Friday, September 9, 2016

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside PART NINE

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 Nine

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


Things are happening for Szabó, or to Szabó, things he never could have counted upon or even hoped for.

The first session with Kaplan is a shock. The man is treating his ravaged crater of a face as a potential work of art, a miracle of restoration akin to lifting the centuries-old veil of grime from the Sistine Chapel. And yes, Dr. Levy was correct, he is willing to do it for nothing, even bring in a team of consultants, something like separating conjoined twins, a medical challenge, a privilege and an education.

He will have to endure painful surgeries, there is no way around that, and it will take time, Dr. Kaplan estimates a full year. He will never be able to see the results, of course, and that is deeply frustrating. But he will have some semblance, surely, something that will at least stand in for a face. He will be able to show himself again.

At his last session with Levy, he knew something was different, the good doctor was up to something, he didn’t even have to say anything, he could feel it in the air.

He led Szabó into a quiet room, sat him down at a table, and placed his hands on something.

Something large, cold, wet and pliable.

He worked it a bit with his fingers.

Dr. Levy quietly left the room, and shut the door.

It was an enormous lump. Szabó had never sculpted in his life before; it had never even occurred to him to try this medium. His hands worked and worked the lump. He broke small pieces off and toyed with them, rolled them, manipulated them.

Time disappeared.

Two hours later, Zoltán Levy entered the room.

The figure of a human torso sat on the table: armless, legless, headless, but so anatomically accurate in every detail of the musculature that the inert grey material almost gave the illusion of breathing.

“Szabó, that’s. . . Szabó.”

His hand reached out, groped, clasped Dr. Levy’s hand, and shook it, and shook it. He held on for a very long time, trying to convey by touch what he could never put into words.


Portman Hotel
November 28, 2003

Things have changed so fast in the past couple of weeks that I don’t even know how to describe it, or what to make of it all. I feel like I’ve blundered onto a treasure beyond anything I ever could have dreamed possible.

If you could find a book of knowledge so rich and full of meaning that it seemed to read your very heart, the kind of book you dream about but can never find in real life, it wouldn’t be half as powerful as the experience I’m having in listening to Sebastian talk to me every day.

I can’t even tell you how beautiful it is, like poetry, only it isn’t just pretty pictures, there’s all kinds of other stuff in there too, like warnings about what could happen to us as a species if we don’t change our ways. It’s like he could actually see straight into the future, predicting World War I and World War II and Hiroshima and the Holocaust and overpopulation and terrorism and environmental meltdown. He doesn’t call these things by their name, but I know what he means, I know what he’s talking about, I get it. It just blows me away that somebody from 1887 could know all of this. And the beauty of the language just amazes me, he’s just so eloquent, it pours out of him clear and strong, and you can tell none of it is written down, he’s just saying it right out of his head, made up on the spot. He’s a genius. And lonely – I can feel it. No one understands Sebastian, in fact they all think he’s a little bit crazy, and I don’t think he ever found anyone special to share his life with.

I wonder what he looks like. Somehow I see him as looking a little bit like Dr. Levy, not feature for feature, of course, but in his expressions, his energy. Sometimes Dr. Levy has what I call his “mother giraffe expression”: a tender, dark-eyed, nurturing, leaning-down-to-gently-nudge-you-with-his-nose look. I see Sebastian as having the same look. And it’s lonely, it’s terribly lonely being a man born into the wrong time, he must feel a lot of pain and frustration.

Something happened today that just freaking amazed me, but maybe it shouldn’t have, maybe it’s just the next step in all this. He was talking about war, the futility and brutality and waste of it, and the primitive mindset that drives it, and I thought to myself: one hundred and seventeen years later, all this is every bit as true. It just fucking floored me.

There was a little pause in the recording, and I found myself thinking out loud:

“When are we going to get past all this waste and destruction? When are we going to break through to something better, so we can put our energies into goodness, not evil?”
And this is what Sebastian said.

