Tuesday, July 7, 2020

I threw away ALL my bras!

Yes. Just now. I. Threw. Away. My. Bras.

ALL of them. They went straight into the garbage bin, and in that bold instant I said goodbye forever to straps biting into me, hooks digging into my flesh, baggy fit, too-tight fit, squashed uni-boob torture traps, and everything else that I have endured since the age of 14.

This is, of course, a pandemic thing. Trapped in the house, you let things slide a bit, so I’d pop something over my head, a bright Indian-print dress, maybe - braless – then found I was going to the grocery store that way, and the earth didn’t fall down.

Nobody was looking, for one thing, which is a real blessing at my age. Some older women complain that they have become “invisible", but I LOVE being invisible because I can go about incognito, almost undetected. The writer/observer/detective in me loves it.

The other thing that nudged me to this unthinkable act is the current war against body-shaming and the general fattening of the developed world, verging on dangerous obesity but fast becoming the norm. Women’s sizes have “sized up” for several years now, so the 10 you wear now is more like a 14 a few years back. It matters not at all, to anyone really, but somehow I hung on to the horror of gaining weight that was instilled in me virtually from childhood.

We were all on diets, all the time. None of us could enjoy food without guilt or saying “I’m being bad”. My older sister was so obsessed that she kept a chart beside her scale in the bathroom, which had a graph with date, time of day, weight, and measurements for bust, waist, hips and thighs. She ticked all those boxes daily, and agonized if she was up a few pounds or a couple of inches. Because she was supposedly my role model, I was expected to follow her, and did, damaging myself in ways I’m still trying to pull myself out of.

When I was 16 I went into a suicidal depression so severe that my parents actually sent me to a doctor. He said I needed to lose 30 pounds and dress the way the boys liked. That would cure my depression. (It hasn't worked yet.) I weighed about 140, and my sister described me as "enormous". These influences programmed and twisted me mentally in a way Nazi interrogators would have approved of. 

But things have changed, and so drastically. I see it every day. I went through a phase of exclaiming to my husband, “Look at that! Doesn’t anyone care any more? She must be 300 pounds!” He would say something like, “Why do YOU care?” It made me wonder. I began to notice women were letting it all hang out, mostly younger women who were quite obese, but middle-aged and older women too, wearing short-shorts and spaghetti-strap tops with no bra, no “underpinnings” like we used to wear even in the firmness of youth.

I was at the tail-end of the girdle era, though said older sister wore them even at her lightest (104 pounds, which she agonized over; she had an ideal of 100 pounds which she never attained, claiming that if she did, she’d be hit by a car and killed the same day). So I don’t remember wearing one. Panty hose was a new thing, so I didn’t have to deal with garters, but bras were another story.

Bras were a rite of passage, like your first period, and being busty at 13 was a good thing, but BOY did you need a lot of coverage and “support” (meaning, disguise and control). A girl friend of mine once made me do up her bra in back because she just couldn’t manage it herself. There were just so many hooks. She was a 36C and wanted me to know it. I was relatively flat then and very depressed. I couldn’t wait to wear those holsters the other girls were wearing, even under heavy sweaters and winter dresses.

OK then, THAT wasn’t healthy – was it? – but what we’re seeing now does shock me sometimes. When I see this let-it-all-hang-out bodily freedom,  I even resent that I was forced to torture and abuse myself just to attain the proper “shape”, which was then re-shaped even more, no matter how excruciatingly uncomfortably. It’s a whole new ballgame now, but meantime I kept on playing the SAME ballgame for literally decades, trying to find something that fit me and supported me (never mind comfort) as my body changed and changed, weight surging up and down, ashamed of it, appalled at myself, covering up, but still wearing the holsters, because. . . I guess it was unthinkable NOT to.

You couldn't go around without a bra. Jesus!

In my day, my deluded, frightening, astoundingly ignorant day, the only people who went braless were rabid feminists and little old ladies who had given up. Drooping breasts were like having a rat’s nest for hair – just so ugly it wasn’t thinkable, not in public anyway, where appearances had to be carefully kept up. My mother wore house dresses around the house, but put on a much more formal kind of dress to go to the grocery store. That's how it was.

The “fat woman” in our neighbourhood was heavily stigmatized, and my mother (who didn’t have friends but “caseloads”) was basically the only person who associated with her. Her friends were blind ladies, ladies with “retarded” or “mongoloid” kids, people no one else wanted whom she adopted, thereby assuring they would be beholden to her forever. So the neighbourhood  “fat lady” was in the same category. She might have weighed 250, not more than 280 tops, and in this era of My 600 lb. Life, that’s almost thin. (People on that show talk about "getting down to 500".) She did wear the requisite confining bra and was cruelly girdled, making her look like a sausage in what must have been torture in hot weather.

Well, all that’s gone now – isn’t it? – so why did it take me so long to dump these things, these things that dug in, cut my flesh, didn’t support me anyway because they never fit? We still hear that shaming statement, “80% of women wear the wrong-sized bra!”, no doubt perpetrated by the bra industry and meant to make women scurry to an expensive specialty shop to be “fitted”. Never do they mention that there is NO SUCH THING as the “right-sized bra”, unless you have them individually tailored to your body, which none of us can afford. Not only that, but they never tell us exactly how they arrived at that 80% statistic. It seems it was plucked out of the thin air, but no one thinks about that. Stats are intimidating and generally designed to induce shame and the consumer response which is the only way to relieve it. So we skulk about knowing we’re wearing the wrong size, depressed about it, but unable to fix it. Nothing is more cruel and nasty and self-punishing than trying on bras, spending a fortune, and finding deep red lines and welts all over your body the next day.

So the bras are in the garbage, but I did make one small concession. I have never worn anything like a sports bra, and thought they were only for young women who jogged, but had the thought that if I walked briskly it might be uncomfortable for me with no support at all. I also jounce violently in the car.  I am 66 years old, breast-fed two babies, and need tell you no more about gravity. Cautiously, I experimented. I ordered  two lightweight sports bras online, and pulled one on – no hooks, no clasps, no underwiring, no plastic or metal or anything at all but soft, very forgiving fabric.  To my amazement, it felt GORGEOUS. Nothing cut. Nothing bound. It felt like a comfortable tank top and actually lifted me up like two cradling hands. (Excuse me for that.) 

I would not wear these every day, in fact I may not even wear them at all, ever. But it made me realize I could have spared myself a lot of distress for a lot of years just by wearing something that looked good and felt nice under a clingy blouse (which I never wear anyway). The sports bras went into a drawer for now, until the pandemic passes, during which time I will do what I swore I’d never do – just throw on one thing, an Indian-pattern dress from China ($20 on Amazon), and be “dressed” – dressed enough to GO OUT. 

What does this mean? I don’t know, but I DO know you will never catch me pulling and twisting at circles of wire under my breasts, and yanking on metal hooks that leave little holes in my back. For these things are now where they belong, in with the garbage and the baggage and all the other things I am shedding and throwing away, in the bittersweet realization that I never needed to torture myself like that to begin with, and never will again.

Monday, July 6, 2020

AT LAST! Harold Lloyd: Introduction to The Freshman

At long last, I was able to post the clip where Harold refers to his screen alter ego as THE GLASS CHARACTER. Almost everyone else referred to "the glasses character", and no one is sure why Harold didn't, but it made a much more poetic name for my novel about his life and work (not to mention this blog and a Facebook fan page!):

The Glass Character: a celebration of Harold Lloyd

I just noticed several more very positive reviews on Amazon.com (though they didn't appear on Amazon.ca, which is why I never saw them!) So here they are, folks. . . I have to make the most of this, as the book had a very modest release and never reached the silent film devotees I had hoped for (nor was it made into a movie, which really ran me over - but I must rise again!).

