Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside PART FIVE

This is a serialized version of my novel Bus People, a story of the people who live on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. 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.

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside

Part Five

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

Zoltán Levy

The day he found out that his twin brother turned into a piece of paper, it changed him forever, igniting a fire in him that would prove to be lifelong and inextinguishable.

They were already over here in Canada, it was after the war, Zoltán was fifteen years old and insatiably curious about all kinds of things. This is because nobody would ever tell him anything, adult conversations would stop just as they started to get interesting, and when nobody tells anything to a child with this much intelligence and need to know, his emotional antennae will grow and grow until they are almost monstrously long.

With these antennae, Zoltán Levy will pick up the most minute, nearly unreadable emotional signals in his therapy patients, things they aren’t even aware of in themselves, things they have buried so deep they pray they will never resurface. But all that is far into the future. Right now Zoltán is in the library in his parents’ stucco bungalow in Norbury, North Vancouver, trying to find a book that isn’t written in Hungarian.

He can’t. It embarrasses him to hear his parents talk, they won’t even try English with each other, and it’s even worse when they start throwing Yiddish words in, Yiddish is so primitive, like the smell of garlic and leather harnesses, so Old World, so old, and this is the New World and they’ve dragged their son all the way over here to give him a better life and more opportunities than they ever had, God knows, so why not ditch the shpilkes and the farklempt and the shlemazl and the kvetsh and talk like normal Canadian people?

Zoltán pulls out a volume at random, and begins to read about Lajos Kossuth, a 19th-century freedom fighter so remarkable and revered that they named a U. S. county after him, not to mention a town in Ohio and a post office in Pennsylvania.

Zoltán reads: “Kossuth envisioned a federation in the Kingdom of Hungary in which all nationalities participated in a vibrant democratic system based on fundamental democratic principles such as equality and parliamentary representation.” Zoltán is nearly numb with boredom.

He throws Kossuth to one side and pulls out a medical textbook, one of his grandfather’s old volumes, fascinating. He pokes around in it, staring at gruesome colour drawings of people’s insides, and finds a particularly grotesque exhibit, something called a lithopedion: a dead fetus which has calcified in its mother’s womb, slowly turning to stone. A lithopedion can go undetected for years, even decades, then show up later on an x-ray. Zoltán thinks this is about as strange as having a brick stuck in your abdomen, or even a statue.

When he has had his fill of medical curiosities, he pulls a third book down from the shelves, red-leather-bound, with gilt-edged pages. It’s poetry by Sándor Petöfi, his mother’s favourite poet, and he riffles through it listlessly, uninterested, until he comes across a very strange sort of bookmark.

It’s not a bookmark exactly, though it appears to be made out of some sort of dry, thick paper, like layers of rice-paper fused together. It’s strangely shaped, like an irregular cookie cutter or a gingerbread man with something suggesting arms and legs. The texture of it resembles dried fish, ribbed and dessicated, with something like fine bones barely visible inside.

He turns it this way and that. It’s about the size of his hand; he holds it up against his palm, comparing the size. He drops it, then picks it up again.


Startled, he slams the book shut and throws it into the corner.

His mother shrieks at him in Hungarian: Tán-tán, put that away. Put that away this instant.

“Mamele. . . “

“Put it down!”

He drops the strange piece of paper and flees the room, curiously ashamed, trying hard not to cry. Obviously, he has touched something he shouldn’t have, something he never should have seen, like the time he found his mother’s diaphragm in one of her drawers underneath all the nightgowns and underpants and brassieres. But this is even stranger than that mysterious object, even more forbidden to know about.

Next time he’s in his parents’ library, he looks for the Petöfi poems and can’t find them anywhere. The book, along with its strangely-shaped bookmark, has been confiscated.

The memory is booted to the very back of his mind, the gates are clanged shut, then double-locked. For good measure, he swallows the key.

Until. Until nearly 20 years later, when Zoltán Levy finally makes it to medical school and is studying up on obstetrics.

Vanishing twins. He pores over the article in the medical journal, describing a fairly common phenomenon: a woman becomes pregnant, ultrasound tests reveal that she is carrying twins, but she only gives birth to one baby. Where has the other twin gone?

The article explains that if the twin dies very early in gestation, its remains will be absorbed and simply disappear. But if it occurs somewhat later, several weeks or months later, something else may happen, something very strange indeed.

There is a name for this phenomenon: fetus papyraceous, literally meaning paper baby. Sometimes known as paper-doll fetuses, these flattened, mummified remains are sometimes found entangled in the membranes of the placenta after a normal delivery. The dead twin is pushed to one side by the growing, more viable fetus; the body gradually begins to dehydrate, to compress, until it is slowly flattened out into something like a thin, grotesque-looking cookie. He looks at the photograph accompanying the article, and the hair on his neck begins to prickle: he has seen this somewhere before. Beside it is an x-ray of a fetus papyraceous, revealing a tiny, flattened human skeleton, perfect in every detail.

And then, Zoltán remembers.

Holding his twin in his hands. Measuring him against his palm, turning him over, and thinking to himself that it resembled the dried, splayed wings of a large nocturnal insect.

No wonder Mamele was upset, but what would possess a woman to keep something so gruesome, to press her dead baby in the pages of a book like some particularly cherished autumn leaf?

It does explain a couple of things, such as why Zoltán always feels so guilty. Guilt has been a particularly faithful companion all his life, a slobbering hound dog that trails at his heels and won’t leave him alone even for a second. Zoltán wonders if he killed his twin, inadvertently of course, if he just wasn’t willing to share the womb with anybody else, so pushed him ruthlessly to one side, causing him to collapse like a deflated accordion.

He wonders if his mother named the twin – András, maybe, or Sándor, like her favorite poet? Why didn’t she bury it, or have it cremated or something – did she go crazy with grief when she found out her other son had died? But the craziness came later, after the mass insanity of the war, the paralytic depression, the suffocating guilt at having committed the unpardonable sin of surviving.

Zoltán had always assumed that before the war, before the entire world went crazy for those interminable six years, his mother was relatively sane. Now, with the mystery of the paper twin solved, he is not so sure.

Zoltán has always had a secret fear at the back of his mind that he would one day go crazy, just lose his grip and fall into gibbering incoherence. This has never happened, in spite of the juggernaut, the behemoth, the glacier of guilt that bears down on him daily, reducing him to something with the texture and consistency of fine powder.

A little craziness leaks out in odd forms. Mavis Potter has seen him steal CDs from Pegasus Classical Record Store, only a couple of blocks west of where he works. He sees one he wants, quickly puts it in his coat pocket, and walks away. The staff at Pegasus know all about it, of course. They don’t want to embarrass him, they know who he is, they know he’s a doctor and that he does a lot of good. He tries to ration himself and not steal too many, certainly never more than one at a time, and no more than two or three a month. The first time Mavis saw him do it, she was ashamed. He didn’t appear to be; he was in some place beyond shame, apparently, but Mavis just wanted to die, she was so embarrassed for him. It was so humiliating to see her hero act so human, so full of holes. She tried to put it out of her mind; maybe it was a hallucination, like Wayne Gretzky at the bank or Prince Edward at the Safeway store, but she hadn’t had one of those in years, the medication kept it all under control.

Zoltán does not listen to these CDs, but keeps them in their original wrappings in alphabetical order according to composer in a stacking CD unit in his living room: Adams, Arensky, Arnold, Bach, Beethoven, Bernstein, Boccherini, Brahms, Buxtehude, Cage, Chopin, Copland, Dvorak, Elgar, Fauré. . . It’s important to keep things in order. If there weren’t, chaos would swallow him, he is sure of it, the mad dogs would devour him and chew on the bones. He has always been afraid of “the labyrinthine ways of his own mind”, to paraphrase that poem, what was it called, The Hound of Heaven, speaking of being dogged. Yes: the labyrinthine ways of his own mind, which seldom stops spinning, having been given a particularly violent twist back in 1944.

