lost ironies

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Tag: DTES

shame wheel

the shame wheel spins
only slowing round shift change, the fentanyl dawn
after doing the graveyard
handing out rigs at the door and listening to plights
having to be tough at times
down here where no one backs down
no, no bread tonight no sandwiches
yeah, I got socks no razors
yer right, I don’t know what it’s like
fuck me, another OD in the men’s room
as the neighbourhood tilts into daytime
throwing its own mercury switch
naloxone doesn’t always work it’s all about timing
sirens ambulance and fire the cops stay away
we’re good Samaritans after all
though none of us has heard of the Samaritan Pentateuch
it was Eric he had a bed in the sanctuary
did he have family?
the Mayor calls it a bloodbath
then has an organic lunch
the shame wheel spins

___________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

haunted shelter

3am

Gustav Holst plays in the dim gymnasium
—the gentle decay of orbits

I pass through the gym with my eyes on the floor
for there are monster faces in the shadows
of this old and long haunted church

then comes the two-way Narcan(!) crackle
someone dials 911

the face of the man on the washroom floor is blue when I arrive
the first two naloxone injections haven’t worked, and I
see flap in the faces of my unflappable coworkers
we wait on the third dose then hear
the fabulous deep inhalation

it’s raining outside
a trivial detail
but it fascinates me
after the ambulance has gone
__________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

photographing Spencer

It’s just me and Spencer, alone in an alley on the Downtown Eastside. He’s struggling with the Brillo in his crack pipe.

“Just hang on man,” he says—“I just scored. I’m really jonesing.”

He’s been sleeping on benches, shoplifting and begging. He’s filthy, a stunning ruin of a man. Finally he lights the tiny nugget in the glass tube and inhales. Then he shudders, exhales and says, “Ahhh fuck me.”

I’ve come to take his portrait so he can send it home, but now he’s wrecked. His eyes’ve gone reptile, and he’s confused by gravity. It’s not the picture his family will want to see.

“Damn you’re a mess, Spence,” I say, and he grins at me with his blistered crack-lips.

“Go ahead then. Take my fucking picture.”

And bam, I do. Sometimes I think the D-300 sounds like a gun going off. Bam bam bam…. Holding down the shutter release, circling him. It’s evening and the light is runny, the colours blunt. Every line on his face is accentuated, every deep hungry hollow, every childhood abuse stitched into his psyche.

“Last I got my picture taken, it was the cops,” he laughs. But his buzz is changing, even now. He lights up again, inhales/exhales and says, “I’m running out already. Lend me some cash.”

“I’ll buy you dinner at the Ovaltine, but I won’t lend you money.”

“Shit, I don’t want no dinner. I can get dinner at the mission.” Then he says, “Check this out…,” and attempts a pirouette. He falls on his ass, and I catch the fall in six shots, like the frames of a motion picture. I’m not cruel; I’m just a photographer. I offer him my hand. He ignores it.

Now sitting in the gutter sludge, Spencer says, “My old man fucked me, you know?”

“Yeah, Spence. You told me.”

“Like I was a bitch. Tore me open every time. Stopped when I was about fourteen. Guess I wasn’t pretty no more. Kept beating the crap outta me, though. The prick had a heart attack a couple of years back, died. Shit his pants when he did, my brother says. My mother’s fifty-five. Looks ninety.”

“Pictures are for her, huh?” I say.

“It was hard for her. ”

I’m silent for a moment. Crows are massing overhead for their night-flight back into the suburbs.

“I’ll work on the pics tonight,” I say, “colour and black & white. I’ll track you down tomorrow. We can use a computer at Carnegie to send them home. Try to make that shit in your pocket last.”

“I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.”

“I’ll look for you, anyway.”

“No,” he says, handing me a grubby note, “I mean I really don’t know.”

He’s already walking away as I read what’s written on the slip of paper—

Please send these words with the pictures: All my love too family and friends. Good-bye. This is followed by a short list of email addresses.

I shout at him, “What’s this mean, Spencer?” Then I run after him, grab his shoulder and turn him around. “What’s this mean?” And I know what it means just by what’s on his face. I let him go. I’m just a photographer.

________________________________________________________

everybody loves Mandy Patinkin – a Christmas story, sort of

It’s when you secretly slide it down into your lower frontal region that you realise why cheese is the most shoplifted grocery item in North America. It’s nutritious and a half pound of it is just the right size and shape to hide in your pants. In fact, I read somewhere that cheese theft was one of the primary reasons that most supermarket pharmacies opted out of methadone dispensing programs in the eighties and nineties. That means you have to be careful, because store security watches the cheese. Which is why I put it into the basket and walk around the store a bit before I sneak it into my jockey shorts.

That’s just something from the street, baby. I don’t care what you do with it. I mean, if you’re reading this, you’re probably all comfortable with a fridge full of cheese. And not that crappy orange shit they pass off as cheddar, either. You’ve probably got some Camembert, some Stilton or Parmigiano-Reggiano, maybe even some Crotin du Chavignol. Careful you don’t choke on it.

So anyway, you ever wake up with your head real messed up? Because you drank the night before, and it ain’t sitting well with the Olanzapine? Which is what you expected would happen but a friend had some cheap rye and you were feeling a bit lonely, so you helped him finish both bottles? Ever wake up like that? Probably not, because you can afford your own cheese. But it’s a bitch to wake up like that. I’ve had your conventional Betty Crocker hangovers and they aren’t anything by comparison. I mean it’s like you wake up and you’re suicidal and homicidal at the same time, but you don’t know what to do first. And isn’t it all about choices, man?

