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
Porgy does take the bus once in a while, if Aggie is around to keep him company, but he’s really shy and hardly ever goes out.
He spends most of his time in his tiny little room at the Portman on the computer, looking up sites on the internet. His latest fixation is colonic cleansing. Porgy has become obsessed with his colon, that long and accommodating inner passage that marks the final destination-point for our weekly groceries, taking out the garbage for the body because, after all, no matter how humble the job, somebody’s got to do it.
Or at least, it’s supposed to. Now he’s not so sure. Now he thinks he may have 40 pounds of impacted fecal matter lodged in his abdomen. Or maybe only ten, but that’s bad enough.
Porgy didn’t always have this interest, or hobby, or proclivity, or whatever you want to call it. He was on a medical site one day looking at pictures of people’s insides. It was an extreme site, meant mainly for doctors; surely the average lay person would get sick looking at these things, full-colour diagrams of cancerous tumours and ulcerations and fulminations, and something called megacolon: constipation so extreme it causes the abdomen to balloon like a fifteen-month pregnancy. He was staring at the most extreme of the diagrams, something called, incredibly, fecal aspiration: literally, choking to death on your own shit.
Actually, it was a series of four diagrams, depicting a colon slowly becoming more and more plugged and engorged, until the inevitable happened and everything began to back up like traffic on the Lion’s Gate Bridge during a bad accident at rush hour.
Porgy sat there with his mouth open in astonishment as he read the following information: “This exhibit features multiple progressive views of the female abdomen revealing severe constipation and fecal impaction in a patient. Stages of progression show how over time the fecal matter backs up throughout the digestive system until it reaches the esophagus and oropharynx where it enters the trachea causing a fatal blockage of oxygen.”
Over to the right of this astonishing display was a small clickie, an innocuous-looking link that said, “Thick, dark and in your gut.”
Well, he just had to click on it, being intensely curious, and what he saw would have made his hair stand on end if his hair wasn’t already standing on end.
When he clicked, he immediately read this “medical fact”: “Most people have 5 – 10 pounds of matter stored in their Colon. According to autopsies, John Wayne had 40 lbs. and Elvis had 60 lbs.” This was reported in the January 11, 1997 issue of USA TODAY, so it had to be true.
Porgy seemed to recall that Elvis croaked on the toilet, and if he was trying to push out a 60-pound turd it’s no wonder he fell dead on his face with the effort of trying to get it out. And everybody knows John Wayne lived on nothing but beef and booze. The consequences of such bad living habits were illustrated in gut-lurching colour on this site: “SEE these actual photos of REAL fecal matter eliminated during a routine cleanse!”
Porgy couldn’t begin to describe it, except to say that it looked like a convoluted mucoid projectile straight out of The Exorcist. But it got worse – or better, he couldn’t tell which; there were more photos, and he just had to click. He couldn’t tell if these people were eating sacks of mucilage or buckets of bolts, but their doo-doo looked like a major train derailment.
The text was equally gut-lurching. It explained in layman’s terms that the typical North American’s colon is a putrefying mass of impacted gunk and 25-year-old sewage hardened into unpassable concrete, thick and black and hard as old truck-tire rubber: “One autopsy revealed a colon to be 9 inches in diameter with a passage through it no larger than a pencil.”
Porgy was starting to feel a bit faint. But there was an answer: Colossal Herbs! All he had to do was lay down $89.50, and in five short days all this crap would come spewing out, decades worth of impacted mucoid plaque that had been steadily accumulating on the walls of his colon since he took his first bite of solid food. All he had to do was swallow a few capsules – all right, quite a few; all right, really a lot – and out it would come, the Loch Ness Monster in fecal form, along with (just for an added thrill) a few intestinal parasites, “liver flukes” and the odd tapeworm.
Porgy was particularly taken with the testimonials, expressed with a fervour which bordered on the evangelical: “I can’t even begin to express my gratitude without extreme emotion for the blessed gift that the creators of Colossal Herbs have given fortunate people such as myself. . . I am amazed at the old rubbery mucoid waste that has been coming out. I even had to ‘pull’ some out as it was left hanging in the colon and would not come out on it’s (sic) own. . . I couldn’t just leave it there! It was like the afterbirth from a calf! Oh my gosh! I tugged gently and. . . “ But by this time Porgy was clicking away, ordering his first round of purging pills from Colossal Herbs.