It was as if for a time the world were turning the wrong way. The things that happened were beyond belief, so no one believed them, allowing the atrocity to continue for years. The evil was so intense, it was as if all the natural rules were being systematically broken, the laws of the universe subverted. And yet, so casually it happened, genocide becoming an everyday occurrence, just part of people’s day. Throw the switch; gas the Jews. Go home to the frau and the kinder and the family dog. People only pretended not to know, to make the knowledge bearable. Only a few cried out. Most were killed for their pains. The world was still reverberating, some sixty years on, from the shock of being turned the wrong way. One of his mother’s Yiddish expressions was, Drai mir nit kain kop - meaning don’t bother me, but literally meaning: Don’t twist my head. The war did worse than twist her head, it twisted her whole being, and malformed her son in some fundamental way, so that everything he did came out a little bit bent, a little bit strange. There was no doubting his intelligence, it was formidable from the start, his early teachers were amazed and even called him a prodigy, but he was a problem too, he couldn’t settle down, his mind was all over the place, spinning a thousand revolutions per minute faster than anyone else’s, making death-defying leaps that left everyone else lagging far behind. Now he has settled, after a fashion, but in a very strange place, down here among the loaded and the lonely. Like a leaf blown around in little circles by the gritty eddies of wind that scour the street, his mind spins and spins, and never sleeps.

The bus

The wheels on the bus go round and round. Round and round. Round and round.

Isobel Chaston jostles everyone in her path to get the best seat on the bus, using her elbows and even the pointy end of her formidable umbrella if necessary. Bert Moffatt groans inwardly whenever this old bird gets on, which is too often if you ask him, probably couldn’t get a driver’s license for love nor money, she’d be hell on wheels.

“You young people are good for nothing,” she says to a group of teenage girls in tight, low-slung jeans and cropped shirts that say things on them in glittery writing like Love Slave and Porn Star. “No respect for your elders, none whatsoever. And you want everything handed to you on a silver platter. When I was your age I was already earning a living working a forty-hour week. I didn’t ask the world for any favours.”

The girls look at each other, confused, embarrassed and angry. Every group of adolescents has an unofficial leader, and everyone looks at her now. Brianna Dawne Lester, this particular group’s alpha female, knows that she is expected to speak.

“Look, lady, we didn’t even say anything. We’re like just minding our own fucking business here. You’re, like, making a whole bunch of assumptions about us, hey? Just out of nowhere.”

“See? This is what I mean, bold as brass. In my day this never would have been tolerated.” Mrs. Chaston is now addressing the passengers from an invisible soap box that seems to have popped up from the floor of the bus. “No respect for authority, none whatsoever.”

“Respect goes both ways, lady. You want to get it, try giving it first.” Her friends beam at Brianna and at each other.

“That’s it, I’m reporting you girls to the transit authorities for verbal assault.”

“Oh, give me a break. Lady, we should be reporting you. Kindly get out of our faces and mind your own goddamn business.”

The girls’ grins escalate into titters of satisfaction. Then Mrs. Chaston elbows her way up to the front of the bus to harass the driver, who steadfastly attempts to ignore her.

Isobel Chaston doesn’t particularly look like a crackpot, she’s not messy or wild-eyed or deranged-looking, which makes her verbal tirades all the more surprising. In fact she is always decently turned-out in presentable, if old-fashioned outfits, co-ordinated tweed skirt-suits and knitted pastel twin-sets, her hair pulled back into a neat bun with tortoiseshell combs on the sides of her head, the bun neatly contained in a black lace snood. She looks like somebody’s harmless old grandma, belying the fact that she has been physically ejected from public meetings all over the Greater Vancouver Regional District. She considers herself to be a social critic.

“Here’s a fine example.” She points to Szabó, poor old Szabó who is just trying to make his way across town to get to his station, humming melodies from Die Fledermaus and The Gypsy Baron. “It should be patently obvious to everyone on this bus that this man should be in an institution.”

“Speak for yourself, lady.” A shout from the rear seats, causing a buzz of conversation among Isobel Chaston’s captive audience.

“Instead he’s left to fend for himself, and lives in God knows what sort of conditions. This is the kind of society we live in today, it’s just appalling how people pretend not to know what’s really going on.”

“The government!” the heckler calls out, provoking sniggers from the people sitting around him.

“You better believe it’s the government, Gordon Campbell is an asshole, a drunk and a fool, and while we’re on this topic, it’s time we had some policy in this province to keep out all the riff-raff.” She’s really getting into it now, working herself up into a pitch.

“The yellow peril!”

“Well I’m not prejudiced or anything, so I wouldn’t go so far as to call it that, young man, but don’t you think it’s reasonable to expect people to at least learn a few words of English and stick around to raise their children instead of leaving them with a nanny and taking off back to Hong Kong?”
“Ship ‘em all back to China!” This from a tough-looking young Asian guy with studs in his eyebrows, provoking a few hoots of laughter.

“Yeah – just stick ‘em in a container vessel and send ‘em right back. What’s good for the snake-heads is good for us too, eh?”

“That’s not such a bad idea, young man, I’m sick of people sneaking into this country under false pretences. Enough is enough!”

“Yeah, enough is enough, lady, and I think we’ve all had about enough of you.”

Bert Moffatt listens to this piece of theatre unfolding in the aisles and feels a certain satisfaction. The bus takes care of its own. Things equalize; they always work out. He has seen fist-fights break out, but someone always pulls the guys apart and restrains them until he can put one of them off at the next stop. (Not both of them, they’ll kill each other.) He has seen elderly passengers keel over from diabetic shock, and somebody always seems to be on-board at the right time, someone who has enough first aid training to know what to do. A blanket appears out of nowhere, and even someone’s glucose kit, conjured up out of thin air by sheer need. Like loaves and fishes, like a kind of providence, the right resources always appear.

The bus is a little universe unto itself, a rolling community, a microcosm, the Fellowship of the Loser Cruiser, the Fraternal Order of the Unlicensed, the toonie crowd, the lunchless, the luckless and directionless, the spun-around and ground-down, hounded by the downtowners in their elegant suits, suits of armour to those on the other side, the always-wanting side. There are two kinds of people in the world, the ins and the outs, and the bus takes care of the outs, takes them wherever they need to go for two dollars, so long as it’s on the route and within the zone.


Porgy Graham, a.k.a. Sylvester (and yes, he was named after the man who invented the cracker, it’s part of his father’s warped sense of humour) stares at his computer monitor, something he does for hours at a time every day. But it’s nearly 2:00 in the morning now and he’s glassy-eyed with fatigue, his body crying out for sleep. He ignores his exhaustion, too captivated by what is in front of him on the screen to tear himself away.

What he sees is a giant stuffed colon in a glass case.

The dimensions of it, the diameter, the circumference, seem incredible: this particular colon grew to 27 feet in length, was 8 feet around, and its contents weighed 42 pounds at autopsy. Now Porgy knows the rumors about Elvis and John Wayne must have been true.

The site is a guided pictorial tour of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, a place Porgy can never hope to visit in person. Perhaps it’s just as well, as even the photographs of this virtual Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, this creepy compendium of Victorian medical curiosities is enough to make his stomach turn over.

There’s the Soap Lady: a grossly obese woman buried 200 years ago in a particularly acid kind of soil – full of lye, perhaps? – whose body slowly turned into a hard, brown, soapy substance called adipocere, through a mysterious process known as saponification. This is a vocabulary of the bizarre and extreme, words you couldn’t make up yourself: the process of becoming soap! He clicks on the next link and sees a gallery of non-viable human fetuses that mercifully died before gestation was complete, most of them astonishingly deformed, a single massive head with two bodies appending from it, a child with its brain outside its skull, a cyclops with one eye hole, and a child with virtually no face at all, just a blank disc, reminding him of poor old Szabó on the bus, only his condition was chosen, not forced by nature: “did God forget them?” the caption reads, and Porgy wonders sometimes, if Nature’s design is so very grand and perfect, how these human mistakes could have been made, even before the era of environmental toxins, the two-headed, the no-headed, the conjoined, the primitive vestigial twin sticking out of the thorax like a rubber chicken, its head buried somewhere inside: my God, Porgy thinks to himself, where is the design in that? Would such a twin have thoughts, ideas – how could it make a decision, its very existence parasitic and completely unwanted?

