How to Avoid Unpacking, in One Easy Step

In the first day in our new house, the movers had just finished dropping off our stuff, and we’d finished the pizza we ordered for dinner.  We hadn’t unpacked any trash cans yet, so I figured I’d take the pizza box all the way to the cans in the alley.  It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t make it.

It was already dark, and the 100-year-old house was new and unfamiliar, so I wasn’t sure where the light switches were.  I found a switch inside the enclosed porch, but nothing happened, so I opened the back door and leaned out to see if there was a switch outside, or a bulb.  There was a fixture, and I took a step off the porch to get a better look.

A step … into the air.  I had managed to miss the steps entirely, which weren’t quite where I expected them to be, and also managed to catch one of my shoes on the porch.  This propelled me face-first onto the concrete about six feet below, where I caught myself with both hands.  My arms gave way, and I crumpled in a heap.

Sure, it hurt, and yes, my arms wouldn’t move, but I didn’t realize they were actually broken until the next morning, when it was perfectly clear that my arms still refused to move when told to do so.

Since we had just moved in, neither one of us had any idea where the closest hospital was, so my wife called the man I worked for, who lived nearby.  We’ll call him Dave.

Wife:  “Do you know where the closest hospital is?”

Dave:  “What happened?”

Wife:  “I think his arms are broken”

Dave:  “Never mind that, is he going to be at work tomorrow?”

Broken Elbows

Broken Elbows

The closest hospital is called Resurrection, which, unfortunately, is less a bold statement about their medical abilities and more an indication that it’s run by Catholic nuns.  I couldn’t hold a pen, so my wife took care of most of the paperwork, after which the nun behind the counter pointed at me and said, “You.  Go through that door.”

I looked at the door, which had a pull handle, and at my broken arms, stuck in a position that made me look like Beavis.  “How?”

“You pull,” she hissed, as if my trouble with the door were a conceptual problem.

“With what?” I asked, having moments before explained to this woman that I could not move my arms.

My wife hurried over to open the door for me, while the nun called after her, “you can’t go in there!”

X-rays showed that I had managed to fracture both of my elbows, and the doctor explained that due to an increase in popularity of rollerblading, they had seen a lot of this kind of injury, and knew just what to do.  “Usually not both elbows, though,” he explained, and put me in splints that went from my neck to my fingertips.

I don’t think I ever really appreciated my elbows before I no longer had the use of them.  Like many people, I took them completely for granted.  Now, I could not reach my face, put on my own clothes, hold or lift anything…  My wife called Dave to let him know that no, I would not be in the office tomorrow.

My wife immediately called the local cable company, and asked them to turn on the cable.  The cable itself was already there, and I had the presence of mind to connect it to the television before breaking my elbows, so there was little for them to do except actually switch it on.  They explained that they’d have to “send somebody out,” and my wife took the earliest appointment on Friday.  I wasn’t going anywhere, so it seemed safe enough.

Meanwhile, she had to go to work.  I was in no real condition to fend for myself, so she dressed me in loose fitting clothing I could kind of work off myself, and cut food into cubes on the coffee table, along with drinks with straws — so I could kneel and eat with my face.  It worked out pretty well, though I did have to defend the cheese cubes from Loot de Doot Doot, my cat, who hovered nearby.

During the week, we went out to Northwestern Hospital, where they replaced my splints with another set of splints designed so that I could type, so I could get back to work the following week.  Friday came and went, and nobody from the cable company came by or called.

Apparently, it’s best for injuries such as mine to start physical therapy right away, so that Monday, I was in physical therapy already.  I could take the bus to the hospital, but if I didn’t get a seat I had to “surf,” because I couldn’t hold on to anything.  I was gone for about an hour, and surely enough, when I got back, there was a note on the door from the cable company.  “Sorry we missed you!”

It was attached to a flyer from the cable company that promised $100 if they missed an appointment … like the appointment I had on Friday that nobody showed up for.

By then, we had gotten a speaker phone set up so I could call the cable company (I could dial a phone, but not lift the receiver or hold it to my ear) and I didn’t have much better to do than sit on hold, so I finally got through.  I explained what the flyer said, and asked for my $100.

“We only give out the $100 if we miss an appointment,” the cable representative explained.

“Well then, I certainly expect $100.  My appointment was on Friday.”

“No, we moved it to Monday,” she informed me.  “We probably just didn’t have time to notify you.”

“What?”  I really had not expected this, and tried to be patient.  “If we make an appointment, and you don’t show up or even make an attempt to contact me in any way, I’m pretty sure that fits any definition of missing an appointment.  What’s the point of having an appointment if either side can just move it whenever they want without notice?  By that definition, I can move the appointment back to Friday, and you sure as hell missed it.  You know what?  I just did, and you owe me $100!”

I was restrained enough not to add “infinity plus one no take-backs!” and was rewarded with nearly a full minute of silence.

“Well,” she finally said, “the $100 is in the form of a credit that you get after your first year of service, did you want to make another appointment?   The earliest we can get out there again is about three weeks.”

“You know what?  Fuck you,” I said as politely as I could, and unable to slam the phone down, settled for bashing the hang-up button with my forehead.  Loot was impressed enough to leave my food alone for the rest of the day.

I called Dish Network, who installed everything right away, and actually kept their appointment, which normally would not impress me.

Dave drove me to work the next day.  Since I could type, I could be pretty productive at my computer, but wasn’t very good at anything else.  Like eating.  Jimmy sat next to me at lunch, cutting my food and putting each bite on my fork, which with my new splints, I could just get food into my own mouth by holding the fork between my fingertips and stretching my neck as far as I could.  Jimmy helped with everything, from straws to napkins.

I excused myself, explaining that I had to visit the restroom.

Jimmy’s face suddenly had the frozen expression of somebody who had just received some very bad news but is trying not to show how devastated they are.  This confused me for a moment, before he offered sincerely, “do you … uh … need any help?”

My elbows had allowed me to sidestep my company’s rigid dress code that required ties, and I was in a loose-fitting t-shirt and shorts.  Although it wasn’t quick, I could pretty much get them on and off by myself.  “No, I’ve got it, thanks.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody look more relieved.

Dave drove me to work and back every day until my elbows were completely healed.

Also every day, the cable company called, offering to hook up my service, explaining that since the cable was already in place, it would be quick and easy.  I patiently and slowly explained the entire story to them, explaining that they were welcome to send somebody by with $100 any time they wanted me to reconsider whether or not they had enough integrity for me to do business with them.  They never took me up on it.

As a testament to the power of first impressions, it has been years, and my neighbors still seem to think of me as “the guy with the broken elbows.”  Every time I’m up on a ladder, one or more will drop by to “make sure I don’t break anything.”


More Tales of Loot (and Another Apartment)

Loot de Doot Doot and I moved into a high-rise Streeterville apartment that didn’t have any pet prohibitions.  At one time, it must have had a wonderful view, since one entire wall of the apartment was comprised of glass windows.  By the time I moved in, another building had been built right across the street, blocking all but a sliver of Lake Michigan.  On the plus side, at the right time of day it was possible to see the residents of the building across the street brushing their teeth.

Helping us move were a couple of big guys who did moving on the weekends, one large enough to have to duck to make it through doorways.  There was a microwave on top of our full-sized refrigerator, and he pointed over and asked, “does this go?”  “Sure,” I said, meaning the microwave, and he picked up the refrigerator with the microwave on top, with about as much difficulty as I might have lifting an empty box.  Well, maybe a little less.

Demonstrating his usual good judgment, Loot puffed himself up to as big as his kitteny frame could possibly get, and actually tried to intimidate this man with his size, causing him to raise an eyebrow.  “I think something’s wrong with your cat.”

