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
The surgery on his back is completely successful, going more smoothly than anyone could have anticipated. His spirits go through the roof.
Then something happens that nobody ever counted on.
For no reason anyone can comprehend, his immune system crashes. A massive infection erupts in his body, and Szabó sinks into a coma. The anxiety on the ward is a palpable thing, for this is the same hospital where Szabó refused to die a couple of years ago, and some of the same nurses attend him. This time their prayers are reversed: Szabó, please live. Dr. Levy keeps vigil, sitting beside his bed and talking to him, on the remote chance he can hear him from the other side.
The other side is a strange place. Not that he can see again, it’s not like that, but still there is light, cold and brilliant and enveloping. He wanders around in it, directionless. Am I dead? he wonders, then realizes how ludicrous the question is.
Then the strange thing happens, the one that no one can agree on because everybody saw a different thing.
This old, old woman, nobody knows who she is or where she came from, shuffles into the ward in the middle of the night, past the night staff, nobody sees her, she’s so tiny anyway, maybe only four feet tall, her spine bent like a wishbone, and once she is in Szabó’s room, she pulls the red kerchief off her head and drapes it over Szabó’s ruined face. Then she somehow manages to kneel, resting her head on the edge of the bed.
In the wasteland he wanders through, Szabó sees a shape, not a shadow but something solid moving in the overwhelming light.
Szabó seems to rouse, to awaken for a moment, emerges from the kingdom of night, and knows that someone is there.
He puts out his hand and touches the top of her head.
He knows who it is.
Sometimes remembrance and loyalty is so strong, it assumes the form of a human being. His mother risked everything to get him out of the work camp, the place everyone said was “not so bad as a concentration camp”, not quite so soul-destroying. Then why did her small son look like a ghost; why was he afraid to speak for so long?
In the morning, the staff find an old red kerchief lying on the floor under the bed. Nothing more. Then a nurse says, “I think I did see someone, though. . .”
“Oh, I did too! Just out of the corner of my eye.”
“You couldn’t have. How did she get in?”
“You didn’t see anybody, come on. Cleaning staff, you know they wear these things.”
Szabó is awake.
The infection is gone: just gone, wiped completely clean. Nobody can believe it, but it’s true.
Magolna Szabó would have been ninety-seven years old. He knows she couldn’t have come to him, it was impossible, but he felt her. The line between reality and need blurred for just a second, long enough for her to slip through. Or was he hallucinating from the coma, seeing things, even though he doesn’t even have any eyes?
In any case, he’s sitting up, the staff is standing around him and having a little party because he’s finally awake. If he had a mouth, he’d be smiling.
Zoltán Levy goes home, pours himself a shot, downs it. Stands still in the kitchen for a moment, his brain whirring. Then rummages among the CDs. Rips the cellophane off a copy of Don Giovanni he stole, maybe thirteen years ago. He has at least six versions of it, he loves Don Giovanni and identifies with him, though he almost never listens to it. Loads it on to the player and begins to sing, no, bellow along with it. He knows he has a terrible unmusical voice but doesn’t care. It’s loud and strong, and he feels like celebrating.
December 21, 2003
I hate Christmas. Hate it, hate it, hate it. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, my ass. ‘Tis the season to commit fucking suicide, if you ask me.
I remember one time years ago, I was in this psychiatric day program at Royal Columbian Hospital, I called it a “pogrom” rather than a “program”, but nobody got it, too bad Dr. Levy wasn’t around back then, he was still in private practice. Right around Christmas time the group expanded by a factor of ten, it just boomed, because people who are normally just miserable become intolerably miserable at this festive time of year.
We’ll hear those bells come jinglin’, ring-ting-tinglin’, too. Rum will flow like mother’s milk in households all over the nation, and curses will come down on little heads. Fists will fly, and Christmas trees will be smashed beyond recognition, along with small children’s hearts.
Innocence and evil dance hand in hand all through the merry month of December. They always do, it’s just that at this gut-lurchingly jolly time of year you can’t ignore it, it’s blasted at you from every fucking direction, from the first of October until the whole thing collapses on Boxing Day.
