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 day Zoltán looked at Szabó’s face, or what was left of his face, the degenerated crater that used to be his face, he did not gasp, he did not feel sick, he did not take an inadvertent step backwards, because he was not seeing a crater, not seeing a crater at all, but the unmistakeable dotted outline of the face that was, and even, perhaps, the face that might still be.
Szabó knows this, in some way he can’t even explain. He only let the blanket fall to the floor because he knew Dr. Levy would not gasp or feel sick. He knew Dr. Levy would do something else. He wasn’t sure what, but that didn’t matter; he only knew in his core that it was time for him to reveal himself.
Behold: Szabó! Or rather, the ruins of Szabó, which Dr. Levy examines in medical fascination, looking at him from this angle and that angle like he’s studying a great sculpture, perhaps Michelangelo’s David; seeing potential in three dimensions, not in cold inanimate marble, but in flesh.
“Tamás, I have an idea.”
His head jerks up.
“There’s someone I want you to talk to. His name is Robert Kaplan, a reconstructive surgeon. He puts faces back together. I’ve seen his work.”
Szabó’s whole posture indicates shock.
“You might have enough bone here to work with, Tamás. There’s more left than you realize. It’s been years since the accident, and surgery has taken huge leaps since then.”
If Szabó had a mouth, it would be hanging open about now.
“Tamás, may I have the honour of booking you an appointment with Dr. Kaplan?”
Szabó does not move.
It’s as if he has frozen in his chair.
Seconds tick by. Dr. Levy begins to think that this will never work out, that he has wasted his time, that he -
Then the tightly-wound spring inside Szabó, the wellspring of hope that he has sat on for years, suddenly lets go, and he leaps, leaps at Dr. Levy, even though he can’t see him, leaps like he is flinging himself into what might be a bottomless canyon and what might be his resurrection.
Dr. Levy stumbles back a couple of steps, but saves himself in time, does not fall over backwards. He supports Szabó’s whole weight for a moment as the man crushes him in his arms.
“I take it that’s a yes.”
Szabó makes a sound he’s never heard before. Not a moan or a cry, or even singing. Dr. Levy realizes it can only be one thing, something neither one of them ever expected to hear from him: laughter, that defiant sound that thumbs its nose at despair.
November 15, 2003
So much has happened in the last couple of days, it feels like my head has been turned all the way around.
I lugged all the cylinders home with me, the great big bulging orange leaf-bag full of pink cylinders in plain brown containers, and I thought: where do I start? Which one is first? What’s on these – more of that voice I heard, that man, whoever he is, or is it music, or - ?
I fished around in the bag and grabbed. This seems like a good one. Looks just like all the other cylinders, but maybe there’s an invisible “#1” written on it somewhere.
I load it on, crank it up, and start listening.
A sound like frying bacon; ta-whumpita, whumpita, whumpita. . .
And then: words.
It’s so bloody frustrating, as I can only make out bits of it here and there. But it’s the same guy, I can tell that much, the same voice, speaking slowly and deliberately, but with a kind of sureness, like he knows what he needs to say. It makes me feel weird, like I already know him or something.
And after a while, it gets a little easier to tell what he is saying.
I fill in the gaps with my imagination.
So it goes sort of like this:
“When I set out to send. . . this message. . . into the future, it was with very little notion. . . of who would be able to receive it. Nevertheless, . . .I had a strong and abiding faith. . . that the message. . . would not only be heard, but comprehended. . . and acted upon.”
Okay, so maybe he didn’t say exactly that, but close enough, it’s the gist. I’m getting on to this now, it’s coming easier, like a language I always knew, but didn’t know that I knew:
“In the time. . . in which I am living, the message. . . I have to impart. . . will never be completely comprehended,. . . never be heeded or understood. It must be directed. . . into the unknown . . .with a sureness and steady (something-or-other? Faith?) that someone. . . will be prepared to receive it,. . . and more importantly, . . .to act upon it, . . .on the other side of the future.”
I wonder if I am hearing this right.
“So it is with great excitement. . . that I record. . . these thoughts, in trust. . . that the message. . . will fly to its mark. I hail thee, Listener,. . .for what I am about to impart. . . will leave you changed forever. And out of this transformation. . . will flow the beginnings. . . of a great movement. . .for human change.”
Ta-whumpita, whumpita, whumpita – stop.
I sit there for a while, stunned by it all, my head spinning, feeling a little bit sick.
I have forty-eight more cylinders to listen to. I’ll ration myself, only listen to one per day. I think that anything more than that would freaking overwhelm me.
