Campbell Avenue

It was the day he died. Jake was in his wheelchair, with the beach nearby. He tried chewing a cheese sandwich with his poorly fitted dentures, holding it in a fingery hand, fat knuckled and shiny, blue veined with ridged fingernails, ready for clipping. He was ninety, his eyes failing pale and his once thick hair, a memory of primeval mirrors.

“Is it wrong to recall a shady path I hiked as a boy?” he said, his voice like a rainwater hiss. “It lead up a hill to the stand of maples. Not the small leafed maples from back east, that go red in the autumn. But the large leafed ones, that go yellow. Even those are rare out here. It was a summertime camp. The Church sent us there, to sleep in wasp infested cabins and have the Bible read to us.

“Is it wrong to talk about that?” said Jake. “Because the nurses at the Home say I talk too much.”

“No,” I said, wondering why. “It would be wrong to remember it silently.”

“Maybe I should just keep it to myself,” he said. “How the path twisted round an outcropping and later, a small pond. The leaves made these quick round and round gestures in the wind, some falling, dying early. Maples are that way, you know, letting good leaves fall too soon.”

“It’s remembering that makes conversation pleasant,” I said. “It pulls you out of yourself, like a weed.”

He gave up on the sandwich, and placed it on a knee.

“I swam in that pond. It was a few years before I went to war.”

“The war must have been terrible,” I said.

“It was. It was a special kinda hell, assigned to boys with hunger where they should have kept their common sense.”

It was a quieting comment, unintended but necessary. We listened to the waves on English Bay.

Then he said, “I remember how my father and I would take to the wharf at the foot of Campbell Avenue, and fish off the docks for bullheads. They rarely took the bait, though, because there were so few of them then. They were the only species that could make a living in the filthy water. The Depression had made even bullheads gamefish. But still, they were rare.

“So few fish meant that our excursions were more for boat watching. There was the Anna Marie, there was the Zephyr Sound. The docks sweat creosote in the summer. It was where fishing boats tied their lines, crews smoking and mending nets. Bait was loaded there. Occasionally, there was even a steamer moored to the opposite pier – massive compared to the seiners and trollers, as large as the Great Wall of China, crewed by foreign looking men, spitting tobacco into the ocean from high on deck, leaning over the rail to watch the wads of it go splash.”

“Vancouver was different then,” I said.

Jake stopped talking, and thought.

“It smelled like coal smoke and pulp mills,” he said, coughing, barely able to raise a hand to cover his mouth.

“One day,” he said, “we arrived on the docks to see the police pull a body out from between the boats. It was June, 1935; I was thirteen. We stood there watching, holding our fishing rods. After a while my father said, That’s Buzz Turko. He said it like Buzz was the risen Jesus, Himself — all wet and dead.

“A steamer crew from across the way leaned on the rail of their ship and laughed, slapping each other’s backs. For them, it was real entertainment.

“A loop went round his body and came up under his arms, and they used a fishing boat winch and boom to hoist him out. The water poured off of him at first, then he just hung there and dripped, while they waited for the Coroner. His head hung limp and he swayed on the line for a while, so I could see his silvery popping eyes. His skin was white, and there was a clean black hole in his forehead.”

“Who was Buzz Turko?” I said.

A gangster, my father whispered, fixes the horses, runs brothels, sells cocaine. Not anymore, said my ten year old mind. How he came to be in the water, I didn’t know. But Buzz was for the undertaker now, that much was for sure.

“The papers were smug about it — a bad guy gettin’ his. The funeral was grand, and the bullheads did without a free lunch. But Vancouver still smelled like coal smoke and pulp mills.

