about this show in Glace Bay. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Worrying about it, I guess. And you’ll probably hear all about that. You could say it’s a big part a’ what we’re going to be talking about.

There’s nine of us altogether in this motorhome. That’s Ted Dekker at the wheel, and he used to be the tour manager for Anne Murray, so we have a lot of faith in Ted. The big man in the passenger seat is Don Jones, the manager of this tour—Jonesy handled the touring show for Ernie Coombs, Mr. Dressup, for about 20 years. There are a few musicians and singers—they tend to be the ones who sleep while we’re on the road. And that lovely young woman going over my colour-coded work schedule is the most organized woman in the world, Jess Milton, the producer of The Vinyl Café. Jess is just in her 20s, but she has a knack for putting me in my place. I met her back when I was teaching at Ryerson University. Jess was a student of mine, and she seemed to be a young woman who got things done. We hired her as a part-time production assistant, and pretty soon she was telling me what to do. In a nice, young-person kind of way.

And sitting at the table there, trying to take notes as we rumble along, is a journalist who’s joined us for this part of the tour. I’m sure he has a few things he wants to tell you, and I guess I have to live with that. Right now he’s making notes about what I’m wearing—one a’ the white, $3.99 T-shirts I picked up back at the Stanfield’s Factory Outlet we passed through in Truro, Nova Scotia, and a lime green track suit top that accentuates my long, gangly arms, and what look like some old Levi’s cords—as if that reveals something about me. I used to be a journalist, you know. I covered news events at CBC Radio before I got into this funny storytelling business, even won an award for my part in coverage of the Jonestown massacre. So I know how journalists think. They’re always taking notes and trying to get inside their subject’s head, and that’s what this guy’s doing right now. Bastard.

I hope he knows I was joking when I said that. I said, I hope…yeah, see? He’s nodding, even while he’s writing down the word “bastard.”

Bastard.

Anyway—hold on as Ted takes this curve—
while you’re here, we’re going to show you 
a bit of what goes into making me one of the
 best-selling authors in Canada, and one of the
country’s most beloved radio personalities, and 
because of that journalist over there we’re going 
to examine whether I’ve, well, not sold out as an artist, not quite, but maybe compromised myself a bit. We’re going to look at that, though I can’t say I’m too happy about it. We’re going to look at what makes so many people think I’m so darn funny, which I’m a whole lot more comfortable with. And while we’re at it, we’re gonna let you peek behind the scenes, and show you some of what goes on during a tour like this.

Take last night, for example. Last night, I was backstage at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax. It was just before the show, and I was speaking to Jess. I was kinda fidgety, swinging my hands back and forth the way I am now. I said to Jess we’ve done this show 10 times and tonight’s the night I’m nervous. It’s because we’re recording. If we’re in front of a live audience, if I make a mistake I can have fun with it. I can banter with the audience. But when we’re recording, I can’t do that, because what if they’re not miked? Nobody’d be able to hear them. So I get it in my head that I can’t make a mistake. And it unsettles me somehow.

And a’ course, what d’ya think happened? That’s right—I did make a mistake. A big one. Right in the middle of a segment we call the Story Exchange, which is just a fancy title for the part of the show when I read a letter someone sent in. We encourage audience participation here at The Vinyl Café; we like people to feel connected to the show. We answer all our mail, and when I’m on tour I always make a point of including local details in my opening monologue—things like the pretty bridge I walked across to get to the theatre, or how the pies at the tiny corner bakery are the best I’ve ever eaten—so people in Yarmouth and other small towns can feel special, ’cause they’ve been talked about by Stuart McLean.

So in the Story Exchange, we select a letter from a listener, and I read it onstage during these tour shows. And last night, in Halifax, I was reading one that was perfect. It was about a Japanese Canadian woman who had a funny misunderstanding with the man she eventually married. Jess Milton said it was like a miniature Stuart McLean story, because it moved along and had a big funny line and then made you want to go “awww” at the end. But last night, when I got to the sweet section, the audience didn’t go “awww” like I expected. So I stopped, and I kinda egged on the audience to give me a big “awww” at that spot in the letter. ’Cause it was being recorded and I thought it would sound neat on the air. Then I read it over again and they gave me a great big “awww” and it didn’t sound neat at all. It sounded weird. It sounded as though we were making fun of the letter, which I didn’t like. And then the audience was all hyped up because they thought they’d done this great thing, this thing I’d asked them to do, and they started giving me big reactions to things that didn’t deserve them, and I had to try and rein them in, and backstage Jess was, well, she was kind of freaking out. Maybe I should let Jess explain it. Here’s Jess Milton, everyone:

JESS MILTON: When you stopped I was like, “Oh! I am going to kill him!” Because I can’t use it even if it worked with the audience. It sounds so fake. Why would they ever say “awww”?

