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Tyee Books

A Mailhandler's Memoir

'I had done many things in the post office; but never had I had to kiss ass.'

By Bruce Serafin 13 Apr 2009 |

Find out more about Bruce Serafin's Stardust and New Star Books here. Download Stardust as a PDF here.

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The late Bruce Serafin.
  • Stardust
  • Bruce Serafin
  • New Star Books (2007)

[Editor's note: When Bruce Serafin died in June of 2007 at 57, those who knew his work mourned the loss of his sensitive portrayals of life on the scruffy, invisible edges of Vancouver. A long time postal worker and editor of an earlier incarnation of the Vancouver Review, Serafin was famously demanding of his own prose. His brilliant memoir Colin's Big Thing: A Sequence, was said to be 15 years in the making. In singing the book's praises in The Tyee, Brian Fawcett marvelled at Serafin's "ability to read people who are emotionally inarticulate or damaged almost as well as he reads himself."

Later this month, Serafin will posthumously receive the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction for his book Stardust, a collection of his literary essays published by New Star Books five months after he died. "Bruce carried around with him -- even cultivated -- this reputation as a prickly, thin-skinned individual," says New Star publisher Rolf Maurer, who pulled the book together with Serafin as the author's health was failing. "This might have prepared me for a contentious editor-writer relationship. However, he was able to look at the written work, even his own, as if it was in some ways completely disconnected from the writer. That made him very receptive to questions, criticism, suggestions, all of which he was able to deal with dispassionately."

"You might have expected him to be especially invested in Stardust, given that he knew he was dying as the book was being edited. But he never lost sight of the fact that his book was something separate from him, that it no longer belonged to him, but to his readers," says Maurer. "It's usually a pleasure for an editor to work with a really good writer. Bruce was a wonderful writer who was also a wonderful editor, a real treat for me to work with. I still miss him, and so does this town."

Serafin wrote about the increasingly exploited global workforce of sailors for The Tyee, and a version became an essay in Stardust.

As a tribute to Serafin, and as a gift to readers, New Star now is making Stardust available as a downloadable PDF, found here. The following is an excerpt that in the book is titled "The Alley".]

On sunny afternoons when my work as a mailhandler was done, I wrote in the lunchroom at Vancouver Postal Station J. This was back in the 1990s. I sat near the window looking out at the alley, and when I lost my train of thought I listened to the letter carriers cheerfully insult each other. Whenever somebody came up with a really good line, all the carriers would let out a shout: "Woo, woo, woo, woo!"

One noon when I arrived at J to start work the shout greeted me even before I was in the door. There were three reasons for this: Mino Fuoco's wife had left him, he'd come back from the morning part of his walk drunk, and the other carriers were holding a party for him.

In the lunchroom big tinfoil trays of Chinese food covered the tables. And in the carriers' pleasure at being able to eat as much as they could stuff in, Mino and his grief were being ignored. Instead the carriers were gathered around Tommy Chu and young Dean Arlette.

Tommy and Dean were talking about babies.

Dean said, "The reason babies cry so much in the heat is they can't cool down."

Tommy, who had three boys of his own, nodded.

Dean leaned forward earnestly. "They can't sweat. You see what I mean?"

"I do."

"They don't have the glands for it. They haven't developed enough."

"No glands," Tommy said.

"That's right."

Tommy held up a finger. "Well, suppose you had a kid you nick-named Eagle. Lively kid. And he becomes a teenager with pimples and the whole rest of it. You could say, 'The Eagle has glanded.'"

Dean looked at Tommy, bewildered. John Duguid sitting across from them shook his head.

Wang Hsu kept looking at the table. Then he looked at John. Then he lifted up from his seat and leaned slightly and produced a huge blast that sounded like a trumpet being blown through a cloth sack.

The sickening smell of old oil being stored behind a Chinese restaurant seeped into the lunch room.

Tommy stood up. "What a fucking stink."

"It is pretty bad," Wang said, and stood up.

Ray of Sunshine stood up. "Wang, I can smell it from here, you disgusting thing."

John Duguid backed away from the table. Something of the Glasgow docks lingered in his voice.

