Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Henri 2, Paw de Deux

Helas. . . meow.

"How long were you with the carnival?": Bob Dylan's dream

This snippet from one of the many (MANY) Bob Dylan biographies has always stuck in my mind. It's from Down the Highway by Howard Sounes. He's 20 years old and just getting started in the coffeehouses of Minnesota, when he says something very strange to his current girlfriend, Bonnie Beecher:

"It seemed to Bonnie that Bob's confidence was sometimes out of proportion to his ability, however. 'If the Library of Congress ever comes and asks you for these songs,' Bob told her gravely, 'I want you to sell them for two hundred dollars. I want you to promise this.' Bonnie was flabbergasted. 'I thought, what an outrageous ego! To think that the Library of Congress was going to come and ask Bonnie Beecher for Bobby Dylan's tapes!' But Bob made her promise. 'Yes, I give my word,' she agreed, when she stopped laughing." 

Bob Dylan is Rolling Stone's pick for best songwriter of all time.
Rolling Stone crowns Bob Dylan greatest songwriter of all time; here's who else made the cut


Bob Dylan made you feel his love — and his unforgettable lyrics.

To recognize the folk legend's brilliant contributions to music history, Rolling Stone has placed Dylan at No. 1 on its "100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time" list, a comprehensive ranking spanning many decades.

SEE ALSO: Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone' Interactive Video Mimics TV Surfing

"A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true," Rolling Stone quotes Dylan saying. "They're like strange countries that you have to enter."

Dylan, whose most recent release is 2015's Shadows in the Night, penned such classics as "Like a Rolling Stone," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Forever Young," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Positively Fourth Street" and "Tangled Up Blue."

Contemporary chart-toppers also earned spots on the list — Taylor Swift (97), Eminem (91), Kanye West (84), Bjork (81), Jay Z (68) — although it's rightfully dominated by artists and writers whose music has stood the test of time over many generations.

Here are the top 25 songwriters on the list; go to Rolling Stone to see the top 100:

25. Randy Newman

24. Elvis Costello

23. Robert Johnson

22. Van Morrison

21. Lou Reed

20. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

19. Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry

18. Prince

17. Neil Young

16. Leonard Cohen

15. Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland

14. Bruce Springsteen

13. Hank Williams

12. Brian Wilson

11. Bob Marley

10. Stevie Wonder

9. Joni Mitchell

8. Paul Simon

7. Carole King and Gerry Goffin

6. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

5. Smokey Robinson

4. Chuck Berry

3. John Lennon

2. Paul McCartney

1. Bob Dylan

"EPIPHANY!" I make this blue because I had a real snazzeroo of a realization when I was digging up the Bob Dylan quote. The thing is, that quote has been kicking around in my head for quite a while now. It illustrates the absolute Zenlike poise of the Master, the nearly extraterrestrial confidence which sustains a once-in-a-lifetime artist like Dylan through all the rotten tomatoes of existential small-mindedness.

Then comes the Rolling Stone article, in which BD is finally recognized as, not unlike Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, not just of his own time, but for all time. And somehow or other those two realizations twisted together into a perfect pretzel which only required, from me, a little salt.

I never knew much about Bonnie Beecher except that: (a) she was one of many girl friends BD had in Minnesota; (b) she later married Woodstock caterer Wavy Gravy; (c) she might have been the inspiration for Girl from the North Country, though 3 or 4 others also lay claim to the fact; AND (I just found this out) she was on the Twilight Zone! Not only was she on The Twilight Zone, she was on Come Wander With Me, one of the best-known and creepiest episodes, which I remember gave me the heebie-jeebies when I was a kid. It featured a tape recorder playing back a song that had never been recorded, which freaked me right out because I was afraid my old reel-to-reel Webcor might start doing the same thing.

So of course I had to make a gif of Bonnie Beecher! Dylan always got the prettiest girls.

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside PART SIX

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.

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside 

Part Six

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


Portman Hotel

October 31, 2003

Last night I dreamed about the Edison doll: and it was freaky, because the doll talked to me all right, but it said things it was never programmed to say, and even answered my questions in a way that made my scalp prickle.

