Thursday, March 30, 2017

Gary Redux


Gary

It took me a while to get this picture (taken by David Soffa) of Gary.  But here it is, at last.
Gary was one of the most memorable kids in the St. George Homes back in the early 1970s simply because of his voice.  High Pitched doesn't really come close, rather pre pubescent sums it up.  Like a few of the other kids Gary had a fixation.  Comic Book superheroes, to be sure.  But not their images, more like the words used in their exploits.  Think Batman and think Pow and Zap and BOOOOM!
At some point in his formative years those comics were all he had and he managed to incorporate all those adjectives and verbs into his reality.  Even in this photo, Gary is about to smile.  He laughed a good deal.  Laughed and
smiled when uttering those action words,
laughed and smiled when being hit by other kids in the home.  His agggression was sublimely passive and that further inspired his tormentors.  Of all the kids I recall, Gary was perhaps the most lovable.  His histrionics often took the form of self-deprecation.  "I can't do anything right..."  "Everything always turns out wrong."  Just imagine that in the voice of a pre-pubescent 12 year old.  But Gary  was centered in his own way.  Despite the violence that surrounded him daily, he managed to find humor more often than all the others.  Today, when I think about Gary, I realize that he must be in his late 50s by now.  My hope is that his voice is as deep and mellow as his disposition could be.  I hope, too that a few things have gone right for him.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Charles and Gary

They were among the most memorable.  Charles and Gary.  Gary I'd heard about.  His "thing" preceded him.  Charles I met first.  Waiting outside the office of the director,  thinking about the interview questions they's ask and what it would be like to work in the residential treatment facility, Charles approached me.  "I'm not like the others," he said in his deepening voice.  Quickly changing the subject to his black raincoat, his most prized possession, Charles was convincing.  Maybe he's right, I thought.  "I'll soon be leaving here," he said.  "You probably won't get the chance to know me, but I wanted you to know I'm not like the others."
Charles wasn't leaving.  He was, in fact, lucky to be there.  It was better than that other place he'd been forced to call home: a closet.

The story goes that his father was a visiting professor from Japan.  When his mother got pregnant, the father would have none of it...literally.  At a young age, Charles was kept in a closet and given a transistor radio for amusement (and a parent) and had managed to survive until the truth was out and he was removed from the home.  A mild mannered, if not disinterested kid, Charles had made the world of top 40 radio stations his new home.  Listening to that little radio day and night, He could quote the top ten singles by month and year.  It was not uncommon for someone to say "Charles, June 12, 1996 and for him to reply, "on June 12, 1967 Tommy James and the Shondells hit the top of the charts with "I Think We're Alone Now."
Charles used to lay his carefully folded raincoat on the end of his bed at night.  It was never far away. It didn't help that he lived in what has previously been referred to as the "crazy" house.  These were the more disturbed kids in that rather than just emotional disturbances, they had all manner of issues from being somewhere on the Autism spectrum to Tourettes Syndrome.

They were seldom violent like the other teen boys in the other houses.  Their emotional outbursts were rare, in favor of flat out passive aggressive behavior.  They knew how to use their limited resources to great advantage.  You can get plenty of revenge by defecating in someone's clean clothes drawer or creepily asking about their ethnicity ad nauseam.  (Brent used to sped hours asking Charles if he was Chinese or Japanese after lights out.  Every 15 minutes or so Charles would reply, "I already told you, I'm Japanese." And so it went.
If Charles had made the world of top 40 radio his alternate home, then Gary had done the same using the universe found in Superhero comic books.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

After Love

In celebration and memory of the late Derek Walcott, West Indian poet and Nobel laureate.  This poem occupies a place among my favorites of all time.






Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.



Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Egg Salad TV



This is Leonard.  You would never want to have the responsibility of waking him up in the morning.  Not when this picture was taken.   He was about 12 or 13 here.  Like the few things he came to the group home with, his bicycle was very important to him.
My introduction to Leonard was abrupt.  It was the day I came to the home for an interview.  Lunch time. A few of us potential "counselors" were waiting to be interviewed in the living room of the large house that was home to the offices and director of the St. George Homes.  The boys that were placed in two other nearby homes came to this home for lunch.  They were in an adjoining room watching cartoons when a fight broke out. A thud; someone hit the floor. One of the counselors jumped up and opened two sliding doors.  I followed.  When he pulled one larger kid off a smaller one I went over to what appeared to be the victim.  He was curled in a ball and crying.  I bent down and tried to roll him over to see if he was hurt.  That's when I caught a fist in the mouth.  He greeted me with a punch.  Leonard.  Angry Leonard.  Extremely angry Leonard.  Working with emotionally disturbed teenagers required knowledge that I did not possess.  Not at that point.
A day, any day was filled with lashing out, fist fights, and violent actions for Leonard.  He'd snap over everyday things.  Living with 5 others with similar issues truly tested his ability to change or gain any insight.  Still we tried.  There were group outings, activities filled with music and artistic endeavors.  There was free time to ride bicycles, there were football games and camping trips.  Leonard and his anger attended all.  Rarely was there no incident to set him off.  Even when things were going well you could always count on Leonard or one of his roommates to calmly walk into a room where 4 kids were quietly watching TV and change the channel.  No talk.  Just action.  On one occasion Leonard grabbed one kid's egg salad sandwich and rubbed it all over the TV screen.  Fight ensued.
Yet, Leonard could be a little boy.  I've seen that quality in some very violent adolescents.  Regression?  Arrested development?  Probably.  One day I tried to find some background information on Leonard.  Through a combination of other counselors and a social worker associated with his placement I learned that Leonard had 8 placements in his first 12 years.  He was part Mexican, part Apache Indian.  He had a twin brother.  Apparently the social worker who knew his brother was overjoyed that he had finally expressed some anger.  His personality was the complete opposite of Leonard's.  The brother had told someone to fuck off and that was perceived as progress.  I do not know if Leonard and his brother were born under the sign of Gemini.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Exercises

