I’ve been listening to this old radio show called Vic and Sade. It’s a hard show to explain. It ran for fourteen years, 1932–1944. It ran on weekdays in the middle of the soap operas. It was fifteen minutes long. And it had seven million listeners. It was a big part of America and very influential. The people it influenced went on to be influential themselves. Yet not many of the recordings survive. It’s mostly a memory, a footnote.
The show is focused on only a few characters: Vic, an accountant; Sade, a housewife; and their adopted son, Rush. There were other characters later, a wacky uncle and so forth. The man who played Rush went off to fight in WWII, so they replaced him for a while. Every single episode was written by a man named Paul Rhymer.
Nothing happens. Not Seinfeld nothing, but nothing nothing. Someone wants to buy a hat. Or they sit on a porch. No jokes. The characters are only half-listening to each other. They repeat themselves. It’s a signature of the show that the characters repeat themselves.
During the whole run, America is basically in hell. In 1941, British commanders are raiding Bordeaux. The USAF is intercepting Luftwaffe patrols off Algeria. There is a tank battle at night for El Alamein. And on Vic and Sade they get a letter from Aunt Bess or talk about cherry phosphates. All this ephemeral stuff. It’s almost designed to disappear, and most of the recordings are gone, along with a few scripts, like this one:
RUSH: What’s Mrs Driscoll want ya for?
VIC: I have nothing to conceal; I’ll tell ya.
RUSH: [Chuckles] She stuck on ya?
VIC: She didn’t say. However, I’ll disclose what I know of the matter. Mrs Driscoll is putting on a pageant an’ your pop has been asked to take one of the principal parts in it.
RUSH: You’re gonna be in a play, huh?
VIC: Right. Tonight promptly at seven I appear at the Driscoll mansion for the first rehearsal.
RUSH: Whatcha gonna be in the play?
VIC: The Voice of the Congo.
RUSH: [Chuckles] What?
VIC: There’s nothing humorous about this, Ralph.
RUSH: The Congo is a river.
VIC: Mrs Driscoll is aware of that.
RUSH: She’s gonna give a play about a river, huh?
VIC: A play about many rivers. It’s called Shining Waters Flowing to the Sea. The idea is that the whole world is a network of streams. Somewhere all these streams join one another. That kinda makes us all cousins, see?
VIC: Well, it does. Reflect.
VIC: Think about it. Ya know the Mackinaw River, don’tcha?
VIC: Well, the Mackinaw flows into the Illinois; the Illinois flows into the Mississippi; the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico; the Gulf of Mexico also receives the turbid waters of the Snake, the Rio Grande, an’ the White. All these flow into the Pacific Ocean an’ join, through devious routes, the Nile, the Niger, the Amazon, an’ the Elbe. Follow me?
VIC: It matters little. Nevertheless, by means of all these shining ribbons of water, every man on earth is joined by strong bonds to every other man on earth.
What was that? Commentary on world affairs? Small-town satire? Exploration of the meaning of family? All of the above?
Most of what the show does is comment on how people communicate: how they listen or don’t, the way they might nap for a few minutes and rejoin the conversation, the triumph of the neighborhood over the global in terms of news. (Do Nazis want to spy on Canada? Well, the Mayor wants to join Vic’s lodge.) And the characters are self-aware—for example, Vic is the “Exalted Big Dipper of the Drowsy Venus Chapter of the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way,” a position of supposed great importance. He’s also fully aware that his club, the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way, overcharges for everything to the point of scamminess—yet he remains an absolutely loyal member. The characters know their own faults and the faults of each other, and that makes easy jokes impossible; they can see it coming.
Since I started listening to these shows, on no particular schedule—often I pop them up on my phone and fall asleep to them—I’ve noticed how many of my own conversations are like those on the show. The world is going on, parachutes dropping from the sky, and I’m talking with my wife about the trash can, or about whether I should put up new curtains. It’s not that the big world isn’t there. But the dramas of my life are over the smallest things, the things I do control. The color of the paint, the disposition of the children, the condition of the cats. I try to keep up. I do keep up. I read the paper.
When I moved to New York City, I became, suddenly, quite depressed about the world, and I told my father about my condition. “That’s easy,” he said. “You started reading the Times.” Meaning that the world was now at my doorstep, in all of its weird, baffling anger. And I still see it.
As the smaller ways of getting the news have folded, and the larger ones have engorged themselves, I keep feeling more pressure to care, to become engaged or—change that first “g” to an “r”—enraged, about things over which I have absolutely no power. It’s not wrong to be aware of them, to think of ways that you might contribute or alter the flow of human effort. As a writer I have the privilege of getting a small group of people to think about B when otherwise they might have thought of A. None of it means that I stop flowing to the sea, but perhaps one of the hardest lessons of life is that I am a river, not the ocean.