One rainy Tuesday, Anne cruised the library stacks, looking for something saleable. Finding herself at a stack of plain-cover reference books, she turned away to find better pickings. Something behind her buzzed, then flashed pale blue. The glare was bright enough to cast her fleeting shadow on the opposite wall. Looking back, she saw a fading brightest near the floor. Then it was gone.
Anne squatted, feeling among the books on the bottom shelf until she found one oddly warm. Tan hardcover, with chocolate letters identifying it as a biographical dictionary of 20th century literature. Fanning the pages revealed only dense double columns of text, no illustrations. That decided it. She had come in looking for something that could be converted for a Thai noodle bowl. This wasn’t it.
She shoved the volume back in its slot, then, on a whim, pulled it back out. She flipped to the K section. Damn. She read the full page entry for Annie Kort (born Anamarika Louise Shorten) three times. The front matter publishing data told her this edition was/would be printed six decades in the future. In a world that seldom made sense, this was just one more irritant. Her stomach growled. That she understood.
In both scholarly and aficionadol circles almost every significant point about Kort is subject to vitriolic debate. Everyone at least agrees that she wielded a blue sharpie most of her waking hours. She wrote songs, poems, stories, slogans and doggerel. When she wasn’t writing, she graffitied: everything from amorous aardvarks to pompous politicos to zoomorphic Zambonis.
The beginning of her obsession was known only by her, and she never talked. The truth was she had been driven to keep a pencil in motion since early childhood. Before she could write, Anamarika drew on every surface within reach. One year, her scrawls during summer break covered most of an inside garden shed wall. Later, she turned to drawing on any piece of paper available – notebooks, library books, newspaper margins, government legal notices. At first her parents smiled, shook their heads and called her “our little doodlebug”. As the years went by, they would sigh, look resigned and say “Oh, Anamarika. What now?” In grade four, a teacher introduced her to the wonder of using words to create a different sort off picture.
Mr. and Mrs. Shorten sought help of every sort, which invariably failed. One counsellor completely missed the significance when the little girl answered “why? Because the pressure is going to kill me. When I write it lets off the pressure for a little while. If I don’t, it will just keep pushing until I rip open from here to here”, running a hand from sternum to throat. In desperation, her parents even brought in an Evangelical Community Behaviour Prayer Specialist.
When all available behavioural, perceptual and spiritual therapies failed, the adults settled for a chemically-induced faux normality. Through the numbing flatness, Anamarika still suffers the tearing pressure, with no ability to fend it off. She sensed madness and death to be just around the corner. Yet the adults did no more than push more pills at her. One night, after palming her meds for three days, she slipped out the kitchen door to thumb a ride to Vancouver. She disappeared into the seediest part of town, where she fared better than most sixteen year olds. Neither stupid or vulnerable, Anamarika just wanted the elbow room to apply her sharpie without interference.
She left behind a confounded family, their church, a creepy boyfriend who stayed only because “everyone knows crazies are great humps”, and all the other aspects of small Valley town clingy closeness. She found her place in the Downtown Eastside, where she amused her fellow denizens, sassed the cops and aggravated owners of the buildings she graffitied. The shelter staff got way more leeway. They really tried, without judging, and provided physical and social shelter. And it was there she truncated Anamarika and resurrected the pre-immigration version of her family name: she became Anne Kort.
Whenever she shared her writings, there were thoughtful, puzzled silences. Her graffiti, on the other hand, drew instant and gut-quaking laughter. Luckily, nothing could be proven, for she could have been jailed for defacing a mailbox with an image of the prime minister ... well, that is best left to the imagination. Suffice it to say, the virtual aardvark, if not harmed, would have been more than a little traumatized.
At her rare best, Anne was self absorbed and indifferent. At her usual worst, she was obsessed and angry. Either way, she was always hungry. For her, there was a deep correlation. Her primary work in progress, “HU/A: an NGRY epic”, was a spastically-evolving sixty-two hundred line rhyming screed on that relationship. Donna, a friend and reliable fence, once made thirty eight bucks reciting Part 2 outside a poverty conference. Donna bought her a dozen sharpies, then snorted the rest – a good deal for both. It might have led to better things, except for Donna’s terminal run-in with some bad shit a week later.
Anne’s non-sharpie life revolved around the Stephanie Primrose Welcome Centre and a handful of last resort “jobs”: panhandling, turning the odd trick, picking litter for the DBA’s Sidewalk Pride Initiative. None worked all that well for her. She despised the contemptuous passers-by, was disgusted by the johns (though acknowledging it was the best quick turn around cash work), and hated taking direction from any suit. What did work was selling stolen goods. She preferred items she chose herself – never anything dangerous and no split in the profit. Which brings us back to the Nelson Square branch library.
After ensuring there was no hidden security strip, Anne tucked the book into her backpack, then made for her favorite thinking place - a tangle of branches fifteen feet up a century-old cedar close to the Stanley Park seawall. The adjacent parking lot usually yielded pretty decent food discards. As she arrived, she smiled to see a departing SUV with a couple of kids secured in the back. She whooped with glee at finding most of still-warm burger and half a small shake. She scaled the tree, squatted on the double plastic-wrapped book, feasted, then thought about things.
The next morning, Anne wrapped the book in yet one more layer of plastic (a heavy duty garbage back provided as rough shelter for times when the Centre was full. She had used it as a windbreak overnight). She secured the package to a branch, then returned to the streets. Following an hour-long wait for a turn on the public access terminal, she wrote up a submission in the community free paper under Lost and Found. The ad was no more than the title of the book and page number for her entry. With nothing else to do, Anne undertook a round of graffiti along Water Street, between the Steam Clock and Pender. This was becoming more and more challenging, as the best places already sported illustrations. Among street illustrators, it was frowned upon to cover existing work. But that made things more interesting.
A week passed before the pair came through the Welcome Centre’s main entrance. Both exuded a ‘cop-ness’ that provoked instant hostility from volunteers residents alike. An unfriendly circle of residents formed around the man and woman, who seemed neither impressed or intimidated.
Coming down the rear stairs, Anne spotted the woman first. The somewhat chunky brunette looked nervous at first, them solemn, finally determined. Anne knew that progression from the faces of other rookie cops making their first rounds in the Downtown Eastside.
Anne made directly for the knot of people. She assured the crowd that things were OK, that she wanted to see these two, then ushered the visitors out to the sidewalk. “You guys make people nervous, no matter where you’re from. Or when. Whatever.”
“Hello Animarka. We would like to talk about your advertisement.” The man was far more practiced than his colleague. She bet he had rousted the street dozens of times.
“It’s Anne. Buy me a sit down breakfast and we can talk.” That was her standard line on those infrequent occasions when she was in a position to bargain. His response was not surprising. “Well, this won’t take long, and I think...”
She gave a brief look that wandered between contempt and disbelief. “I’m hungry, not stupid. Breakfast is the price to talk.”
The man persisted “Don’t they feed you here? I mean...”
“Well, fuck you and the whore you rode in on. And since you’ve obviously never lived in a place like this, yeah, they feed us – best they can, anyway. Sports like you are always pretty budget conscious when it comes to the street.” She exhaled hard “So, no food, no talk. I gotta see my worker in few minutes. If you’re serious, meet me up at the corner about ten thirty.”
Anne walked away without a backward look. Throughout the exchange, the woman stood quietly, eyes bright, suppressing a faltering smile.
“Easy Betsen. Don’t take it personally. The individuals we deal with have some pretty rough edge.”