The Glass Character by Margaret Gunning Amazon.com paperback edition

The Glass Character by Margaret Gunning Amazon.com Kindle edition

Reviews on Amazon.com

Reviewed in the United States on May 29, 2017
Having become recently absorbed, nay, obsessed by all things Harold Lloyd I found myself drawn into Muriel's world---and what a world! I think one would be hard pressed to find a novel that captured the zeitgeist of the early years of motion pictures. The author did a superb job of balancing the events in Muriel's story with Harold's life. I was hooked and highly recommend it to anyone who likes the silent era of filmmaking, smart storytelling and the delicious Harold Lloyd :-)

Reviewed in the United States on April 27, 2014
In case the name doesn't ring a bell, he's the guy with the straw hat and Woody Allen glasses, in the suit, dangling from a clock on the side of a building so far above a busy avenue the cars below look like ladybugs on wheels.

Harold Lloyd.

Movie comedian of the silent 1920s. Called himself the "Glass Character" because his trademark glasses were fake. No glass in them. The guy was a nut. Blew one of his hands to Kingdom Come fiddling with what he thought was a stage prop bomb. It was real. Deliberately gave himself powerful electric shocks to get his hair to stand straight up. Did his own stunts--the clock dangle, the shocked hair, pretending to trip and stagger on building ledges up in the sky, netless--a brave, some would say foolhardy, genius. Nut.

Knowing this and being acrophobic, I can't watch his movies anymore. It even scares me to look at the photos. I'll let Margaret Gunning watch the movies and look at the photos, and I'll read her reports. Well, then again, I don't have to anymore. I've read her book, "The Glass Character". It's all in there.

Margaret, poor girl, is in love with Harold Lloyd. It started out as just a fascination with soundless images. Love snuck up and struck her dumb somewhere amid the exhaustive research she was conducting for a book about what was then still just a fascination. Love. Alas. Margaret is happily married and has two lovely daughters and four darling grandchildren, yet is far too young to leap the gap into the day when her beloved Harold held sway with the girls of a baby Hollywood. Fortunately, for her and for us, she's a novelist. She has the skill to weave the magic carpet to carry her backward in time to those days of yore, those Harold heyday days, and set her gently down along the path the love of her dreams must follow should he wish a rebirth in the imaginations and hearts of admirers forevermore. She's woven that carpet. It's large enough to take us with her on that long strange trip. I rode along on a test flight. We made it back, and I'm still agog.

When we stepped off the carpet in la la land I saw that Margaret had changed. No longer the familiar author of two of my favorite novels--"Better than Life", and "Mallory"--she'd become sixteen-year-old Jane Chorney, a virgin and erstwhile soda jerk in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a terrible crush on movie idol Harold Lloyd. Soon after we landed, Margaret /Jane (and later "Muriel", as you will learn) decided to pack up her meager belongings, cash in her chips (two cents shy of fifty bucks) and head to Hollywood and into the arms of her eternal love. I might have tried to instill sense in her were I anything more than invisible eyes and ears. Unfortunately I had lost my voice and corporeal substance upon alighting in the Santa Fe dust.

So it was off to Hollywood via a wearying, bumpy bus ride, Margaret/Jane/Muriel full of glitzy dreams and innocence, and me hunkered weightless, mute and unseen on her delicate shoulder.

I won't say more. I took no notes and had to avert my gaze any number of times during moments that really were none of my personal concern. The Glass Character is Margaret/Jane/Muriel's story, not mine. What I did see and hear, and learn during our holiday in history is captured with such lucid, insightful poignancy I can't help but wonder if Margaret didn't in fact remain there, dictating her journal to a holographic image of herself in the distant future tapping on a keyboard somewhere in a place called Coquitlam, B.C.

Reviewed in the United States on April 12, 2014
I couldn't resist turning page after page when I started reading this novel. It is as fast-paced, frenetic, frantic, as the jumpy quick movements of silent film action. To say this book captures the spirit of the silent film era, of the flashing, double-dealing, over handed and underhanded Hollywood of the 1920s and onward, is a disservice. The reader is drawn right in, involved totally with the heroine of the story. The story is about her, but it is also a thorough portrait of the great film Comedian, Harold Lloyd. He comes to life in these pages, a three dimensional fully rounded fictional character. The good, the bad, the surprising, the ugly. He is totally human and his motives and circumstances are clear.
I've read Gunning's two earlier novels, Better than Life, and Mallory. The Glass Character is far more ambitious in its depth and breadth. It is longer, more expansive than the early works. Gunning has presented her master piece, in this novel. She fully comes of age as a serious, yet entertaining writer, who displays a lovely choice of words and a often refreshing turns of phrase.
If you haven't read Gunning yet, start. If her latest novel doesn't win, or at least get nominated for the top literary prizes, there is no justice.
Don't miss an engrossing, absorbing read. By the way, you'll definitely want to hit YouTube to find full length Lloyd films, outtakes, and documentaries.
Don't leave yourself hanging from the clock hand, get the silent era spirit and enjoy the book!
One person found this helpful

Reviewed in the United States on December 18, 2014
You're in for a real treat with Margaret Gunning's Novel "The Glass Character"

If you enjoy traveling back to the time when many of our parents frequented silent films as the prime source of entertainment, then you will love to bury your nose in this madcap treatise on the time and personalities of that era.

If the name Harold Lloyd doesn't ring a bell, you will know him intimately by the time you reach the last page.

We know so much about the entertainment industry today, but so little about what went on behind the scenes of the Silent Film era. You will be shocked by Gunning's expose of that wildcap period of our history.

Don't miss this treat from the pen of a very gifted author.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

An outbreak of "mental health"

I've said all these things before, but can you believe that, in these worst of all possible times, I need to say them again? Since no one is paying heed, I guess I have to. This was a Facebook post, and I think it's good enough to share here if anyone cares to read it. 

I don't know if it's the celebrity influence or not (which it might be, because that is mainly what de-stigmatized AIDS via Elizabeth Taylor et. al), but now people NEVER say "mental illness". They say "mental health", and even say things like "I have mental health" or "I lost my son to mental health." 

I protested for years and years about the use of the terms "mental illness/mentally ill", because if you are mentally ill, the terminology means you can never be "well". How can you be well and ill at the same time? You can't. I used to despair that there were NO runs or events or concerts or fund-raising things for "mental illness" and decried the widespread use of "whack job", "nut bar", and all the other appalling terms used to dismiss "the crazies" (and always said with apparently no awareness at all that it's wrong). 

Now, suddenly, I have "mental health", but boy, I don't feel a whole lot better! It was a great thing when "cancer victim" (which used to be the term even for people who were successfully treated) was replaced with "survivor", "warrior," etc. Now we've at least moved ONE chess jump, from "ill", not to "well", but to "health". Now I suppose I'll be told, "well, aren't you grateful the stigma no longer exists?" 

A few years ago, ONE woman rode a horse across Canada to raise awareness of the plight of the "mentally ill". It was barely covered, and she might have made at most a few thousand dollars. But it was implied she was a little crazy herself to be doing it. In the meantime, little or nothing has changed. 

I believe in these pandemic times that references to "loonies", "psychos", etc. etc. have ESCALATED, with people having no qualms whatsoever throwing around terms that, to me, are as offensive as the n-word. I was just a little stressed lately and tried to book a counselling session at a clinic where I had made a good connection earlier in the year, and was told "your file is closed", and as it turns out, even if it COULD be reinstated, all appointments were booked up until well into September. If you want to get any sort of help before that, you have to go to Emergency.

Hell, I'd be violently triggered if I had to go there for a broken toenail, let alone because I have "mental health", due to the demeaning and humiliating treatment I have received there in the past. No thanks!