This sort of happened once before, it was when I was eight years old and got a Chatty Cathy doll for my birthday, back in the 1960s. People don’t realize this about me, but I’m nearly 50, not 35 or 40 like they think. I don’t show my age, maybe a benefit of being schizoaffective, who knows. They say people in mental institutions and jails don’t age, they’re protected from reality, or is it just the fact they’re so far outside reality as to escape being marked in the face? Anyway, I kept telling my mother: Mum, the Chatty Cathy doll is talking to me.

Of course it is, Aggie, that’s why they call it a Chatty Cathy doll, it’s supposed to talk to you when you pull the string.

But Mum. I never even pulled it, and it talked.

Aggie, don’t make up stories.

I’m not! I never even went near it, and its eyes were following me all around the room!

Oh, Aggie. What are we going to do with you.

I told myself I had dreamed it. Did I dream it? The two worlds were muddled together sometimes. But whether I was awake or not, I heard it talk. I heard it say, don’t trust the grownups. I heard it say, keep one eye open at night. I heard it say, watch out, little girl. And: keep your head. Keep your head.

A suspicious sort of person, was Chatty Cathy, always on the lookout for danger of every kind.

Next day I found my doll hanging. It was dangling, hair all on end, from my big brother’s bedroom door-knob. He had made a little noose out of string, the kind he used at scouts for tying knots. I gasped and stepped backwards and nearly fell over the cat. 

“Watch out, little girl,” Chatty Cathy said to me in her freaky, squeaky, ripcord-strangulated voice. “Watch out for the people at home.” It was the kind of dream where I was paralyzed, unable to rise or to wake.

So this Edison doll dream was kind of traumatic for me. Brought back things I didn’t want to remember. I turned the crank sticking out of its back, and it recited this odd little poem, let’s see if I can remember how it went:

There are things in the world that we don’t want to see.

There are (people? Souls?) in the world that we don’t want to be.

The strange and the stranger are not what they seem,

And they all (something, something), lost in a dream.

It was almost like a song, a catchy little tune squeaked out by a doll that happened to be 114 years old, a little girl older and freakier-looking than your great-great-grandmother if she somehow managed to stay alive for 114 years.

The song explained a few things. It made a kind of sense to me. It is as if somebody tilted the chessboard, and all the unstable pieces, the ones with no solid foundation, slid down into a kind of crack. Anyway, that was the image that came into my head when the doll was talking to me in that horrible distorted voice. And even though this province now has a strange new ad campaign for the tourist industry with the motto, “This is the best place on earth”, there are those of us down here who might have another opinion.

It’s Halloween, which is probably what has got me so down today; I’m pretty sure of that, because I can’t help but think about Cameron and Suzanne in their costumes, I wonder what they’ll dress up as this year, they’re eight years old now, the same age I was when I got that stupid Chatty Cathy doll, and they’ll want to be something special, not just go as something off the rack from the Safeway store.

And the fact I haven’t seen them in so long makes me want to die sometimes, I’ve been judged unfit to be near them, but I swear, though I admit I don’t really remember it very clearly, that guy coming towards me on the street after dark looked exactly like my Dad. And it was self-defense, there was nobody around to bear witness, Dr. Levy believes me, but I kind of lost track of myself there, until I came to with handcuffs on, and very sore hands which apparently came from trying to throttle this guy to death.

The man’s a real asshole, verbally assaulted me and tried to touch me, but he was determined there were going to be consequences, and even though I didn’t do any time, I’m “watched”, I’m “monitored”, a social worker dogs my footsteps, and I can’t see my kids for the forseeable future, which means I have to assume Jamie is handling things, Jamie who wouldn’t know how to keep order in a home if his life depended on it. And yeah, he loves them and all, I don’t doubt that, and he has a career of sorts, playing the clubs and the street corners, but a jazz musician isn’t necessarily the best father-figure for two impressionable young kids. Jamboy, they call him – Jamboy Jarrett, with his mother-of-pearl saxophone that looks so awesome, like it’s carved out of alabaster or something, almost translucent. We did have some pretty good years, okay, some very good years before I got so sick, or at least it seems like it from where I am now, pretty much on my own. There was some bad stuff here and there, some “issues” as the social worker puts it, God how I hate that word, such a piss-ass term for stuff that’s so horrible. Being crazy is a big issue, apparently, though sometimes I think Jamie’s the crazy one, out there honking his brains out for spare change and a decent meal.

