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
Szabó is struck with awe. He had no idea what strides had been made in the field of plastic surgery just in the few of years since the bleak day he blew his face to kingdom come.
A day would come when those strides would seem far less significant, but one breakthrough must follow another.
Dr. Kaplan reads him a report from a medical journal about a man so badly burned, there was to all intents and purposes no flesh left on his face at all.
Though it took six months, and must have been arduous and challenging, the man literally grew a new face for himself, from the skin of his own back.
A special tissue expander created a single, thick piece of skin, with its own unique blood supply, that would allow for “microvascular tissue transfer”. When the skin was sufficiently stretched and ready to be harvested, it was carefully removed and surgically transplanted to make a new face. They were even able to fashion him a nose, all in the space of a few hours. The entire procedure resulted in a face normal-looking enough to “pass”.
Szabó is getting excited. Dr. Kaplan cautions him that in his case, it will be quite a bit more complicated because he lost so much bone. But he quotes another article, about a woman who lost much of her facial bone structure to a particularly aggressive form of cancer.
Dr. Kaplan read him the report, wishing he could show him the photographs.
“A kind of replacement scaffolding made from a new type of polymer plastic that dissolves in 12 to 18 months was individually fitted to her existing bone structure, carefully molded from a cast of her skull. Bone chips were grafted on to the artificial scaffolding, and, remarkably, they began to grow, bonding themselves to the framework and gradually replacing the plastic as it was absorbed by the body. What was left was a new bone structure, almost identical to the one that had been lost.”
He has learned that the miracle is about to begin almost immediately, with the first operation on his back. Then multiple casts will be made of his ruined face. It would take time; it would take patience; it would take pain. But Dr. Kaplan is convinced that Szabó can have his face back, or at least a face he will be able to present to the world.
He will still be blind; yes. But something else has begun to happen here, something just as remarkable as the miracle of his restored face. He has begun to work in three dimensions. Clay first, though that was just a beginning; he is also interested in wood, in stone, in plaster, in wire, in fabric, even in soap – in fact, in every type of substance that can be manipulated with the hands.
He sits in the side room at the Portman and experiments with all kinds of material, producing sculptures that are weirdly inspired, far more powerful and original than anything he ever painted when he still had his eyes.
How does he know this? Dr. Levy tells him so.
“Tamás, I think it’s time you got yourself a place to work.”
But doctor, I have no money for this, I beg on streets, remember? This is not possible.
“Yes, it’s possible, in fact I’ve already looked into it. From now on, Tamás, you’ll be collecting a permanent disability pension from the government. Not much, of course, these things are never as generous as they should be, but you’ve learned to get by with so little, it’ll probably go pretty far. The first cheque will be issued next month, and until then, I’d like to give you a small loan to tide you over.”
Doctor. Is not possible, you are too good to me.
“Of course it’s possible, and I’d be honoured to help. It’s only a few hundred dollars, and you can pay me back from the proceeds of your first exhibition.”
This is all too much for Szabó; he feels completely overwhelmed.
“You no longer need to beg, Tamás. You’ll get your studio back, along with your dignity and your self-respect.”
Respect. Doctor, you are genius.
“No, you are, Szabo. You just didn’t know it until now.”
In a comfortable suburb to the east of Zeddyville, another transformation is taking place, no less startling than Szabó’s reclamation.
The dark red shirt is beginning to smell, but Mavis refuses to take it off.
It is her Zoltán costume: now she can both see him, and be him.
She wears it under her normal clothing every day now, clothing which is slowly beginning to look less normal. The bag lady is spilling over into the librarian and blurring them together.
Where is Charles in all this? Mild-faced Charles, who after all has been married to her for years and years? He barely notices Mavis, has tuned her out and ignored her needs for decades, and besides, acting weird is nothing new for her, she was arrested a few years ago for flipping out in the bank, claiming she saw Clifford Olsen staring at her in the teller lineup.
Clifford Olsen: a vicious serial murderer of small children, one of Port Coquitlam’s two famous sons. The other being Terry Fox, a virtual saint.
