Author Tags: Humour, Journalism
“If I ever quit,” he says, “you’ll read about it in the obituaries.” -- Mike McCardell
Mike McCardell was born in New York City in 1944. His first memoir Chasing the Story God starts with McCardell’s youth in a New York high school where he spent most of his time daydreaming. “I was not as good with prepositions as I was with clouds,” he admits. Perpetually in the detention room, he started reading New York’s Daily News. “I was fascinated by stories of criminals with names like Two Finger Maloney and crime bosses who had more power than the mayor without having to worry about votes.” To celebrate her son’s graduation, McCardell’s mother bought a six-pack of beer and two sandwiches of ham on rye. She asked him what he wanted to be. “I want to be a reporter,” he answered. She gave him a subway token. Her solution was simple. “Go to a newspaper,” she instructed. The New York Times offered McCardell a job as an outdoor messenger. The Daily News offered him a job as an indoor messenger. “It was winter,” he recalls. “Winter in New York is cold. I took the indoor job, and stayed at the Daily News for eleven years.”
McCardell got married and worked his way out of the mailroom. He became a copy boy on the night shift, where he changed typewriter ribbons, sharpened pencils and got beer for the reporters after the bars had closed. He also learned how to get the reporters’ film back to the newsroom faster than a taxi. “…A good copy boy would use a variety of back streets, subways and rides bummed on garbage trucks to deliver the film while the taxi was still stuck in traffic.” Spending countless nights getting beer at three a.m., hanging around police stations and outside burning buildings, McCardell developed a skewed view of life. “By the time I was twenty I thought the entire world was made up of crooks and firemen and taxi drivers and illegal beer merchants.”
After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, where he fought insects on golf courses with DDT, McCardell went back to school. He raised two kids with his wife Valerie, while juggling school and a night job. He did his homework in police stations and newsrooms, surrounded by crime reporters. One night he found himself studying outside a rioting prison, where the guards had been taken hostage. This was the Attica prison riot of 1970. At three a.m., McCardell and four other reporters volunteered to go inside. They were led through a black steel door and into a dimly lit concrete tunnel. The door was closed behind them. At the other end of the tunnel a second door was opened. “We stepped inside and were hit like a two-fisted punch by the smell. It made us gag… The stink of excrement and urine had replaced the air. I forced myself to breathe through my nose.” After asking the hostages a few brief questions, the reporters were led back outside. The next night, McCardell was back at the same prison. This time, prison guards with heavy jackets, nightsticks, football helmets and shields made of tabletops arrived by the carload. They were going to free their fellow guards. McCardell walked around to the back of the prison. He climbed to the fourth floor of a factory to see into the prison courtyard.
McCardell witnessed the following scene after the guards had quickly defeated the inmates: “Two rows of guards, about thirty in all, stood in parallel lines in the exercise yard… They held clubs. The rear door of the prison opened and an inmate was pushed out. He was hit on the back with a club. He went down, then was picked up and hit again. He fell, but was pulled to his feet and was forced to walk between the rows of guards. When he fell again he was beaten. When he got to his feet, trying to protect his head with his arms, he was beaten on his ribs… Even from where I was I could see he was drenched in blood… I could only watch as bloodied, limp prisoners were thrown into a pile.” Back at the newsroom, McCardell had the story but no photos – until the bell on the wire photo machine began to ring. “Pictures of what I had described were coming out of the machine,” he recalls. “I did not know that one floor below me in the factory, an Associated Press photographer had been at work.” Photos of the beatings spilled from the machine. “In a scene straight out of Hollywood, one of the editors said to me, ‘Write your story, kid.’”
Eventually he tired of the violence that seemed to pervade New York, and moved to B.C. to "trade gun smoke for fresh air." He was hired from afar by the Vancouver Sun in 1973, and began by covering the police beat out of police headquarters. In 1976 he started work with BCTV, which later became Global BC. During his long tenure, he has produced more than 9,000 mostly 'human interest' stories.
