Trade Customers click here
← Back to Book Main Page

Excerpt from Chapter Two: Carlotta and the Mouse

The Mouse has fallen on unhappy times
no more the strutting hood of brighter days
he skulks the streets now wasted woebegone
a king-size monkey heavy on his back...

I was not exactly in a jubilant mood as I headed downtown. Getting thumped without warning by a total stranger was hardly my idea of a pleasant time. And getting hauled over the coals by my brother to boot had added insult to injury. Since he'd taken up with Lorraine, Ches had become annoyingly critical and holier-than-thou, particularly where junk was concerned. In the old days he'd been much more easygoing. Now he was always getting on my case about something - usually my friends. I suppose his intentions were good but his constant carping was getting to be a royal pain in the ass.

The cut on my lip was pretty minor. It had stopped bleeding by the time the bus reached Hastings and Main. Ignoring the curious glances of a couple of passengers, I hit the bricks and headed west along the Skid Road's main drag. I hadn't even considered where I was going. I just wanted to try and shake off the morning's painful and puzzling events.

The usual crew of tenderloin regulars thronged the sidewalk around me - knots of carousing loggers lurching noisily from bar to bar; shabbily dressed East End housewives looking for bargains at the Army and Navy or the Save-on- Meat store; scrofulous winos with grimy paws cadging dimes in raspy voices; cut-rate hookers wearily heading for toast and black coffee at some greasy spoon cafe; a furtive heroin pusher bound for the Broadway Hotel - Vancouver's notorious "Corner" - to set up shop at a dim beer parlour table; a native girl emerging from a fleabag walk-up with a black eye and a bleary, bemused look; morose old men who were neither bums, drunks nor junkies but simply trapped in this ghetto through poverty, poor health or ill fortune, gazing wistfully from dirty-curtained third-storey windows; a couple of other young rounders in strides and bomber jackets who gave vague nods of recognition as I passed.

As I threaded my way along Hastings, I caught a glimpse of a character I had often noticed before. He was an old Chinese ragpicker, his back deformed by some crippling disease, bent like a human question mark over his rickety wooden cart. The aged trash-collector eked out some sort of marginal existence, salvaging bottles and other detritus from the back alleys and peddling his finds to the Main Street junk dealers. What his name was or where he went at night, no one seemed to know, much less care. He simply materialized every morning to ply his lonely trade - a fixture along Vancouver's Bowery - a sort of ragged symbol.

I crossed Carrall Street, passed the BC Electric tram depot and paused briefly outside the Beacon Theatre to check out the garish posters. The Beacon was the city's sole remaining vaudeville house. For two-bits you got a couple of third- or fourth-run B movies, a serial installment, several cartoons and a stage show that usually consisted of a down- on-his-luck magician, a trained-animal act and a superannuated tenor who couldn't quite hit those high notes any more. Not exactly top-drawer entertainment but you certainly got your money's worth. It was a popular place to take girls and do a little amorous wrestling in the frayed and gum-studded balcony seats.

I moved on past the San Francisco Pawn Shop where a lot of loggers hocked their dress clothes for one final blowout before heading back to the bush, and homed in almost involuntarily on the Belle Bar Cafe. A narrow hole-in-the-wall establishment, jammed between a furniture store and the Grand Union Hotel, the Belle Bar had been a favourite hangout when we were teenagers back in the late forties. The place was grubby and ill-lit and the food was strictly short-order, mostly burgers and fries-but it did offer several other attractions beside a minimal menu. For one thing, it had wall jukeboxes in every booth. Through these, for the price of a nickel, you could phone in requests to a central studio that had a well-stocked library of records, including many of the jazz and rhythm-and-blues tunes that we favoured. For another thing, the Belle Bar was a great spot for meeting girls. They ranged from somewhat na´ve Woodward's stock clerks to streetwise young tighties from the East End tenements but, square or hip, most of them were game for a good time.

The restaurant served another function too. In the days when street gang activity was at its height and rumbles between different districts were common, it seemed, by some unspoken agreement, to have been declared a neutral zone. Members of rival cliques often sat in adjoining booths and kept their own counsel. Occasionally the atmosphere grew tense and the odd scowl was exchanged but I never heard of any outright violence erupting on the premises. But by now, most of the gangs had disbanded and the Belle Bar had lost much of its popularity. It had become a sort of seedy backwater, patronized almost exclusively by a non-rounder clientele. From force of habit, however, some of the old hoodlum crowd continued to go there.

I pushed open the door of the Belle Bar and went in. It was as dingy and poorly lighted as ever. The familiar smell of fried onions, bacon, hot dogs, chips, strong coffee and ancient grease filled my nostrils. Ed Polk, the longtime owner, a fat man with an Oliver Hardy moustache and a world-weary manner, gave me an unsmiling nod of recognition. "Ain't seen you in a long time," he observed in a faintly accusing tone. He didn't even comment on the thick lip.

There didn't seem to be many customers in the cafe but, since the place wasn't much wider than a hotel corridor, it was impossible to see who was in the booths unless you walked right to the back. I did this and to my uncomfortable surprise ran right into Carlotta and the little dark rounder, hiding like a couple of conspirators in the very last booth.
There was no sign of the belligerent blond guy but he could just be in the can for all I knew.

I was all set to get the hell out of there when Carlotta called me over, very friendly and apologetic. "Listen, Terry, I really feel awful about that business at the cemetery. I shouldn't have brought Ronnie and Mouse along. They had you pegged for another guy altogether. I tried to tell them that you and Frankie were old-time buddies and I think the Mouse, at least, believes me now. Why don't you sit down and join us. Ron's taken off someplace."

I threw a quick glance at the Mouse. He gave me a suspicious, disgruntled look but bowed to Carlotta's wishes. She patted the seat beside her.

"Looks like you've got some kind of mistaken identity problem. Anything like this ever happen to you before?"

"Yeah, come to think of it, there have been a few things. A couple of years ago I was working in a logging camp up around Minstrel Island. The hooktender was a guy named Ed Laserek - a real miserable character. He got on my case from the word go - accused me of being this other character, a bad-news pusher he figured had got his old lady strung out on smack while he was in the Woods. Evidently she ended up buying it from an overdose - just like Frankie. I knew absolutely bugger-all about any of this but Laserek wouldn't believe me. He kept riding the living hell out of me. Finally it got so bad I had to quit. I figured Laserek must just be crazy in the head but after this latest hassle, I'm really starting to wonder."