– by Albert Berkshire
“Good mornin’ to ya.”
It was a raspy voice on the other end of the phone. An uncomfortable, almost sinister giggle followed the greeting.
I had been warned about this one. It was one of those benign comments that seemed to float in the air as a conversational afterthought as the Iceman walked out the control room door about three hours earlier.
“She’ll call you at 3:26am.”
“Who?” I asked expecting there was some additional protocol I had to follow.
“Madeline the crazy cat lady. She calls every night.”
It was September of 1991. I was fresh out of Journalism school and no where near my intended (r rather, hoped-for) employment as a television reporter for the CBC. I was, instead, and now much to my hindsight delight, a radio DJ at CFCB. It was a tiny radio station that played a disturbing equal rotation of pop, oldies, country, and on Sundays, traditional folk music. And yet, it was hugely successful. I’ll never understand that part of the equation. At the time, I could never imagined that the best stories in life would come not from the news, rather the people the news rarely ever found. The lonely, the single, the assumably psychotic, the drunk, the stoned, the learned, the uneducated, the criminal, the incredibly young and up too late, and the very old and up too early were all there – on the other then of the phone. And they had someone new to call and share with me their complaints, their ideas, their loves and hates, their moments of brilliance and their heartbreaks. They had stories to tell. Completely unknown to me then, I was sitting in centre of the amphitheatre of anecdotes. Awkward affected alliteration and all.
“Guess what kind of movie I’m watchin’? The raspy, creepy tone on the other end continued.
And then the laugh. Again.
“Hi Madeline.” I offered, ignoring the question.
Another sinister giggle of delight.
“How did you know it was me?”
She giggled. Then she requested her song.
She requested Simon and Garfunkle’s A Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Instantly, we were not friends. I mean, it was well written, and it was a fairly good hit, but it was painful in every way. And what overnight DJ wanted to play a sleeper song when he was going to be pulling his first sober all-nighter? It was the start of a long, bizarre chain of events that no amount of drugs or alcohol or head banging on a wall can erase from my memory. And it was a weird one. Really weird.
My first fan was a nut job. And really, there could have been a potato in the control room chair and she would have been a fan had Spud been willing to play her a melody.
I worked for almost 15 months in that little town before I had occasion to meet Madeline. I was doing what we called an “on location”. I was in a shopping mall with headphones, microphone and miscellaneous pieces of equipment in tow when the person who was about to relieve me at my post showed up a few minutes early. After nearly four hours of standing in one spot, drinking far too much tea, making small talk (still my least favourite of all conversation derivatives) with strangers who knew me by default of having a radio in their home or car or office, I was busting for a bathroom break. I sprinted down the hall.
On my return trip, I did the customary lap past the arcade – a place I spent many hours as a kid – and waved to Radar. Radar was the security guard who constantly muttered “Move along, move along” to every kid who found sanctuary, entertainment and friends in the mall over the course of many years. Today, though, Radar would finally be unable to rush me along. Being employed and in the mall with purpose had a decidedly wonderful benefit. As I strolled back, I heard the giggle.
The rasp was in the mall…and I wasn’t ready to make visual friends.
I stopped at the grocery store and watched.
This little medicine ball of a woman – as broad as she was tall (and that wasn’t very broad, either) – was chatting up my broadcast replacement. She waved her hands around as she talked, and as distracting or animated as that usually is, it was her head that captured my attention. Her head was tiny. Not unusually small or disfigured, but proportionately smaller than the rest of her body. Like it was 75% of its intended volume. Partially deflated, like a five day old balloon. Her raspy giggle echoed in response to whatever the other DJ said to her until she wandered away toward the food court.
More than 20 years later, I can still hear her voice. I can still see her partially deflated head sitting on top of her round torso. A child’s snowman.