Port Coquitlam: the home of the infamous pig farm, Willie Pickton’s death machine, a bizarre modern-day concentration camp for the women of the Downtown Eastside.
The stories out of Port Coquitlam were not to be believed, so no one believed them; and thus the casual extermination was allowed to continue, women’s throats slashed like so many pigs at the slaughter.
So many, the count always rising, that the total number would make your hair stand on end.
Mavis recalls the article on the front page of the Vancouver Sun, reassuring the good people of Vancouver that the human remains found in the pig feed posed no significant health risk to the population. Even though most of the missing women were racked with disease, the public could consume pork from the Pickton farm with confidence that their well-being would not be compromised.
So a hotdog made from a hooker was quite okay!
And yes, the Potters live in Port Coquitlam, in a new neighborhood of nice homes built atop Willie Pickton’s huge spread of land. It is quite possible that traces of human remains live below the Potter’s home, deep under the foundation.
Does Dr. Levy suspect anything? Yes. His nerves are on edge, his whole system is on high alert, and it is difficult to sleep without a nightly slug of Scotch and valium. He is not sure why. Nothing overt has happened, just a missing shirt and a greasy spot on the kitchen floor. God knows his work always entails danger, an eruption of random violence, a knife attack, contagion, a tiny pinprick through a rubber glove.
So danger is nothing new to him, in fact he thrives on it, seems to need it to feel alive. It’s ironic that he and Mavis Potter share the same addiction. He gets his daily fix in a way that does good, and she –
She now writes at least fifty pages a day on the book, which is clearly her masterpiece, already more than a thousand pages long, a huge sprawl of a manuscript that no publisher would touch, most of it concerning Dr. Levy, his private, innermost thoughts. She is him now, they have become one flesh, so she knows. And she has bagged her photographic trophy at last: Zoltán Levy looking into the camera, mildly annoyed, mildly perplexed, a haven’t I seen you somewhere before? look of puzzlement on his face, frozen forever in time. But he walks on, too busy to think about it now; he has places to go and things to do, patients to see, and no time to worry about some weird tourist out to exploit the residents of the Downtown Eastside.
As he strides along Hastings Street on the way to the Sunshine to see if he can talk a young mother of three into trying another course of methadone, he jostles against a young man walking the other way, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision. He dodges just in time, jumps to one side and walks on, but the young man stumbles, his balance thrown off.
He feels himself starting to sweat under his clothes. He knows who this man is, has heard about him, God knows, he’s a legend in these parts, in fact it’s a miracle he hasn’t run into him before, they run in the same circles, so to speak., but never before has he actually seen him.
So that’s what he looks like?
He saw a man who looked almost dried-up, black holes for eyes, in a kind of manic hurry like a windup toy.
In such a hurry that he doesn’t realize he has just run into himself.
It’s like looking at his reflection forty years from now, if such a thing were possible.
The same basic body type, lean and wiry and nimble, though Anton is a little bit taller, a little more filled out.
Unlike hollow-eyed little Tán-tán in his rags and tatters, Anton did not live through the abyss of the camps. Instead, he got it second-hand, the shock wave rippling down to the next generation, as it almost always does.
Without even experiencing his father’s presence in his life, he got it, right between the eyebrows, a direct hit.
Unlike his father, who must be tough as old horsehide, he never recovered enough to make a life for himself. Some vital piece was missing, or so damaged it just didn’t function.
His mother kept trying to bail him out.
“Anton, here’s fifty dollars.”
“Don’t give me that, Mama, I have a job now.”
“What kind of job?” Her voice was full of that heavy suspicion that drove him so crazy.
He did have a job, of sorts. School hadn’t worked out, he couldn’t concentrate enough to learn, and he didn’t seem to have an aptitude for anything, Anything straight, anyway. But he was good-looking in a Middle Eastern sort of way, and a great charmer, a natural con.
“Why don’t you call your father, Anton.”
“Why don’t you?”
“He won’t have anything to do with me.”
“Right. And he’s going to welcome me with open arms.”
“He might. You’re his son, Anton. How can you turn away your own son?”
“Fuck! He had no trouble doing it before.”
“That was different.”
“You’re a young man, you need help now, he’s a helper. That’s what he does.”