Dirty, Dirty, Loot

Dirty, Dirty, Loot

Among Loot’s many fetishes was a deep-seated need to do battle with tissue boxes, usually in the middle of the night, when decent people were nestled in their soft beds, merely dreaming of attacking tissue boxes.  To discourage this wasteful habit, I hit upon the idea of surrounding each tissue box in the apartment with packing tape, face-up, so that a cat would pretty much have to step on it in order to get to the tissue.  It worked — in the morning, the tissue box would still be full, and there was a ball of tape saturated with white hairs.  Each night, I’d do this, and each morning, there would be a sticky ball of tape.  It was a full two years before the tape was actually intact one morning.  (I watched Loot carefully for a few days to make sure he wasn’t sick, but it appears that he actually had managed to learn something.)

Like many other cats, Loot had a knack and desire for unseating potted plants and playing in the dirt.  When caught, Loot would insist that “somebody else” must have knocked over the plant and played in the dirt.  He’d explain away the dirty patches on his normally white fur as being “some kind of genetic thing,” or that maybe “some guy had put dirt on him.”

When we got a little potted cactus, its spines seemed like an ideal Loot-deterrent, and showed all signs of being the first plant that would survive more than a few days in an apartment with Loot.  It took the apparently random deaths of several cacti before we caught Loot in the act:  he would very carefully position his mouth around the spines, and once he was finally in position, poke his teeth into the fleshy part of the cactus.  Then he’d sit and watch the juices run down the plant with the kind of smug expression that only a cat can muster.  Future cacti survived by virtue of getting the tape treatment that ultimately proved successful in protecting my tissue boxes.

For years, I had been receiving anonymous postcards in the mail, with only the words “wish you were here!”  They came from all over the United States, and occasionally, foreign countries, always the same message, but sometimes in different handwriting.  Every time I moved, they would be mailed directly to the correct address, so I reasoned that they must be coming from somebody I knew, but I had no idea who.  About the time I moved, the postcards tapered off, but I started receiving stuff.

Among other things, I received a dozen sets of curiously small ceramic cat salt-and-pepper shakers, a set of steak knives missing a knife (the special instructions in the order indicated that the factory was to remove a knife before shipping,) a cheap electric drum machine with the power supply missing (with instructions not to ship one included on the packing slip), a dozen personalized pens with my name misspelled, three extension cords snipped in half, and a gross of turkey basters.

Whoever was sending these things was purposefully toying with my intense desire for things to work and my equally strong desire not to throw things away.  I tried to use the ceramic kittens.  I tried to locate the missing steak knife, and a power supply for the drum machine, and actually repaired the extension cords, most likely spending more than simply buying extension cords outright.  I couldn’t think of anything to do with 144 turkey basters, but this was close to the number of apartments in the building, so at 2:00 a.m. one morning, I put a turkey baster in front of every door in the building, with a post-it note attached to each one that said, “seems like something you can use!”  They might get thrown out, but a few might actually prove useful, thus assuaging my guilt better than simply throwing away 144 perfectly serviceable turkey basters.

I never did find out who sent my the postcards, or the stuff.

Warm Laundry

Warm Laundry

I bought an antique clock that needed some work on the mechanism.  Over the course of about a week, I disassembled the entire thing, and put it all back together, having adjusted every bearing and lever.  I wound it and left it on the coffee table overnight, so see how accurately it could keep time.  In the morning, I discovered that it had stopped some time during the night.  I couldn’t think of a reason in the world why it would stop, and completely disassembled and reassembled the mechanism once again, and it showed no signs of stopping while I watched it.  But the clock wouldn’t run for an entire day, always having stopped some time during the night when I checked it in the morning.

Every few months, I’d work on the clock with similar success, utterly failing to find anything wrong with the clock that would explain its stoppage.  After about a year of this, I happened to be up late, and found Loot sitting near the coffee table, staring at the pendulum.  After a few minutes, he swatted it with his paw until it stopped, and walked away, slowly and self-satisfied.  Yes, it turns out there was absolutely nothing wrong with the clock.

The building management decided to go condo, and had a party at a neighborhood restaurant for the residents to encourage them to buy their own units.  It was a nice party, with beer, blues music, and their own t-shirts.  At the end, they passed around a little survey for residents to provide feedback by putting a tally next to statements they found true.  At the bottom of the page was the statement with the most votes, where somebody had written in, “better than that weird turkey baster promotion.”


A Tale of Loot (and our apartment)

When I first moved to Chicago, I moved to a cheap apartment known as a “4+1,” for four levels of living over one level of parking.  No pets were allowed, but they did allow the tiger fish I had at the time, so it wasn’t a concern.

Loot Talks to the Fish

Loot Talks to the Fish

After about a month, my sister-in-law found a stray kitten.  He was tiny, and white, and fresh out of the bath he’d been given.  Every time I spoke, he’d stare at me with the most intense expression of contentment I’d ever seen, on a cat or otherwise.  I decided to take him home.

I’m of the opinion that cats should not have elegant or sophisticated names.  Cats tend to be full of themselves anyway, and a patently ridiculous name can help their humility.  So his name thenceforth was “Loot de Doot Doot,” or just “Loot!” for short, which he’d recognize as his own name when properly yelled for emphasis.

Although Loot never scratched, he did have ear mites when I first got him, and I had to take him to the vet a few times in the first week.  To avoid making it obvious to the management that I had a pet (it was not clear what the consequences would be) I tucked Loot into my backpack, which he actually seemed to enjoy.  On his final trip home from the vet, I stopped to buy a couple of hotdogs from a street vendor, and without thinking, tucked them into the small outer pocket to eat when I got home.  He looked pretty crazy when I let him out, and didn’t want to ride in the backpack after that, though he would occasionally climb in … just in case.

Loot was a source of chaos and a loyal companion, with more of the former.  I returned home from work one day to discover that Loot had emptied an entire economy sized box of tissues, spreading torn tissues all over the floor.  He had managed to cover every visible area of carpet, and sat proudly in the middle of the room so that I could admire his handiwork.  “Now you don’t have to walk all the way to the box if you need a tissue,” he explained, “you can just stop, bend over, and pick one up.”  He seemed genuinely confused why I was not pleased.

I invited a friend from college over for a beer, and in the manner of cats, Loot made himself scarce.  I didn’t think to mention to my friend that I had a cat, until he was sitting on my couch, and Loot leapt up behind him and grabbed his head with both paws. From my angle, I saw an amazingly comical expression of shock and surprise on my friend’s face.  Luckily, no blood had been drawn, because I could not stop laughing.  I actually have not seen him since that day.

One of Loot’s few talents was the ability and desire to keep things on his head, which I would occasionally exploit by putting small items on his head, which he would carefully balance until he forgot about them, or got distracted.  On a regular basis, I would balance empty cans on his head, which he would dutifully keep in place, usually until I bothered to retrieve them.

A Little Hat

A Little Hat

On Saint Patrick’s Day, one of the beer companies had a promotion where they topped their beers with little green plastic hats.  We had a few friends over, and we had about a six pack of hats.  One of the party-goers, perhaps me, put one on Loot’s head, and he proudly wore it for hours, holding his head flat, walking around slowly and carefully before ultimately refusing to move for fear it would fall off.  When it inevitably did fall off, he seemed inconsolable until he was distracted — or perhaps 10 seconds.

The apartment itself sucked.  One of Loot’s more useful pursuits was chasing and eating roaches, which I tried to discourage in the event that he was ingesting pesticides, but he did at least seem to keep them at bay by smacking them as they crept out of the baseboards.

My neighbors were insanely loud.  After being woken up again at two in the morning (no easy feat, I am a very heavy sleeper) I visited my upstairs neighbor.  I had to pound on the door, and he answered, apparently oblivious as to both the time and why I would suddenly stop by for a visit.  I was struck by two things.  First, there were moving boxes everywhere, so it was hard to see anything, even furniture.  Second, although loud, his stereo actually seemed a little quieter than it did downstairs in my apartment.

“Come in,” he invited.  We stood among stacks of boxes, since there appeared to be nowhere to sit.

“Did you just move in?” I asked conversationally, since it didn’t appear obvious to him why I’d stopped by in my bathrobe at two in the morning.

“I’ve been here five years,” he said, his expression saying, “what an odd question.”

“Moving out?” I said, trying not to seem too hopeful.


