Archive for the ‘Poverty and the Mentally Ill’ Category

Kids. Covid. Kids.

July 28, 2020

Bruno is twelve, Saskia is fourteen—as perfect ages as there could be—and they fill their time with everything that a child should be doing as everything starts to open to them in spite of the world that we have known collapsing in silent shattering shards around us. They have lived in the same house since they were born, their world first confined to their bedroom, filled with plush and softness-stuffed animals, smiling cartoon bunnies and a moon night-light. A living room overflowing with blocks, a miniature play-stove, balls, and baskets filled to the brim with things that would be given to charity in just a few years. Then daycare, school and eventually their neighborhood. The kids have gone to the Netherlands every summer since they were born except this year; The COVID Summer where in some ways the world they have always known has shrunk into our little slice of the universe but it has also folded open at their feet.

I live just five blocks from that house they have always lived in, my ex-wife stayed in the house while I boxed up my belongings, the records, the books, the family heirlooms that still sit in the dusty boxes that they have sat in since my grandmother died, and moved into the small two-bedroom apartment that sits just up the street from a small park and a long bike trail. The kids go back and forth between their houses on an almost daily basis, there is extraordinarily little animosity between their mother and I as we are always tethered through our children and experiences. The good far outweighed the bad, which, at times was terribly bad but the good was exponentially better than the worst we ever experienced. And underneath the bad was a lot of sadness, a subterranean pool that flowed under our lives that had been there long before we had ever met. The failure of the marriage wasn’t a failure at all, it was a logical end to something that needed to change, the path started, turned into a sidewalk, then into a street and then into highway until it transformed, by matter of degrees and unconscious decisions and behaviors into a trail again. The paths split but still run parallel, we are both middle-aged, balancing our lives while trying to keep ourselves stable and sane.

When I was twelve, in sixth grade, my family was living in Athens, Ohio. I had just moved back into my mother’s house; one might use the word fled instead of moved as my father’s behavior had grown progressively aggressive and at times violent. My brother Zoltan had moved out a few months prior to me after he and my dad had gotten into one too many physical altercations, Z being all of 13—he was already a bit wise to the world and got out before it got too dangerous. My mother was working a graduate student job at Ohio University and I would leave school and walk around up-town Athens, pinging between record, pizza, and sub shops scanning the floor for quarters to stick into the Pac-Man games. My brother and friends would roam the University, busting into The Convocation Center where the Bobcats played basketball and have epic games of tag and tackle football that we played in the completely padded wrestling room. I knew every alley and cut through in town, it was, quite simply my imaginary but very real kingdom.

Every morning after his bowl of cereal, cuddling with his dog and watching every YouTube video that will make him laugh the hardest, Bruno dons his pink beanie with his favorite spray paint store blazoned across the top and grabs his skateboard to make sure that everything in his kingdom which runs roughly a half-mile in each direction from my house, is running smoothly. It stretches from Hudson Avenue north to North Broadway and, at times, he makes forays up all the way up to the Graceland Mall and south to campus. These trips take commitment. He skates with his friend Genevieve, a neighbor girl who skates the streets as if she were born on a board. They load their backpacks up with water, skate wax, snacks, their phones, and a few folded dollar bills and off they go. Bruno phones me throughout the day to provide updates, like he is the Ernestine the Phone Operator doing play-by-play of the neighborhood. “Dad, guess what?” he breathes into the phone.

“What? Tell me.”

“We were skating by Lucky’s and that place where Sam the homeless guy lives, behind Tim Horton’s—you know where I mean? Where Jenny used to live, near the Blood Bowl” he breathes heavily into the phone.

“Yes, don’t go to the Blood Bowel, by-the-way.” The Blood Bowel is a large water drainage tunnel that skateboards, teenagers and the homeless tend to utilize, it runs at the end of a ravine by his house, right under High Street and can be littered with the sort of things that a child shouldn’t be near.

“Dad, I know—I wasn’t talking about the freakin’ Blood Bowel, let me tell you what happened.” He pauses, “So, we were skating, and some guy got out of his truck and he was not wearing a mask and I told Genevieve he was not going to get into Lucky’s without a mask. So, guess what?”

“um, they didn’t let him in?” I query.

“Yup and he went to his truck screaming and saying he was going to kick their ass. Ha-ha, I asked Genevieve was it everybody’s ass in Lucky’s or did the store have an ass. He saw us laughing and started yelling at us. I bet he likes Trump. We just skated away.” I remind him to be careful.  At night he fills me in on his adventures, the stores he stopped in, how he got a free slice of pizza from Lucky’s, how he bought one of the homeless guys a $5 pizza from Little Caesar’s, how he knows everybody’s name at the local convenience store, and the stories go on. He knows everybody on this long stretch of High Street. I get text messages and photos from friends who tell me they saw him skating, how happy he looks, they all say, “he looks like you.”

It’s raining out, the drops pelting the sidewalk in wind-blown waves as if they were invading the beaches of Normandy instead of the sidewalks of West Weber Road, “dad, I’m bored. Take me somewhere.” “Yeah dad, we are bored. Take us somewhere,” Saskia chimes in. I tense up, but it is a tired tenseness more of a resignation to the fact that I am tied to my computer, to my couch—a place that I used to read and write at but is now, in just a few months my new desk. “I know it doesn’t look like it but I am actually working right now” I scroll through the dark bolded line of unopened email, some of which will exact a certain amount of future energy from me that at this moment I don’t have. “Dad you have been sitting there all day.” It is only 2:30 p.m., and he is right, since 8:30 a.m. I have been sitting on this small couch that Merijn and I purchased, along with it is twin, at a very short-lived antique store in Columbus in 1998. The couch must have been made in the sixties, it’s splitting at the top and one of the dogs—mostly one of the dead dogs I owned, chewed holes in some of the cushions, most likely out of boredom. Hopefully, Bruno will not chew the rest of the cushions. “I know I have but before I can do anything, I have to send a few more emails out, then we can go for a walk.” I’m irritated and it is hinting through my words, while I am conscious of this fact, I still don’t want the kids to know how irritated I am, but it’s there like the smell coming off spoiling milk. “Dad don’t yell. And it is raining, we can’t walk.” Bruno is now riding his skateboard across the living room. Skatebored. “Don’t skate in the house.” “Dad, your floors suck, they can’t get any worse.” He zips in front of the coffee table. “Can you just go upstairs for a bit?” “Nope, it’s boring up there.” He glides by the coffee table again; he does not even look at me while he is talking. An email blips on the screen and I read the subject line, “Fuck. Just go upstairs, I cannot take you guys anywhere right now. Go make me some coffee”, I plead. Saskia looks up from the opposite couch, “Dad, you won’t be able to sleep.” Bruno, still skateboarding but now in the other room chimes in, “yeah, and then you will be up eating cereal at three a.m. and getting fat.” “He’s right dad” says the teenager across from me. He is right. “I don’t care. Listen, give me 40 minutes and then we will go somewhere.”

When we walk, Saskia will want to hold hands and she says it as a demand, “C’mon, hold my hand, tell me what’s going on.” The grass touches our ankles, small tinkles of itchiness and little beads of sweat grow on our necks. Bruno does not mind when I slip my hand, the hand of his father full of lines and tiny burgeoning dark spots, into his. He is as passive as water being poured into a cup. He squeezes my hand back, his own hands longer than his mother’s at this point and he walks crookedly when he talks—his steps getting lost in his words which tell and do not tell a story. Both kids have an imagination, and a sense of humor while Bruno’s tends to be more absurdist—almost like an adult already. Saskia wants me to tell her stories, but it takes brain strength to tell a story, even a true story—it is something I do not have much fuel for. “I can’t Saskia, I don’t have it in me.” We walk further, watching for bees, looking at the dog hop through the bushes, stopping to smell every smell that had been planted that morning. Birds sing to each other in the bunches of trees that circle the field. “Please dad, tell me something else about our family.”