4:01am. Same first night. I just butchered my news cast. The phone flasher is flashing…as I imagine one would expect. Phones didn’t ring in control rooms. They flashed. A simple and understandable logic. At this moment, I’m sure someone is calling to tell me how much I suck as a DJ. My goodness I was terrible. When I answer the studio request line, the voice on the other end of the line begins.
“Hello. It’s Charlie from Sheshatshui (shesh-sha-she).”
- Sheshatshui is an Innu Nation in Labrador – a northern mainland part of the Canadian province Newfoundland & Labrador. Geographically, it is on the western edge of Lake Melville on the northeastern coast of North America. Sadly, like many other First People’s communities in North America, it has been stricken with incidents of substance abuse over the years. Most notably, the consumption of alcohol has had a drastically negative impact on its band members and the greater community. I share this with you because as much as this troubles me (my maternal lineage is partly of the Mi’kmaq peoples), I was a younger, less travelled, less informed, and much less socially sensitive person the night Charlie first called. I also see humour in places most people feel it is politically incorrect to acknowledge said humour. But that’s the beauty of being a writer. I’m the one with pen. And I don’t care what people think of my writing. I just write what I want and people vote with their eyes. And drunk Charlie was funny. His story was funny.
“Hi Charlie.” What can I do for you.”
“Ahhh. Me and my girl Brenda were just having a few pops, eh.”
There was a noticeable slur in his delivery.
“Ah ha (insert strange drunken laugh) yeah we’re kinda drunk.”
About this point in the conversation, Charlie asked for a song and went on his way. He was harmless. Moreover, he was less frequent a caller than Madeline. He normally called early every Sunday morning, after having a few beverages at some form of party that began Saturday night. All he ever wanted was to request a song…
…and fried chicken.
Charlie called me one night after about a month long absence. When I asked him where he had been, he launched into the craziest story I had heard up to that point in my life. And trust me…I never thought the magical five white Omnis passing me on Highway 95 north would ever be topped. But that was a drug-fueled haze that I was never 100% certain happened – as fantastical as it was.
“Charlie,” I started. “Where have you been.”
“Oh…we kinda got in some trouble?”
“What happened?” I asked. It was about 2am and I was in need of some social activity. Even a drunk person was more interesting that anything I had to entertain me at work.
“We all got a little drunk and decided we wanted some Mary Brown’s.” (Mary Brown’s is an eastern Canadian fried chicken chain restaurant.)
“Really.” I said. This story was getting better by the second.
“So we all put our money together and chartered a plane to fly in some chicken.”
This moment still brings tears to my eyes.
“We ran out of money and the welfare office got really mad at us.”
In hindsight, Charlie and the Chicken Charter never came to mind. Damn, those Innu-Loompas would have been adorable.
When I listened to Charlie and Madeline, and their fantastical stories – believable or otherwise – I saw a characters – not people. And as horrible as that may seem to say about another human, it’s what I see. This may be more prevalent in passive friendships, as opposed to those in my life with whom I have a closer, more personal relationship. Although, many of my closest friends display some of the most interesting characteristics and personality traits. I’ve already warned them that the season for creative license never closes. Anything they say, do, or present is fair game and may end up in something I write. Most people squirm a little when I share that news. One person left the room.
As a writer who prefers fiction, these people, these experiences, these bizarre and unexpected characters I meet, and mentally dissect, represent a treasure trove of humour, comedy, and heartwarming memories of how strange my life can get – or anyone’s life for that matter – if you look just below the surface.
They are the little personalities we get to know who live inside the people we know. And as my mother used to say to me, “My God, Albert. The people you know.”
I realize now, she never meant the number, but rather the quality.
The characters in the characters.
Albert Berkshire is a writer, producer, voice actor…storyteller. He meets perfectly normal people all the time, and finds a way to turn them into delightfully amusingly, and sometimes psychotic characters. Or he just shares breakfast with them and goes on his merry way. His love of storytelling, and his passion for the written word, has helped make his company, GreatCreative.Com, successful. For a much shorter, and less frequent rambling, follow Albert on Twitter @albertberkshire.