“Well, I’ve come up here because I can hear your stereo in my apartment below yours.  And I don’t just mean that I can make out the words, I mean it’s actually at a higher volume in my bedroom than I’d turn on my stereo if I were listening to my own stereo.”

He pointed between the boxes at his massive speakers.  “Nah, man, I point my speakers at the floor to make them quieter.”  I could see that the speakers were, indeed, lying face down on the floor.

“But I live below you.”


“Where the sound is directed.”


“Look, could you just turn it down so I can sleep?”

“That’s why I put the speakers on the floor.  It makes it quieter.”

“It’s louder downstairs.  Pointing them at the floor makes it quieter up here, but louder down there,” I explained slowly.  “It would be better if you pointed them at you and then turned the volume down.”

He seemed completely baffled by my words.  “But…  Pointing them down makes it quieter.”

Surprisingly, I successfully fought the urge to punch him in the face and managed to talk him into turning the volume down.  Later, I had the same conversation with him about five more times.

Although probably the most obtuse, he certainly wasn’t alone.  On any given night, somebody in the building would either be having a party, have an important drug deal to conduct, or find some excuse to turn their stereo up so loud that it was impossible to sleep.  I wasn’t sure how anybody in the building could sleep, and it didn’t help that the building itself had thin walls and a structure that would resonate with bass.

So without looking back, I decided to move to a nicer place that actually did take pets.  The leases overlapped, so I made sure Loot had enough food and water and spent the night in the new place the first day I could.  After work the next day, I went back to pack up the last of the stuff for the movers, and as I approached the apartment building from the garage underground, I heard an incredibly loud, rhythmic pounding.  “Good riddance to this place,” I thought.  It was louder, in the garage, than it was in my apartment when the tenant above blasted me awake.

As I got off the elevator, the noise was overpowering.  A repetitive beat, but now I could hear a repeating synthesizer melody over the bass.  At about the same time I recognized the tune as being one of the “back up” loops from a cheap Casio synthesizer, I realized the noise was actually coming from my apartment.

The Casio was connected to the only amp I had, which was actually quite powerful and loud.  Loot had managed to turn it all the way up, then step on the right combination of keys to put this horribly cheesy beat into an infinite loop.  Loot sat on the kitchen table, looking quite pleased with himself.

I rushed in and turned it off, leaving the door open.  A woman leaned in, one of my nicer neighbors whom I rarely saw.  She noticed the boxes, and said, “oh, are you moving out?  I’ll miss your little cat.”

“Yes…  What?”  As far as I knew, she had never been in the apartment before, and I’d certainly kept it a secret that I had a cat at all.

“Oh yes, every time somebody comes up the elevators, his little white paws come out under the door, and he talks to us.”

“Oh.  Well, I hope the noise didn’t bother you.  How long was it going, anyway?”

“No, it didn’t bother me at all,” she said, though I wasn’t sure if she were just being nice.  She gave it a moment’s thought.  “A little over 24 hours, I think.”

Not one person complained.


Just Like Suicide

On my first day in college, I was settling into my dorm room, and in wandered one of the ugliest people I’ve ever seen.  The college experience is unique in that you’re suddenly in close proximity to a large number of people whom you don’t know, are vaguely your own age, are on the cusp of adulthood, and coincidentally the onset age of many forms of mental illness.  The little troll-like beast looked around at the stuff I was unpacking, and half-asked, half-pronounced, “So, you like hockey?”

I didn’t want to leap to conclusions, so I looked around for any indication that I liked hockey, or that anything in the room implied anything of the sort.  It’s not that I dislike hockey, it’s just that I never gave it a second thought.  Perhaps it was some kind of test question, or conversational opener.  “Why do you ask?”

“You just kind of looked like you like hockey,” he replied.  This didn’t strike me as particularly complimentary.

After a moment, it was apparent he was going to say nothing more.  “Do you like hockey?” I asked him, for no particular reason, starting to feel vaguely uncomfortable with his continuing presence.

“It’s okay, I guess,” he stated flatly, and wandered out the door.

I’m normally the type of person who ends up being friends with people who are socially awkward or who don’t make friends easily.  I’ve never been able to bring myself to walk away from the lonely, and can usually find something interesting or redeeming in anybody.  By virtue of sticking up for or trying to help the downtrodden, I seemed to end up hanging out with them frequently.

I made a sincere effort with the troll to engage him in normal conversations.  Partly because of his striking unattractiveness, I made even more of an effort than came naturally.  In nearly every conversation, the troll managed to insult me in some way, and despite my best efforts to draw him in to social situations, got nowhere.  Everybody absolutely hated him.

I didn’t hate him, which meant that I got to commiserate with people who had to deal with him.  He actually had an amazing ability to say, at any given point, the very thing that would piss off the greatest number of people, and was such a pernicious loser that he was thrown out of every organization he attempted to join (an amazing feat, frankly) — he even attempted to join the volunteer fire department and was judged “a danger to himself and others” on the first day of training.

After a while, I gave up.

Near the end of the quarter, I was walking by his room on the way to the cafeteria, and heard him wailing, “I just can’t win!”   I stopped for a moment, and he howled, “I don’t care any more!  I don’t care any more!” in an anguished screech.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do.  A few friends saw me standing there, and stopped and stood there with me.  After a moment, the troll screamed louder, “I don’t care any moooore!  I don’t care no moooore!”

About a week earlier, we had all been present on the couches in my room in a mad college combination of studying and drinking when our mutual friend “Matt” staggered into the room and announced, in a drunken slur, that he’d “had quite enough.”  We waited for Matt to say something else, or pass out, but instead he ran toward our large, open, fourth-floor window.

My roommate, closest to the window and thinking faster than any of us, managed to grab Matt by the ankles as he was halfway out the window.  Matt bent at the waist as momentum carried him forward, and his face hit the side of the building.  Three of us hauled him back inside, unconscious.

Matt’s face was scraped up, but otherwise he didn’t seem in very bad shape, so we dumped him in the common room, careful to leave him face down.

Neither Matt nor the rest of us spoke of the incident again, but it was foremost on our minds as we stood outside the troll’s door.

“You think he’s going to kill himself?”

“He probably should, I hate that guy.”

“Oh come on, we can’t just stand by and let him kill himself, whether we like him or not.  We should get him some help.”

“Okay, let’s go in.”

I knocked, then banged, on the door, but the troll didn’t answer.  He just kept up that awful screaming:  “I don’t care any mooooore!”

Crap.  I tried the knob, but his door was locked.

“Now what?”

“We’ve got to break in”

We knew from experience that the dormitory doors could be opened by applying enough pressure to the metal frame while pushing the latch.  We ran to our rooms and came back with a crowbar and a thin screwdriver.  When we got back, the troll was still screaming, “I don’t care any moooore!”

I winced at the awful noise.  “My god, he sounds like he’s suffering.”

“At least we know he’s still alive.”

After a moment, the four of us managed to spring the door open, and tumbled into the troll’s room.

He was sitting in the dark under his desk, in nothing but his underwear.  He looked remarkably pleased to see us break his door and spill into his room, as if we’d all decided to visit him on his birthday.  He was wearing huge, ear-covering headphones, which he removed upon seeing us.

“Oh hey, guys,” said the troll, “I was just listening to some Phil Collins.”


Airports, Great Places for Practical Jokes

I fly a lot, though I flew even more in the days before online conferences were remotely practical.  In the early 90’s, I was flying from O’Hare to Dulles.  I had some time to kill, so I used a payphone to dial my voicemail.  If that didn’t make it clear that this was nearly 20 years ago, perhaps the fact that I had a pony tail and dark glasses, and looked vaguely like a Bond villain does.

Then, as now, people would occasionally leave rambling messages that didn’t really say anything, but just in case there was something important at the end, I’d listen to the whole thing.  I’m sure I looked fairly frustrated after the fourth time the caller meandered his way through saying the same thing he easily could have summarized — or not said at all — and I noticed a girl standing at the pay phone next to me, holding the receiver to her ear with a vapid expression and twirling her gum, staring at me.