When my ex-wife my pregnant with Saskia, her belly growing this future insightful and charming young woman, I felt panicked. Being five years sober did not feel like a long enough time to become a father, something I had never really thought about. When I met Merijn and she told me her dreams, of being an artist, a teacher, and a mother—the envisioned life of being a creator, I felt small. My own dreams, of being a writer, or owning my own record store were things I kept close and they seemed undoable. There was no map, no guide for me. Of course, the DIY aesthetic provided and explained a way to create my own way, encouraged it even but in the “real” world where one needed to support and perhaps, subconsciously, to expose myself—well, this was not something achievable. A part of me thought she would leave me before that last part of her goals, I should clarify, she had goals and I had dreams. I did not expect to become a father but here we were sitting on our couch, she with her moleskin notebook and choosing names she had been writing down. I blurted out, “can she have your last name?” Merijn paused, “why? What do you mean?” I hesitated, a bubble of sadness in my throat, “I don’t want her to inherit all the craziness and fucked-upness of my family.” “Oh.” She had to think about this. After a few minutes she looked at me, “I think you need to talk to your sponsor, and I want her to have your name.” She held me for a moment, kissed my tear soaked cheek and told me it would be fine. Just because I felt fucked-up and  broken did not actually mean I was, I later learned not to trust my emotions or my beliefs—that these two things can operate on their own, regardless of reality. I spoke with my sponsor, my therapist and myself and realized that not every part of fear is, in fact, true and while it may contain some truth it does not mean that it actually is all true.

“O.k., Saskia I’ll tell you a story about my dad.” I tell her about how my father visited The Ohio State University in the late 50’s as a seventeen-year-old high school student from Caracas. How my grandmother, no fan of Venezuela, wanted her children to have an education and the opportunity to live in the United States. Upon landing at the airport in Columbus, he asked the taxi driver to take him to a restaurant near campus and was dropped off at the Blue Danube which at that time was not only a diner but also had a full menu of Hungarian dishes as well as a mural of Budapest and the flowing Blue Danube painted on the outside of the building. With that, my father was sold on attending Ohio State and in his phone call with my grandmother that night this appeared like a miracle, I can hear her saying to him, “Dis is fantassss-tic, a Hungarian restaurant?! You must go der.” Three years later he was called into the registrar’s office, “Laszlo, there seems to be a small problem, we do not have a copy of your high school diploma. I don’t know how it was overlooked but it isn’t here.” My father sat quietly, then started to cry, The reality of the situation was hitting him hard. He had never graduated high school; he had assumed since he was accepted to Ohio State, he would just start college as soon as he could. So, he dropped out of high school before the school year ended and moved to Columbus to start college. And now, here he was finishing up his college degree and he was now faced with being expelled. He explained this to the registrar who felt compassion and said she would just note that his diploma was lost and that being a Venezuelan citizen made it hard to procure another one.

“Sooooo, your dad never graduated high school but he’s still an architect?” She wriggles her hand out of mine, both of us are sweating, our hands need to breath. “I guess not. But that’s the story I was told, sometimes the stories we are told are not always true” and I feel the need to add “that the stories we tell ourselves are not always true as well” but I refrain and we keep walking. We talk about my grandmother, the larger than life one who even in death casts a shadow over the family, her presence hangs over everything, on her grandchildren’s walls, in the food they cook, in the stories we tell our own children. She lived longer than most of us thought, at one point in her life she was tremendously overweight, had suffered a heart attack in her fifties, had survived breast cancer in her late 60’s and died, with her translucent blue-eyes still shiny as she welcomed death. “Bela, I am not scared. I will see my mommy and daddy soon.” She smiled at me just hours before her hand went limp in her son’s hand. Most of us get to meet death with our bodies already run-down and broken, spent so much that the skin over our eyes hang low, our wrinkles telling the world how much we laughed or how we shut out the world. We limp into oblivion with broken teeth, parched mouths and failing plumbing—it is a relief. For others, the young, they go into death full of brawn, of bodies and minds exploring every touch and new thought, their minds unprepared while their bodies shoot fire out of their lives. “Hey, when we get back, I will need to work some more but tonight we can drive somewhere?” I, the father, speak this as a question as I don’t want to disappoint her, that while I will need to work I want her to know that I will make it up—not tomorrow or next week but tonight. “Sure dad, I understand. I had fun talking with you.”

I had dinner the other night with my old friends Michael and Suki, they live in North Carolina and my girlfriend and I drove down in the shortest eight hours in the history of eight-hour drives. I had not seen Michael since at least the late nineties, and I probably only saw Suki earlier than that. They have two teenage daughters. Their house is nestled in a small forest, a large meadow in their backyard. Mike says this is the house he grew up in, it is filled with love and the sort of creativity many of us are accustomed to living in. Stacks of books, magazines, scribbled drawings on the refrigerator and art on the walls. Not the store bought, gallery type of art but the art made from friends and from ourselves, it is there not just to inspire but to remember inspiration. Remember love, of shared experience. They made us and another old friend dinner, homemade burritos, the smell life came from their kitchen, but also soaked us through their walls. It was beautiful and meaningful, it felt like we had been neighbors for all this time, having coffee several times a week for the past twenty-three years.

Homeless and Flashlight Tag.

June 15, 2017

Walking down High Street in the spring feels like liberation, when the bleak chilly overhead carpet of clouds slip into their summer hibernation, the bluest sky awakens while people peel away the dreariness of winter by wearing cut-off shorts, tee-shirts, and glide down the sidewalks on skateboards that were shuttered for the winter months. Along the Olentangy River, small pockets of fabric appear amidst the overnight greenery of woods that line a fifteen mile bike path. It is here that many of the homeless camps sprout just like the green buds and purple flowers that awaken in the spring. A stroll through the various parks along the way brings many passerby’s next to men with rumpled men, whose breath wheezes alcohol and whose shoes are cracked and frayed from years to pounding asphalt.

At some point, usually in the middle of July or August within the woods of the bike path the heavy humidity of Ohio is fertile ground for millions of mosquitos to breed, it is not uncommon for a person to resemble a welted corkboard of mosquito bites when strolling through the trees and bushes. The homeless carve out tiny homes within the thicket of bushes and the muddy shoreline, these homes are big enough for a body and not much more and some may consist of walls of pallets, thin slabs of sheet metal and discarded plastic while other may be as simple as a one-person tent or sadly, a sleeping bag and backpack. Bikers, joggers and mothers pushing baby strollers may well be unaware that within the small bushes of the path they are using a person maybe sleeping, brushing their teeth, taking a shit or drinking a tall 40 bottle of malt liquor.

From the explosion on youth culture in the nineteen sixties, where the campus area became a magnet and a beacon for some, a five mile stretch that disaffected kids, drug users, college students and dropouts flocked to. The sidewalk across from the University was a bustle of energy, where pamphlets were handed out, kids with frayed jeans and threadbare tee-shirts smoked cigarettes while playing guitar with a small coffee can on the side to catch silver coins, and later a contingent of homeless African-American men spouted poetry, shaking plastic coffee cups, plying their vocal gymnastics trying to get by on a daily basis as the mined white college students for the change in their pockets. “Help is on the way” one fellow bellowed for nearly twelve years before the heavens took his ghost away. Help indeed. Later, when the wrecking balls bullied their way onto the campus area, smashing memories and campus landmark to bits all in the name of retail progress many along High Street gave up their hawkish ways, it is just a wisp of what it used to be.

After a while, the panhandlers, street crawlers and even many of the students have left, scattered to other parts of the city. Mid-town suburbs, former working-class neighborhoods and, the woods. Each crack in the sidewalk has a story to tell, but as the years sigh by they get forgotten, small bits of an image that dissipates like smoke. From a small-town boy’s point of view the rising mountains of steel and concrete of big-time cities spun tales of bustling people, elbowing one another while scrambling for space and for others in the small towns of Ohio, the cities were to be avoided lest one wanted to get robbed. But for many it was a potential escape from lives that were told that high school was the best time of a person’s life when for many it was the worst time of a person’s life. The idea that this would be the pinnacle of existence felt like suffocating under the weight of the sky. “Your fucking kidding me, right?” is what I would think when my high school teachers told me to enjoy those oppressive days.

We moved apartments as if we were hunters and gathers; a new one nearly every year—from one broken-down, roach filled apartment to another. As if one patchwork wall with faded paint was a step up from another one, but in our minds, as we carried boxes of books and records, Hefty trash bags bulging with clothes from dilapidated cars to the newest old apartment a small pillow of pride burst out from our shoes with every step towards the new home. Each place birthed new experiences and stories, the tales piling on top of one another as our existence and lifestyles invited characters that could have sprouted from thin paper-back novels, some of the characters with stereotypical nicknames, Dan “the man” From CleveLAND, Barefoot Jeff, Crazy Jim, and more that have been replaced by fresher memories.