So we ended up having to redo the whole thing because of my stupid mistake. It was Bill the sound man who suggested when to slot the retake into the second act, between the fake opera bit and the goofy sight-gag bit—the things that don’t usually make it to air. And that was a good idea. I make a point of taking suggestions from everyone, and Bill chipped in a good suggestion. “Good call, Bill,” I said. And the journalist wrote that down as if it was important. Which it is. So maybe he’s not a bastard.

Anyway, I ended up reading that same letter three times to the audience. I explained my mistake, and they went along with it. Audiences like it when they think they’re in on something. It makes them feel part of the show.

And now that’s all behind us. We’re on the road to Glace Bay and that’s where my mind’s at. To be honest with you, I’m thinking about Glace Bay a lot.

Y’see, every time we take The Vinyl Café out on tour, I have to write a new Dave and Morley story. Dave and Morley stories are kinda what I’m famous for. I’ve got eight books out on the shelves now, and most of those are Dave and Morley stories. Home From the Vinyl Café and Vinyl Café Diaries and Vinyl Café Unplugged and on and on. People love these stories and buy them like candy. It’s almost crazy how much they sell. My editor, Meg Masters, says altogether I’ve sold more than 750,000 copies of my books in Canada alone. And now the books are being sold in the United States and in Britain, and they’re doing so well it’s beginning to look like I may take over the entire English speaking world.

But people don’t just like reading my stories; people also like the way I read them onstage. People like my little-boy grins and my big semaphore-like gestures, slashing the air with my arms, throwin’ my hands down as if they got oil on them and generally looking like I’m telling an airplane where to park. They like the way I…pause before certain lines. The way I use the strange, arrhythmic pattern of emphasis and repetition that’s become my signature. They like the folksy way I talk—the way I change “of” to “a,” so that “trail of woe” sometimes becomes “trail a’ woe.” Maybe that’s a thing left over from growing up in Montreal with parents from Australia. The parents who dressed me in shorts and knee socks and sent me to an all-boys school. But I don’t really talk that way in my real life; it just comes naturally onstage. So maybe I do it so my listeners will feel I’m one a’ them. It seems to fit somehow; I can’t explain it.

What I do know is people love the characters in these stories, too. They think Dave’s a decent man who gets himself into scrapes but always means well. And they like his wife, Morley, because she’s kind and smart and tells Dave straight out what she thinks. They admire the way the two a’ them handle their small, funny problems with grace, and that their kids, Stephanie and Sam, are good kids who clean up after themselves. They like the way these people make Toronto seem friendly, and that the stories are about everyday things that everyone can relate to—like having a baby, or trying to quit smoking, or cooking a Christmas turkey—and everything always turns out all right in the end. And nobody ever talks about politics or religion or ana’thing that might be alienating, ana’thing that could steal away people’s enjoyment or make them feel they disagree with me. And nobody ever swears.

But mainly they like to laugh. Y’see, when I read these stories onstage, something happens. People at one a’ my concerts know there are laughs coming, and they start laughing even before I get to the funny part. People start pounding their feet on the floor during the Dave and Morley stories, they start doubling over, gasping as if they can’t even breathe. I guess that’s why they’re happy to pay 35 bucks a seat to see me. And why they enjoy staying behind after the show—all the grandmothers and their daughters and their daughters’ daughters, and husbands, too—chatting with me as I sign their books, telling me how many hundreds of miles they’ve come and what I mean to them, and how they think of me as their friend. I might live in Toronto, on King Street West, but when these folks see me walking down the street, wherever I am in Canada, they say, “Hi, Stuart!” like I’m their neighbour. As if, no matter where I go, I’m home.