I put on a crazy expression and said into my receiver, “I killed him, he’s dead,” in a thick German accent and slammed down the phone on the still-rambling voicemail.  Then I turned my head slowly and looked at her.

“Oh.  My.  God,” she mouthed, and hung up, and scurried away.

I didn’t give her a second thought, and checked my watch.  Plenty of time before my flight, so I figured I’d go get a pretzel or something.  As I got in line, I looked over, and the girl is chatting with a policeman.

Uh oh.

She sees me, yells “Never mind!  Thank you for the directions!” at the cop, and scurries away again.  The cop shrugs at me as if to say, “what was all that about?”

I didn’t see the girl again, and by the time I got through the pretzel line, my flight was boarding.  As I got on, I noticed the same girl was on my flight, already seated.  And my seat was right behind her.  She had noticed me as well, and now wore an almost comical expression of abject terror.  I briefly considered saying something to her, but concluded that she was so wound up that it could not possibly end well.

When the flight attendant came by to ask her if she wanted something to drink, she nearly jumped out of her seat, then yelled back, “I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING WITHOUT MY GLASSES.  I WEAR GLASSES.  BUT NOT RIGHT NOW.  WHEN THEY’RE NOT ON MY FACE, I CAN’T SEE A THING.  I CAN’T WEAR CONTACTS, EITHER.”  She spent the rest of the flight alternating between sitting perfectly still and comically pretending not to be able to see at all.

People tend to jump out of their seats when a plane lands, but nobody moved more quickly than she did.  If she had brought any luggage on board, she was content to leave it behind.  As soon as the door opened, she climbed past everybody, yelling, “I have a connection to make!  To … uh … Mexico!” and plowed off the plane, running down the jetway.

Dulles has a weird system where passengers need to take a huge bus between terminals, and when I stepped on the bus, surely enough, there was the same girl, pressed up against the front window, jumping from foot to foot.  I considered turning around, but she spotted me, letting out a little shriek, which she quickly stifled.  I waved and smiled, but I didn’t think anything would calm her down at this point.

Once the bus stopped, she disappeared.  Assuming she had run, I took my time, hoping not to encounter her again.  I happened to look up, out the window, and there she was on the tarmac, running parallel to the terminal.  I figured the best thing to do was to make myself scarce before airport security picked her up.

After 9-11, the TSA took over, and things got weird for a while (and, to some extent, still are.)  One thing I noticed right away were the presence of “amnesty cans,” where passengers were supposed to be able to throw things away before they got to the security line.

Like what?  Guns?  I was curious, so I walked over, and looked into the can.  The interior was kind of dark, so I leaned in.

Mostly lighters, a few bottled waters, nothing too interesting like chain saws or detonators, and a collection of things like tissue and wrappers that I cannot imagine one needs amnesty for.

One of the ever-vigilant TSA saw me, and yelled, “hey!  You!”

I’m not really in the security line any more, and as far as I know, I haven’t committed any crimes, so for some reason, my first impulse is to run.  With the can.  Hunched over a bit.  Yelling, “AMNESTY!  AMNESTY!”

Yes I did.

I have to give the Chicago Police some credit, for at least watching the Hunchback of Notre Dame, if not reading the book, since they were content to stand by with amused smiles as the TSA chased me down to the next security line, where I left the can and blended in with the crowd.

After a few minutes of searching, the guy from the TSA who yelled at me recognizes me, but I can see the uncertainty in his eyes.

“The airport is no place for practical jokes,” he says to me, managing to be both pointed and noncommittal.

“So…  What exactly did you have in mind before you found this out?”


Anteaters, Anonymous

For a while in college, I lived in a weird, 50’s-era, largely metal dormitory.  It probably seemed ultra-modern at the time, but now had a kind of vintage, well-worn look to its metal shelves and cabinets.  Also at the time, I was quite fond of Swiss Cheese Crackers (renamed to Nabisco Flavor Originals Swiss Cheese Baked Snack Crackers, and apparently discontinued, which is really too bad, they tasted great.)  I bought a box with what little money I had, ate a few, and put them on the shelf next to the bed.

I had the afternoon off in my class schedule, so I took a nap in the afternoon to make up for working on a class project late the night before.  It was dark when I woke up, and I didn’t know what time it was.  I thought my roommate might be home, and since he was a fairly light sleeper, I thought it best not to turn on the light and check.  However, I was hungry, so I located the box of crackers, and sat quietly on the bed, eating them.

I had eaten my way through about half the box when my roommate came home, and turned on the light.  I noticed two things immediately:  first, it was about dinner time, and therefore it would not be uncivilized for me to get up and go get something better for dinner.  Second, as I lifted another cracker from the box, I noticed that it was crawling with tiny red ants.

In fact, they were so covered with the little ants, the crackers looked more dark red than their customary yellowish-orange, and appeared to gently undulate with the motion of all the ants.  I dropped the cracker back in the box, and picked up another.  Surely enough, it was covered too, and a peek in the box confirmed that the entire box was full of them.

I took a moment to calculate the odds that the half-box of crackers had been entirely ant-free while I was consuming them, and the act of turning on the light had suddenly winked the ants into existence to neatly coat each cracker and fill the box.

It seemed vanishingly unlikely.  I’d been eating crackers and ants for probably half an hour.  Did the flavor seem a little off?  I hadn’t really noticed.  Experimentally, I picked up a cracker dripping with ants as if it had been dipped in ant-colored honey, and popped it in my mouth.

Yep, hardly noticeable.

By now, my roommate was staring at me with a mixture of surprise and mild disgust.  “What the hell is wrong with you?” he said.

I started to explain about the ants.

“Not that,” he said, exasperated.  “They have pizza and bacon in the cafeteria, and you’re missing it.”


Crazy Days at Metropolitan State — Inside Out

Three days.  When a patient was first brought in to the hospital, an analysis was done over 72 hours to determine if the patient is “a danger to themselves or others,” and therefore will be staying indefinitely, or if not, to be released.  It’s also the first thing a new patient, “Jomo,” said to me.

“Three days, man, and I should be out of here.”   He sounded more nervous than confident, probably reassuring himself.  “I swear, man, I just took a lot of acid, and now it’s mostly worn off.  So they’ve got to let me go, right?”

We actually had a lot of patients on the ward who claimed that drugs, particularly hallucinogens, caused their problems.  The scientific belief was that schizophrenics tended to abuse drugs, or that drugs could be contribute to the experience that tips the brain balance in a person with schizophrenic tendencies.  “Let’s hope so,” I said.  “That’s why they’ve got you scheduled for a brain scan today.”

Schizophrenia generally shows up on a brain scan, either as reduced activity in the frontal lobes, or shrinkage in the areas of the brain associated with attention, memory, and social behavior, and sometimes (at that time) used to identify schizophrenics who couldn’t be definitively diagnosed from their behavior — for example, because they tested positive for drug use within their 72-hour observational period.

I took Jomo over for his scan, and waited with him through the procedure.  He was understandably nervous — the results of this scan would determine his fate — possibly even whether he’d spend the rest of his life in an institution.  Perhaps more importantly, it could be an early indication of a progressive disease, of which he’d only experienced the first symptoms.  Jomo was at the age where nearly all schizophrenia first manifests itself — between 18 and 23 — and what he thought was a drug experience could genuinely be his first symptoms of his brain detaching from reality.

I was within that range as well.

The next day, we got back Jomo’s scan results, with the interpretation:  “inconclusive.”  The scan showed some reduced activity and shrinkage, but it was not yet profound.  Jomo would be staying for a while.

Later that night, my roommates and I had been invited over to dinner at our elusive third neighbor’s house, so we walked a few blocks to the local convenience store to pick up some drinks so we didn’t show up empty handed.  (On a side note, I never adopted the local dialect of calling the store a “packy,” short for “package store,” which referred to its ability to sell alcoholic beverages.)

On the way back, a car pulled up alongside us, and a man in the passenger seat shouted, “fuck you, Mickey Mouse!”  I was wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt.