Thursday, July 2, 2020

I'm in a Harold state of mind

This blog was originally set up as a kind of extended ad for my novel, The Glass Character, a fictionalized account of the life and times of Harold Lloyd as seen through the eyes of an obsessed fan. This was done at the request of my publisher, along with a Facebook page which I still update when I feel moved to do so. Over the years, the blog evolved and changed and spread itself out, and continues to, but Harold Lloyd is still at the root of it all.

Having researched the novel for a couple of years, I have thousands of photos, gifs, videos, artwork, a handmade doll (yes!), and other bits and pieces of Lloydiana which I sometimes still feel moved to share. Though the novel did not do well at the box office and was considered a failure by most, writing it was by far the most positive experience of my life as an author. I had had a disastrous mental breakdown in 2005 and was not sure I would even physically survive, let alone write again, let alone write a novel, let alone get it published! Harold, and the four grandchildren who were born over the next four years, literally saved my life, and I'll always be grateful for that.

Harold comes around again in cycles, because whatever happened or didn't happen with the novel, I will always  believe my connection to him is positive, lifeward, even uplifting. I had a spiritual connection to him, and still do. He was not a perfect human being, as he was well-known to be a womanizer with a fierce temper, but he was also big-hearted, exuberant, brilliantly inventive, a constant enthusiast, unquenchable even in the worst adversity, and in all, just a hell of a good influence on me during an extremely dire time.

So I'm once again looking at Harold as a way to muddle through all this mess. I am not in a good place medically now, in constant pain, unable to see a counsellor (booked solid 'til well into September!), and if I have any mental health issues I've been ordered to "just go to Emergency". Since going to Emergency even for a cut on my foot can trigger unbearable panic (just a little quirk of mine!), it's not on. So whatever I'm going through, I'm going through pretty much on my own. Everyone has their trials and tribulations now, and the admonishment to "reach out for help" is now more hollow and hypocritical than ever before.

So. . . here he is, and I'll be digging around in the archives to see what else I can come up with. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

BUS PEOPLE: a novel of the Downtown Eastside - Part Twelve (conclusion)

This is a serialized version of my novel Bus People, a story of the people who live on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The main character, Dr. Zoltan Levy, is loosely based on author and lecturer Dr. Gabor Mate. It's a fantasy and not a sociological treatise: meaning, I don’t try to deal with “issues” so much as people who feel like they’ve been swept to the edge of the sidewalk and are socially invisible/terminally powerless. I’m running it in parts, in chronological order so it’s all there, breaking it up with a few pictures because personally, I hate big blocks of text.

Margaret Gunning

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside 

Part Twelve (conclusion)

"No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night." Elie Wiesel

The bus

Bert Moffatt often thinks about taking an early retirement, he’s 57 years old now, and this driving business is a young man’s game, requiring a stamina he no longer thinks he has.

The things that happen on his shift are pretty disturbing. The other day two hookers got on along Hastings Street and got into a screaming battle about something, probably drugs, and actually started physically fighting on the bus, yanking hair and scratching faces, and had to be pulled apart. One of them was wearing only a bra, no blouse, and the other one, Bert didn’t know how anyone could be that thin and still be alive, she must be in the final stages of AIDS, it was heartbreaking to see.

He feels terrible about Aggie. It’s a shame when that happens, a woman just vanishing like that, he knew Aggie had some pretty serious problems, but he was fond of her, they had a real connection going for years, almost a friendship, and now she has just disappeared, wandered off somewhere in disorientation, or did something worse happen? Around these parts, you never knew.

The guy with the blanket over his head never comes around any more. Bert has no idea where he went. Nobody seems to know. But that young fellow, Porky or whatever his name is, he’s taking the bus nearly every day now, that’s a change, and he looks different, he has cut his hair for one thing, and it looks much neater, he’s dressing better too, but it isn’t just that, he’s standing up straighter or something, carrying himself differently, so that he almost seems like a different person.

Today on the bus, somebody tries to give him a hard time. But his reaction is so completely different, Bert is taken by surprise.

“Hey nigger.”

The old Porgy would have absorbed this, just taken it. Vester won’t take it.

His hand whips out, he grabs the young smart-ass by the collar and almost lifts him off his feet.

“Take that back.”

“Hey, don’t get excited, I was only kidding around.”

“Take. . . that. . .back.”

“Okay, okay, I take it back. Jeez!”

“Now apologize.”


“You heard me. Apologize.”

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.”

“Are you?”

“Yes! Jesus, let me go!”

“You have to promise me one thing.”

“Okay, I will.”

“That you’ll never call anybody by that name, ever again.”

“All right, I promise.” 

“Now mean it.”

“All right! Christ! Let go!” He finally releases him, and he slumps into a seat, pale and shaky-looking. Vester Graham knows he has scored a major victory.

But there is still something left for him to do.


The progress he has made with Dr. Levy has surprised both of them. The depression that weighed him down for most of his life seems to be lifting at last, and

he feels different, just different in a way that is hard for him to explain or even comprehend.

He has talked about the foster homes. Anguish at first, and the flashbacks nearly killed him, but with Dr. Levy as his guide, he has been able to slay one dragon after another.

Aggie’s disappearance has been brutal. After a few months, the search for her whereabouts becomes a search for her remains. The police have found nothing – Vester doesn’t think they looked very hard - though the psychic they consulted claimed that she had “gone home” and was in a happier place, her soul finally at peace.


“What is it, Vess?”

“Some guy called me a nigger on the bus today.”

Dr. Levy looks at him, his brows drawing together.

“I made him take it back.”


“I made him apologize. Oh man, I thought I’d never be able to do that.”

“That’s – Vess, that’s remarkable, I’m proud of you. You are doing so well.”

“Doc. That’s the thing. I’m not.”

Dr. Levy’s puzzled expression makes his insides squirm. But there’s no turning back now.

“There’s. . . there’s all sorts of shit I haven’t told you about.”

The pause that follows is loaded.

“Are you ready to tell me now?”

“No. Doc, I’m never going to be ready. If I say this shit, I know what’s going to happen to me.”

“And if you don’t?”

“If I don’t. . .if I don’t, then all this stuff that’s happened here, all these changes I’ve made, it just won’t mean a damn thing.”

“I think it’s time you told me, Vess.”

He rubs his eyes, takes a deep breath, and in a voice shaking with dread, he begins.

“When I was fifteen years old,” he says to Dr. Levy, “I started setting fires.”

Epilogue: Szabó’s Fire

The turning of the year is like every other year, with the usual milestones and markers, another spring with its torrential rains and surges of lush supernatural B. C. green, another summer of rides and cotton candy at the PNE, another fall with the kids piling on the bus to go back to school, then everyone dressing up for trick-or-treats, then the mad frenzy of preparation for yet another Christmas and New Year’s.

But like every other year, this one is unique. Powerful changes have swept through Zeddyville, some of them heartbreaking. Aggie is now an absence, another dotted-line void, just gone. She has disappeared without a trace, almost as if she never was.

Women disappear from the Downtown Eastside all the time, a bitter, unpalatable fact. Vess Graham can’t quite swallow it, and still holds out some sort of hope that they’ll find Aggie, or even some remains of her, something.

There are moments when he can almost convince himself that she found a way to put her hand through the veil. Then he dismisses the thought as just too fantastic. It’s impossible to get out of the time you were born into, you just have to deal with what’s around you, hard as it sometimes is. Dr. Levy taught him that.

Dr. Levy taught him a lot of things. One of the greatest lessons was about taking responsibility: after confessing the fires, which was the hardest thing he ever did in his life, he wondered if the doctor would turn him in, report him. But he didn’t.

He left that up to him.