It was like that this morning and I wanted to sleep all day, but my landlady cut this six foot hole in my wall two weeks ago so the plumber could do exactly forty-five seconds worth of work and she hasn’t been back to fill it in. Now I can hear everything happening in the apartment above me. I mean I can hear the woman up there breathing. I can hear her light a cigarette and blow smoke. I can hear her thinking about what shade of lipstick to wear.

So there I am this morning lying in bed, eyes wide open at 9 a.m., listening to the woman in the apartment above me running her Swiffer back and forth over her linoleum like it’s some kind of aerobics—like it’s Swiffercise or something. And she’s listening to this lame-ass radio station playing Celine Dion and Michael Bublé.

So I get up, and I feel like shit. I mean you’ve got no idea. I can’t even puke my guts up and get it over with. Dry heaves are the best I can manage. Booze and court ordered atypical antipsychotics make for a whole different kind of hangover, baby. It’s like being in a food processor with the pulse setting cycling on/off on/off on/off on/off into infinity with Celine Dion and Michael Bublé sitting on your couch singing Don Ho tunes. At times like these, command hallucinations are redundant. I don’t need the dark shadow in the corner telling me to go downtown with a meat cleaver, but at least if it did it might ground me.

But I’m outta bed now. That’s my point. And I’m stumbling round like a fool. I even bounce off of the walls a couple of times. And I’m hungry. So I open the fridge and there’s the cheese. It’s orange and it glistens in its plastic wrap. It sits alone on a shelf in my otherwise empty refrigerator saying, I’m all you got, baby. Eat me. I reach in and gab it. Then there’s a knock at my door.

When I first met my neighbour Myron, I had one of those uh-huh moments. I remember looking at him and thinking, my god, the eugenicists were right! My thoughts rarely have exclamation marks but that one did. Over time, I’ve come to know his knock. It was him at the door. I closed my eyes with the cheese in my hand. What were the chances that if I stood perfectly still and didn’t make sound he’d go away? He knocked again.

Knock knock knock. “You in there, Nick? Got any weed? Nick? You home?” Rap rap rap. “Let’s smoke a joint, man. I’m feeling all strung out.”

Some of us are born with deficits. Others of us acquire them over time. Myron fits both categories. Once, in a drunken stoner of a conversation, Myron described an accident he’d been in. “It’s where I got my brain injury,” he said. He described to me how, as a kid, he’d nailed roller skates onto the bottom of the family toboggan, and rode it down the driveway. Into traffic.

“I remember seeing this big chrome bumper coming at me real fast,” he said. “It had an Alberta plate. It said Wild Rose Country just under the numbers. I was just a kid but I thought, wild roses must be real beautiful. Then, for a second, it got all bright, then real dark. It’s been kinda dark ever since.”

Knock knock knock. “Nick? I heard you bump into the wall, man. I know you’re in there.”

“Bugger off,” I yell.

“C’mon, Nick. I got the tinnitus real bad today. It’s making me crazy, man. C’mon. I know you got a bag of bud, man.”

I went to the door and opened it. “Why the hell don’t you tell the whole damn building?”

“What?”

“What do you mean what? You’re in the hall telling the world I got inventory. That’s fucked up.”

“That cheese?” He focussed on what I held in my hand.

“Shut up.”

Then looked up from the cheese, at me. “You look like shit, man.”

“Shut up.”

“Could I have some cheese?”

I grabbed Myron by the shoulder and pulled him in. “I thought you wanted to smoke a joint. You want cheese, too?”

“I like cheese,” he said.

“Fine. Sit down.”

I pulled a joint out of a small soapstone box above the electric fireplace and threw it at Myron. In the kitchen, I opened the cheese with a pair of scissors.

“You got a match?” Myron said.

I cut the brick of cheese into six chunks and threw one at him through the kitchen door. It bounced off of his nose and onto his lap. He looked down at it with his mouth open.

“You got a match?” he said again.

I grabbed a Bic off of the top of the refrigerator, and threw it at him. It bounced off of his forehead and fell next to the cheese.

“Let’s watch Mandy Patinkin videos on the YouTube,” he said.

“Mandy Patinkin? No way, man. ”

“C’mon, man. They cut off my internet.”

“Why you all hot for Mandy Patinkin all of a sudden?” I said. “You turning queer?”

“No. He’s just got a good singing voice.”

“Forget it, man. You’re in a Mandy Patinkin free zone.”

“Hey man, what’s wrong with you? Everybody loves Mandy Patinkin.”

“Fuck if I do,” I said chewing on cheese.

Then Myron said, “Check it out. I do a great Mandy Patinkin impersonation. Listen: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

“It’s getting real gay in here,” I said.

“He’s a talented and sensitive guy who’s overcome great adversity—I read that somewhere.”

“Isn’t that swell.”

“I think so,” Myron said lighting the joint.

Then I said, “Hey, you know I knew a guy once that looked like Mandy Patinkin. His name was Dick. Dick Freed. He was even more fucked up than you, Myron. He dealt crack downtown. Smoked as much as he sold. One day, after a harsher than average encounter with the cops, Dick says he’s had it. Fuck the cops, the crack, the other addicts, sleeping in the alley. He says he’s gonna disappear, leave the city. Go to the country and live in the woods, or some shit like that.”

“Sounds good to me,” Myron said. “Can I surf some porn?”