“Then the war came four years later and men fell like leaves, covering battlefields like a forest floor.”


at the dentist

I see rage in every tooth he pulls out of me
rows of riot old as orbits
these teeth punched and kicked by cops
that bit down hard on stone and insult
that were exposed in crazed smiles
from behind the isolation glass

one root hooks round the jaw
the tooth screaming that it will not go
it was loyal and food feared it
it kept wisely quiet
while other parts of me conspired to talk

I am tolerant of its behaviour
having myself been prised
out of worlds without reason

the semicolon smile

choose your despot, any one you like
and ask yourself this:
what if he had received
a semicolon smile
in an email on a gloomy day
as he ran his sweaty hands flat
across mountain ranges, oceans and cities –
and yet to be deluded minds

just dropping you a line to say Hi , you nutty fascist, you ;-)

 hope your war crimes, evil deceits and
illegal acquisition of wealth are going well –
oh, and the torture of dissidents

 hope your paranoia and self-loathing
aren’t tearing you to pieces
and nightmares of your parents
with their blame assigning eyes
don’t wake you raving in the night

don’t let your morbid narcissism
lead you to self-harm

have a nice day, Tootsy ;-)

would a ;-) have eased his megalomaniac mind
or would he have hung QWERTY from a tree
and blitzed the winking world?


Used to be Lola got what she wanted. At the bar in the dim lush life light, young in the satin evening. On the edge of men with all of their fear and fraud, and Fathers’ Day verse tucked into watch pockets, who missed their suburban trains with intent, who snapped their fingers and were Frank Sinatra.

And all of the girls who believed their cocktail omens, who wrote their poems with lipstick on the windshields of Buicks, who were adored but never worshiped. Did they know that that was it, to love it? Dizzy in a club on Broadway. A Night in Tunisia, and the chore of fitting whole lifetimes into a single evening. Amber stones of Birdland. Tibetan cool, when all was well with jazz, and the dark wet night could have been masculine or feminine, or a gender we don’t know.

the Mona Lisa postcard

there’s so little space on a postcard to say
Paris is amazing, there are
maps & taxied streets
suitcases & tunnels of bones, the
skulls & femurs & cervical vertebrae of
past Catholics & secret heretics
waiting on Rapture in dark spidery spaces

but the postcard arrives
on a monsoon Friday
Elinor’s cursive writing, the
words baguette & UNESCO &
on the other side the
calm face of La Joconde of
whom I have nothing to say, she’s
just not my type though I
might agree to carry her organic groceries
I sense she was a simple girl

take your meds

FYI, telling a person who you know has a mental disability to ‘take your meds’ when you disagree with her or him, is bigotry. It’s also a cheap and lazy way to make your point in a conversation. It’s the same as calling them a psycho, a mental case, a retard or any other prejudicial term.

I was made acutely aware of how common this use of language is once more today, when a person in my neighbourhood, who knows I live with a mental disability, disagreed with me on the topic of personal boundaries.

“Oh, take your meds,” he said, like that cemented his side of the conversation.

“What a bigoted thing to say,” I said. “Do you know how hateful and stigmatising a term that is?”

Apparently not. He looked shocked for a moment, then incredulous. Then he told me to fuck off, and walked away.

This is a person who would never use the N word, or any other horrible slur against a racial minority, and rightly so. But he felt within his rights to slap me with this stigmatising term. Perhaps he didn’t expect a person with bipolar disorder, who endures episodic bouts of psychosis, to logically assert himself in a conversation.

But I wonder, how many times do I have to be certified under the Mental Health Act, and held against my will, without being charged with or convicted of any crime? How many times do I have to attempt suicide because the voices and my inner narrative say it’s the only way? How many times do I have to be beaten and restrained by the police for eccentric, but harmless behaviours? How long do I have to subsist living in legislated poverty? And, how many times do I have to encounter mocking and infantilizing dismissal, whenever I raise these questions?

Finally, how long do I have to survive in spite of these things, and more, and mostly prosper, before I gain the right to respect?


You will see it, if you care to look, the sign over the broken wrought iron gate to his mind and marrow, that reads, Madness will Set You Free. He didn’t put it there. It just appeared one day, and it’s never gone away. Sometimes he looks up at it, as the crows fly by, listening to the whispered song of his dear choir, the voices holding their glorious, prolonged note that he has heard forever, and he wonders if the sign is true.

