September 2, 2007
One July afternoon in 1987 I was living in a bachelor dump between Gastown and Chinatown. The gals down the hall were moving back to Halifax and held a garage sale at which I bought my first answering machine for $15. In 1987 people still thought, "Woo…cool…an answering machine." So I plugged it in at around one in the afternoon, and went down to Günther's Deli by the Gassy Jack statue and ate some perogies. When I got home an hour later, the red light was blinking…my first message ever! And what a message it was: Mac Parry was calling from Vancouver magazine, and, as accurately as I can remember, he said, "Coupland! Mac Parry from Vancouver magazine. Get your ass down here right away. We want to send you to Beverly Hills to write a feature story for us!"
Me write a story? I'd have been no less surprised if he'd asked me to come into Vanmag and fix the hot water heater. Until then I viewed myself almost exclusively as someone who, to be specific, made items in three dimensions, either manually or using industrial processes. I shared a huge studio space with a death metal band in the neighbourhood now known as Yaletown, in the space now occupied by Cioppino's and their $500 bottles of wine. I spent my time in that studio making items for a tiny show that opened in late 1987 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. During that summer I also designed baby cribs (I know) for Storkcraft out in Richmond. That was a wonderful job, and some of my designs are for sale to this day and I see them in movies and TV shows all over the world and I get an adrenaline hit every time.
Back to Vanmag and Mac Parry's call…
Mac had heard of me because I'd written three tiny articles for a long-defunct shopper-type magazine called West Side Weekly. That was a paper set up to capitalize on what used to be the triennial Pacific Press strike which, for some reason, didn't happen that year. West Side Weekly lasted only three issues and sank like a stone. I wrote about the art world in a way that now makes me blush: for example, I was in a stalled elevator in a South Granville gallery and I wrote about that. I mean, that's all it was. I'd scored that brief newspaper gig because some months before I'd been living in Tokyo and had sent its editor's wife an amusing postcard and the editor called and asked if I'd write for them. That's how life seems to work.
This West Side Weekly gig led to a brief and amusing stint for three months as "Budget Gourmet" at the Vancouver Sun where I received $75 once a week to pay for both my food and my writing fee. It was a boon to my social life, and it taught me a few important lessons about writing. First, getting published is no big deal. Get over it. Second, newspapers have to enforce house style and conceal a writer's voice, whereas magazines amplify a writer's style. I quit the Sun job because I described the portions at some long-gone restaurant as being not unlike the bronto-ribs that tip over the Flintstones' car during the closing credits of that show. My then-editor, Daphne Gray-Grant, crossed that out and wrote, "caveman-like." Here I learned my third lesson about writing: some people enjoy irony; some people don't. I quit after the Flintstone edit.
Back to the beep, and Mac Parry's call…
I had no idea how to handle the offer. I suppose I had to get dressed up for a meeting, but I was six-foot-one, weighed about 110 pounds, had big '80s hair and a wide selection of Pet Shop Boys-style raincoats. On the designated morning I decided to wear a nubbly Value Village blazer the color of 7-Up bottles. It was a cool morning, and as I was walking up Water Street to the office I bumped into a friend, Allan, who asked where I was going, and so I told him. And then he said to me, "Doug, I don't know if you're aware of this, but you've got a seagull shit the size of a fried egg on your jacket." I looked and…voilá, there it was. So I went home to change into a backup jacket, and I arrived barely on time at the Vanmag office. It was located at the corner of Davie and Richards-in the warehouse and semi-industrial deadlands that now, 20 years later, define the new Vancouver landscape-but back then it was dirty and semi-abandoned and, after a recent zoning change, the throbbing centre of Vancouver's sex trade.
Upstairs I had to sit in the mirrored lobby and be intimidated by a parade of way-too-attractive people clad in the most extreme versions of 1980s power dressing. The lobby vibe very much lived up to my preconception of what a magazine office ought to be like. Only later did I learn it was the day of the company's once-a-year annual ad sales meeting-the rest of the year everybody showed up as though dressed for a Grade 10 social studies class. But the effect of all those glamorous people never left me. To me, magazines = glamour. Sometimes I go through periods when I like them more than at other times, but it's always been love, and I think it's forever.
Back to Mac Parry.
Mac's office was at the end of a hall that was definitely not mirrored or glamorous. Like almost any magazine offices anywhere-including all the biggies in New York and London-it was a cobbled together mess of semi-functional office furniture, desecrated mismatched fabric-covered cubicle baffles, stacking chairs and maybe five IBM Selectrics in various degrees of functionality (and now available on eBay for roughly fifty bucks a pop). The overall effect? Glamour! It was great! I could sense the anarchy and lack of rules in the air. I felt like a dog driving past the butcher shop, its snout stuck out the window getting a heady, crack-like burst of sensations: this is life.