“No,” I said. “Hands off the computer. So anyway, I tell Dick he’s full of shit. I tell him that every skidder-junky I ever met downtown says the same thing. They ain’t even got bus fare but they’re going to live in the woods or with the goats on some imaginary farm. They’re gonna get all clean and healthy and shit and start eating their vegetables. And then I told him that it never happens. I never met anyone that made it out. Talk‘s cheap, and it’s boring. And then I told him another thing; I told him to be careful because, in my experience, it was always shortly after a junky starts talking that kind of shit that he overdoses or gets knifed or gets, in some other way, dead. When you lose your focus on the street, you die baby. That’s just the way of it.”

“You got crackers?” Myron said, taking a monster toke. “Cheese needs crackers,” he coughed.

“I got ‘em, but you can’t have any. So, I run into Dick Freed a few times after that. One time, he’s all bandaged up. He’d just gotten his arm sliced by some crazy bitch named Helga in the Savoy. Not with a knife, but a broken beer glass. The next time, I’m pissing out back of the Washington Hotel and there he is, bleeding bad leaning up against a dumpster. Beaten for outstanding debts. I made sure he was still breathing, and split. Called 911 from the hotel lobby.”

“Can we listen to Howard Stern, man?” said Myron.

“Shut the hell up, I’m telling a story. Next time I see Dick is the last time. Months go by. Dick Freed is nowhere downtown. I stop thinking about him. Some other dealer takes over his spot on Hastings Street. His name comes up a couple of times in conversation—Whatever happened to Dick Freed? You remember crazy Dicky Freed, looked just like Mandy Patinkin?—that kind of shit. But he’s real gone, and I figured dead.

“Then it’s December, just before Christmas, and I see him. Dick Freed, walking up Hastings towards Carnegie. And he’s dressed real nice. He’s standing straight and walking kind of proud, like a real citizen. I mean, he actually looks out of place against the locals. I step aside as he approaches, and watch him coming.  When he sees me, he says hey there, Nick, and holds out his hand. We shake. He tells me that I’m looking swell, which I know I’m not. And I say the same of him, which he actually is. He asks if he’s been missed and I say that he has, by some. And then he tells me what happened.

“Back when I told him to be careful, that the shit he was talking was an overture to his own demise, he took it to heart. After the beating out back of the Washington Hotel, he begged five bucks and bought a lottery ticket. He lost. But he did it again and the lucky bastard won. He won ten million seven hundred thousand and change.

“So, now he lives in a nice little house in the woods on the Sunshine Coast. He’s gone off of the drugs and booze and he’s eating his vegetables. He said he was in the neighbourhood looking up old acquaintances. It was Christmas, after all. That was when he stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out a crispy new one hundred dollar bill and handed it to me. Ain’t much, he told me, but he hoped it would take the edge off.”

“Wow,” Myron said, in a cloud of smoke. “That’s kind of a cool story. What you told him helped him to move on, to overcome. That must have made you feel good inside.”

“Not really. I was jonesing, and I figured there must be more where that c-note came from. So, I pulled the kitchen knife I’d hoisted from the dollar store and robbed the bastard.”

“What?” said Myron.

“Yeah. Turns out, the dumb shit was carrying more than a thousand dollars. He was just asking for it, man.”

“You’re a real sick bastard, Nick.”

“I guess.”

“You got beer?” he said.

“Not for you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

the loneliest hotel room in the world

…is on the twelfth floor of east Hastings street
where the evangelists come
seeking the incomplete where
psychosis compels rebelling
against painted shut windows where
I have gone brown like a leaf the

hand outstretched
complete you hear as I
devise devising knowing the
voices are wrong always
wrong like a lover
ruinous in the world
genius in her use of zero
laughter applause
knocking at the door
saturate in the hall
haunted as I’m
sure they do as I’m
sure they are as I
have twice paid my rent there are
faults & folds I am
mountain ranges surfacing
fingers straights, breaking
no one has asked

consent is fantasy

 

 

Just don’t Call Me Banana Boy

pre-edit for publication in Right to Food Zine

It’s 5:30 a.m. on the last Wednesday of the month, and my alarm clock is screaming. In a flash, I’m up and making coffee. And I’m thinking that it’s a horrible thing, having to get up this early in the morning. After all, I’m an artist, man. My paths normally lead to later awakenings. But this is the morning I’m dispatched on behalf of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House on what we call the Banana Beat, and I have to get to the NH by 7:30.

By 6:30, I’m out the door and on my way. I live close to Lost Lagoon, near StanleyPark. It’s a fifty minute walk to the Neighbourhood House. So, I’ve got to move.

As I walk, I’m struck by contrasts. Up the hill from the park and along the Robson Street strip mall, with its unrestrained retail ballyhoo. Then through the downtown financial district, where traders have been at work for hours driving the economy into the toilet. And finally into the Downtown Eastside where the free-enterprise binners’ mall, out front of United We Can, is in full operation and generating actual wealth.

But there’s already a line-up at Pigeon Park Savings.

It’s the hungriest morning of the month in the hungriest neighbourhood in the city. And there are line-ups everywhere. Folks are patiently waiting at local offices of the BC Ministry of Social Development for their income assistance and disability cheques. Later, they’ll wait in line to cash them. I know their stomachs are growling as they queue. It’s been a month since their last cheque. That’s sort of where the Banana Beat Team comes in.

