Saturday, August 27, 2016

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside PART TWO

This is a serialized version of my novel Bus People, a story of the people who live on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. 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 Two

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


Portman Hotel, Vancouver, B. C.
September 7, 2003


          Cylinders. The backpack was full of cylinders.  It was not full of junk.  Not not not.  And they’re not just any old cylinders, they’re Edison Blue Amberols, the best kind you can get.

     I have to find more Blue Amberols.  It’s just a habit, I can quit any time I want to, just a little quirk of mine, collecting.  I collect all sorts of stuff, birdcages made out of bamboo, salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like people, macramé handbags made back in 1973.  My room here is full of stuff,  the social worker doesn’t like it, she complains about it all the time and keeps telling me to clean it up, get rid of it all.  But it’s cool, there’s no rats or anything, it isn’t dirty, I keep order in the place.  Sometimes stuff falls down, there are loud crashes at night that disturb the neighbours, particularly Porgy who lives just under me and is a light sleeper.  But at least I know where everything is.

     I didn’t even know what a Blue Amberol was until I started going to flea markets about a year and a half ago.  I saw these ornate-looking canisters with flowery writing and ornamentation all over them – they were beautiful, and I just had to buy one of them, not even knowing what was inside.  It was only a buck and a half, what the hell, I’ll go without lunch tomorrow.  Maybe it’s snuff or something, I thought, something Victorian, or at least Edwardian, really old and maybe even valuable.

     But it wasn’t snuff at all.  It was a dusty old cylinder full of grooves.  Took me a minute to figure it out, that this was something like a record, or what came before records, the first medium for recorded sound.  I felt like I had seen one before, that I remembered it from somewhere.  I had Porgy go on the internet and do a search.  I don’t have a computer, I don’t know how Porgy can afford one, but he does and is obsessed with it.

     Anyway, he tells me that this isn’t just any sort of flea market hunk of junk  but a Blue Amberol, a particularly deluxe (back then) kind of cylinder recording popular in the early 20th century.  They weren’t the earliest recordings – those were made out of brown wax, with a few really early, rare ones made out of yellow paraffin, but even before that, they used tin foil.  No kidding – tin foil on a rotating cylinder, scratched with a needle that picked up vibrations.  The basic principles of sound recording.  Think of Thomas Edison at Menlo Park, bellowing into his new contraption:  “MA-RY HAD A LIT-TLE LAMB.  ITS FLEECE WAS WHITE AS SNOW. AND EV-ERY-WHERE THAT MA-RY WENT, THE LAMB WAS SURE TO GO.  HA, HA, HA.”  Cranking away at a variable speed, so the voice sounds freaky, all distorted like a giant’s voice, as well as tinny and really far away.

     When I was little, old records used to scare me.  I used to think. . . never mind what I used to think.  I had a hell of an imagination. It got me in trouble all the time, at school, but even worse at home.  My mother used to say that I made up stories, but to me, it was all completely real.  I thought the voices on those old 78 r. p. m. records had some sort of spooky power.  Like it was a kind of time capsule or something.  The singing ones were weird enough, they all had that muffled quality like the sound was coming out of a tiny little closet,  but the spoken word ones, they really freaked me out.  Used to make me run out of the room, but my Dad, he’d make me listen to them, listen to Caruso sounding like he was singing inside a cardboard box, or Dame Nellie Melba warbling away, or something called the Wibbly-Wobbly Walk – God, the Wibbly-Wobbly Walk scared the living shit out of me.  Couldn’t stand it, but my Dad made me stay and listen.

     It was his collection and he was convinced it was worth thousands, but now that I know something about early recordings, I can see that what he had was virtually worthless. Too many scratches, ticks and pops.

     Dr. Levy, the one they call “Zee”? He’s helping me deal with memories.  He’s good.  I mean, he’s good if you’re in pain or trouble, if you’re not, then forget about it, he can be a real hardass, it’s surprising how cold he can be.  But I’ve seen him deal with guys so far gone from AIDS, the shit was pouring out of them like lava, and he never bats an eyelash, just rolls up his sleeves and cleans up the crap like it was nothing.  I like Dr. Levy.

