Headlines featuring crack-smoking mayors and election fraudsters.
Last summer in Prince George, a man hit by lightning during a baseball game “rushed out” when he realized that he was unhurt, according to an item in the Sunday paper, to buy a lottery ticket while his luck was still good. The man said, “I thought what the hell, am I burning, am I sizzling. I googled it, and wow I could be dead,” said the Sunday paper, a copy of which I picked up the following Monday in Giancarlo’s Sports Bar on Commercial Drive, where I had gone ostensibly for a bowl of minestrone, but really in search of stories of scandal and corruption boiling over in high places such as the Senate, the Prime Minister’s Office, city halls in Toronto, Montreal and Laval, and the slightly older almost outdated scandals bubbling up if not exactly boiling over anymore from the Ontario ex-premier’s office and even the so-called ethnic outreach scandal in BC, so I was understandably not much interested in the non-scandalous story of a man struck by lightning in Prince George.
I had been following scandal stories for six or eight weeks in newspapers left by patrons in the lunch and coffee joints near where I live and where I work, of which the most reliable for having newspapers on hand whenever more scandal news might be required were, along with Giancarlo’s, with its excellent minestrone: Kyle’s Café, farther south on Commercial Drive, where a few days’ worth of the local dailies could usually be found; Caffè Artigiano, downtown on Granville Street, an espresso joint where the so-called national papers were always in good supply; and Brioche Urban Eatery, also downtown on West Cordova, where recent papers including the so-called nationals are allowed to accumulate in a pile in the corner. It was there, on an afternoon last May, while munching the excellent BLT Caesar salad with tiger prawns and browsing at random through a stack of newspapers, when the usual trickle of scandal news had swollen to flood level, that I felt the first stirring of a growing and possibly illicit fascination with the netherworld of (always alleged) crooked senators, crooked mayors, crack-cocaine-smoking mayors, miscellaneous election fraudsters, feckless bureaucrats, etc., not to mention unnamed Mafiosi who “stuffed the profits in their socks,” and as bits and pieces of disconnected narrative, gossip, innuendo and little-known fact accumulated or agglutinated in the pages of the news, I could sense that I might be looking forward to future lunches and coffee breaks not for nourishment of the body but for darker satisfactions of the soul.
By the end of May I was entangled in corruption with lunch and coffee: cupidity, avarice, venality, coverups and excuses, not to mention gangsterism, a charge laid against government perps in Laval or maybe Montreal, and who by back formation perhaps were to be considered (alleged) gangsterists. By the end of June a cast of characters revolving in and out of the headlines included the Duffster, the Pamster, Mr. Right, Mayor Ford Nation, Mr. Three Percent and Mr. Sidewalk, along with unnamed supporting characters such as the Million-dollar Bribester, the Car Exploder and the Coffee Change Collector. Throughout it all, reports and charges of robocallers and election fraudsters buzzed or hummed away, much like the background radiation left over from the Big Bang.
Scandal stories have a tendency to be the same story retold many times, and the stories that I was reading or “following” were the same in all of the papers, often little more than a gathering-up of alleged fact-like bits thinly reported and then the same again, but in fact the repetition was almost as intoxicating as finding a new bit of news or the same or new photographs of fat men looking like perps, the woman with the hair and glasses outfit, the mayor with the cigar and brother outfit, all worth a second look in the cafés where I sat, always with a certain degree of self-consciousness, not wishing to appear too interested in the shameful or the shocking, or the immoral or salacious. In fact, salacious material was not there in the news per se, but the promise of salaciousness was there, lurking, and perhaps detectable in the photographs of faces that I scrutinized repeatedly for signs of venality, greed, iniquity, profligacy, etc.; the repetition of the images, like the repetition of the headlines and the naming of sins, informed a kind of journalistic catechism of public life in Canada, which had come to resemble or perhaps had always resembled a Hollywood B movie (at last), except for that missing salacious element, the bedrooms, the boudoir, the assignations—when would the debauchery surface?
At Kyle’s Café on Commercial Drive, where the traditional national menu is preserved as “Chinese & Canadian Cuisine,” cell phones are rarely seen or heard; at Kyle’s I was often the only one reading the newspapers; the booths were occupied by families with children, and people in wheelchairs were often in attendance at the smaller tables. Most of the patrons were known to the proprietor, who cast a benign aura over her customers. Kyle’s was the safest of cafés; most of the patrons were occupied with their domestic lives: here was where life goes on, as opposed to other places where life takes on a theatrical aspect, so to speak, and one is required to enact a certain savoir faire. I could read the scandal news in Kyle’s at a table in the middle of the room with almost no embarrassment. I was in Kyle’s one afternoon flipping through out-of-date papers when I realized that scandal doesn’t age the way normal news ages: items a day or more old were still fresh, still outrageous, still fun to read.
Reading scandal news in semi-public settings tends to call itself into question: one senses that perhaps one ought not be seen enjoying scandal stories; one wants to be seen glancing at them in passing while searching for the real news elsewhere on the same page, like the story of the man in Prince George struck by lightning, which occupied half a page in the Sunday paper that I picked up on the Monday in Giancarlo’s Sports Bar, and seemed at first glance to be squeezing out news of some possible unknown scandal that I would have preferred to see; and in fact there was no scandal news anywhere in the paper that day, which led me to wonder what had been suppressed. Nevertheless, scandal news seemed to have a different effect in different cafés: in Artigiano’s on Granville, for example, with its stone tabletops and dark wood, and despite or because it offers the best coffee in the city, it is easy to feel out of place, among stylish young people in “business” clothes; middle-aged men somewhat frumpy in their suits and loose ties, conversing vehemently about business plans, marketing plans, employment incentive plans; and everywhere the fierce wielding of cell phones and notebook computers: here the newspaper provides camouflage, and the scandal news gave me a way of staying in the background with my macchiato and my glass of water.
But evidently I too was enacting a certain role, for one afternoon I was sitting at a table outside on the sidewalk, scanning a newspaper, when a man holding what I took to be a map came over to me and said, to me and to no one else, “Excuse me, can you tell me,” and he looked down at what was not a map in his hand but a crossword puzzle, “do you know the name of the tennis stadium in New York City?”