Working three jobs at the age of twenty was difficult although two of them were at record stores and one was the overnight shift at a Ohio version of 7-11, but with a right-wing religious streak that had the chain refusing to sell condoms, porn or rolling papers—alcohol and Mountain Dew were ok by their strict standards but not the prevention of disease and pregnancy. I walked off the job one night after confronting a drunk frat kid who was harassing a homeless man, “shut the fuck up man, and get out!” I shouted in his slobbery fatty face, “ohh, who are you to tell me, overnight UDF guy?” From there a verbal admonishing to his friends for having such an asshole as a friend, he staggered out screaming “I’m going to tell your manager!” After checking on the homeless guy, not charging him for his food, I undid my apron and said to the co-worker, “I really don’t need this bullshit for $4 an hour.”

Jenny was usually in an elevated mood during her twenties, with a mind twirling as fast as a window fan, thoughts and ideas would spin out of her as if her mouth was shuffling cards. As much as she could spit energy into a room she could also ingest the energy and suck it dry, leaving the inhabitants sweaty and uncomfortable. Oblivious to the fact the propulsive interjection of her far-fetched and usually hilarious words would continue unabated. It was transfixing. She gathered men in her wake like sex infused pied piper, all the while many of us would sit and watch. For some there is a well of sadness that stirs underneath the essence of a person, like the deepest darkest sea under lurking under miles and miles of ice. The rustling of life that tramples above, stirs the sadness is quiet waves, a slight turn of a phrase by a friend or the leaving of a lover turns into a slow ache that upsets the balance of living, spiraling out in waves. The darkness expands in small shadows the crawl over the soul by miniature degrees, a Chinese water-torture of the psyche. A rustling would build inside her, stirring softly and then exploding into reckless behavior that was galvanic, with shards of emotions dripping from every aspect of the persons involved. Some of these escapades caused deep wounds, and dug into the skin of whatever emotionally frailty I had at that age, for Jenny, she would take for whatever hurt was no fault of her own but of my own stupid expectations about her actions. “you know what you were getting into and I can’t help it if you are always so serious” as she tugged a mouthful of smoke from her cigarette, other hand peeling back the wet label from her Natural Light. After a few years of sleepless nights, and anxiety, there was a point where a person gets used to this sort of treatment and it would be addressed with a gallows humor, an emotional brawniness had formed within me. Built with chips of disappointment that had calcified around my core. Nothing was shocking.

Rubbing his sweaty hands against his filthy jeans, which were so soiled that they could have caused his palms to turn even more grimy. On the table in front of him was a flashlight, gloves, his wallet, a pair of cheap women’s pantyhose, a ring of car keys with a plastic blue tag that read “Ricart Ford”, his cracked black wallet and half a can of Busch beer. His patchy beard twitched as he gathered them all up, stuffing them into his pockets, they were soon bulging with the tools for his evening adventure. It was summer, in Ohio the summer was constructed of sticky sweat and mosquitos but the Ohio State campus area was devoid of students apart from graduate students and young people whose lives revolved around the campus.

Jenny was working at the Travel Agency, an odd name for a campus bar the didn’t know if it wanted to cater to the Greek crowd, be a dance bar or even cater to the burgeoning underground music scene (Royal Trux and Urge Overkill both played the odd little bar.) She worked as a bartender, which was akin to having largest man on the block working the buffet table at Ponderosa. These were easy times in her life, where responsibilities meant how late to stay out, when to do laundry; job choices were dependent on lifestyle choices and not the other way around. Nights merged into mornings while eyes were wide awake, and the turntable was in a constant motion. Everything a person needed was within walking distance, record stores, bars, carry-outs and grocery stores made the life of burgeoning alcoholics easy, it was as if there was an invisible sheet being pulled over our collective lives by Anheuser-Busch and Jim Beam. The secret would be revealed years later with devastating consequences but the twirling dances of trembling nights of those days brushed aside any thought of the future.

I wore Dockers to two of my jobs, cheap imitations of professionalism that spoke to the truth of low wage management and sales job, “just who are they fooling” was my thought every time I put the stiff pleated blue or tan pants on, the mild annoyance of the fabric streamed up into my mind blossoming into an infrequent rage when the poverty of hope tripped up any semblance of aspiration. Casual business attire was code for supposed professionalism, collective bullshit by men who had never scrapped quarters from couch cushions to buy a hamburger. A soft seething blistered inside of me on a daily basis. Home life didn’t help, trying to piece together fragments of what domestic life was supposed to be, culled from prime-time television, after-school specials and Sunday morning services, to the reality that every person brings every experience that has ever occurred in their life to each moment. Every. Single. Time. Blending expectations with reality is fiction without practice. Jenny worked several jobs, one at the bar and the other at the Ohio State Faculty Club, her quick wit saved her from getting fired many times. The bar gig allowing her to stay out later, be the center of attention and of course, have access to an almost endless supply of alcohol.

Walking through the alley, stepping over shards of broken glass, empty fast food bags, pieces of broken furniture and massive green dumpsters filled with rotting garbage and piles of empty liquor bottles, he was deliberate in where he chose to go. He started off on high street, and within a few steps he was in the alleys, lurking behind apartment buildings and campus duplexes. After a long day of working two jobs, one selling cassette tapes to young college students, at one point that year I sold a new Kids on the Block tape to a young Chris Jent who later became Lebron James shooting coach, and the other job selling Twin-Tone and SST records to young men who lives almost depended on the sounds being sucked up and through the small needle cruising across the spinning vinyl. Jenny wasn’t home, which wasn’t expected-it was a Friday night—even though summer had come and settled over the city like a moist shawl, campus on the weekends still blossomed the young in need of dancing and sex. I sat on the floor, legs outstretched, with the sounds of High Street floating through the open window while the television flickered a semi-forgotten Steve McQueen movie, with the sound off the record player blared out the sounds of The Rolling Stones “Beggars Banquet.”

Drinking alone was becoming a habit, although listening to music can make the exercise an almost spiritual experience, I brought a six pack into the living room. Three cans in, flipping the record over, looking at the small plastic clock that ticked past two am, a small fear clutched my chest, it was hard to breath as I contemplated the fact that she may just not come home until five am again. Sleeping alone, even briefly-for the initial slumber was frightening, the drink could help put the mind into the warmness of rest, as if the mind was sinking into a steamy bath. The motivation to enter the bedroom alone has hidden in the murkiness of myself, it would need to be cajoled as thoughts went to the scary unreal, the imagination that pictured my partner giving head to someone else or moaning in pleasure while, I sat alone with a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best, an old Steve McQueen movie and Mick Jagger warbling. With every late night excursion she had a small part of me would harden, a kernel of steel would form around my chest, never to be dislodged for years. The cicadas had landed that year, digging out of their seventeen year slumber, with only a days to find a partner before death swept over the mass of them, they sang songs of courtship that filled the air with a lovelorn chatter.

The Travel Agency was roughly two blocks from our apartment, as the ache built in my heart, of Jenny not coming home after close I debated walking over and fetching her as if she were grammar school aged and staying out too late with her friends. “Jenny you are missing your supper.” But that was a trip I had made before, walking in while she stood in a circle of people, performing her jokes and dropping her wit as if she was a firework of laughter. I would enter unsteadily, unsure of my role only knowing that I wanted her next to me, the surety that she made my other half whole and I felt naked without her. Every time as I approached, I felt the eyeroll, the invisible needling of an elbow in my ribs, to my heart, “uh, Jenny it looks like your boyfriend is here” some drunk would mutter and turn away, another would raise eyebrows high and her boss, Randy, the balding former wrestling coach who had repeatedly professed her love to her many times in my presence or on our doorstep would rush from behind the bar and yell, “she’s still working, she has to help clean up. You can leave now.” Turning, she would offer a shrug, “well, Bela, yet again you arrived too late at the party, just go home and wait for me.” On some occasions, she might be weirded out by some creep and ask me to stick around. Oddly, it would take me years to realize the waiting I held fast in my chest, the anxious energy that built up within me, the wondering, the visions of awful deeds that would dance in my mind as I waited for her would be the same behaviors and fears that I would cause my future partners as the hold of alcohol gripped me tightly, holding my feet fast to the bottom of the bar stool long after the doors had closed. Tonight, I opened another beer, found another record, Tim Hardin “II”, and listened as Tim sung about the deepest loneliness a person can feel. Outside, the car horns beeped, drunken students screamed at each other in the streets, bumping into one another as they bleated whatever ideas that sprung into their minds and the cicadas sang away, wrestling with their own doomsday heartache.

