I MISS STUART McLEAN. Or, rather, I miss Dave and Morley, the characters the late CBC Radio storyteller created for The Vinyl Cafe.
I miss them even though Dave, an unmade bed of a man with a penchant for falling into holes of his own digging, felt disconcertingly familiar.
McLean used to tour Canada with a Christmas show, which was great, because some of the very best Dave and Morley stories took place over the holidays. There was a rambling (weren’t they all?) yarn in which their neighbourhood tied itself in knots in a gift-giving frenzy.
There was the one where the punch bowls got mixed up at Polly Anderson’s Christmas party and the teenage daughter who tried to get drunk stayed sober but the pre-teen son ended up slurring “come and get me, copper” at a traffic stop.
Best of all was Dave Cooks the Turkey. Just hearing the title causes some people to laugh so hard that they lose their balance, their ability to speak and a degree of bladder control.
It was a wonderful night, right up until we walked back to the car and spotted a guy huddling in a wet sleeping bag in the entrance of the restaurant in which we had dined earlier.
The contrast between our comfort and his misery robbed the evening of its glow.
I wish I could report that I did something kind and Christmasy — that I bought him a meal, or slipped him a couple of bucks, or even acknowledged that he was there and human.
I just got in the car and drove home.
Why? Maybe it’s because we have become numbed, even made resentful, by street issues so entrenched that they feel like a permanent condition, a bottomless black hole into which energy and tax dollars are poured — a problem to be solved rather than people who need help.
Maybe because it’s easy, when you’re relatively healthy and wealthy, to believe that the person at your feet has, like Dave, stumbled into a hole of his own digging.
These are the stereotypes I conjure up when painting a mental picture of poverty: people who have driven themselves into the ditch and need me — saint that I am — to tow them out (though the reality is that when I do reach into my pocket, chances are I’ve been less inspired by a charitable spirit than an inability to avoid eye contact).
Too bad the view from the top (or at least midpoint) of the pile doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Every year when the Times Colonist Christmas Fund channels donated money to those in need, we get the disturbing, frightening reminder that it’s often bad luck, not bad choices, that derail lives. Mental illness. A stroke. A brain injury. It could happen to you (or, worse, me).
Those sleeping in doorways are only the most visible of those in need. Low-paid workers struggling to feed their families don’t draw a second glance on the sidewalk. Nor do those who become unpaid, fulltime care aides when their loved ones are blindsided by catastrophic illness. Nor do isolated seniors. Nor do children.
Here’s an image I have shared before, and probably will again, because it has stuck with me for 20 years: two little girls in pink party dresses, ribbons in their hair, shaking with excitement as they walked into the crowded Bay Street Armoury for the annual Mustard Seed Street Church turkey dinner. It was a terrific event, and the volunteers who staged it deserve praise, but when I looked at those girls I thought: Their Christmas dinner is a paper-plate meal shared with several hundred strangers in a cavernous army drill hall. If they find that so thrilling, what does the rest of life look like?
It makes it hard to retain my sanctimonious attitude when I think of those two, but I somehow manage to hold on.
Alternatively, I could recognize that tomorrow it could be me in the ditch, hoping that someone writes a happy ending to my Stuart McLean Christmas story.
Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloopsian who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.