Yesterday, Cate, my Banana Beat co-worker, and I spent the afternoon with a dedicated group of volunteers. We separated several hundred bananas and re-boxed them. (Placing them back in their boxes, wrapped in plastic, helps them to ripen to perfection over night.) This morning, we’re taking those bananas out of the boxes again and putting them into our signature yellow shopping carts.

Shortly after 8:00 a.m., we’re out on two different routes, one down Hastings Street and one down Powell Street, with a gaggle of staff and volunteers distributing bananas to people in the above mentioned line-ups, and to anyone else on the street who wants one. That could mean you.

Banana Beat is one of the founding programs of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House. It began in 2007. The organic, fair-trade bananas come our way via Whole Foods, twelve cases in all each month. Eight of those boxes are generously donated by Whole Foods, and the Neighbourhood House purchases the remainder. Since 2007, the DTES NH has distributed approximately 77,200 bananas, one at a time, on the mornings of cheque issue, to hungry people in the DTES neighbourhood.

No one has to line up for a Banana Beat banana. People are invited to help themselves, and take one for a friend. And with each piece of the pasty fruit comes an invitation to visit and participate in inclusive and participatory programs at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House.

So just think of that when you see me next month at Hastings and Main, handing out bananas. But think twice before you call me Banana Boy!

everybody loves Mandy Patinkin – a Christmas story, sort of

It’s when you secretly slide it down into your lower frontal region that you realise why cheese is the most shoplifted grocery item in North America. It’s nutritious and a half pound of it is just the right size and shape to hide in your pants. In fact, I read somewhere that cheese theft was one of the primary reasons that most supermarket pharmacies opted out of methadone dispensing programs in the eighties and nineties. But you have to be careful because store security watches the cheese. That’s why I put it into the basket and walk around the store a bit before I sneak it into my jockey shorts.

That’s just something from the street, baby. I don’t care what you do with it. I mean, if you’re reading this, you’re probably all comfortable with a fridge full of cheese. And not that crappy orange shit they pass off as cheddar, either. You’ve probably got some Camembert, Stilton or Parmigiano-Reggiano, maybe even some Crotin du Chavignol. Careful you don’t choke on it.

So anyway, you ever wake up with your head real messed up? Because you drank the night before, and it ain’t sitting well with the Olanzapine? Which is what you expected would happen but a friend had some cheap rye and you were feeling a bit lonely, so you helped him finish both bottles? Ever wake up like that? Probably not, because you can afford your own cheese. But it’s a bitch to wake up like that. I’ve had your conventional Betty Crocker hangovers and they aren’t anything by comparison. I mean, it’s like you wake up and you’re suicidal and homicidal at the same time but you don’t know what to act on first. And isn’t it all about choices, man?

It was like that this morning and I wanted to sleep all day, but my landlady cut this six foot hole in my wall two weeks ago so the plumber could do exactly forty-five seconds worth of work and she hasn’t been back to fill it in. Now I can hear everything happening in the apartment above me. I mean I can hear the woman up there breathing. I can hear her light a cigarette and blow smoke. I can hear her thinking about what shade of lipstick to wear.

So there I am this morning lying in bed, eyes wide open at 9 a.m., listening to the woman in the apartment above me running her Swiffer back and forth over her linoleum like it’s some kind of aerobics – like it’s Swiffercise or something. And she’s listening to this lame-ass radio station playing Celine Dion and Michael Bublé.

So I get up, and I feel like shit. I mean you’ve got no idea. I can’t even puke my guts up and get it over with. Dry heaves are the best I can manage. Booze and court ordered atypical antipsychotics make for a whole different kind of hangover, baby. It’s like being in a food processor with the pulse setting cycling on/off on/off on/off on/off into infinity with Celine Dion and Michael Bublé sitting on your couch singing Don Ho tunes. At times like these, command hallucinations are redundant. I don’t need the dark shadow in the corner telling me to go downtown with a meat cleaver, but at least if it did it might ground me.

But I’m outta bed now. That’s my point. And I’m stumbling round like a fool. I even bounce off of the walls a couple of times. And I’m hungry. So I open the fridge and there’s the cheese. It’s orange and it glistens in its plastic wrap. It sits alone on a shelf in my otherwise empty refrigerator saying, I’m all you got, baby. Eat me. I reach in and gab it. Then there’s a knock at my door.

When I first met my neighbour Myron, I had one of those uh-huh moments. I remember looking at him and thinking, my god, the eugenicists were right! My thoughts rarely have exclamation marks but that one did. Over time, I’ve come to know his knock. It was him at the door. I closed my eyes with the cheese in my hand. What were the chances that if I stood perfectly still and didn’t make sound he’d go away? He knocked again.

Knock knock knock. “You in there, Nick? Got any weed? Nick? You home?” Rap rap rap. “Let’s smoke a joint, man. I’m feeling all strung out.”

Some of us are born with deficits. Others of us acquire them over time. Myron fits both categories. Once, in a drunken stoner of a conversation, Myron described an accident he’d been in. “It’s where I got my brain injury,” he said. He described to me how, as a kid, he’d nailed roller skates onto the bottom of the family toboggan, and rode it down the driveway. Into traffic.

“I remember seeing this big chrome bumper coming at me real fast,” he said. “It had an Alberta plate. It said Wild Rose Country just under the numbers. I was just a kid but I thought, wild roses must be real beautiful. Then, for a second, it got all bright, then real dark. It’s been kinda dark ever since.”