This seemed like an unusual amount of hatred for a cartoon character, and I said, “What?”

The car screeched to a halt, and two big, muscular, prison-tatooed guys jumped out.  They looked typecast for brainlessly violent goons in a movie.  They pushed us around a bit, trying to start a fight.  None of us made any threatening moves, attempting our best to diffuse the situation, but without any idea what any of us had actually done to provoke their ire.   “Do not FUCK with us!  We have a guns in the car and will KILL your asses!” they yelled as they sped off.

“People from your ward?” asked one of my roommates as their car swerved out of sight.

“Heck no,” I said, my heart still pounding.  “I’ve never felt that threatened on the ward.”

We met our neighbor for the first time, who we hadn’t actually seen much. We’d seen his Trans Am, the exact model featured in Smokey and the Bandit, complete with the bird logo on the hood.  It had been out of style for a while even then.  The man himself usually wore mirrored aviator sunglasses, and had a Burt Reynolds-style moustache, but he’d never actually stopped to talk until that day, so when he told us all the neighbors were invited over to his apartment for a cookout, we all agreed that it would be a good opportunity to meet him.

He grilled hamburgers outside, and served us in his kitchen.  None of the other neighbors showed up, but he only had six chairs — and there were five of us and one of him.  We ate burgers and chips and drank the beer we had brought.  About halfway through her burger, one of the girls pulled the other two girls aside, and they all left, leaving me, my roommate “Tom,” (who also worked at Metropolitan State) and my neighbor together.  I had another burger while we talked, eating quickly as usual.

Our neighbor went out back(probably to tend the grill, or grab another beer) and “Nancy,” one of my roommates, stepped back in.  “Something’s not right,” she said.  “I’ve been throwing up.  All of us have.”  Tom and I looked at each other.  None of the girls had eaten all of their burgers, but they seemed fully cooked.  Tom had eaten all of his, and I had managed to eat two.  Nancy left quickly again, clutching her stomach.

“Uh oh,” said Tom, looking a little green.

We felt the heave at the same time.  Tom headed for the front door, barely making it outside.  I headed for the sink.  After heaving, I was rinsing out the sink when Tom came back in, and whispered to me, “I think we’re in a lot of trouble.  I’m hallucinating.”

I looked up at Tom.  I noticed his dilated pupils first, then his face distorted like it was melting.  His face and body pulsed and flowed and changed colors as I stared, fascinated and horrified — and suddenly nauseated again.  Tom fell to the floor, crawling away, as I bent over the sink again.

I saw my neighbor come back in through the back door.  “Something’s wrong with the food,” I told him, not quite thinking straight, and trying to think of what kind of food poisoning would cause hallucinations.

“I know, motherfucker.  I didn’t eat any,” he said, staring at me through his mirrored sunglasses.  My reflection in the sunglasses undulated and moved crazily.  In those sunglasses I could see my own soul, twisting.  “That’ll teach you fuckers to narc me out.”

I hadn’t a clue what he meant.  “What?” I said, unable to tear my eyes away from his glasses with my reflection dancing in them.

He pushed me into a chair.  After a moment, I’d realized he’d tied me to it.  My stomach was still heaving, but there was nothing in it.  “Where is everybody?”  I asked.

“Doesn’t matter, Mickey Mouse,” said one of the huge guys from the car who had pushed us around earlier.  He and the other goon from the car were now there, two guns on the table.  “We’ve got your friend in the other room.”

I can’t string any thoughts together; as I watch the room and the three guys in it swirl and pulsate.  Perhaps I have done something horrible to them.  Had I called the police on them?  Perhaps I had informed Starsky and Hutch, or maybe even the Duke boys?  I couldn’t remember.

One of them pulls out a gigantic knife, and I watch the blade bend and twist and reflect painful light through my skull.  “We’re going to give you a choice.  We can either kill your friend, or cut off one of your thumbs.”

I’m now beginning to realize the kind of trouble I’m in.

I hold out my left thumb.  There isn’t really a choice involved.  I’m suddenly fascinated by it, as it squirms and dances, and imagine it gone from my hand.   “You’ll let him go, right?”

“That’ll cost you both thumbs,” said my neighbor with a laugh.  He ties my hand tightly to the end of a chair, and the gleaming, swirling knife comes screaming out of the sky toward my thumb.  It’s terrible and absurd, and I laugh as the knife touches the joint.

Deep red blood appears on a line along my thumb, and I stare at it, giggling like an idiot, as the pain shoots through my entire body.  Not just my body.  The entire room hurts.  My teeth are on fire.  The mirrored glasses hurt, bouncing reflective metallic pain off the corners of my skull.  I’m laughing, or screaming, I can no longer tell which, as I drift out of consciousness.

It’s dark outside when I wake up later.  The room glides and twists about me, and I’m tied to the chair everywhere; my arms, my chest, my legs, my dreams, my soul.  I notice that both my thumbs are still on my hands, and I count them to make sure.  It’s hard work, and it takes a while to complete.  “Two,” I say out loud.  Around my arm, there’s surgical tubing loosely wrapped, and dots of blood on the veins of my arm.  The two guns that were on the table are now two empty syringes, and I ponder this for a while, wondering how such a transformation could have been effected.

The room throbs and pounds, sending waves of pain through my entire body.  Agony comes from all directions, and pierces me everywhere.  My teeth sting, my muscles are jerking everywhere, and electricity shoots through me.  I hurt in places I don’t even have, and the pain doesn’t stop at the boundaries of my body.  The hours and days drag on, and I feel myself … detach.

When I next have a coherent thought, I’m in a hospital bed.  Some memories come back to me, but I don’t know what’s real.  Running through broken glass on the street; climbing rusty metal steps covered with pigeon and bat droppings, running down the streets, scraping against buildings and falling, trying to cram myself under the back seat of my own car, trying to escape the pain, desperately repeating every phrase any patient of mine had ever uttered to anybody who would listen in an attempt to make them understand…   My feet hurt, and I wonder if they’re cut up badly.

I realize that I’m strapped down.  Weirder, I recognize the restraints from some dim corner of my memory.  Ever so slowly, my brain starts to re-engage, and I realize I’m strapped to a bed in my own hospital.  I don’t recognize the ward or the room.  I actually say out loud, “holy shit, I’ve gone insane.”

Into the room steps Tom, “holy shit,” he echoes.  “I was afraid you were gone for good.  It’s been four days.”

“What happened?” I asked weakly, still a little nauseated, and still, I noticed, hallucinating slightly.

Tom took a deep breath, and started to explain.  “Well, turns out our neighbor is a coke dealer, if you hadn’t figured that out.  I guess he thought we’d called the police and turned him in.  Apparently, he put a combination of rat poison and LSD into the hamburgers.  The girls went to the hospital and got their stomachs pumped as soon as they left.  They figured it was food poisoning.”

“Did they let you go?” I asked.  “After they said they would…”

“Well, I crawled out the door, and threw up in our apartment for a while,” Tom said.  “After I finally felt like I could move again, I went back to look for you.  But I was tripping pretty hard, and not thinking too straight.  I walked around to the back door, and you’re in there with three guys and they’ve got guns, so I go to call the police…”  Tom winced, “but I kind of got lost.  I couldn’t think straight at all.”

“So they didn’t have you in the other room?” I asked, now wondering if he was ever there.

“Nope,” Tom went on.  “I don’t think they saw me.  Anyway, I wandered around until I ran into Rose around 10 in the morning, at one of the gas stations she works in.  She helped me find my way back, and when we went to the back door, you were in the dark all by yourself, tied to a chair, screaming.  You didn’t recognize either of us.”

“We cut you free, and you kept screaming.  We went to call the police, and you went running out of the place.  By the time the police got there, we had no idea where you had gone.   But they found you that night, apparently you kept hailing taxicabs and then screaming incoherently at the drivers, so they called the police.  They brought you to the hospital and they got you into detox with me.  But I don’t think they know what they shot you up with.”  Tom pointed at the track marks on my arm.