I wonder about letting Porgy in on this (I mean Sly – I just can’t get used to calling him that), but – no. This is private, it’s personal. Somehow I know it’s meant for me alone.
He needs a name. He isn’t going to identify himself, somehow I can tell that. So I think hard, and then the perfect name just comes to me out of the blue.
I think I’ll call him Sebastian.
The transformation is not yet complete; Porgy still thinks of himself as Porgy, but now he corrects himself, changing it to Sly whenever he thinks about it.
The ten good things are racking his brain. Aggie said he can fix things. That’s one. What was the other one?
Porgy/Sly goes out more now than he used to. Part of it is out of necessity, because he has to go see Dr. Levy, he made a promise to himself that he’d do it. And he is sick of feeling this way, so burdened down with guilt. He wants Dr. Levy to remove the load, just heave it off his shoulders forever. What would you call that – a guilt-ectomy?
Now he stares at the computer monitor. On the screen is a picture of bones: an x-ray of a woman’s foot.
The foot is three inches long. The arch is buckled and folded in on itself like a train derailment, or a pile-up of solid rock pushed in on itself by the inexorable forces of a glacier. The toes are crushed under, the entire foot folded in half, impossibly distorted and deformed.
Porgy reads in horror and fascination. When this woman was only four years old, her mother took her vulnerable little naked foot in her hands and gave it a ferocious wrench, breaking the toes. It took several wrenches, in fact, to break them all. Then the small broken foot was bound up in bandages which were pulled tighter and tighter each day, until the foot finally yielded.
That little girl would never have normal feet again. All her life she would hobble, her small deformed feet encased in gorgeously-embroidered silk shoes, wooden-soled so she would not topple over: the coveted “three-inch golden lotus” that drove men wild with desire.
Her feet were bound in order to make her marriageable. A girl with normal feet was a disgrace, an embarrassment, a useless parasite, with no sexual prospects, no future, and no hope.
The destroyed feet were, to all intents and purposes, dead. Blood circulation was minimal, and gangrene often set in, with decayed toes sometimes dropping off. Many little girls died from the procedure, from blood poisoning, infection, septicemia. The smell from the crushed feet was appalling, something like a rotting corpse, but it turned men on, it made them hard as the tiny shoes the women forced their feet into every day, it was arousing to them that their women couldn’t walk, couldn’t run, couldn’t escape.
Porgy reads about Chinese footbinding, how it went on for something like a thousand years, and though it was officially banned in 1911, it went on for decades in secret. Some older women in China still hobbled about with folded, deadened feet.
Porgy/Sly wonders: can the same thing happen to your mind?
Porgy/Sly remembers foster homes where love was something you did not hope for, foster homes where alcohol hung over the family like a palpable curse, foster homes where men fondled his private parts as if they owned his body, foster homes where he wanted to die of despair.
But he did not die. Something else happened to him, or didn’t happen, some vital part of him was stunted and could not grow. He hobbled through life, “always on the outside of whatever side there was”, like the Bob Dylan song says, a stranger to everyone, even to himself.
He wonders if it’s too late. He is twenty-eight, and he feels old, his future a blank. In school he was assessed with higher than average intelligence, but he could not learn. His mind had been bound, and it buckled. Eventually it yielded, it had to under all that force, something just had to give.
He wonders if this new name will help. A fresh start in a new direction. He doesn’t want to be Porgy any more, because all Porgy brought him was pain. He has some hope now, at least a little bit of hope from seeing Dr. Levy who has been through so much himself, everybody talks about it, how he came through the war. It’s part of his legend as the rock star of the dispossessed.
Aggie thinks he’s a hero. He wonders how Dr. Levy got through, if his mind ever slid and swayed and collapsed in a heap like a house of cards.
He wonders if he can trust Dr. Levy enough to tell him what he did. When he was about fifteen, he began to experiment a little bit with fire. He would build little bonfires in the alley behind his apartment, roast marshmallows and hot dogs. One day he was in an abandoned building with his friend Shad Johnson, an older boy of about seventeen, another Halfrican, halfling, creme brulée, café au lait, mulatté. Friend may be the wrong term, since Shad Johnson tolerated Porgy more than anything else. Shad needed someone to feel superior to, someone to boss. Porgy wanted to do something to make Shad like him, admire him, or maybe even fear him a little bit, but he didn’t know what.
Then they were crawling around in the ruins of this place, creepy as hell because there was still all sorts of stuff in it, wrecked furniture, an old refrigerator with stinking rotting food in it, even a tablecloth on the table, and dishes.
