Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Communities need characters!
Neighborhoods and small towns all have their characters. We often view them in a one dimensional way and assign our judgments to them. In my neighborhood, growing up, it was “Moose”, a big guy in his mid-thirties with intellectual limitations, a Yankees cap and a beat up baseball glove. Our responsibility as a society is not only to ensure the safety of our characters, but to try to make them a part of our community. They are a part of, not apart from our world.
He came out of the post office with a handful of flyers, ads and junk mail. He’d probably been attractive as a young man but time, mental illness and psychiatric medications had taken a toll on him. He was at least forty, just under six feet tall and had long dirty blonde hair. He was clean shaven and you could tell his face wanted to be long and narrow, but ended up puffy and jowly from weight gain. He had on a Motley Crue t-shirt that barely covered his protruding belly. The spandex pants and lace up boots had never really been in style, and no one had worn anything like them for twenty years. I knew it would take him about ten minutes to walk home so I went to a convenience store for a cup of coffee and sat in my car listening to talk radio. The little town Jim lived in was a strange mix of run down Victorian homes, empty storefronts and a new “super” drugstore that sold everything. This community had been Jim’s home his entire life and he’d become a local character. “The Rock Star” was what the locals called him.
I went to the door of his basement apartment and gave the secret knock: Tap- tap,tap,tap, - tap,tap. I could hear him behind the door looking through the peephole. He cautiously opened it and I quickly entered. The smell of cigarettes was overpowering. The white walls and ceiling were a light tan from twelve years of exhaled nicotine. The long, narrow living room was built just below ground level with windows at shoulder height. When other residents of the building entered or left you could only see their legs and feet. However, most of the day, the curtains were drawn, as they were this day. The bare bulbs of the fixtures made it brighter than it was outdoors. The sparse furnishings consisted of two lounge chairs facing a small TV and a kitchen table. Dolly sat at the table, she wore a floral print dress that went just below her plastic knees. “It’s only Terry,” Jim said to her. Dolly’s surprised open mouth expression never changed. Jim had purchased her at the dirty book store in Ithaca almost ten years earlier and she’d been his companion ever since. Jim softly smiled at her.
The radio was playing hits from the past. “Classic 99” the voice from the radio said and Jim echoed “Classic 99.” He sang along with his favorites as they came on.
“I saw you walking back from the post office. It’s great to see you getting out,” I said.
“I never get anything anymore, just junk mail. I keep writing and nobody sends me anything. I think the interweb makes it so people don’t write except with that e-mail stuff. The last thing I got was a picture of Bon Jovi and that was almost a year ago.”
He lit a cigarette and waved his arm towards a wall of photographs, each sent and signed by his favorites: Kiss, White Snake, Alice Cooper, Def Leppard and many more of the genre know as Glam or Hair Bands. “Classic 99,” the radio said “Classic 99,” Jim repeated, laughing.
“The zombies pooped on my front step again first thing this morning. I went up to the door and cursed them. It smelled real bad. But they cleaned it up by the time I went out. They’re going to get in trouble. They can’t do that can they, Terry?” He asked.
“I’m sorry your day started out so badly,” I said. “Maybe tomorrow will be better. Have you seen your folks?”
“My mom came over yesterday and brought me groceries. I got Fruit Loops. Me and Dolly love Fruit Loops. Mom took the garbage with her too. I told her about the zombies and also I’ve been having a problem with ghosts. They keep flying around when I’m watching TV. They don’t really bother me, but they get in the way of the TV and sometimes they get together and make this buzzing sound, like there’s bees in the room. If I yell they’ll usually stop.”
“That sounds terrible, but you usually can deal with bad stuff,” I said.
“Where’s your med box?” I asked. Jim went into the bedroom and came out with a plastic box that was divided into seven long slots for each day of the week and further divided into four for morning, mid-day, dinner and evening doses. A nurse came every Friday to fill his medication box and he also had a two day emergency supply in case of bad weather. “Things look good here,” I said, handing the box back. “Any problems with the medications?”
“Just a little dry mouth, nothing too bad,” he answered.
“Mr. Cooper upstairs keeps cursing me. Dolly heard it too. I’ve never done anything to him. I can hear him curse at me. But I haven’t been banging on the ceiling.”
I looked up, seeing the marks where Jim had banged the broom handle earlier in the month. Jim’s caseworker had spent time with both the neighbor and the landlord reassuring them that Jim was not a danger to them. “Remember what I said? If anyone is bothering you while you are in the apartment you can take another pill to make you relax. Make sure you let me or your mom know. And if anybody is bothering you in town remember what I told you?”
“Yep, I can go to my mom’s or I can go to the police station.” Jim had been bothered a number of times in the street by local teens. The police chief had gone to high school with Jim and felt very protective of his former football teammate. “Chief Billy always watches out for me.” “Classic 99”, the radio said. “Classic 99”, Jim repeated.
“When I was at the post office yesterday, I heard people say I had AIDS. The people in line and the people behind the counter all said I have AIDS. I don’t have AIDS, do I, Terry?”
“When you hear people stay stupid things what can you do, Jim?” I asked.
“Just ignore them. That’s the best way to do it, right Terry?”
“I’ve got to get going. It’s really good to see you, and Dolly too. Tell your mom hello when you see her.” I got up and Jim unlocked the door and I slipped out. Behind the door I could hear, “Classic 99”.
The stories are my remembrances. Each of them is based on a true event in my work for Tompkins County Mental Health. I have changed the names and identifying information of every client, patient and co-worker except for Beau Saul, of the Ithaca Police Department, who I was fortunate enough to have as a partner. When confidentiality demanded it, I have changed details. The dialogue is my reconstruction of what was said at the time. I have felt honored to be let into the lives of so many individuals over the years. Their stories are a gift I have been given. Please enjoy them in the spirit with which they were written; to educate and inform.