He feels something for the parasitic twin, he feels something for the Windbag, the man with 42 pounds of shit stuck in his colon who was so grossly distended he could only get work in a sideshow, he even feels for the Soap Lady, creepy as she is with her waxy brown flesh and her sunken eyes and her mouth wide open in a kind of astonishment at her own condition, her remains not decently buried, but exhumed, on exhibit, to be forever gawked at by thousands of horrified people, as if she is something less than human.

The Mutter Museum feels familiar, it reminds Porgy a little bit of Zeddyville, it has that same extreme, end-of-the-line quality, a stuffed colon in a glass case, a row of pickled punks worthy of P. T. Barnum, step right up and look at the freaks of nature, SEE how they live in a seemingly hopeless condition, and yes, they do live, after a fashion, though not very well, they can hardly thrive, the essentials of food and shelter are so hard to come by. Porgy is aware he is one of the lucky ones, he doesn’t have to live in a cardboard refrigerator crate that’s falling apart in the rain or eat thrown-out fries from the garbage can at Burger King, he doesn’t have to collect bottles and cans, he can keep himself going, fed and clothed and sheltered, he even has a computer, if a shitty one, a real luxury for someone like him, but for all that, Porgy knows he will never cross over, he will always be on that side of the line, the Mutter side, the Halloween side, the side of the strange and unstrung and compellingly ugly, the side that shouldn’t be but is, and is, and did God forget us or does it just feel like it sometimes? Nature’s mistakes, ejected: they congregate, they seek a certain level, even band together in a kind of ramshackle community. Porgy has seen the sign high up on top of an old brick building downtown: “Is It A Crime To Be Homeless?” He always associates it with the carved words on the side of the granite cenotaph, not a question but a statement, or perhaps an accusation, or even a summing up of all he feels about Zeddyville and its wandering strange: “Is It Nothing To You”.

The people pass by the cenotaph each and every day, whether on this side of the line or that, and in spite of its granite admonishment, they all remain oblivious. 

Mavis Potter

“Zeddyville” has another meaning entirely, quite apart from standing for Dr. Zee/Zoltán: it represents the War of the Zeds, something Mavis Potter has sleuthed out with her characteristic obsessive, single-minded zeal.

The last four names in the Metropolitan Vancouver telephone directory are as follows:

Zzypher, K. C.

Zzyzytrosky, R.

Zzyzzy, W.

Zzzyzyton, P.

This little war of names reminds Mavis of her grandma’s old autograph book, with its final entry reading, “By hook or by crook, I’ll be last in the book”: someone always squeezed in their signature under that final little rhyming couplet, just to prove them wrong.

“Zzy, zzy. . .” Mavis thought that it sounded a bit like Brahms’ Lullabye: “zed-zed-why; zed-zed-why. . .” But no one could quite explain the “why” of Zeddyville, except that it was a kind of human zoo, an ark of the covenant of survival, except that it was an Oz, an upside-down-and-backwards sort of place, like another kind of definition of Down Under, except that it was always called Down Here, and Toto, we are definitely not in Kansas any more, because in Kansas the usual laws of God and nature would still apply.

These laws seem to be mysteriously suspended in Zeddyville. It is Halloween, and the residents are looking more ragtag than ever, like something out of that old TV series Beauty and the Beast, the mysterious underground, except walking above-ground and blinking in the harsh daylight of October. Mavis has always believed that there is something medieval about the Downtown Eastside, as if it’s almost frozen in time: its atmosphere of chaos, of raggedness around the edges, of circus crossed with bedlam, is somehow reminiscent of the madhouse scene in Amadeus, with Salieri benevolently blessing the teeming throngs of the demented like some bizarre self-anointed crackpot Pope: “I absolve you. . . I absolve you. . . “

Mavis is in full costume today, dressed in a way she hopes will help her blend in. Her heart is pounding with barely-repressed excitement. It is as if she is going to meet a lover, or buy drugs, or sell her body on a street corner, something wildly illicit. She hopes to slip into the Portman virtually undetected, for a closer look at where Dr. Levy spends his days. She had thought of posing as a journalist and interviewing him, but the ploy seemed a little too transparent, besides which, the piece would actually have to run somewhere, wouldn’t it? Unless. . .unless she told him they killed it for being too controversial? No, it wouldn’t work. She was forced to come up with another method of infiltration.

So now she prowls the streets of the Downtown Eastside dressed in what she believes will pass for camouflage: several layers of old clothing, sweaters on top of sweaters for that knotty, mounded look. She lets her hair go wild, almost like dreadlocks. Her eyes match her hair, which helps her blend right in.

That morning, on the bus on the way over here, Szabó pulled his annual trick: instead of his burqa, he wore a Halloween mask, this time an eerily accurate-looking replication of the face of George W. Bush. The bus people looked forward to this, trying to guess who he’d be this year. Other Halloweens, he’d gone as Mother Teresa, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, but this year he gave himself over to true satire.

As he walked along Hastings Street flailing his cane, Dr. Levy caught sight of him and burst out laughing. This too was an annual event: for the good doctor seldom laughed or smiled, but generally went about poker-faced. One mask-wearer immediately recognized another.

Szabó heard; he knew who it was; and he accepted the compliment.

Maybe. Maybe next week, I go see him. And maybe not. He is good doctor, but scientist, perhaps will not understand my art. But he was there in 1944, everybody knows this, I don’t need to tell him what it was like. Is man of culture, yes, I think so, for I hear things on bus, people speak of him, how he steals those CDs of Itzhak Perlman and Alfred Brendel, they’re always Jewish, that’s what they say in the Pegasus store. So maybe he knows art, maybe not. I can teach him, perhaps?

Surprise. Boo! The effect of Szabó is even more alarming in the mask, for there is nothing behind those eye-holes except darkness. Mavis couldn’t wait to get away from him, dreadful man, I don’t care if he has a disability, jeez he creeps me out, the way he sings like that: the Dies Irae today, song of dread, ask not for whom the bell tolls, for Szabó is the Quasimodo of the neighborhood, a quasi-kamakaze surviving in the noisy bedlam of Hastings Street.

Mavis is beyond excited – she feels a little sick with anxiety, for she knows Dr. Levy is on duty today, she’s almost certain to see him. She has thought of posing as a patient, but doesn’t quite dare, and besides, those piercing black eyes of his would bore right through her phoniness, would spot it at once and expose her for the fraud that she is, and it could become very unpleasant.

She has studied the art or craft of loitering about, so adopts it now, the slow shuffle, head down, all the while alert for signs of Dr. Zee.

Anything of his would do. A dropped kleenex or a gum wrapper, even a used piece of gum. She wants something to take home, a trophy, to be taken out and toyed with like a little naked doll. Perhaps this time a sighting will have to suffice, something she can replay in her mind again and again like the dirty scenes in a movie.

Mavis Potter loiters in the lobby of the Portman Hotel, shuffling, hoping she is not too obvious. She will find out one thing today: this way of life requires endurance, for the days are a thousand hours long. Used to accomplishment, of doing and being in an active, socially-approved way, she now finds all the dynamics of her life turned on their ear. She will write about this one day, of course: the day I went undercover, or should it be more subtle, a book-length poem, perhaps? Waiting for Doctor Zee. She likes it, it’s catchy, it might even attract the kind of literary attention she has always craved.

And then. Fully two hours after she gets through the battened-down hatches of the Portman, a human bullet blurs past her sight: Dr. Levy, I presume? She barely has time to recognize, let alone acknowledge or react to him, as he has his Dr. Zee mask on, ha-ha, small joke, he always looks this way, grim and preoccupied, though it’s rumoured that he laughed once, broke his own rule. Mavis’s heart is in her gullet, but he’s already been and gone, out the door like a shot, and it would be undignified for her to follow. Yet he left some tracing behind him, something in the air, a certain electricity; like a person who hasn’t washed in a long time, he has a kind of aura that lingers on long after he has gone.