Knock knock knock. “Nick? I heard you bump into the wall, man. I know you’re in there.”

“Bugger off,” I yell.

“C’mon, Nick. I got the tinnitus real bad today. It’s making me crazy, man. C’mon. I know you got a bag of bud, man.”

I went to the door and opened it. “Why the hell don’t you tell the whole damn building, man?”

“What?”

“What do you mean what? You’re in the hall telling the world I got inventory. That’s fucked up.”

“That cheese?”

“Shut up.”

“You look like shit, man.”

“Shut up.”

“Could I have some cheese?”

I grabbed Myron by the shoulder and pulled him in. “I thought you wanted to smoke a joint. You want cheese, too?”

“I like cheese,” he said.

“Fine. Sit down.”

I pulled a joint out of a small soapstone box above the electric fireplace and threw it at Myron. In the kitchen, I opened the cheese with a pair of scissors.

“You got a match?” Myron said.

I cut the brick of cheese into six chunks and threw one at him through the kitchen door. It bounced off of his nose and onto his lap. He looked down at it with his mouth open.

“You got a match?” he said again.

I grabbed a Bic off the top of refrigerator, and threw it at him. It bounced off of his forehead and fell next to the cheese.

“Let’s watch Mandy Patinkin videos on the YouTube,” he said.

“Mandy Patinkin? No way, man. ”

“C’mon, man. They cut off my internet.”

“Why you all hot for Mandy Patinkin all of a sudden?” I said. “You turning queer?”

“No. He’s just got a good singing voice.”

“Forget it, man. You’re in a Mandy Patinkin free zone.”

“Hey man, what’s wrong with you? Everybody loves Mandy Patinkin.”

“Fuck if I do,” I said chewing on cheese.

Then Myron said, “Check it out. I do a great Mandy Patinkin impersonation. Listen: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

“It’s getting real gay in here,” I said.

“He’s a talented and sensitive guy who’s overcome great adversity. I read that somewhere.”

“Isn’t that swell.”

“I think so,” Myron said lighting the joint.

Then I said, “Hey, you know I knew a guy once that looked like Mandy Patinkin. His name was Dick. Dick Freed. He was even more fucked up than you, Myron. He dealt crack downtown. Smoked as much as he sold. One day, after a harsher than average encounter with the cops, Dick says he’s had it. Fuck the cops, the crack, the other addicts, sleeping in the alley. He says he’s gonna disappear, leave the city. Go to the country and live in the woods, or some shit like that.”

“Sounds good to me,’ Myron said. “Can I surf some porn?”

“No. Hands off the computer. So anyway, I tell Dick he’s full of shit. I tell him that every skidder-junky I ever met downtown says the same thing. They ain’t even got bus fare but they’re going to live in the woods or with the goats on some imaginary farm. They’re gonna get all clean and healthy and shit and start eating their vegetables. And then I told him that it never happens. I never met anyone that made it out. Talk‘s cheap, and it’s boring. And then I told him another thing; I told him to be careful because, in my experience, it was always shortly after a junky started talking that kind of shit that he overdosed or got knifed or got in some other way dead. When you lose your focus on the street, you die, baby. That’s just the way of it.”

“You got crackers?” Myron said, taking a monster toke. “Cheese needs crackers,” he coughed.

“I got ‘em, but you can’t have any. So, I run into Dick Freed a few times after that. One time, he’s all bandaged up. He’d just gotten his arm sliced by some crazy bitch named Helga in the Savoy. Not with a knife, but a broken beer glass. The next time, I’m pissing out back of the Washington Hotel and there he is, bleeding bad leaning up against a dumpster. Beaten for outstanding debts. I made sure he was still breathing, and split. Called 911 from the hotel lobby.”

“Can we listen to Howard Stern?”

“Shut the hell up. I’m telling a story. Next time I see Dick is the last time. Months go by. Dick Freed is nowhere downtown. I stop thinking about him. Some other dealer takes over his spot on Hastings Street. His name comes up a couple of times in conversation — Whatever happened to Dick Freed? You remember crazy Dicky Freed, looked just like Mandy Patinkin. That kind of shit. But he’s real gone, and I figured dead.

“Then it’s December, just before Christmas, and I see him. Dick Freed, walking up Hastings towards Carnegie. And he’s dressed real nice. He’s standing straight and walking kind of proud, like a real citizen. I mean, he actually looks out of place against the locals. I step aside as he approaches, and watch him coming.  When he sees me, he says hey there, Nick, and holds out his hand. We shake. He tells me I’m looking swell, which I know I’m not. And I say the same of him, which he actually is. He asks if he’s been missed and I say that he has, by some. And then he tells me what happened.

“When I told him to be careful, that the shit he was talking was an overture to his own demise, he took it to heart. After the beating out back of the Washington Hotel, he begged five bucks and bought a lottery ticket. He lost. But he did it again and the lucky bastard won. He won ten million seven hundred thousand and change.

“So, now he lives in a nice little house in the woods on the SunshineCoast. He’s gone off of the drugs and booze and he’s eating his vegetables. He said he was in the neighbourhood looking up old acquaintances. It was Christmas, after all. That was when he stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out a crispy new one hundred dollar bill and handed it to me. Ain’t much, he told me, but he hoped it would take the edge off.”

“Wow,” Myron said in a cloud of smoke. “That’s kind of a cool story. What you told him helped him to move on, to overcome. That must have made you feel good inside.”