As for my cylinder project, I’m still waiting, the wait has been interminable, weeks and weeks, and Porgy is trying this and trying that, unbending paper clips, rigging up rubber bands, whatever he can think of to get the machine working again. He just got the bright idea of going on the internet to see if he can get some spare parts. Not very likely. The thing hasn’t worked since 1904 or something, no wonder he’s having trouble, being out of commission for a hundred years will do that to you. A century of silence. But think what it’s going to be like, when that baby finally begins to speak.


What are Szabó’s thoughts?

What does he think about, a man who is unspeakable, with a crater instead of a face?

Even among the write-offs who prowl the gaudy medieval streets of Zeddyville, he is an extreme, an outcast among outcasts. But he does not sit there and think: I am an extreme. He thinks in Hungarian still, always has, always will, which is why Dr. Zee’s couple of sentences made his insides jump so hard. He’s wired for it, and also wired to create, not sit like this in a heap on the sidewalk like some Victorian curiosity transplanted 100 years into the future, wondering what his fortunes might have been in different times, when he could have charged admission for people to gawk at him.

As it is, they get to look for free, but some of them still drop toonies into his hat (a theatrical prop more than an item of apparel), perhaps moved by pity for the strange heap of humanity draped like some museum statue just waiting to be revealed for display. He sometimes feels tempted to unveil himself, but can’t quite bring himself to do it, not just yet. But one day, one day when the jeers become too much for him, one day when he has had just about enough of small token handouts and the meanness of pity, he’ll do it, he’ll pull the cover off and show the world what really happened to Szabó when he pointed the rifle at his chin and fired.

If you could watch time-lapse photography of the six hours or so Szabó spends on the street at his station, nothing much would happen. Mavis Potter recently discovered how time slows down to a crawl around these parts, how eventlessness becomes the norm.

There would be no shortage of activity, but it would all look the same. People would whir and whip by like hummingbirds in a time warp, whip, zip, whip, zip. Toonies would fall rhythmically from guilty fingers. The stream of human traffic would gradually slow down as the day wore on; some would deliberately choose to walk on the other side of the street, as the sight of Szabó sitting there faceless and stateless is just too disturbing for them to contemplate. Better they shouldn’t have to look.

This time, however, the ending is different.

This time, when the six hours or so is up, when he has enough toonies to cover his room and board for the day, plus food, and a little extra for the cheap alcohol he tips into his feeding solution as a special treat, he doesn’t go across the street to catch the Number 42 to take him back to his tiny little one-room apartment on Hemlock Street. He begins to walk towards the Portman instead. Inwardly he is quaking, his pride saying, no, no, don’t ask for help, you can do this on your own.

But something else in him, something in him that has had about enough, enough of this bad parody of living, is propelling his legs towards the clinic where Dr. Zee tries his best every day to control the runaway damage of the streets.

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

If you don’t have a mouth, it’s a little hard for you to make an appointment. So Szabó just shows up, and as fate would have it, Dr. Zee is on the premises and not even terribly busy. Between catastrophes, he likes to say to his longsuffering staff, and almost a little bored.

Szabó suddenly appears in the doorway, startling the hell out of him. How did he get in? There’s a controlled entrance to this place, but maybe the guy at the door was too stunned to say no.

“Szabó Tamás.” He says it warmly, in the Hungarian way, last name first, first name last. It catches him behind the knees. How does he know? He knows. Szabó sways a bit, and Dr. Levy guides him towards a chair.

“I’m glad you came,” he tells him. In Hungarian: Isten hozott. Then realizes that two-way communication is going to be a little bit difficult, unless Szabó writes things down, perhaps.

As he is pondering this, and thinking of ways to overcome the obstacle, he realizes something, sees it in the bent shoulders, the head lowered almost as if in an attitude of prayer, the slight sound from a strangulated throat.

Even with no eyes, no mouth, no face, a man can still weep.

Zoltán Levy

Zoltán Levy feels that sense of privilege, of honour, that always steals over him when someone unburdens, opens themselves to him.

It is something about his face, perhaps; in spite of its battened-down quality, the hardness about the mouth, there is compassion written in the deep puckers in his forehead. The face suggests Elie Wiesel in its classic sadness, a Holocaust face, wrought by forces that crushed the life out of millions. People often feel compelled to share things with him, private things, agonizing things, secrets.

