Driving to Utopia

Two twenty. My taxi ride to the pharmacy went just fine, and I avoided the rain as it started on the way back. I got to see Shawn, who didn’t recognize me with the mask at first. Jeanine was at the register, but amazingly there was no copay for my Vraylar. The insurance company came through for me again, so the prescription that would cost $1400 out of pocket cost me $0. The parking lot for Bi Mart and Grocery Outlet was quite busy this afternoon. Todd, the cabbie, threaded his way meticulously through the traffic. The fare for the trip came to under $15. I might have looked like a spoiled brat riding in a taxi for the one mile to the pharmacy, but I simply put aside the feelings of guilt. People could eat their heart out. 

Another time, I may take a ride Downtown to the environs of Fifth Street and knock about. I’d like to visit Smith Family Bookstore again; it’s been probably three years since the last time I saw it. And there might be a new shop or two on Fifth Street, though I doubt it, based on the state of the economy and the number of homeless people living in tents beneath the bridge between First and Fifth Streets. Truly it’s a grim sight as you drive by the Washington Jefferson Street Park. My dad and I used to travel through the Whitaker neighborhood to get to Downtown all the time twenty five years ago. And when I was working, I drove home on First Avenue every day; but I never saw anything like the poverty so blatantly obvious nowadays. The so-called invisible people make themselves known, and I don’t blame them. Thus, it would be futile to go Downtown seeking to make the past materialize out of a memory; it’d be a delusion or a wish fulfilling dream… 

Colorful Rocks

Seven thirty.

My sleep was troubled and fitful, perhaps due to what I’d been reading. I’m very sensitive to stories, whether in print or in movies… Now I wonder why so many musicians are fans of King Crimson. I find some of their lyrics dreadful, dealing with mental illness without much sympathy. What’s their point? I don’t listen to much music these days; I’m not sure why. I’m half inclined to go back to bed, because I still feel drowsy. Sometimes I think of those clowns who worked on my house a year ago, and how slipshod they were. Ultimately it was the Portland contractor who was blameworthy for the shoddy job they did. It can be depressing to think about now… I guess I’ll go to the store and see if they have any new inventory.

Nine o’clock. I went to the market and bought a Reuben, cottage cheese, and two Snapples. Vicki’s eyes were on the front door, where she could see a pair of homeless people just outside. I passed them on my way out. Some people believe the homeless choose to live that way, and they could get jobs if they tried. I’m not one of those people. When conditions are bad and times are tough, the incidence of homelessness goes up. This doesn’t substantiate the claims of narrow minded conservatives. Hard luck befalls a lot of people. I’ve been lucky, probably more lucky than clever… Some people care more about “numbers” than human beings. I’m certainly not one of them. All is not gold that glitters. Think of the worthless “rocks” in Voltaire’s El Dorado. Precious gemstones are scattered everywhere on the streets, but in a perfect world they have no value. For reasons of greed, Candide and his friends lose Paradise, packing off a bunch of colorful rocks to the real world. Call it idealism to make this observation. It remains true. 

Where Have All the Schizos Gone?

Quarter after five. Thomas Mann assumes that sickness has moral underpinnings. I’ve always struggled with that opinion, but there’s such a consensus that agrees with him. What we don’t understand we treat with religion. I’m not even sure how to define mental illness anymore, having heard so many perspectives, and none of them superior to another. When was the last time I heard the DSM5 referred to? At least in America, talk therapy has monopolized the field of behavioral health. I never hear anything about psychiatry anymore, maybe because mental illness is too expensive for society to afford. While this is going on, people with schizophrenia and bipolar still self medicate with illicit drugs on the street. Some of them even refuse medication, and we tell them that’s okay. Honestly, I haven’t spoken with another person who has schizophrenia in many months. It’s as though they were running around undiagnosed and unmedicated. Mental illness has become a big gray area, and all because we’ve done away with psychiatry and diagnostic labels. Or is this only my own experience in the past three years? What do we do with our severely mentally ill people these days? Where have they gone? Why don’t I see them anymore? Perhaps they’re all homeless and sleeping under the Washington Jefferson Street Bridge? They seem to have been assimilated into the mainstream, their symptoms ignored and untreated. Is this a good thing or a terrible miscarriage of justice? I only think of the suffering of people with psychosis who don’t get the relief they deserve. There’s something wrong with this picture. But of course, I would have to see some statistics on recovery rates to really know what is happening… 

Tiny Tim

Three o’clock in the morning.

