Monday, August 29, 2016

A tribute to Gene Wilder: Young Frankenstein gifs!

We lost Gene Wilder today, and I am pretty much inconsolable. This is all I can think of to do.

These are just a few of my hundred or so fave moments from Young Frankenstein. Everything about this movie worked, and as funny as it is, it's also more romantic than Casablanca ("Taffeta, darling"). But the main reason it worked was its leading man.

Best spit-take in history. 

Masculine in mascara.

"Give my creation. . . LIFE!"

"Three syllables. . . sounds like. . . "


"No matter what happens. . . don't open that door!"

"Abby somebody.  Abby. . .  Normal."

"I love him"

"Put. . . the candle. . . back."

"IT!. . . COULD! . . . WORK!!"

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside PART FOUR

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

Part Four

"No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night." Elie Wiesel


Make way for Szabó; make way, look out, for he’s flailing his stick.

He’s flailing his stick on the way to the bus stop, to catch the Number 42 which will take him to his particular station – his station in life, he thinks wryly. So this is what it has come to. A begging spot, reserved just for him, and it’s true, everyone else stays away, the buskers, the panhandlers, the hookers and the scam artists and the terminally confused, all give Szabó a wide berth because there is something just a little bit intimidating about a man who has no face.

“Mum, why does that man – “

“Shh, don’t – “


“Please, Meggie.”

“Mum. Why does he have a blanket over his head? It looks weird.”

“Shh, Meggie. It’s not polite.”

“It’s freaky-looking. Mum!”

“I don’t know, Meggie, let’s just get on the bus now, sit down over here on the sideways seats, come on now, you like the sideways seats.” Pulling her away from the strange-looking, draped figure who finds his way up the bus steps as if by a kind of primitive radar.

Not that he never falls. He falls a lot, actually. And he has run right into objects, telephone poles and doors and walls and full-length plate-glass windows. But that is nothing compared to being chased: this has happened to him too. He is chased by clusters of young men out for sport, needing to inflict terror on someone, anyone, even a blind old man with no face.

He remembers seeing The Elephant Man years ago, watching the tortured, deformed cripple John Merrick flee the thugs who chased him into an alley and cornered him. He remembers the strangled cry, wrenched from the depths of his being: “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” Little did he know when he was watching the film that this would become his silent motto. He can’t say it; he can’t say anything, in fact. He will never say anything again. But he feels it. He feels it every day.

The bus seethes with humanity, all the people who cannot afford to own and operate a car, or are afraid or unable or unwilling to learn to drive. Cars are a social symbol, so not having one is like a reverse badge of honour, of dishonour maybe? Certainly, it speaks of a certain lack of power. The air is heavy with the rich funk of the seldom-washed. The bus has an unaffectionate, too-accurate nickname: the Loser Cruiser. Those on the Loser Cruiser know they are looked down upon, they’re even a notch below the Skytrain crowd, where it’s easier to practice fare evasion. Here, the driver watches you with an eagle eye.

The Loser Cruiser crowd is so marginalized, so glued to the very bottom of the social totem pole, that once there was a four-month-long bus strike, no transportation available at all, just nothing, and nobody even batted an eyelash. It was allowed to go on for seventeen endless weeks, with no political will to stop it, because who cares about a bunch of elderly ladies and mental patients anyway? When the strike finally ended, at the expense of a great number of small businesses who relied on bus people to stay alive, the transit company, in an act of unparalleled generosity, gave everyone a free ride for two days. There were quite a few old people and handicapped people and mentally ill people who hadn’t been out of their apartments in literally months, but they were grateful, grateful that someone remembered them at last.

Bert Moffatt runs a pretty tight ship, doesn’t put up with any crap on his bus. He has even put off little old ladies before, well, not just any little old lady, but that infernal pain in the ass, Isobel Chaston, the terror of town council meetings all over the Lower Mainland. This woman is a professional disrupter. Calling herself a “dissident”, trying to get on the bus with a week-old transfer, then spewing random abuse at anyone she happens to dislike the looks of, groups of teenagers usually, whom she hates on sight or on principle, just abusing them willy-nilly, or fastening herself, lamprey-like, on to anyone she can victimize with her latest haranguing complaint. No thanks, Mrs. Chaston, you’re out of here, I don’t care if you did run for Mayor of Port Moody last year and got 337 votes, you’re too disruptive a presence to board this bus, period.