“Mr Virtue…?”

The bright white 2×2 metre isolation room had a telephone booth florescent ceiling light, and a yellow tile floor with a drain in the centre. In contrast, he wore a blue hospital gown, smeared with his own blood, and nothing else. They’d probably already burned his clothes, stinking like creation, of shit and sweat, as if he were his own primal season. But they hadn’t yet attended to his cut lip, or the scabbed over blows to his head. Earlier, as they restrained him, as they held him down with a mattress, someone had shone a penlight into each of his eyes, and had said, calmly, everydayishly, no contusion.

No contusion? The cops had tried and failed.

“Mr Virtue?”

It was a tall, obese male nurse, with another standing behind him. Either one would be difficult to move; escape was impossible. The nurse was calling him by his alias, the one he had thought up when he arrived cuffed, in a cop hammerlock — Mr Virtue.

“We need to draw some blood and take your blood pressure, Mr Virtue,” the fat nurse said.

“No more sedation,” Virtue replied, sitting up. “No more goons holding me down.”

“Just try to trust us, and maybe there won’t be any need.”

Trust was a greasy sloping floor he’d skidded down before.

“Fuck you,” he said, spitting up a brown metallic tasting substance, which might have been blood or half-digested Pentecostal soup.

The BP cuff went round his bicep, and was unpleasantly inflated.

“You had no ID when you arrived,” the nurse said. “Where do you live?”

Virtue only shook his head.

“Do you take street drugs?”

“No, but I need a drink. I need a fucking cigarette.”

“Do you have allergies?”

“People,” he said, fists clenching and banging his thighs. “People give me spots, man. I swell up and itch. Sometimes I can’t breathe when they’re around. I go anaphylactic. Especially cops and nurses. Just give me a pill for people.”

“Is there anyone we can contact?”

“No,” he said. “Everyone’s here.” And he knew as the words dissolved into the florescent air, that he’d said the wrong thing.

He looked around the room, and all were present. The bus driver who told him to get off of the bus, even when he wasn’t on the bus; Natasha, who said she loved him, and who had laid her soul upon his cutting board, but who remained untouchable; Raymond, with whom he enjoyed shouting obscenities in public library; Chico, with his bleeding eyes peeking out from between the elastic bands wound tightly round his face, who Virtue had loud quarrels with, who brought his rubber band face so close to his own that Virtue swung his fists wildly at what no one else could see. And the choir, whose members were harder to observe, fading in and out. Infants who never aged and the foul smelling spirits with their backward faces. They never stopped singing their endless note — Ahhhhhhhh — in E-flat major — for forty-five years, never stopping once to take  a breath.

“They’re all here, baby,” he said to no one. “I don’t know how they all fit, but they’re here.”

Shut the fuck up — Chico said — You always tell them too much.

“Kiss my ass,” Virtue yelled, and swung his fists.

The nurses stepped back.

“Have you ever been on medication, Mr Virtue?”

It was a new voice. He stopped swinging and focussed on the door, listening very carefully.

It was a woman’s voice this time. She was a tall one, too. He knew before he even saw her. The tall ones’ voices were as lofty as ceiling beams. He had to look up to see their spoken words melt like lemon drops. She walked into the isolation room, the nurses exiting, but standing nearby.

“Are you in charge round here?” Virtue said.

“My name is Dr Elizabeth Chang,” she said. “I’m a psychiatrist.”

“You say that like it’s Christmas,” Virtue said, running his tongue over his cut lip, “like I’m gonna get presents.”

“What about it?” she said. “Have you ever been on medication? For the voices, the hallucinations, I mean.”

“Hallucinations?” he said, looking round him.

Shit! Fuck! Motherfucker! Shit! Shit! Fuck! — Raymond screamed.

Virtue covered his ears with his too tight fists.

“Mr Virtue…?” Chang said.

“Yeah,” he hollered, banging his ears, gasping, clenching his entire body. Then, quieter, rocking a bit, he said, “Sure, they gave me pills once. Little white and blue things. They crawled around in my mouth like bugs, like beetles with switchblade feet and napalm in their bellies. Like drones looking for a Pakistani wedding party. I spit ‘em out, and the goons put us all in a room just like this.”