When the package came in the mail a couple of weeks later, his heart began to pound. His head spun a bit at the list of ingredients: aloe leaf, cascara sagrada bark, Chinese rhubarb root, Barberry root, Dandelion root, Fringe Tree root bark. . . This was all nicely bound together with psyllium fibre and bentonite clay, the equivalent of swallowing a wire brush with a lead sinker attached.
Porgy couldn’t wait to see if it would really work, if his results would be like the internet lady’s: “compacted black-green, rubbery, gnarled and spine-like. . .It felt just amazing to know that it was OUT of my body!!!”
So Porgy dutifully fasted for a day, drank nothing but lemon water, swallowed his first handful of pills, and waited.
No horror-show spewings, not even a normal old clunk. He drank more water. Still nothing. He took the next dose of capsules, then the next.
The ground began to shake.
Porgy jumped out of his chair.
He ran to the toilet.
He jerked his sweat pants off, sat down hard, held on the edges of the seat, and prayed.
Wah! It was one of the most intense experiences of his entire life. This was better than any barium milkshake, an evacuation the likes of which he had never known.
Hallelujah! His bowels were singing the chorus from Messiah as they joyfully released their load. He felt pounds lighter already, though he chickened out on looking at the results (and he wouldn’t photograph it and post it on his web site like some of these people were doing; he wasn’t that obsessed, not yet anyway) and quickly flushed it down.
And flushed. And flushed. It took several tries to get rid of all the evidence of his first purge.
Joy turned to dismay when the same procedure repeated itself a half-hour later, then again. . . and again. . .and again. He soon realized he could not afford to be more than ten steps away from the toilet for the rest of the day. When agonizing cramps set in, his elation turned to anguish, then fear. Perhaps the bentonite clay was disagreeing with him, or was it the cascara sagrada bark?
Over the next 24 hours his gastrointestinal system slowly turned itself inside-out, while he whimpered on the toilet seat, clutching his tortured abdomen as it rumbled nastily in irritation.
It was an awful, gut-rending, cold-sweat experience – absolute agony. And Porgy couldn’t wait to do it again.
For the site recommended regular “cleansings”, particularly if you committed the heinous sin of eating meat. Porgy tried not to, but every once in a while his lust for a Quarter Pounder with cheese washed down with a triple-thick strawberry shake got the better of him. Oh, terrible! Glue and goo, a disaster for the alimentary canal, soon to be converted into bituminous bricks of shit virtually impossible to evacuate.
And so, more pills.
“Aggie. I’ve found this stuff on the internet, it’s absolutely great.”
“Oh, hey, Porg, I don’t know about this. Aren’t you spending an awful lot of money here? You don’t have a lot to throw around.”
“But this stuff is saving my life. You should give it a try some time. You’ll be amazed at what comes out. You’ll get rid of 10 pounds of accumulated mucoid plaque in only five days.”
“That doesn’t sound very healthy, Porgy. How much did you pay for this stuff?”
“It’s an investment in my health, Ag. You can’t put a price on that, can you? It’s all good.”
This is one of those rare times when Aggie has been able to coax Porgy out of his hidey-hole for a little outing. The Number 42 roars and rattles along Hastings Street past the bombed-out storefronts and bizarre, hallucinogenic-looking murals. It’s pretty early in the morning, some of the night girls are still out, wearing extreme clothing, extremely short or extremely tight or extremely black or extremely full of chains and studs, standing in that particular hip-jutting, shoulder-thrusting way that says, I’m for sale, come and get it. Aggie looks at them sometimes and tries to picture them as little girls, maybe at a birthday party, blowing out candles, playing pin the tail on the donkey. Nobody plans this, nobody plans to be a night girl when they grow up, it just happens, it happens the way water swirls down the drain, it happens because it feels like there is no other place for them to go.
Aggie blinks a couple of times. She realizes that there are blank spaces where many of the night girls used to be: a sort of dotted outline, a cutout, a non-presence, and these are the ones, their count rising all the time, who ended up ground into pig feed on a Port Coquitlam farm.
But no one knows about that, and if anyone does know about that, no one cares about that, and if anyone does care about that, they’re wasting their energy on hopeless cases, so why should the cops keep on investigating it anyway? Some things are just too horrible to be true: so I guess they can’t be. So I guess they aren’t.