I just feel lonely, lonely. My insides feel hollow. I’ve lost touch with Sebastian, the magic is gone, I wonder what it was all about now anyway, that spell I was under when I listened to him speak to me across the void of 117 years.
I want to step through. Just step through whatever wall separates us now, and be with him. It’s only time, a mere illusion if the quantum physicists are right. Why must it have such power over us? Why must it flow only in one direction? Wasn’t Einstein on to something in believing it’s a whole lot more complicated than that?
Philosophers talk about how everything really happens all at once, or maybe has already happened. Can I jump backwards and enter the rhythm of another time, like jumping into a skipping-rope that turned in 1887?
Where did Sebastian live? What sort of work did he do? There is so much he didn’t tell me. The man is a complete mystery to me, but at the same time, I feel like I’ve known him always. He reads my thoughts and lays his hand on my heart.
I can’t see Cameron and Suzanne this year for Christmas, and maybe it’s just as well because once again, I can’t afford any fucking presents for them. I must be such a disappointment to them. The social worker says it’s too soon after the assault, the guy is threatening to press charges and drag me into court, and besides, she thinks I’m coping poorly these days, losing ground, and maybe she’s right, I don’t feel too shit-hot these days. If you were carrying the load I am carrying, you wouldn’t feel like showering or washing your hair or cleaning the place up either. When she saw the inside of my apartment the other day, I think she was a little bit shocked. It’s always pretty cluttered, she’s used to that, but she couldn’t help but see my new collection. What’s all this? Oh, those are cylinders. Cylinders? Yeah, old recordings. Antiques. But look at them all, Aggie. There must be dozens of them here. Do you spend money on these things? No, I get them for free. Aggie. Tell me the truth. Well, what do you think, that I fucking steal them? I didn’t say that. No, you didn’t have to.
That conversation was a deal-breaker, apparently. I’m supposed to go back and see Dr. Levy today, and I’m dreading it. I think I’m going to bail. He’s not going to get this, he’ll think I’ve gone ‘round the twist, out of orbit, completely beyond the pale. He is an awesome doctor, in fact I think he has the seeds of greatness in him, but this he will not comprehend, and I know it. I will have to go on without my pathfinder, on love alone.
Every December, Bert Moffatt decks out the Number 42 with antlers and holly and blinking red and green Christmas lights. He rigs up a sound system on the bus, so that the passengers can listen to “White Christmas” sung by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, Burl Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas”, and Nat King Cole singing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. . .”
His wife Sherry dresses up like Mrs. Claus, and hands out little cellophane-wrapped candy canes to the shiny-eyed children who get on the bus every day.
Szabó hasn’t been on the Number 42 for months now, and nobody is sure what has happened to him. He seems to have disappeared, gone underground. The corner where he used to sit and beg is vacant now. A busker tried to set up shop there one morning. Bad mistake: he was chased down the street by a wild-eyed woman with a backpack, shouting, “Get out of here! Don’t you know you’re standing on holy ground?”
A woman of about sixty, beaming as if the bus is her main source of joy, boards the Number 42 on the Thursday before Christmas, hand in hand with a young man with a bland vacant face and eyes that look vaguely stoned. She guides him to a place at the very back, and he sprawls over two seats, prompting glares from some of the standees.
Then he begins to talk, quite loudly in fact, in a gravelly voice remeniscent of Louis Armstrong. But the talk makes no sense, and alarms the people around him:
“Daw ideo bo,” he says. “Daw ideo, idugo, idugo bo.”
“Jesus, would you get a load of that,” mutters an elderly man sitting next to his very large wife.
“Should be in an institution,” she murmurs, shaking her head.
“Woka-ba vut, woka-ba vut, wa-hat fun, rowada wa-hat fun. Oh too goolaaaaaah, rowada ha-gat gaw! Wahat-fun, yebada wahat-fun.”