He recognizes this as a gift, but an uneasy one. Like most gifts, perhaps all of them, it has a cost. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, and he has the backaches to prove it. One can almost see the dotted-line borders of an invisible globe perched atop his not-very-powerful frame. Wiry, people call him; wiry and intense. One journalist compared him to a hummingbird, zipping around at a higher frequency than anyone else.

Zoltán Levy gazes upon the weeping figure in his office, and finds himself sinking into a powerful state, a deep state, a profound state: the therapeutic state, the place where he can help. This is his gift, the essence of it: the ability, or perhaps the willingness, to go there, to go where the trouble is, and for all his scattered attention, to make himself so fully present in the moment that he becomes a receptor for pain.

He knows that much has happened in this first session, though very few words have passed between them. There was simply no need, for something far more important has occurred. Szabó showed up. Showing up is the huge portion of life, which is what makes not showing up (also known as abandonment) so completely devastating. It is as if it’s the inverse of life, the opposite of love, if love has an opposite; not hate, for if we hate each other and are screaming and raging, there’s still energy, maybe even hope; but indifference kills, kills by not caring, by not giving a shit.

Dr. Levy sits in the warm aura of a weeping man, and feels gratitude for the moment, perhaps the closest he comes to prayer. He is not a religious man – too much has happened to him, he has seen too much to believe in a higher benevolence. But he is aware of spirit. More aware than ever now that he is older, in his sixties, the protracted ordeal of his youth far behind him.

Did such a man ever love? Could such concentrated intensity, such passion, never touch another human being? He loved once, make no mistake. The love was so intense, so profound, that it made itself manifest in the form of a child. Not a stone baby, not a papyraceous freak dry as the wings of a dead insect, but a warm flesh-and-blood little boy named Anton, the very image of his father, whom Zoltán Levy coldly abandoned as if he were some inanimate object, something to be tossed aside without a thought.

A canyon yawns between his therapeutic tenderness, the tears pricking his warm dark eyes as he watches Szabó weep in his office, and the utter disregard with which he walked out of Annie’s life forever, with not even a backward glance. For the truth is, Zoltán Levy isn’t the saviour of the mean streets so much as a first-class shit.

Annie was left alone. With a son. That bastard; that bastard. For this is the hard truth about Zoltán Levy, the truth he can’t outrun no matter how quickly he zips from blossom to blossom like a supernaturally-charged little flying machine. The damage he did when he turned his back was incalculable, and so casually done! That was the worst of it, the casualness. What happened to his conscience? Did the forces of history twist his head so violently that he lost all sense of what was right, or is that just an excuse, should we let this go by, shouldn’t he be held accountable for his actions, or his lack of actions, his lack of presence, which is in many ways worse than a death?

Annie wonders this; she wonders it all the time. She’s not living five thousand miles away, though she might be for all the connection she feels with the father of her child. No, she lives right here in Vancouver. But Zoltán Levy has found a way to compartmentalize this broken piece, this dead-ended, abortive love that caused him to coldly walk. It sleeps in a locked cellar in his mind, along with other things, including the memory of a potato, a fragment of potato he was saving to give to his mother, she kept saving food for him, he felt so guilty, so guilty, so now he would return the favour and keep this small morsel of food for her, hide it carefully in the rags of his clothing all morning even as he worked moving heavy stones from one part of the camp to another, useless, demeaning work, though it could be worse, some had to dig up Jewish corpses and move them from one part of the camp to another, so he should consider himself lucky, but at one point in a moment of weakness he reached in and fished around just to look at the potato, to make sure it was still there, and in a split-second impulse he nibbled on the fragment, and then nibbled some more, and before he knew what he was doing he had eaten it, he had eaten the potato he was going to give to his mother because the hunger was so overwhelming, and because no matter how much he loved her, his desire to live was stronger than his desire to save her.

Márta Lévai survived because she was just strong enough, and because she had a small son to live for. She survived to bring him over to freedom and a change of name, easier to spell, and not so Hungarian, a fresh start in a new country. She was one of the lucky ones, she made it through, and her son made it through, though terribly skinny, he’d never grow properly, he would always look stunted or starved all his life, but never mind, even her husband was spared, after a long and harrowing separation, and the family came back together again in 1945, it was like a miracle, a miracle of restoration. They never spoke of the war, but put it away and lived forwards, like walking with shattered bones. What were they to do? Cry for the rest of their lives? Not live, not take one step, then another – was that not letting Hitler win?