“Oh! So now I’m going to be his patient and he can cure me! Now he’ll talk to me because I’m a fucked-up addict!”
“Well, I don’t want to talk to him. He’s a killer. Everyone’s got him wrong.”
“But he helps people. He gets them clean. Everybody says so.”
“Oh yes, I’ve heard all about it. The Brother Teresa of the streets.”
“Just think about it, Anton.”
The hell of it was, he was his father’s son in almost every significant way. The forces that propelled Zoltán Levy into a brilliant career in medicine drove Anton Lévai nearly crazy, so he turned to a different kind of solace.
First booze and pot. Then LSD, a few dozen trips, most of them bad. Then cocaine, then crack, then crystal meth, his brain spinning a thousand revolutions per second.
And then he came to the very last stop.
The magic beanstalk twisted around him and lifted him up to a supreme, mind-obliterating high that he soon needed every day. Already it was hard for him to find a viable vein and was sticking the needles into odd parts of himself, wondering what he would do when they were all closed down.
Anton Lévai wasn’t a thief, he wasn’t a criminal, Annie had instilled too much decency in him for that. She had completely ruined him for a life of crime.
So there was only one thing left for him to do.
He sold the only thing he could think of to sell. The only commodity that he knew would never run out.
It wasn’t as bad as he thought if he was high enough. He did what they wanted and they had no interest in prolonging things, so it was fast. It was way better money than panhandling, and once he started doing it, telling himself each time that it was the last time, it was impossible to break away.
He even had regular clients. It was insane. He hated them, and went back to them just about every night and always did what they asked him to do.
He made attempts, took stabs at reclaiming himself, tried to write a book, put in a few months of clean time here and there in treatment centres and at NA meetings. Annie’s hopes would rise, then plummet. The addiction was consuming her too, only in a different way. He changed his name legally back to Lévai in some vain effort to reconnect with the family he never knew, the father who walked. When he learned, after the fact, that the surname was the same as that of a famous Jewish historian who had written The Black Book, the story of the Holocaust in Hungary, it seemed somehow even more appropriate.
Surprising that he never ran into his father before this. Perhaps some sort of primitive radar kept them apart. He is not surprised that Zoltán Levy did not see him, for Zoltán Levy has a huge capacity for not seeing what he does not want to see.
He wonders what to do about this, if he is called to do anything at all.
He wonders all the time, scraping through interminable days and hustling all night, casting around, his radar scanning the passersby for that certain energy, that predatory hunger that ensures he will always have an inexhaustible supply.
December 14, 2003
I’m down today, way down. The custody hearing was the absolute shits, didn’t go well at all, I kind of lost it and started ranting and raving, I just couldn’t stop myself, I was so fucking frustrated at this stupid system that doesn’t let me see my own kids. So it looks like I won’t get to talk to Cameron and Suzanne for a long time now, at least not until the next hearing in three more months. Even when I do get to see them, which I pray will happen eventually, I can’t be alone with them, I’ll have to be supervised, probably permanently, and that sucks so badly I feel myself disappearing into the vacuum.
Seeing Jamie again was bad enough, there are still some feelings left over from when it was so good, it just twisted the blade. And he got up and talked about how well he’s doing in his career, the steady income he’s bringing in from the clubs, no more streetcorners, and how he’s even giving private lessons, it blew me away, that is, if he’s telling the truth. He talked about the stability he can provide for his children. And yes, I could see that he’s worked really hard, pulled himself together and made a go of it, all for the sake of the kids. And I do want what’s best for them. But the trouble is, it all works against me ever seeing them again. And what judge in their right mind would even consider giving custody to a chronic schizophrenic living on disability in the Portman Hotel? Unemployable, that’s what it said in my file, I peeked at it when the social worker was in the bathroom, and yeah, she’s probably right about that, I haven’t held down a steady job for the past twenty years.
Dr. Levy says the diagnosis could be wrong and I might have mild autism and ADD. Is that any better than schizo? Maybe. You might say it has more cachet, more glamour. And you can still be smart, in fact Dr. Levy says my IQ is way above average, whereas schizophrenics are perceived as a bunch of drooling morons. Plus they see things, hear things that aren’t there. Everybody knows that.