McCardell's second memoir of "Socratic vignettes," Back Alley Reporter, shares his appreciation for eccentric characters and his frequently heartwarming views of everyday life. It was followed by The Blue Flames that Keep Us Warm: Mike McCardell's Favourite Stories (Harbour 2007), shortlisted for the BC Booksellers Choice Award. It frequently appeared atop the BC Bestsellers list in 2008, when he released Getting to the Bubble: Finding Magic Amid the Urban Roar. In that book he describes meeting an austistic nine-year-old boy named Reilly who had an unshakeable faith that he would be able to catch a fish in a polluted urban pond by using just a stick and a piece of string. McCardell extrapolated from that metaphor of hope for a heartwarming, how-to book about enjoying life more, The Expanded Reilly Method (2009) in which "it is never quite clear whether the author truly feels he has found a harmonious new approach to living or if he is doing a send-up for the self-help industry exemplified by Dr. Phil and Wayne Dyer." Here's Mike: With Junkyard Granny, Whistling Bernie Smith, the Robertson Screwdriver, Pancakes and Eternal Truth is a compendium of McCardell's favourite stories from the thousands of television tales he has shared at the close of Global TV's six o'clock News Hour.
Fairly described as "a rollicking tour of Vancouver history," Mike McCardell's Haunting Vancouver: A Nearly True History (Harbour 2013) cheerfully revives tales of saloon-owner Jack Deighton (whose name gave rise to Gastown), The Penthouse nightclub, Granville Island and how Pauline Johnson named Lost Lagoon.
But this tenth tome from McCardell is a good deal more than an amusing romp. With a consistent abhorrence of racism, McCardell has deftly crafted a very clever and informative overview of the city by adopting the persona of an "accidental immortal" named Jock Linn. After Linn arrives with a detachment of British Army Royal Engineers in the 1850s, and dies in 1876, he is resurrected as a time-travelling reporter--a tour guide through history with a shrewd sense of humour.
McCardell clearly enjoys the artistic conceit he has adopted as he introduces the beloved lifeguard Seraphin "Joe" Fortes, the openly gay politician A.E.B. Davie and China-born Chang Toy who rebelled against racist city planners and built the famous Sam Kee Building in Chinatown, the narrowest commercial building in the world.
But McCardell the veteran reporter also doesn't shy from digging up a little dirt. For instance, McCardell's divulgence of how and why the Canadian Pacific Railway line really got build is contained in a seemingly innocuous piece about Engine 374, the locomotive that famously reached Vancouver on May 23, 1887 (formerly on display at Kitsilano Beach; now housed in the Roundhouse Community Centre).
Under an arrangement McCardell brokered between Harbour Publishing and Global TV, over $90,000 generated by book sales was donated to Variety, The Children’s Charity, as of 2013.
Mike McCardell brings his knack for finding everyday magic to Cardboard Ocean: A Memoir (Harbour $32.95), a bittersweet recounting of his hardscrabble childhood, growing up in Queens, New York. It’s a place passing el trains blot out conversation, Jackie Robinson is a household hero and none of the gang has ever swam in a real ocean, although the Atlantic is a subway stop away. An ice cream factory disposal yard is the hotly defended turf of “Mickey” McCardell’s kiddie gang. There, in the yard overflowing with waste cardboard, the grade-schoolers dive and dip in search of cast off ice cream sandwich wafers. Recollections of stickball, street fights, truancy and trouble capture a different era of growing up.
Reviews of the author's work by BC Studies:
Haunting Vancouver: A Nearly True History
None of This Was Planned: The Stories Behind the Stories (Harbour Publishing 2016)
Chasing the Story God. (Harbour, 2001). 1-55017-248-4 : $32.95.
Back Alley Reporter. (Harbour, 2002). 1-55017-294-8 : $32.95.
The Blue Flames that Keep Us Warm: Mike McCardell's Favourite Stories (Harbour, 2007). 978-1-55017-440-3 : $32.95.