When Szabó gets on, which he does every morning at just about the same time, Bert keeps his mental high-beams on, watching for trouble. Trouble swirls around Szabó, even though he does nothing to cause it, he just appears, is there, unwhole, strange, scary, Halloween-ish, an affront. Usually nothing actually happens, but it threatens to. The atmosphere changes when he boards, the level of tension rises palpably, and the weird get weirder, like he carries a full moon around with him or something. The man is unsettling, he looks so strange with that blanket over his head, and besides that, he sings sometimes, and it’s a disturbing thing to hear it.

“Mum. Why is that man – “

“Shh, Meggie.”

“It’s weird. I can’t see his face.”

“I don’t know, sweetheart. Oh, look, there’s the Tilley store where Daddy got his expensive new hat.”

“Mum. I don’t want to sit here.”

“It’s OK, honey, we’re fine, just look out the window.”

Szabó absorbs all this. Like sphagnum moss, like blotting paper, he absorbs a lot every day. Sitting on a street corner begging was never in the plans for his life, it happened by default, an utter humiliation. Complete defeat. He started off with huge ambitions, he was going to set the art world ablaze, he was going to prove his father wrong once and for all, become a huge success, make piles of money, and instead a random act of destruction ended it all before it even began, some asshole casually set his life’s work on fire and destroyed it in an act of deliberate malice. It was then that everything toppled, his top-heavy ambition going down like a great tree. He can’t see, can’t speak, can function only with difficulty, and has a host of medical problems. Can’t digest anything: who could digest the ugly, slimy glop that passes through the feeding tube every day? Can you blame him for spiking it with a little wood alcohol to make it more palatable? Can’t sleep: who could sleep, with no future? What can he dream about now? You can imagine what his dreams are like, worse than anything John Merrick could have imagined. At least John Merrick was adopted by the upper class as a kind of dignified, ugly mascot. He’s lucky to have a roof over his head, he’s better off than many people, he still has his wits, though he is not sure that’s a blessing, but it’s a struggle, a constant struggle to scrape together enough funds every day just to keep himself going. When he gets off at his usual stop on East Hastings Street right across from Pigeon Park and finds his way to his station, he almost physically bumps into someone, except that the someone darts out of the way at the last second, being quick on his feet.

The someone is Dr. Levy, on his usual hustle to get to an overdose, no, correction, to a human being who has suffered an overdose. Let it never happen, that awful terminology, the cold labels that keep feelings safely away. He is on his way to help someone, if he can, if he is in time and he doesn’t find a corpse in the cluttered upstairs room that is like every other cluttered upstairs room in this part of the city, tattered old Christmas ornaments hung amongst the junk. And he has seen Szabó before, he knows the story, or enough of it.

He jumps out of the way at the last second. Then says to him, in Hungarian: That was a close one. But I saw you in time.

Szabó’s head snaps up.

He can’t answer, of course. But he has heard his mother tongue for the first time in a long time, and can’t help but respond in some primal part of himself.

Dr. Levy touches him on the shoulder.

“Szabó. Come see me sometime, okay? You know where my office is.”

Then speeds on to his destination, hoping to salvage another life, or buy some time at least, stave off the end for another day in case the miracle happens, the miracle of walking free. He has seen it happen, it’s not impossible, he has seen people recover from a seemingly hopeless condition, and never writes anyone off. Even without the miracle, there is the inherent value of being alive for one more day, even fucked by drugs and a shattered immune system. He keeps on saying it every day, like a broken record: life has value; you have value – in hopes of undoing the effects of the blistering damage that puts people here in the asshole of Vancouver, down among the wandering strange.


Mavis Potter doesn’t really belong down here, she’s just visiting. Most of the time she’s on her way over to the Tinseltown Theatre at Pender and Abbott, they show pretty good films there for a reasonable price, it’s comfortable seating, a great theatre in fact, too bad it has to be in such a lousy location, because to get there she has to walk through the more wounded parts of the city, trying to curb her fascination.

She’s a tourist down here, she is sure of it. Takes the bus, yes, because she’s always been phobic about driving, but she doesn’t like to talk about it, it’s just not something she is prepared to learn at her age, what with the way people drive around here, she’s not prejudiced or anything but they should learn to drive in the Canadian way, and besides, she’d rather support transit and go green, it’s one of the things she lives by.