It took him a while. For several weeks he didn’t eat or sleep. His guts twisted with anxiety and dread, and even though he knew what he needed to do, actually doing it was almost impossible. Wouldn’t he lose all the progress he had made over the past few months, all the changes, his newfound power, his freedom, his life?

Then one day it became too much for him to carry. Vess Graham called the police, and told them he had to come in and talk to them.

There were consequences, harsh ones. He knew there would be. Vess would have to serve time for his offenses, there was no way around it. But when he learned that the man who died had had a heart attack, that it wasn’t the fire that killed him, the relief he felt was almost worth the four years he had to spend in prison.

Though four years was bad, it sure beat ten. Dr. Levy saw to it that his sentence was

reduced. The full confession and the determined effort he had made to reclaim himself

had not gone unnoticed.

He made good use of his time. One of the counsellors suggested he train himself for a career in computer support: “You’re a techie, Vess, a natural for this industry. Think of it. You could be completely self-supporting then, and not have to rely on your father for handouts.”
“Really?” It sounded fantastic, too good to be true.

“You can start your education right here. Once you get out, we can arrange for you to take classes at BCIT. This is something you love to do, Vess, and you’re a smart young man, you could really make a go of it.”

This was kind of like finding out he had two heads and didn’t even know it, a complete and total shock, but – the more they talked about it, the more plausible and even possible it seemed.

Step by step, starting in prison, then carrying on when they let him out in only two years, Vess Graham began to build a life.

Mavis Potter did become famous, but not in the way she had anticipated. The story of how she broke into Zoltán Levy’s house and assaulted him made her into a minor celebrity, and for a time she was hounded by reporters. Excerpts of Eastside Story appeared in the Vancouver Sun, but finding a publisher proved to be impossible. The manuscript was over 1200 pages long, a rambling stream-of-consciousness prose poem too bizarre to be marketable.

Though he was deeply shaken, Zoltán Levy did not press charges. The woman was obviously sick, not a criminal. But he did insist she get some help. Mavis entered therapy with a Gestalt psychologist in North Vancouver, separated from Charles, and began to write a memoir about her experiences posing as a bag lady on the Downtown Eastside.

Dr. Levy’s year has been complicated. He made a good connection with Sandy Alexander, the young woman who had the baby in his office last winter. She would bring little Anton in to see him, he’d crawl all over the floor, and they’d talk.

One day, Sandy is playing peek-a-boo with the little boy, and he laughs out loud in delight.

Dr. Levy feels his heart turn over.

He has heard that laugh before.

He looks at the baby, sees the resemblance for the first time. He must have been blind before.

Missing pieces fly into place, slam together in shock, and the muddled picture in his brain jumps into sharp relief.

He looks at Sandy; she’s smiling a little. She knows, of course.

And she knows that he knows.

He feels a little faint.

“Welcome to the family. Or should I say – welcome back.”

Bert Moffatt did decide to retire, but not before finding out what happened to the guy with the blanket over his head. He should not have worried, for soon the name of Tamás Szabó will be all over the newspapers, not to mention the internet.

He remains secluded during the long and difficult process of the restoration of his face. But during that time, amazing things begin to happen in his new studio on East Hastings Street. Inspiration floods through and reanimates him: “The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose,” Dr. Levy says to him, quoting Isaiah. In this great second blooming he conceives an exhibit of sculpture depicting the third-world streets of Vancouver, a collection entitled The Kingdom of Night.

When the media get wind of the facial reconstruction story, Szabó’s fortunes take a huge upswing. With a little urging from Dr. Levy, the Vancouver Art Gallery agrees to host his exhibition, a one-man display of virtuosity pulled out of complete darkness.

Zoltán Levy is excited, and eagerly anticipating opening night. Szabó hasn’t let him see the results of the facial surgery; no one has seen it but the doctors. Mystery creates interest, and Szabó knows that the time has not yet come for the great unveiling.

On the night, the gallery is unexpectedly mobbed. A crowd was anticipated, mostly from the arts community, but not this. Excitement crackles in the air, cameras flash, and media people jostle, sensing a good story. Zoltán Levy gets there an hour early, but still has to push his way through a dense and noisy crowd.

A white limousine pulls up in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery at 8:15 p.m. Tamás Szabó gets out of the back, and his new assistant, an attractive dark-haired woman named Zoë, takes his arm to guide him up the steps.

No more buses for Szabó. Now he rides in style.

The scene is beyond surreal, and would be almost comical were it not for Szabó’s palpable dignity. With his head draped in a cowl of heavy silk, he would not be out of place in a medieval monastery. The crowd parts as he enters, everyone stepping back in awe. There he is, that’s Szabó, that’s the man who had no face.

The sculptures are all thickly draped, cloaked in black. One by one, Tamás Szabó walks up to them, stands before them a moment, then pulls the covering away.

The crowd falls deathly silent.


A woman of the night, flesh pared down to bone, eyes staring ahead like inanimate glass. A panhandler with tattoos sculpted in relief on his body, his hands held up in a gesture of surrender. A gaudy gang mural with graffiti expressed in three dimensions.

One sculpture is modeled after the Cenotaph, the “Is it Nothing to You” motto carved into a giant tombstone. Another is of a great rearing horse.

The crowd is quietly buzzing, some of them commenting on technical merit, but a few sculptures make them stop talking altogether. The pieces appear to be breathing, subtly expressing a kind of movement, entwining familiarity and strangeness.

When the nine huge sculptures are all unveiled, Tamás Szabó ascends to the podium.

He stands there for a full two minutes. The tension is unbearable. No one knows what will happen next.

Zoltán Levy recalls that other unveiling, that day in his office when he let the blanket fall. But this time it’s different, this time he has hundreds of witnesses. He draws the heavy dark silk covering up over his head, lets it drop to the floor.


The audience can’t help it. They gasp.

He lets them look, lets them take it in. He knows they are having difficulty believing what they are seeing.

The face is smooth and unlined, and looks eerily young for a man of sixty-seven.  There are no Frankensteinian seams to disclose the fact that this is a man-made, manufactured face, not the face he was born with.

Working from photographs, the surgeons restored the bone structure as accurately as possible, the missing half of his lower jaw, his chin, his teeth, his nose, and though they are new, these features are all Szabó, they are his. The brilliant blue glass eyes are unsettling, like the eyes of a wolf.

The word the reporters want to use is “lifelike”, though it is obviously a facsimile, a fairly convincing replica of a “real” face. The colour and texture closely resemble human skin, minus any bluish waxworks pallor, but the surgeons have not yet learned how to age and weather a manufactured face. It somewhat resembles the portrait of Dorian Grey, a reflection of a man, his traumatic past burned to ashes and blown away.

A long silence; then someone begins to applaud. Then a few more.

Then the room comes alive with applause, relieving the crowd’s apprehension that they would be looking at a freak, someone to be pitied and feared. Words are coming together in the journalists’ heads, things like “miracle of modern science,” “quantum leap in surgical sophistication,” but media clichés will never express this phenomenon, this restoration of destroyed flesh.

When the applause and cheers finally die down, something happens that dwarfs even this bizarre miracle. Tamás Szabó begins to speak.

“My friends. I welcome you all to this day of triumph. For today I share with you my vision, a vision that was taken from me by a cruel twist of fate, then miraculously returned to me.”

Once the initial shock of hearing him wears off, the audience realizes he is not speaking in the normal way. How could he? Speech would never be possible for a man so deeply damaged. Then comes the slow recognition that they are hearing a speech synthesizer, similar to the device used by the disabled physicist Stephen Hawking.

Some genius has programmed it to speak with a Hungarian accent.