Mavis bathes in it, trying to make it last, to make it enough, at least enough for today. She’ll regroup, she will find another way in, this could get suspicious, this loitering about in old clothes and middle-aged dreadlocks. She pushes out the door just as a rather strange-looking, coffee-coloured young man pushes his way in. He’ll have a long wait, until Dr. Zee comes back from his house call, but finally, worn down by Aggie’s badgering and ground down by a certain depression that never goes away, he has made it through the front door, and taken a small but meaningful step towards his own salvation.  

Monday, August 29, 2016

A tribute to Gene Wilder: Young Frankenstein gifs!

We lost Gene Wilder today, and I am pretty much inconsolable. This is all I can think of to do.

These are just a few of my hundred or so fave moments from Young Frankenstein. Everything about this movie worked, and as funny as it is, it's also more romantic than Casablanca ("Taffeta, darling"). But the main reason it worked was its leading man.

Best spit-take in history. 

Masculine in mascara.

"Give my creation. . . LIFE!"

"Three syllables. . . sounds like. . . "


"No matter what happens. . . don't open that door!"

"Abby somebody.  Abby. . .  Normal."

"I love him"

"Put. . . the candle. . . back."

"IT!. . . COULD! . . . WORK!!"

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside PART FOUR

This is a serialized version of my novel Bus People, a story of the people who live on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. 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.

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside

Part Four

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


Make way for Szabó; make way, look out, for he’s flailing his stick.

He’s flailing his stick on the way to the bus stop, to catch the Number 42 which will take him to his particular station – his station in life, he thinks wryly. So this is what it has come to. A begging spot, reserved just for him, and it’s true, everyone else stays away, the buskers, the panhandlers, the hookers and the scam artists and the terminally confused, all give Szabó a wide berth because there is something just a little bit intimidating about a man who has no face.

“Mum, why does that man – “

“Shh, don’t – “


“Please, Meggie.”

“Mum. Why does he have a blanket over his head? It looks weird.”

“Shh, Meggie. It’s not polite.”

“It’s freaky-looking. Mum!”

“I don’t know, Meggie, let’s just get on the bus now, sit down over here on the sideways seats, come on now, you like the sideways seats.” Pulling her away from the strange-looking, draped figure who finds his way up the bus steps as if by a kind of primitive radar.

Not that he never falls. He falls a lot, actually. And he has run right into objects, telephone poles and doors and walls and full-length plate-glass windows. But that is nothing compared to being chased: this has happened to him too. He is chased by clusters of young men out for sport, needing to inflict terror on someone, anyone, even a blind old man with no face.

He remembers seeing The Elephant Man years ago, watching the tortured, deformed cripple John Merrick flee the thugs who chased him into an alley and cornered him. He remembers the strangled cry, wrenched from the depths of his being: “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” Little did he know when he was watching the film that this would become his silent motto. He can’t say it; he can’t say anything, in fact. He will never say anything again. But he feels it. He feels it every day.

The bus seethes with humanity, all the people who cannot afford to own and operate a car, or are afraid or unable or unwilling to learn to drive. Cars are a social symbol, so not having one is like a reverse badge of honour, of dishonour maybe? Certainly, it speaks of a certain lack of power. The air is heavy with the rich funk of the seldom-washed. The bus has an unaffectionate, too-accurate nickname: the Loser Cruiser. Those on the Loser Cruiser know they are looked down upon, they’re even a notch below the Skytrain crowd, where it’s easier to practice fare evasion. Here, the driver watches you with an eagle eye.

The Loser Cruiser crowd is so marginalized, so glued to the very bottom of the social totem pole, that once there was a four-month-long bus strike, no transportation available at all, just nothing, and nobody even batted an eyelash. It was allowed to go on for seventeen endless weeks, with no political will to stop it, because who cares about a bunch of elderly ladies and mental patients anyway? When the strike finally ended, at the expense of a great number of small businesses who relied on bus people to stay alive, the transit company, in an act of unparalleled generosity, gave everyone a free ride for two days. There were quite a few old people and handicapped people and mentally ill people who hadn’t been out of their apartments in literally months, but they were grateful, grateful that someone remembered them at last.

Bert Moffatt runs a pretty tight ship, doesn’t put up with any crap on his bus. He has even put off little old ladies before, well, not just any little old lady, but that infernal pain in the ass, Isobel Chaston, the terror of town council meetings all over the Lower Mainland. This woman is a professional disrupter. Calling herself a “dissident”, trying to get on the bus with a week-old transfer, then spewing random abuse at anyone she happens to dislike the looks of, groups of teenagers usually, whom she hates on sight or on principle, just abusing them willy-nilly, or fastening herself, lamprey-like, on to anyone she can victimize with her latest haranguing complaint. No thanks, Mrs. Chaston, you’re out of here, I don’t care if you did run for Mayor of Port Moody last year and got 337 votes, you’re too disruptive a presence to board this bus, period.

When Szabó gets on, which he does every morning at just about the same time, Bert keeps his mental high-beams on, watching for trouble. Trouble swirls around Szabó, even though he does nothing to cause it, he just appears, is there, unwhole, strange, scary, Halloween-ish, an affront. Usually nothing actually happens, but it threatens to. The atmosphere changes when he boards, the level of tension rises palpably, and the weird get weirder, like he carries a full moon around with him or something. The man is unsettling, he looks so strange with that blanket over his head, and besides that, he sings sometimes, and it’s a disturbing thing to hear it.

“Mum. Why is that man – “

“Shh, Meggie.”

“It’s weird. I can’t see his face.”

“I don’t know, sweetheart. Oh, look, there’s the Tilley store where Daddy got his expensive new hat.”

“Mum. I don’t want to sit here.”

“It’s OK, honey, we’re fine, just look out the window.”

Szabó absorbs all this. Like sphagnum moss, like blotting paper, he absorbs a lot every day. Sitting on a street corner begging was never in the plans for his life, it happened by default, an utter humiliation. Complete defeat. He started off with huge ambitions, he was going to set the art world ablaze, he was going to prove his father wrong once and for all, become a huge success, make piles of money, and instead a random act of destruction ended it all before it even began, some asshole casually set his life’s work on fire and destroyed it in an act of deliberate malice. It was then that everything toppled, his top-heavy ambition going down like a great tree. He can’t see, can’t speak, can function only with difficulty, and has a host of medical problems. Can’t digest anything: who could digest the ugly, slimy glop that passes through the feeding tube every day? Can you blame him for spiking it with a little wood alcohol to make it more palatable? Can’t sleep: who could sleep, with no future? What can he dream about now? You can imagine what his dreams are like, worse than anything John Merrick could have imagined. At least John Merrick was adopted by the upper class as a kind of dignified, ugly mascot. He’s lucky to have a roof over his head, he’s better off than many people, he still has his wits, though he is not sure that’s a blessing, but it’s a struggle, a constant struggle to scrape together enough funds every day just to keep himself going. When he gets off at his usual stop on East Hastings Street right across from Pigeon Park and finds his way to his station, he almost physically bumps into someone, except that the someone darts out of the way at the last second, being quick on his feet.

The someone is Dr. Levy, on his usual hustle to get to an overdose, no, correction, to a human being who has suffered an overdose. Let it never happen, that awful terminology, the cold labels that keep feelings safely away. He is on his way to help someone, if he can, if he is in time and he doesn’t find a corpse in the cluttered upstairs room that is like every other cluttered upstairs room in this part of the city, tattered old Christmas ornaments hung amongst the junk. And he has seen Szabó before, he knows the story, or enough of it.

He jumps out of the way at the last second. Then says to him, in Hungarian: That was a close one. But I saw you in time.

Szabó’s head snaps up.

He can’t answer, of course. But he has heard his mother tongue for the first time in a long time, and can’t help but respond in some primal part of himself.

Dr. Levy touches him on the shoulder.