“Us? Who is us?”

“Me and the gang,” he said, looking round him. “We played cribbage for three days.” He saw Natasha smile. Maybe she remembered. “They slid my food under the door. I never won a single game. Chico cheats.”

You’re a fucking whiner — Chico said.

“How long ago was that?”

“Several centuries.”

“Well medications have improved since then.” Dr Chang said. “Would you like to try something now? Something that would calm you, take the voices away?”

He frowned at the idea. Was it sloppy disdain in her voice?

Get off the bus — said the bus driver.

“I paid my fare,” Virtue said.

Get off my goddam bus!

“Mr Virtue…?” said Chang.

The choir sang louder.

“Who else have I got?” he said. “If they go away…?”

You’re a pussy — said Chico, bringing his bleeding eyes close, closing them hard so that the blood dripped off of his chin. Virtue could see the outline of a smile beneath the elastic bands around his mouth.

“The police want to take you to the Forensic Unit,” Chang said. “They’ll force you to take medication there, and you’ll be placed in with some very dangerous people. If you consent to treatment here, you’ll be certified, and I can keep you in relative comfort, get you cleaned up, let you stay on the P5 ward.”

“Psyche ward,” Virtue said, repulsed.

“Yes,” said Chang.

“It’s a petting zoo.”

“Will you let a doctor look at your cuts and bruises?”

“You want to kill them with pills,” Virtue said. “Would you take a pill to kill your friends, your family?”

Don’t let her put me in the morgue — cried Natasha.

“They’re obviously causing you distress, Mr Virtue,” Chang said.

“And your family doesn’t cause you distress,” Virtue said. “Occasionally?”

“Yes,” Chang smiled, “of course. But I can take time away from them, when I want to.”

“Ha! No you can’t,” Virtue pounded the floor. “You can’t take time away from them, at all. They’re always in your head, aren’t they? The anxieties they cause, and their smothering conditional love? Don’t lie to me. All of what they’ve said to you, done to you. The passive aggressive acquiescence. The religion. Their platitudes and bizarre poisonous illogic. False memories. The counterfeit Christmases. The viral dysfunction. Their dissatisfaction and mock appreciation. Their doubts, your doubts. Fear for their safety. Your fear of death, of abandonment, of watching them age and perish before your very eyes. The madness children will bring with them out of the womb. How the wealth of generations is redistributed. All of that’s pulsing through you, right now.”

“No, Mr Virtue,” Chang said. She’d hesitated — barely perceptive uncertainty. He’d hit a chord.

Go for it — Chico yelled.

“Oh, I can hear it like a siren,” Virtue said, smiling for the first time since his arrival. “Like someone scratching at the door to a cell she’s wanted to escape from since the moment she first felt the hands grab her round the throat and squeeze. You feel those hands squeezing right now, don’t you! You see their mute faces and their unblinking eyes. Don’t tell me you can take time away from that, and I won’t tell you that it’s easy for me.”

Virtue struggled now, to get to his feet. He’d aimed a communication beam right into the psychiatrist’s brain, and poured on the power. He would draw her in. He would introduce her to Chico. Chico would thank him. Chico was lonely.

A nurse stepped in to hold him down.

“Word salad,” Chang said to the nurse. “Olanzapine, 20 mg intramuscular injection. I’ll draw up the order.”

“Twenty milligrams?” said the nurse. “Are you sure?”

“I’ll be at the desk,” she said, “writing it up. Restraints if necessary. Prepare him, and I’ll arrange for transport to Forensics.” She walked away.

“Sorry, dude,” the nurse said to Virtue. “Things are about to get nasty for you.”

Your body’s a fire, Virtue — Chico said — Let ’em send you into hell.

Virtue looked up and saw the crows fly by. He saw the sign over the broken wrought iron gate, and said, “I’ll burn the whole fucking place down.”