I’m probably the wrong one to ask what’s behind it all. When it comes to talking about my work, I get kinda mumbly and shy. I find it hard to complete sentences. I like to tell people I’m not particularly well informed about what I do. People like Jess and my musical director John Sheard think it’s because I don’t want to look too closely, that I’m afraid to understand what it is about me that draws people in. Maybe that’s true. Maybe that’s the reason I used that Francis Bacon quote at the front a’ one a’ my books—“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”

But as for what you might call the process a’ my stories, it goes pretty much like this: something funny occurs to me or one a’ my friends—let’s say a skunk starts living under the porch—and I start with that and take it to some sort of extreme that usually involves Dave embarrassing himself. Once I’m done, I work with my story editor Meg to make the story right for print. Meg used to be my editor at Penguin, but in a way she’s sorta my employee now—she calls herself a contract worker—because this whole Stuart McLean thing is a big-dollar business. And after Meg and I are done, Jess helps make the stories right for performance. We make them more linear, for example, and during performances Jess marks up the script and helps me maximize the humour. I’ll let her take it from here:

JESS MILTON: I have a system for everything. Dots are my system for laughter. The biggest laugh, like over-the-top great, is five, but that’s very rare. Five is like, you don’t think people are going to recover… I’ll say, “Cut off the last part of this sentence,” because if the laugh is in the middle of the sentence, people stop laughing because they want to hear what he’s going to say. And the best thing to do is keep your sentences short. If the page has a lot of white space on it, you know it’s a really funny page. The best stories are ones that start off slow, a little bit of laughter, and then the huge laughs are sort of three quarters of the way through, and then they’re tied up with a nice little ribbon at the end that sort of makes you go [sweetly] “hmm.”

I may like to imagine I don’t know why my stories work, but I guess I must have some sorta inkling. The fact is I taught Jess all those things she tells me now. And when we reissued the first book of stories for the 10th anniversary edition, I was pretty quick to cut out the things that no longer fit the mould. We took out the edgy stuff, for instance. We took out the swearing that was in there and the part where Dave thinks about having an affair. Because it didn’t seem right. The audience doesn’t expect that from Dave now. The journalist over there would probably say that my audience expects easy, funny, non-threatening narrative, and I’m in business to give it to them. But I guess I’ve said it myself, in a way. The cover a’ Vinyl Café Diaries says plainly, “Good Natured Humour Guaranteed!”

Dave Amer, who was the first producer of The Vinyl Café, remembers one story I did in the early days that had nothing to do with Dave and Morley. It was about some people who were walking along a beach and came across some toxic hospital garbage that had washed up. I’ll let him fill you in on what happened:

DAVE AMER: It was such an anomaly, this terrible story about them finding plastic bags full of hypodermics, that kind of hospital refuse. And I said to Stuart, “You know, we’re starting to get fan mail from people who are listening as they drive up to the cottage, and all of a sudden you want to do this?” And he said, “I guess you’re right. Why would I do this in the context of all the other things we’re doing?” So we moved away from it. You’re looking for laughs. And it’s Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby kind of laughs, rather than George Carlin kind of laughs. That’s a very conscious choice.

Amer sometimes mentions that TV series with Jerry Seinfeld, and says that in contrast to his show, where nobody hugs, on The Vinyl Café, everybody hugs. And he feels I don’t need to apologize for it. It’s who I am. It’s true we never see a real argument between Dave and Morley, we never see real pain. But that’s because the glass is always half full for me. And thanks to all our effort, the Dave and Morley stories have become so reliably funny and heartwarming that even some folks in Hollywood got interested.

For years, when producer types came to talk to me about doing a TV version of The Vinyl Café, I always said no. I didn’t want some actor’s face in people’s minds when I read them a story about Dave. But then a while back the actor Saul Rubinek called me up and asked if I’d consider doing an animated version of the stories. Eventually I said, y’know, that’s a good idea. So Saul got an animation company involved. And then he went to Phil Rosenthal, the big Hollywood producer behind Everybody Loves Raymond:

PHIL ROSENTHAL: I think the stories are warm and ingenious and funny, and completely relatable. And wonderful entertainment for the family, which is sorely needed.