“Szabó. Come see me sometime, okay? You know where my office is.”

Then speeds on to his destination, hoping to salvage another life, or buy some time at least, stave off the end for another day in case the miracle happens, the miracle of walking free. He has seen it happen, it’s not impossible, he has seen people recover from a seemingly hopeless condition, and never writes anyone off. Even without the miracle, there is the inherent value of being alive for one more day, even fucked by drugs and a shattered immune system. He keeps on saying it every day, like a broken record: life has value; you have value – in hopes of undoing the effects of the blistering damage that puts people here in the asshole of Vancouver, down among the wandering strange.


Mavis Potter doesn’t really belong down here, she’s just visiting. Most of the time she’s on her way over to the Tinseltown Theatre at Pender and Abbott, they show pretty good films there for a reasonable price, it’s comfortable seating, a great theatre in fact, too bad it has to be in such a lousy location, because to get there she has to walk through the more wounded parts of the city, trying to curb her fascination.

She’s a tourist down here, she is sure of it. Takes the bus, yes, because she’s always been phobic about driving, but she doesn’t like to talk about it, it’s just not something she is prepared to learn at her age, what with the way people drive around here, she’s not prejudiced or anything but they should learn to drive in the Canadian way, and besides, she’d rather support transit and go green, it’s one of the things she lives by.

Mavis writes poetry about this strange substratum of unhappy wanderers, and in order for the work to reflect reality, she needs to take mental notes. Her bus from the comfortable suburbs of Port Coquitlam takes her past a lot of familiar landmarks every day: the big Italian supermarket on East Hastings, window hung with cheeses and mammoth sausage, the Brave Bull’s House of Steaks (and that must be one brave bull, Mavis thinks to herself, to be rendered into steaks), the Golden Lucky Convenience Store with its “cigerattes, magezine and flower”, People’s United Church which sort of leans out into the street like a person earnestly intending to do good, the big brown dome of the library at Hastings and Main which acts as a sort of magnet for the citizens of the street, pawnshops, more pawnshops, the Regency, the Emperor, the Patterson, the Wilton, the Hemp Store, the Amsterdam Cafe, the Ovaltine, the Balmoral, the Liberty Market, a country music pub with a demented-looking cowboy painted on the outside, and the old Woodbury’s department store that everyone keeps bickering about, what shall we do with all this space, housing for the poor or an upscale boutique, which shall it be, hmmmm, let me see, which is more important, while outside the building at a certain sacred spot at the corner sits a stout elderly black lady in a straw hat handing out religious pamphlets to everyone who passes by.

She never pitches her spiel to Mavis, however, just ignores her as if she doesn’t exist, as if she isn’t even there, and Mavis has tried to figure this out. Maybe she has decided she’s beyond redemption?

This will all go into a poem one day, an epic poem that is going to transport Mavis Potter from relative obscurity (one children’s book ten years ago that sold rather poorly; a dozen or so poems in university-sponsored literary magazines read mainly by its contributors) to some kind of prominence. A GG award, maybe. Prominence is the wrong word, it’s recognition she is after, or affirmation, maybe that’s an even better word, yes, just a little acknowledgement of how hard she has worked over the past twenty years, all the effort and struggle, and all the rejection endured.

Every once in a while Mavis is lucky, and there is a Dr. Levy sighting. She has been following his career with a certain fascination since she read a long article about him in the Granville Gazette, his grim-looking mug on the cover, as if it would kill him to smile. She read with interest that he doesn’t have time for a relationship, it all goes into the work, and she wonders what the real story is there, because she knows that even detached people need people to be detached from. There’s something there that he isn’t saying, some severance. There were people in his life at one point, she’s certain of it. She likes to get a glimpse of his woeful countenance as he strides from hotel to hotel in the swarming streets, head down in a kind of determined, forward charge. She could never do it, she could never watch heroin addicts slowly die of their disease, never brook the unfathomable despair. And yet, and yet. There is a certain energy down here. She feels it as only an outsider can feel it, a wild energy that is kind of addictive, you get a little taste of it and you just want more. Mavis thinks of reasons to come down here, to visit the big Dressy fabric store with its thousands of bolts of cloth, rainbow zippers and every conceivable type of trim, or to see movies she could just as easily rent when they come out on DVD, or just to stroll. She can’t quite admit this to herself, but she likes the risk. She likes the elevated pulse, the little rush of adrenaline when she dodges another aggressive panhandler or steps over a sprawled body.

Charles doesn’t know about this, and that is part of the appeal. As far as Charles is concerned, she’s over at Terry Fox Library doing research, or the Coquitlam Centre mall having a coffee, or visiting a friend.

Charles doesn’t have a clue, because his head is so far up his own ass, he cannot see the light of day.

“Hey lady.” Mavis’s head jerks up. Here comes one now.

“Hey lady. Spare some change.” It’s a statement, not a question, but Mavis is prepared. She breaks eye contact and begins to walk rapidly towards Abbott. The panhandler shadows her, and Mavis’s heart begins to accelerate wildly. She flushes, she feels a hot flash coming on, a big one, a huge upflashing of intense heat, and bears down hard on the pavement, walking faster and faster until she finally loses the panhandler at the corner.

Sweat breaks out all over her body, and she lets out a long, deep, shuddering sigh.


Portman Hotel
September 30, 2003

Oh man, it was cool getting my hands on the Edison Bannerfront Standard, even though I was right, it’s not working, it’s pretty much wrecked, and Porgy is taking his good old time getting it fixed. He tinkers and tinkers away with his concentration face on, kind of like a baby having a bowel movement, it’s adorable to look at. I guess I shouldn’t say bowel movement around Porgy, he’s obsessed enough already. I keep trying to get him to see Dr. Levy, he went a couple of times a few months ago and made a bit of a start, but I think Levy wanted to talk about the foster homes, and that’s something Porgy just won’t talk about or even think about. I know Dr. Levy would be able to help him, and I keep working on him, I won’t give up, he’s my best friend in the whole world and deserves better than the sad little life he has right now, barely able to go outside.

So I’m going to have to wait a while longer to hear all these cylinders I bought. They’re nearly a hundred years old, so what’s a few more weeks? Along with the Edison Blue Amberols, there are a bunch of odd-looking miscellaneous ones made of brown wax, probably really old, like 1890s or something, with no labels on them at all. I have no idea what’s on them. I also found an old brochure, all yellow and crumbling apart, and it said, “The Edison Blue Amberol Record is Mr. Edison’s latest development of the four-minute record. The term ‘four-minute’ is used because the record has a playing length of from four to four and one-half minutes when compositions are long enough to fill it.” Brilliant, eh? No wonder they called Edison a genius, he had it all figured out. My guess is that back then, people weren’t as sophisticated as they are now, and maybe they needed things spelled out. Maybe they were just a little bit intimidated by all this new technology, human voices issuing out of boxes like magic. The old silent films are kind of like that, everything really exaggerated, and the subtitles staying on the screen for a couple of minutes, long enough for a preschooler to sound them out.

“It is intended that every Blue Amberol shall be a gem,” the brochure goes on to explain, “the kind of record that its possessor will want to play three hundred and sixty-five times each year and keep forever.” Forever didn’t last very long, however, as I found out the playback process often produced shavings, and you can imagine the deterioration of the sound, which is already all buggered up by surface noise and that strange “ta-whumpita, whumpita” sound every cylinder recording seems to make.

Good old Edison, he was both ahead of his time and behind it, almost retarded in certain ways, because while he was busy improving the cylinder to make it sound better and wear longer, a guy over in Europe named Emile Berliner had already invented the playable disc. It was like Beta versus VHS for a while, quite a while in fact, all the way into the 1920s, and the two technologies existed side-by-side for such a long time because Edison was just too stubborn to relent. I mean, whoever heard of a compact cylinder? Berliner’s basic idea still has plenty of spin to it, if you know what I mean.

