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Thursday, November 21, 2019

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7 A.M. Soundtrack

It’s the summer of OJ. The clear morning sky stretches overhead. And as a robin chirps in the alley behind Depot 12, the third of the digital numbers on Sissy Cole’s big black watch changes from a two to a three….

7:03 A.M.

Bellow of letter carrier talk over the bellow of the radio:

“Hey Jack! Jack!”

“Yeah, what do you want, dink.”

“You make me sick!”

“I make you sick? I’m throwin up here all over my letters talkin to you.”

“Jack that may be true – but you make me sick!”

“I make you sick?”

The letter carriers stand facing their cases, sorting with amazing rapidity, shouting out to people they can’t see. And now on the PA system:

“Good morning, letter carriers!”

A storm of cheers: it’s Leo Chung, everyone’s favorite register clerk, back from three weeks in Macau and two months sick leave. He weighs 94 pounds.

“Lots of registers today, so please try to pick up your registers by 7:45. Notice I say please, letter-carriers!”

“Thank you, Leo!”

Sissy shouts it out, her voice rising over the big boom box that’s on top of the case she’s sorting specials into. She’s an SLC – an unassigned letter carrier – but three weeks ago she fractured her ankle and now she has to work inside. She’s five feet tall, 24 years old, has a buzz cut and bright dark eyes and wears the sleeves of her candy-striped letter carrier shirt rolled up almost to her shoulders. She weighs approximately ten pounds more than Mr. Chung.

On the box above her head a BC Lotto ad pours forth:

GOOD LUCK MAY COME – YOUR – WAY: AAA-NY DAY

And then a station ID, backed by a thumping bass:

ZED-NINETY-FIVE-POINT-THREE-EFF-EMM

And then a hit song: Haddaway’s “What is Love.” As soon as it starts, the skin on Sissy’s arms goosepimples with excitement. Unfortunately, Big Doug sorting beside her – Big Doug with his fat shoulders in his tight blue Big House shirt, Big Doug the bully and hypochondriac, with his wet eyes and loud opinions – chooses this moment to start swearing at a carrier who pulled his specials out too fast.

Doug’s shoulders heave. He shouts, “Slow down you prick!” Then he begins to choke and cough, spraying the air with bits of the egg McMuffin he’s been stuffing into his face.

Sissy says, “Hey Doug, are you okay?”

Big Doug doesn’t answer. Why should he? Sissy isn’t an important person, so what would be the point? Recognizing the syllogism, Sissy flushes and turns the radio up, trying to get into the song and away from the burn of anger.

As she does so, a young man named Prem Kumar pulls his yellow and brown Oldsmobile right up against some bushes on a dead end street in North Vancouver. He parks. He’s got about twenty minutes before he has to get to work moving boxes of shirts around in the warehouse that’s a hundred yards from where he sits.

Prem rolls down the window and smells the air. It’s still cool. Drugged by the sun warming his face, he stares at the spit bugs on the thick foliage brushing against the car. He thinks: Hey little creatures, how do you make that perfect white spit?

But then Clay and Janice put on 10,000 Maniacs’ version of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” and Prem cranks it. A 17-year-old stallion and soon-to-be SFU student born in Kitimat and only this year moved to Vancouver, Prem doesn’t yet take the Z-FM show for granted. Almost every day it throws out something that makes his head bounce with delight. At its best the show reminds him of that moment in “Dick Contino’s Blues” where two roller-skating bull terriers with plastic fins attached to their backs are featured live on the Rocket to Stardom show outside the Yeakel Olds carlot in downtown Hollywood. What a hit after Kitimat! The show is musical neon, 90s vaudeville, and day after day Prem sucks it up. Its secret is that it gives listeners what they want, and this morning Prem and Sissy and Big Doug and Leo Chung and everyone else in Vancouver, from the Hong Kong emigrant students driving over the Lion’s Gate Bridge with their sunglasses on the tops of their heads to the sleepy construction workers riding the Skytrain to the office clerks standing and sitting on the packed, perfumed buses with their earphones buzzing – everyone wants the OJ story.

7:19 A.M.

Lots of mail this cloudless July Tuesday. And all over Sissy’s depot letter carriers sort under the gloomy flourescents and listen intently as a breathy, melliflous women’s chorus intones:

“Oh Jay Simp…son…”

Head deejay Clay Saint-Thomas laughs, rolling with it: “Let’s get our morning update here. It’s getting out of hand. Now there’s an OJ song you can enjoy.”