“This isn’t detox,” I pointed out.

“Nah, after a few days of that, they were afraid you’d snapped completely, so you were brought here for your 72 hours of observation.  Every time you woke up, you’d scream and try to run away.”

“So, what happened to those guys?  The neighbor and the goons, I mean,” I asked, wondering if the police had caught them, too.

“After they left you, they headed for the Mexico border.  The police took our statements and told us we might be needed to testify, but yesterday, they told us it wouldn’t be necessary.  They were killed by police when trying to escape.”

Wow.  “Hey, while you’re here,” I asked, “you think you can take me out of these restraints?”

“Sure, man,” said Tom, as he started to unbuckle the straps holding me down.  “Now that you’ve got your shit back together, we can probably move you back to a regular hospital until your feet heal.  Oh, yeah, and somebody else wanted to see you while you’re here, if you want.”

It was Jomo.

“Dude!” said Jomo, shaking the hand that Tom had freed from the restraints moments before.  “They’re letting me out!”

“Awesome,” I responded.  “What changed?”

“Well, man,” said Jomo, “you provided a damned good example of just how fucked up somebody can get on drugs and still have a normal brain.  I think that helped me out.”

“Glad to be of help,” I said weakly.

“Plus,” he added, “I wasn’t never as crazy as you.”


Crazy Days at Metropolitan State — The Night Shift

Second shift was my primary shift — and my favorite one, because I could wake up around noon and wander in to work and still be on time.  There would only be one meal served on second shift, and by the time it was over, most of the patients would be in bed.  On the other hand, I’d pick up any other shifts I could, because we weren’t paid much, and to make ends meet I already had four roommates in a three bedroom apartment.  That generally meant a lot of first shifts, especially double-shifts on weekends.

Occasionally, though, there was an opportunity to pick up a coveted third shift.  Although there’s not a whole lot creepier than a mental ward in the middle of the night, these were highly desirable because there was a minimum of work and patient interaction.  Staff were fewer, but if you happened to be paired with somebody you trusted, you could actually relax and read a book, as you traded off doing rounds and being alert for any trouble.

On the other hand, people either braver or stupider than I took it as an opportunity to sleep.  I can’t imagine doing this unless you’re working with somebody you trust with your life, since you are, after all, in a ward full of people judged to be dangers to themselves or others, generally only with one other MHA and no other backup whatsoever.

One evening, I drew a third shift with an MHA whose standout trait was the fact that he was Haitian.  I say this mainly because he neither greeted nor acknowledged me in any way, but immediately upon the departure of the second shift, chatted briefly with the custodial staff in French, put a book over his face and fell asleep in the day hall.  I checked my watch, almost in disbelief — he’d managed to start snoring exactly five minutes after the shift started.

We had rounds to do and paperwork to fill out, and I was just as happy not to have his help.  There was less to do at night, and I preferred to feel busy.  I contented myself with making sure the custodians were safe (the wards were cleaned at night) and checking on the patients — mostly asleep, or at least dormant.

After a few hours, my rounds through the male bathroom led me to discover one of the patients, stark naked, posing and walking in front of the mirror and watching himself in a manner best described as “prancing.”  He stopped abruptly and exclaimed, “Jesus Christ!” when he saw me.

This wasn’t an expression — it’s what he called me.  Patients called me by a number of names, none of them actually my own, in order to fit their own delusions, worldviews, or generally unfiltered impressions of me.  “Jimmy” was particularly popular, for reasons I cannot fathom, though there was a small cadre who referred to me as “Paul Revere.”  “Cindy” carefully explained that I was Paul Revere from Paul Revere and the Raiders, not the Paul Revere who made his famous ride, because he was obviously long dead and it would be “loopy” to think I were he.  Perhaps it was my long hair and occasional beard.  I was also referred to as “the Captain,” but with one exception, it was used jokingly.

Some people referred to me as “Jesus Christ,” convinced that I was actually the Son of God, probably due to the same vague resemblance that led people to call me “Paul Revere.”  It’s one of the few delusions I attempted to dispel directly, but without any actual results.  “I’m not Jesus,” I’d say, as directly and bluntly as I could.

“That’s exactly what Jesus would say,” would be the response.

Rather than engage in another fruitless debate as to whether or not I was the embodiment of a Christian deity, I simply said, “I don’t think you should be walking around naked this late at night.  Come to think of it, you probably shouldn’t be walking around naked at all.  Aren’t you tired?”

“Sorry, Jesus,” said Naked Man.  “Is that in the Bible?”

“It must be in there somewhere,” I said.  “At least something about going to bed when it’s dark.”

Naked Man looked momentarily horrified.  “Oh no!  I didn’t realize I was sinning.”

“Well, let’s let God sort that out, all I’m really asking is that you go to bed, get some sleep, and generally avoid being naked when not absolutely necessary,” I told him, trying not to abuse my position as Lord and Savior.

I walked back to the day hall to find “Ed” standing on the MHA’s neck.  The MHA’s chair was lying on its back, and the MHA was lying there with Ed’s foot on his throat, eyes wide, not breathing, unable to move and not getting any air to scream.  Ed was clearly bent on murdering the man.  It was so quiet and dark, it took me a moment to take this in.

“Ed!  What are you doing?” I asked, running closer to rescue the man.

“I’m trying to kill this guy,” Ed stated blandly.

“What for?” I asked, genuinely interested.  Ed wasn’t particularly violent.

“He’s a putz,” said Ed, as if that explained everything.

“Well, yeah,” I agreed.  “But if you kill him, I’m going to get in trouble.”

“Oh shit!” replied Ed, taking his foot off the MHA’s throat.  “I didn’t think of that.  Fuck it, I’m going to bed.”  With that, Ed walked calmly back to the male dorm.

The MHA lying on the ground wheezed with the first breath he’d probably taken in several minutes.  After a moment or two gasping for air, he stood up slowly, set his chair up again, sat down, put the book over his face, and went back to sleep.  Not for a single moment did he acknowledge my presence, or in any way acknowledge the fact that somebody intent on killing him was quite literally standing on his throat minutes before.

I’d like to think that every time I faced death, I could be so incredibly blase that I could go right the hell back to sleep seconds later without giving it another thought.  On the other hand, it’s deeply ingrained in my psyche that when somebody saves my life, even if it’s their job, I at least say an enthusiastic “thank you!” and experience has borne this out.  This was either the coolest man I’d ever met, or, more likely, such an incredible putz that he simply trusted me both to do his work and save his life as the occasion demanded.

At least he was unconcerned that I violated procedure by not restraining Ed, simply letting him go back to bed and not writing up the incident.

Years later, I worked in group homes for the developmentally disabled.  Similarly to my time at Metropolitan State, I’d occasionally pick up an extra shift.

Third shift was a little different. Because there was no custodial staff, third shift was a three-person job that involved cleaning the home from top to bottom.  With three people, you could get the job done in about six hours, which left enough time to deal with any kids who woke up during the night and needed help or attention.

One third shift, I had two co-workers, “Paul” and “John”.  John immediately launched into a cleaning frenzy with an incredible, infectious enthusiasm.  He loved the job and loved the kids, and he was great to be around.  Paul, on the other hand, announced that he was “really tired” since he had worked the shift before (as both John and I had) and proceeded to go to sleep on the couch.

Near the end of the shift, John and I had gotten all the work done for all three of us.  We had briefly talked about waking up Paul to make him help, but decided that he’d probably be pretty useless, and it was kind of a downer to be around people who didn’t really like the work or the kids, and we were better off just letting him sleep.  It seemed unfair, however, that his laziness would go entirely unpunished…  So I took a permanent marker and wrote “PUTZ” on his forehead in large, neat, block letters.

Our supervisor showed up early in the morning, for a rare surprise inspection.  Paul woke up and stood with John and I, taking credit for our excellent work.  The supervisor went through every part of the home, giving us perfect marks, but was obviously distracted by Paul’s forehead, still sporting a gigantic, unmistakable “PUTZ.”  However, he didn’t say a word about it.