Hitler did not win, and the little reassembled family, the small sober-faced boy whom they called Tán-tán and his grateful shell-shocked parents, transplanted themselves to this strange new land, and found a way to go on living, day by difficult, irreplaceable day.


Portman Hotel
November 11, 2003

So the day finally dawns, the great day when Porgy gets the little beast working again without breaking down after a few seconds of operation. I couldn’t believe how excited we both were – like kids on Christmas morning, like the Darling children when Peter Pan lifts them off the ground and flies them over London, all lit up at night.

We needed to have some kind of ceremony for such a momentous occasion, so we smoked a couple joints and drank some rice wine and got a little giggly beforehand. Normally I wouldn’t go near the stuff, pot I mean, because it can make me really paranoid, and I’ve even hallucinated on it before, white fountains, it was freaky. But this was quality stuff, Porgy must have a good dealer, and though it was strong, the buzz was mellow and pleasurable and calm. We grinned at each other like conspirators, and Porgy said I should choose the first cylinder to listen to.

I did it blindfolded. We thought it would be more fun that way, to pick at random. So Porgy puts the blindfold on me, giggling away, and turns me around three times like I’m going to play pin the tail on the donkey, and I grope towards the big pile of cylinders on the floor, and grab one.

It’s one of the really old ones, Edison brown wax, with no label on it, it could be anything. My head is reeling with excitement and a weird kind of fear. Porgy feels the same way, I can tell.

He loads the cylinder on, gives the machine a mighty crank, and we listen.

A hiss, a crackle, then: ta-whumpita, whumpita, whumpita.

“Have you ever heard about the Wibbly Wobbly Walk?

Well just in case you’ve not,

I’ll tell you on the spot,

The Wibbly Wobbly Walk is only just another way

Of saying that the boys are out upon a holiday. . . “
I freak.

I abso-fucking-lutely freak. But it’s so funny!

“And they all walk

The Wibbly Wobbly Walk,

All talk

The Wibbly Wobbly talk,

All wear

Wibbly Wobbly ties,

And wink at all the pretty girls

With Wibbly Wobbly Eyes. . .”

I freak.

I abso-fuckin’-lutely freak!

We both fall on the floor, convulsing. The recording I could not stand to listen to as a child is thumbing its nose at me over the span of an entire century.

The guy singing, who knows what his name is, he sounds sort of English, and he starts kind of raving mid-cylinder, chortling away like he’s drunk or something:


You ought to see them.

They can’t do the Grizzly Bear or the Turkey Trot.


I’ve got a Wibbly Wobbly laugh, haven’t I?


It’s so totally bizarre, unexpected and delightful, we just hug each other. We can’t wait to hear the next one, but unfortunately, it’s a bit of a downer:

“A Cornfield Medley. By the Hayden Quartet.” (The really early ones are announced, for a very practical reason – there was no way to label them.)

“Some folks say that a nigger won’t steal

(Way down, way down, way down yonder in the corn field)

But I caught a couple in my corn field

(Way down, way down, way down yonder in the corn field)

One had a shovel and the other had a hoe

(Way down, way down, way down yonder in the corn field)

If that ain’t stealin’, I don’t know

(Way down, way down, way down yonder in the corn field).”

Porgy and I listen with our mouths open:

“Now dem coons am happy,

Don’t you hear those banjos play. . .



I cannot work until tomorrow,

‘Cause de teardrop flow.

I’ll try to drive away my sorrow,

Plinkin’ on de old ban-jo.”

There’s an embarrassed silence.

“Oh Porgy, I’m so sorry.”

“Hey, it’s not your fault. It was a hundred years ago.”

“But still. Jesus, Porg, the racism. Didn’t people realize? It’s disgusting.”

“Yeah, but it’s all part of the deal, the time-travel. If we’re gonna go back there, we have to deal with conditions as they were.”

We play through the rest of the Edison Blue Amberols, and it seems minstrel music is the most popular form: white guys trying to sound black, no doubt blackening their faces with burnt cork, à la Al Jolson, the Jewish negro: Down on the Old Plantation; Five Minutes with the Minstrels (which we clocked in at 2 minutes, 37 seconds); Darktown Strutter’s Ball; Dese Bones Shall Rise Again. A couple of them are “Hebrew monologues”, Yiddish-flavoured stories that meander along without any real punch line to them. Humour was a lot different then, too.

