March 01, 2009
702 W. Martin, the cute puffy red cartoon star on my Mapquest map, turns out to be a creepy, rundown cinderblock high rise. The grass is worn away in big patches and the windows are lined with garbage bags, aluminum foil or blankets. It smells like a hundred people have been cooking potent ethnic food in concert with their doors open. Mariachi music plays at hearing damage volume from a ground level unit.
But the view is breathtaking.
Step off the grimy elevator on the twelfth floor and you’re served up a panoramic cityscape that typically comes with luxury condos: Tower of the Americas surrounded by overlapping multi-tier freeways, a colorful stream of vehicles flowing by like shiny toys, the enchilada red central library flanked by punchy green trees, clusters of skyscrapers made of blue, black and bronze reflective glass glinting in the sun. An airbus glides in silently, smoothly, extra white against the giant blue Texas sky.
A black boy in his teens wordlessly answers my knock at 1224. He is morbidly obese. I introduce myself. As he lifts his arms to take the heavy box of dishes, his body odor overpowers the air. He walks across the living room, where two half-inflated air mattresses sit in the middle of the floor with three males of discrepant ages sprawled across them, and disappears into the kitchen. The air mattress guys acknowledge me with a cursory glance and then turn back to a small TV, also on the floor. Two shopping carts draped with clothes function as makeshift closets against one wall and an immaculate, beautiful baby sucking on a pacifier is standing up in a ratty playpen against the opposite wall. Cheesy Puff smithereens cover the concrete floor.
The big kid comes back with middle age woman who shuffles unevenly toward me.
Scuse the mess, she says brightly. We’re just trying to get by.
We’re all just… I let my platitude trail off. It rings hollow and the TV drowns out my voice anyway. Her apology is less to me than to the world.
I tell her I need to go back down to the car.
Oh Anthony can help you, she says.
I’d really rather he not, but I can’t think how to phrase this nicely so I just smile.
He’s big but he don’t bite, she laughs, looking up at him with adoration. Anthony scratches his massive arm.
We wait for the elevator and gaze out over the penthouse view.
What school do you go to? I ask. He mentions one I’ve never heard of.
Are you from San Antonio? I ask.
He shakes his head. He doesn’t offer anything else. There’s something wrong with him but I don’t know what.
We really appreciate all this, the woman says as I’m leaving.
It’s no problem, I reply. Take care.
On weekends I deliver oven mitts and such to crazy people.
Years ago this lady named Patsy started a non-profit called Home Comforts, a donation service for the chronically mentally ill when they get discharged from the state hospital. Patsy’s son lost his mind pretty young, back in the day. They gave him a little therapy, lots of drugs and turned him loose.
Home Comforts doesn’t do clothes or food. Only the other stuff – spatulas and shower curtains and alarm clocks.
Having a stable place to live, we can all agree, is a basic human right. It is also considered the cornerstone of recovery for the mentally ill.
The largely female executive board of Home Comforts refer to themselves as “the ladies with the can openers.”
1403, Tanya’s apartment, is a corner unit all the way around back next to two big blue dumpsters. The complex is called The Mirage, smack dab in the middle of the Medical Center on the west side of town. A big plastic banner outside the leasing office announces Move Ins Available Immediately – From $475/month.
I’m not sure The Mirage is an appropriate apartment complex name for a chronically mentally ill person.
One of my co-workers used to live here. The amenities include a small outdoor pool, clothes care center, barbeque areas and a mini gym. Any apartment complex financed by city-issued tax-exempt bonds is required to set aside 20% of the units for low-income tenants for a period of 30 years. You may know this as Section 8 housing. Sections 8s are in very limited supply and they’re always the units no one else would want: the ones by dumpsters, the ones way across the parking lot on the fifth floor overlooking a drainage ditch. The chronically mentally ill qualify for Section 8 twofold: they’re considered disabled and they’re always very low-income.
Tanya’s stuff has been in my trunk for like two weeks, which nearly drove ME crazy, because I kind of can’t stand to have stuff lying around not in its rightful spot. My car stinks powerfully of knockoff Tide powder and Compare to Pine Sol cleaner and industrial plastic packaging for things like sheet sets and ironing board covers. It smells like brain cancer.
The chronically mentally ill are not good at the phone. They have phone anxiety. Their meds make them sleep a lot. For these and other reasons, Patsy instructs without elaborating, try not to call them too much.
Finally one Saturday afternoon Tanya answers on ring six, just as I’m thinking I’m pushing it.
Oh hey, thanks for calling, she says breezily.
What would be a good time? Will she be home this afternoon?
Yeah, my mother’s just taking me to get groceries right now, then I’ll be back around 4:30. Would that work?
Tanya does not sound even marginally crazy. Her voice is clear and even, her syntax normative. This disappoints me. I am disappointed with myself for being disappointed but the truth is I wanted a small challenge in dealing with her. I don’t just want to deliver something, I want deliverance.
Tanya’s Big Lots Extra Value white with blue trim dishes rattle precariously over the speed bumps within the apartment complex. She answers the door in three phases: small crack, halfway crack, wide open. She’s got that hospital chub and a huge nest of curly hair, which has been lassoed into a hasty ponytail. The stench of cat urine forces me to mouth breathe. Small balls of what appears to be toilet paper festoon the living room floor. There’s a heavily stained recliner and a large Sanyo TV on top of a sagging Rubbermaid storage tub and small folding oak table covered in telltale orange prescription bottles. A kaleidoscope-shaped splash of Coke or coffee has dried on one of the walls.
She starts unloading the bags as soon as I set them down.
Oh wait, these are queen? I don’t know what size my mattress is. Can you hold on while I see if they fit?
I don’t mind. I can use the practice holding my breath.
This is it.
I pick up a shit ton of stuff.