The talk has certain patterns in it, and some of it almost makes sense:
“Ba de may vaa, ba de may vaa, yebada wahat-fun, yebada va-too ma leff, va-too ma rye. Wabada wahat-fun, yebada va-too ma leff, va-too ma rye.”
“You meet all kinds,” the large woman says.
“On the bus? You meet lunatics.”
A man gets on at the next stop, not very clean, in fact he carries a strong waft of alcohol and pot around with him, and he looks angry, he comes on angry, and gets even angrier when he realizes that there’s nowhere to sit. He sees the young man hogging the two seats at the back and begins to push his way towards him.
“Oh-oh,” the large woman says. “Here comes trouble.”
“Debaga wa-hat fun, wa-hat fun, yebada va-too ma leff, va-too ma rye.”
“Hey, buddy. You’re taking up two seats here. Shove over.”
“Woka-ba vut, woka-ba vut.” The angry man tries to force him over with his body. But the young man with the language of his own will not move. He braces his body in the seat and holds on.
His mother, for surely she must be his mother to look at him the way that she does, feels apprehensive, but is not sure what to do about it. She tries to let him fight his own battles wherever possible. And God knows, he has to fight enough of them. The angry man keeps on pushing and pushing. He will not stop.
“Now wait a minute.” The huge smile has vanished from the sixtyish lady’s face. She gets up and strides over to the angry man.
“Leave him be.”
“Lady, he’s taking up two seats.”
“It won’t kill you to stand.”
“Yeah, well, just because he’s a fuckin’ retard doesn’t give him the right to – “
The sixtyish woman can hardly believe what she has just done.
She has never struck anyone in her life before.
“Fuck off, lady! That’s it, I’m charging you with assault. I have witnesses here. Hey! You saw what she did!”
“Go ahead. I want you to. I want the whole world to know what my son goes through every day of his life.” The woman had no idea, when she got on the bus that morning, that she was going to say any of this. In fact, she didn’t even know she felt that way until now.
“People like this should be in an institution.”
“No. You should be put away for the rest of your life for what you did to him, humiliating him in public like that! My son has to put up with unbelievable abuse every day of his life. You have no idea, nobody does. He is my hero. He has more dignity and courage than you’ll ever have, you stupid arrogant asshole!”
“Oh lady, don’t break my fuckin’ heart!” He mimes playing a violin.
As always happens in these situations, the other passengers are sucked into the drama. The bus people clearly favour the woman’s side of the argument, and she knows it.
Bert Moffatt feels a migraine coming on.
The verbal slings continue. The young man with the language of his own is bawling loudly now, rocking back and forth, sensing the tension, but still refusing to move. The angry man body-checks him hard.
Then the busload of people gasp as a red figure hurtles down the aisle and tackles him full-force.
It’s Mrs. Santa Claus.
“Get off, get off, get OFF this bus,” she says with mounting fury, grabbing his collar and pulling him down the aisle.
“Christ, who are you?”
“I’m the spirit of Christmas Present, OK? Now shut up and behave yourself.”
The passengers, not expecting a holiday pageant to be included in their fare, stare in wonder and confusion.
“Bert, put this asshole off at the next stop.”
Before they get off the bus that morning, a few of the passengers go to the back to congratulate the sixtyish woman (her name is Mrs. Edna Berry, and her son’s name is Randall, he’s 28 years old, and yes, he has always talked that way, he’s brain-damaged from birth, isn’t it remarkable?), and to tell her to stick to her guns. One white-haired old man in a long coat, his breath heavy with booze, kisses her on the cheek.
“Muh,” Randall says. Worn out by his ordeal, he’s reduced to monosyllables.
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Berry.”
“You’re a hero, Randall.”
“Don’t let the assholes get you down.”
Christmas Eve has no particular significance to Zoltán Levy, being a non-observant Jew, an agnostic. It only means more problems at work, the forces of addiction bearing down particularly hard on the terminally lonely. He bails out the Titanic with a thimble, like he always does, and somehow keeps it from going down altogether, though he is unspeakably weary tonight, just used right up.