Paul started to notice the supervisor looking at his forehead as well, and surreptitiously peeked in a mirror.  In a display of incredible smoothness, the next time he caught the supervisor staring at it, he explained, “I see you’ve noticed my Afrikaan family name.  Our rituals require us to have it written on our heads this time of year.”

Our supervisor, a man of Jewish descent (and well acquainted with the word) raised one eyebrow, but otherwise did not comment.  At the end of his inspection, he announced, “Excellent job, but I want to see each of you individually in my office today.”

At my individual appointment with him, he explained that he had fired Paul for reasons “that you probably understand” and went on to explain that if somebody falls asleep during a third shift there are procedures for dealing with such things. and that it’s incredibly hard to keep a straight face when telling somebody they’re fired and they have PUTZ written on their heads in huge letters.

I had to admit, it hadn’t occurred to me.

On my next shift (after the night shift where Ed tried to kill the MHA), Ed located me in the day hall.

“Hey, man, I just wanted to say sorry for trying to kill that putz,” said Ed.  “I didn’t know you’d get in trouble.”

“Well, even putzes have a right to live, Ed,” I tried to explain.

“That’s just the kind of thing Jesus would say.” said Ed.  “And all this time, I thought your name was Jimmy.”


Crazy Days at Metropolitan State Hospital — Walking the Line as Captain Kirk

On the ward, we had a color television that received a few broadcast channels, suspended from the ceiling in the day hall. On the CTG Wards (“Continued Treatment Group” — shorthand for “expected to be here forever”) very few patients actually paid attention to the television, though a handful of the more lucid ones would occasionally watch for a while. Almost nobody except visitors had the skills and inclination to actually watch it for an entire show, though occasionally, whatever happened to be on would feature prominently in somebody’s delusion.

I was in the day hall when Star Trek: The Next Generation came on, which I’d never seen before (not having a VCR, and always working when it aired.) I recognized the words in the introduction from the classic series… and pandemonium ensued. “Donna” ran to the television, screaming at the top of her lungs, “you’re not Captain Kirk!” over and over. She’s so agitated, I reach up and change the channel.

“Was that Star Trek?” yelled “Rob” from the porch.

“No!” shot back Donna, still shaking with rage. “The real Captain just turned it off!”

Uh oh.

She saluted me, adding, “Captain Kirk, you have the bridge. Shall I set a course, sir?”

Again, one walks a fine line between buying into a delusion, and denying it outright. Both paths are fraught with peril. But human interaction is a good thing, and generally people don’t like being ignored, and deflection isn’t always easy.

“Well, I don’t see a need to set a course right now,” I said, walking the line. “I think it’s best if we stay here for a while.”

“Understood,” she saluted, and marched off.

Rob sat on the porch with his new boom box and a pile of tapes, purchased with a social security check he got for disability benefits, listening to heavy metal at reasonably low volumes. Long-haired Rob looked like a heavy-metal weightlifter, and was usually lucid enough for conversations.

“Hey, Captain,” he greeted me with a smirk, having overheard Donna. “Have you seen my sweet boom box?”

“It’s great, Rob.” I was genuinely enthusiastic; it sounded great, and Rob didn’t insist on playing it too loudly or after hours. He’d bought some headphones, too, but during the day, he’d just play it quietly. He had decent taste in music, and the boom box was more expensive than any I’d ever own.

“I need you to get me something,” Rob said, in a conspiratorial aside. “It’s something I couldn’t get myself while I was out on my pass.”

At this point, I was rather assuming it would be drugs.

“I need you to get me a t-shirt. One with writing on it.” Well, that didn’t seem so bad after all.

“What writing?”

“It should say, ‘I murdered your children when you were at work,'” he said, “you know, something to wear around for my next day pass so nobody fucks with me.”

“Do they?” Rob was as big as I was, and heavily muscled. Aside from our giant hallucinating Vietnam veteran, he’s one I’d have concerns if I needed to take him down.

“Well, my dad fucked with me. ‘You need to feed the cat,’ he said. I said, ‘I’m not feeding the fucking cat.’ and a took a shotgun and BLEW IT ALL OVER THE FLOOR. ‘THERE, DAD, NOW NOBODY NEEDS TO FEED THE CAT.'”

“Uh. I’ll see what I can do, Rob,” I told him, walking the line again.

A commotion broke out; I hear female screaming in one of the dormitories, and I ran toward the sound. On the way, I passed Donna, standing at attention. “One of the crew has been possessed, Captain. There’s blood everywhere.” She salutes and steps aside.

I see the blood everywhere first, then I see one of the female patients, “Lanelle,” waving her bleeding wrists and chasing around everybody she sees. She is shouting, “I HAVE AIDS. I’M GOING TO DIE. WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE.”

She very well could have AIDS, or it could be a delusion. Due to patient confidentiality, we wouldn’t routinely be told. I notice that the other MHA’s are nowhere to be found. Regardless, she needed to be calmed down and helped.

I grab Lanelle from behind and wrap my arms around her arms, being careful not to slip in the blood. The problem with our usual restraints is that they cover the whole arm, so I wrestle with her as I ponder what to do, talking calmly and keeping her off balance.

Donna appears before me. “Orders, Captain?”

“Go to the nurse’s station, tell him we need a gurney and we have a patient with bleeding wrists.”

“Aye, aye,” Donna salutes and runs off.

Moments later, two MHA’s arrive with a gurney. We strap down Lanelle while the nurse puts gauze over her wounds. “Does she really have AIDS?” one of the MHA’s asks the nurse, trying to avoid the blood Lanelle and I are covered in.

“I don’t know,” says the nurse. “Try not to drink any blood.”

The wounds don’t look too bad, but per procedure, the MHA’s take her away to be examined by a doctor, and the nurse follows. This leaves me alone in the ward. “Orders, Captain?” says Donna, standing at attention nearby.

Screaming breaks out in the day hall, male and female shouting. Oh, shit. There’s still blood all over the dormitory. “Well, Donna, maybe you could see what you can do about cleaning this up, I’ll be back,” as I run to the day hall.

One of the women on our ward, “Clara,” is a very large woman. By that, I mean she’s both quite tall (probably around 6″ 3″) and has a lot of non-fat bulk to her. She never says anything coherent, but generally lurches about the ward, swinging both arms together in unison.

I round the corner in time to see Rob punch her, hard, in the face, while she swings her arms, clubbing him in the head. “Don’t fucking touch me!” Rob yells, and she’s shrieking incoherently. I hope that if I restrain Rob, she’ll calm down, so I encircle him in our take-down hold, dragging him backwards, as fast as I can get him out of range of her fists. Rob struggles, hard, and we’re too close. ”

“Listen,” I said in Rob’s ear. “If you let me get you to the restraint room, I promise I’ll get you the shirt.”

“Really?” he says, relaxing in my grip. I pull backwards hard to get him out of Clara’s range. She’s still swinging, but not at anything in particular.

Rob walks with me back to the restraint room, and I’ve got him strapped down, sitting outside the room, filling out incident paperwork for Clara’s black eyes. Meanwhile, Donna has managed to clean up all the blood; the ward is spotless. When the nurse and MHA’s return about 10 minutes after they left, they are amazed.

“How the fuck did you restrain Rob by yourself?” asks one of the MHA’s.

“How did you manage to clean up all the blood?” asks the nurse, inspecting the dormitory. “I don’t think it’s ever been this clean in here.”

Donna gives them a smug look. “He did it because he’s the real Captain Kirk. There’s only one, and the sooner you understand that, the better off you’ll be.”

A week later, I handed Rob a paper bag containing a t-shirt silk-screened in capital letters, “I MURDERED YOUR CHILDREN WHILE YOU WERE AT WORK.” Despite the possibility of it being a terrific lapse in judgment, I keep my promises, and I printed it myself, in my apartment.

“Just promise me you won’t wear it around the ward, and especially not around the Christians,” I asked.

“No problem,” said Rob. “I’m going to visit my dad in a couple of weeks and I’m going to wear it. I can’t wait to see his face when he reads I’ve murdered his children while he was at work!”