“When I lost my eyes, I lost my heart also, and my will to live. I became a beggar on the street, living on the pity of others, a cruel parody of my great dreams of success. My art was gone, I lived in total darkness, and yet God would not let me die. My pride would not allow me to hold my hand out for help.  And so I suffered a hell beyond your powers to imagine.”

“Then one day I could carry the burden of my life no longer. A man touched me on the street that day, a countryman, he spoke to me in my own language. Though I did not know it, it was the beginning of my second life. I came to see him one week later, and – this man, this Zoltán Levy, he healed me. He healed me inside, where the scars were worse than the mess I had made of my face. He gave me back my soul.”

Zoltán Levy stands in the crowd, swaying a little, giddy with a feeling he can’t identify. He wonders if a new emotion needs to be invented to accommodate the strangeness of this day.

“Though the surgeons restored my face, for which I am profoundly grateful, Dr. Levy restored something far more important: my reason to live, my dignity, and my art. There are no words to express my gratitude to this man. He is remarkable.”

Suddenly the crowd’s attention shifts to Zoltán Levy; cameras flash, and applause swells again, this time for him. He feels a twinge of unworthiness; Szabó did this, not him, he only showed him the way. But he accepts the recognition, knowing that worthiness is not the issue here.

If it were, he is certain he would have perished a long time ago.

The exhilaration of the evening lasts about a day. Zoltán Levy cannot bring himself to leap back into the arms of his abandoned family. It’s not that simple. God knows he has told his patients often enough that they have to stop replaying those old tapes, get on with things, live forwards. But how to live forwards when you are afraid to look over your shoulder at the lives you have damaged and destroyed?

What right does he have to ask forgiveness?

So for a long time, Zoltán Levy does nothing. Sandy still comes in once in a while with the baby, and, incredibly, Dr. Levy bounces him and talks to him and makes him smile, as if everything were normal and this was just another chubby, healthy, happy baby, not the son of his son.

His work grinds along. Some days are gratifying, some nearly intolerable. He has started listening to those sealed CDs in his living room, something he thought he would never do. He even considers returning the rest of them to the store, but is just too embarrassed.

He decides he doesn’t need six versions of Don Giovanni and donates four to the public library, then starts to distribute the rest of his ill-gotten treasures to community centres and nursing homes, hoping they like Rautavaara.

Incredibly, for the people at the Portland anyway, he goes out on a date. Some of his patients see him with this intellectual-looking brunette with glasses who spends the entire evening lecturing about forensic anthropology. When they return from seeing a documentary called Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, an experience which is about as enjoyable as having major dental work, one of his Portman patients sees them and calls out, “Hey, doc! Gettin’ any?”

He feels ridiculous when he walks her to her door, says good evening and wonders whether he is supposed to kiss her or not. Remembers how awkward he was before he met Annie, and realizes he has returned to that state and can’t seem to break out of it. He makes an excuse about a sore throat and leaves quickly.

Transformations come slowly, for some people. Not everyone can be a Szabó, but we can take small steps. Or so he tells himself.

Because of the hazardous nature of his work, Dr. Levy must be tested for HIV at regular intervals. This has become so routine that he no longer considers the danger. Rubber gloves get punctured, it happens all the time. He doesn’t give it much thought.

Then one day, the young nurse in his office receives the most recent test result. For some reason she doesn’t want to give it to him. They run the test over again, to be certain there has been no mistake.

For years now, he has been breaking this to people: the test results are back, and I’m afraid it’s not good news. But now we can deal with it. Aren’t you glad you came in?

His own reassurances bounce back in his face, useless. HIV is no longer a death sentence. But it IS a life sentence, and it has to be treated on a continuous basis. You’ll have to live with this until we find the cure. He has said it a million times, and now he must say it to himself.

Suddenly, everything he has known has been thrown up in the air.

He sits with Sandy and the baby in his office, looking telescopically distant.

“Dr. Levy.”

“Oh, sorry, Sandy. My mind was wandering.”

“You know, you’re always telling me that every bad thing that happens has a hidden gift in it.”

“I said that?” He presses his fingertips into his eyeballs. “I must be a veritable fountainhead of wisdom.”

Sandy smiles. Anton, now a robust, unmistakably Hungarian-looking baby with dark eyes and curly black hair, babbles happily.

“Yeah, you are, except that you don’t know how to take your own advice.”

“Are you telling me what I should do?”

“No. I wouldn’t do that. But it looks to me like this test result might be a blessing in disguise.”

“I don’t see how it could be.”

“Dr. Levy.”


“Zoltán.” It feels funny to call him that, but isn’t he her son’s grandfather?

“Anton likes to quote this line out of a Bob Dylan song: ‘When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.’ What have you got to lose in seeing him? What’s the worst that can happen? So, okay, maybe he’ll be furious with you and tell you to fuck off for abandoning him. But isn’t that better than nothing? Isn’t that better than dying without having the chance to see your son again?”
Zoltán Levy has always been amazed at the capacity of ordinary people to cut through all the bullshit and obfuscation and get at the truth.

But he doesn’t go to see his son. Anton does not appear to be interested, or still hates him. Why don’t their paths cross more often, when he seems to live in the vicinity of the Portman, his beat? Mysteriously, they live in two separate universes that overlap.

Then it happens again, the weird dodge-game that brought them face-to-face in the first place. They literally run into each other. It’s disconcerting to suddenly see yourself, to see a younger version/older version, mirrors reflecting mirrors.

But this time they both stop, glued down with shock.


No response.

Dr. Levy impulsively reaches out and clasps his son’s bare forearm. Just holds on to it. Two pairs of black eyes lock.

Zoltán lets go of his arm, then gestures with his head towards the clinic, his body a question mark.

Anton stares at the pavement for a few seconds. Looks up at his father, straight into his eyes.

He reaches out, grabs his father’s forearm, squeezes it once, then sprints away into the night.

Bus People Part One

Bus People Part Two

Bus People Part Three

Bus People Part Four

Bus People Part Five

Bus People Part Six

Bus People Part Seven

Bus People Part Eight

Bus People Part Nine

Bus People Part Ten

Bus People Part Eleven

Bus People Part Twelve

Monday, June 29, 2020

BUS PEOPLE: a novel of the Downtown Eastside - Part Eleven

This is a serialized version of my novel Bus People, a story of the people who live on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The main character, Dr. Zoltan Levy, is loosely based on author and lecturer Dr. Gabor Mate. It's a fantasy and not a sociological treatise: meaning, I don’t try to deal with “issues” so much as people who feel like they’ve been swept to the edge of the sidewalk and are socially invisible/terminally powerless. I’m running it in parts, in chronological order so it’s all there, breaking it up with a few pictures because personally, I hate big blocks of text.

Margaret Gunning

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside

Part Eleven

"No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night." Elie Wiesel


The surgery on his back is completely successful, going more smoothly than anyone could have anticipated. His spirits go through the roof.

Then something happens that nobody ever counted on.

For no reason anyone can comprehend, his immune system crashes. A massive infection erupts in his body, and Szabó sinks into a coma. The anxiety on the ward is a palpable thing, for this is the same hospital where Szabó refused to die a couple of years ago, and some of the same nurses attend him. This time their prayers are reversed: Szabó, please live. Dr. Levy keeps vigil, sitting beside his bed and talking to him, on the remote chance he can hear him from the other side.

The other side is a strange place. Not that he can see again, it’s not like that, but still there is light, cold and brilliant and enveloping. He wanders around in it, directionless. Am I dead? he wonders, then realizes how ludicrous the question is.

Then the strange thing happens, the one that no one can agree on because everybody saw a different thing.