The front door opened, footsteps landed on the creaky linoleum kitchen floor, “Bela, I’m home. I brought a few drinks with me, aren’t you glad I’m home on time.” She wasn’t but it was better than four a.m… Plopping down on the floor, “why are you watching the television without sound?” “because, it’s stupid” I did not turn her way, the enjoyment of drinking alone had elbowed everything else out. After a few moments of silence, she moved to the couch, speaking into the air, her words landed around me, as if they were discarded plastic army men left for on the imaginary battlefield of childhood.

Outside on the street below, he had found a window with a light on, with enough space to remain almost safely hidden from passerby’s but enough in the light to be dangerous, to push the envelope just enough out of his pants. He placed the pantyhose around his head, mashing his black greasy hair over his forehead, splashing his beard across his cheeks, putting the large silver flashlight, the kind the police use to club someone over the head on the ground in front of him he fumbled with his zipper. Anxiety climbed up his ankles as the anticipation almost swallowed him whole. With one hand he tossed small rocks against out window. High Street was roughly a few hundred feet away, as he stood in a small empty parking lot, just off the curb of Chittenden Avenue. “what the fuck is that?” I asked Jenny. “I dunno, someone is throwing rocks at the window.” Nobody had knocked on the front door but since we lived on the second floor it could have been somebody who wasn’t sure this was our apartment. After a few more rocks had smacked against the window, I roused myself up and walked to the window. Twenty feet below a small bearded man with pantyhose pulled firmly over his head, a cap and dark clothes held a long silver flashlight (the kind that cops use to beat people) in his right hand, pointing it carefully on his midsection. In his left hand, which was working furiously, was his penis. The whites of his eyes shined through the woman’s undergarment mask as he worked away. He was truly a man on a mission. Pulling away from the window and sat back on the floor. “Who was it?” Jenny asked. Deadpanning, “I think it’s one of your boyfriends, go have a look.” I took a sip of beer. Peering at the window she laughed, “what should we do?!” “I suppose call the police.”  She handed me the bulky plastic phone and I dialed 911 explaining the circumstances, “so there is this guy masturbating outside our window, he has a flashlight and panty hose on his head.” “Sir can you describe him more accurately?” Pausing, I replied, “well, he has a penis in one hand and the flash light in the other. Its aimed at his penis, really illuminating what he’s doing…. if you don’t hurry up he’s going to finish up.” A deep sigh on the other end then the reply, “A squad is on their way, your comments are just going to hold them up.”

Slipping my bare feet into my shoes, pulling on some pants I rose to go outside and wait for the police, “I don’t think it’s safe to go out there, Bela” Jenny said behind me. “What is he going to dick-slap me to death?” “No, but he has a flashlight.” “Oh yeah, although he might be too tired to use it, I’ll wait on the staircase just in case.” Walking half way down the metal staircase, I sat down and took a sip of my beer. The man was gone and I took in the smell of the alley, rotting food and urine hovered in the backyard, the alley and small parking lots that lined the back ally were flecked with small tiny pieces of glass, sprinkled around the black asphalt. They made it look like miniature stars were imbedded in the blacktop, and when the lights of passing headlights shone upon them, they resembled rhinestones. The apartment building just to the north of us housed a George Cooper a giant of a running back who played for Ohio State, and next to him a gay man who was prone to wearing dresses, lipstick. The gay man was one of the first openly gay men I had met, he was quiet and kept to himself but would wave at us, and Jenny would talk to him quite a bit. ‘You should talk to him, Bela, he has some good taste in music.” I was hesitant, as I was still trying to shed the homophobia that going to high school in Springfield, Ohio had tried to instill in me amongst other bigoted ideas. The apartment below us was empty for the summer as were most of the apartments in the building just to the south of us, campus got fairly quiet-the exception being the drunkenness that occurred on High Street every weekend. Soon, a police cruiser pulled up, I walked down and explained to the officers what had transpired. “He was holding his penis and a flashlight? That’s a new one for me” said one the officers. “Yeah, he was quite ambidextrous” I chimed in. They set out looking for him, Jenny came and sat down next to me—we drank some more beer, the feelings of betrayal had left me, replaced by a closeness to her brought about by the absurdity of the situation. We always had laughter to pull us towards one another while our actions pulled us apart.

After ten minutes or so the cruiser pulled up, with a small bearded man in the back. “We saw him walking in another alley a few blocks from here, he had a flashlight and some pantyhose in his pocket. Can you ID him for us.” Wanting to make a crack about needing to see his dick, I refrained. They pulled him out of the back of the cruiser, he was short, with greasy black hair, a scraggly beard that was a pockmarked as a fourteen-year-old boy. He had on a pair of worn out black tennis shoes, his pants were about three inches to short, exposing his hairy legs; he wore no socks. Hunched over, he resembled Charles Manson, when the police asked him to look up at me he sneered, “I didn’t do any to you man!” His teeth were yellowed. Asking one of the officers to come and talk to me, I whispered, “what will happen to him if I ID him?” “well, we will take him to jail.” Thinking I walked towards him, “I don’t know if this is him, so I guess maybe let him go.” The officers told him to stay away from our house and he sauntered off into the night. In the darkness, while pale light from the streetlights made his small frame glow he turned, scowled back over his shoulder and kept walking.

It would take some time, years in fact for an understanding of the mentally ill and the homeless to swell within me. Of course, seeing the slow-motion avalanche of Jenny over the years proved a valuable albeit painful lesson in perceiving the far extremities of not only mental illness but also addiction. Issues that have swarmed inside of my own life and mind throughout the years, depression can suck a person dry from the inside as if the soul is being slowly burned by an inner sun, where the result is a deadened feeling. A feeling of desperation that acts like a tranquilizer in a person’s life, unless a person has felt this, it is very difficult and, exhausting to explain. Akin to describing a color that doesn’t exist or an apparition that dances only at night whilst a person sinks into slumber. For many, the task of this explanation proves to be too difficult, the already awkwardness of being different tends to push a person away for help, the inner recoil which may have proved to be a safety valve is the method that may save them but alas, many times it is never used. Jenny always embraced the absurd, as did Jerry and in my own way, I have tried.

Pearl Williams part one

April 20, 2013

Note to Readers: I have been working with mentally ill clients over the past five years, all of whom have been mixed up in the criminal justice system. I have been writing down thoughts of what life is like for these men and woman. All the writings are fictional but based on the real experiences of the people I interact with, thus protecting their privacy and my professional relationship with them. These are, a composite of people who interact daily with the criminal justice system in this country, all are survivors who have withstood brutal experiences but because of their situations have little ability to tell their stories. My goal is to shed light into many of the people we interact with, whether its on the sidewalk, in the Metro section of our newspapers, the television, or maybe they are our family members. I was partly inspired by David Shipler, whose book, “The Working Poor” should be required reading for every American.

Pearl Williams part one:

Pearl Williams:

Collapsing in the cracked faux leather chair, with the bottom splitting from approximately fifteen thousand and twenty, tired asses of various makes and models, she looked up, then side-to-side, “whoa, I’m tired.” Shaking her head she took a wadded up Wendy’s napkin from her purse, smoothing it out along her massive knee, trying to make the rough paper into something soft she then wiped her brow. Glanced at the moisture on the napkin, shook her head again at her damp napkin and said, “Shit is hot up in here.” Her young grand-daughter put her hands on her knee, “Mamie, when can I have some water?” She breathed deep again, “shoosh child, let your Mamie get her breath. Right over there, you see where my finger is? There’s a water fountain behind that man who looks like your uncle Leroy, the one in the purple hat. Boy, that’s an ugly hat” she said to herself.  “now look, you go get yourself a drink and fill this cup up for Mamie” handing the young child an empty water bottle, itself as dented as the old chair she sat in.