     But this guy on the bus today, this Szabó.  I know that’s his name, because people talk about him.  He has regular habits, I’ll say that about him.  I don’t know where he goes exactly, somewhere around the Sunshine Hotel area, the real asshole of Vancouver, Zeddyville they call it, ‘cause Dr. Zee cruises the place all the time, looking for broken people to mend.  It’s his habit.

     Mine’s Blue Amberols.  I’m glad this Szabó can’t look at me,  because I just hate it when people stare at my backpack, poke at it or ask what’s inside it.  I had fourteen Blue Amberols crammed in there today,  and never mind that I haven’t been able to afford a player yet, it’s only a matter of time.

     I guess listening to these things is going to scare the living shit out of me.  I take five hundred milligrams of Seroquel every day, Dr. Zee is trying to wean me off it, he says I might have been misdiagnosed, but I’m not so sure about that, I guess you could say I scare easily,  I was born minus a few layers of skin.  But this Szabó, he has no face, or that’s what they say about him anyway, even though he sings.  I’ve heard it, we all have.  He sings without words, of course:  “nggg, nggg, nggg” – it’s creepy, but you know something, he has a good voice, and a Hungarian accent, even with no words.  I wish he’d go see Dr. Zee, he’d be able to help him.  That guy could’ve helped Hitler get over his anger problem.  Maybe he could write things down on a piece of paper or a chalkboard, I don’t know.  Better than begging, which is what Szabó does for a living now that he can’t see to paint.  It’s sad.  I draw a disability cheque, it’s not much but it keeps me going, along with whatever stuff I can make or sell or trade, even though I’m not allowed to see my kids which sometimes makes me want to slit my fucking throat, just end this, end it now.  But Dr. Levy says don’t, Dr. Levy says don’t think that way, he says I’m valuable, he says there’s only one of me in all the world, that human beings are irreplaceable, so I guess I better trust his judgement which might be just a little bit clearer than mine.
     Anyway, Szabó gets on the bus this morning, it’s one of those stinky wet mornings when everything’s dripping, and he sits right down beside me like he’s done so many times before.  Like I say, regular habits.  And Szabó is clean, not like a lot of the people who take the bus every day; he doesn’t ever smell, he looks after himself. I don’t know how he does it, but he does. Pride.  He must have hair still, I mean, the back of his head must still be OK, just his face is missing,  no big deal, nothing serious, eh?  But then a guy across from us on the sideways seats says, “Hey, fucking freak, you on a pass from the sideshow? Gettin’ it on with the Schizo Lady?”  Street people have got radar, that’s how they can tell.

     “I beg your pardon, buddy, if you wanna see a freak, I think you should maybe try looking in the mirror.”  I’m usually not this bold, but poor Szabó can’t speak up.  Can’t defend himself, but he can hear everything.  It’s cruel.  This guy across from us, he looks like a bad bowel movement after too many blueberries, long and snaky and tattooed dark indigo all over every square inch of his skin.  He’s a living shit.  And he’s calling us freaks.  Jesus.  I keep trying to tell Dr. Levy what it’s like, but he just shakes his head.  Says people call him a Kike or a Yid or a Heeb sometimes, but it’s not the same, it’s not.  “Hey! Auschwitz!” one of them said to him once – and, yeah, he is pretty thin, looks kind of undernourished. How does that go?  “He hath a lean and hungry look.”

     So the driver, his name’s Bert Moffatt, I know him ‘cause I’ve seen him lots of times before on the Number 42, he says to me, “Lady, would you kindly can the comments, you’re being abusive here.”  I’m being abusive.  If a schizo lady raises her voice even a little bit, she’s being abusive, she’s out of control, while this big blue-tattoo shithead over here, he can hurl insults at anybody he likes.  Why? I don’t know, I guess he’s supposed to be sane.  Probably a pimp, probably a heroin addict or a child molester or sells his grandmother for a hit of crack, but he’s allowed to say whatever he likes.