“Not really. I was jonesing and I figured there must be more where that one hundred dollar bill came from. So, I pulled the kitchen knife I’d hoisted from the dollar store and robbed the bastard.”

“What?”

“Yeah. The dumb shit was carrying more than a thousand dollars. He was just asking for it, man.”

“You’re a real sick bastard, Nick.”

“I guess.”

“You got beer?”

“Not for you.”

the baloney chef

Vancouver, 1952

He was a tenor, and though no one could say if he was classically trained, when he wept, he did so with perfect pitch. And so, when his neighbours in the Hotel Empress heard his mournful sobs, they would say nothing and listen. His weeping was like a tragic climax to a third act, and those who listened couldn’t help but consider deeply the pitiable pathos that sometimes bleeds into the world. He never shared the secret of why he was so prone to lament. After all, what would be the purpose of one more sad man, on a planet of sad men, revealing his story for humankind to ponder?

This being said, it is also worth noting that there were days when he was filled with overwhelming joy. On those days, he walked against the Hastings Street crowd, tipping his hat to the ladies and singing enthusiastically an aria from Vincenzo Bellini or Giuseppe Verdi. He’d stand for hours at the corner of Main and Hastings singing in his perfect operatic Italian. Not for the nickels and dimes passers-by threw his way, but for the profound delight that came from the expressions of love and calamity that lived in the libretti. Even the beat cops of the day, instructed to move the indigent on, never forced the tenor to move. All in all, he was viewed by most as a sympathetic and heroic character.

Whatever it might have been once, and though it shares its name with many grander establishments in the world, by the time the tenor came to live there, the Hotel Empress in Vancouver had seen better days. As had the patrons passing through its Ladies and Men’s entrances. The tenor’s room was a longer than wide affair that he kept neat as a pin. There was room for a single metal frame bed, a sink, a small table and chair, a radio and a hotplate. His window provided a view of the Main Street bustle and the majestic Carnegie Library. And at night, the light of the red and turquoise neon sign flooded in, producing an atmosphere that was at once both bizarre and festive.

Now, it’s clear from the words above that the tenor was not a wealthy man. Some said that this was why he wept alone in his room, but most said no. He had fished and logged and been a miner as a young man, all occupations requiring a strong and healthy body. But in its way, time had caught up with him. He could no longer swing an axe or heft a net the way he once had and now braved the poverty that comes to some in their later years. His rent was reasonable but difficult to secure, and his daily victuals scant. But as a child, he’d been raised in a home of meagre resources. And he’d learned much from his frugal and creative mother. She’d been forced by circumstance to learn to do things with mere beans and bacon that rivalled many examples of haute cuisine. And she was a master at exploring the possibilities of baloney, the universal loaf of budget processed meat.

The tenor’s mother didn’t restrict herself to fried baloney. She stewed it, grilled it, baked it, simmered it, roasted it and barbecued it. She basted it and delivered it to the table fricasséed and in sauces. As a child, he’d watched her at work as she created baloney tours de force to place before her hungry family. And he knew from his own happy palate and his father’s satisfied smiles that his mother was a culinary genius. As an adult, he remembered and put his mother’s low budget culinary ideas to work for himself in his small room over the main entrance of the Hotel Empress in Vancouver.

What is little known, because of its ultimately disastrous outcome, is that Jehane Benoît visited Vancouver in 1952. Madam Benoît was born in Montreal and was trained as a chef at Parris’ famed Cordon Bleu cooking school. She was thought to be Canada’s premier chef, and had come to Vancouver to appear at Woodward’s Department Store on its famed Food Floor to promote her recently debuted television cooking show. This was made known to the tenor by Malcolm Riddle, the Food Floor’s manager, when the tenor came in to purchase a large baloney sausage for his newest creation, Baloney Chateaubriand.

Now, the quintessential Chateaubriand is a recipe prepared of thickly cut beef tenderloin. It was said to have been originally created for François-René de Chateaubriand, a diplomat who served Napoleon. When classically prepared, it is believed to be among the most appetizing and tender cuts of beef. The recipe consists of seared beef tenderloin roasted to perfection in a reduced shallot and wine sauce, then sliced on the diagonal. The tenor, however, had adjusted the recipe by substituting the beef tenderloin with a thick slice of baloney, shallots with cheaper garlic and onions and by using an inexpensive British Columbian wine in the reduction. The spices remained his secret and the roasting method was replaced with a hotplate process especially developed by him. When his recipe was followed to the letter, and accompanied throughout its preparation by the appropriate Verdi aria, the result was succulent and mouth-watering.

Rumours of this had reached the jealous Madam Jehane Benoît as her televised appearance at Woodward’s Department Store approached. And at first, she dismissed the rumours. Why should she have done otherwise? But as the day of her appearance grew nearer, she began to worry. How could such a low budget version of the classical French dish exist? And how could it be the creation of such a down-and-outer as the tenor, who not so secretly wept alone in his hotel room and made his living by singing on street corners? She decided as her self-promoting Vancouver date approached that she was offended by the idea, and sent her spies ahead of her.

The word she received back was that yes, there was a tenor who wept in perfect pitch alone in his cheap hotel room. And yes, he sang on street corners for nickels and dimes. And yes, he even had a talent for cooking tasty dishes using baloney as the key ingredient. But could he cook a dish equal to her Chateaubriand using baloney? Her spies could not establish the truth. Malcolm Riddle said yes. He’d tasted it, having been invited to the tenor’s room. Riddle claimed it was a masterpiece. But Riddle was a glorified grocery clerk. Still, Madam Benoît obsessed and fretted over the possibilities.