Porgy drones on and on about his colon and how whistle-clean it is now, and how he’s committing himself to a cleanse at least every three months, maybe more often if he can afford the $89.95, while Aggie wonders why a colon needs to be so whistle-clean to begin with, it’s a waste disposal system, for God’s sake, and you don’t need to eat dinner off it, and besides, she is worried that Porgy is going to put himself into the hospital if he keeps this up.
Nobody can quite figure out exactly what the deal is with Porgy Graham. He isn’t a drug addict exactly, though he’s been stoned more than a few times, it’s true. But he sticks mostly to pot, never touches heroin or cocaine, and has only done LSD twice. He isn’t a schizophrenic, nor even “schizo-affective”, the label Aggie has to wear to get her cheques. But there doesn’t seem to be a Porgy-shaped space anywhere in the world; he is forever on the outside of things, nose pressed against the windowpane. Maybe it is his colour; Porgy is not black, in spite of his name which is a bit of a cruel joke. He used to be called Porky, because as a teenager he was kind of fat (and his real name is Sylvester, which he would really rather not tell anyone), and somehow or other the k just slid into a g-sound, easier to pronounce maybe? But only a little less cruel. Porgy is what used to be called a mulatto, but that’s not a very good word any more, it’s just offensive in a way nobody can quite explain. Some would describe him as coffee-coloured, but with a double shot of cream. (And mulatto does sound sort of like a kind of coffee: mulatté?) His features are an interesting blend of slightly exotic Caribbean and dull ordinary Caucasian, his eyes greenish-brown, his hair coarse and upstanding as unravelled wire. The Vancouver poet Wayde Compton might describe him as Halfrican, and Porgy would get it, he’d be amused by the term, maybe even flattered.
Today he’s going to the flea market with Aggie, a long trip that requires a couple of transfers, and it freaks him out a little. He gets hassled on the bus sometimes, picked on, because he’s different, he’s coffee-coloured, and he looks a little dazed, a fallen-from-the-nest look, like mild shock. The street singles out the vulnerable and savages them. Porgy has no street smarts at all. It’s a wonder he has survived this long. Aggie falls into the role of protector with him, even though she’s supposed to be the handicapped one, “mentally ill”, on long-term disability, while Porgy lives off cheques from his Dad, a mysterious, absent figure who lives in Georgetown, Guyana with a white lady (though not Porgy’s mum).
Porgy’s Dad was not around much when he was a kid, and Porgy has never been able to decide whether that was a good thing, or a bad thing. When he was around, it was confusing. He could shower his kid with presents, lavish him with attention, then coldly turn his back and disappear for a couple of years. The fallback system was a series of foster homes that did the usual kind of damage, from which Porgy has never been able to recover.
Now all he gets from his Dad is money, but it’s something, it helps him get by. He guesses he’s lucky, compared to a lot of people who live around here.
Porgy’s so scared when the bus rounds the turn from Hastings onto Granville, he actually grabs Aggie’s hand. There’s something childlike about him, for sure, even though he’s pretty smart, he’s not backward or anything like that, far from it, he was even diagnosed gifted as a child, one of the worst handicaps a person can have if they’re the colour of coffee with a double shot of cream, or so Porgy thinks to himself on the days when he gets depressed, on the days when this grinding outworld existence begins to wear him down.
“I don’t like it, Aggie.”
“S’okay, Porg, we’re just going around the corner. Granville Street is great, we can look in all the sex shops. Ever been inside one of them? They have every kind of vibrator you can imagine. Look, there’s where the old Caprice Theatre used to be. Remember the Caprice? Too bad they turned it into a nightclub. It used to look like Elvis’s bathroom.”
“Yeah. I remember. Didn’t we go there once? It had a big silver curtain – “
“Pink floral walls – “
“Cherry-coloured seat covers – “
“And it was cheap – “
“- and good – they showed good movies there, I remember – “
“- and then they ripped it all out to make another bar. Sad, eh?”
“Yeah. I guess so. I don’t know, I don’t go to the bars.”
“Me neither. They scare me.”
He seems to settle down after that, though it’s a long, bumpety ride out to the big low-slung building advertising BARGAINS, BARGAINS, BARGAINS, the flea market which swarms with people even at this hour of the morning.