Mavis writes poetry about this strange substratum of unhappy wanderers, and in order for the work to reflect reality, she needs to take mental notes. Her bus from the comfortable suburbs of Port Coquitlam takes her past a lot of familiar landmarks every day: the big Italian supermarket on East Hastings, window hung with cheeses and mammoth sausage, the Brave Bull’s House of Steaks (and that must be one brave bull, Mavis thinks to herself, to be rendered into steaks), the Golden Lucky Convenience Store with its “cigerattes, magezine and flower”, People’s United Church which sort of leans out into the street like a person earnestly intending to do good, the big brown dome of the library at Hastings and Main which acts as a sort of magnet for the citizens of the street, pawnshops, more pawnshops, the Regency, the Emperor, the Patterson, the Wilton, the Hemp Store, the Amsterdam Cafe, the Ovaltine, the Balmoral, the Liberty Market, a country music pub with a demented-looking cowboy painted on the outside, and the old Woodbury’s department store that everyone keeps bickering about, what shall we do with all this space, housing for the poor or an upscale boutique, which shall it be, hmmmm, let me see, which is more important, while outside the building at a certain sacred spot at the corner sits a stout elderly black lady in a straw hat handing out religious pamphlets to everyone who passes by.

She never pitches her spiel to Mavis, however, just ignores her as if she doesn’t exist, as if she isn’t even there, and Mavis has tried to figure this out. Maybe she has decided she’s beyond redemption?

This will all go into a poem one day, an epic poem that is going to transport Mavis Potter from relative obscurity (one children’s book ten years ago that sold rather poorly; a dozen or so poems in university-sponsored literary magazines read mainly by its contributors) to some kind of prominence. A GG award, maybe. Prominence is the wrong word, it’s recognition she is after, or affirmation, maybe that’s an even better word, yes, just a little acknowledgement of how hard she has worked over the past twenty years, all the effort and struggle, and all the rejection endured.

Every once in a while Mavis is lucky, and there is a Dr. Levy sighting. She has been following his career with a certain fascination since she read a long article about him in the Granville Gazette, his grim-looking mug on the cover, as if it would kill him to smile. She read with interest that he doesn’t have time for a relationship, it all goes into the work, and she wonders what the real story is there, because she knows that even detached people need people to be detached from. There’s something there that he isn’t saying, some severance. There were people in his life at one point, she’s certain of it. She likes to get a glimpse of his woeful countenance as he strides from hotel to hotel in the swarming streets, head down in a kind of determined, forward charge. She could never do it, she could never watch heroin addicts slowly die of their disease, never brook the unfathomable despair. And yet, and yet. There is a certain energy down here. She feels it as only an outsider can feel it, a wild energy that is kind of addictive, you get a little taste of it and you just want more. Mavis thinks of reasons to come down here, to visit the big Dressy fabric store with its thousands of bolts of cloth, rainbow zippers and every conceivable type of trim, or to see movies she could just as easily rent when they come out on DVD, or just to stroll. She can’t quite admit this to herself, but she likes the risk. She likes the elevated pulse, the little rush of adrenaline when she dodges another aggressive panhandler or steps over a sprawled body.

Charles doesn’t know about this, and that is part of the appeal. As far as Charles is concerned, she’s over at Terry Fox Library doing research, or the Coquitlam Centre mall having a coffee, or visiting a friend.

Charles doesn’t have a clue, because his head is so far up his own ass, he cannot see the light of day.

“Hey lady.” Mavis’s head jerks up. Here comes one now.

“Hey lady. Spare some change.” It’s a statement, not a question, but Mavis is prepared. She breaks eye contact and begins to walk rapidly towards Abbott. The panhandler shadows her, and Mavis’s heart begins to accelerate wildly. She flushes, she feels a hot flash coming on, a big one, a huge upflashing of intense heat, and bears down hard on the pavement, walking faster and faster until she finally loses the panhandler at the corner.

Sweat breaks out all over her body, and she lets out a long, deep, shuddering sigh.


