Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside PART SEVEN

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 Seven

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


Mavis Potter likes to take a camera and stroll the streets of Zeddyville, snapping this, snapping that; a grizzled old homeless man, his pants such a miserable fit that he’s forced to hold them up with one hand; an emaciated hooker, body so wasted it looks like a rack of bones, sweating and fidgeting for an overdue fix; an offended tourist (“not my picture! I don’t belong here”). She loves to snap the murals, gory and gaudy and gang-marked, the violent graffiti, the strange signs (“Is It A Crime To Be Homeless?”), including her favourite sign of all, right there in the very asshole of Vancouver: 000 Hastings Street.

Zero, zero, zero. . . there’s those zeds again, she thinks to herself, adjusting her wool cap, a new accoutrement to her bag-lady persona. She started off badly, almost like a Downtown Eastside version of Carol Burnett, too cuddly and respectable-looking in her woollen layers to be believable at all. Then one day she hacked holes in the sweaters and ripped at them, forcing the fibres apart with her bare hands like she was tearing at flesh. The enjoyment she derived from this shocked her a little, but it did not stop her.

Mavis licks her lips, cracked and chapped, without lipstick or even Chapstick, for that would interfere with the Look. She hasn’t worn makeup in months, and her hair – her hair is beginning to smell, and looks so bad she has to keep her head covered with a scarf when she’s not “out”.

Zero, zero, zero. Almost a cliché, she thinks to herself (snap). Zee, zee, zee, or is it Ground Zero, or is it more of an “ooo”. . . the “ooo” of withdrawal, of I need a fix cause I’m goin’ down (like in that Beatles song she never understood).

Mavis wants to bag a big one today, but is not sure she’ll be able to pull it off. The trophy she’s after, the amputated animal head she wants to mount on the wall of her study at home, is the head of Dr. Zoltán Levy. Bring me the head of Zoltán Levy; bring it to me indeed, stare-eyed and blank-faced on a charger, surrounded with sprigs of parsley! But like most big game, he never appears when he is supposed to. (Snap. Fuck off, lady. Get out of my face. Oh, sorry. I thought you were someone else.)

Charles saw some of the photos, and in his mild studious way, his mild studious way that hides the heart of an absolute asshole, he asked her, “Mavie, what’s this?”

“Oh. . . just some shots I took for a project I’m working on.”

“This?” Pictures of spent syringes, a pool of vomit, a dead rat beside an overflowing garbage can, a passed-out man, another passed-out man, an aged Native face seamed by weather and wood alcohol, a hooker, another hooker, another hooker. . .

“I’m doing a book.”

“Some book.” That mild, quizzical look. Charles Potter’s students thought he resembled a big, ruffly brown owl. The owl fucks his students, unfortunately, fucks them blind, lures them with poems and promises and leaves them spinning around on their ass on icy black pavement.

“It’s a departure for me, yes. Downtown Eastside images, to illustrate a cycle of poems.”

“Really. You go there?”

“Only to do research.”

Professor Potter clears his throat and goes back to his papers, the grades in direct proportion to how much sex he gets from each of them. Cunnilingus? B+, maybe. Blow job? A-minus. All the way up the ass, with leather pants, a riding crop and spurs? A+. Or so Mavis imagines, when she thinks about it at all, for it’s easier for her to just lose herself on these streets and forget that she is married to anyone.

Mavis thinks she sees him. Quivering, she jerks the camera up to her face. But it’s not, it’s not him, it’s some other dark Ashkenazic-looking face, a poor substitute, just some schlub who happened to wander in front of her camera, and her heart plummets like a shot sparrow, dead feathers hitting the sidewalk with a sickening thunk.

She will get her photograph of Dr. Levy if it takes her a month of perseverence. She has started to do a little investigating about his habits, there are ways of finding out. She already knows where he lives. She knows he has a Rottweiller named Rosie, she’s seen him out for his little walks with her in the evening. She knows he likes a dark beer now and then, has even glimpsed him in the Jolly Taxpayer wiping foam off his upper lip. Women she’s not so sure of, but there was somebody, she is sure of it. She’ll find out. Who and when and where. Details. She hoards them, sorts them, shuffles them lovingly, and pastes them in her ever-growing scrapbook of Zoltánia, exotica, paper dolls made of cutout magazine-photos that she toys with, turning them over lovingly in her hands.


Porgy is fascinated. For he has found out that it’s not just an internet myth: it really is true what they said about Elvis.

