Marvin was a late-20s, seemingly homeless, black man who roamed Stewart Avenue though without the customary despondency and gaunt visage that marked the typical destitute person. He was schizophrenic and was the first individual I had personally encountered to have suffered from this devastating illness. He had returned from Vietnam a couple of years earlier and made his way onto Stewart Avenue where he worked intermittently at Gary’s Motel or The Alamo. Ed, a co-worker and a Vietnam vet, thoroughly validated Marvin’s military history though this probably wasn’t necessary as there were plenty of area vets (going back to WWI) capable of sniffing out false military service claims so guys rarely tried the “down and out veteran” scam. Still, it was good for me to know that Marvin was on the level. The primary symptom of his illness involved being plagued by the voices of unsympathetic women who aggressively berated him – mostly at night as he tried to sleep.
He said that that multiple women spoke to him in a variety of accents and at different levels of volume but most of them sounded like women he had known previously. “What do they say to you ?”, I asked. “Man what you think they say ? The same shit a bitch says to any man. Why you ain’t got a job ? Why you can’t buy me things ? When you gonna find us a nice place to live ?” He paused before delivering the shocking piece-de-resistance, “You might be able to stand against one or two of ’em but can’t no man stand against twenty bitches in his head goin’ on like that”. He had a point. I could not possibly imagine what it felt like to be excoriated on a nightly basis relative to every perceived failing as a man and a provider. Let alone by an ensemble of twenty women. I always imagined Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son leading the pack of Marvin’s accusers.
Since that time I’ve known a few schizophrenics all of whom tell me that the voices rarely have anything positive to contribute and when they do it’s usually a setup for something worse to come. How Marvin got accepted into the Army with schizophrenia, an illness which almost always begins in youth, remains a mystery. Perhaps it hadn’t yet fully manifested though I’m pretty sure that the area Draft Board wasn’t very choosy and unless someone demonstrated overt signs of illness then they got sent over. At times Marvin displayed an other-wordly serenity and benign indifference to life normally associated with a mountain top Guru or someone like David Carradine’s character in Kung Fu. On such days he rarely said a word but exhibited a beatific smile as he looked through me as if seeing Ganesh on the left, Jesus in the middle, and Buddah on the right. (Or whatever Deities one might prefer to imagine). At such times it was easy for me to believe in the Divine as I found it impossible that anyone could fake a smile like that. (It has been said that God speaks to you through others).
“You might be able to stand against one or two of ’em but can’t no man stand against twenty bitches in his head goin’ on like that”.
When Marvin felt like talking he liked to create words he believed necessary to address society’s ongoing and willful ignorance of transcendental concepts. He carefully explained that there is a rarely observed dimension of truth and realness to life that “the fakers” and “unenlightened” could never see. So he coined the word “reallyality” to capture this idea as in, “So dig it my young brother. Let me lay down the reallyality of the situation for ya which I can see that you can’t see.” In stark contrast, on his bad days he seemed a solid candidate for exorcism such was the suffering and confusion in his eyes. His facial expression would morph between shame, terror, anger, and ecstasy as if auditioning various personae to find the right one to help combat the demented, soul-flavored “Greek Chorus” in his head.
But mental illness was not at all limited to men and there were a few women who came by Brothers Three or Banks Liquor though their pathology seemed to be of the “bag lady” variety in keeping with the “gathering” stereotype commonly associated with women. I’m not sure if society is more kind to mentally ill women but in any case I saw far fewer women than men on the streets. It could also be that many men have no interest in the institutional life and seek release even if it means living on the street and in shelters. In any case there was a regular female customer whom I believed to have been in the grip of an obvious mental decline that was taking some time to fully bottom out. In her mid 30s (by my estimate) she lived nearby with her parents, which itself was an indicator that not all was well. She, let’s call her “Blanche”, was an attractive woman who exhibited a very dangerous form of behavior involving the simultaneous expression and repression of sexual desire. Basically, she would talk to men in unambiguous sexually-laced overtones only to react with righteous indignation when they responded (which they always did). Blanche preferred to torture older men and zoned in on Johnny – a middle-aged divorcee with more hair growing out of his nose and ears than on his head. His beer gut had become so large that he had outgrown his Sansabelts and had resorted to buying pants that he could close up and over his stomach. He had a decent singing voice with his marquee number being “Mack the Knife”, (a song I’ve always despised because it encourages overwrought performance), which he would deliver on Friday nights at the Moose Lodge located on the hill behind the Silver Ribbon. Despite his smooth vocalizations he still couldn’t score even with that super heavy drinking crowd with an average age of 45. He was perpetually strapped for cash as he would blow all his money buying drinks for much younger women who would always wind up leaving with someone else. The ongoing rejection, which should have led to a reconsideration of his approach, seemed only to feed his desperation and desire for feminine company.