Then there was the Edison Talking Doll, another bright idea that never got off the ground. It had a little tiny cylinder player embedded inside its body, which was made of metal so it must have weighed something like fifteen pounds, and you played it by turning a crank sticking out of its back. But the technology was so primitive – this was, like, 1890 or something, some 70 years before the Chatty Cathy doll – the voice gave out after only a few cranks, and people brought the dolls back by the hundreds, feeling ripped off that they’d paid something like twenty dollars, a huge sum back then, for a talking doll that didn’t work. The dolls creep me out anyway, I’ve seen pictures of them, their eyes are all sunken and staring like really old dolls’ eyes always go, reminding me of people over a hundred years old whose faces just sort of cave in with extreme age. And the sound of the talking doll is freaky – you can’t make out any words, it’s like listening to Florence Nightingale on some historic old cylinder from the Crimean War or something, just a syrupy girlish-sounding garble with no meaning you can make out. Edison himself hated the dolls, and said “the voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear”.

So I guess you’re wondering where I’m getting all this stuff about cylinders, all this Edisonia. It’s Porgy, naturally, and his internet fixation. He seems to have found approximately one thousand and fifty-nine cylinder recordings on the ‘net, including a site called tinfoil.com that even has a Cylinder of the Month! Who knew?

“Porg. What’s this site you’ve got here?” I’m leaning over his shoulder this morning and trying to see what he’s clicking around in.

“Oh this is a good one, Ag. It’s got real old stuff, like, the very first playable recording ever made – want to hear it?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Somehow I know this is going to freak me right out, worse than the Wibbly Wobbly Walk even, but I just have to hear it, I have to.

“It’s from 1878, ten years before the cylinder player went commercial. It was recorded on a piece of lead.”

“No shit?” (Maybe that was the wrong term.)

“Yeah, a lead cylinder. Far out, eh? A guy named Frank Lambert rigged it up as a kind of experimental talking clock.”

“A what?”

“You have to hear it to believe it.”

So he downloads the thing, which takes a couple of minutes because his computer is a piece of shit, and already I’m having an anxiety attack like you wouldn’t believe. Dr. Levy would tell me to take deep breaths, to ride it out. So I take the deep breaths, and it doesn’t help very much.

Then there’s a hiss and a crackle, and this “ta-whumpa, ta-whumpa, ta-whumpa” sound, except it’s really really loud, almost violent, and underneath that the most ungodly noise you ever heard, like a cat being strangled.

“That’s human speech,” says Porgy, his eyes shining with excitement.

“No it’s not. It’s an animal being killed, or at least systematically tortured.”

“It’s just a little distorted. This is really primitive technology, Ag. Oh, listen to this part. You can actually hear the words.”

From 126 years in the past, the wavering, impossibly distant voice of Frank Lambert begins to speak.

“Four o’clock. . . five o’clock. . . six o’clock. . .seven o’clock. . .”


“Far out, eh?”


“Eight o’clock. . . nine o’clock. . . eleven o’clock. . .twelve o’clock. . . “

“He missed ten o’clock.”

“Yeah, I know. It says on the web site that he was a recent immigrant.”

“They can’t tell time?”

“Here’s another one. This’ll blow you away. It’s the first music ever recorded, I mean ever-ever, in 1888. It’s from a Handel opera, Israel in Egypt, recorded in Crystal Palace, London, England. It says in the notes it’s ‘a chorus of 4000 voices recorded with phonograph over 100 yards away.’ “

“Four thousand?”

“That’s what it says. Four thousand people all gathered around a horn.”

“Far out. Okay, let’s hear it.”

I shut my eyes.

Again, the whumpa-whumpa-whumpa, only it’s more of a wisha-wisha-wisha this time, like stiff fabric being rustled together, going faster, then slower, then faster – obviously someone was cranking the machine by hand, and not very evenly either.

Then, just barely noticeable under all that dreadful surface noise, the most ghostly sound I’ve ever heard. Just recognizable as human, and it’s Handel, make no mistake about it, the cadences and chords are there, I remember them from listening to Messiah on my father’s old records when I was a kid. I look down at my arms and see that all the hairs are standing up.

“Porgy. We’ve found it.”

“Yeah, you’re right. It’s a time machine.”

“I’m there.”

“Yeah. . . “

“All those thousands of people crowded together around the phonograph horn, and the guy cranking and cranking. . . “
“I wonder if they knew. I mean, that it would last this long.”

“I wonder.” I feel a little strange, almost unreal.

“Hey. Speaking of making history. You want to hear Brahms play the piano?”

This was the historic Brahms Cylinder, and there’s all sorts of controversy about whether or not it’s authentic, whether it’s really Johannes Brahms playing a Hungarian dance on the piano. Somebody made a bogus Chopin recording a few years ago, such a convincing fake that even musicologists bought it. So who knows if it’s real or not. At the beginning there’s this guy with a squeaky voice shouting, “I am Doktor Brrrrrahms!” Well, it could be a fake, I am sure Brahms didn’t go around speaking English or calling himself a doctor, and the piano-playing, what I can hear of it, is pretty dreadful, surely Johannes Brahms would be able to play better than that. But it still gives me that creepy, enjoyably scared feeling, like I’m literally entering another time.

At the end of the listening session, I was just exhausted, and Porgy was too, but we smiled at each other, pleased that we were in this thing together. It’s like a kind of magic, a summoning of energy from more than a hundred years ago, a time capsule, “sound archaeology” unfolding moment by moment in what we so strangely call “real time”.

If it’s this powerful listening to these things on the internet, filtered through high technology, just think what it’s going to be like when Porgy finally gets my player going and we can listen to my Edison Blue Amberols as they were meant to be played, shavings and all.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

It's the Nietzsche Family Circus: a cute Nietzsche saying for every family occasion!

Randomized pairings of Family Circus cartoons and Friedrich Nietzsche quotes.
nietzsche family circus cartoon
One must have a good memory to be able to keep the promises one makes.
© 2016 Ron Belmarch. All rights reversed.

NOTE. The random-Nietzsche-quotes thingammy doesn't work here (this is just an example), but if you click on the following link, it'll take you to the actual site where you can find the actual quote-generating thingammy. I think. Or maybe I'll just copy n' paste a few?

Randomized pairings of Family Circus cartoons and Friedrich Nietzsche quotes.
nietzsche family circus cartoon

No one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant.

nietzsche family circus cartoon
There is in general good reason to suppose that in several respects the gods could all benefit from instruction by us human beings. We humans are - more humane

nietzsche family circus cartoon
Undeserved praise causes more pangs of conscience later than undeserved blame, but probably only for this reason, that our power of judgment is more completely exposed by being over praised than by being unjustly underestimated.

      nietzsche family circus cartoon
The higher we soar the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.

nietzsche family circus cartoon
When marrying, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that you will be able to converse well with this person into your old age? Everything else in marriage is transitory.     

nietzsche family circus cartoon
Love is blind; friendship closes its eyes.      

SHORTCUT. If you click on "Share" (under the blue "Next" button), it should take you to the quote-generator-thingie.  Just try it and see!

"A horse is a horse, of course, of course" - Friedrich Nietzsche

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside PART THREE

This is a serialized version of my novel Bus People, a story of the people who live on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. 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. 

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside 

Part Three

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


Porgy does take the bus once in a while, if Aggie is around to keep him company, but he’s really shy and hardly ever goes out.

He spends most of his time in his tiny little room at the Portman on the computer, looking up sites on the internet. His latest fixation is colonic cleansing. Porgy has become obsessed with his colon, that long and accommodating inner passage that marks the final destination-point for our weekly groceries, taking out the garbage for the body because, after all, no matter how humble the job, somebody’s got to do it.

Or at least, it’s supposed to. Now he’s not so sure. Now he thinks he may have 40 pounds of impacted fecal matter lodged in his abdomen. Or maybe only ten, but that’s bad enough.

Porgy didn’t always have this interest, or hobby, or proclivity, or whatever you want to call it. He was on a medical site one day looking at pictures of people’s insides. It was an extreme site, meant mainly for doctors; surely the average lay person would get sick looking at these things, full-colour diagrams of cancerous tumours and ulcerations and fulminations, and something called megacolon: constipation so extreme it causes the abdomen to balloon like a fifteen-month pregnancy. He was staring at the most extreme of the diagrams, something called, incredibly, fecal aspiration: literally, choking to death on your own shit.