He sits in front of the fireplace for a while swirling a glass of brandy, thinking about Ebeneezer Scrooge, and wondering if a Jewish Scrooge would play. Also wondering what sort of spirit would visit him on a night like this, the rain a pitiless black drone that likely won’t let up until June. Maybe a suicide, or a prostitute who ended her life on a pig farm.
He drags himself off to bed. The house falls quiet. Rosie flops on the floor, letting out a long wheezing groan of contentment.
The merciless assault of the rain nearly drowns out the rattle at the back door.
This time, entry is easy, for she has done it enough times to know how.
Mavis Potter has gained entry. No bag lady clothes this time, she’s dressed to the nines: a gown she wore to one of Charles’s things, a black silk that clings to her curves, well, it does now that she has gained all this weight, but she hopes that it looks sexy along with the tottering high heels.
In the matching black silk clutch purse is a fistful of raw steak.
Rosie lifts her head. She sniffs the air, begins to whine and salivate. She knows who it is, and what will soon follow. Her stump of a tail twitches in anticipation.
Dr. Levy snores.
Mavis sneaks into the living room. The fire has burned down to embers, bright sparks spiralling upward. She sees an old iron menorah on the mantle, hmmm, that’s new, or rather very old, probably from the old country, maybe a last gift from his mother, a nod to the festive season. But there are no candles in it. Impulsively she grabs it and holds it behind her as she sneaks towards the bedroom door.
It creaks open, and she pushes her way in.
Rosie whuffs, barks softly a couple of times.
“Shhhh. It’s okay, it’s only me.” The dog gobbles the bleeding handful of beef from Mavis’s hand, and licks her palm in gratitude.
She stares at Dr. Levy, sleeping like a little boy, his hand under his face. Her heart pounds and pounds at the sight.
Rosie lets out one short, sharp bark.
Dr. Levy’s eyes pop open.
Mavis takes an inadvertent step backwards.
His body jerks upright, all his senses on extreme alert. Confusion collides with sudden certainty as he rapidly puts the pieces together: the missing shirt, the camera, the greasy spot on the kitchen floor –
How does she know, how does she know that name?
“Who are you?”
Mavis Potter kneels on the bed. She encircles Dr. Levy’s furrowed face with her hands. Panic seizes him; he instinctively pulls his head away.
“Don’t,” she says.
She begins to undo the small satin-covered buttons on the front of her dress. They’re fastened with little loops, so it’s awkward. One button. Two. Dr. Levy is filled with apprehension, dismay and profound embarrassment.
The dress is now open to her navel, exposing a black bra. Then in the dimness of the room, Mavis catches a glimpse of Dr. Levy’s face.
What she sees turns her stomach upside-down with fury.
There is no mistaking that look.
It’s – pity.
Pity – for her!
“Please,” he says. “Let’s talk about this.”
“Maybe I can help.”
That does it.
Dr. Levy sees the flash of the iron menorah swing upward in a swift, powerful arc and whips out his hand to stop it from crashing down on his skull.
Mavis flies at him, and for one insane second Dr. Levy thinks of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. The dog begins to growl and snarl, showing its teeth. Mavis hurls the menorah at Rosie’s head, but it misses, bouncing off her back. Enraged by the blow, she leaps up on the bed and lunges, her teeth sinking into Mavis Potter’s throat.
“No!” Dr. Levy grabs Rosie’s studded collar and pulls, pulls.
“Let her go! Release! Release!”
Mavis goes limp and slides onto the floor, her body slack as a sawdust doll.
Rosie licks Dr. Levy’s face, whining softly, her stump twitching. He can smell the blood on her chops.
In two seconds, he overcomes the visceral churning in his abdomen and snaps into professional mode, in complete control of the situation. He calls 9-1-1, grabs his medical kit and begins to suture up the ragged puncture wounds in Mavis Potter’s throat.