     Fuck it, I’m going back to the flea market tomorrow and buy that cylinder player I saw, it was priced at $75.00 which for me is a bloody fortune, and it looked busted, the ones that work cost way more than that and are out of my price range, but you can usually bargain with these guys, and I have $50.00 scraped together already, it took me months and months of going without smokes, and then I found a ring in the washroom at the Tinseltown Theatre, pawned it and got nearly 30 bucks for it which goes to prove that there is such a thing as Providence.   Porgy keeps me going on smokes, enough to stave off the worst of my nicotene fits, he’s cool about things like that, even though he never goes out, he’s glued to the internet all the time, reading up on mucoid plaque and colonic irrigation.  What a nut.  But he’s still kind of sweet.


     They call it Needle Park, they call it Pigeon Park, they call it Zeddyville because that’s where Dr. Zee hangs out:  and it’s not a park at all, but a vaguely triangular slab of cement crusted in pigeon shit, draped and clustered with people nobody seems to want around.

     It’s a loitering sort of place, an unplace.  A dislocation. Calling it a park is an impossible stretch, for no green thing could grow here.  Dr. Zoltán Levy barely notices it any more. He has a very fast walk, but it’s not so he can get away from the horrors of the neighborhood.  It’s so he can zip from the Portman to the Sunshine to the Waverley Hotel to get to his patients, the people who are usually on their last gasp.

     Dr. Zee doesn’t step on the bus very often, but it disgorges passengers right outside his home base, the Portman, an armoured truck of a place, fortified, barred, battened down like the good doctor’s own bleak, unsmiling face.  He makes himself available to people, people like Aggie Westerman the chronic schizophrenic, and Porgy Graham who has a strange  obsession with his bowels, and Dave the mutilator who has his lips multiply pierced and chained together, so he can’t even eat without pulling all the studs out.

     Things happened to Dr. Zee a long time ago, everybody knows that, or at least they suspect it, though no one has any specifics, and he isn’t talking.  He “doesn’t have time for a relationship”.  That’s what he says when he is interviewed, which happens quite a lot now, because slowly but surely, Dr. Zee is  starting to become famous.  At least, Vancouver famous, and maybe soon, Canadian famous,  then the world.  He is working on a book that is taking him forever to write because he really doesn’t want to finish it, it’s got too many secrets in it, and he hates to make himself so vulnerable.  Yet he loves the vulnerable, holds his hands out to them, thick-fingered veterinarian’s hands that look as if they could pull out calves and shoe horses.  He gets what it is to be this hurt, this lost, and to keep on going.

     People ask him, often, if the work is depressing.  What depresses him is the question:  the implication that he is dealing with the dregs of humanity, and not a whole lot of bruised little kids in adult bodies, people who were fucked by their fathers or whipped senseless by their mothers or told they were useless piles of shit so often they began to believe it, or told that they never should have been born at all.  It does a bit of damage when you hear it often enough; it can warp a life into a howling parody, heroin squirting up through the veins to blot out the self-loathing for just a little while, a protected, peaceful while, until it’s time to start hustling again. The abyss of the heroin state is welcome, oblivion being far more bearable than whatever is in second place.

     Tourists come to Zeddyville because the area is a little bit famous, too, kind of like Dr. Zee himself, and even the Governor-General came once, on a walkabout like the Queen Mother, her face in a carefully-composed mask of what she hoped was concern.  It doesn’t smell too good down here, it smells like rancid piss at the best of times, human vomit, pot fumes and other things you can’t identify.  It’s a  raw wound, the walls of the buildings splattered in gory-colored murals and gang graffiti impossible to decipher, the strange hieroglyphics of the street.  You have to keep your cool in Zeddyville, not show any fear.  It helps not to make eye contact, as you’ll stare into an abyss, a vacuum, an absence in the eyes of every stranger that passes by.

     “Spare change?  Spare change?  Have a nice day.  Spare change?  Spare change?  Have a nice day.”  It’s a sort of mantra for a lot of people, a way to make it through to the next day of spare change, spare change, have a nice day.  Of course some of the people here are crazy.  There used to be a place called Valleyview, but they closed it down except for the really hard-core cases, and shouldn’t these people be integrated into the community anyway and not just institutionalized and kept out of the mainstream, hidden away like they’re frightening or shameful?  Now the dirty little secret of mental illness is an open secret, like Szabó’s face when it was shot off and blown to bits all over the blackened walls of his torched studio.  The walking wounded don’t have their intestines hanging out all over the  outside of their abdomen, like in a war, but they do have spilled psyches, their pain hanging out, their loneliness hanging out, and it bothers people, the normies, the civilians. Their faces broadcast what they feel:  for God’s sake get away from me buddy before I see myself again, before I see what’s really wrong with me and why I cannot find a place in this world, before I see that this is where I really belong. 

