Earl McRae, an institution in Canadian journalism, died this past week. It was reported that he passed away at his desk at the Ottawa Sun doing what he did best, writing. And if we should all be so lucky, to die doing what it is we love most, what we do best and are most respected for, well, that would be okay with me. Of course, that would mean I’d die streaming episodes of The West Wing, but whatevs. I dig Sorkin.
I grew up in Ottawa, and Earl McRae was the first newspaper columnist I can remember reading on a regular basis, certainly the first opinion not of my parents that I cared about. He was a sports writer then, with the Ottawa Citizen, and coming from a non-sports family he was my first adult entry into the sports world. His style was unique in that it was a gonzo approach to sports writing, not simply telling the reader the scores, who got injured, and adding a handful of clichéd quotes, but instead inserting himself into the narrative. It is a style that was not common then, certainly not common in Canada, and is underused, abused, and misused now (see: Simmons, Bill), filling column inches with ego at the expense of narrative.
At a very early age I was acutely aware of the politics of sport; how the little league coach’s son got more at-bats than others, how the gym teacher’s buddy’s kid got the last spot on the high school basketball team, how what would later be affectionately labeled ‘grit’ and ‘heart’ and ‘character’ didn’t garner the same respect in a sports world made up of 12-16 year olds. Earl McRae provided me with a template for participating in the world of sports without being tainted by it, but rather inspired and entertained. He was a gateway drug which led me to Hunter S. Thomson and beyond, and then eventually to the low-paying, low-reward world of CanLit in which I now toil.
For an all to brief period in the early 1990s Earl McRae had a call-in radio show on an Ottawa AM station. This was long before sports radio, before wall-to-wall minute-to-minute coverage of sport. It was on Sunday nights and I’d listen to it while not doing my job a local restaurant called The Cajun Attic. One week, after running into Earl McRae’s father in line at a Harvey’s in Ottawa’s Westboro Village, Mr. McRae, upon his father’s urging, dropped my name into conversation during his radio show. He gave me a shout-out, long before that was a part of the lexicon. It was the first time I had heard my name outside of the context of my own little life, and I loved it. It was a feeling that’s difficult to describe, but it’s the same feeling I get when I’m introduced to read, or spot a review of one of my books, or see my name on the line-up for a reading. It’s some strange mix of pride and wonder, and it’s that same combination that keeps me writing. Or part of it, anyway.
Westboro Village is where Earl McRae’s legacy will live on, for it is there that he founded the Elvis Sighting Society along with Newport Pizzeria owner Moe Atallah. Part faith, part laugh, all in fun, the Elvis Sighting Society has raised countless dollars for Ottawa charities over the past 20 years or so. And I imagine that many a glass was raised to Mr. McRae over the past few days at the legendary local eatery, and will continue to be raised for years to come. The Elvis Sighting Society contends that Elvis Presley is still alive and well, and living in Tweed, Ontario, a small town of just under 6000, west of Ottawa. This contention was included in a short story from my collection, Distillery Songs, called “Emulsification.” It was a subconscious inclusion, but a pleasant reminder of how random parts of our lives make it into writing. And now that Earl McRae has passed, it feels good that something of mine will forever include something of his. Below is “Emulsification,” for Earl McRae. Thank you, sir.
Okay, there’s a goddamn dead hooker named Crystal or Shelley or Raven or something duct taped to my couch and it’s one twenty-four in the afternoon and my notoriously punctual parents will be here for dinner at five-thirty and wouldn’t you know it I’m completely out of almonds and cumin, the former which I can do without but without the latter I might as well not even bother cooking, and then to compound my problems the bastards at Lapointe’s gave me salmon filets instead of darns, the incompetent motherfucking fishmongering assholes. And I’m not even the sort who would normally pick up a goddamn hooker let alone a goddamn dead one, but it was Thursday yesterday and on Thursdays I like to watch CSI, the original not the Florida one or whatever, but it was pre-empted for some fucking Katie Couric special on teen sex, and, well, give me teen sex and two hours with Katie Couric and suddenly I’m at the kind of bar where a fat middle-aged man like myself might be able to get laid. But the place is full of other fat sorry men who are similarly disappointed in the pre-emption of CSI and similarly aroused by Katie Couric and teen sex and so it’s just a sad room filled to the rim with drunkards getting drunker so when Raven came in and sat next to me I hardly noticed. Then she grabbed one of my smokes and normally a drunk would get a punch in the fucking head for filching a smoke in a bar like this but I’m all filled with the drink and Katie Couric fantasies, so I say hi and Crystal says hello and can I buy her a drink and of course I say sure ‘cause every other drunk useless fuck in the place is jealous ‘cause I’ve got the one woman in the joint that still has teeth and I buy her a rye and ginger and she sucks it back like it’s the cure so I order two and three and four and five and ten more until I’m seeing sideways and she asks do I live close by and do I like to party, and by that I wonder if she means party like hors d’oeuvres and cocktails with fruit and conversation about rounds under par and politics and celebrities and maybe a game of Cranium but we’d need two more people but she flashes an eight-ball from her purse and I say ohhhhh, party, sure I like to party and ya I live close by so let me get the tab and the entire crooked room sneers and sways in a contemptuous envy as it sees me leave with her and I feel about nine and a half fucking feet tall.