I’ve been very depressed lately, but in the midst of all this shit, all this discouragement and pain and loss, I have an ally, I have a protector, and I have a friend.
I have Sebastian.
I wish I could describe how it feels to sit with him, listen to him talk. The beauty of the language, the rhythm and cadence of his voice, is just so awesome, so magical and so real.
“Despair not,” Sebastian says to me, “for hope blooms. . . in the most unexpected and surprising places. The seeds of hope. . . sleep beneath the soil, . . .waiting for the sunrise of enlightenment. . . to stir them into full. . . and radiant. . . life. Listener, I beg thee. . . to maintain your hope. . . in the face of all desolation. You are my hope, . . .my hope for transcending. . . the limited time. . . in which I suffer. . . my weary existence, . . .my hope. . . that the inspiration I impart . . .will ignite. . .a flaming passion in you, . . .so that you may become. . . a light. . . for the world.”
“Sebastian, how am I going to accomplish all this? Look at my situation here. How can I possibly do all that you’re telling me? I have no power, no hand, nothing. I’m just a crazy middle-aged woman on a fixed income. I don’t even know why you chose me.”
“I chose you, . . .dear Listener,. . . because you are radiant in spirit,. . .and pure in heart.”
“Yeah, right. Look, don’t get me wrong, Sebastian, I’m really honoured that you would even consider me for this gig. But I just don’t know where to begin.”
“Begin. . . with where you find yourself. My message. . . will radiate from your heart. . . like ripples from a stone. . . dropped into a glassy pool.”
“Sebastian. Look, I really want to believe you, but I’m afraid people will think I’ve gone completely crazy this time, I mean the point of no return.”
“The world . . . has never understood . . . true inspiration, . . .and often mistakes it . . .for madness. This is the burden. . . that inevitably accompanies. . . the gift. But take heart, Listener, . . . for there are those in your world . . .who would pay heed . . . to my message of hope.”
“Dr. Levy, maybe? I’m afraid to tell him about you. Even Porgy, I mean Sly, he’s my best friend in the whole world, and he thinks I’ve gone nuts, I can tell. I mean, I think he wants to believe me, but he just can’t go there, it’s too much of a stretch for him.”
“Sebastian. . . I don’t like it here.” I surprise myself by beginning to weep. “I want to be with you, I want to see your face. This life sucks, it sucks big-time, it’s scary and ugly and full of pain. And, look, this is the last cylinder, the very last one! What the hell am I supposed to do now?”
I am sure I heard him right.
“Agnes,. . . have no fear,. . . for the solution will appear to you. . .very soon, . . .and then . . . there will be no doubt . . . left in your mind, . . .the way will open . . .and the path. . . will be made clear. Until then, . . .trust my power. Trust my message. And. . .trust your heart.”
Ta-whumpita, whumpita, whumpita. . . whump.
I draw my knees up to my face and bawl for a few minutes, pull out a cigarette and smoke it, then try to pull myself together and think.
There has to be a way.
There has to be.
If you wish hard enough, I mean with your whole being, with every particle of your energy, can you actually make something happen?
Can I put my hand through the veil, and clasp his hand on the other side?
I can’t see my kids, I have no life, my best friend doesn’t believe me, and the one person I feel a connection with was buried more than a hundred years ago.
Will God hear me, grant me this one thing? Since when has God ever listened to me? But maybe I’m overdue.
I bow my head, close my eyes, concentrate hard, and beg for this thing, this one thing. I will never ask for anything ever again.
“Doc, I have to talk to you about something.” Sly looks worried this morning, something’s on his mind. “Some pretty weird shit has been going down in the last couple of weeks.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I don’t know how to say this. You know Aggie?”
“I know her well, yes. But I haven’t seen her or talked to her for several months. How is she doing?”
“Well, you see, that’s the thing, Doc. I’m worried about her.” Sly lights a cigarette, Dr. Levy is cool about that, he’s cool about everything, the man is just awesome, like everybody says. “She’s. . .she’s got this friend.”
“Uh, but the problem is. . . the problem is, he isn’t real.”