“We will move beyond. . . all this waste and destruction. . . when enough individuals realize. . . the deep futility of war. . . as a wasteful and deranged human enterprise. It is only then. . . that we will break through. . . to something finer,. . .something splendid and strong;. . . and it is at this precise moment. . .that the fortunes of humanity. . . will change, and we will be able. . .to direct our collective energies. . . into the pursuit. . . of goodness, not evil.”

My heart nearly stopped.

He answered.

He answered.

I want to tell somebody about this, in fact I’m bursting to tell, but I don’t know who to trust. I even worry about telling Dr. Levy, as he might get worried that the schizophrenia is returning, we’ve held it off for such a long time now, I haven’t heard voices in years, hardly ever I mean, the medication really seems to be working, and I don’t want to disappoint him.

But this is so freaking powerful, just so awesome, and I can’t even talk about it to Porgy, I mean Sly, I don’t think he’d be able to comprehend it. I still have about a dozen cylinders left, and I’m trying to make them last, I’m rationing myself, because quite frankly, I don’t want this experience ever to end.

All my life I’ve wanted to meet somebody like this, someone who understands how I feel about things, and now I meet him and he’s 117 years in the past! It’s so bloody frustrating, but so exciting too. When I was a little kid, old recordings used to scare me half to death. They frightened me so badly because I thought they worked like a time machine, and if I stayed in the room too long I’d be sucked right back into another century, another era, and never find my way

Now I’m starting to wonder if I was right about that. I want to be with Sebastian, see him, sit in his presence, touch his face, tell him I get it, I hear him, I understand. I wonder why he chose such a strange person to connect with. Because that’s how I see this: it was a choice, he selected me, it took him 117 years but he finally found the right person, someone who would really hear him and get what it all meant.

It’s a miracle, and a puzzle, and a gift, and at the same time, yes, it scares the shit out of me too, it’s a little bit creepy, like listening to the Edison Doll reciting nursery rhymes in that strangled-child voice, a voice from another time, but he is the man I have been looking for and waiting for and longing for my entire, lonely, fucked-up life.

Zoltán Levy

When Zoltán Levy gets home that night, after a very long day with more than its share of catastrophes, a fatal heroin overdose, a bloody suicide attempt, a flip-out with an enraged man wielding a knife, an elderly man found dead and foetally curled in the alley, his body caked with excrement, a beautiful young Asian woman weeping and weeping in his office, so ashamed that she ended up on the street, he is very tired, profoundly tired in fact, and not for the first time he wonders if this work he does every day has any impact at all on the hell that is the streets, the place of no return.

He is immensely weary, and wanders into the kitchen for a beer to take the edge off the day.

That’s funny.

There is a greasy spot on the floor, as if something has been dropped.

He bends down to take a look.

He sees tiny fragments of something, something red. His brow furrows. He doesn’t remember dropping anything on the floor.

He looks around the place. Something feels different, but it is hard to see anything amiss, anything moved or disturbed.

He goes into the bedroom, his heart beating a bit faster, though he is not sure why. The bed looks a little too neat, almost made, and he never makes the bed.

He looks in the closet.

Something’s wrong.

There is a shirt missing.

Normally he would not even notice it. But that hanger there, it’s empty, and it had a shirt on it, he could have sworn, a dark red shirt. And it’s not there any more.

He stands there for a moment.

Call the cops? But he can’t be completely certain. And it seems silly: “I wish to report a missing shirt.”

He wonders whether to let it go.

Maybe he will, for the moment, but will keep his eyes and ears open.

He goes back into the kitchen, downs a shot of Glenfiddich and two Valium, and crawls into bed, plunging into a profound sleep in less than half a minute.

The bus

Bert Moffatt believes that it is only a matter of time until something happens with Isobel Chaston, something so bad they’ll have to come with a big net and take her into custody at last.

Let them take her, and throw away the key.