     For no matter how good I look on the outside, I am part of this whole deal that creates a Zeddyville in the middle of a glittering, prosperous, showcase city on the coast of the best country in the world, then forces people to live in it when living is just a simple, bare act of endurance.
     We shove them here, we forklift, steamroll, corral, push, shove, cram, then clang the gate shut behind them and then say, what’s wrong with these people, why can’t they get it together, why can’t they make something of themselves?

     Get a job!

     Leave me alone!

    NO, I don’t have any spare change, and put that squeegee away because I am not interested in the fact that you haven’t had anything to eat for four days!  Jesus, these people.
     Dr. Zee sees, hears, senses it all the time, a palpable sense of dismissal and fear echoes all around him, the long antennae sticking out of his head pick it all up,  whether he wants to hear it or not, but he keeps on walking fast with his stethoscope going bounce, bounce, bounce on his chest.  He doesn’t really have one around his neck, it just appears that way, it’s his sense of purpose, so intense and focused, it’s almost a buzz.  He doesn’t carry a black bag either, but he will go where the trouble is, he will go where the pain is, and down here, there is more than enough to go around. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

The path falls away behind you

This is the Gospel according to Popeye: an image I've been almost obsessed with lately. And it took some work to find it. It wasn't apparent which of the several hundred Popeye cartoons it was in, so I started googling things like "Popeye on rope bridge" and "Popeye on rope bridge falling down". 

So what is it about this teensy little cartoonlet that won't leave my head?

It always comes back to my work. I'm not saying my personal life is perfect. It never has been, and I am here to tell you, right here, right now, that my mental health hasn't always been great either. It has been variable. But that's not what gives me the existential blues over, and over, and over again.

For years I had this yearning - it was insanely intense, and it went on for years and years - to write and publish a novel. I kind of felt like that would solve everything that was wrong in my life.

I even remember sitting in a doctor's office while I was being treated for depression. I told her that if I ever published a novel, I knew would never be depressed again.

"What? . . . Why?"

"I'm depressed because I'm a loser, and if I publish a novel I won't be a loser any more."

Well, all that didn't work out so well! I DID finally get a novel in print, after one whole abortive attempt. I got better reviews for that one than I could have hoped for, and for the second one too. But I wasn't selling any copies. My sales records were worse than abysmal.

Convinced I could beat the odds, I flung myself at the barriers once again and wrote/sent out/published a third novel. Last year, I sold exactly three copies of my dream novel, The Glass Character. What is all this leading to?

I don't think I was cut out for success.

I was cut out for the work, I know it, or I wouldn't still be doing it. In fact, I still want my work out there so badly that I decided to dredge up a novel that REALLY never went anywhere, that stayed in a Word file for twelve years, and try to serialize it here, run it in chunks. 

I guess you'd have to be half out of your mind to keep going back to a poisoned well like this. But I have this novel, untouched. It's called Bus People, and it started off simply as a novel about people who ride the bus (which I took every day of my life) and evolved into a sort of fable of life on the notorious Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.  I wrote it in 2004, in a wild upgust of creativity that could have killed me. When I showed it to my then-agent and asked for her feedback, this was the sum total of it:

"I don't know if it's publishable or not." Full stop. 

I needed to get out of "the business" probably right after my first novel tanked, but I didn't. I remember the call from my first publisher after Better Than Life came out, which went something like this:

"Margaret! It's a miracle! We have never had reviews like this, not in the whole history of our press."

"Oh! That's great! I guess I - "

"Now the bad news. You had the worst sales of any author we've ever published."


Probably what bothers me more than anything is the fact that my outstanding reviews were seen as a "miracle", a supernatural act, not the result of an insane number of years of hard work and effort.

All this is a long explanation for the strange posts I'm going to be running for the next couple of weeks. Or at least, I hope only a couple of weeks. The posts will be chunks of Bus People in chronological order, so that, unless I get no readers and decide to can the whole thing, by the end of it the whole novel will be up here.