Her granddaughter, checking to see if her grandmother was telling the truth, nodded silently and scampered to the other end of the hallway, weaving through clumps of people, some conversing, others talking on the phone. Most of them had pained expressions on their faces, some of their bodies tense as they paced back and forth, staring out of the twelfth story window overlooking the city. Birds flew by, a large cloud crossed over the sun in an instant causing a shadow to cover the next nearest building, an oblong line split the nearest sky-scraper in half with gray. A sociologist would have a field day in this hallway as over half the people gathered in the hallway had the hall markings of the poor, clothes that dipped past casual into the realm of obnoxious, make-up applied too heavily–as with a paint brush, sweat pants, sweat suits and the largest majority of people black. The others who kneeled down to their eye-level wore suits, ties, pant-suits, long skirts and classy high-heeled shoes that smacked of money spent with an eye for the importance of appearance. Watching intently as her daughter carefully filled the bottle, her tongue sticking out oneside of her mouth in pure childhood concentration, the grandmother sighed deeply. She had taken three buses to get here, left her small two bed-room apartment two hours ago, in the rain and now her knees ached. Her back ached, ached from the birthing of eight children and the raising of five grandchildren and of the worry of what the day would bring.

“What’s wrong Mamie? You look tired,” said her granddaughter climbing on the seat next to her, “Mamie is tired but we’ll get out of here soon. Mamie has to meet a man, and then we can leave, here I brought you some potato chips to eat and a book.” The book was bent, stuffed into an oversized purse, the cardboard cover had seen better days and the pages were filled with the scribbles of eight different childhoods who had all listened intently to the words about the scrappy little puppy. “I know that one already, can I look out the window?” “Yes, child.” Looking to the side she saw several people who she had known years earlier, a man who had dated her sister some twenty years ago, sat with a young man, whose forearms were covered with tattoos. The two nodded at one another. Another woman, the same age but more haggard, more tired and more beaten shook her head to an unknown song in her head, when she opened her mouth one could see the misery she had endured as the spaces of hollow gums told a story that she could relate to. “Who’s that Mamie?” “Oh someone your grandmother used to know a long time ago, don’t stare–it’s not polite.”

Pulling out a watch from her purse, the band split in half, but it still worked band or no band, and that’s all the mattered. She glanced down, groaned and stood up. Moving slowly she turned to her grand-daughter, “wait her a moment, I need to let them know I’m here.” Opening the swinging doors she stuck her head into a small office, “hi there, I’m Pearl Williams, I have an appointment at one o’clock. Is it ok that I brought my grand-daughter?”  A white woman dressed in a blue blouse, navy pants and heeled shoes, smiled up at Pearl, “oh good, you’re here, wow you’re early. Just have a seat, I’ll let him know you are here, I’m not sure if it’s ok to have your grand-daughter in the assessment but we can watch her for you.” With that she reached into the second drawer in her desk, and as she pulled out some crayons and a coloring book filled with  princes, princesses and dragons she asked, “how old is your grand-daughter?”  Pearl smiled, “she’s four. thank you.” She turned and sat next to her grand-daughter.

Pearl shuffled back to her seat, her grand-daughter standing on the warped chair, with tippy-toes plunging into the worn vinyl, she was gazing over the city—“here child, why don’t you color for a while.” The young girl glanced at the crayons and coloring book, thinking for a moment, she tilted her head sideways then this way–“ok.” As she made herself a workspace easily on the floor and her grandmother shooed her up, “get off that nasty floor, you can color here, next to me.” Pearl grew quiet as her booming grand-daughter scribbled away, giving life to the black and white princess on the page, the infusion of waxy pinks, purples and greens bringing the characters to life, an odd life filled with giant butterflies and purple skin but a life never-the-less. Ruminating to herself, the elder of the two thought back in her life, how many times had she sat in a government or social service agency? To be picked and prodded by invasive questions about how she had lived her life, the decisions she had made and the awful things that had been done to her. All done in the sterile offices of white walls and fluorescent lights that hummed like a small purring engine, and for what she asked herself? To be reminded of her failures, as a child, as a woman, as a mother and yes, even as a grandmother? She loathed this process, as she gazed down the hall to a man she once new, sitting next to what was undoubtedly his grandson who was yammering away on a cell phone, crooked ball cap and full of tattoos, pants slung loose around his ass. The man wore a suit, ironed with shined shoes, a quiet dignified presence in the midst of chaos. She grew jealous of him, “he’s probably here for the boy, and he probably thinks I’m here for my daughter or son or someone.” Disgust filled her, with herself and she shook her head.

After a short while, enough time for Althea to grow bored with princesses and dragons, a man with thin silver glasses that matched his graying hair poked his head out of the double doors, “Pearl?”, his head swiveled and he gazed down the hallway then pivoted back to her and Althea, “Pearl?” she smiled up at him, he was also smiling.  The man was medium built, with the look of education encompassing him and of course he was white, and it looked like he might need a shave. And he was grinning, looking into one of the other offices, his blue and red striped tie rocking back and forth as if it were a grand-father’s clock, cracking a joke although there was nothing amusing for her today. As she strained to rise she called down to Althea, “come on girl, put them things away, we got’s to follow that man.” The child gently put crayons carefully back into the box, and gathered the coloring book up in her arms, “Grammy, I’m hungry, when can we go?” “Shhhh, we just got here, drink some water.” Althea shook her head, “that don’t do nuthin but make me more hungry. I don’t want no old water.” The man with the tie was holding the door open, he was handsome in a white boy’s way she thought to herself, it looked like he enjoyed life. The other woman appeared, “hey we can watch your little girl in the courtroom, it’s not going on now, the Judge is in another courtroom for the morning, so I can get her something to drink. If it’s ok, the judge brought some bagels in this morning? She can have one of them.” Pearl nodded, gazing at her grand-daughter, “you wanna bagel?” The girl nodded shyly.


The office was small, smaller than what she imagined, with a narrow passage between two separate entrances, and a bookshelf lined with books, almost all hardcover, some with cracked spines and others with shiny sides the suggested that they had never been opened. “can I make you a coffee?” he asked her, she turned behind her, “who me?” “yes, this will take a little while, I can make you a coffee or I can get you a water or something.” Her lips bent down for a second, “hmmmmm, coffee, eh?” She slid the large black bag from around her shoulder, “ummm, sure, I think I would like that.” She looked him in the eye as he motioned for her to sit down in a chair next to his desk. “you know, I ain’t never had a white man in an office ask me if he could make me a coffee” smiling subtlety, “now, that’s funny. thank you very much.” She looked over at his desk, there were photos of children taped to his computer and behind that some postcards of some Eastern religious icon, “who’s that?” she asked looking beyond him. “Those would be my kids, well except the black kid, he was my daughters first friend” he answered without looking up from the coffee maker. “no, not them, I figured as much, that guy on the postcard, it that Shiva?”  He turned around, “oh the card, no, that’s not Shiva it’s Milarepa,  a Buddhist figure.  He was kinda like the Apostle Paul of Buddhism, he did all this crazy bad stuff and then changed and became enlightened.” Nodding, “oh, I used to know some folks who believed in Shiva and that stuff, they were vegetarians’, had all this nice stuff in their house. Oh my, it always smelled good in there. They was nice folks….so, are you one of those?” Sitting down, moved his keyboard in front of him, clicked a few buttons and looked at his computer screen. “one of what?” answering absentmindedly. “A Buddhism person?” “Oh, it’s really not important what I think, I suppose everybody believes in something.”

Handing her a coffee, along with creamer, “How many sugars do you want?” he asked, “how you know I want sugar?” she looked at him skeptically, “well, I don’t for sure but most of my clients take sugar with their coffee a few younger ones drink it black. I just thought you would prefer sugar.” Smiling broadly, “you right, I’ll take five, and thank you.” Stirring her coffee with a plastic knife, she took a few deep breaths and removed her coat. She was wearing a dark lavender blouse and black pants, and silver and imitation gold ear-rings.