There’s a category we call the “modern marvel” cylinders: McGinty at the Living Pictures (and movies were a new thing then, almost as awesome and scary as recorded sound); and Aeroplane Dip, kind of a variation on Come, Josephine, in my Flying Machine.

There are some really odd ones in there, too: bird imitations, of all things, a series of elaborate whistles by one C. Corst: “I will name each bird,” he announces grandly at the beginning, no doubt dressed in a top hat and tails, “and then I will faithfully reproduce its song.”

We sit through four and a half minutes of robin, bluejay, yellow-bellied sapsucker, cedar waxwing, meadowlark, thrush, nightingale, and even pileated woodpecker (does he knock on his head?, I wonder.)

For some reason male quartets predominate: the Edison Quartet (Edison had his name all over everything, he was a smart man, made the most of the new technology); the Peerless Quartet. “Oh, that’s because female voices didn’t record very well. The trebles sounded kind of sour.”

“That explains Dame Nellie Melba, then.”

“Yeah, her.”

“I don’t know, Porg, voices sure have changed a lot in a hundred years. They all had that fast quaver, and everyone seemed to sing through their nose.”

We listen to the Edison Quartet chuffing their way through a World War I song (another favorite category): How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree). Then, Pucker Up Your Lips, Miss Lindy (there’s lots of sexual stuff going on in these things, make no mistake), Baby, Baby, from Lady Slavey, The Bird on Nellie’s Hat, and my personal favorite: Tickle Me Timothy, “sung by Billy Williams, Ed-i-sohn Re-cawwds” (and apparently nobody knows how to pronounce the word “record”, the technology being so new):

“Tickle me Timothy, tickle me do,

Oh tickle me, there’s a dear.

The parson nearly makes me cough,

And I feel like pulling his nightshirt off!

I can’t help meself, I’ll do it in half a tick,

And he mightn’t have anything underneath, Timothy,

Tickle me, Timothy, quick!” 

We notice something funny, too – sometimes the music suddenly speeds up right at the end of the song. “That’s because they were running out of cylinder,” Porgy explains.

It was all pretty primitive. In the early days, before 1900, they’d get fifteen machines all cranking at once, each making an original cylinder, because they hadn’t figured out a way to copy them. The performer would have to absolutely bellow, or blow his instrument so hard his brains would start to come out of his ears.

It’s fascinating, a time trip, like a tour through a really excellent museum, only even more vivid and real. I can’t escape the feeling that we’re there, we’re actually experiencing another time. And then we come to it: the very last cylinder of the twenty-four I bought, in a plain brown unmarked canister.

“Oh. This is odd..”

I slide it out into my hand, and get a weird feeling from it. It doesn’t look anything like the other cylinders in the lot. For one thing, it’s pink. A pale, translucent pink, not the gaudy pink of the rare Thomas Lambert celluloid recordings that came out in 1902.

Somehow I know this one is way older than that.

“Wow. I wonder what’s on this one.”

“Let’s try it.”

We load it on.

There is an incredible amount of surface noise. Almost as bad as the lead cylinder with the talking clock. Then, faintly, I think I hear something.

“It’s spoken word.” My heart jumps.

“Think so?”

“It’s a man.”

“What’s he saying?”

“I can’t tell, it’s too garbled. Is it in English?”

“Hard to tell.”

“I wish I could make it out.”

We look at each other, feeling a creepy kind of chill.

There is a faint pencil-mark on the outside of the cylinder case: ’87.

“Good God, is that the date?”

“Somebody must’ve made this one privately. It’s not a commercial cylinder. It isn’t even brown, or yellow paraffin like the really rare, early ones.”

“Wow. Strange.”

“Yeah.” Porgy yawns. He’s a little tired, I can tell. He’s easily overwhelmed, in fact that’s his whole problem, he can’t deal with anything stressful, and we’ve been listening now for what seems like forever. Pot can do that to you, elongating time and stretching it into eternity.

So I give him a hug, and he goes downstairs to bed. But I sit up for another hour, listening to the strange flesh-colored cylinder over and over again. Sometimes I think I can make out bits of it, here and there:

“Would add to our understanding. . . “

Then more garble.

“Unfortunately. . . “

More noise: ta-whumpita, whumpita, whumpita.

“Then I came to realize that the only thing that mattered was. . .” I swear it’s making sense to me here and there, in little fragments. I try to piece them together.

