Sing along with the mortician

August 25th, 2008

Lots of us have taken part in that strange ritual, the corporate team-building night out. I’ve never been able to turn the following experience into a poem, but some day…

We start at Yuk-Yuk’s, West Edmonton Mall.

Caricatures of comedians, all American, painted on the wall. A young, good-looking, half-Arabic man from Vancouver as emcee. He asks how many in the crowd are having birthdays and makes life miserable for those who are mad enough to admit it. Could be brought up on charges of harassment and aggravated innuendo.

He brings on the warm-up act – a clean-cut man called Jack Smith (surely an alias). His shtick is sort of “Mormon-on-acid.’ Olive-green suit and shiny ochre tie, hair cut short but tinted an electric gold at the tips. More sexual innuendo, but he doesn’t say ‘fuck’ quite as often as the emcee.

Finally the main act – a black American comic who starred on a now forgotten sit-com. Shaved head. Pacing the stage like a tom-cat on speed. He doesn’t say ‘fuck’ at all, but has a lot of stories about male sexual insecurity. He’s genuinely funny, but the main impression of the whole thing is that male comedians worry a lot about sex. So do the rest of the population, I guess. But most of us could get through the day without worrying about it that much.

The show ends. We’re herded out down a cavernous service corridor with cinder-block walls and institutional fluourescent lighting high overhead. We straggle in a V behind our leader, not quite sure what we’re supposed to be bonding to.

Next stop is the Sherlock Holmes pub next door, where a sing-along is in progress. The musician leading it is a slight young man with a couple of guitars and a synthesizer. He has a perky, boyish smile and tilts his head ingratiatingly to mark the end of each verse. Someone in our group happens to know the bouncer at the door, who tells us that the performer is actually a mortician by day.

Instead of Irish folksongs or war-time ballads, the songs are a mix of country tunes and rock music. Belting out the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction as a pub song is truly bizarre, when you remember how outrageous and hard-edged it was back in 1965. Now it’s so much part of our shared experience that we can stand around high tables lined with beer glasses and shout, “I can’t get no…”

We’ll have arrangements for upright pianos next.

It keeps getting stranger. I start to notice a disproportionate number of short people in the crowd – one whole table near the loudspeakers. At first I thought they were all sitting down, now realize that they are all standing up. Several other tables also have shorter-than-average patrons.

“There must be some sort of conference for short people at the hotel,” I think, while the mortician directs us to number 14 on the song sheet and starts up Brown sugar on the synthesizer. Browanhn shugah, we honk, like a disaggregated line of geese.

Who organizes conventions for short people? I find myself looking at other bar patrons going by. “Are you one? Are you?” And realize how difficult the line is to draw. A trio of oriental kids has taken the other next table to us – they are normal Vietnamese height, but could dance with the people at the short table and look their partners in the eye. Shades of Owen Meanie.

But the people at the table nearest the speakers are definitely shorter-than-normal, shorter-than-they-should-be. One youngish man with a big rock-musician’s face and blonde, Rod-Stewart haircut looks as though his real height should be five-ten or so, but he’s a foot shorter than that.  Another man beside him, middle-aged with graying hair, is a little taller – maybe five feet one – but he still seems subtly disproportionate. One of the women has a slim, been-round-the-track kind of face, elaborately good posture and a country singer’s leonine shag. She’s the same height as the middle-aged man, but would seem quite an ordinary height if you passed her in the mall.

And nearby, there’s me, barely an inch taller.

I look from the group at the next table to our own (where Pat is calling out for “Number 32” and six-foot-tall Chris knows all the words without looking at the song sheet) then over at the mortician.

Who on earth put this all together? What team am I playing on? And for god’s sake, what’s the game?

April 22, 1996

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