The weird thing is that none of the American networks Phil took the idea to wanted to do it. They all said no. And the reason was the Dave and Morley stories weren’t edgy enough. When you’re too safe for American television, well, that says something. I know to some folks it says I’m trying too hard to give my audience only what it expects. An executive I used to work with, a guy named Alex Frame, who used to be head of programming at CBC Radio, has a theory about performers who try too hard to please their audience. I guess I should let him explain:

ALEX FRAME: What I believe I’ve seen happen is what I would call the Tyranny of the Mail. When you do something awfully good on CBC Radio, the mail can come through in large numbers. And that mail is full of intelligent, thoughtful and supportive response to what you’ve done. And it’s like a drug. You have a hunger for that. And so there is an inclination, sometimes intentional, sometimes unconscious, to keep doing that, in order to push that button again, and get more and more of that response. The material that you might have done—that may in fact be more creative, more challenging, more stimulating, and also provide the setting for that material that does get the excellent response—you may tend not to do as much of because it’s not getting that response. It is a great danger for people who experience success on CBC Radio.

Well that’s an interesting theory. I couldn’t say for sure if it has ana’thing to do with me, but I have a hunch that when I tell you why I’m nervous about this show comin’ up in Glace Bay, you’ll question the whole notion a’ me being a spinner a’ formulaic treacle.

But before we get to that, it appears we’re pulling into Antigonish. Everybody’s staring out the windows of the motorhome looking for a restaurant, so I guess that means we’re gonna stop for lunch. I’ll bet you’re hungry.

(INTERMISSION)

You know, in a way, Dave Amer is the guy who got me started in all this. I’d been a CBC guy for a number of years, living in the Annex and working for shows like Cross Country Checkup and Sunday Morning. You might recall that back in the early ’90s I was making regular visits to the CBC Radio show Morningside. I’d head to the studio on Jarvis Street and chat with Peter Gzowski in those “found items” we used to do. Peter wasn’t at all sure I was going to work out at first. After a few tries I was almost fired. But then I guess he started to like me. And after that Peter really came to enjoy my visits, along with most of the country, and we’d talk about pencils, or construction cranes—basically ana’thing that came into my head.

Well, as it happens, Dave Amer was a music producer for Morningside. Once in a while, I guest-hosted for Peter, and Amer liked the way I introduced records. He thought I made it sound as though I was interested in the music, even when I’d never heard it before, even when I couldn’t begin to pronounce it. He came to me one day and suggested we do a show together.

So that’s how it started. I’d heard some of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion shows, with a guy introducing music in a fictional world, and I gave it my own spin. In my version I was a guy who was going to open his own record store, and these were the records I was going to sell. Amer and I made a pilot, and it quickly blossomed into nothing at all. Just nothing. It just sat on a shelf for years. Once in a while Amer would try to get somebody in management interested, and nobody ever was.

But in 1994, Beth Haddon became director of current affairs and features. And Amer asked her to listen to the tape. And when she did, she liked it. And even though the CBC was suffering a bunch a’ budget cuts, and there was hardly any new programming being made, she got us to do a new pilot. I was happy about that because when I listened again to the first pilot it didn’t sound right. I realized I didn’t like talking about myself, and pretending to be something I wasn’t. So I came up with the idea of making the show about a fictional character named Dave. I hadn’t even thought of Morley yet. I just decided I’d tell stories about Dave and his small record store in Toronto and the people Dave knew. And that’s the one they put on the air. It went well enough that we did shows for a couple a’ summers.

And then one day, in October 1996, we decided to try doing a live concert in CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio. We publicized the hell outta that concert, and even though it was only about 350 seats, we couldn’t fill it. But the people who came sure had fun.

DAVE AMER: Jesus did it go well. People went crazy… I suddenly realized that he was a great stand-up performer, not so much a stand-up comic, but a raconteur who got uproarious laughter. I remember talking to Frame the day afterwards and saying, “The nature of the whole program just changed.”

That was when we started to go for laughs. Before the concert we’d been sorta entertaining, sorta lighthearted, but now Amer knew I could have an audience in hysterics, and we turned the show toward that.