A new identity is kind of like a new shirt: nice to look at, even impressive, but a bit scratchy and stiff, you have to wear it for a while, spill a little food on it, sweat in it, and put it through the wash enough times to soften it down so that it fits the individual contours of your body.
In a psychiatric ward on the other side of Vancouver, Mavis Potter refuses to remove a certain red shirt. In fact she refuses a lot of things, she won’t eat, she won’t talk, she won’t cooperate with the authorities, and she is barely sleeping, in spite of powerful doses of antipsychotic medication.
Vester has no idea about Mavis, but he does know that something’s up with Dr. Levy, he didn’t look very well at the last session, like he hadn’t been sleeping or something, his face sunken, his eyes glassy with fatigue.
But Vester has a new worry now: he hasn’t seen Aggie for more than a week. She’s just not answering, not answering his knock, the special one-two-three (pause), four-five knock that’s strictly their own. Is she holed up in there, depressed? Things aren’t going well for her right now, she can’t see her kids, and Christmas is always hard on depressives, it’s the final straw for a lot of them. But New Year’s comes and goes, and she still doesn’t answer. A hard knot of apprehension gathers in his stomach, and he wonders what to do next.
There’s no one to call, because Aggie doesn’t really have anybody. The social worker who treats her with such disdain isn’t exactly an ally, though she is supposed to be part of her “community support system”. In fact, Aggie never even refers to her by name.
Finally, on January 7, he goes and talks to Mrs. Strauss, the landlady. She looks concerned. Ah yes, Aggie, zis lady vith ze collections, no, no, I haven’t zeen her, haven’t zeen her in long time, vee maybe check?
Vester’s insides are churning with anxiety as they mount the stairs to Aggie’s apartment. He prays they won’t find something horrible inside.
The door creaks open; the air is completely still. The apartment looks normal, normal for Aggie that is, crammed with clutter, collections of this and that, knickknacks and bric-a-brac, china figurines of ladies in big skirts, bamboo bird cages with no birds in them, salt and pepper shakers shaped like people, old Pez dispensers of Disney characters, a bride doll that looks nearly new, and of course the Sebastian cylinders, all stacked up in a neat pyramid that gives Vester the creeps.
“Vhat are zese?”
“Uh. . . recordings. Aggie’s quite a collector.”
“No, these are spoken word.”
He plucks the top one off the pyramid and loads it on.
Noise, noise, noise.
Hiss, crackle, pop-tick, pop-tick, whumpita, whumpita, whumpita, noise and only noise, and no voice on it, no voice at all.
He tries another cylinder.
More of the same.
Vester and Mrs. Strauss look at each other.
He plays through enough cylinders to convince himself.
“There’s nothing on these,” he says. “They’re just blanks.”
“Yes. It is puzzle. Vhy she listen to zese?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Vee call police?”
“Maybe we should.”
The police seem suspicious, and keep asking him probing questions, as if he had something to do with the disappearance. They assume he’s the boyfriend, always the first suspect. It’s profoundly uncomfortable, but Aggie’s his best friend in the whole world, he has to try to help her any way he can. He even tells the cops about the cylinders, and they look at him as if he’s the crazy one. And it’s true, it’s a pretty bizarre story, sounds strange even to him.
Maybe she. . . went away? Where would she go? She has no relatives that she ever speaks of. And no other friends. Maybe she. . .no. It’s not possible. He shuts out the thought as too crazy even to contemplate.
Vester feels sick with apprehension and dread, for when a woman disappears from the Downtown Eastside, it’s always the worst kind of news.
The fatigue is immense, pressing down on him so hard he can barely drag his body in to work on the Monday after Christmas.
But something tells him he needs to be there. He can’t get any rest anyway, his sleep is shattered, the appearance of the crazy woman in his bedroom has flipped a switch somewhere deep in his brain, and he can’t let himself slide into merciful oblivion.
There’s a long lineup of patients to see today. Minor aches and pains, most of them triggered by loneliness and depression. This time of year is particularly vicious and inhuman for the wandering strange, who seem to feel everyone else is having a wonderful time, their lives brimming over with good fortune, fellowship and love.