Porgy was seized with a brilliant idea. He looked at Shad.
“I’ve got a lighter,” he said.
Shad looked at him in disbelief as he set fire to the tablecloth.
It caught. The line of fire quickly snaked up into the draperies, and they exploded into flame. Soon the sofa was on fire, then the chairs, and the room was filling up with thick black smoke.
“Run!” Shad said. They ran and ran. They ran like hell, seemingly for miles, until their lungs ached and felt like they’d explode. The best part of all was reading about the fire in the paper the next day. It had spread to several adjoining buildings, and done thousands of dollars worth of damage. Porgy felt like he was famous. It gave him self-esteem for the first time in his life.
But he doesn’t know how to tell Dr. Levy about this, or all the other times. The other times, when things happened, awful things, consequences. Except that he was never caught, and he never told anybody. A man died in one of Porgy’s fires. He can’t forget it. It gnaws at him all the time.
And then there was the last fire he set, or he hopes it’s the last, pray to God. Nobody died in that one, but what happened was almost worse, because a man shot his face off in despair, all because of what Porgy did.
Maybe next time, once he gets the ten things out of the way, he will make his confession.
And then: a breakthrough so powerful that it transports Mavis Potter to an entirely new level of euphoric devotion.
She can hardly believe her audacity in planning the break-in. She has never done anything like this in her life before. She has to be sure Dr. Levy isn’t home, of course. She has studied his movements, his comings and goings, and by now she knows his patterns. She spent one entire evening in a parked car a block or so away, watching him move in and out of view through the frame of his living-room window. Now you see him; now you don’t. She wonders if he has music on, what he’s listening to, which one of his stolen CDs he’s playing while he gets mildly drunk on dark beer. And what he had for dinner tonight. Probably heavy on the vegetables, judging by what she found in his garbage can.
She has never seen a woman in the place, and wonders if he ever has sex, casual sex, just for the sake of having it. He’s probably sixty-five years old now, but still. Men can go on forever. Charles hasn’t slowed down at fifty-eight, in fact he seems to get randier with every passing year. She tries to imagine Dr. Levy having sex, but it’s as embarrassing as imagining anyone else having it, it just seems completely impossible.
Mavis has come prepared with tools, a few things to help her get the back door open. It’s the middle of the afternoon, so she has to watch herself, make sure nobody is looking, but coming at night is out of the question, he’d be home, he’d hear her. This isn’t the kind of neighborhood where people worry too much about break-ins, however, and she just doesn’t look the type, she looks like a nice middle-aged librarian, no one would suspect her.
Every once in a while she stops to think about what she is doing, and a wave of shame rolls over her, so potent it feels like an illness. But she can’t stop now, she can’t, the research is going so well, she only needs a little bit more and she’ll be finished. This is going to be her masterpiece, her breakout book. She even has a title for it: Eastside Story, with photographs and accompanying text by Mavis Potter. She fantasizes about accepting the Governor-General award, tries to picture what she will wear, what she’ll say to the reporters.
Getting in is ridiculously easy. It turns out the lock on the back door pops open with only a little manipulation with the screwdriver. The good doctor is too trusting, it seems. Or else he feels he doesn’t have anything worth stealing. He lives on a different plane, that’s why she loves him so much.
Reading his personal notes was thrilling; she sat up late with a glass of scotch and spent hours going over the sheaf of pages, losing all track of time. Most of it was reflections on addiction, no doubt a rough draft to be worked into the book he would never finish, but some of it was more personal, almost like a diary.
“Szabó fascinates me,” he wrote, “as I suspect that his reasons for attempting suicide go far beyond losing all of his paintings in the fire. Aggie Westerman likes to talk about the ‘purple dot’: ‘People who were traumatized as children have a purple dot on their forehead, but only another person with a purple dot can see it.’ That was brilliant, and so true. I have one, Szabó has one, and I suspect the underlying trauma is very similar. And we are about the same age. He was there in Budapest in the mid-‘40s; I know he’s not a Jew, but it didn’t take much to get you in trouble back then, his family may have been persecuted for any number of other reasons. He can’t tell me any of this, of course. He can only write, and what he conveys in writing is rather limited. But I watch him, I see how he reacts. Hope has just been ignited in him, and now there is no turning back. All that remains is to return him to his reason for living, his creativity. But how? A blind painter seems like an impossibility, just too great a leap. But then I think of the deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, a phenomenon. That seems impossible, too. And Beethoven composed his most original and powerful works in total deafness. I must find a way for Szabó to create again.”