Maybe the 60 pounds of impacted fecal material was a bit of an exaggeration, but when he found the report, the actual Elvis autopsy report, on a site called The King is Dead: Long Live the King!, he was gratified to read that Presley’s colon was indeed choked with masses of undigested deep-fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, burnt bacon and Moon Pies.

Elvis did not take a crap for at least ten years. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the autopsy report, which Porgy reads with rapt fascination:

“The colon is approximately five to seven feet in length in a person Elvis’s size and should have been about two inches in diameter. . . however, Elvis’s colon was at least three and a half inches in diameter in some places and as large as four and a half to five inches in diameter in others. . . (T)he megacolon was jam-packed from the base of the descending colon all the way up and halfway across the transverse colon. It was filled with white, chalklike fecal material.”

Like a lot of drug addicts, Elvis just stopped going to the bathroom at a certain point, and everything backed up like a sewer. Peristalsis ground to a halt, his colon blew up like an enormous bratwurst, and he couldn’t pass anything but the odd rabbit pellet. Didn’t he die on the toilet? It’s enough to send Porgy back to the purging pills and potions.

“Sylvester,” Dr. Levy says to him at their last little session, “you’re in danger of doing serious harm to yourself. There’s nothing wrong with your colon, I’ve examined you, it’s completely normal. You’re not all bunged up with shit like my heroin patients. So why do you do it?”

“Ah, I dunno,” he says, bashful, ashamed. “Makes me feel better.”

“But why? You’re going to develop a dependency on those pills. Pretty soon you won’t be able to take a normal crap without them.”

Dr. Levy leans into him, gazes at him with his penetrating dark eyes.

“Why, Sylvester?”

“Ah, I just. . . “ He looks at the ceiling, then the floor. “It’s just that I feel so. . . guilty.”

Guilt Dr. Levy knows about. Guilt he absorbed with his mother’s milk. He ate it and drank it and slept with it and breathed it for more years than he cares to admit.


“Doc, why you call me that?”

“Because it’s your name. And you just told me you hate being called Porgy.”

“I do. It’s a nigger name.” He looks up from his floorward stare to gauge Dr. Levy’s reaction to the word.

He says it again.


Dr. Levy looks at him, unflinching, unblinking.

“Nigger, nigger, nigger.”

Dr. Levy doesn’t move.

“Did anyone ever call you that, Sylvester?”

“Did anyone ever call me that.” He looks up at the ceiling. “Did anyone ever call me that.”

“You’re angry.”

“No I’m not.”

“Angry feelings can turn into guilty feelings, Sylvester, especially if we don’t express them.”

“Doc, why you call – “

“Because it’s your name, Sylvester. You have a name, a real actual name your mother and father gave you. You don’t have to go by that awful handle they gave you in high school.”

“I was fat.”

“Did you try to lose weight?”

“I took laxatives.”

“Sylvester.” Dr. Levy looks a little weary. “You don’t have to do this to yourself any more. It’s unhealthy, and an abusive way to treat your body.”

“But I feel like shit.”

“That doesn’t mean you are shit.”

“I feel like it.”

“You’re a human being, Sylvester, a unique individual. In all of human history, there has never been anyone else exactly like you.”

“Good for human history.”

Dr. Levy smiles a bit. Porgy feels a warm flush rise in his face, a good feeling.

“There’s only one of you, Sylvester, you’re absolutely unique, and you have value and worth, just like every other human being on the face of the planet.”

“Even Saddam Hussein?”

“Look, Sylvester, I don’t know why some people turn evil. It’s beyond me. I only know you’re not. There’s a sweetness about you, a goodness. It’s time you started treating yourself like you mattered.”

He doesn’t want to cry, but feels like crying anyway, big baby that he is. He wants Dr. Levy to wrap him up in a warm fuzzy blanket, kiss his forehead, take him home.

“Doc,” he says, his voice a bit choked.

“Yes, Sylvester.”

“Can I ask you a favour?”

“Name it.”

“Can you call me Sly?”

“I’ll call you whatever you want to be called.”

“It’s just that. . . you know, Sly Stallone is so cool. And Sylvester, it just sounds too much like a cat.”

“Yes, I’ll call you Sly, on one condition, that you stop taking all those capsules. You’re going to perforate your colon if you don’t watch out. Promise?”

“I promise.” He knows he’s lying, but he has to agree to it or Dr. Levy will never let him out of here.

“I want to see you in a week.”

“Sure thing.”

“Try to go a week without purging.”



“Yeah, doc.”

“I want you to think of ten good things about yourself.”


“Work on it. See you in a week. Now get out of here.”

On the way out the door of the Portman, he notices he feels different: less guilty, and somehow lighter, his head full of the rarefied helium of hope.