She’s a professional pain in the ass. Calling herself a “dissident”, when all she is is a raging racist crackpot, a nut case on the loose, randomly abusing every person she runs into.

The situation has simmered and simmered for years. But Bert knows these things have a way of foaming over. Maybe it needs to, maybe she needs to step over the boundary of respectable little-old-ladyhood that has so far protected her from any real consequences.

She has been forcibly ejected from town council meetings and seems to enjoy the attention, ranting about her rights as the local news photographers snap her picture. She has run for public office any number of times, as big a joke as that idiot who ran for the “Party Party” with the slogan, “Choose Booze or You Lose,” and got 557 votes. A monkey could run in Vancouver and get hundreds of votes, in fact it has probably already happened.

It’s one of those full-moon days, whether it’s really full or not, an antsy, crazy, volatile day, a day when people hurl abuse at him for no reason (not that that’s anything unusual), a day when nasty scraps break out in the back of the bus and have to be extinguished like so many brush fires.

Yes, here she comes, and she’s in a real state today, he can tell as soon as he sees her, full of hot air and billowing in the breeze, hostility inflating her puffy face.

“Fucking Pakis! Get out of my way. I’m a senior, don’t you have any respect? Fucking asshole Chinese, taking over the country, there’s too many of you around here. Git!”
“Knock it off, lady.” A slight young Asian woman surges out of the aisle and forces her body in front of Isobel Chaston, blocking her path so she can’t get on the bus.

She plants herself, her legs braced. For some reason Bert thinks of the old protest song, “We shall not be moved. . . “

Isobel Chaston’s huge umbrella comes up. Bone handle facing out.

It comes down.

On the young woman’s skull.


Then again: Crack!

And again.

Bert lunges, tries to stop her arm. The young Asian woman falls forward onto the steps of the bus. A slow trickle of blood begins to worm its way along the sidewalk.

I take it all back, I wish this had never happened! Nine-one-one, nine-one-one. . . call the supervisor. . . grab her, she’s out of control. . .”Fucking Pakis! Fucking Chinks!” Isobel Chaston wields her bloodstained umbrella until a big hand appears and stops it in mid-swing. Two burly guys materialize out of nowhere as if by some signal, grab her and hold her in a grip she knows she can’t escape. In spite of Bert requesting, then commanding, then begging them to stay in their seats, the passengers are stampeding out of the bus. When the cops finally arrive, along with the paramedics and the fire department, a crowd has accumulated on the sidewalk just to take in the thrill of live theatre.

Could it get any worse? Yes, it could: the media! Cameras. Did they smell the blood? And because it happened on his watch, he knew he’d be interviewed. This could have serious repercussions, he might be out of a job.

It all seems to stop at once when Isobel Chaston is dragged off, spluttering and shouting racist epithets. The crowd loses interest, realizing the show is over, and disperses; the cameras seem to vaporize.

A couple of passengers, teenage girls in tight, glittering Britney Spears tshirts, whine that they can’t get downtown.

“Take the next bus.”

“I don’t want to pay again.”

“Use your transfer.”

“It’s expired.”

“Here’s another one.”

“Hey, I want one too.”

But it isn’t over, not by a long shot.

Bert Moffatt spends the rest of the afternoon in Emergency at Vancouver General with Mrs. Wong. He can’t forget the way her daughter crumpled on the steps and hit her head on the pavement. It was sickening. At one point he embarrasses himself by praying, which he hasn’t done in 20 years, then decides that, under the circumstances, it might be worth a shot.

After an interminable wait and innumerable cups of bad coffee and tea out of the vending machine, a doctor comes into the waiting room.

Bert and Mrs. Wong look at each other. Then at him.

The doctor does not even have to wait for the inevitable question: “Is she OK?”

“Yes,” he says to them.