I had dreams of intrigue: of kidnapping people and stealing cars. My nephew Ed came to the house and we did some paperwork together. It might’ve been application for Supplemental Security. In real life, my mother helped Ed with the forms, and he never seemed to appreciate it. His five year old son had leukemia and he couldn’t have afforded the medical bills without government assistance. In the dream, as he left he took a car I had stolen. In reality, Mom made me give him my old Roland synthesizer, which his family sold and used the money to buy a home organ. I always resented this injustice by my mother, and Ed didn’t deserve to take away my keyboard and convert it to an instrument for praising the Lord. Today, it’s hard to say what was right. If Ed’s family was Charles Dickens, mine was probably Scott Fitzgerald. Over time, life has a way of equalizing things. Or at least it makes you think about things with a new perspective. 


Nine thirty.

Cloudy but not raining so far. Does reading books clarify things or only muddy the waters? It certainly adds new language and associations. Last night I was considering the Unitarian church on 13th and Chambers, but now I don’t know. I’ve been through a lot since 2009, when I last thought about the Unitarians. It could be like a regression to old ways. Wisdom is important, however it is gained. Les Miserables is a painful book to try to read, but I think I’ll attempt it. Virginia Woolf seemed rather shallow by comparison. Hugo shows how people can slip through the cracks from wealth to poverty in a heartbeat. Woolf floated on the surface among the wealthy… Still, I miss the way it used to be, having Kate for a friend. My life was more enlightened then, at the same time that it was drunken and deluded. I was poor, of course, but I didn’t admit it. I remember my reaction when Kate said I didn’t sound very well: anger and resentment, followed by perverseness. I broke away from her empiricism and dove into intuition, reading Unamuno again. Spite drove me to join the church. But I also just wanted approval from someone. Criticism from three people cut me to the bone… I plan to help with the food pantry Saturday. The walk to the church will be good exercise. Sunshine right now. I think it will be a good day. Aesop had his breakfast. The ants have returned, so I doused them with more vinegar. Everything works out for the best.

Noon hour. I’m in a good mood today. Suddenly I am very thankful for my training in cognitive behavioral therapy. It saves me from a lot of anxiety and feelings of guilt. I had a friend long ago who cherished what she called insight. It was really intuition, I think. But it didn’t work for her very well. I actually knew a handful of people who trusted gut hunches to tell them about reality. They didn’t realize that peering inward only informs you about yourself. That was a long time ago. Everything was different then. I can now pick up a book of Emerson or Whitman and easily perceive the fallacy of their method. It’s very interesting to observe the ways people gather information. My sister can claim how she just knows something in her heart— and then be dead wrong. Emotional reasoning simply fails as an epistemological tool. So that Kate was right all along.

Two Worlds

Two thirty. Kate was very smart. I miss chatting with her. She had a lot of common sense, and an instinct for the ordinary. She really liked the Carlos Williams poetry I introduced her to. She was not a Romantic at all, but rather was drawn to analytic philosophy, including Russell and the Vienna Circle. Once I understood where she was coming from, we could talk about Carnap and so on for hours and days, even years. She came along at an opportune time in my life… Funny. Only a few years ago, I had a delusional fear of Edgar Poe’s poetry. I believed it was satanic. Of course I don’t believe in the devil now. The medication took care of that. Before this med, there was alcohol for the psychosis. If religious delusions were real, then I wouldn’t fight them off with drugs and rigorous mental discipline. Schizophrenia is a disease. It is a condition of messed up brain chemistry. I agree with psychiatry and not talk therapy. Science is always the best solution. People don’t understand that the human brain is the base of behavior. The mind is no more than brain activity. And yes I am a materialist. Religious people can argue with me till kingdom come (which will never happen).

Eight twenty. I’m going through a weird kind of struggle. In 1862, Hugo thought materialistic philosophy was the privilege of the wealthy, while religion was the fare of the poor. I find this to be true in our own time as well, and I’ve been immersed in both worlds. Going from Hugo to Woolf was to revive my college learning, which really was a materialistic thing, with a few exceptions. Now I don’t know which way to turn. My old psychiatrist told me that I had fallen low, in terms of my status. This only made me rebel against him and turn to the church. Was that a mistake? Or will I come out of all of this the wiser? I should probably finish Les Miserables.

Lap of Luxury

One o’clock. Almost done reading Jacob’s Room. Only another forty pages. It seems to be a study in communication breakdown, the question of whether language has the power to preserve. Maybe it just perishes. The book contains many unfinished sentences and incomplete thoughts. Looking over this old paperback triggers the memory of music I heard that winter. It is The Song of the Nightingale by Stravinsky, a symphonic poem he completed in 1917. A hundred years ago might as well be a billion. A little older than the earth, the ancient sun has broken through the overcast. My mind’s eye can imagine the inside of the little music shop on the corner of Fifth and Pearl. The light was never very bright in there, but it was cozy and pleasant. A mere hole in the wall next to Cat’s Meow Jazz and Blues Corner. It smelled like spice or incense in the building. Like new merchandise. We stumbled onto the Music Gourmet in December 1993, I forget how. It started with buying the Nutcracker Ballet. I took this cd with me on a visit to Ken and Cindy in Harrisburg. Around that time, my grandnephew Travis was born. Things were never very peachy, yet I was happy because my parents were still alive.