"Damn it, Wang, that smells like shit."

Rearing up like this in their dark blue jackets and peaked caps they looked like Maoists. Mino, who was standing behind them with his face red with tears, stepped up to John and Wang and put his hands on their shoulders.

"You know what? You're my home. This is my home!"

I was sitting on the counter, next to the microwave. Tommy came over to warm up more food. Standing beside the machine waiting for his fried rice to finish, he whispered: "Woo, woo, woo, woo."

They read Macleans and Chinese comic books and big hardcover science fiction novels, and every weekday they read The Province from first page to last, marking up the three copies the station received until by four in the afternoon when the last letter carrier had finally run out of gossip the newspapers were so dog-eared and annotated they might have been shipped from the penitentiary in the Fraser Valley, Oakalla.

I wanted to go to graduate school. It was a mercenary move -- I wanted a doctorate so I'd be in a position to quit the post office and teach in a college. (I had just finished -- I was in my 40s and it felt late in the day -- earning an MA from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, a small city that abuts East Vancouver.) Sitting in the lunch room, listening to the carriers, I would dream about it. How great it would be! How interesting my life would be once I had my teaching job and was out of the PO forever!


A few months later I enrolled at the University of British Columbia, considered to be B.C.'s premier university, as a PhD student.

Alas, something I hadn't known when I entered UBC's English Department was that its social order depended on ass kissing. I had taken the freedom I'd had at Station J for granted, mainly because it was a freedom I'd had my entire adult life. I had done many things in the post office; but never had I had to kiss ass. When you were told to kiss ass in the post office (if, for instance, a supervisor didn't like the way you slouched as you sorted your mail) it was framed as a direct order: "Bruce, this is a direct order. I am asking you to get off that stool and sort standing." If you disobeyed the direct order you were marched out of the plant with a guard on either side of you.

This suited me. What I found at UBC, though, alienated me to the core. The professors seemed unaware of what lay outside their school. Most of them had been so poisoned by years of being in a position of authority compared to their students that they'd become childish; and petulance, small-mindedness and a barely repressed anger at other men's ideas and achievements were the order of the day.

But my months at UBC did have one good effect: some nights after class by the time I reached downtown on my bus, I was immersed in two ideas I'd been thinking about on and off for nearly a decade now. I looked out the bus window at the boarded-up Chinese restaurants that just a year ago had been so busy; I stared at the facades of Woodward's and Funky Winkerbean's; I watched the faces of the people getting on and off the bus, faces which in this part of town carried hints of Boston Bar and Spences Bridge, little towns in the B.C. Interior; and as I watched them hug and say hello, I thought they were people who knew each other, part of a community that stretched for hundreds of kilometres on both sides of the Coast Range, real and alive.

Yet nobody knew about them; nobody wrote or spoke about them. That was the thing -- the untalked-about or unthought-about relationship between Vancouver and the B.C. Interior, between Vancouver and its past -- that I'd first started considering one night in the downtown postal plant; it involved what I increasingly thought of as Vancouver's colonial culture, of which the English Department at UBC (and even more my reaction to that department) now seemed an especially bad example.

On the first part of my going-home bus ride, starting at Alma just past the campus, I stood in the aisle, gently jostled by satellite kids from all over Asia. Some of them wore upwards of a thousand dollars worth of clothes and many had little mascots of pink and blue plastic dangling from their backpacks. These coloured toys swung back and forth. I thought about my obsessions. And I kept placing my happy afternoons in Station J side by side with these faintly nightmarish evenings during which I worriedly bounced up and down the stairwell of the Buchanan Building where most of the English classes were held, wondering if I'd ever get the degree that would conduct me into another world.


But that was some months to come. For now, UBC and all it meant was a happy dream. And it was during this time of dreaming that I started to keep notes.

Reading over what I wrote then, I can see the dirt from my hands on the yellow pads of paper I wrote on, dirt that came from the filthy canvas bags I unloaded from the trucks, from the piles of mail and above all from the inky newsprint of the thousands of flyers -- "householders," we called them -- that I handed out to the carriers. And I can feel the odd, somehow suspended atmosphere of those days.