Portman Hotel
September 30, 2003

Oh man, it was cool getting my hands on the Edison Bannerfront Standard, even though I was right, it’s not working, it’s pretty much wrecked, and Porgy is taking his good old time getting it fixed. He tinkers and tinkers away with his concentration face on, kind of like a baby having a bowel movement, it’s adorable to look at. I guess I shouldn’t say bowel movement around Porgy, he’s obsessed enough already. I keep trying to get him to see Dr. Levy, he went a couple of times a few months ago and made a bit of a start, but I think Levy wanted to talk about the foster homes, and that’s something Porgy just won’t talk about or even think about. I know Dr. Levy would be able to help him, and I keep working on him, I won’t give up, he’s my best friend in the whole world and deserves better than the sad little life he has right now, barely able to go outside.

So I’m going to have to wait a while longer to hear all these cylinders I bought. They’re nearly a hundred years old, so what’s a few more weeks? Along with the Edison Blue Amberols, there are a bunch of odd-looking miscellaneous ones made of brown wax, probably really old, like 1890s or something, with no labels on them at all. I have no idea what’s on them. I also found an old brochure, all yellow and crumbling apart, and it said, “The Edison Blue Amberol Record is Mr. Edison’s latest development of the four-minute record. The term ‘four-minute’ is used because the record has a playing length of from four to four and one-half minutes when compositions are long enough to fill it.” Brilliant, eh? No wonder they called Edison a genius, he had it all figured out. My guess is that back then, people weren’t as sophisticated as they are now, and maybe they needed things spelled out. Maybe they were just a little bit intimidated by all this new technology, human voices issuing out of boxes like magic. The old silent films are kind of like that, everything really exaggerated, and the subtitles staying on the screen for a couple of minutes, long enough for a preschooler to sound them out.

“It is intended that every Blue Amberol shall be a gem,” the brochure goes on to explain, “the kind of record that its possessor will want to play three hundred and sixty-five times each year and keep forever.” Forever didn’t last very long, however, as I found out the playback process often produced shavings, and you can imagine the deterioration of the sound, which is already all buggered up by surface noise and that strange “ta-whumpita, whumpita” sound every cylinder recording seems to make.

Good old Edison, he was both ahead of his time and behind it, almost retarded in certain ways, because while he was busy improving the cylinder to make it sound better and wear longer, a guy over in Europe named Emile Berliner had already invented the playable disc. It was like Beta versus VHS for a while, quite a while in fact, all the way into the 1920s, and the two technologies existed side-by-side for such a long time because Edison was just too stubborn to relent. I mean, whoever heard of a compact cylinder? Berliner’s basic idea still has plenty of spin to it, if you know what I mean.

Then there was the Edison Talking Doll, another bright idea that never got off the ground. It had a little tiny cylinder player embedded inside its body, which was made of metal so it must have weighed something like fifteen pounds, and you played it by turning a crank sticking out of its back. But the technology was so primitive – this was, like, 1890 or something, some 70 years before the Chatty Cathy doll – the voice gave out after only a few cranks, and people brought the dolls back by the hundreds, feeling ripped off that they’d paid something like twenty dollars, a huge sum back then, for a talking doll that didn’t work. The dolls creep me out anyway, I’ve seen pictures of them, their eyes are all sunken and staring like really old dolls’ eyes always go, reminding me of people over a hundred years old whose faces just sort of cave in with extreme age. And the sound of the talking doll is freaky – you can’t make out any words, it’s like listening to Florence Nightingale on some historic old cylinder from the Crimean War or something, just a syrupy girlish-sounding garble with no meaning you can make out. Edison himself hated the dolls, and said “the voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear”.

So I guess you’re wondering where I’m getting all this stuff about cylinders, all this Edisonia. It’s Porgy, naturally, and his internet fixation. He seems to have found approximately one thousand and fifty-nine cylinder recordings on the ‘net, including a site called that even has a Cylinder of the Month! Who knew?

“Porg. What’s this site you’ve got here?” I’m leaning over his shoulder this morning and trying to see what he’s clicking around in.

“Oh this is a good one, Ag. It’s got real old stuff, like, the very first playable recording ever made – want to hear it?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Somehow I know this is going to freak me right out, worse than the Wibbly Wobbly Walk even, but I just have to hear it, I have to.

“It’s from 1878, ten years before the cylinder player went commercial. It was recorded on a piece of lead.”