“We must confront this impostor,” she shouted at a production meeting, slamming her tiny fist on the table. “This will not stand. Bring him on to the program with me and we’ll see once and for all if his tasteless concoction rivals the real thing. We must challenge him, on the television, for all to see. He must be humiliated and put in his place.”

“Do you really think that’s necessary?” said a senior producer sitting nearby.

“I demand it,” said Jehane Benoît. “We cannot encourage this behaviour. The dignity of haute cuisine is at stake. We who hold elite positions in this backward little country must stand up to the riffraff or it will be September 1792 all over again!”

“September 1792?” said the senior producer.

“Oui monsieur, la Révolution ! Cela ne peut être toléré!”

“Oh,” said the senior producer, who worried for a moment about his standing in the CBC hierarchy and his paycheque. The he said, “I’ll make some phone calls.”

So it was that on a sunny autumn day, as he sang Puccini’s Che gelida manina at the corner of Hastings and Main over the traffic and sirens, he was approached by a CBC associate producer. He was a skinny kid, really, with a bad complexion. He waited for the song to end and then, with suspicious eyes and shifting feet because he wasn’t used to talking to the unwashed, he told the tenor what CBC had planned for him. A contest between the acclaimed Madam Jehane Benoît and him on nationwide television to determine whose Chateaubriand was the best. The judges would be the Mayor, the Police Chief and three CP Hotel chefs, two of which who would be flown in from Montreal and Toronto. To the winner went bragging rights but also, for the tenor should he win, a year’s supply of baloney compliments of the Woodward’s Food Floor.

Malcolm Riddle knew the year’s supply of baloney was a sham. No one believed the tenor would win. It was all a show to benefit Madam Benoît and her new television program. The tenor would be lucky to escape without being laughed off the stage. But it was an offer the tenor couldn’t turn down. A year’s worth of baloney was mighty inviting. So, he said yes.

The show was scheduled for a time near Christmas when Madam Jehane Benoît would have rather been demonstrating baking Christmas cakes and cookies to the housewives of Canada. But the tenor, the vicious little pretender, had painted her into a corner. The papers had picked up the story and the untidy city beat reporter Roscoe Phelps nicknamed the tenor the Baloney Chef. The tenor hated it, but it stuck. He was now known as the Baloney Chef everywhere he went. He was interrupted on the corner where he sang by women asking him for recipes. And little boys stopped to tell him how much they hated baloney and that he was to blame for their mothers serving it up with new fervour and increased regularity.

But when the day of the program came, the tenor, now Baloney Chef, was ready. He’d selected the baloney he wanted from the Woodward’s Food Floor butcher’s shop and all of the necessary ingredients from the Woodward’s shelves. The cameras and sound stage were ready when he arrived and he stood watching while busy people in smart clothes smoked and immersed themselves in the production of Jehane Benoît’s cooking show.

The tenor was positioned on the set by a heavyset man smoking a cigar who introduced himself as Antonio Biocchetti, the director. But not before he questioned a producer as to the tenor’s identity. Was this unkempt little man really the Baloney Chef, and did they really want him appearing on the same screen as Jehane Benoît?

A petite woman stood in for Madam Benoît as the sound and lighting were made perfect. There were seats for a small audience and the Mayor and Police Chief were seated at a table off screen with the three chefs. All five had pencils in hand. At 10:55 a.m., Madam Jehane Benoît came onto the stage to an approving round of applause. She bowed to the spectators and looked at the tenor with disdain. The tenor had been given no instructions and there had been no rehearsal. He was flying by the seat of his baggy pants. At 11:00 a.m., a red light came on one of the cameras and the program went live.

“Today we have a guest,” Benoît said. She looked over at the tenor and said, “The Baloney Chef.” There was reluctant applause. “And we will each be making our own version of Chateaubriand. I will make it correctly and this man will make his,” and here she sneered, “with baloney.”

After saying this, Benoît began cooking. She knew where everything was. The tenor did not. The director signalled him to get busy but he didn’t know where to turn. The one time before the first break that he was on camera, he looked crazed and wide-eyed. Madam Benoît smiled. At the break, the director spoke in the tenor’s ear and pointed to the ingredients. Then the director said an unusual thing for a television director to say. He said, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici.” And when he did, the tenor brightened. He looked over at Madam Benoît, and this time he smiled.

When the red light on one of the three cameras came on after the commercial break, Madam Benoît began, “Welcome back and today we are….” But that was as far as she got. On seeing the red light, and now aware of its significance, the tenor began to sing.

Libiamo, libiamo ne’lieti calici
che la bellezza infiora.
E la fuggevol, fuggevol ora
s’inebrii a voluttà
Libiam ne’dolci fremiti
che suscita l’amore,
poiché quell’occhio al core onnipotente va.
Libiamo, amore, amor fra i calici
più caldi baci avrà

It was the voice of the common man, and the cameras were now focused on the tenor as he sang and prepared his baloney Chateaubriand. Madam Benoît struggled to keep pace, trying to get a word in. But the tenor wouldn’t stop singing. He sang Puccini, Bellini, Verdi, Boccherini, Scarlatti and Gariboldi.  At the commercial breaks, the audience stood to applaud. But the tenor worked through the applause. And near the end of the program, the two Chateaubriands sat side by side. One made of the highest quality beef tenderloin, the other made of common baloney.