This old, old woman, nobody knows who she is or where she came from, shuffles into the ward in the middle of the night, past the night staff, nobody sees her, she’s so tiny anyway, maybe only four feet tall, her spine bent like a wishbone, and once she is in Szabó’s room, she pulls the red kerchief off her head and drapes it over Szabó’s ruined face. Then she somehow manages to kneel, resting her head on the edge of the bed.

In the wasteland he wanders through, Szabó sees a shape, not a shadow but something solid moving in the overwhelming light.

Szabó seems to rouse, to awaken for a moment, emerges from the kingdom of night, and knows that someone is there.

He puts out his hand and touches the top of her head.

He knows who it is.

Sometimes remembrance and loyalty is so strong, it assumes the form of a human being. His mother risked everything to get him out of the work camp, the place everyone said was “not so bad as a concentration camp”, not quite so soul-destroying. Then why did her small son look like a ghost; why was he afraid to speak for so long?

In the morning, the staff find an old red kerchief lying on the floor under the bed. Nothing more. Then a nurse says, “I think I did see someone, though. . .”

“Oh, I did too! Just out of the corner of my eye.”

“You couldn’t have. How did she get in?”

“You didn’t see anybody, come on. Cleaning staff, you know they wear these things.”

Szabó is awake.

The infection is gone: just gone, wiped completely clean. Nobody can believe it, but it’s true.

Magolna Szabó would have been ninety-seven years old. He knows she couldn’t have come to him, it was impossible, but he felt her. The line between reality and need blurred for just a second, long enough for her to slip through. Or was he hallucinating from the coma, seeing things, even though he doesn’t even have any eyes?

In any case, he’s sitting up, the staff is standing around him and having a little party because he’s finally awake. If he had a mouth, he’d be smiling.

Zoltán Levy goes home, pours himself a shot, downs it. Stands still in the kitchen for a moment, his brain whirring. Then rummages among the CDs. Rips the cellophane off a copy of Don Giovanni he stole, maybe thirteen years ago. He has at least six versions of it, he loves Don Giovanni and identifies with him, though he almost never listens to it. Loads it on to the player and begins to sing, no, bellow along with it. He knows he has a terrible unmusical voice but doesn’t care. It’s loud and strong, and he feels like celebrating.


Portman Hotel
December 21, 2003

I hate Christmas. Hate it, hate it, hate it. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, my ass. ‘Tis the season to commit fucking suicide, if you ask me.

I remember one time years ago, I was in this psychiatric day program at Royal Columbian Hospital, I called it a “pogrom” rather than a “program”, but nobody got it, too bad Dr. Levy wasn’t around back then, he was still in private practice. Right around Christmas time the group expanded by a factor of ten, it just boomed, because people who are normally just miserable become intolerably miserable at this festive time of year.

We’ll hear those bells come jinglin’, ring-ting-tinglin’, too. Rum will flow like mother’s milk in households all over the nation, and curses will come down on little heads. Fists will fly, and Christmas trees will be smashed beyond recognition, along with small children’s hearts.

Innocence and evil dance hand in hand all through the merry month of December. They always do, it’s just that at this gut-lurchingly jolly time of year you can’t ignore it, it’s blasted at you from every fucking direction, from the first of October until the whole thing collapses on Boxing Day.

I just feel lonely, lonely. My insides feel hollow. I’ve lost touch with Sebastian, the magic is gone, I wonder what it was all about now anyway, that spell I was under when I listened to him speak to me across the void of 117 years.

I want to step through. Just step through whatever wall separates us now, and be with him. It’s only time, a mere illusion if the quantum physicists are right. Why must it have such power over us? Why must it flow only in one direction? Wasn’t Einstein on to something in believing it’s a whole lot more complicated than that?

Philosophers talk about how everything really happens all at once, or maybe has already happened. Can I jump backwards and enter the rhythm of another time, like jumping into a skipping-rope that turned in 1887?

Where did Sebastian live? What sort of work did he do? There is so much he didn’t tell me. The man is a complete mystery to me, but at the same time, I feel like I’ve known him always. He reads my thoughts and lays his hand on my heart.

I can’t see Cameron and Suzanne this year for Christmas, and maybe it’s just as well because once again, I can’t afford any fucking presents for them. I must be such a disappointment to them. The social worker says it’s too soon after the assault, the guy is threatening to press charges and drag me into court, and besides, she thinks I’m coping poorly these days, losing ground, and maybe she’s right, I don’t feel too shit-hot these days. If you were carrying the load I am carrying, you wouldn’t feel like showering or washing your hair or cleaning the place up either. When she saw the inside of my apartment the other day, I think she was a little bit shocked. It’s always pretty cluttered, she’s used to that, but she couldn’t help but see my new collection. What’s all this? Oh, those are cylinders. Cylinders? Yeah, old recordings. Antiques. But look at them all, Aggie.  There must be dozens of them here. Do you spend money on these things? No, I get them for free. Aggie. Tell me the truth. Well, what do you think, that I fucking steal them? I didn’t say that. No, you didn’t have to.

That conversation was a deal-breaker, apparently. I’m supposed to go back and see Dr. Levy today, and I’m dreading it. I think I’m going to bail. He’s not going to get this, he’ll think I’ve gone ‘round the twist, out of orbit, completely beyond the pale. He is an awesome doctor, in fact I think he has the seeds of greatness in him, but this he will not comprehend, and I know it. I will have to go on without my pathfinder, on love alone.

The bus

Every December, Bert Moffatt decks out the Number 42 with antlers and holly and blinking red and green Christmas lights. He rigs up a sound system on the bus, so that the passengers can listen to “White Christmas” sung by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, Burl Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas”, and Nat King Cole singing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. . .”

His wife Sherry dresses up like Mrs. Claus, and hands out little cellophane-wrapped candy canes to the shiny-eyed children who get on the bus every day.

Szabó hasn’t been on the Number 42 for months now, and nobody is sure what has happened to him. He seems to have disappeared, gone underground. The corner where he used to sit and beg is vacant now. A busker tried to set up shop there one morning. Bad mistake: he was chased down the street by a wild-eyed woman with a backpack, shouting, “Get out of here! Don’t you know you’re standing on holy ground?”

A woman of about sixty, beaming as if the bus is her main source of joy, boards the Number 42 on the Thursday before Christmas, hand in hand with a young man with a bland vacant face and eyes that look vaguely stoned. She guides him to a place at the very back, and he sprawls over two seats, prompting glares from some of the standees.

Then he begins to talk, quite loudly in fact, in a gravelly voice remeniscent of Louis Armstrong. But the talk makes no sense, and alarms the people around him:

“Daw ideo bo,” he says. “Daw ideo, idugo, idugo bo.”

“Jesus, would you get a load of that,” mutters an elderly man sitting next to his very large wife.

“Should be in an institution,” she murmurs, shaking her head.

“Woka-ba vut, woka-ba vut, wa-hat fun, rowada wa-hat fun. Oh too goolaaaaaah, rowada ha-gat gaw! Wahat-fun, yebada wahat-fun.”

The talk has certain patterns in it, and some of it almost makes sense:

“Ba de may vaa, ba de may vaa, yebada wahat-fun, yebada va-too ma leff, va-too ma rye. Wabada wahat-fun, yebada va-too ma leff, va-too ma rye.”

“You meet all kinds,” the large woman says.

“On the bus? You meet lunatics.”

A man gets on at the next stop, not very clean, in fact he carries a strong waft of alcohol and pot around with him, and he looks angry, he comes on angry, and gets even angrier when he realizes that there’s nowhere to sit. He sees the young man hogging the two seats at the back and begins to push his way towards him.

“Oh-oh,” the large woman says. “Here comes trouble.”


“Debaga wa-hat fun, wa-hat fun, yebada va-too ma leff, va-too ma rye.”