“No shit?” (Maybe that was the wrong term.)

“Yeah, a lead cylinder. Far out, eh? A guy named Frank Lambert rigged it up as a kind of experimental talking clock.”

“A what?”

“You have to hear it to believe it.”

So he downloads the thing, which takes a couple of minutes because his computer is a piece of shit, and already I’m having an anxiety attack like you wouldn’t believe. Dr. Levy would tell me to take deep breaths, to ride it out. So I take the deep breaths, and it doesn’t help very much.

Then there’s a hiss and a crackle, and this “ta-whumpa, ta-whumpa, ta-whumpa” sound, except it’s really really loud, almost violent, and underneath that the most ungodly noise you ever heard, like a cat being strangled.

“That’s human speech,” says Porgy, his eyes shining with excitement.

“No it’s not. It’s an animal being killed, or at least systematically tortured.”

“It’s just a little distorted. This is really primitive technology, Ag. Oh, listen to this part. You can actually hear the words.”

From 126 years in the past, the wavering, impossibly distant voice of Frank Lambert begins to speak.

“Four o’clock. . . five o’clock. . . six o’clock. . .seven o’clock. . .”


“Far out, eh?”


“Eight o’clock. . . nine o’clock. . . eleven o’clock. . .twelve o’clock. . . “

“He missed ten o’clock.”

“Yeah, I know. It says on the web site that he was a recent immigrant.”

“They can’t tell time?”

“Here’s another one. This’ll blow you away. It’s the first music ever recorded, I mean ever-ever, in 1888. It’s from a Handel opera, Israel in Egypt, recorded in Crystal Palace, London, England. It says in the notes it’s ‘a chorus of 4000 voices recorded with phonograph over 100 yards away.’ “

“Four thousand?”

“That’s what it says. Four thousand people all gathered around a horn.”

“Far out. Okay, let’s hear it.”

I shut my eyes.

Again, the whumpa-whumpa-whumpa, only it’s more of a wisha-wisha-wisha this time, like stiff fabric being rustled together, going faster, then slower, then faster – obviously someone was cranking the machine by hand, and not very evenly either.

Then, just barely noticeable under all that dreadful surface noise, the most ghostly sound I’ve ever heard. Just recognizable as human, and it’s Handel, make no mistake about it, the cadences and chords are there, I remember them from listening to Messiah on my father’s old records when I was a kid. I look down at my arms and see that all the hairs are standing up.

“Porgy. We’ve found it.”

“Yeah, you’re right. It’s a time machine.”

“I’m there.”

“Yeah. . . “

“All those thousands of people crowded together around the phonograph horn, and the guy cranking and cranking. . . “
“I wonder if they knew. I mean, that it would last this long.”

“I wonder.” I feel a little strange, almost unreal.

“Hey. Speaking of making history. You want to hear Brahms play the piano?”

This was the historic Brahms Cylinder, and there’s all sorts of controversy about whether or not it’s authentic, whether it’s really Johannes Brahms playing a Hungarian dance on the piano. Somebody made a bogus Chopin recording a few years ago, such a convincing fake that even musicologists bought it. So who knows if it’s real or not. At the beginning there’s this guy with a squeaky voice shouting, “I am Doktor Brrrrrahms!” Well, it could be a fake, I am sure Brahms didn’t go around speaking English or calling himself a doctor, and the piano-playing, what I can hear of it, is pretty dreadful, surely Johannes Brahms would be able to play better than that. But it still gives me that creepy, enjoyably scared feeling, like I’m literally entering another time.

At the end of the listening session, I was just exhausted, and Porgy was too, but we smiled at each other, pleased that we were in this thing together. It’s like a kind of magic, a summoning of energy from more than a hundred years ago, a time capsule, “sound archaeology” unfolding moment by moment in what we so strangely call “real time”.

If it’s this powerful listening to these things on the internet, filtered through high technology, just think what it’s going to be like when Porgy finally gets my player going and we can listen to my Edison Blue Amberols as they were meant to be played, shavings and all.

Bus People Part One

Bus People Part Two

Bus People Part Three

Bus People Part Four

Bus People Part Five

Bus People Part Six

Bus People Part Seven

Bus People Part Eight

Bus People Part Nine

Bus People Part Ten

Bus People Part Eleven

Bus People Part Twelve