Then near the end of an exhausting day, three women suddenly burst into his office, their arms linked, joined together like a chain of paper dolls. Correction: three girls, as none of them looks much older than about seventeen.
In the middle of the chain is a hugely pregnant girl, her face contorted with pain and terror. She is flanked on either side by two professionals (their costume is unmistakeable), forming a kind of escort.
“She’s having it now,” says the red-haired girl on the left.
“Yeah. Like, right now. We can see the head.”
“Fuck,” the pregnant girl moans. “Ohhhh, fuck. . .”
“It’s okay, don’t be scared, I’ll take care of you,” Dr. Levy tells her, summoning up reassurance from a pit of exhaustion. “Take her in here and we’ll get her undressed.”
“Shit!” The pregnant girl leaves a trail of bloody fluid on the floor. The doctor knows that birth is immanent, in fact he can smell it already, and will not be held off much longer.
She barely gets a chance to settle herself down on the examining table before the entire head pops through. She screams and screams, and her friends try to calm her down, stroking her hair, telling her it’s OK, it’s OK, she’s safe now, the doctor is here, and she’s going to see her baby pretty soon, isn’t that awesome? Dr. Levy takes the infant’s dark wet head in his hands and waits for the next contraction. With a deep, growling roar, the girl bears down hugely, and the wet little body slithers out of her and into the doctor’s hands.
“It’s a boy,” Dr. Levy says.
“Sandy! A boy! A boy!”
“Oh God, oh God, oh God,” Sandy whimpers.
“Let me see.”
“This is just so awesome!”
“He looks good.” The infant is surprisingly strong, with a high Apgar score. He guesses this isn’t a prostitute, in spite of her choice of friends. She seems too robust for that, and the baby is in great shape, eight pounds seven ounces of vibrant health.
He lays the infant on Sandy’s abdomen. She gazes at him in complete absorption and awe.
“Do you have a name for him?”
“Yeah. I think I’ll call him Anton.”
“Unusual name, for this part of the world. Is it in the family?”
“Yeah. You might say so.”
“Great. Look, Sandy, I’m going to get an ambulance for you now to take you over to VGH. But everything looks fine, Anton’s in really good shape. You must have taken good care of yourself.”
“My Mum helped me.”
“Good. Can she help you look after him now?”
“I guess so.”
“Because it’s really important that you have some practical support. A new baby is a big responsibility.”
“I know that.”
“Are you in touch with the father?”
“On and off. I don’t see him very often. I used to hang with him, but I couldn’t take it any more. He’s gone into rehab, I think. I wanted to get married.” Her face contorts with grief, and the red-haired hooker strokes her cheek.
“Bastard,” mutters the other hooker.
“One thing at a time. If he does get clean, see if you can get him on-side, because you’re going to need some emotional support as well.” The doctor scrubs at the sink, feeling the surge of elation he always experiences after a healthy birth.
Anton roots instinctively for his mother’s nipple. Sandy is amazed: “Look, he’s nursing already! Isn’t that great?”
“God, Sandy, are you ever lucky.”
“Yeah, I know.”
She watches Dr. Levy washing up at the sink, humming happily to himself. Oblivious. All she has ever heard are nasty remarks about him, about his heartlessness. But already she likes him, likes him a lot. She thinks he’s a decent man, he just didn’t know how to handle a family all those years ago, it was too much for him and he had no one to turn to.
As the ambulance workers bundle her onto the stretcher with her newborn son, Dr. Levy says to her, “I have a favourite quote. Do you want to hear it?”
“Sure, what is it?”
“It’s by Carl Sandburg, the famous American poet: ‘A baby is God’s way of insisting that the world continue.’”
“I like that. I think I’ll write it down.”
“Good luck, Sandy. Keep in touch.”
“I will. Thanks, Dr. Levy.”
He watches the ambulance go, grateful that he dragged himself in to work that day to be part of it, this relentlessly lifeward, crazy insistence.