Janice Ungaro cuts in: “Being in the media, we feel it’s our duty to keep you on top of what’s being talked about in the world, and we think this song will be talked about. It’s called `O-Jayo.’ Check this out:”

A calypso band sound:

“O Jay-o
“He’s so jay-jay-o
“OJ run, but they bring him home
“Racing down the highway in a big white truck
“OJ run, but they bring him home
“Helicopter spot him and he out of luck
“OJ run, but they bring him home”

Everyone’s listening. But Big Doug doesn’t care. Convulsed with anxiety, he stops sorting and grabs at his pony tail. “Oh Jesus, there’s something wrong with me” he calls out. “My stomach hurts.”

Derek two cases over says in his arch, gay guy voice, “My stomach hurts too, Big Doug.”

But Doug doesn’t respond. He’s pacing around now, anxiously clutching at the long grey tail of hair that hangs down his back. They’re surrounded by mail – in bags, in binnies, in lettertainers on the floor, whole walls of mail – but Big Doug has nevertheless stopped working. Sissy’s so angry her teeth are clenched. They’ve got hundreds of specials backed up. But how can she tell Doug the bully to get to work?

She grabs an armful from the binny closest to her. She sorts fast. Maybe the drama of her effort will shame Doug into getting to it. But even though they’re literally stepping on mail Doug just stares into space. His eyes are uneasy. He’s pulling on his pony tail so hard his head repeatedly snaps back. His mouth is a little round anus between his fat cheeks, and his double chin wobbles. It’s a grotesque sight – and when Sissy notices it, a small shudder of horror or sadness complicates her anger.

But then Doug lets go of his tail. His face is transformed. “They’re doing the show biz quiz!”

Clay Saint-Thomas: “Okay, who wants to do the show biz quiz on the Zed-lines this morning?”

A soft, teenage girl’s voice: “Diane, from New West?”

Clay asks, “Diane, this is a clip from what Patrick Swayze movie?”

He plays the clip, which features rumba music, pauses, then says in a strong, enthusiastic voice: “Do you know the movie!”

Dirty Dancing!” Diane says.

Dirty Dancing, of course! I don’t think they did any latino dancing in Ghost!”

“I don’t think so!” Diane says.

Morning after morning Z-FM takes calls from working women all over the city. Sissy notices how they talk: wryly, carefully, happily, caustically, bluntly, nervously, eagerly. Men almost never call, Sissy’s realized, and when they do they talk in deep, vague monosyllables that fade off into silence – the sound of wallflowers in plaid shirts. On the radio, Sissy thinks, Vancouver is a girls’ town – a bright-eyed, soft-cheeked participant in what an article she read a few months ago in The Atlantic called the contemporary world’s “aural culture – similar to but finally distinct from the oral traditions on which folk music once depended.” At its most basic, the article said, “aural culture takes the form of a teenager uninhibitedly singing along with records and imitating the sounds on them.”

And aural culture wasn’t “local.” With a very few exceptions, the celebrities came from elsewhere. Forget all those Canada-Council-subsidized figures that you read about in The Globe and Mail: When Sissy listens to the Breakfast Jam, Cancult’s insignificance becomes almost embarassingly apparent.

Clay Saint-Thomas: “So what about Rita McNeil’s forthcoming variety show?”

“Rita McNeil, Rita McNeil….” Janice Ungaro’s getting flustered trying to respond.

Sissy grimaces with sympathetic embarrassment. She knows what’s going on. The truth is, Ungaro’s mortified – she can’t think of a thing to say about this folksinger from Nova Scotia. McNeil just seems so unimportant to listeners driving to work all over town. And it’s the same with most Cancult figures. Margaret Atwood? Atom Egoyan? Forget it.

Prem in any case doesn’t know who McNeil is. His boss Uncle Hari hasn’t come in yet; so with the warehouse doors wide open, letting in a blinding rectangle of morning sun, Prem sits with his feet up on Uncle Hari’s desk, listening to Diane from New West with her voice girlish as a pair of panties. He listens with hot fascination, the beginnings of a hardon in his pants. Might have to go into the can before Hari arrives. Prem imagines girls all over Vancouver wearing short skirts and cute little berets, uninhibitedly singing along with the tunes that Clay and Janice play. It’s black music, dance music – music that suggests malls and night clubs and the euphoria of trying on clothes in some Metrotown store where “Jumping to the Party” booms into the changeroom. The mix grabs him: freeway traffic news butts up against chatter about Robert Palmer’s silk underwear, then the ads blast the capitalist message, and every few minutes an amazing song makes Prem and the girls of Vancouver dance and sing.

Now Clay and Janice start to talk about the new movie Sylvester Stallone’s making in town. Prem turns the radio up. He goes and stands at the warehouse entrance, squinting in the strong sunlight.

