A Vancouver Hotel and an alternative lifestyle
Life at the Ivanhoe Hotel, where all are welcome and anything goes.
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
A book excerpt from the spiritandflesh.com religion and spirituality online library.
And after a few years of hopping from one cockroach-ridden bachelor's suite to the next, then moving into my van for a while, then selling it and buying a little Honda Civic and living out of it- which, frankly, is much more comfortable than it sounds, for the front seats in a Civic lay way down and one can get a very pleasant night's sleep, and not suffer too much exertion during the night if one has to urinate, because, while lying down in the front seat of such a vehicle, one need only roll to the side, crack the door ajar slightly, and let the stream run out onto the road without ever opening one's eyes, which is at least one advantage over sleeping on a king-sized bed in a carpeted palace.
Finally, however, I parted with the Civic as well, because I was intentionally paring down my material goods so as to have nothing except what would fit into a backpack, just in case I felt the need to up and quit the world in an instant, which could have come any time, and I wanted to have everything in order so as not to leave a trail behind.
I then began a period of taking up residence on any friend's couch who would have me, though this proved to be the least amicable of all situations to my furtive soul. Not that I was ungrateful for the places I was benevolently offered to stay. The problems were far more irrevocable and subtle than that. For nothing was more annoying to me than the chronic hum of an apartment's refrigerator, which I could hear from a great distance, even if I was sleeping in the living room and the fridge was in the kitchen. Often I would have to do at a friend's home what I had done so often in my own apartments, which was to unplug the whining beast at night and replug it in the morning, hoping that my host's succulent lamb chops would make it through the night without harm. And if it wasn't the refrigerator driving me insane, it was an electric wall-clock, ticking ever so patiently and agonizingly along. There must be some masochistic strain in our culture's attitude which provides these subtle, well-disguised Chinese-water-tortures everywhere you go. But I couldn't endure it and so the clock would have to come down and I'd put it in a drawer, or another room, or outside, and try to remember to put it back up on the wall in the morning, so as not to disturb the ambience.
It was for these reasons, and because I could not bear any longer living in another person's reality- which was unavoidable while living on their couch, in the middle of their illusion- that I began fantasizing that there had to be some system set up for vagrants like myself, some gentleman's home or temporary residence which allowed a person to come and go as they pleased, and not be bound by the overburdening restrictions of rent or leases, nor to suffer the fate of living within another person's psychic bric-a-brac.
To be sure, Vancouver and its environs was already culturally centuries ahead of Toronto and the east, from where I had originally fled, and where the slumlords make you sign a full year lease, and the employers will only take you on at forty hours per week, and fifty weeks per year, and nothing less, or not at all. The bloody insanity of it all. These poltroons had sold out long ago and were intent on making sure that everyone else got caught in the same dreary march to death as them. They had lost their lives to the dollar and the locked door and if you wanted either of these you had to lose your life as well. And that was something I could not stomach. Take your idiotic ways, and your leases, and contracts, and take your two weeks of holiday a year, and your wavers and conventions and give me back my life.
Thankfully the culture of the coast was at least a little more civil than this; here one could find acceptable seasonal work, allowing for six to eight months off per year if you knew how to handle your sheckles. And here one could have an apartment with no more investment than a two-month rental agreement, so as to have a roof over your head at night that didn't bind you for an entire year. But even two months is an outrageous impossibility when you're following your dreams, which I was, and which, on any given night might say- "OK bud, time to get up and out of here and move on, onto another task, in another place, for reasons you'll never know until you get there." There is no option when you live like this- you have to leave, instantly. And I left so often, on the turn of a dime, so to speak, that to return meant to return to an infrastructure that was becoming less and less welcoming, and less and less functional for my needs. Indeed the foxes have their lair, and the birds have their nest, but the free and reckless wanderer has no place in which to take his rest. Not, that is, until he discovers the Ivanhoe Hotel.
Ah, the Ivanhoe. No place like it on earth, not this earth anyway. The rooms of this down-and-out, wayfarer, and drunk's hotel were the cheapest in the city, and had become a sanctuary of sorts for all those who belonged nowhere else, and who had been chased to its front door by the invisible dogs barking at their heals. And the bar down below was no different. Walking into it was like entering the alien bar in Star Wars. Every being imaginable was there. It was a mirror for the confused and erratic, cosmic convention of lost and alien souls which populate the subconscious frontier. It was here that I would first experience the throbbing pulse of the world's underbelly- the thick Tartarian ooze of men and women, all vibrating in tune with the lesser frequency of the fallen realm, and weaned on the succulent lymph of the poisonous Kali herself; all detached and spinning wildly to and fro in the depths of the descending plane of living apparitions and unascending souls, where the minions of dark angels and their grey carnival of false delights invoked the ghoulish laughter of Hell and its ineffective respites.