Call a little.
Go to their place.
Help them unpack maybe.
Make awkward small talk for sure.
Try not to look at their sad, stinky life always. Then leave. And that’s it.
Volunteering for the Extremely Lazy and Existentially Guilty.
Mapping the human genome excited scientists so much because they were going to be able to find the genes that caused cancer or schizophrenia. Find those suckers and shut them off.
But in the couse of human genome mapping, it was discovered that single genes don’t cause cancer or schizophrenia.
It is the interaction between genes that fucks a person up.
Specifically, DNA methylation.
Construction makes finding the Henry B. Gonzalez housing projects on Ingram and Callaghan tricky. The late Henry B. was a rare Texas Democrat, a social justice pitbull. He still holds the state legislature filibuster record – in 1957 he talked for 22 hours straight against segregation.
I keep getting booted around the same intersection, which is giving ME incredible anxiety. Not because I mind going in circles, shoot, I’m always getting lost around here but because a crazy person is waiting. I must show up on time. I must not be late. I am a reliable, predictable and gift-bearing representative of the (comparatively) mentally healthy world.
Finally I veer onto a side street and after a few loops randomly and magically arrive at Henry B., which consists of about fifty 1 bedroom units in single story brick buildings, clustered much like a budget travel lodge. In a central garden area, a forlorn-looking latticed gazebo sits vacant.
I only have her initials, A.M. (Patsy explained she wants her privacy respected). 301 is easy to find. A.M. answers the door, and I’m taken aback momentarily. She is enormous in her flowered muuumuu and thick, outdated plastic frames. Her hair seems to be coated in oil. A metal cane supports her huge frame. The apartment has the persistent smell of new paint. Unopened boxes cover every floor surface.
She just moved in then?
Oh no, I’ve been here about a month, she says plainly. I’ve been so depressed though, just haven’t felt like unpacking.
I smile sympathetically, as if I might understand the effects of chemical sadness. Which of course I do not. Unpacking and putting things in their assigned spaces is, for me personally, a reliable sort of happiness. But I shouldn’t say that. Should I? I don’t know. My entire mental health training is two viewings of Girl, Interrupted. I’m just here to hand over a shower curtain and some measuring cups. So I tell A.M. I’ll be right back, there’s more stuff in the car.
With exertion, she takes the bags from me and piles them on top of her unopened boxes. She signs the delivery confirmation form, dates it incorrectly, and peers at me through her big plastic lenses.
Yeah, I don’t what it is. I guess I’m just not used to being alone.
Finally you get out of the hospital, armed with your SSRIs and behavior modification plan and a new apartment and suddenly the crushing loneliness starts making the nuthouse look pretty good.
Patsy says most of the country’s mentally ill are either locked up or in homeless shelters. The L.A. County Jail has been called “the largest mental health treatment facility in the world”, spending more than $10 million annually on antipsychotic medication.
The ones who end up in housing projects, Patsy sighs, are like shipwreck victims who make it to shore.
DNA methylation is a normal chemical process that occurs as your cells divide or multiply, which they’re always doing, right now even, to replace dead or damaged ones.
Sometimes DNA methylation goes awry, for reasons no one understands yet, and then your genes can’t communicate clearly. They tell each other wrong things, or even nothing.
You’re suddenly full on bipolar. You’re officially schizophrenic. It’s too late: You’re Crazy.
The Arriba Apartments are almost on Blanco Road, like one foot away from the street, four crumbling green and white two story buildings between a Church’s Chicken and a Kwik Wash. Fried poultry and fabric softener are not a complimentary fragrance combination. Wayne lives in 412, where a scruffy long-haired black and brown cat is shitting in the dirt two feet from his door.
This one’s a GI, Patsy said when she gave me his mops. I don’t know if it’s PTSD or something else. Probably the something else.
I have no idea what the something else is. Patsy’s not in the habit of commenting on the clients and she never assigns me to men, so the whole thing is making me sorta scared. The shitting cat, though, I take to be a literal, spiritual reassurance. This situation is just shitty, not dangerous.
Waynes answers the door visibly upset and on the phone. He has three piercings in the skin below his bottom lip. Time Warner, he explains. They were supposed to come two days ago, then yesterday. The guy never showed up! I’ve been waiting all – yes? Hello? This is Wayne —-. I’m calling about my damn cable.
He’s a husky guy in denim shorts and a Green Bay Packers jersey and big black sneakers. His head has been shaved recently. The skin is pink. Wayne’s unit is completely empty except for two cardboard boxes and a green duffel bag with a busted strap shoved into one corner. Fresh vacuum lines give the carpet two gradations of beige.
Sorry, he mouths to me.
It’s ok, I whisper. I’ll be right back.
While I make my trips to and from the car, Wayne sits cross-legged on the carpet and argues fervently with a Time Warner representative, someone who is using all the techniques they learned at How To Deal With Difficult People training, assuming they had such a thing. I give him a little wave to let him know I’m going.
Hold it! Hold on, he barks into the phone. He covers the microphone and says to me, Sorry, sorry. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
It’s ok, I reply, though he’s gone back to shouting. It’s no problem.
How does a person just lose it?
We almost know now.
Of course the stigma persists: bad drugs or bad parenting or bad coping skills. It’s hard to equate physical illness and mental illness. Hard to see cancer the same as depression.
Except on a chemical level, it is. Crazy is a disease you’re born with. Just like your inherited genes brew up lymphoma for years before you need chemo (and smoking/eating pork ribs every day doesn’t help matters) mania sits latently in your DNA, waiting to methylate and unleash its fury.
Researchers now believe it is some combination of hereditary and environmental factors that make people crazy, not just one or the other.
This represents a major shift. It means we’re heading in a new two-prong direction. We’re getting closer.
It’s fucking exciting.