He seemed so happy, I didn’t have the heart to point out that Rob is an only child. “Are you sure?” was all I could think of saying.

Rob seemed to have second thoughts, “Hmm, you’re right, he might think I meant his cat.” He thought a moment, then brightened. “I’ll wear it when I visit my mom.”


Crazy Days at Metropolitan State Hospital — The Art of One on One

One gets used to patients thinking they have talents or pasts they don’t, so when “Mike” told me he wanted to play the piano, at first I wasn’t sure he actually meant it, or even meant it literally. I found out the hospital had a piano a few floors down, so I got permission to take him off the ward, down to the piano.

He sat at the piano wringing his hands for a few moments, and I was fully prepared for him to either suddenly realize he couldn’t play, plink out “Chopsticks,” or whale on the piano until I had to restrain him. I was pleasantly surprised when he launched into Bach’s Keyboard Concerto Number 1 in D Minor, beautifully. He then played a few classical pieces from Chopin and Mozart, and I was content to sit and listen for a while. In the middle of a piece, he stood up violently, flinging the bench backward, his fingers, clawlike, extended skyward. “Shit!” he yelled. “Shit is coming out of my fingers! Nothing but shit!”

I picked up the bench and hurried after him; he went straight up to the ward, and then back to the male dormitory to sit on his bed, gently rocking back and forth. I left him and walked back to the day hall, running into “Danny,” a schizophrenic hypochondriac. “I think I’m dying,” he said, which was his customary greeting.

As with any delusion, you neither want to feed it by agreeing, nor become argumentative by denying it, so I usually ignored or deflected. Danny continued, pointing to the center of his chest, “I think it’s my heart this time. I think it stopped.”

“Want me to check it?” I offered. One of our duties included taking vital signs — blood pressure and pulse, and sometimes temperature if it seemed necessary and it seemed likely the patient could handle a glass thermometer.

He held out his arm, looking the other way as if afraid to look. I didn’t have a pressure cuff or a thermometer, so I checked his pulse. His heart rate was a little high, probably from anxiety, but in the normal range.

“You have a pulse,” I told him.

“That’s terrible!” said Danny. “My heart stopped and I still have a pulse! It must be something really bad. I’d better go lie down. And maybe die.”

I left him to his room and was assigned to one-on-one duty with “Donna.” One-on-ones were patients at high risk of one sort or another, usually violent toward themselves or others. When on a one-on-one, you’re never supposed to be more than arm’s length away from a patient, for any reason. For example, if a fight started elsewhere, you’re supposed to let it go and call for help. This included the bathroom, which is why female MHA’s were normally assigned to female patients. Donna, however, was a big, strong woman. If she needed to use the facilities, I was supposed to either maintain the short distance, or temporarily hand her off to a female MHA (in short supply) and wait just outside.

Donna was on one-on-one due to “extreme suicide risk.” She was psychotically depressed, which is either terrible combination of schizophrenia and depression, or depression so severe it’s indistinguishable from schizophrenia. A few weeks earlier had managed to fashion a plastic utensil into a weapon, carving deep gashes along her veins in both arms, and bleeding enough that she had to be removed from the ward for surgery, and later, electroshock. Her arms and throat were criss-crossed with long white scars from previous attempts, and the stitches from her recent surgery were still visible down her forearms.

When Donna was handed off to me, she was examining her arms. “These stitches are so goddamned ugly,” she said. “It’s depressing.”

If there was a hint of irony in her voice, I didn’t detect it.

We talked pleasantly for a while, and in the middle of speaking, she suddenly launched herself at an end table, trying to pull out the drawers. I’m not sure what she had in mind, but I restrained her and tried unsuccessfully to calm her down, eventually having to strap her down in isolation, where she was sedated. This effectively ended her one-on-one, until she was released from the restraints.

One-on-ones were usually dreaded by MHA’s, as I’m sure they were dreaded by patients. A one-on-one was usually characterized by hours upon hours of doing absolutely nothing (one-on-ones actually sat by the patient’s bed while they sleep, if they sleep) punctuated by the occasional fierce battle with a patient, usually as soon as you looked away or let your guard down.

I was sent down to a different ward for a one-on-one with a schizophrenic patient with pica. Pica is an affliction where a person is compelled to eat things that aren’t food — like dirt. When coupled with schizophrenia, the compulsion was magnified and enhanced with irrational behavior and thinking patterns.

My patient was sitting at a table, his MHA carefully positioning himself between the patient and the day hall as he handed off responsibility to me. “Careful,” he warned me, “he eats cigarettes. Don’t give him any, or let him anywhere near ashtrays.”

The patient glanced up at me, and returned his attention to the blank sheet of paper in front of him. He had a ball point pen, and over the course of the next hour or so, sketched an elaborate scene of hell entirely in blue ball point, entirely with dark, cramped strokes. It was both gorgeous and horrifying, the work of a unique and talented artist, with an impossibly detailed and realistic scene of supernatural torture and suffering. He had worked slowly from one corner of the page to the other; rather than sketching complete figures or backgrounds, he worked his way in a narrow stripe across the page, and back again.

Another patient walked up behind me, looked at the drawing, and said in a low whisper, “watch out, man, you’re almost on deck.”

As the artist put the last stroke of blue ball point in the corner, he crumpled up his creation… and tried to eat it. I was quicker, and stopped his arm before it reached his mouth. The artist looked at me with a forlorn expression. “At least let me throw it away. It’s Hell. I need to destroy it.”

“Fine,” I said, with some empathy for the compulsion.

The artist lunged toward the day hall. “I’ll put it in the ashtray,” he said, reaching for it with both hands.

I blocked him gently and pulled him away from the ash tray. “There’s a trash can near the door,” I said.

The artist studied the ash tray behind me, shrugged, and said, “yeah, okay, you win.”

He accelerated toward the trash can, reaching it just before me, pulling out a paper bag that was on top. Again I caught his hands, and pulled him away from the can as gently as I could, taking away the bag and throwing it back in the can. With a sigh, he threw his drawing into the trash can, and sauntered back to the table.

He started another drawing on a new sheet of paper, again starting at the corner. He was halfway through an equally intricate, but quite different scene from Hell when I handed him off to another MHA. “Why doesn’t he eat the pen?” he asked me.

The artist stopped drawing, having overheard. “Because,” he said, waving the pen at us, “eating a pen would be nuts.” He pointed to the pen, and to his drawing. “There are demons in the ink, I’m trying to get them all out.”

When I returned to my own ward, Danny, the hypochondriac, was shuffling around, clutching his chest. As I watched, he lay down on the floor. He was right below a poster on administering CPR. and had managed to position himself just like the “victim” on the poster.

One of our quieter old ladies was walking by, and stopped at his prone body. She looked down at Danny, and up at the CPR poster with comic exaggeration several times. She bent down over his body, listening for a breath, listening for a heartbeat, and referring to a poster. When she got to the step on mouth-to-mouth, I thought perhaps I’d better intervene, but instead of starting mouth-to-mouth, she held up a carton of milk from the cafeteria and shouted, “WANT SOME MILK?!?”

“No,” said Danny, not moving. “Thank you.”

I left him to his own devices and went back to the male dormitory, where Mike was sitting on his bed, feet drawn up, a look of horror on his face.

“Mike, what’s wrong?” I asked.

“A tse tse fly appears to have invaded,” he said, pointing.

Near the bed was an enormous cockroach, the kind that lived in the tunnels. It was not making an effort to skitter away or hide, but instead was rearing up on its hindmost legs, waving its antennae. It was surprisingly creepy.

“I’ll choose you for it,” I said. “Evens or odds?”

Mike lost with evens, and grabbed a shoe. He danced over to the cockroach, then hammered it with the shoe repeatedly with a tremendous sound that echoed through the ward. A big cockroach makes a big mess.

“I’ll get some paper towels,” I said.

“Better get a bucket,” said Mike. “Cockroach shit is a lot worse than piano shit.”