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
"No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night." Elie Wiesel
Portman Hotel, Vancouver, B. C.
Cylinders. The backpack was full of cylinders. It was not full of junk. Not not not. And they’re not just any old cylinders, they’re Edison Blue Amberols, the best kind you can get.
I have to find more Blue Amberols. It’s just a habit, I can quit any time I want to, just a little quirk of mine, collecting. I collect all sorts of stuff, birdcages made out of bamboo, salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like people, macramé handbags made back in 1973. My room here is full of stuff, the social worker doesn’t like it, she complains about it all the time and keeps telling me to clean it up, get rid of it all. But it’s cool, there’s no rats or anything, it isn’t dirty, I keep order in the place. Sometimes stuff falls down, there are loud crashes at night that disturb the neighbours, particularly Porgy who lives just under me and is a light sleeper. But at least I know where everything is.
I didn’t even know what a Blue Amberol was until I started going to flea markets about a year and a half ago. I saw these ornate-looking canisters with flowery writing and ornamentation all over them – they were beautiful, and I just had to buy one of them, not even knowing what was inside. It was only a buck and a half, what the hell, I’ll go without lunch tomorrow. Maybe it’s snuff or something, I thought, something Victorian, or at least Edwardian, really old and maybe even valuable.
But it wasn’t snuff at all. It was a dusty old cylinder full of grooves. Took me a minute to figure it out, that this was something like a record, or what came before records, the first medium for recorded sound. I felt like I had seen one before, that I remembered it from somewhere. I had Porgy go on the internet and do a search. I don’t have a computer, I don’t know how Porgy can afford one, but he does and is obsessed with it.
Anyway, he tells me that this isn’t just any sort of flea market hunk of junk but a Blue Amberol, a particularly deluxe (back then) kind of cylinder recording popular in the early 20th century. They weren’t the earliest recordings – those were made out of brown wax, with a few really early, rare ones made out of yellow paraffin, but even before that, they used tin foil. No kidding – tin foil on a rotating cylinder, scratched with a needle that picked up vibrations. The basic principles of sound recording. Think of Thomas Edison at
, bellowing into his new contraption: “MA-RY HAD A LIT-TLE LAMB. ITS FLEECE WAS WHITE AS SNOW. AND
EV-ERY-WHERE THAT MA-RY WENT, THE LAMB WAS SURE TO GO. HA, HA, HA.”
Cranking away at a variable speed, so the voice sounds freaky, all
distorted like a giant’s voice, as well as tinny and really far away. Menlo Park
When I was little, old records used to scare me. I used to think. . . never mind what I used to think. I had a hell of an imagination. It got me in trouble all the time, at school, but even worse at home. My mother used to say that I made up stories, but to me, it was all completely real. I thought the voices on those old 78 r. p. m. records had some sort of spooky power. Like it was a kind of time capsule or something. The singing ones were weird enough, they all had that muffled quality like the sound was coming out of a tiny little closet, but the spoken word ones, they really freaked me out. Used to make me run out of the room, but my Dad, he’d make me listen to them, listen to Caruso sounding like he was singing inside a cardboard box, or Dame Nellie Melba warbling away, or something called the Wibbly-Wobbly Walk – God, the Wibbly-Wobbly Walk scared the living shit out of me. Couldn’t stand it, but my Dad made me stay and listen.
It was his collection and he was convinced it was worth thousands, but now that I know something about early recordings, I can see that what he had was virtually worthless. Too many scratches, ticks and pops.
Dr. Levy, the one they call “Zee”? He’s helping me deal with memories. He’s good. I mean, he’s good if you’re in pain or trouble, if you’re not, then forget about it, he can be a real hardass, it’s surprising how cold he can be. But I’ve seen him deal with guys so far gone from AIDS, the shit was pouring out of them like lava, and he never bats an eyelash, just rolls up his sleeves and cleans up the crap like it was nothing. I like Dr. Levy.
But this guy on the bus today, this Szabó. I know that’s his name, because people talk about him. He has regular habits, I’ll say that about him. I don’t know where he goes exactly, somewhere around the Sunshine Hotel area, the real asshole of
, Zeddyville they call it, ‘cause Dr. Zee cruises the place all the
time, looking for broken people to mend.
It’s his habit. Vancouver
Mine’s Blue Amberols. I’m glad this Szabó can’t look at me, because I just hate it when people stare at my backpack, poke at it or ask what’s inside it. I had fourteen Blue Amberols crammed in there today, and never mind that I haven’t been able to afford a player yet, it’s only a matter of time.