Getting to the Bubble: Finding Magic Amid the Urban Roar. (Harbour, 2008). 978-1-55017-443-4 : $32.95.
Back Alley Reporter. (Harbour, 2009). 978-1-55017-480-9 : $32.95.
The Expanded Reilly Method. (Harbour, 2009). 978-1-55017-500-4 : $34.95.
Everything Works (Harbour, 2010) 978-1-55017-512-7 : $32.95.
Here's Mike: With Junkyard Granny, Whistling Bernie Smith, the Robertson Screwdriver, Pancakes and Eternal Truth (Harbour 2011) 9781550175622
Unlikely Love Stories (Harbour, 2012) $32.95 978-1-55017-563-9
Haunting Vancouver: A Nearly True History (Harbour 2013) $32.95 9781550176063
Cardboard Ocean: A Memoir (Harbour 2014) $32.95 978-1-55017-664-3
[BCBW 2016] "Humour" "Journalism"
The Expanded Reilly Method
In his preceding 2008 collection of vignettes, Getting To The Bubble, McCardell described meeting an autistic, runny-nosed, nine-year-old named Reilly who is certain he will catch a fish in the polluted Vancouver pond named Trout Lake by using a stick, a piece of string, a paper clip for a hook and some gummy bread for bait. “I believe you get whatever you want,” Reilly told McCardell.
Impressed by the boy’s unshakable faith in the prospect of good fortune, McCardell has extrapolated from Reilly’s hopeful approach for another beguiling collection of human interest stories, The Expanded Reilly Method (Harbour $34.95), another typical McCardell bestseller.
Only this time McCardell seems to be taking feeling good, well, seriously. With his trademark ‘aw shucks’ style, he espouses the following Dr. Phil-like advice by using the autistic boy named Reilly as a touchstone for sanity:
“We got offers of fancy fishing equipment that we passed on to his foster mother by phone. But the reply was, ‘No, thank you.’ Reilly said he would rather fish his own way.
“I go to Trout Lake often and look at the water and watch the dogs swimming at one end and kids at the other. It is the smallest beach in the city. It has only a few spots where you can walk out on a wooden pier and put a line in the water.
“I’ve seen other kids fishing and a few old timers. You can only fish there if you are very young or very old. I never saw Reilly again.
“Maybe I missed him. Or maybe he moved on to another pond and another foster home.
“But did he catch a fish? He said he would. He said he believed he would.
“He had other things to overcome, like no hook or float to tell him he had a nibble, or bait except for bread. He also had to overcome strange things that go on in the minds of autistic kids, like not being sure about things that most of us don’t even think about, and the temper that flared up without warning that his foster mother told us about.
“He also had that darn runny nose, and it is hard to concentrate on fishing when you are sniffing back nasal drippings.
“I have only one thing on which to base my faith in Reilly’s method: me.
“Since I started getting up in the morning and saying, ‘This is going to be a good day,’ I have not had a bad day. Not one.” 978-1-55017-500-4
List, Haunting Vancouver: A Nearly True History (Harbour $32.95)
from BCBW 2014
Some of the best writers don’t win prizes but they are the quiet heroes of the publishing world. They keep our history alive or they keep the book industry afloat by making books that people want to own. The ever-affable Mike McCardell does both. He has also arranged for his publisher and Global TV to donate more than $90,000 generated by book sales to Variety, The Children’s Charity.
Hired by the Vancouver Sun in 1973 as a police beat reporter, Mike McCardell went on to work for BCTV (Global BC) in 1976 and has since produced more than 9,000 mostly “human interest” stories and ten books.
In his latest title to top the BC Bestseller List, Haunting Vancouver: A Nearly True History (Harbour $32.95), McCardell cheerfully revives tales of saloon-owner “Gassy” Jack Deighton (the inspiration for Gastown), The Penthouse nightclub and how Pauline Johnson named Lost Lagoon.
He also introduces beloved lifeguard Seraphim “Joe” Fortes, Vancouver’s first openly gay politician A.E.B. Davie and China-born Chang Toy who rebelled against racist city planners and built the famous Sam Kee Building in Chinatown, the narrowest commercial building in the world.