The bus

The people on the bus go up and down. Up and down. Up and down.

Bert Moffatt notices a difference in them today. They’re restless; antsy. He doesn’t see Szabó. Something is definitely out of whack here, as Szabó always gets on at the same time every day. Where his he? Is he all right?

But Aggie’s here, looking preoccupied, kind of like she’s on a mission or something. She gets on with that half-black boy, what’s his name, Porky or something, nice kid but always looks a little lost, like Aggie has to lead him around by the hand. He always looks terrified on the bus.

Today it’s different, for some reason she’s calling him by a new name, but keeps breaking into giggles.

“Sly. I can’t get used to it, Porg.”

“But I hate my name. Porgy. It’s a slave name. Besides, Dr. Levy says. . .”

“You saw Levy?”

“Yeah.” Porgy/Sly looks a little uncomfortable, but pleased too. “I saw him. I’m s’posed to think of ten good things about myself.”

“Sounds like him. He’s always going on and on about how we’re all unique and irreplaceable. . .”

“He told you that?” Disappointment clouds his face. He looks like a slighted child, shut out of a circle game. He thought maybe he was the only one.

“Oh, don’t worry, he means it, Porg. I mean, Sly. Is that really your name?”

“Well, kind of.”

“So. Ten things.”

“Yeah, ten. I’m kind of getting stuck on one.”

“You’re Porgy; you’re Porgy; you’re Porgy. . .”

“But I’m not Porgy, Ag, I’m Sylvester. My father named me after a Graham cracker.”

“No shit.” Aggie sees she has hurt him. “Sorry. . . Sly. It just takes some getting used to, is all.”

“Yeah, well, I’m brown like a Graham cracker, so what can you expect.”

“So. Ten things. I can think of a few right off the top. Just to get you started, I mean. You’re good at fixing things. Hell, you even got my Edison Bannerfront Standard going again after a hundred years. That ain’t bad. You’re a whiz at doing research. Just look at all you found out about cylinder recording on the internet. I learned everything from you. You’re a walking encyclopedia. Hey, only eight more things to go!”

Porgy/Sly wonders if Dr. Levy said ten so he’d think of one, or maybe two. He hopes Aggie’s small list will be enough.

They get off the bus at the flea market, making their way through the milling crowds to the table where they bought the cylinders and the player. But everything has changed. There’s nothing on the table now but a clutter of old junk, teacups and tacky figurines. The fat bald man who sold her the player isn’t even there any more. A grandmotherly-looking Chinese woman smiles at them from behind the table.

“Uh, excuse me. . . I bought some cylinders here a couple of months ago.”

“Cyrinder?” The word is obviously unfamiliar to her, it would be to practically anyone, and Aggie’s hopes begin to sink.

“Uh. . .old recordings. You know, gramophone. . .” She mimes a cranking motion, and sound flowing out of a horn. The woman looks puzzled.

“Cylinders. I bought one that was pink.” She feels her excitement sagging into disappointment. Porgy/Sly tugs at her hand. Let’s get out of here.

“Ah. Cyrinder. Come this way, pleass.”

She takes Aggie and Porgy/Sly down a corrider into a cluttered storage room.

There, in a large coardboard crate, is a huge collection of cylinders in plain brown containers.

There must be four dozen of them, at least. Aggie looks at Porgy/Sly in wild excitement.

She opens one of the canisters, slides the cylinder out, and holds it in her hand.

It’s pink.

“How much for all these?”

“Oh, you take, you take. Man leave them here, he don’t want, you have them.”

“Really? I should pay you something for these.”

“Oh no. We get rid of, you take, make some space back here, eh? Have a nice day.” She beams at them, then hurries back to her table.

The trip home is a wild ride, as more than once somebody tries to rip off the huge orange leaf-bag crammed with pink cylinders from 1887, thinking they are pop cans gleaned from the dumpster. Nobody has any idea, nobody but her and Porgy (I mean Sly), that what they carry is a bag of magic so potent it will allow them to transcend the maddening obstacle of time.


Szabó shows up as faithfully in Dr. Levy’s office as he used to show up in his studio every morning.

Some progress has been made. He writes his messages, sometimes in Hungarian, sometimes in English, very messy because he can’t see, but just legible.

It becomes apparent that he believes he has lost his reason to live.

Not for him the “everyone is valuable” message; Dr. Levy knows that won’t play. He won’t accept it; he’s too complicated, too subtle, too smart.

Dr. Levy always addresses him in Hungarian, which gives him a warm feeling in his centre, something he hasn’t felt in years.