He asked her age, “I’m fifty-six years old, a tired fifty-six, sometimes I feel seventy and other times I think I can run like a chicken especially after that little grandbaby out there.” She smiled into herself, “but I’ve learned life isn’t about being easy, it’s been rough but at the end of the day, we all blessed. At least that’s what I think.” He kept typing, “and why are you here, today, in my office? What happened?” Shifting in her chair, taking a pull on her fingers, she scrapped the end of one of her fingernails, “well, I took something I shouldn’t have, up at Wal-Mart, and I had another charge from last year that they gonna bring to you also.”

She blew on the coffee, undid the purple vinyl coat that hung off her as if it was tent that had blown into her body and stuck. She pulled it back, revealing chunky rolls of fat from her neck, there were sores on her shoulder where her dress stuck tightly to her skin and he noticed she was wearing purple sweat pants with gold racing stripes along the side.  On her hand she wore five rings on five different fingers, several garish gold ones and three silver ones, each with a single pearl.  Upon closer look he realized that they were all the same ring. “this coffee is good, much better than that canned crap I get at the Save-A-Lot, I could drink this all day,” she said mostly to herself.  He smiled at her, clicking things on the computer and explained, “this may take a while if you need to go smoke a cigarette, use the rest room or just take a break let me know. One minute here while I open up the document I need. Do you mind if I play some music?”

“No sir, you do whatever you want to do” she had pulled her sleeves up and was rubbing Noxzema up and down her arms, the white greasy cream made a shiny contrast to her dark skin. The room was engulfed with the scent, he immediately thought of his grandmother.  “What you smilin’ at?” Fidgeting with his keyboard, he smiled again, “oh, my grandmother used to use that cream. I was just reminded me of her and her car, it smelled like Noxzema.” “ohh, you probably like that then? I bet she was a nice woman, because you nice also.” “Thanks, shall we get started?”

“so, tell me Althea, what brought you here today—-I mean I understand you have a theft charge but why does your attorney think you need to be part of one of the specialty courts?” Another deep breath, one that held her thoughts at bay, she wasn’t expecting this, so up-front as she blew out she laughed, “boy, you get straight to the point, don’t you? Well, you could say I had a hard life. Real hard and while that ain’t no excuse, I done made a lot of stupid decisions but sometimes a person don’t even know right from wrong when they grew up like I did.” He leaned back, “it was tough, it sounds like it.” She nodded, and her eyes turned far away as if she were peering down a tunnel. “yup.”

Where to start? She rubbed her hands on her bulging thighs, picked an imaginary piece of fabric off her  purple coat, breathing again, always breathing when it seemed too much to do, “welllll,” drawing the word out as if were fourteen inches long and stuck in her throat. “let’s see, I was born here in Columbus, over there by where Children’s Hospital is, that neighborhood. Near Sullivant and Parsons, although that house is gone, they tore up that whole damn neighborhood when they put the freeway in. Knocked that house down and hopefully all the bad shit that went on in it. I was six then they did that. My momma cried but I didn’t care. Always hated that place. Anyway, they moved us over to those projects by that hospital OSU now runs.” She took a sip of coffee, and looked at him, “you probably wanna know what was so bad, don’t you?”  Rubbing his chin, the white bristly hair that poked out like miniature fence posts, reminded him of his age, “its up to you to tell me what you want, the more you disclose the better I can help you find the support you need and the more information I can provide for the court would impact on how the court views you case.” Althea nodded slowly.

It was hot out, the sun seemed to splinter the fraying wooden porch in real time, the paint was so hot in places if bubbled and cracked and stuck under her bare feet. “Momma, its hot out here, can I come in?” From the back of the house her mother bellowed, “Listen child, your momma said you need to stay out there, it’s hot in this damn house and your momma is busy, you need to shut your mouth before I come out there and shut it for you!” “But, I gotta pee, and I’m thirsty.” “there’s some Kool Aid on the porch for you! drink that.” The girl looked at the pitcher of Kool Aid, it had formed a thin layer of grim at the top, like a country pond melting in the sun. “But momma, it ain’t got no sugar in it! Plus it’s all warm!” The mother ran from the back of the house, she could feel her mother’s feet stomping across the floor even as she stood on the porch steps, big angry steps full of agitation, she was already flinching. The screen door, whose screen hung as if it were a torn flypaper, drooping forward, burst open. “Get your little ass in here and go pee!” She ran up the stairs, her hot feet making a tiny rhythm of childhood, piddle-paddle, piddle-paddle. She opened the door to the rest-room and a man was standing in the middle of the bathroom, slightly wavering, it was as if he were being blown by a strong wind, but there was no wind today, especially in the stiffling house.

“uh, sorry.” as she crept back towards the stairs.

“Its ok, what, you gotta use the rest room, little one? I’ve just finished up.  You can use it.” His smile was large, his teeth were yellow, almost the color of dried corn cobs. She would never forget that. He was missing half of his lower teeth.

“no, I was looking for my mamma, I hear her downstairs.” and she turned to go.

“Hey! I said go ahead and use it!” he bellowed at her, his voice pointed like a stick. She felt a large hand on her shoulder, it was firm, strong and it pinched into her back.

“yes sir.” She silently climbed onto the toilet and she stared straight ahead, the sink was dripping, it had two faucets, one for hot water and one for cold. Except half the time there was no hot water but the cold faucet dripped. Bink..Bink..Bink. She heard the door shut and felt him standing above her, glancing up she felt his eyes looking down upon her. They were dark, almost crooked in a way and they seemed to be made of wax. He was smiling at her, with a chunk of his teeth out, she could smell his breath. It was old , the aroma of old liquor, of how her daddy used to smell when she would hug him in the morning. His hands wrapped around her head, he was mumbling and she heard not word he said. He stuck it in her face, it smelled as well, she wouldn’t forget that either, musty and dangerous. She cried, but he tried to soothe her and the sensation of his hair on her lips caused her gag and he cursed her. That’s when it started, she later learned he was her mother’s cousin.

Afterwards she hid under the wooden porch, as ants crawled up her legs, she tore at her skirt and cried into the hot dirt. Later that night, she woke up to her mother calling for her. It was late and there were police cars parked out front and swarm of people in the front yard. She crawled from under the porch, streaks of brown dirt stuck to her face where she had wept, her hair with filled with clumps of leaves and trash. Walking to the back yard, her mother spotted her and hugged, “where have you been child? We have been looking for you. What happened to you, you a mess.” She fell into her mother’s arms, as if felled by a gun, “momma can we go to bed, why all those police cars.” “yeah baby, we can go to bed, let’s get you cleaned up. Your uncle and some of his friends got to arguing and that’s just what happens sometimes. People yell and the police show up.They are leavin’, don’t fret.”

Sighing, rocking her left leg she said,  “well it went bad from the get go. My daddy was never around, momma liked to get liquored up and sometimes she would disappear and I’d go to my grannies’ or auntie’s house. Grandma was ok, but I liked when we went to my Auntie’s, she was a school teacher. She later worked for the school board. She went to college, her house smelled nice and they were the first ones to have a microwave and a color television. But, my mom would leave us alone and that’s when the bad stuff would happen. My uncle at first, but he wasn’t really my uncle more like a cousin, then his brother and later my mom met a man who did stuff to me and my little sister. One of my brother’s was slow, you know what I mean?”

He nodded. “Well he was slow and some of them boys in the neighborhood would put him up to stuff, you know get him to do shit. Anyway, one day when I was walking back from the bus, I seen my brother, the slow one. We called him Charlie, he was nice, he would do anything for anyone and he loved to sing that song by the Supremes, the one that goes, “I need love, love.” Her voice turned childlike, chirping the words and a slight smile crossed her face, for a moment she was eleven, walking down her street, singing the Supremes and letting the water from the fire hydrant splash her ankles.

“yeah, I know it, it’s a wonderful song.”

“yeah, Charlie loved it, I think he secretly wanted to be Dianna Ross,” she laughed to        herself, “we would actually put on a show and wear my momma’s bathrobe, those fluffy          ones they made back then, you could pretend you were royalty or something.”

“or Dianna Ross” he offered.

“yeah, or the Dianna Ross. So, I’m walking home and there was this store we would go     to, to buy candy or cigarettes for my momma, and I turned the corner and there was this          alley there and the police had blocked it off. There was a bunch of cops there, they had          their guns out and in the middle of the alley next to the store was Charlie. I remember         him as if it were yesterday, and he is standing there with a knife in his hands, I don’t             know how he got a knife, he wouldn’t hurt nobody-he couldn’t. He was just sweet            Charlie. And he was crying, he was scared and I called him and he turned and looked at     me, and he walked forward and this police man yells at him. I don’t know what was going           on with him but he kept walking and they just shot him. And he was dead. Just like that.         He wouldn’t have hurt nobody.”