“Hey, buddy. You’re taking up two seats here. Shove over.”

“Woka-ba vut, woka-ba vut.” The angry man tries to force him over with his body. But the young man with the language of his own will not move. He braces his body in the seat and holds on.

His mother, for surely she must be his mother to look at him the way that she does, feels apprehensive, but is not sure what to do about it. She tries to let him fight his own battles wherever possible. And God knows, he has to fight enough of them. The angry man keeps on pushing and pushing. He will not stop.

“Now wait a minute.” The huge smile has vanished from the sixtyish lady’s face. She gets up and strides over to the angry man.

“Leave him be.”

“Lady, he’s taking up two seats.”

“It won’t kill you to stand.”

“Yeah, well, just because he’s a fuckin’ retard doesn’t give him the right to – “

The sixtyish woman can hardly believe what she has just done.

She has never struck anyone in her life before.

“Fuck off, lady! That’s it, I’m charging you with assault. I have witnesses here. Hey! You saw what she did!”

“Go ahead. I want you to. I want the whole world to know what my son goes through every day of his life.” The woman had no idea, when she got on the bus that morning, that she was going to say any of this. In fact, she didn’t even know she felt that way until now.

“People like this should be in an institution.”

“No. You should be put away for the rest of your life for what you did to him, humiliating him in public like that! My son has to put up with unbelievable abuse every day of his life. You have no idea, nobody does. He is my hero. He has more dignity and courage than you’ll ever have, you stupid arrogant asshole!”

“Oh lady, don’t break my fuckin’ heart!” He mimes playing a violin.

As always happens in these situations, the other passengers are sucked into the drama. The bus people clearly favour the woman’s side of the argument, and she knows it.

Bert Moffatt feels a migraine coming on.

The verbal slings continue. The young man with the language of his own is bawling loudly now, rocking back and forth, sensing the tension, but still refusing to move. The angry man body-checks him hard.

Then the busload of people gasp as a red figure hurtles down the aisle and tackles him full-force.

It’s Mrs. Santa Claus.

“Get off, get off, get OFF this bus,” she says with mounting fury, grabbing his collar and pulling him down the aisle.

“Christ, who are you?”

“I’m the spirit of Christmas Present, OK? Now shut up and behave yourself.”

The passengers, not expecting a holiday pageant to be included in their fare, stare in wonder and confusion.

“Bert, put this asshole off at the next stop.”

“Yeah, babe.”

Before they get off the bus that morning, a few of the passengers go to the back to congratulate the sixtyish woman (her name is Mrs. Edna Berry, and her son’s name is Randall, he’s 28 years old, and yes, he has always talked that way, he’s brain-damaged from birth, isn’t it remarkable?), and to tell her to stick to her guns. One white-haired old man in a long coat, his breath heavy with booze, kisses her on the cheek.

“Muh,” Randall says. Worn out by his ordeal, he’s reduced to monosyllables.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Berry.”

“Happy Holidays.”

“You’re a hero, Randall.”

“Don’t let the assholes get you down.”



Christmas Eve has no particular significance to Zoltán Levy, being a non-observant Jew, an agnostic. It only means more problems at work, the forces of addiction bearing down particularly hard on the terminally lonely. He bails out the Titanic with a thimble, like he always does, and somehow keeps it from going down altogether, though he is unspeakably weary tonight, just used right up.

He sits in front of the fireplace for a while swirling a glass of brandy, thinking about Ebeneezer Scrooge, and wondering if a Jewish Scrooge would play. Also wondering what sort of spirit would visit him on a night like this, the rain a pitiless black drone that likely won’t let up until June. Maybe a suicide, or a prostitute who ended her life on a pig farm.

He drags himself off to bed. The house falls quiet. Rosie flops on the floor, letting out a long wheezing groan of contentment.

The merciless assault of the rain nearly drowns out the rattle at the back door.

This time, entry is easy, for she has done it enough times to know how.

Mavis Potter has gained entry. No bag lady clothes this time, she’s dressed to the nines: a gown she wore to one of Charles’s things, a black silk that clings to her curves, well, it does now that she has gained all this weight, but she hopes that it looks sexy along with the tottering high heels.

In the matching black silk clutch purse is a fistful of raw steak.

Rosie lifts her head. She sniffs the air, begins to whine and salivate. She knows who it is, and what will soon follow. Her stump of a tail twitches in anticipation.

Dr. Levy snores.

Mavis sneaks into the living room. The fire has burned down to embers, bright sparks spiralling upward. She sees an old iron menorah on the mantle, hmmm, that’s new, or rather very old, probably from the old country, maybe a last gift from his mother, a nod to the festive season. But there are no candles in it. Impulsively she grabs it and holds it behind her as she sneaks towards the bedroom door.

It creaks open, and she pushes her way in.

Rosie whuffs, barks softly a couple of times.

“Shhhh. It’s okay, it’s only me.” The dog gobbles the bleeding handful of beef from Mavis’s hand, and licks her palm in gratitude.

She stares at Dr. Levy, sleeping like a little boy, his hand under his face. Her heart pounds and pounds at the sight.


Rosie lets out one short, sharp bark.

Dr. Levy’s eyes pop open.

Mavis takes an inadvertent step backwards.

His body jerks upright, all his senses on extreme alert. Confusion collides with sudden certainty as he rapidly puts the pieces together: the missing shirt, the camera, the greasy spot on the kitchen floor –


How does she know, how does she know that name?

“Who are you?”
Mavis Potter kneels on the bed. She encircles Dr. Levy’s furrowed face with her hands. Panic seizes him; he instinctively pulls his head away.

“Don’t,” she says.

She begins to undo the small satin-covered buttons on the front of her dress. They’re fastened with little loops, so it’s awkward. One button. Two. Dr. Levy is filled with apprehension, dismay and profound embarrassment.

The dress is now open to her navel, exposing a black bra. Then in the dimness of the room, Mavis catches a glimpse of Dr. Levy’s face.

What she sees turns her stomach upside-down with fury.

There is no mistaking that look.

It’s – pity.

Pity – for her!

“Please,” he says. “Let’s talk about this.”

“Maybe I can help.”

That does it.

Dr. Levy sees the flash of the iron menorah swing upward in a swift, powerful arc and whips out his hand to stop it from crashing down on his skull.

Mavis flies at him, and for one insane second Dr. Levy thinks of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. The dog begins to growl and snarl, showing its teeth. Mavis hurls the menorah at Rosie’s head, but it misses, bouncing off her back. Enraged by the blow, she leaps up on the bed and lunges, her teeth sinking into Mavis Potter’s throat.

“No!” Dr. Levy grabs Rosie’s studded collar and pulls, pulls.

“Let her go! Release! Release!”

Mavis goes limp and slides onto the floor, her body slack as a sawdust doll.

Rosie licks Dr. Levy’s face, whining softly, her stump twitching. He can smell the blood on her chops.

In two seconds, he overcomes the visceral churning in his abdomen and snaps into professional mode, in complete control of the situation. He calls 9-1-1, grabs his medical kit and begins to suture up the ragged puncture wounds in Mavis Potter’s throat.


A new identity is kind of like a new shirt: nice to look at, even impressive, but a bit scratchy and stiff, you have to wear it for a while, spill a little food on it, sweat in it, and put it through the wash enough times to soften it down so that it fits the individual contours of your body.

In a psychiatric ward on the other side of Vancouver, Mavis Potter refuses to remove a certain red shirt. In fact she refuses a lot of things, she won’t eat, she won’t talk, she won’t cooperate with the authorities, and she is barely sleeping, in spite of powerful doses of antipsychotic medication.

Vester has no idea about Mavis, but he does know that something’s up with Dr. Levy, he didn’t look very well at the last session, like he hadn’t been sleeping or something, his face sunken, his eyes glassy with fatigue.