My hair prickles as the cylinder concludes:

“. . .send this message into the future with (noise, noise, noise, noise) received with understanding. It is only then that (noise, noise, noise, noise, noise).”

It was hard to get to sleep that night. I was haunted by the voice. Who is this guy? What does the message mean?

I have to go back to the flea market right away. I remember seeing dozens of odd old cylinders on sale, really cheap in fact. I’ll have to scrape up the funds somehow. Hell, I’ll sell my jewellery, use the grocery money. I need to crack this more than I need to eat.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Gabor Mate: is he the real Zoltan Levy?

NEWS FLASH! Yes, I did hear from Gabor, though I was pretty sure I wouldn't. Mostly it was reassurance that I could use any aspect of his personality I wanted for my character. Might as well post the email:

Hi Margaret,

Thanks for the courtesy of reaching out to me on this.

I do not consider that you require either my permission or agreement to publish your novel. On grounds of general principle I hardly think that “I” am in it. Although I’m sure
your take on me does contain aspects of the real me, it’s still your version and hence coloured by your perceptions and reactions. Some of these I have found accurate
over the years, others less so. I would not be offended by whatever image of this character you present.

I don’t have a new book coming out with anything do with concepts of normal, although I am giving a talk locally soon entitled The Myth of Normal. I have been working on a book
called Toxic Culture, very much on hold at the moment. It may or may not surface.

My work life no longer includes medical practice; I do travel and teach/speak a lot, and lead healing retreats with and without psychedelic modalities.

I wish you all best with your publishing project, and trust you are still a happy and proud grandmother.


And now. . . the rest of my post (adjusted accordingly).

If you've had a chance to read the first six parts of my novel Bus People, which I am running as a serial just because I would like to have it see the light of day, you'll note that there is a very central character called Zoltan Levy, a doctor who works on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

Well, guess who he's supposed to be.

This novel was written in a wild whirl back in 2004, in only about four weeks, though I was quite surprised to find a very neat folder of research today dealing with pretty much every aspect of the novel.  I guess I was not so spinny-headed after all. And this was back when the internet was still kind of tottering along. I found material on Hungarian history, papyraceous twins, facial reconstruction (then in its infancy), cylinder recordings, ailments of the digestive tract (one character has a rather icky obsession with colonic irrigation). . . and many other things besides. I also found a detailed, handwritten outline of the story, along with sticky notes for each character and plot development so that I could rearrange them as the story progressed. Still, the centre of the thing was a character who was a fictionalized version of Gabor Mate, already a celebrated author who is now way more famous than he was then. 

My first contact with him was an interview I did for January Magazine a dozen years ago (the link to it is above). Though he's a dynamic individual, he talks very fast and compulsively psychoanalyzes people (including me) on a dime. When you try to interview him, he will unfailingly interview you. Doing the January thing threw me off-balance, but I have to admit I was fascinated. A lot of this turning-around thing, I've come to believe, is a projection of his own "stuff", which he is actually quite candid about. He has written more since When the Body Says No, most notably In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts which deals with addiction on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. For a while, quite a while in fact, we emailed back and forth. I don't know whether to call him a friend exactly, but there was a time when he'd listen to me, or at least not tell me to go away, when I was in an emotional hurricane and no one else wanted me around. Or so I thought back then. He made himself available, and since I wasn't officially either a friend or a patient, he didn't have to do that.

I think he is a different Gabor now, I honestly do, because he is just a lot more famous, world-famous in some ways, giving seminars and talks and workshops all over the world. I don't think I could put him in a novel now, I mean the present-day Gabor, but then, what HASN'T changed since then?

So what has it been like to go back to this novel, and Zoltan Levy, something/someone I wrote in 2004 and haven't even looked at since then?  I could say it has been pretty interesting, and I could say it has gutted me, and both would be true, remembering the harrowing circumstances under which it was written. Like all the rest of my fiction, it has pretty much failed in worldly terms, if "failed" means "didn't sell". I suppose I couldn't help myself however. It was a novel that had to be written.

(I had to pretty much rework this post from the beginning because after I got the email from Gabor, which I honestly didn't think I was going to get, I didn't think I was being terribly fair to him.  But can I leave my unicorns-and-rainbows gif, just as a reminder that he's spreading the sunshine everywhere? No doubt, in his own rather grim and Hungarian way, he does.)

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. 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.

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!"