“That must have been very difficult, how old were you?”

She looked up, tears had started falling from her cheeks, big round droplets, sinking into the carpet and onto her purple pants. “I was eleven or something, supposedly those boys told him to go into the store and rob it. He didn’t know what he was doing. After that I went to my Grannies’ for a while, my momma lost it. She went to Akron for a while and she never really got right, I quit school when I was fifteen. I got pregnant, I was running around. you know?” Nodding again, “you want to take a break here?”

“Sure, I’ll go check on my grandbaby.”


Dan the Surfer

April 9, 2013

Note to Readers: I have been working with mentally ill clients over the past five years, all of whom have been mixed up in the criminal justice system. I have been writing down thoughts of what life is like for these men and woman. All the writings are fictional but based on the real experiences of the people I interact with, thus protecting their privacy and my professional relationship with them. These are, a composite of people who interact daily with the criminal justice system in this country, all are survivors who have withstood brutal experiences but because of their situations have little ability to tell their stories. My goal is to shed light into many of the people we interact with, whether its on the sidewalk, in the Metro section of our newspapers, the television, or maybe they are our family members. I was partly inspired by David Shipler, whose book, “The Working Poor” should be required reading for every American.


Dan the Surfer:

With long blonde hair, the hangs down past muscular shoulders built from lifting heavy circular iron rings while breathing time away, Dan shuffles through an apartment that has seen its better days. Built in the nineteen seventies, the building houses 24 apartments, stacked on top of one another as if they were modeled after a grocers shelf, these units are sparse, smelly and, at times unfit for the cockroaches and bed bugs that inhabit them. All come with one bedroom, a sliver of a kitchen and a bath room that adheres to the taste of a Motel Six, small, cramped and musty. Many of the apartments house families with children, it would appear to be an unaccountable number as when one walks around the exterior of the units there is a bountiful supply of children, most with tan and brown skin, hurrying and hiding here and there, their loud excited screams punctuating the sad filth that surrounds them. It is not uncommon to see five children poking their head through the iron bars that line the mini-balconies when leaving the safe confines of a car.

This is Dan’s first apartment in over seven years, prior to getting into this subsided housing he lived sporadically on the land in Columbus, Jacksonville Florida and San Diego, he ended up in Columbus, five years ago, to be nearer to his son who resides in a city roughly 100 miles away, he has not seen his boy in over eight years. The walls are filled with his artwork, haphazardly taped, hither and dithered to walls once painted white but now a dull gray. In the corner is a coffee canister filled with the ashes of rolled cigarettes and placed next to a jar of paint brushes and charcoal that he uses to help ease the intensity of the “angels” that speak to him. The carpet is worn, frayed in spots and littered with spots, a clever game one could play would be, “guess the stain.” Some look like coffee, food or blood and in this complex it would be easy to assume that all of these stains are indeed the ingredients to variety of colors on the weathered carpet.

Dan steps from the kitchen, a soiled mess of damp counters, egg incrusted pots and smelly standing water in the sink. There is a calendar tapped haphazard to the wall next to the sink, with appointment cards placed on the respective days where Dan is supposed to be present. Somewhere. On the side of the yellowed refrigerator whose paint actually appears to be peeling he has placed a nude center-fold of Ms. June 1998, whose breasts appear constructed out some Hollywood special effects team, she has gleaming soap bubbles dripping off her shoulders and chest, and a thought comes to mind that asks if she would actually realize that this moment in time for her, as she sucked in her stomach, aching to be sexy under the hot glow of photographer lights, thinking of how posing for Playboy was a dream she harbored long before she had implants. Would she still want to post nude if she knew that her photograph would be stuck on the side of a failing refrigerator by a man who could eat fried eggs, brush away insects and roll his cigarettes while dreaming of those bubbles floating off her tan torso. Her teeth are perfect.

Tilting his head, he shakes his hair loose like a carny version of a young David Cassidy, “hey man, whatcha think?” as he waves his hand through the air. This is one of the very few times he has met me without being drunk or behind bars, he has had nary a drop of alcohol in nearly two months and the effects are startling. His blue eyes, cleave through the lines that frame them, they are undimmed yet offer a glimpse into the suffering he has witnessed and the inner softness of his essence is present as well as the steely hardness of a life on the streets, in jail and in mental institutions form a competing visual battle over this ragged face. His forearms are huge, as if he were a lumberjack instead of city dweller who has survived on beaches and asphalt; there is a faded turquoise tattoo on the back of his forearm, of a twisted woman holding her breasts as a single tear drops down her face. An odd juxtaposition of the silicon enhanced beauty in his kitchen. “It’s nice, I see you have been drawing a lot” I metion, motioning to the large circular drawings that are hanging on the wall, next to five different pencil and charcoal drawings of people he has torn from various magazines. One of whom is Ben Vereen. “Ben Vereen?” I think, “Hmmmm.”

In the corner is a sleeping bag and a pillow constructed of several jackets, old newspapers and towels, next to this is a small thrift store digital clock that still has the masking tape price sticker on the top. “50 C” is written on it. The clock along with a half empty plastic bottle of diet Pepsi sits on top of a red milk-crate. There is a single chair in the room that is slightly cracked in the seat but otherwise fine. Seeing me eye it he explains, “yeah, check it out, I was walking across that field over there,” pointing towards the window where a field now sits where one of the first shopping malls in the Midwest once stood, “and I got this premonition that I needed to go back about fifty feet. So, my angels then told me to turn around, so I did, and I found that chair, a coffee table that’s in my bedroom, and this.” He saunters over to the closet by the bathroom, pulls out a coffee-table sized book of Matisse. “Matisse, in a field?” goes through my mind. “Look at this, this book, was carefully wrapped in a plastic garbage bag and taped off, it was stuffed in green army bag or something, I had to throw that out cause it has some worms and shit around it, plus, you know it stank.” Lighting a cigarette he mumbles, “I always liked Matisse, although I prefer his drawings to his paintings, they are pretty playful, you know. Did you know that Gertrude Stein introduced him to Picasso? I knew that already, I learned in when I was a kid when I was obsessed.” He doesn’t explain obsessed with what.

Blowing smoke out of the side of his mouth, “this place is crazier than the west side, than the camp I was staying at” nodding towards the door. “shit my first night here, some chick bangs on my door and asks if I want a blow job for five bucks, I was like whatta yah think, of course I do, shit I just got out of fucking jail but I tell her I don’t have five bucks, then, check this shit out, she walks into my apartment and puts her hand on my fucking cock and says, ok, just get me high and that will be enough. I nearly shit my pants.” Blocking out the image, I ask, “So, what did you do?” “Shit, what could I do, I told her I don’t get high and offered her some Diet Pepsi” he laughed, “and you know what she said?….she said, “fuck you god-damn cracker! And left. Then I heard her pounding on the door upstairs.”

Dan can’t drink or use any drugs; if he does he will go back to jail. He is looking at nearly two years for a variety of what I refer to as knuckle-headed offenses, drunk and disorderly, menacing, burglary (for stealing a twelve-pack of Heineken), public intoxication and resisting arrest. Most of the charges happened on one bad day, but he has an extensive record all but one of them knuckleheaded charges, the one that landed him in prison was a domestic violence, assaulting a police officer and destruction of public property. His life at this point in hyper-vigilant as the law requires him not to part-take in the one release and companion he has leaned on most of his life, one thing that has brought him a community and a way of survival but has also condemned him in the eyes of society as he has continued to use this tool he has bludgeoned and bruised many of the laws laid down.