I know you're not supposed to do it this way, but since when did I know the "proper" way to do anything? If it's not going to succeed in worldly terms anyway, which with my track record I know it won't, I might as well go ahead and do it any way I want. Setting up something separate for it is like opening the trap door before I even start.

Which is why I'm making Popeye gifs tonight. They're all from the same cartoon, called Popeye the Sailor. It's a Betty Boop cartoon, actually, in which BB "introduces" Popeye. The cartoon then becomes incredibly violent. What I notice most especially is the continual bobbing up and down of the characters, as if things had to be in motion at all times.

And when you reflect on it, which is not always the best idea, the path DOES fall away behind you, because with each day you live, another day is crossed off the total days allotted to you, whatever that might be. 

Bus People: a novel of the Downtown Eastside PART ONE

This is a serialized version of my novel Bus People, a story of the people who live on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. 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 One

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

PROLOGUE:  The man with no face

     The man with the Elephant Man veil over his head is a regular on the Number 42, getting on every day at  9:47 a.m.

     Same time, same place.  Broadway and Granville, heading north over the bridge towards the Downtown Eastside.

     Everyone is curious as to what he looks like under the veil.  It’s more of a burqa, actually, veil implying something translucent, something gossamer, whereas this is more of a blanket over his head, without any eye holes in it, because you see, this man doesn’t have any eyes.

     Eyes?  Hell, he has no face.

     Once he had a face, but he blew it off one day in a fit of rage.  Rage at life, that it could be so mean, so ungenerous to a man as talented as he.

     An artist. 

     Maybe even a genius.

      Living in a garret.  It was more of a studio, in fact, a big open airy loft with beautiful natural lighting, where he both lived and worked, painted and ate and slept and had sex, wept and raged when the work was not going well and the rent was overdue and his girlfriend complained that he never took her anywhere, which was true, danced heavily in his steel-toed work boots when a painting sold somewhere, even in a tacky restaurant for peanuts, because it was nevertheless proof that yes, he, Szabó, could make a living at this, that against the odds, and in spite of everything his father had said to him, he could be an Artist.

     His father used to curse at him in Hungarian, tell him he was good for nothing, that he should have a trade, or at least a job, a proper job digging a ditch, it didn’t have to be anything grand, his grandfather dug potatoes all his life, and look at him, wise man, fourteen children, he lived a great life, but to be an artist, surely that was a dream for fools, it was impractical, he would never make a mark, he would never sell a painting, he was living in a world of illusion, and sooner or later it would all catch up with him, reality would close in, and he would realize that his father had been right, that he should have gotten an education, that he should have learned a trade, that he should have prepared himself for life, instead of letting life just happen to him. 

     One flicked match, and the dream was over.  The studio went up like a torch, and with it approximately 297 paintings, his entire life’s work.  His oeuvre, gone in an instant, irretrievable.  Szabó did not believe in insurance, and at any rate, how can you insure genius?  How to replace the irreplaceable, the inspiration of the moment, mysterious and unfathomable as life itself?  So – ploomphth -  there went all his canvasses up in flames, all those carefully-wrought works stuck with eggshell and coffee grounds and sputum and semen and even his own blood, torched up to the ceiling in a cloud of greasy smoke:  “like the smoke from the crematoria at Auschwitz,” Szabó was to tell the therapist later on, back when he could still talk, when he still had a jawbone and teeth and a tongue.

     In the Old Testament, Moses keeps such close company with Yahweh that his face shines unnaturally, giving off an eerie light in a way that he fears will frighten his fellow believers.  So he veils himself, covers the radiance to tone it down.  Szabó’s veil has a more practical purpose.  It is meant to hide the evidence of despair.

     It is meant to hide the evidence of a failed attempt to die.  Propping a shotgun against your chin is a bad way to do it, Szabó; you could miss your brain, blow your face completely off instead, and, in an ultimate act of wicked self-punishment for the sin of trying to throw away the irreplaceable gift of your life, survive.