Leaf, leaf, leaf. Mavis takes another sip of scotch, then drains the glass and refills it. It’s starting to go to her head, or is it the effect of these papers, his private thoughts exposed, his spiky forward-rushing handwriting giving off such vibrant energy she can practically feel his presence in the room?
Her pupils dilate: this looks like a diary entry, personal stuff, the mother lode. She reads on in rapt fascination:
“I try to forget about Annie, but how can I? She has been pushed to the back of my mind, but she won’t stay there, I think about her every day and the way I treated her. We had terrible arguments and I think there was another man, but why didn’t we try to work it out? Why did I leave Annie? And my son. Abandonment! At the time I told myself, tried to make myself believe, that he was better off without me. Such bullshit. No one is “better off”, that was just an excuse for me to leave. I walked at the worst possible time, left her alone with the baby, and since then I haven’t been able to connect with her. No, that’s wrong, I haven’t tried to connect with her. Every day people come to me, they count on me to help them deal with the struggles and frustrations and difficulties in their lives, to help them get clean and sober and get their kids back, and I do my best to help. I help them out of depression, I help them out of despair, and sometimes even keep them from committing suicide. I wonder how they would feel if they knew I was a bigger fuckup than any of them.”
Mavis has long suspected that Zoltán Levy is alone in himself as few other human beings are. Part of it is his intellect, of course (he’d probably agree with that himself), but it goes far beyond that, back to the war, almost a cliché by now, the horrors of the camps, but the thing is, the horrors of the camps really happened, and some people are still having a hard time believing it.
Now she peers into the back end of Zoltán Levy’s house, a modest bungalow, probably at least 50 years old, surely he could afford better than this, but probably doesn’t care much about his surroundings, living on such an exalted plane of existence. She is entering from the rear, the anus of the building, a dark and cluttered place full of old boots and bicycles and ski poles and an old floor lamp, an obstacle course she must stagger through to gain entry. She flips on a light, and finds herself in the kitchen. Suddenly the fine hairs on her face rise and prickle: there’s someone in the house. No: something.
A black shadow hurtles down the hallway and surges into the kitchen, barking ferociously: the Rottweiller! Mavis backs up and backs up until she is pressed against the wall. But she thought of this in advance, she knew there was a dog, she is prepared, and she fishes around in her pocket, pulling out a handful of raw hamburger.
Soon Rosie is whining with pleasure and licking her fingers, wagging her stump of a tail in gratitude.
So the investigation continues. Living room, sparsely furnished, looks like Ikea, clever man, he can put furniture together, I always suspected he was good with his hands. CDs – God, look at all the CDs! Seems like thousands, just piled up everywhere, in no particular order. She wonders how he ever finds anything. Then she sees a shelf, already packed full. These are alphabetized by composer, all of them still pristinely wrapped in cellophane. This was how they started out, she assumes, but eventually they overflowed like anything that is contained for too long.
Then. . .the bedroom. This is where she has longed to be, where Zoltán Levy sleeps, dreams, blows his nose, masturbates, gets dressed in the morning. She pokes around in the walk-in closet, pulling down and smelling shirt after shirt; she draws one of them on to her body, and of course it doesn’t fit, it’s way too small on her top-heavy frame, but for one instant she has the thrilling sensation that she is Zoltán Levy, and it creates a pure panic of exhilaration.
Then, the bed.
It’s unmade, of course, a bachelor bed, and the sheets likely have not been changed in quite a long time. She pulls back the tumbled covers and eases herself in. The smell of him is everywhere: a dark European smell, not like North American men at all, this is like very dark chocolate, the kind you can only get overseas, intoxicating and somewhat bitter, with a silken, sensuous mouthfeel, melting slowly, gorgeously in the mouth like a great liquefying gob of butter.
She rolls from side to side, wallowing in the essence of Zoltán. Her hand creeps southward, and she begins to touch and explore, teasing herself, not yet, not yet. In a few minutes she is close to orgasm, but tries to hold it off, resisting. It is nearly impossible, but she makes herself wait, and wait. Then she thinks of his face when he saw her on the street, the look of slight confusion, a “what’s this, do I know you?” look: and suddenly she cannot hold back another second, the orgasm rips through her body with spasmodic force, leaving her drenched in sweat, gasping, and shuddering with the frightening intensity of the pleasure.
It takes several minutes for her to recover sufficiently to get up and walk.
Then she makes her escape, having taken only one shirt, the shirt she has on her body, as her trophy.