The Bard of Hastings

— Shay Azoulay

On a rainy morning in May Tiffany Bradwell, who worked as a teacher at Sir William Macdonald Elementary School in Vancouver, posted a photo of a window dotted with raindrops on Facebook, with the following caption:

If it’s raining you should stay in bed.
If it’s not raining stay in bed, it might rain soon.
If you have no one to love, love yourself, stay in bed.
If you have someone to love – of course you should both stay in bed.

After receiving many positive comments, she wrote:

Thanks everyone, I have to say I didn’t write this, there’s this homeless man on Hastings who writes poetry on pizza boxes, I got it from him. He had another line at the end: “Take it from someone who doesn’t have a bed.” but I left it off because I do have a bed (plus it’s kind of depressing).

Though one friend accused her of misappropriation, many others commended her for giving a voice to the underprivileged. A few days later Tiffany posted a photo of a wet street under a cloudless sky with the caption:

Look up,
The sky is very clear.
The rain must be falling from the stars.
– Homeless Poet on Hastings

This post received even more praise. Some commenters asked her to post a photo of the man with one of his poems. Two days later she posted a photograph of a poem written on a pizza box in rounded letters which read:

We must give thanks.
Thanks to the rain for falling,
Thanks to the walls for not falling,
Let us not take it for granted,
All good things must come to an end.

In the caption she explained that the man didn’t want his picture taken. Several commenters encouraged her to start a Facebook page for his writings, though one insisted the homeless man didn’t exist and that she’d written the poems herself.

The next day, on her way home from work, Tiffany stopped to talk with the homeless man. She told him about the positive responses his poems had received and showed him the posts and comments on her telephone. When she offered to create a Facebook page for his writing he was flattered, but wouldn’t tell her his real name. He suggested that she simply identify him as “The Bard of Hastings”.

Over the span of several weeks Tiffany photographed close to a hundred of the man’s inscribed pizza boxes and uploaded the images to his Facebook page. The page gained hundreds of followers and an influx of admiring comments. The homeless man, who spent his days in front of an abandoned two-story building on East Hastings Street, between Columbia and Main, became a local celebrity. People who recognized his pizza boxes took pictures and posted them to his Facebook page. A nearby Pizzeria supplied him with used or defective pizza boxes, which came in handy as the man realized he now had an expanding audience and began writing longer and more intricate texts.

The owner of Entropy, a local bar on Main Street, bought one of his works for $200, framed it, and hung it over the entrance:

This is the age of entropy, disorder,
Cords tangle, shoelaces fray,
Keys yearn to mix with change,
All our work amounts to wasted energy,
Heat expended,
Try to keep warm.

Tiffany, who continued maintaining the page and uploading photos, talked to the homeless man at least once a week, and slowly learned the details of his life. He’d grown up in Antwerp, studied engineering, and moved to Canada following a job offer. Within a year he’d met a girl, got married, and had a daughter.

He said it all happened much too quickly, he wasn’t comfortable in the position of husband and father, he didn’t like working all week at a boring job only to spend the weekends with his family in shopping malls, buying things they didn’t need. When his daughter turned fourteen, and there was enough money in the bank to see her through college, he left home and never returned. He traveled across Canada for years before settling in Vancouver. At first he’d write letters to his wife and daughter, but after a while his wife told him to stop, so he started writing for himself. He compared writing to meditation, a ritual he practiced to maintain equilibrium and achieve greater understanding.

About two months after Tiffany’s first post Stewart Tompkins, an eager young reporter from the Vancouver Courier, saw the Facebook page for “The Bard of Hastings” and decided to write a story about him. He contacted Tiffany Bradwell, who was away on summer vacation, and she told him where the man usually sat, “in front of a boarded up cream-and-maroon colored building on Hastings, next to a pile of pizza boxes.”

Stewart found a homeless man sitting in the spot described, writing in block letters on the back of a pizza box. The man had long hair and a beard, and was dressed in a red tracksuit. When the reporter told him that he wanted to write a story about him the man said, “Please, step into my office,” and directed him into the abandoned building behind them, as Stewart described in his article:

We ducked through a broken window and I suddenly found myself in the middle of a bizarre gallery of disposables and detritus. A forest of chopsticks sprouting from Styrofoam hills, newspapers formed carpets, wallpaper, and stained-glass windows, plastic bottle puppets inhabited a cardboard living room, and a cracked, headless totem pole blocked the back doorway, staring at us with its bulging raven eyes.

There were also some small indications that this space was a home – a grooming corner with mirror and razor, a makeshift kitchen with utensils and water bottles, and a small shelf crammed with battered books.

The Bard of Hastings shared this space with another homeless man, completely bald with a thick mustache, who seemed to be dozing in a corner. “I do the art, but he’s good with electricity,” he explained, “rigged us some lights and an electric cooktop.” He looked over at his friend, “He’s got a toothache but won’t take anything for it, people think we’re all addicts, this guy won’t even drink a beer.”