Actually, it was a series of four diagrams, depicting a colon slowly becoming more and more plugged and engorged, until the inevitable happened and everything began to back up like traffic on the Lion’s Gate Bridge during a bad accident at rush hour.

Porgy sat there with his mouth open in astonishment as he read the following information: “This exhibit features multiple progressive views of the female abdomen revealing severe constipation and fecal impaction in a patient. Stages of progression show how over time the fecal matter backs up throughout the digestive system until it reaches the esophagus and oropharynx where it enters the trachea causing a fatal blockage of oxygen.”

No shit.

Over to the right of this astonishing display was a small clickie, an innocuous-looking link that said, “Thick, dark and in your gut.”

Well, he just had to click on it, being intensely curious, and what he saw would have made his hair stand on end if his hair wasn’t already standing on end.

When he clicked, he immediately read this “medical fact”: “Most people have 5 – 10 pounds of matter stored in their Colon. According to autopsies, John Wayne had 40 lbs. and Elvis had 60 lbs.” This was reported in the January 11, 1997 issue of USA TODAY, so it had to be true.

Porgy seemed to recall that Elvis croaked on the toilet, and if he was trying to push out a 60-pound turd it’s no wonder he fell dead on his face with the effort of trying to get it out. And everybody knows John Wayne lived on nothing but beef and booze. The consequences of such bad living habits were illustrated in gut-lurching colour on this site: “SEE these actual photos of REAL fecal matter eliminated during a routine cleanse!”

Porgy couldn’t begin to describe it, except to say that it looked like a convoluted mucoid projectile straight out of The Exorcist. But it got worse – or better, he couldn’t tell which; there were more photos, and he just had to click. He couldn’t tell if these people were eating sacks of mucilage or buckets of bolts, but their doo-doo looked like a major train derailment.

The text was equally gut-lurching. It explained in layman’s terms that the typical North American’s colon is a putrefying mass of impacted gunk and 25-year-old sewage hardened into unpassable concrete, thick and black and hard as old truck-tire rubber: “One autopsy revealed a colon to be 9 inches in diameter with a passage through it no larger than a pencil.”

Porgy was starting to feel a bit faint. But there was an answer: Colossal Herbs! All he had to do was lay down $89.50, and in five short days all this crap would come spewing out, decades worth of impacted mucoid plaque that had been steadily accumulating on the walls of his colon since he took his first bite of solid food. All he had to do was swallow a few capsules – all right, quite a few; all right, really a lot – and out it would come, the Loch Ness Monster in fecal form, along with (just for an added thrill) a few intestinal parasites, “liver flukes” and the odd tapeworm.

Porgy was particularly taken with the testimonials, expressed with a fervour which bordered on the evangelical: “I can’t even begin to express my gratitude without extreme emotion for the blessed gift that the creators of Colossal Herbs have given fortunate people such as myself. . . I am amazed at the old rubbery mucoid waste that has been coming out. I even had to ‘pull’ some out as it was left hanging in the colon and would not come out on it’s (sic) own. . . I couldn’t just leave it there! It was like the afterbirth from a calf! Oh my gosh! I tugged gently and. . . “ But by this time Porgy was clicking away, ordering his first round of purging pills from Colossal Herbs.

When the package came in the mail a couple of weeks later, his heart began to pound. His head spun a bit at the list of ingredients: aloe leaf, cascara sagrada bark, Chinese rhubarb root, Barberry root, Dandelion root, Fringe Tree root bark. . . This was all nicely bound together with psyllium fibre and bentonite clay, the equivalent of swallowing a wire brush with a lead sinker attached.

Porgy couldn’t wait to see if it would really work, if his results would be like the internet lady’s: “compacted black-green, rubbery, gnarled and spine-like. . .It felt just amazing to know that it was OUT of my body!!!”

So Porgy dutifully fasted for a day, drank nothing but lemon water, swallowed his first handful of pills, and waited.


No horror-show spewings, not even a normal old clunk. He drank more water. Still nothing. He took the next dose of capsules, then the next.


And then.

The ground began to shake.

Porgy jumped out of his chair.

He ran to the toilet.

He jerked his sweat pants off, sat down hard, held on the edges of the seat, and prayed.



Wah! It was one of the most intense experiences of his entire life. This was better than any barium milkshake, an evacuation the likes of which he had never known.

Hallelujah! His bowels were singing the chorus from Messiah as they joyfully released their load. He felt pounds lighter already, though he chickened out on looking at the results (and he wouldn’t photograph it and post it on his web site like some of these people were doing; he wasn’t that obsessed, not yet anyway) and quickly flushed it down.

And flushed. And flushed. It took several tries to get rid of all the evidence of his first purge.

Joy turned to dismay when the same procedure repeated itself a half-hour later, then again. . . and again. . .and again. He soon realized he could not afford to be more than ten steps away from the toilet for the rest of the day. When agonizing cramps set in, his elation turned to anguish, then fear. Perhaps the bentonite clay was disagreeing with him, or was it the cascara sagrada bark?

Over the next 24 hours his gastrointestinal system slowly turned itself inside-out, while he whimpered on the toilet seat, clutching his tortured abdomen as it rumbled nastily in irritation.

It was an awful, gut-rending, cold-sweat experience – absolute agony. And Porgy couldn’t wait to do it again.

For the site recommended regular “cleansings”, particularly if you committed the heinous sin of eating meat. Porgy tried not to, but every once in a while his lust for a Quarter Pounder with cheese washed down with a triple-thick strawberry shake got the better of him. Oh, terrible! Glue and goo, a disaster for the alimentary canal, soon to be converted into bituminous bricks of shit virtually impossible to evacuate.

And so, more pills.

“Aggie. I’ve found this stuff on the internet, it’s absolutely great.”

“Oh, hey, Porg, I don’t know about this. Aren’t you spending an awful lot of money here? You don’t have a lot to throw around.”

“But this stuff is saving my life. You should give it a try some time. You’ll be amazed at what comes out. You’ll get rid of 10 pounds of accumulated mucoid plaque in only five days.”

“That doesn’t sound very healthy, Porgy. How much did you pay for this stuff?”

“It’s an investment in my health, Ag. You can’t put a price on that, can you? It’s all good.”

This is one of those rare times when Aggie has been able to coax Porgy out of his hidey-hole for a little outing. The Number 42 roars and rattles along Hastings Street past the bombed-out storefronts and bizarre, hallucinogenic-looking murals. It’s pretty early in the morning, some of the night girls are still out, wearing extreme clothing, extremely short or extremely tight or extremely black or extremely full of chains and studs, standing in that particular hip-jutting, shoulder-thrusting way that says, I’m for sale, come and get it. Aggie looks at them sometimes and tries to picture them as little girls, maybe at a birthday party, blowing out candles, playing pin the tail on the donkey. Nobody plans this, nobody plans to be a night girl when they grow up, it just happens, it happens the way water swirls down the drain, it happens because it feels like there is no other place for them to go.

Aggie blinks a couple of times. She realizes that there are blank spaces where many of the night girls used to be: a sort of dotted outline, a cutout, a non-presence, and these are the ones, their count rising all the time, who ended up ground into pig feed on a Port Coquitlam farm.

But no one knows about that, and if anyone does know about that, no one cares about that, and if anyone does care about that, they’re wasting their energy on hopeless cases, so why should the cops keep on investigating it anyway? Some things are just too horrible to be true: so I guess they can’t be. So I guess they aren’t.

Porgy drones on and on about his colon and how whistle-clean it is now, and how he’s committing himself to a cleanse at least every three months, maybe more often if he can afford the $89.95, while Aggie wonders why a colon needs to be so whistle-clean to begin with, it’s a waste disposal system, for God’s sake, and you don’t need to eat dinner off it, and besides, she is worried that Porgy is going to put himself into the hospital if he keeps this up.