But Vester has a new worry now: he hasn’t seen Aggie for more than a week. She’s just not answering, not answering his knock, the special one-two-three (pause), four-five knock that’s strictly their own. Is she holed up in there, depressed? Things aren’t going well for her right now, she can’t see her kids, and Christmas is always hard on depressives, it’s the final straw for a lot of them. But New Year’s comes and goes, and she still doesn’t answer. A hard knot of apprehension gathers in his stomach, and he wonders what to do next.

There’s no one to call, because Aggie doesn’t really have anybody. The social worker who treats her with such disdain isn’t exactly an ally, though she is supposed to be part of her “community support system”. In fact, Aggie never even refers to her by name.

Finally, on January 7, he goes and talks to Mrs. Strauss, the landlady. She looks concerned. Ah yes, Aggie, zis lady vith ze collections, no, no, I haven’t zeen her, haven’t zeen her in long time, vee maybe check?

Vester’s insides are churning with anxiety as they mount the stairs to Aggie’s apartment. He prays they won’t find something horrible inside.

The door creaks open; the air is completely still. The apartment looks normal, normal for Aggie that is, crammed with clutter, collections of this and that, knickknacks and bric-a-brac, china figurines of ladies in big skirts, bamboo bird cages with no birds in them, salt and pepper shakers shaped like people, old Pez dispensers of Disney characters, a bride doll that looks nearly new, and of course the Sebastian cylinders, all stacked up in a neat pyramid that gives Vester the creeps.

“Vhat are zese?”

“Uh. . . recordings. Aggie’s quite a collector.”


“No, these are spoken word.”

He plucks the top one off the pyramid and loads it on.

They listen.

It’s noise.

Noise, noise, noise.

Hiss, crackle, pop-tick, pop-tick, whumpita, whumpita, whumpita, noise and only noise, and no voice on it, no voice at all.

He tries another cylinder.

More of the same.

Vester and Mrs. Strauss look at each other.

He plays through enough cylinders to convince himself.

“There’s nothing on these,” he says. “They’re just blanks.”

“Yes. It is puzzle. Vhy she listen to zese?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Vee call police?”

“Maybe we should.”

The police seem suspicious, and keep asking him probing questions, as if he had something to do with the disappearance. They assume he’s the boyfriend, always the first suspect. It’s profoundly uncomfortable, but Aggie’s his best friend in the whole world, he has to try to help her any way he can. He even tells the cops about the cylinders, and they look at him as if he’s the crazy one. And it’s true, it’s a pretty bizarre story, sounds strange even to him.

Maybe she. . . went away? Where would she go? She has no relatives that she ever speaks of. And no other friends. Maybe she. . .no. It’s not possible. He shuts out the thought as too crazy even to contemplate.

Vester feels sick with apprehension and dread, for when a woman disappears from the Downtown Eastside, it’s always the worst kind of news.

Zoltán Levy

The fatigue is immense, pressing down on him so hard he can barely drag his body in to work on the Monday after Christmas.

But something tells him he needs to be there. He can’t get any rest anyway, his sleep is shattered, the appearance of the crazy woman in his bedroom has flipped a switch somewhere deep in his brain, and he can’t let himself slide into merciful oblivion.

There’s a long lineup of patients to see today. Minor aches and pains, most of them triggered by loneliness and depression. This time of year is particularly vicious and inhuman for the wandering strange, who seem to feel everyone else is having a wonderful time, their lives brimming over with good fortune, fellowship and love.

Then near the end of an exhausting day, three women suddenly burst into his office, their arms linked, joined together like a chain of paper dolls. Correction: three girls, as none of them looks much older than about seventeen.

In the middle of the chain is a hugely pregnant girl, her face contorted with pain and terror. She is flanked on either side by two professionals (their costume is unmistakeable), forming a kind of escort.

“She’s having it now,” says the red-haired girl on the left.

“Yeah. Like, right now. We can see the head.”

“Fuck,” the pregnant girl moans. “Ohhhh, fuck. . .”

“It’s okay, don’t be scared, I’ll take care of you,” Dr. Levy tells her, summoning up reassurance from a pit of exhaustion. “Take her in here and we’ll get her undressed.”

“Shit!” The pregnant girl leaves a trail of bloody fluid on the floor. The doctor knows that birth is immanent, in fact he can smell it already, and will not be held off much longer.

She barely gets a chance to settle herself down on the examining table before the entire head pops through. She screams and screams, and her friends try to calm her down, stroking her hair, telling her it’s OK, it’s OK, she’s safe now, the doctor is here, and she’s going to see her baby pretty soon, isn’t that awesome?  Dr. Levy takes the infant’s dark wet head in his hands and waits for the next contraction. With a deep, growling roar, the girl bears down hugely, and the wet little body slithers out of her and into the doctor’s hands.

“It’s a boy,” Dr. Levy says.

“Sandy! A boy! A boy!”
“Oh God, oh God, oh God,” Sandy whimpers.

“He’s beautiful!”
“Let me see.”

“This is just so awesome!”

“He looks good.” The infant is surprisingly strong, with a high Apgar score. He guesses this isn’t a prostitute, in spite of her choice of friends. She seems too robust for that, and the baby is in great shape, eight pounds seven ounces of vibrant health.

He lays the infant on Sandy’s abdomen. She gazes at him in complete absorption and awe.

“Do you have a name for him?”
“Yeah. I think I’ll call him Anton.”
“Unusual name, for this part of the world. Is it in the family?”
“Yeah. You might say so.”

“Great. Look, Sandy, I’m going to get an ambulance for you now to take you over to VGH. But everything looks fine, Anton’s in really good shape. You must have taken good care of yourself.”

“My Mum helped me.”
“Good. Can she help you look after him now?”
“I guess so.”

“Because it’s really important that you have some practical support. A new baby is a big responsibility.”
“I know that.”

“Are you in touch with the father?”
“On and off. I don’t see him very often. I used to hang with him, but I couldn’t take it any more. He’s gone into rehab, I think. I wanted to get married.” Her face contorts with grief, and the red-haired hooker strokes her cheek.

“Bastard,” mutters the other hooker.

“One thing at a time. If he does get clean, see if you can get him on-side, because you’re going to need some emotional support as well.” The doctor scrubs at the sink, feeling the surge of elation he always experiences after a healthy birth.

Anton roots instinctively for his mother’s nipple. Sandy is amazed: “Look, he’s nursing already! Isn’t that great?”

“God, Sandy, are you ever lucky.”

“Yeah, I know.”
She watches Dr. Levy washing up at the sink, humming happily to himself. Oblivious. All she has ever heard are nasty remarks about him, about his heartlessness. But already she likes him, likes him a lot. She thinks he’s a decent man, he just didn’t know how to handle a family all those years ago, it was too much for him and he had no one to turn to.

As the ambulance workers bundle her onto the stretcher with her newborn son, Dr. Levy says to her, “I have a favourite quote. Do you want to hear it?”
“Sure, what is it?”
“It’s by Carl Sandburg, the famous American poet: ‘A baby is God’s way of insisting that the world continue.’”

“I like that. I think I’ll write it down.”
“Good luck, Sandy. Keep in touch.”

“I will. Thanks, Dr. Levy.”

He watches the ambulance go, grateful that he dragged himself in to work that day to be part of it, this relentlessly lifeward, crazy insistence.

Next . . .

Bus People Part One

Bus People Part Two

Bus People Part Three

Bus People Part Four

Bus People Part Five

Bus People Part Six

Bus People Part Seven

Bus People Part Eight

Bus People Part Nine

Bus People Part Ten

Bus People Part Eleven

Bus People Part Twelve