I had the good fortune of having a photographer for a roommate many years ago.  It was 1970, the beginning of my life away from home.  After a year in Houston, Texas, as a VISTA Volunteer I wound up in the Bay Area.  Seeking draft counseling and the opportunity to hone my social justice skills I ended up working in a care and treatment facility for emotionally disturbed teenage boys. Because there were so many conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, the place was approved for alternative service.  We were non-violent young men working with very violent youth.  The Feeral Selective Service (draft) law said that approved service had to "dispute your life and involve sacrifice")  This did.  That's why we worked 3 day live-in shifts and got $50.00 a month plus room/board.  Thought these homes were privately owned houses, it was an institutional setting.  The training and support we received was questionable, at best, ineffective at worst, but the experiences and stories that remain from that time are indelible.
The photo here is taken from one of my colleagues' Instagram page.  He recently decided to scan and preserve much of his work from the last four decades.  I have his permission to use this picture and I'm delighted because it is worth at least 2,000 words.
His name was Brent and he lived in the home that had the most mentally disturbed boys.  I say that with a grain of salt because while his roommates had mental illnesses they were deemed less violent or angry as another home with more emotionally, physically, and developmentally mature kids.  While Brent and his roommates certainly were not exempt from some forms of abuse, they were severely limited in their ability to make and flourish with social relationships.  Sometimes people confuse the term "crazy" with the person and not the behavior.  The kids could be funny, entertaining, even lovable, but they were loaded with "crazy" behavior.
Brent had, among other things, a large dose of Obsessive Compulsive Behavior.  His OCD, however didn't involve hand washing or counting, or cleanliness, but rather an obsession with huge disasters.  He was fascinated with natural disasters like tidal waves and volcanic eruptions, but especially enthralled with the disaster of Hiroshima.  In a low almost whisper, he'd say, "Bruce...Bruce... Fifty thousand people killed in Hiroshima."  Then he proceeded to extend both arms forward and violently shake his fingers.  Creepy, yes, but also eerie and somewhat fascinating.
Brent and his roommates were also going through puberty.  They didn't have the skills to discuss sex and their sexual awakening in a mature way, so they were often shunned by the boys in the other 3 houses, who were just beginning to act on their urges and certainly didn't want to be associated with these "crazy" ones.
Brent had a crush on the actress Marlo Thomas.  It was the 1970s and she was a big TV star.  He build huge fantasies around how he would meet her and how they would "get together."  He used to show me long, long short stories he'd written.  Always there was a scene where something happened to Marlo Thomas, and he just happened to be nearby.  She sometimes was in an ambulance after being hit by a car, or perhaps the victim of some sort of misfortunate and he suddenly be there and she would fall in love with him right there on the spot.  He got much pleasure from these stories.
Working in these homes as a 22 year old conscientious objector I learned much about both mental illness and my own threshhold for keeping my cool.  Often, the worst times were waking the kids up and getting them to settle into bed at night.  One of the therapists employed by the facility used to tell us that unlike most people, they felt they had no reason to get up in the morning.  Often, the first hour of the day was fraught with anger that erupted into fights and resistance of all sorts.  As for Brent, the end of the day was the biggest challenge with him.  He used to ask one of the other boys, Charles, who happened to be Japanese, if he was Chinese or Japanese for hours.  "Charles...Charles...are you Chinese or Japanese."  Imagine that in a raspy voice for a couple of hours.  It was always followed with a sniveling little laugh.  I conclude this memory of Brent with one of his evening surprises.  If a woman houseparent was on duty he was likely to do this one.  Slipping off his pajamas, he's suddenly burst out of bed and announce, "Exercises in the nude."  Whereupon he commence doing jumping jacks and encourage all within earshot to do the same.  More about Brent and his roommates in my next post.