There was three minutes left for the judges to judge. They were served portions of the two finished recipes. The Mayor and Police Chief of Vancouver decided first. It was the tenor’s recipe all the way. The three CP Hotel chefs took longer and as the seconds ticked away, both contestants were aware that one vote could make all the difference.

The first chef to decide was the chef from the Château Frontenac in Quebec City. He was a stern looking man who grimaced perpetually and pulled at his earlobes. He wore a three piece suit and suede shoes. He came down squarely on the side of Madam Benoît’s Chateaubriand. The next chef to decide was the chef from the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. He wore a tweed sports coat and a thin paisley tie with a coffee stain on it and blinked as he chewed. He too voted for Madam Benoît’s Chateaubriand. It was now tied, with just the chef of the Hotel Vancouver left to judge. He was dressed in a vest and luxurious teal and burgundy cravat. He chewed as the seconds counted down. Then he took a drink of water and chewed some more. Then he summoned the contest referee and they chatted quietly together. The director gestured for them to hurry, but they ignored him as they consulted.

Finally word came down from the network that they were to go to a commercial break, but that the program would go overtime and cut into the soap opera that followed.

Meanwhile the Hotel Vancouver chef gesticulated fiercely as he whispered to the referee. The referee whispered back and applied the end of her index finger to the table top several times to emphasise her points. There was clearly some bone of contention. As the program returned from its commercial break, the referee threw her hands up in the air and walked away. The chef from the Hotel Vancouver sat alone, looking perplexed. Then he took another mouthful of Madam Benoît’s Chateaubriand and chewed some more.

Madam Benoît took this as a good sign and she smiled triumphantly. Then the chef from the Hotel Vancouver asked if he could ask a question of both the cooks.

“My two friends,” he said graciously, “your dishes are both very well done. But I wonder, what would be your suggested wine pairings with each?”

Madam Benoît raised her hand, squirming like a rabid schoolgirl, and said, hoping to keep things as local as possible, “I know of a lovely vintage 1941 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon.” It wasn’t local at all, of course. But what was she to do. In 1952, BC wines had yet to come into their own.

The Hotel Vancouver chef congratulated Madam Benoît on her choice and she was very pleased. She looked over at the tenor and openly smirked.

“And you, sir?” the chef said addressing the tenor. “What is your recommendation?”

The tenor looked at the chef dumbfounded. He tried to think of a wine suggestion as exacting as Madam Benoît’s. But he could think of none. He’d never eaten his baloney Chateaubriand with wine. He was a poor man. He usually had tea to accompany his meals, made with water boiled on his hotplate. At Christmas, he might have a beer. Finally he said, “Labatt Blue.”

“Oh,” said the Hotel Vancouver chef rubbing his chin as though he’d never heard of such a thing. “Oh my.”

“HA!” squawked Madam Benoît happily, and she clapped her hands in a conquering clap.

The chef continued to think, then consulted once more with the referee. After that he said, “I believe I know of the vintage 1941 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon you speak of, Madam Benoît. It’s appropriately brawny and nuanced, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. I would have preferred something French, like a Bordeaux or even a Madiran. Beer, however, would be the perfect pairing for the baloney Chateaubriand. And I have a guilty fondness for Labatt Blue. It’s the favourite of onion peelers and dish washers. I therefore cast my vote for the baloney Chateaubriand.”

The small studio audience went mad. They stood and applauded for five minutes.  Madam Benoît was gobsmacked. She faltered and an assistant director rushed to her aid. And before the program was ended and the network joined the soap opera in progress, the tenor was gone from Woodward’s Food Floor.

He returned several times throughout the following year to collect portions of his year’s supply of baloney, which he generously shared with friends and those in need. And he continued to sign Italian opera on the corner of Hastings and Main in Vancouver. His neighbours at the Hotel Empress even continued to occasionally hear him weep alone in his room, but would never learn why. All in all, he remained viewed by most as a sympathetic and heroic character.

Madam Benoît continued her Canadian television career, wrote books and promoted products for decades to come. But she would never relate the story of the battle of the Chateaubriands. It was later discovered that all copies of the program had been destroyed. But no one knew by whom.

taking photographs

it’s just me and Spencer alone in a
Downtown Eastside alley he’s
struggling with the Brillo in his
crack pipe just
hang on hang on he
says I’m
jonesing man

but I
don’t want to photograph Spencer stoned he
has a sweet Chet Baker face the
face Chet had before his
monsters took him down it’s
like knowing where Spencer is going how
he’ll look in a few years his
face in black and
white lit from the side his eyes
revealing as much closed as
open

finally
he lights the
tiny nugget in the glass tube and
inhales standing perfectly still he
shudders and exhales and says ah
fuck me then
OK
you can take my
picture now

then he
smiles the smile of
too many childhood violations of
too many bar fights too
many nights when only the
voices showed the way and the
voices were always wrong I
raise the Nikon and fire

damsels

he remembered how once the
hat was the man standing
in the doorway of his Chinatown hotel watching
the rain like a spectator listening
for the clatter of mahjong tiles from
a city of open windows

down the road was Japantown where
before gravity had bent him in two he
strolled along Powell in a fresh pressed
Woodward’s Suit and burnished Florsheims as
secretly on floors above him chaste
school girls danced in kimonos and

he remembered the machinegun damsels on
Cordova the chain smoking midnight women in
their pure starched white blouses with
switchblades in their handbags the
way they dared a man with their stare the
way like prophets they ruined the
myth of place