     For Szabó did not see, in that moment, in that immutable instant that would change his life forever, that he was the gift.  Szabó believed, mistakenly, that the gift was in those paintings, that the hoarded treasures rolled up and stacked up in his storage room were in fact his worth and his life.

     Such fragile belief.  Such a thread to hang a life from.  Snap, goes the thread.  It all comes down, because Szabó couldn’t see.

     It was not a good scene at the hospital.  All the nurses and attendants, from the paramedics on down, even as they shoved tubes down his throat to keep him breathing, even as they started the IV, all wished fervently that he would just expire, and quickly too.  Any other result did not bear thinking about. The nurses whispered and murmured to each other, half-ashamed of themselves for the things they were thinking, the things they were saying.

    All the while his heart kept beating, steadily, steadily.  Szabó was not ready to die.  As it turned out, he had missed his brain completely.  Though the front of his head was one big ooze, practically a crater, with only vestigial jaw left, and a bit of facial bone structure, he was literally left without eyes, nose, chin, teeth, lips, and tongue. 

     He still had his mind, he still awareness, he knew what was going on around him.       That was the horror of it; the horror.

     His hearing was completely unaffected.  In fact it seemed to have become more acute, perhaps to compensate for the loss of his eyes.  So he could hear all the remarks of the hospital staff as they worked on him that night: Have you seen this one?  No. Come on, take a look at it.. Oh God.  Sweet Jesus.  This is a sad one.  Don’t worry, he won’t make it ‘til morning.  Well, let’s hope not.  Nobody can live like this.

     There was surgery.  The doctors did the best they could, which was not much, tying off blood vessels, packing the huge wound with gauze.  They discussed possibilities, queasily:  skin grafts?  A face transplant?  But such a thing wasn’t possible. Would it ever be? Wasn’t that just the realm of science fiction?  No one in the ER had ever seen anything this extreme, not even the plastic surgeon who had put faces back together into a semblance of normalcy after hideous burn disfigurement and automotive catastrophe. Still his heart kept on beating, and beating.

     He won’t make it ‘til morning.

     Are you sure?  Look, there’s still a good strong pulse.

     My God.  What’s he going to do?

     The surgeon, ashamed of himself, prayed that he would die.  He got loaded that night, just sat there boozing in the murky dawn half-light, then stuck a needle in his arm, full of Demerol.  It wasn’t the first time he’d done that, but it wouldn’t be the last time, either. 

     In the morning, Szabó became conscious for a while, before slipping into a dark and muddy coma, swimming deep in some subterranean cave of his psyche for several days. He saw his father’s face in the coma, heard his cranky, complaining voice haranguing him for being such a failure, he saw his mother Magolna as she looked in her youth, beautiful, full-lipped and laughing, and he saw other things, things he never wanted to think about again, seared indelibly into his mind so that they replayed automatically in this deep state, as if they had been pre-recorded on an endless loop. 

     A new nurse came on shift, and began to feel sick.  She was overcome with nausea at the sight of him.  Another almost fainted and had to be relieved.  This was an experienced nurse, one who could tie off arterial gushers and sling around bloody afterbirths like they were so many McDonald’s hamburgers, but even she couldn’t stand the sight of him.

     This was as shocking as the case of the two-headed baby born in Argentina, an extreme form of conjoined twins sharing one body, the sight of which made strong men woozy.  Something that should not be.

     Szabó lived.  Strangely, after the shotgun blast that annihilated his face forever, he lost the urge to die - which is not to say that he gained the urge to live, but it was enough,  just enough to get him through.  Perhaps it would have made sense for him to swallow cyanide or throw himself in front of a train.  Instead, he joined the kingdom of night, slipped into the realm of the dusk-dwellers, which is where he had always belonged anyway.  Now he was an official card-carrying member, a member of a strange organization with no organization, full of heroin addicts and hookers and crazy people living in a twilight world.  Intractible suffering was not a place visited, but a permanent home.  His passport was his face, or the lack of one.  His white cane thwacking the sidewalk warned everyone in his path to get out of the way, here comes Szabó, or what’s left of Szabó, the man without a face, the blind painter who no longer paints because he can’t see the canvas.  Can’t talk because he doesn’t have a mouth.  Can eat, through a feeding tube; can make sounds, as his larynx is completely intact; can even sing.  The spectre of Szabó singing, waving his white cane back and forth in front of him on a fine spring morning is enough to send everyone scurrying for cover.  Can’t see; can’t talk; can sing, and seems to know every operatic aria written for the past 200 years.

