"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," he says. 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 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 built 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


Shoelaces are Hard & Other Thoughtful Scribbles

by Mike McCardell

Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2018.

$29.95† /† 9781550178487

Reviewed by Sheldon Goldfarb


Mike McCardell likes editors. Oh, not the sort of editor who tells you what you mustn?t end a sentence with. No, he likes editors who give him story ideas for his daily piece on the television news program, or ideas for how to shape those ideas. And these editors don?t have to be ?editors?; they can be his wife or his cameraman, or anyone who can give him a little help.

This book is in part about giving help. The title story is about how you can learn to tie your shoelaces if you get a little help. Another story is about how a kindly bus driver got him to his uncle?s funeral on time ? by taking a detour off the bus route. (I wonder how the other passengers felt, though. Well, I don?t have to wonder: McCardell tells us they were puzzled and scared. But the point is ? well, sometimes it?s not clear what the point is; it just gets lost in a parenthesis. Oh, wait, the point of that story was Hope: you can tell because that?s what it is called.)

So this is also a book about hope, hope and belief: belief that you can catch a fish where there are no fish, or belief that you can find a story to tell on the news each day. Every day McCardell goes out with his cameraman looking for human interest stories, light little things to leaven the darkness of current events. Not for him the unhappy story about a planter overflowing with garbage ? but when someone fixes up the planter and makes it green again, that?s his kind of story. Uplifting, upbeat, sometimes offbeat.

Like the four-year-old who likes to let his toboggan fly down a hill and chase after it, which leads to a scene in which there?s a toboggan chased by a four-year-old boy who in turn is chased by a 48-year-old cameraman who himself is chased by a 74-year-old reporter, with the boy?s grandmother bringing up the rear, and with the reporter worrying about the camera getting wet from the snow and the television engineers being baffled because they?ve never heard of snow.

Oh, did I mention that he?s sometimes funny too, and wanders off into detours ? I mean writing detours in these little stories, but of course also detours in the course of hunting for stories, which he does by going out and looking for something that he doesn?t know is there in the hopes of turning it into something amusing for the six o?clock news ? and for this book of ?scribbles.?

He has his pet peeves, though: he?s not always upbeat. He likes the old ways, the old playgrounds where you weren?t entirely safe and so might fall down and get hurt and cry and someone would hug you till you felt better. He prefers those to the sanitized playgrounds enforced on us by the Playground Correct people (PC people, a joke, get it?), the sanitized playgrounds where kids are bored. And he?d rather you just took the stairs for exercise instead of investing in gym equipment and modern gadgets telling you how many steps you?ve taken. Be natural ? but not ?natural? like the back-to-nature yoga practitioner being one with a tree because his leader told him to do that and who won?t talk to McCardell without his leader?s permission.

[caption id="attachment_37304" align="alignleft" width="1200"] Mike McCardell signs at Coles Books, Chilliwack, December 2018. Photo by Jenna Hauck, The Chilliwack Progress[/caption]

Mike doesn?t much like it when people won?t talk to him, and he gets positively grumpy about the rise of media relations departments that stop him from dropping in on firefighters and police officers. He doesn?t like bureaucracy and red tape and politicians with their five-syllable words and people without disabilities who use parking spots for people with disabilities. And he?s not a fan of guns (he tries a satire on this, which is not really his thing) and gets very angry at arrogant drug dealers who kill innocent bystanders.

But mostly he is gentle and upbeat and brings a smile to your face or a tear to your eye, or he makes you laugh by telling you about a grilled cheese sandwich in the middle of a story that has nothing to do with grilled cheese sandwiches, or he has some words of wisdom to pass along about thinking good thoughts or humility or the changeability of perspectives and the different sorts of truth.

And he has his mantras, like the one about ?we the people,? people like the Puerto Rican bus driver who helped him get to the funeral and the recycling man from Smithrite who picked up a piece of paper. But he?s not too fond of rich people or of rules, like the rules for Masonic rituals that delayed his uncle?s funeral, which he almost missed except for the kindly bus driver. He?s a bit of an old-fashioned gentle populist celebrating ordinary people and reminding us to learn to tie our shoelaces because if we were on an island without Velcro, the tide might come in and wash our shoes away.

[Nick Didlick cover photo]


Sheldon Goldfarb is the author of†The Hundred-Year Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC†(Heritage House, 2017). He has been the archivist for the UBC student society (the AMS) for more than twenty years and has also written a murder mystery and two academic books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. His murder mystery,†Remember, Remember,†was nominated for an Arthur Ellis crime writing award in 2005. Originally from Montreal, he has a history degree from McGill University, a master?s degree in English from the University of Manitoba, and graduate degrees in English and archival studies from the University of British Columbia.


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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) $32.95 978-1-55017-664-3None of This Was Planned: The Stories Behind the Stories (Harbour Publishing 2016) $29.95 978-1-55017-778-7
Shoelaces are Hard & Other Thoughtful Scribbles (Harbour 2018) $29.95 978-1-55017-848-7

[BCBW 2018] "Humour" "Journalism"