Dr. Levy looks puzzled, and intrigued.
“Well, strictly speaking he’s real, or at least he used to be, but it was a long time ago. Like, over a hundred years.” Sly rubs his eyes, wondering how he’s going to explain this one without making Aggie look totally deranged.
“She’s been collecting cylinders.”
“Old Edison cylinders, you know, recordings from a long time ago. It started off just as a hobby, but you know Aggie, pretty soon she was completely obsessed and had to have more and more. Then she found this really weird one, like really really old, with a voice on it.”
“Have you heard it?”
“Well, yeah, sort of. Aggie thought it made sense, but I couldn’t make it out at all. Just a big garble of sound, no real words to it, with all this surface noise like a war going on. But Aggie, she found a whole bunch of these old things, and now she’s convinced that this guy is giving her messages.”
“What kind of messages?”
“Well, this guy, this Sebastian, she thinks he’s chosen her.”
Dr. Levy rubs his eyes. Not good.
“She thinks he somehow-or-other picked her, way back in 1887 or something, to carry this message about the human race. It’s – well, it’s just plain bizarre. I love Aggie, she’s like my big sister.” Sly is crying now, he can’t stop himself, it seems every time he sees Dr. Levy now, something sets him off and he can’t shut off the water works. “She’s the only person in the whole world who cares about me.”
“That’s not true.”
“But it is. You don’t count, Dr. Levy, you have to care about me, it’s your job.”
“No I don’t. I don’t have to do anything. I genuinely care about you, Sly.”
“About the name. It. . .well, it just doesn’t make it, you know? I don’t feel like a Sly. And I’m sick of this stupid old jacket.” He takes it off and throws it down on the floor. Dr. Levy is reminded of the day Szabó unveiled himself, the day he lifted his burqa and let him take a look.
“I’m not Porgy. That much I know. Somebody stuck that name on me, and I let it happen. So that means I can take it off me any time I want to, right? I’m not Sylvester, that’s a stupid-ass name my father gave me just to cause me a lifetime of embarrassment. And I know I’m not Sly.”
“Do you know who you are?”
“I think so.”
Dr. Levy waits for it.
“Yeah. Vester. I just kinda like the sound of it.”
“I do, too.”
“I think it kind of fits me.”
“And it’s sort of my real name, eh? Part of it, the best part.”
“Good for you – Vester. It’s a good, solid name, and it’s distinctive, too, not like anyone else’s.”
Vester is pleased; he blushes a bit, smiling and looking away.
“Thanks, Doc. But what about Aggie? Do you think she’s gone nuts?”
“I’ve known Aggie for a very long time, Vester, and she’s a survivor. She’s been through a lot, and has always been able to find her way. Maybe this is just something she has to do.”
“Yeah, but it’s weird.”
“It might sound strange to us, but to her, maybe it makes sense. She’s a seeker, Vester, and has always has been. Maybe she’s finally finding what she needs.”
“I hope so.” Dr. Levy doesn’t sound too convincing.
“Come back in three weeks.”
“You’re ready to fly on your own for a little bit longer. And don’t worry too much about Aggie.”
“I’ll try not to.”
“Thanks.” He scoops up the jacket and hands it to Dr. Levy, who will pass it on to someone who needs something to keep out the cold and damp.
Privately, though, Dr. Levy is more concerned than he will let on. A voice from the past, with secret messages meant only for her? It has schizophrenia written all over it. She’s in a mess with the courts and might never see her children again. Yet he knows he can’t help anyone who isn’t willing to be helped.
So much is left undone every day, so many who slip through the cracks. He tries to focus on the success stories, because he has to, to keep himself going and not be overwhelmed. Vester is making tremendous progress, going by leaps and bounds. Szabó is already in the hospital having the surgery on his back to make his new face, step one in a very long procedure. He got a young man into detox just the other day, the father of three little kids, all by different mothers, and from the hope and determination in his eyes, it looks as if he has a chance of making it.
He tries not to think about the others, their lives crushed out and discarded like so many cigarette butts, taken by booze, drugs, viruses, exposure, and the ravenous appetite of pigs.