It starts almost right away, and Aggie’s heart sinks: “Oh, look-it the nigger with the fuckin’ bag lady!”
“Hey bitch, you like dark meat?”
Aggie and Porgy try hard to ignore the taunts of the scary-looking young men who run in a kind of pack, seven or eight of them, it’s hard to count because they keep milling around, they’d be no good at all in singles, never dare to utter a word to anyone, but in a cluster like this, in a pack, they’re potentially lethal, and Porgy knows it. He sees one of them lift a man’s pocket watch off one of the stalls, but doesn’t dare say anything or even reveal that he has noticed it. His heart is beating in his ears and he feels a little faint.
One of the scariest-looking guys starts poking him with his index finger. ”Hey. Nigger. Look at me, nigger.” Porgy blinks back at him, dazed with fear.
“Looks like a half-nigger to me.”
“Oh my God, it’s half a nigger!”
“Kindly get your hands off my friend,” Aggie says fiercely, and Porgy’s heart jumps into his throat. Well, what can they do to her? They can do anything they want to him, it seems, at any time of the day or night, but she’s a chick, and this is a public place in broad daylight, and –
“Fuck off, bitch.”
“We’d be happy to.” She grabs Porgy’s hand like he’s five years old and steers him firmly through the swarms to the table where she picked up her collection of Edison Blue Amberols.
“It’s okay, Porg, they’re assholes, don’t pay any attention to them.”
“Take a look at all this, will you? Man, they’re beauties.”
Displayed on the table is a stunning collection of old machines: ancient gramophones, Edison Triumphs, Berliner Leverwinds, a Grafonola 200, Victor Monarch Talking Machines, a Brunswick, a Hexaphone, an Amberola, a Zon-o-phone, and something called a Columbia BO. Some have horns inlaid with multicoloured mother-of-pearl in floral designs, so beautiful they make Porgy feel a little woozy. They give off the comforting antique aura of aged wicker chairs and your grandmother’s old foot-treadle sewing machine.
Aggie wants this one over here, this little beauty, an Edison Bannerfront Standard with a gorgeous, polished brass horn, but it says $75.00 on it, and, no way. She has almost $50.00 scraped together over weeks of hardship, no lunch and cutting back on smokes. Even at that price, it probably isn’t in good working order, it looks broken somehow, but Porgy can tinker, he’s good with his hands, he’ll get it working.
“I’ll give you twenty bucks for it,” Aggie says to the little round, balding man behind the table.
“You tryin’ to Jew me down?”
Aggie gets a little tired of it, the casual, everyday racism, though it’s nothing to the more formal, “dress” racism that causes certain people to be killed. “I’m just trying to come up with a fair price for a machine that probably doesn’t even work.”
“Seventy-five is giving it away. This is a valuable antique, one of a kind.” The man touches it lovingly, as if he hates to part with it for any price.
“Yes, but it should be functioning, shouldn’t it? I can see that it’s broken. I just want it for a door stop anyway.”
“You’re crazy. I’m not lettin’ it go for a penny less than $60.00.”
“Oh.” Aggie makes a show of sighing, of rolling her eyes. “Tell you what. Give it to me for thirty, and I won’t spread it around that you sell damaged merchandise.”
“It’s a piece of crap and you know it.”
“Twenty-five bucks in your hand, or this useless piece of shit on your shelf.”
He doesn’t say anything, just sticks his hand out for the money.
She darts a tiny, sideways glance at Porgy, who is trying to restrain himself from dancing with joy.
And oh, the ride home is fun, with the Edison Bannerfront Standard in an old cardboard box that used to have rice in it. They chatter excitedly about what they’re going to hear: sounds from 1910; from 1900; from 1890! They want to push the envelope, hear sounds from as far back as possible, right back to that primal old Edison tin-foil shout, the little lamb, the HA, HA, HA. They’re going to listen to recordings so old, you can barely hear the music for all the surface noise, the sizzle and fizzle and pop-tick, pop-tick, recordings so primitive they’re full of thunks, clunks and bumps, with orchestras crammed down into a shoebox, strangulated tenors and banjos plucked by old black musicians dead for more than a hundred years. It’s going to be so cool, it’ll hurt.