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
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 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.
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 abso-fucking-lutely freak. But it’s so funny!
“And they all walk
The Wibbly Wobbly Walk,
The Wibbly Wobbly talk,
Wibbly Wobbly ties,
And wink at all the pretty girls
With Wibbly Wobbly Eyes. . .”
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.”
“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!”
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.
“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.”
“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.