“Tamás, I realize you feel like you’re lost. You may have lost your way temporarily, but you are not lost. You lost a great deal, it’s true – in fact a staggering amount, all your work, your relationship, even your face. But Tamás is still here. You still have your mind.”

Szabó scrawls: That is the hell of it, doctor, my mind lives, I remember what I was, and I see what I am now, I am beggar what lives on street, I sit on corner and wait for alms.

“Your eyes are gone, Tamás, it’s true. But not your creativity. Your creative mind is as intact as it ever was. It’s just that the energy has nowhere to go.”

Dr. Levy can tell from the inclination of his head that he has hit home.

“Tamás. I want to ask you something. And this is very important. You can say no if you want to. Tamás. . . can I look at you?”

His head turns with a start.

“Can I look at your face?”

Face? What’s left of it, the crater, the mass of deformed scar tissue? No one looks at Szabó, they would die if they looked. They would turn to stone.

Szabó sits in horror, which slowly turns to awe.

He realizes something, something powerful, something surprising.

He wants Dr. Levy to look.

It takes a few minutes before his hand will move. This is worse than a year of streetcorner-sitting boiled down into a few seconds of desperate hope.

He wants to live, doesn’t. Wants to take the chance, is sickened by it. Feels Dr. Levy standing near his chair, almost feels the heat from him, and thinks of a dog about to be euthanized, how it will suddenly relax into the veterinarian’s hands.

He drags the old blanket up over his head, holds it above himself like a fetid woolen tent for a few seconds, then lets it drop with an exhausted sigh on the floor of Dr. Levy’s office.


It’s after midnight, and Mavis Potter is rummaging through Zoltán Levy’s garbage.

To someone else it’s garbage, a bunch of smelly discarded old food and broken junk; to her, a treasure trove: coffee grounds, probably from some expensive Sumatran roast; vegetable peelings and tops (it appears the good doctor is largely vegan, though the odd chop bone spoils the effect); dog poo, or at least she hopes it’s dog, assuming Rosie must have had an accident somewhere in the house; an old paint shirt full of stains and splotches and holes, which she lifts up to her face and lovingly, lingeringly smells; inexplicably, a classical music CD still in its original plastic wrapper (a Deutsche-Grammophon recording of Brahms’ Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2, performed by Maria Joao Pires, Augustin Dumay and Jian Wong; this she confiscates, looking forward to listening to it later); a Hungarian newspaper, damp and crumpled; and oh. Papers. Handwritten papers, masses of them, perhaps notes, a rough draft for this book he is trying to write? Or something more personal: a journal, perhaps? His private thoughts? Thank God it’s written in English. She quickly crams them into her bag, looking around, wondering if anyone has seen her, feeling the thrill of shame.

She saw him out with his dog the other morning, Rottweiller, Nazi dog, such a strange choice for a Jew. For this expedition she wore her normal clothes, civilian garb, a tweed suit, skirt and blazer and brown oxfords, sexless shoes, she’d keep the other ones for later, and walked around and around the neighborhood in North Vancouver carrying a brown leather briefcase and hoping she looked like a Jehovah’s Witness or something, or as if she were canvassing for some worthy cause, a social issue, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, rape crisis centre, whatever. She tried to look purposeful, and she certainly was, like any predator, single-minded, alert and focused on the task, the task of capturing Zoltán Levy, of making him her own.

She even passed by him on the sidewalk that day, her heart hammering wildly, and he glanced up and for a split-second looked a bit puzzled, a “do I know you? No, I guess not” look that lasted a fleeting instant before he walked on.


Mavis cherishes these moments, recalls them when she is lying in bed at night beside her snoring hulk of a husband; her hand will steal down to the sensitive place between her legs, and she will begin to caress herself, and caress herself, until she has to bite down hard to stifle the groan when orgasm rips through her shuddering body. The dark and downtrodden Messiah of the streets, her damaged saint, has ravished her once again.

The CD rests under her pillow, still faintly garbage-scented, still unplayed. She wonders what made him pitch it out: guilt? Turning over a new leaf: I’ll never steal again, starting now? Oh, she knows how that one goes. Every trip to Zoltán Levy’s neighborhood is her last, this time she really means it, she’ll stop, she can stop any time she wants to, it’s just that she needs to find out just a little bit more about him so she can put it all in this book, this cycle of poems, or maybe she should write a novel, that’s it, she’ll publish at last and get some long-overdue recognition and respect, the Giller prize maybe, no, that’s asking too much, but all this research she’s doing right now has a purpose, it does. She’ll show Charles, show him she can write at least as well as those nubile young women he samples like so many hors d’ouevres when he feels a bit peckish. Fuck Charles, she’ll write a bestseller, she’ll win the Booker Prize, Dr. Levy will have to take notice of her then and not look askance at her like she’s some demented freak detective prowling the neighborhood for clues.