Sylvester Stallone! Prem loves this. Sylvester Stallone never got to Kitimat. Sometimes it seems like the whole lower mainland from the West End on out to Abbotsford is a kind of giant stageset painted in bright colours for a Time-Warner production. People are hip here. Way more than in Kitimat, all the guys sound and dress like Compton homeboys. Early on Prem had noticed the gangbanger writing scribbled on half the walls in town. Now he’s starting to notice how many of the stores have names like L.A. Gear or Manhattan. Even the stars that you constantly hear about aren’t local guys, but Hollywood gods spotted down at Granville Island with their bodyguards.

But what really interests Prem is how intimate listeners are with these gods. Last week during “Star-spy Thursday” he’d listened with total absorption as one girl after another had called up and angrily dished out the dirt on the celebrity who’d come into her workplace and behaved like a creep.

“So Sharon Stone came into your store,” Clay had said.

“Oh yeah.”

“And what was she like?”

“She was a real jerk. Just arrogant like you wouldn’t believe.”

Thinking about it now, what hits Prem is the certainty of judgement. It’s so familiar – and at that moment he gets a flash of the living room with its curtains smelling of incense where last night his sisters had used exactly the same tone of voice to pass judgement on the members of his own family.

7:34 A.M.

The noise level’s rising in Sissy’s depot, and Clay Saint-Thomas is working hard: “On celebrity grapevine this morning, we have finally got the pronunciation of Prince’s new name.”

Janice Ungaro mutters, “Oh dear.”

“He’s not Prince anymore, of course, he’s that symbol thing that nobody’s been able to figure out for like the last year.”

“So now the symbol has a name.”

“Apparently he’s come up with a pronunciation for the symbol. It is pronounced -” here Clay pauses for two portentous seconds – “TAF-KAP. T, A, F. K, A, P. Prince is from here on in to to be known as: TAF-KAP.”

Janice is derisive: “What’s his band gonna be called: MAC-TAC? Here’s TAF-KAP and MAC-TAC! I mean somebody get that nut in a bolt!”

Sissy laughs. But not Big Doug. He’s furious.

“What a fucking imbecile! Jesus Christ! What a fucking – the fucking guy is throwing away name brand recognition! He fucking doesn’t know the first thing about business!”

Listening to him, Sissy flinches. Doug flaps a special in her face and glares at her. “I’ll tell you, boy, if I knew that guy I’d slap his face.”

While Doug is speaking a station message has boomed through the depot and an ad has started. It never stops. Sissy listens to Z-FM from approximately 6:30 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. each weekday, but she doubts if she hears 10 seconds of silence. Like those Dutch paintings she loves that give you a world crammed full of faces and things, the Breakfast Jam offers an aural universe so jammed with different sound events it can make her laugh out loud. The station plugs, the effects (Sissy especially likes the cheesy “applause” tape that’s used constantly and sounds like a bunch of sticks being clapped together), the public pranks like dropping a haggis from a roof to hear the sound of its plop, the five-word-a-second traffic reports, the absurd call-in bits – “Whitewater Gargling”, for instance, where listeners fill their mouths with water and gargle their favorite tunes or “Foreign Food or Foreign Dude,” when Clay and Janice would give the name of either an ethnic food or a World Cup soccer player and the listener had to guess which it was – all this provides a river of sound that hurls the listener from one tune to the next.

Riding this river now, Prem thoughtfully starts to pick his nose. He’s just returned from the can and is feeling relaxed. At that moment his uncle Hari steps into the warehouse.

“My dear Prem! Good morning!”

Prem jumps to his feet. “Uncle Hari. How you doing?”

A small dark man wearing blue work clothes, Uncle Hari lifts his hand and slowly moves it to the left and to the right. “So much this, so much that. My wife has given me heartburn beyond all belief.”

He walks toward his desk and the radio. “My god, could you turn it down? Just a smidge? I need peace, calm.” He sits at the desk and pushes his hand over his face and sighs.

Prem turns the radio down. He understands his uncle’s feelings. At times the Breakfast Jam sounds like a video arcade. And it’s the ads that contribute most to this sound wall. Uncle Hari says they’re pitiless – screaming little buzzsaws that cut into his ears and tear into the most vulnerable part of his brain.