I guess I’ve always been comfortable onstage. I feel so comfortable that I play tricks on myself sometimes to get my adrenalin up. I’ll lose my reading glasses, for example. It seems I lose my glasses before just about every show. Or I’ll make myself late. I’m late for everything. Amer says it’s pathological. If the motorhome is leaving at 10 a.m., I’ll turn up at 10:15, and there everyone will be with their hands on their hips. At the last minute, before a show, I’ll decide that something has to be rewritten and there won’t be any ink in my portable printer and all hell will break loose.

I don’t like that I’m always late. I realize it’s rude, and I think I’m getting better at it. But no one seems to agree.

But that’s a small problem compared to the great joy of being on tour. I love it. I love looking out the window for landmarks as we drive, I love the hours before the show, when the seats are empty, the musicians practising onstage, and I know that people in town are getting excited about coming to the theatre. I love it all to about the same degree as I hate one particular thing.

If you want to see me looking anxious and awkward, if you want to hear me stumbling over my words, just start digging into my personal life, just start asking about my ex-wife and our grown-up kids. People who know me know to stay clear a’ the whole subject. But the journalist didn’t seem to know any better. So one day, when I was admitting to being a workaholic, he asked if that had caused problems in my marriage. I was sitting crossways in a chair in my hotel room with my legs dangling over the side, eating a Skor Blizzard from the local Dairy Queen. And I told him I don’t think I want to talk about that. I said my ex-wife, Linda Read, used to call my work the other woman. But there are plenty of people who work as hard as I do who have successful marriages, so—who knows? I hesitated a bit, spoke kinda soft and slow, and told him relationships are a complicated business. I don’t understand what happened myself. I see it as a huge failure, the big failure of my life, that my marriage didn’t succeed. And I feel sad about that.

I can tell you, the Skor Blizzard was a lot more enjoyable for me than that part of the conversation. And that’s as much as I’m going to get into it.

Compared to talking about my personal life, being onstage is a kind a’ paradise. Onstage, I get to feel loved by thousands a’ people, and who wouldn’t want to feel that? Onstage I don’t have to worry about ana’thing. The only thing I have to do is keep those folks happy, keep giving them reasons to love me. And in a roundabout sorta way—which I guess is pretty much my patented approach— that brings me to the matter of the Glace Bay show, and why I was thinking about it so much.

Y’see, a few weeks ago, I knew I was goin’ out on tour, and that meant I had to write a funny story. So I took out the funniest idea I had, which was about a kid getting stuck in a laundry chute. I decided to make the kid Dave, 40-some years ago, and I asked myself, what would make a young kid in the late ’50s go into a laundry chute? So I went to one of those sites on the Web that give you the timeline of history. And I hit on the Springhill mining disaster in 1958. What if, I thought, what if a young kid back then, a kid like Dave who grew up in Cape Breton, wanted to pretend he was one a’ the rescuers who saved the lives a’ coal miners trapped underground?

And then I was off to the races.

Except the story I ended up writing didn’t seem funny at all. I got so caught up in thinking about those miners, and the tragedy, I got so hijacked by the feelings of that little boy, that what I ended up writing seemed kinda serious and melancholy. And here’s where I think folks who say I only write safe, funny stories to please an audience are wrong. ’Cause if I was only thinking a’ the audience on tour, I woulda stuck some slapstick stuff in there. But I didn’t. I liked the story the way it was. I loved the story. And when I finished it I called Jonesy. I told him the story was ready, and there wasn’t a laugh in it.

Boy was he pissed.

Maybe I should ask Jonesy to get out of his cabin seat so he can come back here and tell you. Jonesy?

DON JONES: I went, “Stuart, I don’t want to hear this.” I said, “You’re kiddin’ me?” He said, “No, there are no laughs.” And I’m thinking okay, people are coming, it’s been a long winter, and they want to have a laugh. And I said, “Stuart, you made it this far as a humorist. Now all of a sudden you’re gonna become Margaret Atwood?”

Jonesy thinks everything has to be slapstick, and he got real anxious. Well, so did Jess Milton. Jonesy called Jess and the two of them started acting like they had a real problem on their hands.

JESS MILTON: I think that the mining story is one of the best stories that Stuart’s ever written. And I said to him, “When this story airs on the radio, we are going to get dozens and dozens of letters, and we’re gonna get people who want a copy, and it’s gonna make a huge impact.” But for a touring show, people have a certain expectation. And I didn’t think the mining story was going to deliver.