Fairly described as “a rollicking tour of Vancouver history,” this tenth tome is more than an amusing romp. With a consistent abhorrence of racism, McCardell has deftly crafted
a clever and informative overview of the city by adopting the persona of an “accidental immortal,” Jock Linn.
McCardell clearly enjoys the artistic conceit he has adopted: His alter-ego Jock arrives with a detachment of British Army Royal Engineers in the 1850s, and dies in 1876. No problem. McCardell resurrects him as a time-travelling reporter with a shrewd sense of humour and a nose for fascinating facts.
McCardell, the former police reporter, is not averse to digging up a little dirt along the way. Always with a deft touch, never brazen, McCardell divulges, for instance, how and why the Canadian Pacific Railway line really got completed.
The real story of why John A. Macdonald partnered with the CPR to connect “sea to sea” is cited here in Jock’s seemingly innocuous piece about the locomotive called Engine 374. 9781550176063
Make it up as you go along
REVIEW: None of This Was Planned: The Stories Behind the Stories
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2016.
by Mike McCardell
Reviewed by Bill Engelson
In None of This Was Planned, veteran newspaper and TV reporter Mike McCardell reveals his MO for gathering stories. Reviewer Bill Engelson teases out McCardell’s methods: the Retro Saturday night prowl down Main Street, the hunt and peck pursuit of found stories, the creative digressions and free associations that produce a light but compelling narrative.
Mike McCardell’s None of This Was Planned is a delightfully rambling and free-floating memoir with moments speckled with dollops of darkness and faint traces of childhood trauma.
In the foreword, McCardell relates the sudden move made by him and his mother to Germany when he was fourteen. Left alone for a time, his acclimatization unfolded as if he were in a Dachau dream or treading the water of adolescent angst. Then, one day in his sixteenth year, half way through the school term, his mother announced, “We are going back to New York.”
More revealing, and a clue to his lifelong search for stories yearning to be told, is his uncertainty as to why his mother suddenly chose to begin life anew in Germany, and just as abruptly left. Though he suspected love to be her motivation for the initial move, the truth is, he wistfully laments, a mystery. “Don’t know, of course,” he declares. “Will never know.”
The stories that he does tell, that charm and brighten our day, come both single and clustered in None of This Was Planned. Most are straightforward sketches of the found lives of others. Many expand on stories told over the years on his popular television broadcasts. They are, as the subtitle puts it, “the stories behind the stories.”
Unlike the frenzied disgorging of hockey rioters on the streets of an innocent city, Mike McCardell’s yarns are not destructive in the least. While some stem from nothing more than outings with his family, or some impishly funny, seemingly spontaneous home improvement project such as digging a hole for a pond, most are gems hidden in plain sight, waiting to be found and burnished by storyteller, cameraman, and editor.
One that ignited my interest and illustrates McCardell’s free-form modus operandi is “The Truck with the Wishing Well.” This story takes two pages to get to the first point, and is replete with erratically illegal driving as McCardell and his driver/cameraman chase down their quarry, a decommissioned postal truck with, as you might have gleaned, a garden wishing well on it. They discover that the target vehicle is driven by a woman. This strikes the reviewer as an unfortunate and uncomfortable antic with overtones of stalking and sexist cliché.
But the truck and the woman behind the wheel are only part of the story. They are merely the stimulus. The story then morphs back to CTV central where the editor, Vinh Nguyen, is the son of a boat refugee who spent six years getting his family to join him in Canada. McCardell takes Vinh’s father’s story and schlepps into a brief rendition of one of Canada’s lesser moments, the sorry tale of the SS Komagata Maru in 1914.
McCardell covered that story in a previous book, he admits, but offers a snippet here. One of those who stopped the Komagata Maru from docking, he reports, was hockey legend Cyclone Taylor. I file that under depressingly interesting.
