I was in a coffee shop working at my Powerbook when a stranger tapped me on the shoulder. “Is this yours?” he asked, holding up a wallet he found in the washroom. I had been at the bank earlier in the morning to withdraw a few hundred dollars; I thanked the guy and insisted I buy him the designer coffee of his choice.
With my brain’s serotonin receptor sites aglow from this exchange, I returned to websurfing the headlines. The home page of cbc.ca/bc was splattered with disaster headlines: Man Stabbed to Death in Maple Ridge; Float Plane Crashes Near Peachland; Senior Shot Outside Legion in Surrey.
I looked up from the screen. The sun had cast pinnacles of light across the cement concourse outside the café. People were smiling, conversing, and soaking up a brief respite from Vancouver’s monsoon norm.
Sometimes I’m struck by the mismatch between our humdrum day-to-day lives and the print/broadcast news cycle, with its buzz-kill laundry list of disconnected, nothing-you-can-do-about-it disasters. I’m not slagging the CBC here, which at this stage could use all the support it can get. It’s just that Mothercorp has taken to accident rubbernecking just like most other news organizations. That said, its Vancouver outpost is a model of decorum compared to the 6 o’clock news shows vomited out of Seattle. These broadcasts often begin with a solid 10 minutes of vehicle crashes, shootings, stabbings, fires, rapes, suicides, beatings, floods, drownings, electrocutions, etc.
The gatekeepers will tell you they’re just giving people what they want, by fulfilling our morbid fascination with death and disaster. In his 2007 memoir Wages, former entertainment writer John Armstrong recorded his experiences working at a West Coast daily he preferred to call the “Picayune Standard.” The broadsheet had an extended period of enthusiasm for stories about children’s transplant operations and mad-dog attacks, he recalled. “The editors called the former Liver Tots and the latter Pit Bulls, whether they were pit bulls or not.” Armstrong wryly observed that, “a Liver Tot attacked by a rabid Pit Bull was the Holy Grail of local reporting.”
Most of us know the map ain’t the territory, and that media don’t supply us with a “one metre equals one metre” representation of reality. Yet I’m sure the front-and-centre catastrophism has a wearying effect on many news consumers. For the average couch potato, it might seem wiser to stay at home and watch the world fall apart in high definition rather than venture outdoors—even though the odds are vanishingly small that any given sofa spud will be a victim of violence.
I’m not denying that terrible, random incidents happen locally on a regular basis, or saying that they shouldn’t be reported. I’m just suggesting such stories should be led to the back of the news bus, rather than propped up behind the wheel.
The lives of most Canadians aren’t governed by constant rip-offs, rough-ups and arbitrary tragedy. It’s actually the opposite. Our lives are knitted together by regular small acts of kindness and generosity from friends, family, acquaintances and the occasional stranger. Even when we are not on the immediate receiving end of such acts, someone nearby us probably is, which may inspire them to do unto others, as well.
You may be thinking, “Olson, you lazy bugger, you’ve spun an entire column out of nothing. This isn’t news, it’s a Seinfeld episode without punch lines—unless it wasn’t actually your wallet.” Well, it’s true that senseless acts of beauty have never been news, and never will be, because the trainwreck-spotting industry is focused on things that veer off the tracks and fly off an existential cliff.
Locally and beyond, innumerable, unrecorded acts of altruism have always outweighed the foundation-laying gestures of philanthropists. I’m betting they always will. And although I neglected to ask the name of the guy in the coffee shop, it’s safe to say it won’t ever grace the façade of an institute of higher learning or sports complex. He performed his gesture in a perfunctory way, with a smile and no expectation of a reward. There’s no need to put it in a screaming 72-point headline, but I thought this minor moment was still worth a coffee and a column.
And yes, it really was my wallet.
Twitter: @Geoff Olson