It seems over the years a whole lot of people have wanted to help me stay funny, even when I wanted to do something else. I let them have their say, because I’m always open to suggestions. But this time I was pretty set on doing the mining story. And a’ course, as it turned out, it was kinda funny. It had some three-dot laughs and a nice, big, four-dot one, thanks to some advice from Meg and Jess. But it was melancholy, too. And we decided that near the end of the story, Joe Grass should come onstage and sing part of a mournful song about the disaster that U2 did on their Joshua Tree tour. And the journalist told me he talked to some folks in the audience in Halifax who noticed the whole effect was more poignant than usual. One older woman he sat beside said she’d lived in Springhill during the disaster, and he told me that as I was reading the story, she seemed to be in pain. She pressed her hand to her brow and made small noises, like soft groans. Which isn’t the sorta reaction most people have to one of my stories.

So now, as we pull into Glace Bay, which is very near where the disaster happened nearly 50 years ago, I’m nervous. There’s big feelings here. I mean, I feel them. And I’m hoping the people here know that this story is done out of respect. That it’s for them.

That’s the Savoy Theatre we’ve arrived at. I think it’s a good place for this show. Come inside with me and you’ll see it’s a grand old movie theatre, not too big but well cared for. And you don’t have to look very closely to see that the ornate decorations—the black and red and white designs on the walls and high ceiling—are mostly painted on. That underneath the artifice, it’s pretty simple.

That frantic waving from Jess means she’s telling me I have to get dressed. I have a grey suit that I wear onstage, with an open-necked shirt, and some red leather running shoes. But before I get changed I see there are suddenly some facts in my introduction that have to be checked. Excuse me.

Jess! Can you check these numbers about the Donkin coal mine that shut down? Don’t worry, you’ve got eight minutes.

And just where the heck are my glasses?

If you peek through there, you’ll see the audience getting seated. The place is full, and some of those folks have waited months to see me. They don’t know how much I’ve been thinking about them. I have to admit, as I walk up the steps to the stage, I’m feeling a little tired. It just hit me.

That’s the introduction starting. So I’ll talk to you folks as soon as the show is over. Don’t worry, I’m here for all of you.

(IT’S THE VINYL CAFÉ, WITH STUART MCLEAN)

Well, that went well. I’m pretty pleased. Didn’t you see? We got three standing ovations. They stood up after the story, they stood up after my song at the end, and they stood up when everyone came out to bow. They didn’t have to do that.

You’re wondering what happened after I read my story about the trapped miners and young Dave getting stuck in the laundry chute. To be honest, I’m not sure what happened. I was supposed to start up a funny song with John Sheard, but I was kind of stuck there onstage. I had a lot of things in my mind, like maybe I should tell those people how much had gone into the story, all the worry and debate, and what it meant to me to read it here in Glace Bay. “When I had written it,” I told them, “I thought about coming here and, uh…” My voice kind of trailed off. I tried to tell them it was their story, not mine, but I didn’t get very far. Didn’t seem to be able to put my thoughts or my sentences together. There was an older gentleman in the audience who I realized probably remembered some of what happened back then, and he gave me a thumbs up. Then beside him a man stood and said “Stuart?” so everyone could hear. And he pointed to the old man, who it turned out was an 89-year-old ex-miner. “He was there, during the rescue.”

Yeah, I guess I was a little stunned. You must have seen me pause that long while, and shrug kind of helplessly. I don’t mind long silences onstage. Silences can kinda be transcendent moments. But the fact is I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say ana’thing.

You know, it’s common wisdom in radio that an on-air personality, when he’s at his best, is speaking to one person, no matter how big his audience. Radio is an intimate medium. Fiction writing is, too. And I guess there are times when it might seem to some folks that, when I’m speaking to the radio audience in my full stage voice the way I do, or writing my stories, trying to make everyone laugh, I’ve forgotten this. Times when maybe it seems like I want to entertain as many people as uniformly as possible.

But here in Glace Bay, it turned out that in a way I was speaking to one man. I don’t know whether you noticed, but after the standing ovations, when the audience started to leave, I climbed down from the stage and spoke to that ex-miner. His nickname’s Cubby. I got his phone number—wrote it down right here on my wrist. One day I’d like to talk to him again.