Bear with me as I bear with McCardell, who then leapfrogs to New York and Oregon to the fascinating account of David Stoliar, whose obituary he read in the New York Times early in 2016, two years after Stoliar’s death in Oregon.
Stoliar was the only survivor of 790 Romanian Jews whose ship, after an epic and failed attempt to land in Palestine in 1942, was sunk by a Russian submarine. It is a powerful ending to the chapter. Getting there seemed to be unnecessarily convoluted. Convoluted -- but moving.
How does McCardell find most of his stories?
His search technique is surprisingly simple. Like hunting and pecking on a typewriter, he and his crew, usually just a camera person, and not the same one by any means but a variety of talented sidekicks, scour the streets, the countryside, in search of the odd, the suggestive, the plaintive, the whimsical.
I try to convince myself that there must be more of a method at play here, but McCardell regularly disabuses the reader of that notion. For example, in “How Does It Happen,” he describes his story-gathering strategy:
“Where should we go?” Todd Gilchrist [his cameraman that day] asked. “Left, then right, then left, then straight. Or go somewhere else.” We had a goal, not a destination. We wanted to find something nice, happy….”
So, to get his stories, he engages in what appears to be an aimless, almost nomadic quest, a quest with the quality, frequently, and poignancy of nothing much more than hanging out, American Graffiti-like: a Saturday night prowl.
It is all very Retro. And McCardell is very much a Retro Man. This is a good thing in my book. And, I think, in his.
As for the stories, if you haven’t guessed, if I haven’t been clear, they cover a potpourri of topics, a medley, a dog’s breakfast -- and dogs appear frequently. But what does a reader have at the end of the book? Hmmm! Most of his stories, as I have mentioned, have ended up as brief human-interest pieces on Global News and, for the past three years, CTV News.
They are feel good tales, quirky snapshots of Vancouver and the surrounding area.
Often, McCardell and his Sancho Panza lensman find their way to one of the many parks in the city. He likes parks, it seems. He intimates, from time to time, that he doesn’t like Parks Board bureaucrats. But I could be wrong about that.
There is a Runyonesque quality, minus the gangsters, to the stories he harnesses. McCardell grew up in New York, climbed the ladder of the New York Daily News doing a lot of what reporters do in such film classics as His Girl Friday and Deadline USA. His immersion in that world, and his escape from it, was covered in his first book, Chasing the Story God.
Some might not appreciate McCardell’s latest book. If you prefer not to savour a sampling of the eccentric and quotidian lives of relatively ordinary people, musicians, quirky elders, children with dazzling imaginations, and those who fiddle with scams or can’t control their guinea pigs; if you prefer, instead, to know only about celebrities and their ilk, well then, you might want to steer clear of None of This Was Planned.
Occasionally, McCardell revisits stories he has told before. He gives fair warning. As most of the stories were new to me, I took no issue with the repetition.
A religious man, McCardell pays homage to the Story God for watching over him and guiding him in the direction of pleasing pathos and heartfelt humour. His latest book riffs on an appealing score of irrepressible parables.
One of them struck a personal chord, possibly because I am a retired social worker. His story of young Reilly and the lesson he taught Mike many years ago, that gave him an unshakeable optimism in the future, is a lesson worth repeating over and over.
Bill Engleson is an author and retired child protection social worker. Born in Powell River, raised in Nanaimo, he spent his first year of life trapped aboard his parents’ leaky fishboat. He resided in New Westminster for most of his adult years, retiring to Denman Island in 2004. He writes fiction, essays, poetry, and letters to the editor. He has been writing most of his life and his first couple of poetic efforts were printed in the sadly defunct Nanaimo Daily Free Press. He self-published his first novel, Like a Child to Home (2013); his second book, Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul (Silver Bow Publishing, 2016), is a collection of humorous literary essays. He is working on several new projects including a prequel to his first novel entitled Drawn Towards the Sun; a mystery, Bloodhound Days; and a collection of home grown, satirically tinged essays, DIRA Diary: Tall Tales of Democracy in Traction. His website/blog is www.engleson.ca
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