She has stopped taking the Remeron and the Seroquel, they were only dulling her thinking, and besides, she doesn’t need them any more, her depression is completely gone, she has better orgasms without the pills, and her life has a sense of mission, of purpose, a hurtling forward momentum she has never experienced, an intensity, it’s just like that poem from Yeats, a terrible beauty is born, it’s exhilarating, it’s noble, it’s furiously fine, and it speeds her forward into an accelerated state of bliss the likes of which she has never known before. Like Clara Schumann with her feverish illicit love for Brahms, her Johannespassion, Mavis has her Zoltánnespassion, an involvement, a commitment, a devotion so complete it wipes her mind absolutely clean of the shadows of the past.

The bus

The people on the bus are drunk and stoned. Drunk and stoned. Drunk. . . and. . .stoned.

Three kids about fifteen years old get on the bus at Broadway and Granville. The two boys are stocky, dressed in black leather with a lot of studs and chains, pale and a little bit puffy in the face like habitual drinkers. Alcohol fumes surround them in a nearly-visible nimbus. The girl is emaciated, sad-eyed and plaintive of voice, with multiple facial piercings and dry, three-colour hair.

“That’s because you never do any fuckin’ work around the place. You never even stack the fuckin’ dishes.”

“Ah, ya fuckin’ whiner. Make me sick. Always fuckin’ complaining.”

The two boys squeeze into a seat at the back. The girl sits next to a bewildered-looking pink-faced elderly woman in a navy coat and a white plastic rain hat.

“Yeah, talk about bein’ a fuckin’ loser, try pulling your own weight around the place.” The girl begins to sniffle and rubs her nose. “Fuck, I need some coke.”

“I need a fix, ‘cause I’m goin’ down. . . “

“Mother Superior jumped the gun.”

“My Mum does coke.”

“Fuckin’ A!”

“Fuck off, bitch.”

“You’re a loser. That’s why you always talk that way. You talk like a fuckin’ loser.”

“Yeah, well at least I’m not a fuckin’ addict.”

“No. You’re a fuckin’ alcoholic.”

“My Mom’s an addict.”

“My Mom’s a slut.” Stoned laughter. The girl covers her face with her hands. The bigger of the two boys grabs her backpack and holds it up and away from her, then tosses it to to the blonde boy who wraps his arms around it. Screaming bloody murder, the girl lunges at him and slashes at his face with her black-painted fingernails.

“Hey, fuck off, bitch!”

“Driver! Driver!” The little old lady is in a panic. “Driver, do something about this. These young people are fighting back here. And their language is simply appalling.”

The driver, a beaten-down-looking East Indian man in a dark blue turban, has a wife and five kids at home. He doesn’t want to call the supervisor, it holds up the bus and makes everyone angry and makes him late, and he doesn’t want to pull the kids off the bus because he might get hurt, or worse, hurt them – but the old lady is agitating now, and the girl is clearly out of control, screaming and slapping the two boys on the side of the head with terrifying force.

“Fuckin’ Christ.”

“Bitch, you are losin’ it!”

“Order, order please,” the driver says mildly.

“Give me my FUCKING bag!” The girl yanks the backpack out of the blonde guy’s arms, falling over backwards into the aisle of the bus. The two boys in the back convulse with laughter. Blood is trickling down the burly boy’s face, and the blonde boy has an angry red hand-mark on the side of his head.

As if performing some elaborate break-dance manouevre, the girl twists and turns her wasted body around and somehow wrenches herself into an upright position. She flings the backpack over her shoulder and leans her face in so close to the two boys that they can smell her blue lipstick.

“Fucking. . .losers.”

She wheels around and strides to the back door, almost knocking down a nicely-dressed old Chinese man in the aisle, a standee.

“Ho-ly shit.”

“Hello, Valleyview? Get a bed ready.”

“That bitch is fucked.”

“Language,” says the old lady.

“Jesus Christ,” murmurs the driver.

The well-dressed old Chinese man picks himself up, leans out the open exit door and stares fiercely at the girl, who stands splay-legged at the side of the street. The passengers strain to hear what he will say.

“You die.”

“Eat shit, Chink!”

“You die, then fuck off.”

The door wheezes shut and the bus pulls away from the stop.

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