It was a bar unlike any other bar, a place where all were welcome because- as Hans pointed out to me on one of his infrequent visits to Vancouver, while sitting in the Ivanhoe one evening amongst the multitude of mutants- "Everyone is welcome in Hell."
And yet it was not the Hell of eternal damnation, it was a chosen hell for most. A Hell, in fact, in which those people found their peace and acceptance, away from the other Hell, which existed everywhere else. The Ivanhoe was an oasis- absent of the real and living water perhaps- but an oasis with its own inexhaustible well of draft and rift-rafts nonetheless.
Every manner of individual would happen in at one time or another. It was a culture of captives who had lost all thought of escape or emancipation and had learned to sing and play and fight in a world which was an imperfect, despairing, disastrous world, a blissless world of exile and hopelessness, but a world after all, and, more importantly, it was their world. And boy would they ever whirl up a hoot and a holler and a celebration of the unavoidable Armageddon being perversely drawn out in the collective menagerie of those purgatorial homecomings brought about every day and night under the surface of a sea which none of them knew they were drowning in.
The mutant enclave from the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall, would be as good a visual as I could paint from this scene.
Gathered together were bums and charlatans, hippies and crack-heads, retirees, natives, travellers, businessmen, students, dropouts, homeless beggars, mystics, whores, laymen, soldiers, vagabonds, pushers, and renegades, all and everyone, no one left out, no one denied, no one judged because all were judged, no one condemned because all were condemned. A crowd of thieves dangling from their crosses and not a messiah in sight to be traded for them.
I'd often slide quietly in, sit down at a table by a window, order a beer, take out my notepad, and let the madness begin. Hardly had I written a single line when a man named Mustaf- a huge, powerful, constantly drunken Muslim man- would approach me, grab hold of my hand with his iron grip, sink to his knees, and wail out- "I know who I am, I know who I am. I am nothing!" And an authentic tear would trickle down his cheek, and he'd begin his melancholic soliloquy on his duty and reverence for all life, and how he had never wanted to kill any man, but had to, for his country and his soul, and his thick lips would suck on the ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth, and he'd declare his oath to God and move on.
And then another pilgrim would arrive at my doorstep. This time it would be a homeless Italian barber who lived in a warehouse, begged for beer and cigarettes, and claimed to have a house in Rome with three-thousand bottles of wine in the basement. And his toothless yarns would begin and he'd sip his beer and tell me of his fishing exploits, his economic ruin, and his favourite places in Chinatown to get a two-dollar meal.
Then he'd be gone and a young junky would come along, a fellow who had been a great musician until his whole family was killed and he took to the needle and bottle to escape what he could not escape. And he would sit down and patronize me and pretend to befriend me and then try to coax a few bucks out of me for another drink- which I gave to him at first but then I realized I was only adding to his and everyone else's dumb luck by paying for another round of misery and I learned what might be the most valuable lesson I was to receive in that bar in all the days and nights I sat there- to say no.
I learned how to squash a vexing spirit from invading, cajoling or guilting me out of myself. And that is no small thing. And for me it took a bar full of ever-invasive, determined and skilled individuals so that I might learn to see some of the ways in which others can climb inside your skin; it took this antagonizing throng of separated selves to create the fluid obstacle-course necessary in which my spirit learned to surf, to glide, and to fly free.
"No" became my battle cry and my banner- one which I would have to learn to deploy in the future, in many different places, under many different circumstances again, as the vexations of separated spirits became all to obvious and affronting to my softening shell.
Sitting there, learning how to drive away those who would steal my peace was quite an effort. Men and women of all types would come and sit or filter past, hawking their stolen goods, or their art, clothing, sausages, cheese, dope, cigarettes, or booze. It was a constant train of reprobates and street merchants, attempting to get rid of their disreputable wares. One spectre would leave and another arrive. Another story, another pint of beer, another woe-begotten song about their dance through the dark and disorienting doom they were not aware of creating for themselves.
