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. 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.

“Tán-tán!”

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

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.  

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