     Szabó mounts the steps of the Number 42 on a wet Wednesday morning in the springtime, at 9:47 a.m. precisely.  The bus is on time, for once.  The driver sees him get on, and thinks:  oh, that guy.  He’s a regular, all the drivers know about him, they talk about him sometimes, tell stories, but you don’t know what to believe.  Bert Moffatt the bus driver feels sorry for Szabó, wonders what deformity lurks under the blanketlike covering over his head, some cauliflower growth or third eye. Would probably be sick if he saw the mass of scar tissue that used to be a face, the nose hole, the hole for the feeding tube, the hint of an eyebrow left, but no eyes.  Szabo keeps it covered, he veils himself, knowing the world is not ready for a man with no face.  He sits down on the orange plastic-covered sideways seat reserved for the elderly and the handicapped, beside a youngish-looking woman with straw-coloured hair pulled back in a ponytail and a faded green backpack stuffed full of old junk.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Giant Head, No Brain: the Donald Trump Easter Island statue

NEWS FLASH: from The Vintage News!

Actually the giant heads of Easter Island, do have bodies, but landslides have covered them up

The reason people think they are [only] heads is there are about 150 statues buried up to the shoulders on the slope of a volcano, and these are the most famous, most beautiful and most photographed of all the Easter Island statues.

This is just one of those moments of serendipity that makes me want to do the Dippity-Doo.

I was trying to get through the usual abominable trash on The Vintage News (which for some reason keeps dragging me back, though it's about as well-researched and scholarly as Ripley's Believe it or Not) when I came across the beginning of an article on the famed Easter Island statues that was so horribly written, I burst out laughing. I just had to cut and paste the beginning of it, but then, when I went to look for an illustration. . .

It was just too perfect: a giant head that somehow completely lacked a brain.

Fair game: those old family photos on the internet

Blogging is an organic process, like all serious writing. (Serious! As 3/4 of this blog is satire, how can I say that? But satire is perhaps the most serious writing of all). This piece is beginning to evolve from some thoughts I've been having for quite a while now.

In spite of my general disdain for Facebook, there are a few pages that I "visit" regularly (in other words, I look at them, and read them if there's anything to read). One of them is called The Kitsch Bitsch. True to its name, the page posts tacky items, photos and videos and gifs, many of them from the '50s, '60s and '70s. There are certain themes or subjects that come up so often, it almost gets tedious. A few times a week there is a vintage recipe for a jello mold containing all sorts of disgusting "entombed" ingredients such as organ meats and canned fish. Old ads for men's fashions run incessantly, and include long crocheted vests that look like macrame, crimplene jumpsuits, mint-green polyester leisure suits, and bellbottoms that remind me of the fins on a '57 Chevy.

But the favorite is/are old family pictures, cheesy things depicting drunk people, people in wigs, goofy-looking people of all kinds.

You see this all over the place. There are posts at Christmas that show "really lame Christmas photos". High school yearbook photos are a favorite. The common theme is goofiness, awkwardness, ugliness, or the bizarre. Until very recently I was all in, eager to comment on how completely lame these things were.

Then I began to think (never a good idea, but I did): hmmmmm. Where do these things come from?

As with Pinterest, we usually don't know where pictures posted on the internet/social media come from. They just sort of . . . appear. When they do, they're apparently in the public domain and can be passed around freely, and ridiculed even more freely. Some of the comments are quite nasty: swipes, jeers, and groans. Everyone feels entitled to do this - it's a free-for-all, with no holds barred.

But lately, I have started to think: what if someone I knew, someone who used to be a close friend and had a big trove of my personal family photos, had a falling-out with me and decided to get a little revenge? What would it be like to see all my old pictures out there, including the crazy, bizarre ones, duplicated and shared again and again and again, with an ever-longer list of nasty comments appended?

I've never heard anyone say anything about this. These aren't real people! Are they? Are you kidding? Who thinks about that? They're just goofy old photos on the internet, and who knows/cares where they came from. This means they can show
drunk people, out-of-control people, people weeping or hitting each other, people with disabilities - heywaitaminute.