“Yes, she’ll be okay. Just opened up a blood vessel in her scalp, they can bleed like crazy, she must have fainted from the shock, and there’s some bruising and a slight concussion, but nothing really serious, if she gets lots of rest she’ll be back to normal in a couple of weeks once the stitches come out. You can go in and see her now.”

Mrs. Wong stands on tiptoe and kisses the doctor on the cheek; he blushes, though it’s not the first time he has been kissed. Bert Moffatt wishes he could do the same thing.

The “dissident” is now behind bars, formally charged with assault. Given her connections, which may or may not actually exist, she might get off with a slap on the wrist. Then again. . .Valleyview, which has been saving a bed for her for years, might just end up as her retirement home.

Bert goes on stress leave for three weeks, flies to Maui with his wife Sherry, drinks mai tais beside a kidney-shaped pool, goes for massages, eats pupus and pineapple and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, and flies home wearing a tshirt that says Just Hang Loose, returning to work with his soul restored.


As for Porgy, he is no more; Sly has killed him off.

Now he’s beginning to look like Sly; now he’s beginning to feel like Sly. Now he wears a cracked black leather biker jacket covered with studs and a picture of an eagle that he got for six dollars at the Salvation Army store. Now he walks differently, talks differently, oh yeah, he’s Sly, he’s Sly, and Porgy’s never coming back.

Dr. Levy won’t leave him alone, though, and it bothers him.

He wants him to talk about stuff.

“You need to tell me about what happened in those foster homes, Sly. You’ve never told anybody about it, have you?”

“There’s nothing to tell.” He looks at the ceiling, then at the floor. “I was abused and shit. That’s all.”

Dr. Levy, dark-eyed and obsessive, may be known as a kind man, but that’s not true. He is absolutely without mercy, and takes no prisoners.

“I think it’s time you looked at this stuff. It’s ruling your life without you knowing it. I realize it’s painful, it may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but you won’t have to do it alone. I think you’ve carried it around with you for long enough.”

“I can’t.”

“Yes you can. And I’ll help you every step of the way. You’re strong enough now, Sly, you know you are.”

“I don’t know how.”



“Sly, would you do something for me?”

“Uh. . . I guess so.”

“Look at me.”

Sly’s eyes dart all over the room.

“You never look at me, Sly. Right here. Look.” He points to his eyes with two fingers.

Sly doesn’t look people in the eye because it’s too painful and he is scared. Dr. Levy has these penetrating eyes, everyone knows that, they call him Svengali on the street. He feels like he’ll be sucked right in. He glances, then looks away, and Dr. Levy does that weird gesture again.

“Just look at me, Sly.”

He doesn’t even know why Dr. Levy is doing such a stupid thing. It’s like hypnosis or something. “Look into my eyes.” But it’s more than that. It’s a – gaze or something, a –

Something happens, he sees something, someone, God he doesn’t want to look. He sees Dr. Levy and those funny-looking, black eyes, those weary eyes, those fierce eyes, but he sees something, someone else, and he knows who that someone is.

If you look at a chunk of obsidian that has been polished and polished until it becomes an indestructible mirror, what are you going to see? Will all the light just come back at you, or will you see something you absolutely do not want to look at? Why does he see the parade of wretchedness: an eight-year-old boy who can’t get away from his stepfather, a little kid bloody-nosed on the edge of the playground, all beat up just because the others can smell the difference on him? 

The scenes continue to flash, seemingly endlessly, and the sight is overwhelming, he can’t get away from it now even if he closes his eyes. Then he is not even seeing any more but feeling, feeling dirt shoved up his nose, feeling a man’s weight on his body, his clothes being yanked at, pulled down. And the bizarre thought this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening because it couldn’t be happening, a thought that will seal away and entomb the damage at the core of his being.

When he can’t take it in any more, when the reflecting pool finally goes dark, he – cracks. Just like that. Bends over like he has been stabbed in some vital part of himself, run through.