One such middle-aged native woman who was always in the pub wearing a drunken smile sat down beside me one evening while I was having a thick and juicy metaphysical conversation with a good buddy, and I could see she was slightly intrigued as well as befuddled, and so she tried to wheedle her way in with her limited tools of ribaldry and sensuality, and we kept on talking, trying not to obviously dismiss her, but finally her digressive invasions became painfully annoying and I turned to her and coldly inquired, "What are you doing here, in the bar, you're always here, what are you doing?" She was set aback but quickly tried to counterbalance my thrust, rebutting with a coy smile, "I'm not hurting anyone", to which I quickly rejoined, "No one but yourself", at which point she burst into tears and bothered us no more.
And yet, to be sure, there was laughter as well at the Ivanhoe- uproarious, uninhibited, end-of-the-world laughter. And there was care, and joy, and pleasantness also, all a part of this burgeoning Pandora's box of disconsolate humanity.
I once saw a woman attain to a level of ecstasy which only the most purified spiritual supplicant could normally accomplish after decades of mortification and discipline, and she was only a drunk and a junky. But she made it to the stars, to that type of ecstasy which can only come about in Hell- the type of release which rockets you up into the distant sky, only so as to let you tumble down even further. But it is that twinkling instant of escape, when everything vanishes but the dream, which keeps the pendulum ever swinging.
I saw her stumbling slowly along the bar, and then she suddenly stopped in her tracks just as what must have been an old, nostalgic rock tune for her came wailing over the stereo, and it was as if she was held there in suspended animation as the tune grew and soared through her, and at the moment of the elevated chorus her head went back, genuflecting in exultation, her arms went limp beside her, and she was as if lifted off of the ground for a millisecond of Hell's ecstasy, an ecstasy caused by the remembrance of a time when life spoke of beautiful and awesome things before the collapse of reality; an ecstasy which was always available, always pretending to be worth the plunge which followed, always beckoning to be known. The ecstasy of Hell. Always waiting there, offering another fix, another moment of forgetting, another tranquillizer or upper to white-wash over the shit, before the deluge of remembrance came and blew it all away.
These are the false redemptions that lift your mind up and shroud your heart but take your spirit nowhere and weaken your already bleeding soul; I know of these phantom pilgrimages into delusion and its hopeless possession, where at every turn in the carnival of lights and attractions the spirit reaches out for life and receives only a picture of life, and in the peril of its anguish and confusion imagines that the image is the thing, for with the heart gone the mind can tell no difference, and so the image is what is sought after from then on, for the real is unattainable, or worse- almost impossible to attain. The fact that it lies at a great distance makes it all the more woeful than if it were gone for good. Like a lost love somewhere far across the ocean, on a different continent, which wrecks you nightly instead of having died to let you grieve and then go on.
It is a horrid difference between the artificial and the real; as if a glass wall separates the soul from its source; as if a person reaches out for what can be seen, but cannot be touched, and in that woeful distance they get only visitor's rights to see themselves, because they come nearer and nearer, only to not come near enough.
I know now of a hell where the living spirit dies in the tomb of misdeeds and misunderstandings. For the living spirit alone is what connects us to the whole, and to each other, for it is life, and everything else is hollow, separate, and dead.
The ecstasies of hell, always displaying their hollow temptations with a devil's smile and the charm of medusa before she strikes. For there is no true ecstasy based on need, because ecstasy is the absence of need, and is a fulfilment beyond need, and therefore cannot be arrived at through need.
It was a game of shadows and their many disguises at the Ivanhoe, a dance of laughter without joy, friendship without brotherhood, and beauty without beatitude.
Yet there were other types of folks there as well; many decent, thoughtful, serious folks who were not there to destroy themselves but only to sip a beer and watch the goings-on.
I fell into a conversation with a balding, fifty-year old, slightly built man one evening and found that he had been a bare-foot, wandering, Buddhist monk in India for ten years, begging for his daily rice, meditating, and following as best he could the eight-fold path of the dharma. We had a few drinks together and then went back to his low-income housing flat, where a giant, five hundred pound brass Buddha sat surveying his sacred domicile. Along with the icon, he had a wall full of sacred texts, all in Sanskrit, which he had mastered during his time in the east. He gave me a pocket-sized version of Seng Ts'an's Poem on Trust in the Heart, which I had read already and adored, and so it was a lovely gift and synchronicity at the same time.
