So long for now…

Image credit: Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail

I met Stuart McLean in three different eras of my life.

Each time, his passion for the sounds of a city and his uncanny ability to find, and tell, a human story unlocked a sense of perspective in me I’ve never shaken.

Somewhat appropriately, I’m writing this in Toronto on transit after seeing news off his death flash across my screen as I stepped onto a subway home.

Necessarily these memories shared are rushed and unpolished, ignoring — again — a lesson I learned the second time we met.

Stuart, at the time, was teaching my class at Ryerson about the basics of radio journalism. This was just long enough ago we needed to use a grease pen to mark edits before cutting ribbons of magnetic tape.

Stuart taught us how to tell human stories and the importance in creating an audio landscape for our listeners. One of the first things he told us, though, was to never say anything on mic you wouldn’t want to go to air.

Unfortunately, though I heard that lesson, my tape-cutting skills didn’t match my aspirations. The first time listeners heard my voice on air, they heard me say, in a rushed breath, “Shit!

Any thougths I had about pursuing broadcasting instead of magazine journalism were instantly erased.

The next time I met Stuart was in Seattle.

His Vinyl Cafe radio program and live show had become so well known, he’d sold-out a glorious Vaudeville-era theatre. He regaled thousands of Americans (and a few Canadians) with stories set just blocks from the Toronto home I’d left years earlier.

The landmarks and details were specific enough for the knowing listener, but the stories themselves remained universal. Seattle roared with laughter and stood on its feet in thanks at the end of the show.

Afterward, I snuck backstage to say hi.

It was quick; he was tired and a bit overwhelmed by the reception to his tales, but we spoke of that Ryerson class, and shared some Toronto stories. We said our goodbyes, our last goodbyes, as it turned out, and I left remembering why Toronto would always be my home.

All of this happened nearly twenty years after the first time I met him. I had no idea who he was at the time, or who he was working for, but I did know why he had come.

Stuart was there for Peter Gzowski’s Morningside, to do a feature on CBC radio about my drama class. You see, I was in an unusual class at the time—probably still unusual now.

It was a class where half the students were Deaf and half were able to hear.

In our small, windowless studio, I watched fascinated as Stuart bounced acrobatically around the room capturing the stories, voices, and sounds of all the students. He built a fast trust with skeptical teens and drew from them—from us—truths we didn’t even know we had.

Although I would never hear the final radio piece, it was his arrival into our class that reinforced to me how unique it really was. And that insight, if I were to be truthful, is what to led me on the path I took. It’s also the path that allowed me to meet him again and again.

Thank you Stuart.

And goodbye.