Mac was both terrifying and amusing. He swore like a pirate, he had battle stories, he'd seen the world, he travelled everywhere and, if he got bored, he went to the window and shouted hello to the transsexual hookers across the street who owned that specific trade territory. They'd flap open their curb-length white fox jackets and show Mac a flash of their white panties. It was strangely friendly in the neighborhood. There was a food chain and everyone within it got along with everyone.
Beverly Hills? There was an art dealer originally from Vancouver who'd been involved in a number of, um, unfortunate financial dealings over the past decade, and Mac had had a number of writers try and cover the story, but none of them seemed to "get" (for lack of a better verb) art, and maybe I could handle it. Using the same voice used by the teenager who sells French fries on The Simpsons, I said, "Sure Mr. Parry. I'll try to write this story."
Two days later I was in Beverly Hills and going to my first real art opening, the opening of the Ace Gallery in what had been the old Bullocks-Wilshire building across the street from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The next day I wrote the story, handed it in and received a check for-I think- $2,500. Huh? Seriously? I felt like I was looting the place, and boy, that much money really made my studio life easier. Then, as now, making anything is never cheap. In my mind, writing was a terrific means of paying studio bills with a bonus social life thrown in.
After that art story, Mac asked if I'd do a story for the next issue on the founding of the Reform Party at the Hyatt on Burrard. I seem to remember a lot of people in brown suits and a generalized impression that the average IQ was about 105. I don't have copies of any of these things. They're distant memories now.
In 1987 Vancouver magazine was owned by a company called Comac Communications and has since been sold a few times over. The Comac regime was very relaxed, and it was the golden age of freebies. I remember I wanted to go visit my cousin in Aberdeen, Scotland, but I couldn't afford it. Mac said, "Good God, nobody pays for travel. Call British Airways." I did, and ended up in first class to Glasgow with a car and driver on the other end to drive me and cousin James on a week-long tour of the whiskey distilleries of the Spey River Valley.
Vanmag's offices were in a clapped-out two-storey building that even in 1987 had DOOMED stamped all over it. Vanmag was upstairs and Western Living, also a Comac publication, was downstairs. It sounds so hokey now, but there was this culture of paranoia between the magazines and nobody from either floor ever visited the other. As well, our particular street corner's sex trade specialty seemed to be boys who liked needles, and we'dshow up at work and find rigs all over the front alcove. In spite of this, everyone was fairly courteous to each other on the street, and there was a tacit agreement that the boys and girls outside weren't allowed to use either our bathrooms or our telephones.
I ended up spending a lot of time in the office. Primarily, they had typewriters there and I didn't own one. More importantly, it was a real treefort of a place. There was Mac's saxophone playing and endless supply of salty stories, Rick Staehling the art director, was never without a dry quip, and there were cocktails at the end of the day. Sometimes there were parties, and if the parties weren't hopping, Mac would invite up the ladies from the corner across the street, which taught me a very good lesson, that for any party to hop, you have to have sexy people in the room.
It ended up with me writing a story per issue, which annoyed some of the old guard who thought I hadn't "paid my dues" by writing small hundred-word pieces for the up front City Seen section. I thought this was so corny, but even now, two decades later, I meet these people and they're still fuming that I never wrote blips for City Seen before I began writing features.
Following the Reform Party piece, I wrote a series of small fictional vignettes set on Robson Street, then undergoing a resurgence, and this was my first foray into fiction. Nowadays with everyone visiting dozens of websites daily, and with 4,000 different magazines for sale, it needs to be remembered that magazines were a more dominant cultural influence in the 1980s than they are now. In the same way that people now discuss the second season of Entourage on DVD, people talked about what they read in Vanmag. I can only wonder at the cultural force of magazines back in the days before TV.
Somewhere that fall I also wrote a little piece called "Generation X" which caused a bit of a stir around the city's water coolers. It was absolutely the seed of what went on to become the book, though I would like to say here that it was edited in such a way as to make the term Generation X sound like it came from the name of Billy Idol's band, but it wasn't-it comes from the final chapter of a book called Class by U.S. social critic, Paul Fussell. There. I hope that's the last word on that.
Life is strange, and I look back on those Vanmag years now and marvel at how utterly clueless I was about the choices I was making for my future. In the summer of 1987 my job description was "sculptural installation maker." Within two short years, I quit everything else I was doing and moved away to the desert to write experimental fiction. It was a total and radical transformation of my life that I simply could never have anticipated that cool July day when I plugged in my answering machine. Like anyone, I wonder what would have happened if I didn't buy the answering machine. I try and create scenarios in my head, and none of them are very pleasant. If I was guided by anything back then, it was, a) the protective naïve coating called "youth," b) my belief that you can only be happy if you pursue activities that you find genuinely interesting, and, c) the kindness of Mac Parry and the Vanmag crew who let me experiment, who allowed me to find my written voice and who taught me how to throw a mean party. Thanks guys.