Nobody can quite figure out exactly what the deal is with Porgy Graham. He isn’t a drug addict exactly, though he’s been stoned more than a few times, it’s true. But he sticks mostly to pot, never touches heroin or cocaine, and has only done LSD twice. He isn’t a schizophrenic, nor even “schizo-affective”, the label Aggie has to wear to get her cheques. But there doesn’t seem to be a Porgy-shaped space anywhere in the world; he is forever on the outside of things, nose pressed against the windowpane. Maybe it is his colour; Porgy is not black, in spite of his name which is a bit of a cruel joke. He used to be called Porky, because as a teenager he was kind of fat (and his real name is Sylvester, which he would really rather not tell anyone), and somehow or other the k just slid into a g-sound, easier to pronounce maybe? But only a little less cruel. Porgy is what used to be called a mulatto, but that’s not a very good word any more, it’s just offensive in a way nobody can quite explain. Some would describe him as coffee-coloured, but with a double shot of cream. (And mulatto does sound sort of like a kind of coffee: mulatté?) His features are an interesting blend of slightly exotic Caribbean and dull ordinary Caucasian, his eyes greenish-brown, his hair coarse and upstanding as unravelled wire. The Vancouver poet Wayde Compton might describe him as Halfrican, and Porgy would get it, he’d be amused by the term, maybe even flattered.

Today he’s going to the flea market with Aggie, a long trip that requires a couple of transfers, and it freaks him out a little. He gets hassled on the bus sometimes, picked on, because he’s different, he’s coffee-coloured, and he looks a little dazed, a fallen-from-the-nest look, like mild shock. The street singles out the vulnerable and savages them. Porgy has no street smarts at all. It’s a wonder he has survived this long. Aggie falls into the role of protector with him, even though she’s supposed to be the handicapped one, “mentally ill”, on long-term disability, while Porgy lives off cheques from his Dad, a mysterious, absent figure who lives in Georgetown, Guyana with a white lady (though not Porgy’s mum).

Porgy’s Dad was not around much when he was a kid, and Porgy has never been able to decide whether that was a good thing, or a bad thing. When he was around, it was confusing. He could shower his kid with presents, lavish him with attention, then coldly turn his back and disappear for a couple of years. The fallback system was a series of foster homes that did the usual kind of damage, from which Porgy has never been able to recover.

Now all he gets from his Dad is money, but it’s something, it helps him get by. He guesses he’s lucky, compared to a lot of people who live around here.

Porgy’s so scared when the bus rounds the turn from Hastings onto Granville, he actually grabs Aggie’s hand. There’s something childlike about him, for sure, even though he’s pretty smart, he’s not backward or anything like that, far from it, he was even diagnosed gifted as a child, one of the worst handicaps a person can have if they’re the colour of coffee with a double shot of cream, or so Porgy thinks to himself on the days when he gets depressed, on the days when this grinding outworld existence begins to wear him down.

“I don’t like it, Aggie.”

“S’okay, Porg, we’re just going around the corner. Granville Street is great, we can look in all the sex shops. Ever been inside one of them? They have every kind of vibrator you can imagine. Look, there’s where the old Caprice Theatre used to be. Remember the Caprice? Too bad they turned it into a nightclub. It used to look like Elvis’s bathroom.”

“Yeah. I remember. Didn’t we go there once? It had a big silver curtain – “

“Pink floral walls – “

“Cherry-coloured seat covers – “

“And it was cheap – “

“- and good – they showed good movies there, I remember – “

“- and then they ripped it all out to make another bar. Sad, eh?”

“Yeah. I guess so. I don’t know, I don’t go to the bars.”

“Me neither. They scare me.”

He seems to settle down after that, though it’s a long, bumpety ride out to the big low-slung building advertising BARGAINS, BARGAINS, BARGAINS, the flea market which swarms with people even at this hour of the morning.

It starts almost right away, and Aggie’s heart sinks: “Oh, look-it the nigger with the fuckin’ bag lady!”

“Hey bitch, you like dark meat?”

Aggie and Porgy try hard to ignore the taunts of the scary-looking young men who run in a kind of pack, seven or eight of them, it’s hard to count because they keep milling around, they’d be no good at all in singles, never dare to utter a word to anyone, but in a cluster like this, in a pack, they’re potentially lethal, and Porgy knows it. He sees one of them lift a man’s pocket watch off one of the stalls, but doesn’t dare say anything or even reveal that he has noticed it. His heart is beating in his ears and he feels a little faint.

One of the scariest-looking guys starts poking him with his index finger. ”Hey. Nigger. Look at me, nigger.” Porgy blinks back at him, dazed with fear.

“Looks like a half-nigger to me.”

“Oh my God, it’s half a nigger!”

“Kindly get your hands off my friend,” Aggie says fiercely, and Porgy’s heart jumps into his throat. Well, what can they do to her? They can do anything they want to him, it seems, at any time of the day or night, but she’s a chick, and this is a public place in broad daylight, and –

“Fuck off, bitch.”

“We’d be happy to.” She grabs Porgy’s hand like he’s five years old and steers him firmly through the swarms to the table where she picked up her collection of Edison Blue Amberols.

“It’s okay, Porg, they’re assholes, don’t pay any attention to them.”

“Yeah. Yeah.”

“Take a look at all this, will you? Man, they’re beauties.”

Displayed on the table is a stunning collection of old machines: ancient gramophones, Edison Triumphs, Berliner Leverwinds, a Grafonola 200, Victor Monarch Talking Machines, a Brunswick, a Hexaphone, an Amberola, a Zon-o-phone, and something called a Columbia BO. Some have horns inlaid with multicoloured mother-of-pearl in floral designs, so beautiful they make Porgy feel a little woozy. They give off the comforting antique aura of aged wicker chairs and your grandmother’s old foot-treadle sewing machine.


Aggie wants this one over here, this little beauty, an Edison Bannerfront Standard with a gorgeous, polished brass horn, but it says $75.00 on it, and, no way. She has almost $50.00 scraped together over weeks of hardship, no lunch and cutting back on smokes. Even at that price, it probably isn’t in good working order, it looks broken somehow, but Porgy can tinker, he’s good with his hands, he’ll get it working.

“I’ll give you twenty bucks for it,” Aggie says to the little round, balding man behind the table.

“You tryin’ to Jew me down?”

Aggie gets a little tired of it, the casual, everyday racism, though it’s nothing to the more formal, “dress” racism that causes certain people to be killed. “I’m just trying to come up with a fair price for a machine that probably doesn’t even work.”

“Seventy-five is giving it away. This is a valuable antique, one of a kind.” The man touches it lovingly, as if he hates to part with it for any price.

“Yes, but it should be functioning, shouldn’t it? I can see that it’s broken. I just want it for a door stop anyway.”

“You’re crazy. I’m not lettin’ it go for a penny less than $60.00.”

“Oh.” Aggie makes a show of sighing, of rolling her eyes. “Tell you what. Give it to me for thirty, and I won’t spread it around that you sell damaged merchandise.”


“It’s a piece of crap and you know it.”


“Twenty-five bucks in your hand, or this useless piece of shit on your shelf.”

He doesn’t say anything, just sticks his hand out for the money.

She darts a tiny, sideways glance at Porgy, who is trying to restrain himself from dancing with joy.

And oh, the ride home is fun, with the Edison Bannerfront Standard in an old cardboard box that used to have rice in it. They chatter excitedly about what they’re going to hear: sounds from 1910; from 1900; from 1890! They want to push the envelope, hear sounds from as far back as possible, right back to that primal old Edison tin-foil shout, the little lamb, the HA, HA, HA. They’re going to listen to recordings so old, you can barely hear the music for all the surface noise, the sizzle and fizzle and pop-tick, pop-tick, recordings so primitive they’re full of thunks, clunks and bumps, with orchestras crammed down into a shoebox, strangulated tenors and banjos plucked by old black musicians dead for more than a hundred years. It’s going to be so cool, it’ll hurt.