Blanche grabbed a bottle of wine and walked past me over to Johnny’s cash register even though I was much closer. Johnny’s mouth was already hanging open so I knew this was going to be good. “So young lady – how are you this evening”, he asked. “I’m doing fine Sir, but I might be doing a whole lot better if I had someone to help me drink this wine. As a matter of fact I could use help doing a lot of things”. She punctuated her remarks by slowly stroking the bottle with an up and down motion as she stared Johnny down. Although I had seen her performance previously I had to admit that she had taken it to a new level. But she wasn’t finished. Before Johnny could offer a response she continued with a bad girl giggle, “I went to the pet store today and the manager asked me if I wanted to play with his big long pet snake. Do you think I should have ?”. She drew out the words “biiiiiig” and “loooonnnng” for dramatic horny effect. Now at this point the adage, “Anything that appears to be too good to be true usually is” should have emerged in Johnny’s thinking but in his enthusiasm (and onset priapism) he clearly missed the personality switch. And, like many before him, could not help but take the bait, “I damn sure like what I’m seeing and I have a pretty big pet snake that you could play with”. But the personality in Blanche’s head who had laid down the kinky talk stepped aside and some maternal, nun-like, repressed identity kicked in with, “Why you sick motherless bastard ! You scum bag ! How dare you talk to a lady like that ! I’m going to call the police !” And then she spun around and blew out of there. After I stopped laughing, which took quite a while, I had to console Johnny who was understandably confused and irritated and even more so once he realized that I knew all about her scene and had seen it play out before – usually in the area bars where it always ended similarly until bar owners got tired of the act.
“I damn sure like what I’m seeing and I have a pretty big pet snake too”
Periodically there were itinerant mentally ill people (or terminally senile what with Alzheimer’s disease not yet fulling being on the radar then) who would show up. It wasn’t always easy to detect until you were half way through the encounter. To wit, one day an elderly gentleman walked in decked out in a faded pin-striped suit and a fedora asking for a pint of Schenley’s vodka. He resembled an older incarnation of Fred McMurray’s character in Double Indemnity. We occasionally got guys like that – walking anachronisms high on some nostalgia kick. As I bagged the booze he slowly peeled back the left side of his jacket in a deliberate manner as if to reassure me that he was not going to draw a weapon. He paused, (obviously for effect), and with his right hand pulled out what appeared to be a long stick of incense, which he then admired as if it were a treasured find. He retrieved an antique-looking cigarette lighter (adorned with Masonic engravings), flicked the ignition wheel, and elegantly waved the large flame back and forth under the tip of the incense as if initiating sacred communication with the Great Beyond. The incense emitted a pungent odor after which my strange friend then raised the stick high in the air and bellowed, “Come in Arkansas ! I say there – come in Arkansas !” I was stunned. I had seen some crazy shit but this was on an entirely different level. He stared intently at the tip of the incense while his anxiety grew given that no response had been offered from “the other side”. After twenty five seconds of uncomfortable silence I gently said, “Arkansas here – mission aborted. Repeat – mission aborted”. Without acknowledging me in any way he visibly relaxed. So much so that he stumbled towards the door and then outside where he collapsed on the curb front. I considered calling the cops but noticed a cruiser already rolling up. I walked outside but before I could weigh in the cop says, “We know him. He is a repeat customer. His wife reported him missing”. I ran down my story and the cop laughed, “Yea, last time it was Alaska but I can’t figure out the incense connection”. I had to remind the cop that there were lots of Hare Krishnas working the area and incense was their primary product on offer. Of course I’m certain that when the cop got back into the cruiser he told his partner about the Krishnas without giving me credit for the info. Avenue cops were like that – always gleaning information from the locals and later passing it off as the result of their own personal research or “cop intuition”.
In reality (or reallyality as Marvin might say) the general policy towards the end of the 70s and moving forward was to “deinstitutionalize” the mentally ill population which pushed many of them out of facilities onto the streets and into jails. The distillate thinking at the Federal level was that the governmental financial burden was too great and that Medicare (as well as private insurance companies) wanted no part of sustained long-term or life-long care so what else to do but release people. Idiotic justifications were trotted out along the lines of , “they [the mentally ill] really need to learn how to function in society so what better way than to put them back into it”. Nice logic there huh ? Adding to the complexity is that it’s difficult to determine the causal directional flow between alcohol/drug abuse and mental illness – that is which causes which ? Guys like Marvin weren’t alcoholic at least in any way I could detect though on occasion he would enjoy getting loaded. In general those suffering from depression can experience an uplift and a form of happiness when using alcohol, which is a contradiction given that alcohol is itself a depressant. And after decades of sustained chemical (ab)use one has to wonder if a life without the chemical is actually possible, which is an intimidating consideration for someone whose grasp on reality might already be rather tenuous. It is important to note there ware also plenty of “winos” many of whom were simply low bottom alcoholics who were otherwise capable of work and normal social interaction if they were so inclined. It’s just that they preferred life with an ongoing buzz and were taking a booze-fueled break from the daily grind. Lots of these guys were just looking for a kick and many of them were capable of responding to treatment. Just to say that not every down-and-out case has a mental issue behind it.
In any case there were many more examples of “crazy” Stewart Avenue people and to a large extent anyone who remained in the area for long might very well start to unconsciously assume characteristics of those people merely to combat personal boredom or to liven up social interactions. The mentally ill can be charismatic and free speaking in a way those with an investment in society might never consider. It can be risky to say what you really think or to point out the absurdity of daily life in a public setting. But if you are at least entertaining about it and/or have an interesting spin then you can kind of get away with it at least for a little while. Just don’t expect that big promotion anytime soon as society (and the workplace) tends to value conformance and predictability over innovation and humor. © 2016 The Stewart Avenue Kid