“It’s okay,” Dr. Levy murmurs. “It’s okay.” He holds Sly’s shoulders as he shudders and heaves like a vessel tossed in a storm, holds him steady so he won’t capsize.

It’s not okay, but that’s what you say when this happens, when someone just falls to pieces in front of you. Sly groans. The room spins and he feels like throwing up. He hates Dr. Levy, hates him and all his cheap stupid magic tricks.

“I hate you,” he says, his eyes pale like acid, for once looking at him full-on. He has been struck by lightning, undone, and all this freak can do is tell him it’s okay.

“You have your reasons. But now we can start.”

“Start what?”

“You’ll find out.” Dr. Levy treats him to one of his rare smiles. Sly/Porgy/Sylvester/Whoever-he-is-now stares back at him, not smiling, feeling like he has just vomited and is completely emptied-out.


Portman Hotel
December 7, 2003

I love my talks with Sebastian, and I don’t want them ever to end. But I’m getting near the end of the cylinders, there are only three of them left now, and I don’t know what to do about it.

The last one I did was so awesome, he just answered every question I ever had about life, it was freaking amazing. I finally had to tell somebody, I was going to explode if I didn’t. Sly (I’m really trying to think of him as Sly now, even though he looks pretty silly in that stupid leather jacket) just looked kind of baffled when I took him for coffee at the Potluck Café and spilled the beans about Sebastian.

Like he wasn’t sure what I was even talking about.

“You mean. . . he talks to you?”

“Well, yeah, sort of. If I have a question about anything he says, he sort of answers it.”

“Uh, Aggie. That’s kind of. . . “

“Kind of what?”

“Kind of nuts.”

“Oh, I see. Nuts, is it. Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle cracked?”

“Now wait a minute.”

“Which one of us is going to see Dr. Levy every week? Which one of us is on antidepressants? Which one of is is. . .”

“Aggie, hold on a minute, I’m not saying you’re crazy.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m saying. . . I’m saying you’ve got a hell of an imagination. I think you’re hearing what you need to hear. That guy made no sense to me at all. It was just one big garble.”

“Well, maybe you weren’t listening.” I’m really ticked now, but actually not that surprised. Nobody’s going to get this, nobody’s going to get it at all.”

“Maybe you should see Dr. Levy.”

“You really think I’m nuts, don’t you.”

“I think you need somebody to talk to. And Levy’s good, he’ll help you deal with this.”

I can’t believe how the situation has reversed itself.

“I don’t need to see Dr. Levy.”

“What do you do when the cylinders run out?”

“Start over again.”

“Oh, and they’re going to be different this time?”



“Look, Porgy, I mean Sly, or Whatever-your-name-is-now, this is something I just have to do. It’s the biggest, the most significant thing that has ever happened to me, I mean in my whole life. I didn’t expect you to understand it.”

“Fine, then.” He looks hurt, his lower lip quivering a bit.

“I have to go.”

“Don’t be mad at me.” He looks like a seven-year-old, but then he always looks like a seven-year-old.

“I’m not.” I kiss his cheek, and he brightens a bit. “Nice jacket,” I lie.

“Bye, Aggie.”


“I love you.” He looks as innocent as a baby in his leather and studs.

“Porgy.” I crush him in a hug.

So I guess we’re okay.

But I’m still not sure what to do. On top of that, there’s another custody hearing coming up in a week, the social worker wants to interview me, and if I come across okay, maybe I’ll get to see my kids again for Christmas. I know there’s a lot at stake here. I can’t blow it now. And when Porgy/Sly said all that stuff, it did make me wonder a little bit. He’s my best friend in the whole world, and knows me better than anybody. What if he’s right? What exactly is going on here? Is this the Chatty Cathy doll all over again?

Do I need to see Levy?

What’s on those last three cylinders?


I have to find out. Somehow, I think I’ll get my answer in Sebastian’s final message. I have to trust him now, trust him completely.

I surrender into his hands.

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