The story included a brief interview with the man about his craft, and a large photograph of him, smiling and holding up a pizza box with the following text:

I will stand there with a fallible god.
How can I salvage this?
I read my socks off instead,
I can wear the illusion of it.

When the story was published Stewart sent it to Tiffany, who responded a few minutes later:

This isn’t the right guy. The Bard of Hastings is bald, with a big moustache. He also doesn’t like being photographed. Plus the text on the pizza box doesn’t look like his.

Tiffany posted the story to her Facebook page, wrote about the misidentification, and asked if anyone else mistook this man for the Bard of Hastings. She discovered people have been making this mistake for at least a month. They walked on Hastings, saw a homeless man writing on pizza boxes, and assumed there was only one such man. Some of them had even taken pictures of his writing and posted them to the page.

A few days later Tiffany visited the homeless man and found another man sitting next to him, writing on his own stack of pizza boxes. She learned that the other man had been there for several weeks. The two men squatted together in the abandoned building behind them, and according to the Bard their arrangement worked well. After a few days of sitting on the sidewalk next to the bard, the other man asked to borrow one of his markers and began writing on pizza boxes as well.

Tiffany didn’t like the look of the other homeless man, he seemed to her a vicious opportunist, especially after she discovered that whenever anyone stopped and took pictures of his pizza boxes he demanded that they pay him. The bard didn’t mind this incursion into his artistic territory, and wasn’t bothered when people thought the other to be the bard of Hastings.

When she returned home Tiffany went through all of the photos posted to the Facebook page and removed the ones she suspected of being written by the other man. She wrote a post about the confusion and made it clear that her page was only meant to display works by the Bard. Nevertheless, people continued posting photos of works by the other man, either mistakenly or spitefully, and Tiffany continued removing them, as if pulling weeds from her flowerbed. One man who objected to these sweeping removals sent Tiffany a nasty message accusing her of censorship.

A few days later she learned that someone had opened another Facebook page called “Homeless Poetry – Without Judgment!” where people posted works by both men, as well as other photographs of homeless writings from around the world.

Tiffany continued visiting the homeless man, to bring him food, talk, and take pictures of his latest work. To her disappointment, the new things he was writing did not speak to her as much as his first works – they seemed cryptic or incomplete, though they were often longer than his earlier works – but she continued posting them out of loyalty. She occasionally asked him about the other man but he had little to say. “We’re roommates,” he said, “sometimes we get along, sometimes we don’t, but it’s fine, we’re free, every man can do what he wants.”

She asked him about publishing a book and he merely shrugged and said, “If anyone wants to use my writing they’re welcome to it.” She pitched the idea to several literary agents but no one got back to her. She thought of starting a crowd-funding campaign, but with the start of the new school year she was too busy teaching.

One Saturday in October, about a month after she’d last seen the Bard of Hastings, someone sent Tiffany a link to a story in the Vancouver Sun:

Homicide detectives investigating death in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. 

Vancouver PD officers searched an abandoned building on East Hastings St. after receiving a report of a fight between two men. The officers found one seriously injured man and a second man passed out.

Despite paramedics’ attempts to revive the 58-year-old man, he died. The second man, age 46, was arrested.

The Integrated Homicide Investigation Team has taken over the investigation.

At first she didn’t understand why this story was sent to her, but when she read the article she realized the murdered man was the bard of Hastings. More details emerged the next day – Matteo Geens was stabbed to death with a broken bottle by Anatol Kamaj. Kamaj claimed it was an accident, but the autopsy revealed several deep stab wounds. A reporter had contacted Matteo’s daughter who hadn’t seen her father in eighteen years. She had fond memories of him, and said: “The material world didn’t interest him. In the end he found the life he was looking for. He had no worries, he did what he wanted, most of us can only dream of this.”

On Monday afternoon, on her way back from school, Tiffany Bradwell stopped by the abandoned building. It looked the same, except other homeless people now sat in front, begging for change. It wasn’t cordoned off by police tape and Tiffany entered through the broken window. The place was in disarray, newspapers and shattered glass littered the floor, a broken totem pole stared into space, paint peeling off its blind eyes, and on the floor she found a pizza box with some writing on it:

This story fails to answer your question
Yes,
But I have one if you’re so fond of light
A century of development
And no one survives.

She couldn’t tell which one of the men had written it.

 


 

Shay Azoulay is an Israeli writer who lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and two boys. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Flapperhouse, Tablet Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, and The Short Story Project. His short story “Permaculture” won second prize in the 2016 Zoetrope All-Story short fiction contest. His plays staged in Israel include the one-act play Shade (2012), controversial satire The Platoon (2014-2015), and the tragicomedy Barabbas (2018).