Uncle Hari sighs when the ads come on. But Prem doesn’t mind them. Especially when they’re piled one on top of the other, as they almost always are on the Breakfast Jam, the ads collapse everything outside the world of consumption into a black hole. With their stripper soundtracks and imbecile voices screechy with happiness, they tell him that the familiar world of McDonald’s and Big Steel and Carpetland and Speedy Muffler and Ticketmaster outlets and Metrotown and Frank’s Automotive is still the only thing that counts, the only sphere that matters. They narrow attention down to the totally mundane. So that when he’s working by himself there in the gloomy warehouse, when Uncle Hari is out with his girlfriend and a certain loneliness creeps in, the ads put him in exactly the right mood to do the job. They’re as harsh as the flourescent tubes above his head, as loud as traffic, as lacking in resonance as the plain light of day.

7:44 A.M.

Controlled pandemonium now in Sissy’s depot. Some of the carriers have already gotten their mail up. The place is like a zoo and the radio’s blasting:

– WE ARE PLEASED TO ANNOUNCE THE OPENING OF OUR ONE HUNDREDTH BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO STORE IN CANADA.

Happy voice: SO LET’S PARTY!

– ENTER THE BIG SCREEN ONE HUNDREDTH STORE SWEEPSTAKES BEFORE JULY 18 AND YOU CAN WIN A TRIP FOR FOUR TO UNIVERSAL STUDIOS, HOLLYWOOD. NO PURCHASE NECESSARY, BUT WITH EVERY RENTAL TRANSACTION YOU’LL GET A BURGER KING WHOPPER COUPON. SEE STORE FOR COMPLETE DETAILS.

Happy voice: IT’S PARTY TIME AT BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO!

Then:

– YOU CAN EVEN WIN A ROOMFUL OF BABY ESSENTIALS WORTH OVER EIGHTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS! SO IF YOU HAVEN’T GOT YOUR CATALOGUE – PICK IT UP AT ANY TOYS R US STORE AND LOOK AROUND!

Then:

– RIGHT NOW YOU GET SAFEWAY FAMILY PACK PRICES ON ALL BC LIONS HOME GAMES! THAT’S ONLY EIGHT NINETY-NINE PLUS GST FOR TICKETS. LIMIT THREE PAIRS WHILE SUPPLIES LAST. GET YOUR BC LIONS TICKETS TODAY! SAFEWAY – THE BETTER WAY!

The ads roar. As Sissy listens, nervous irritation squeezes her. Letter carriers are shouting at drivers, her ankle hurts, and Big Doug has gone off the rail. Two minutes ago Ward the supervisor came by and abruptly told Doug to get to work. “Yah yah yah,” Doug said.

Now with Ward back in the office, he’s started to talk in a flat hard voice that everyone around him can hear. “Oh yeah. Sure. What a fucking piece of shit. How fucking unfair can you get. What a fucking prick. Oh yeah. Uh huh. `Get to work.’ Fuck you. Fuck you!”

Of course, he isn’t sorting. He’s talking in that menacing voice, walking up and down in their tight little space and confining Sissy to about five square feet. She’s afraid of him.

But she’s also angry at herself for being afraid of him.

And now Ted Shred the traffic biker has come on the air, screaming so loud he’s almost hoarse:

“It’s lookin’ real good out on the streets here! And, uh, you can hear that: that’s all the change I find on the street! And every day I find change, and I wanna thank all the people who throw change out the window at me! And one day I’m gonna get enough, I’m gonna buy some Leggo and build a car pool -” and at this point Sissy barks, “Yeah, well, Ted, why don’t you just shut up,” and she slams a special as hard as she can against the case.

Tremendous response. First, Big Doug stares at her and stops talking. Second, Ted Shred is replaced by a station plug, then a deep male voice intones:

THIS IS THE ZED BREAKFAST JAM

and after a second of silence, Sissy hears the first notes of Erasure’s “Always,” a song she’s been waiting for all morning.

Transformation. It’s as if a shimmering, crystalline wave of fairy dust, like something out of Snow White, sweeps over the station. At the first chorus, Sissy shivers and stops sorting. She stands erect, flooded with joy. The song overwhelms her. Spellbound, completely still, she looks out at the depot and thinks she will never see the world like this again. The music illuminates everything. Even Doug’s pudgy fingers seem beautiful. Sissy’s throat tightens. She whispers softly:

“Always, I want to be with you
“And make believe with you
“And live in harmony, harmony, oh love”

But then the song ends, and a grey sheet of ordinariness drops down in front of her. Sissy puffs her lips out and sighs. She’s back in the world of Burger King. And she still has a half-tub of specials to sort.

While Sissy works, Prem dances in the warehouse to “Strike It Up.” He moon walks, moving his knees forward as he glides back. Grinning at Uncle Hari, he does the splits then drops to the floor and does a kind of spin-the-bottle around the one hand pressed to the concrete. He jumps up and snaps his arms out one way and his hips the other.