People with disabilities?

Of course we have the thick glasses (and I have tons of those photos - mine were true Coke bottle-bottoms before the plastic variety came along). Thick glasses are ridiculous and stupid and something to be publicly jeered at. Never mind if the person is legally blind or has cataracts or is - OK, should I stop now? Have I suddenly lost my sense of humour?


But I've seen some of those "cheesy" photos - and I think the feeling is "oh, we all have those cheesy family photos so it's OK" - in which it's pretty obvious to me that a child has Down syndrome or some other disability that may be barely visible. It makes the person look "different", thus "goofy" and fair game.


If I suddenly found my family trove on the internet, on Pinterest or Facebook or wherever, I'd probably feel like I had been punched in the stomach. We can't control these things because once a photo is in someone else's hands, it can be "out there" in a nanosecond. WE aren't necessarily in on the joke.

I had another thought - oh God, let me PLEASE stop thinking. What if the image that popped up on Instagram or somewhere else was your deceased Grandma, or your father, or your brother who had been killed in an accident? What if the grief was very fresh - or not so fresh, but still taking up residence in your heart?

We make assumptions on the internet, and one is that goofy-looking things/people can be mocked with impunity.  If these were real people, surely they're all dead by now. Or they don't mind it, it's just as funny to them (no matter how savagely nasty the comments are, including calling a mentally challenged person a "retard").

I don't know about other people because I'm not "other people". But there was a time in my life when, if I had suddenly seen a photo of my father's face  jumping out at me from nowhere, I would have retreated in horror and spent the rest of the day weeping. It took five years of therapy for me to come to terms with the fact that he sexually abused me when I was a child. As a matter of fact, his photo IS on the internet in various places, and (to my horror) I was ambushed by it not long ago.

How did it get there? I don't know. That's another thing. If you are having difficulties with your family and there is a schism, people on the other side of it might start posting pictures -  post them "at" you, I mean, as a form of deliberate violation or revenge. Those pictures can get around like a (real) virus: just hit "share". You're automatically the target for whatever people want to publicly say about you.

At this point, the conversation takes a right turn and people begin to say, "Oh, don't be so sensitive. It's only a picture, It doesn't matter what people think. Just ignore them." So if someone finds and posts a picture of your falling-down-drunk father and the image makes your stomach drop through the floor, it's OK.  Especially the contemptuous hilarity that ensues in the comments section.

A photo means almost nothing now, we take dozens or scores of them a day, but forty or fifty years ago it was an occasion. Families usually posed for them, but the candid shots could be most revealing of what was really going on. People had to develop film then (remember?), and out of a roll of 24 shots, 3 or 4 might be "keepers". But people often kept the rest anyway, afflicted with that ridiculous post-war habit of "waste not, want not".

So how did those outtakes end up on the internet? I don't know, but it's hard for me to believe that the descendents of drunken Aunt Martha gleefully put them out there. Family albums even end up in estate sales when somebody dies. Deaths are messy, detritus abounds, and things like that just get lost in the shuffle.

Is there any way to stop this? Why should we want to stop something that's this much fun? The truth is, it's a blood sport now and part of internet culture. But I wonder if we shouldn't stop, once in a while, and think about those dead people, or perhaps the ones who are still alive and suffering through all those comments.

ADDENDUM. One of, perhaps, many. Or not. Aside from kitsch photos, I used only my own family pictures for this. Because I don't keep weird-looking ones, as a rule, most of them aren't very weird. But all of them have meaning.

Old photos are saturated with meaning. As saturated as the godawful old 1970s Kodachrome colour process in those prints. In gathering up a few images for this thing, I did seriously think of including one of my father, which ambushed me from a Chatham-Kent Facebook page a while ago. In it, he stares into the camera with a shark's dead eyes.

For reasons I can't comprehend, I kept the two photos I found. I just did. I was going to paste them up here, but when I went to open the file, it was like the Wicked Witch of the West trying to get Dorothy's slippers off. A big lightning-bolt shot out at me and I jerked back as if I had been electrocuted.

Not that those pictures mean anything. Why such a big deal?