I guess listening to these things is going to scare the living shit out of me. I take five hundred milligrams of Seroquel every day, Dr. Zee is trying to wean me off it, he says I might have been misdiagnosed, but I’m not so sure about that, I guess you could say I scare easily, I was born minus a few layers of skin. But this Szabó, he has no face, or that’s what they say about him anyway, even though he sings. I’ve heard it, we all have. He sings without words, of course: “nggg, nggg, nggg” – it’s creepy, but you know something, he has a good voice, and a Hungarian accent, even with no words. I wish he’d go see Dr. Zee, he’d be able to help him. That guy could’ve helped Hitler get over his anger problem. Maybe he could write things down on a piece of paper or a chalkboard, I don’t know. Better than begging, which is what Szabó does for a living now that he can’t see to paint. It’s sad. I draw a disability cheque, it’s not much but it keeps me going, along with whatever stuff I can make or sell or trade, even though I’m not allowed to see my kids which sometimes makes me want to slit my fucking throat, just end this, end it now. But Dr. Levy says don’t, Dr. Levy says don’t think that way, he says I’m valuable, he says there’s only one of me in all the world, that human beings are irreplaceable, so I guess I better trust his judgement which might be just a little bit clearer than mine.
Anyway, Szabó gets on the bus this morning, it’s one of those stinky wet mornings when everything’s dripping, and he sits right down beside me like he’s done so many times before. Like I say, regular habits. And Szabó is clean, not like a lot of the people who take the bus every day; he doesn’t ever smell, he looks after himself. I don’t know how he does it, but he does. Pride. He must have hair still, I mean, the back of his head must still be OK, just his face is missing, no big deal, nothing serious, eh? But then a guy across from us on the sideways seats says, “Hey, fucking freak, you on a pass from the sideshow? Gettin’ it on with the Schizo Lady?” Street people have got radar, that’s how they can tell.
“I beg your pardon, buddy, if you wanna see a freak, I think you should maybe try looking in the mirror.” I’m usually not this bold, but poor Szabó can’t speak up. Can’t defend himself, but he can hear everything. It’s cruel. This guy across from us, he looks like a bad bowel movement after too many blueberries, long and snaky and tattooed dark indigo all over every square inch of his skin. He’s a living shit. And he’s calling us freaks. Jesus. I keep trying to tell Dr. Levy what it’s like, but he just shakes his head. Says people call him a Kike or a Yid or a Heeb sometimes, but it’s not the same, it’s not. “Hey!
Auschwitz!” one of them said to him once – and, yeah, he is pretty
thin, looks kind of undernourished. How does that go? “He hath a lean and hungry look.”
So the driver, his name’s Bert Moffatt, I know him ‘cause I’ve seen him lots of times before on the Number 42, he says to me, “Lady, would you kindly can the comments, you’re being abusive here.” I’m being abusive. If a schizo lady raises her voice even a little bit, she’s being abusive, she’s out of control, while this big blue-tattoo shithead over here, he can hurl insults at anybody he likes. Why? I don’t know, I guess he’s supposed to be sane. Probably a pimp, probably a heroin addict or a child molester or sells his grandmother for a hit of crack, but he’s allowed to say whatever he likes.
Fuck it, I’m going back to the flea market tomorrow and buy that cylinder player I saw, it was priced at $75.00 which for me is a bloody fortune, and it looked busted, the ones that work cost way more than that and are out of my price range, but you can usually bargain with these guys, and I have $50.00 scraped together already, it took me months and months of going without smokes, and then I found a ring in the washroom at the Tinseltown Theatre, pawned it and got nearly 30 bucks for it which goes to prove that there is such a thing as
. Porgy keeps me going on smokes, enough to
stave off the worst of my nicotene fits, he’s cool about things like that, even
though he never goes out, he’s glued to the internet all the time, reading up
on mucoid plaque and colonic irrigation.
What a nut. But he’s still kind
of sweet. Providence
They call it
call it Needle Park , they call it Zeddyville because that’s where Dr. Zee hangs
out: and it’s not a park at all, but a
vaguely triangular slab of cement crusted in pigeon shit, draped and clustered
with people nobody seems to want around. Pigeon Park
It’s a loitering sort of place, an unplace. A dislocation. Calling it a park is an impossible stretch, for no green thing could grow here. Dr. Zoltán Levy barely notices it any more. He has a very fast walk, but it’s not so he can get away from the horrors of the neighborhood. It’s so he can zip from the Portman to the Sunshine to the Waverley Hotel to get to his patients, the people who are usually on their last gasp.