Nothing can stand against this music. Listening to it, Prem hears a message of liberation and physical euphoria that goes beyond everything else he knows.

When the song ends, Uncle Hari slowly claps his hands. “My dear boy, I’m impressed! Where’d you learn all that?”

Prem smiles, catches his breath. “Clubs. TV.”

Uncle Hari nods, thoughtful. “You look like a black man.”

“Yo, bro,” Prem says, grinning at him.

“But now you must get to work. We have a truck coming by at nine-thirty that needs to be filled to the roof – shipped and tripped!”

“Shipped and tripped, okay,” Prem says, and heads into the shadows of the warehouse where rows of cardboard boxes, each half as high as he is, are stacked ten feet into the air.

Then he stops. “Can I take the radio?”

Uncle Hari waves his hand Yes, head down, at work. Then he looks up. “The radio, the radio! You should read more books!”

Radio in hand, Prem thinks about this. Books. He gets a sudden image of John Cleese in a dress screaming, “Books! Books!” He thinks about driving in to work that morning with thousands of other cars, all of them listening to the radio as they pour over the Second Narrows. He thinks about how he laughed out loud yesterday when Ted Shred interviewed some guys who were picking up quarters with their bum cheeks in a McDonald’s parking lot.

What book can give him that? None. Prem hums to himself. He numbers boxes with a new black felt tip pen, thinking about it.

Books are dull. They’re frozen. They don’t change. They don’t keep on happening. But the Breakfast Jam does. And that’s why he likes it. Prem likes the fact that he can look forward to “Star-spy Thursday” and “Love Tuesday” and Friday’s Trucker Poetry; he likes it that each morning Ted Shred screams out the traffic reports and Valerie Ambrose reads the weather and news. It’s like the new summer movies. He can anticipate The Breakfast Jam. And because he can anticipate it, he can interact with it and feel like part of it.

And now Prem has another thought. Earlier he noticed there were no local stars on Z-FM except for a few jocks. But as he manhandles cardboard boxes that are three feet across and full of what he considers to be some of the ugliest shirts in the world, Prem reflects on all those girls who call up. Maybe they’re not stars. But they’re sprinkled with stardust. Their voices sound like Playland and night clubs, and when he listens to them Prem gets the same excited feeling he got when he walked down the hall at Beta Secondary that first week, gawky and self-conscious, and found himself surrounded by a teasing gang of girls in baggy pants and bobby-pinned skater hair that it took him ten seconds to figure out were part of what made Vancouver a not-so-bad place to live.

8:09 A.M.

Carriers are leaving now, and Sissy is on her break. As she always does except in bad weather, she’s carried her boom box and a low stool out into the alley behind the depot. It’s a hot bright morning, and after the flourescents the light makes her squint. So Sissy sets up in the shade of a bush that’s growing against a concrete wall. For a few moments she just sits, her eyes shut against the sun. Then she lights up a joint. On the radio a throaty bedroom voice is saying:

IT’S LO-O-OVE (SADDLE UP COWBOY) LOVE TUESDAY.

Clay Saint-Thomas: “For Love Tuesday this morning we’re doing a special kind of thing – your number one dating turn-off.”

Janice Ungaro: “Mm hmm. Whether it’s your first date, second, or third, something that just turns you right off.”

“The thing that tells you immediately you cannot see this person any longer.”

Now a young woman’s voice: “Hi, my name’s Val?”

Clay: “Val, what is your number one dating turn-off?”

“Well, I went out with this guy one time and he was cooking me chili and I noticed this piece of string kind of hanging from his belt loop. After he was finished eating (and I was still eating, by the way), he whipped out this piece of dental floss, and starts flossing his teeth at the table.”

Clay: “He had dental floss hanging from his beltloop?”

“Yes!”

Sissy laughs and mimics the woman. “Yes!” She feels a faint, butterflies-in-the-stomach exhilaration. But she doesn’t fly with it. Instead, as always on her break, she tries to empty her mind and let the seconds slip through it one by one. She sees it like this: if she can live in the present and experience each moment as it comes, her time away from the case will last longer. She turns the radio down. Shuts her eyes. Then after awhile she opens them again and stares at a rectangular window in the wall across the alley. For the next five minutes she sits like that, staring at the little window and listening to the radio buzz at her feet.

4163 words, June 19, 2004

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Bruce Serafin

Bruce Serafin lived and wrote beautifully about Vancouver until he died in June 2007. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004. A posthumus collection of essays, Stardust was published in October 2007 by New Star.

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