Sharon Esson and I had started publishing The Vancouver Review; and it was strange to be writing my notes and putting out a literary magazine when I was working as a mail handler. One evening a small crew from CBC-TV came by and made me manhandle a binnie of mail so the world could see what a literatus looked like pushing around letters; the rest of the station studiously ignored both me and them. Sometimes a letter carrier would shout: "Hey Bruce, what in the fuck are you tryin' to do here? I could build New York City with all these fucking householders! Take them away!" I'd shout back, "Take them away yourself! I'm gonna bury you!" And though this was feeble -- I was never tough enough -- carriers would shout, "Woo, woo, woo, woo!"


Often I made my notes after all the carriers had gone home. The station's quietness would seem enhanced by the slanting five o'clock sun. Ray Ling would be sitting in his office doing his paperwork. At the front counter Sam Wong and George Wong would be talking in sleepy voices about the houses they were getting built.

One especially quiet afternoon, like bubbles frothing up in their conversation, George let out a gurgling, high-pitched giggle. "I forgot to tell you! This guy come in this morning while you on your break. He had a hundred fuckin' boxes. He want me to wrap them all. Customers everywhere, lined up out the door. And he want me to stop everything. I say, 'Sir, you do it. You see I'm busy?' So he start shouting at me! Fuckin assho! I don't need to take shit like that! I say, 'You can't be civil mister, you get out! You get out!' I say. 'You can't be civil, you leave!' Fuckin assho! Ha ha! Fuckin assho!"

George's ecstatic giggle, a fountaining of delight, awoke my own sense of joy. I smiled and looked up. Dust motes in the air. The smell of burnt coffee. I put my pen down and lit a cigarette. The feeling of tranquility edged with sadness that almost always took hold of me on those sunny late August afternoons now gave way to a happiness that made me restless.

"Hey Ray," I called, "I'm going out."

I slipped out the back, walked past the empty cages across the shadowy loading dock. Down the steps.

I headed down the alley. With its tall grasses growing out of the patched pavement, its quiet, its inky stripes of shadow, its empty lots full of shining weeds on my right and on my left, the block-long brick wall of the old Zeller's building warm with light, that alley entranced me. Using a black felt-tip pen, someone months or years before had written a high school graffito on the Zeller's wall:



Next to this graffito someone else had written -- with a lipstick or red crayon, the thick line wavering on the brick and now faded almost to grey:


As I walked to my bank machine at Penticton and Hastings on that warm, sunlit afternoon I felt I was in the heart of the world. I felt -- not at home, that was impossible for someone who'd moved as much as I had -- but alert, alive, aware not just of the physical dimensions of the city around me, but also of the temporal dimension which the slanting afternoon sun seemed to embody.

That fall I would go to UBC -- I wanted, so late in the day, to push the life I'd been born into behind me, push it all away. At the same time, as if I had a foreboding about my future at UBC (I would quit after one semester), those yellow notepads with the dirt on their pages that made my pen skip were filling up with descriptions and mini-essays that kept going back in time, as if it was in fact the old natal world that I was really interested in.

I had reached two paths. Down one path lay research, specialization, scholarship. Down the other lay the old world whose terminus was the letter carriers and "Woo, woo, woo." I should have known which one I would take. Already, while I was earning my MA up at SFU I had received a C- for an essay I had written on William Henry Drummond. C-, the lowest grade you can give a graduate student without failing him. The teacher said that I hadn't footnoted my essay according to PMLA standards. I asked her: Was there anything lacking in my writing? No; in fact, I wrote well, as she was sure I knew, but my carelessness with footnotes was unforgivable. In the end the head of the department -- a woman whom I liked and who liked what I and my friends were doing with The Vancouver Review -- walked up to me one day waving my record and said: "Bruce. Listen. This C- isn't acceptable. You have to kiss her ring. Call her up. Today. Apologize for not footnoting the piece properly and tell her you'll get it to her, properly footnoted, as soon as possible."

So I did.

Two paths, two ways of thinking about books and ideas and the world in which I lived. One day in the late '90s I went through all my yellow notepads. I began to rewrite them. In the process nearly every sentence changed, but that work of transformation produced most of the essays contained in this book.