Dr. Zee doesn’t step on the bus very often, but it disgorges passengers right outside his home base, the Portman, an armoured truck of a place, fortified, barred, battened down like the good doctor’s own bleak, unsmiling face. He makes himself available to people, people like Aggie Westerman the chronic schizophrenic, and Porgy Graham who has a strange obsession with his bowels, and Dave the mutilator who has his lips multiply pierced and chained together, so he can’t even eat without pulling all the studs out.
Things happened to Dr. Zee a long time ago, everybody knows that, or at least they suspect it, though no one has any specifics, and he isn’t talking. He “doesn’t have time for a relationship”. That’s what he says when he is interviewed, which happens quite a lot now, because slowly but surely, Dr. Zee is starting to become famous. At least,
famous, and maybe soon, Canadian famous, then the world. He is working on a book that is taking him
forever to write because he really doesn’t want to finish it, it’s got too many
secrets in it, and he hates to make himself so vulnerable. Yet he loves the vulnerable, holds his hands
out to them, thick-fingered veterinarian’s hands that look as if they could
pull out calves and shoe horses. He gets
what it is to be this hurt, this lost, and to keep on going. Vancouver
People ask him, often, if the work is depressing. What depresses him is the question: the implication that he is dealing with the dregs of humanity, and not a whole lot of bruised little kids in adult bodies, people who were fucked by their fathers or whipped senseless by their mothers or told they were useless piles of shit so often they began to believe it, or told that they never should have been born at all. It does a bit of damage when you hear it often enough; it can warp a life into a howling parody, heroin squirting up through the veins to blot out the self-loathing for just a little while, a protected, peaceful while, until it’s time to start hustling again. The abyss of the heroin state is welcome, oblivion being far more bearable than whatever is in second place.
Tourists come to Zeddyville because the area is a little bit famous, too, kind of like Dr. Zee himself, and even the Governor-General came once, on a walkabout like the Queen Mother, her face in a carefully-composed mask of what she hoped was concern. It doesn’t smell too good down here, it smells like rancid piss at the best of times, human vomit, pot fumes and other things you can’t identify. It’s a raw wound, the walls of the buildings splattered in gory-colored murals and gang graffiti impossible to decipher, the strange hieroglyphics of the street. You have to keep your cool in Zeddyville, not show any fear. It helps not to make eye contact, as you’ll stare into an abyss, a vacuum, an absence in the eyes of every stranger that passes by.
“Spare change? Spare change? Have a nice day. Spare change? Spare change? Have a nice day.” It’s a sort of mantra for a lot of people, a way to make it through to the next day of spare change, spare change, have a nice day. Of course some of the people here are crazy. There used to be a place called Valleyview, but they closed it down except for the really hard-core cases, and shouldn’t these people be integrated into the community anyway and not just institutionalized and kept out of the mainstream, hidden away like they’re frightening or shameful? Now the dirty little secret of mental illness is an open secret, like Szabó’s face when it was shot off and blown to bits all over the blackened walls of his torched studio. The walking wounded don’t have their intestines hanging out all over the outside of their abdomen, like in a war, but they do have spilled psyches, their pain hanging out, their loneliness hanging out, and it bothers people, the normies, the civilians. Their faces broadcast what they feel: for God’s sake get away from me buddy before I see myself again, before I see what’s really wrong with me and why I cannot find a place in this world, before I see that this is where I really belong.
For no matter how good I look on the outside, I am part of this whole deal that creates a Zeddyville in the middle of a glittering, prosperous, showcase city on the coast of the best country in the world, then forces people to live in it when living is just a simple, bare act of endurance.
We shove them here, we forklift, steamroll, corral, push, shove, cram, then clang the gate shut behind them and then say, what’s wrong with these people, why can’t they get it together, why can’t they make something of themselves?
Get a job!
Leave me alone!
NO, I don’t have any spare change, and put that squeegee away because I am not interested in the fact that you haven’t had anything to eat for four days! Jesus, these people.
Dr. Zee sees, hears, senses it all the time, a palpable sense of dismissal and fear echoes all around him, the long antennae sticking out of his head pick it all up, whether he wants to hear it or not, but he keeps on walking fast with his stethoscope going bounce, bounce, bounce on his chest. He doesn’t really have one around his neck, it just appears that way, it’s his sense of purpose, so intense and focused, it’s almost a buzz. He doesn’t carry a black bag either, but he will go where the trouble is, he will go where the pain is, and down here, there is more than enough to go around.