Dan was introduced to alcohol at an early age, five to be precise, sucking out the remnants of his father’s Hudepohl and Pearl beers, when his Pops was in a good mood. Liking the top of the aluminum cans, Dan quickly grew fond of sitting on his father’s lap, sipping the beer out of the thin rim and watching old westerns. Soon enough though, his father’s mood would invariably turn and the ghastly behavior that Dan would later turn to was taught by his drunken father whose rages could be titanic. Splitting Dan’s head one evening when Dan had laid out a long-line of Matchbox cars across the living room, with the wobbly gait only ten hours of isolated drinking can bring, his father stepped on them, and in one quick motion threw his blond haired boy across the room where his head cracked against the riveted steel fireplace screen. When Dan’s mother rushed from the kitchen her husband snatched the forged iron pyroclaw and walloped her on the back, telling her “let that boy think about where he puts his crap!” Dan, dropped out of school in the ninth grade, already a proficient surfer in and around the surfing hot spots of Cocoa Beach, he quickly fell into the punk rock and goth scene, finding part-time work at painting signs for local pizza shops and beach front stores that coddled to the tourist. By the age of fourteen, he was huffing gas, smoking marijuana and using LSD almost daily. He quickly gave up huffing when a friend burned half his face off after lighting a cigarette under the numb daze of the fumes.

Taking to sleeping on the beach and on friends couches, Dan never went home after the age of fifteen, his father had been sentenced to a year in prison for assault and his mother soon left Florida for the green pastures of West Virginia to have her mother help raise his little sister. His mother, who could not keep the flames of heroin addiction from overwhelming her, succumbed  to the drug when Dan was twenty-one, he has not seen his sister since the funeral of his mother. “She’s out there somewhere” he says to the air, his hands wrapped tightly around his biceps. “Man, that time was crazy, living on the beach, I moved up to Jacksonville, Flagler Beach, Palm Coast, and there were some crazy motherfuckers. This was in 1982 or so, and shit was just happening. We would drop acid nearly every day, go surfing, try to get laid, all that shit. I fell in with some skinheads in Jacksonville, although I ain’t racist, I sometimes just needed a place to stay and they liked good music. You remember the Specials? We liked them and the Dead Milkmen, Agent Orange…. All that stuff.” Dan, looks at the ruddy floor, cigarette burns that are like tiny demarcations of mistakes made, some are older than the internet, “I got busted the first time in Jacksonville, on night we broke into this surf shop I had painted a sign for. The fucker didn’t pay me saying that I took too long. He thought he could get away from it because I was a punk, you know, just a dirty homeless surfer kid, so me and my friend Freebie, we called him ‘cause he never paid for shit, not even booze. So we climbed in through the skylight, I was just gonna take enough shit to get what he owed me” adding, “I may be a thief but I’m an honest thief.” Pulling a drag off his rolled cigarette, cobbled together from a litter of disposed cigarette butts he has gathered and stuffed into a discarded sandwich bag, he explains, “I mean, all I took was a skateboard, some t-shirts that was it. Anyway, we should have left through the ceiling where we crawled in at but we went out the back door, and get this, the alley backed up into this Jack-in-the-Box and we walked right in front of these cops where were feeding their fat fucking faces. Easiest bust they ever had.” He was still a minor, seventeen but they put him in the county jail for two weeks before he saw a judge. In the jail he explains, “that some big nigger tried to get me to suck his dick, but I fucking bit his leg, you know, I was strong so then I punched him when he kneeled down. I knew I didn’t want to go to prison, shit I was seventeen had hair nearly down to my ass, if you saw from behind I looked like a fuckin girl, I knew what would happen to me if they sent me to prison, so I was gonna do whatever I could to stay out of prison.”He pleaded guilty and got two years probation but left Jacksonville, moving north to Washington DC, back to Florida, this time south of Daytona Beach and finally Miami. Working odd jobs, usually as a painter. In Miami, he got married to a woman from Ohio, he was thirty years old and had started to attend AA meetings after completing a short stint in Jackson County Hospital after blacking out and waking up on the beach with a broken arm.

Dan stayed sober for nearly two years, and he and his wife had a son, he learned a trade and went to art school, he soon found steady work in Miami, doing an assortment of work for bars, restaurants and specialty shops. Dan had wrestled with mental illness and had managed to keep his “angels” at bay. “They were talking to me, although it didn’t seem as bad when I was married, I don’t know, I just didn’t have the stress-I had my kid so, you know, the voices were ok. They have always helped.” Dan started drinking again, giving up on AA, “It didn’t give up on me, I gave up on it, I just like to drink, I guess”. Soon after this his wife packed up the baby and put her things in order and drove off one Sunday afternoon, back to Ohio, while Dan was on a bender. He had left on a Thursday and came back on Monday to an empty house, “She didn’t leave anything, just a pile of clothes in the middle of the floor, she even took my tools, the stuff I need to make the signs and make money with. Shit, who would even want that stuff, sodering and glue guns, old paint brushes.”

Dan soon moved back onto the streets in short time, and it was then while he suffered a serious brain injury. “I had met one of my old friends from Jacksonville on the beach, and we were crashing at this abandon house, and he knew these dudes who would do PCP and shit, real violent guys. I don’t know, I called one them a pussy or something and later that night, I was walking down near the beach and they jumped me. Kicked my head in, literally, they split it wide open, I was in a coma for a few weeks when I woke up, I couldn’t remember my name. It was fucked up.” It was then, at the age of thirty-four that Dan heard his angels constantly, chattering and whispering in his ear depending at various times of the day and night. Although, he quickly found out that beer kept them quiet for the most part, so he moved back up north when he was healthy enough and soon applied for disability.

Moving to Central Ohio was different for him, for a period he reconciled with his wife and son but again, she could not handle his drinking so he spent a few years chasing down the ghosts in his head up and down High Street and the Short North bars, at times endearing the bartenders with his gift of sublime humor and at other times getting banned from nearly every bar on a three mile stretch. “I’ve been kicked out of every bar on High Street and half of them, I made their fuckin’ signs, painted their walls, took out the garbage,” he says indignantly as if his, at times violent behavior out should be accepted by his ability to turn glass and copper tubing into a beer sign. His wife moved to Southwestern Ohio after two years and Dan again found himself homeless.

“I knew a lot about survival, I did it in Florida and for a little while I moved to San Diego and that’s a tough place to be homeless. Shit if guys think the cops here are a fuckin’ drag those bastards in San Diego will kick your ass without thinking of it. They even make it a fuckin’ crime to be homeless there, I was like, what the fuck?” Dan, is now sitting across from me at downtown coffee shop, walls decorated by stiff paintings of dull figures and price tags that not even the artists mother would pay. Smoke is billowing from his mug, “this is good coffee, wow, it really is” he murmurs, “you know I made some the stuff in this shop, when I was sober, to decorate it. Since your with me I don’t think they’ll throw me out. Besides, I’m acting cool.” He gazes out the window, at a bike messenger chaining his bike up. “I lived against this chain link fence in San Diego for about eight months, it was behind this row of bushes  just up from one of the beaches, nobody could see it, you would have to climb into these bushes and then around them and nobody did that, they never trimmed the fuckers. I just had my bag and some clothes, I always felt safe there except for the cops, they would get to know you were homeless and harass you but the other weird thing there, in San Diego, was there were a ton of kids who were homeless, a lot more than here and some of them could be pricks. You had to know who to trust. A lot of drugs but that was never my thing, I just like booze.” Dan got a felony charge in San Diego for stealing a bottle of wine, apparently the laws are stricter in California, and moved back to Ohio before his court date. “There was no way, I was gonna do time in California for stealing a four dollar bottle of wine, no way. So, I came back.”

By this time, Dan was collecting Social Security, roughly $840 a month, not great but better than the standard $674 most disabled homeless people collect. There are two types of Social Security a person can collect, Social Security Disability Insurance which is based off the income a person has made and regular Supplemental Social Security which is the minimum anybody can collect, this amount varies by state depending on cost of living and in Ohio it is set at $674. Most homeless people, because they do not have a good work history collect this bare minimum which is not enough to pay rent, heating and food. Food stamps are usually cut to only $40 a month for someone who collects the minimum. Some of the homeless men move into the downtown YMCA, which charges $330 with all utilities included for a room and community bathroom, and there are other small studio apartments and one bed rooms available for under $400 but almost all are in drug infested and high crime areas where the mentally ill are more prone to be taken advantage of. Because of Dan’s mental illness and propensity for getting arrested2 he goes for long periods without his Medicaid. He automatically qualifies because of his disability but he fails to re-sign up when it expires and/or it gets turned off when he goes to jail for over a month.