This man was a gentle soul who had unfortunately lost most of his western vigour during his decade of surrender and alms-seeking, and therefore was having a tough go of it back in North America, where to be a sannyasin meant to live without an historical structure based on sadhus, monks, and holy men wandering around and bequeathing blessings onto all those who tossed rupees into their begging bowls. No, to be a sannyasin in North America meant to be an unwelcome, misunderstood, and guilty traitor to the rule of 'money made is money paid', and you don't get nothing just by asking, you must work for it, because no one is going to believe that their karma is lessened by giving you donuts so that you can pray instead of toil.
On most nights at the pub anything could happen, and usually did. On one of these evenings I hooked up with two middle-aged dudes who came into the bar every so often for a chat and a pint. Jim was a softened veteran of the hard life. I say softened because he had lived out his fight with the world and with others, had won some battles and lost some, and had come through it as a very genuine, mellow, streetwise ex-tough guy, who had, out of benevolence that night, brought his neurotic artist friend, Stanley, to the Ivanhoe to get him out of the lonely hiding spot he called home. Stanley was impressively uncomfortable; a man with no walls and no armour around him; a mouse who was therefore incapable of defending himself from the judgements and willpower of others. And, more importantly, he was unable to recognize that he was terrified because what he sought to defend ...was a lie. A truly pitiful creature, though immensely lucid, like all true neurotics, due to the absence of protection between him and all else.
So Jim and Stanley and I ended up putting a few pints into our bellies at the Ivanhoe and then we walked a couple of blocks down the street to another bar to listen to some live music, and Jim and I got on quite well, digging deeper into each other's life, as Stanley sat fidgeting about like a mouse who had escaped his cage and then realized he was soon to get stepped upon for such a disobedient act.
Jim and I went on though, talking about what real men would talk about if there were real men to talk about real life, and I suppose I had shared some of the pieces of my own turmoil and distress with him, because after a while he turned to me with the wizened look of a true street sage- one who had gone the distance and knew that the only answer is to tough it out- and he looked at me and offered a piece of news about life which I could not apprehend from my perspective at that time, and which didn't really change anything for me, but in retrospect I can now sort of see what he was pointing at. What he said was simply: "It gets easier." That was it, and he turned to sip his beer, and I knew that he believed it because he had been through the ringer and had come out, perhaps not in the same shape as when he had first entered, but he came out nonetheless, and he spoke to me as one who had already climbed over the wall I was now desperately clinging onto.
In the next couple of years I was to meet a number of younger folks who were going through what I had been going through at that time, and this little piece of advice might have also suited our conversations well, had I ever chosen to plagiarize it, which I didn't.
But anyway, that bit of blue-collar pedagoguery finished, we toasted off a few more pints and then went outside to say our goodbyes. It was then, as I was walking away from my new chums, that I finally got an appreciation of how open Stanley really was to the cosmic precipitations.
I must relate here a note that this night came during the time in my life which I would call 'the emergence of the shadow'. I don't know what the Jungian analysts would say of this, but to me it appeared that over the course of a few months certain characters and occurrences were showing up in my outward life, signifying submerged pieces of my inner being which I had been slowly, arduously, raising to the surface.
Thus, as I was walking down the block away from the two of them, I heard Stanley yell out to me "Hey, what's that behind you?" And I turned to look but didn't see anything, and thought perhaps that he was off in his own little crumbling kingdom again, and I kept walking. Then he yelled again, "It's your shadow." And as I kept moving I looked back and, sure enough, I was just passing under a streetlight and my shadow was behind me. But then in a millisecond I had crossed under the light and it was gone. That's when Stanley yelled out again, "Now it's in front of you." Which it now was. And so my shadow had gone from behind me to in front of me, from the unconscious into the conscious, and Stanley had heralded the movement which I had been examining but had not known for certain if its absolute translation had occurred from the dark into the light, so to speak. And so another message, pertinent to the stage of my internal course came flying at me out of the ether, this time from the puppetted mouth of one who was so transparent and willess that God apparently could make him speak whatever he wanted, and did.
Say what you will, but the messages come from anywhere, at anytime, you only have to know who's sending them to you. The wheel keeps spinning and the patterns keep changing, but the weaver stays at his loom and never asks why you must walk with dirty feet upon his carpets.
Imponderable, disastrous, ridiculous, and grand, this life, full of fable and foolery, purpose and plan. The substratum moves and goes nowhere. The outside gnaws away at the inside which created it. The inside feeds upon the outside until it's done. Whatever was there, becomes here. Those who were they, become we. And the wingless phoenixes look to the sky and assume without flight they're not free.
(excerpted from In and Of: memoirs of a mystic journey, by Jack Haas)