Two o’clock. Now, my sole pretension to wealth is the roof over my head that I own. I might feel a little weird about going to Fifth Street to hang out. At the time in 1993, I was unconscious of socioeconomic realities. I lived in the lap of luxury, taking a free ride with my folks. I had no shame, no matter how my psychiatrist tried to drive me away from them. But he didn’t understand that we were an interdependent unit. The three of us needed each other. And in 1997, I performed with Satin Love to make my mother happy one last time. I felt, a bit desperately, that time was running out. But I pulled it off, even though I had to leave the band… It’s still difficult for me to tell whether I’m making choices in my own interests or rather in those of a ghost. When I was a student, my intellect went places where my mother couldn’t follow. I kind of liked that, just because I was doing something for myself.

I only like dreaming

All the day long

Where no one is screaming

Be good Johnny

The Poorhouse

Nine ten. I look now upon my writing and see mediocrity and sentimentality anyone is capable of. But then, who am I to feel superior to anyone else? The world is a large place, contrary to the old Disney song. This means that there’s room for all of us. Equality entails freedom. It’s Thursday night, just another night of the lockdown. I guess the curfew is in effect. I hear very little going on outside my door. Reading Hugo is good for stimulating me to think. It is good to have my precepts challenged. I believe in utilitarianism, not so much in Christianity. These two world views seem to be at odds with each other. The first is humanist, the second divine and sacred.

When I think of Hugo’s beliefs, I imagine being in the office of St Vincent DePaul’s about seven years ago, where I awaited getting energy assistance. The whole setup was very religious, which shocked me a little. I wondered why it had to be that way. But it’s just a tradition, and poverty and religion go hand in hand. Still I fought with it, and do so even now. As an educated person, I had been exposed to much more sophisticated things. Religion turns out to be the meat and potatoes creed of the land. I was so naive until I fell into dire poverty. My interview at St Vinnie’s in October 2013 was when I first became self conscious of being poor. To reflect on it now is rather fascinating, though at the time I felt shame and denial of my position. Right now I see myself being in a unique situation to be able to comment on what I’ve experienced. Ideologies are everywhere around us, in every social class and setting, wherever there are people. The most obstinate belief system I’ve run across has been Christianity. I can’t seem to evade it, it’s everywhere a poor person goes. And yet I struggle with it, and fight to retain my identity as an educated man. It’s like treading water in the middle of the Pacific, food for sharks and seagulls while my ship fades away on the horizon. Man overboard…

Saturday Morning

Seven fifty five. I’m leaving for the church at eight forty. If there’s any canned dog food, I’ll feed Aesop before I go. It’s raining this morning, but lightly. I anticipate that my walk will seem strangely isolated. I hope a lot of people come to the pantry and make it worthwhile. A carping voice in my head tries to say I’m just a no good alcoholic and schizophrenic. Alongside the voice plays the Stravinsky music I used to listen to 25 years ago. Am I as useless now as I was then? Or is the self criticism remembered from someone else who was cruel to me?… Almost time to go. I fed the dog. Now to get on my jacket and get ready…

Noon hour. It worked out just fine. I found myself hanging out up front, facing the parking lot and being a go between. Sometimes I felt like a fifth wheel, but hopefully my presence was helpful. I was the one who suggested putting out the placards and getting the operation going. Barb was reluctant to start, but she assented, and we were soon underway. The first car that drove up turned out to be a woman donating vegetables. It got us off to a good start. Between 9:30 and 10:45 we served over 20 families. Then the crew was reduced to skeleton and I could come home. I’ve just returned from the market with comestibles. Because it is Saturday, I saw more people outside than during the week. I’m having a Dr Pepper and chilling out. Tomorrow’s coffee hour after service ought to be interesting.

A Sketch

I remember seeing Amy collecting trash in a plastic bag on the railroad tracks once, probably in 2006. It calls to my mind the streets and sidewalks I traverse every day. The gray pavement is always littered with cigarette butts and debris from fast food or from the store. A veritable wasteland of human rejects and refuse. On the most beautiful of days, it’s a dirty and seamy suburb. But it’s a soil that yields up prophetic voices and bluesy thunder, proclaiming to the world that we are. From a terrain of gravel and ashes rise weird squeals of the railroad, where vagrants stow away. Sometimes they wander to the store, their faces smeared black, rubbing together a few bills for a bite to eat. Sometimes it was me, in soiled clothes and broken glasses, with just enough change to buy one pint of malt liquor. Still, the prophetic voice emerges, not from billboard ads for Black Velvet, but from car stereos in parking lots and streets. Live music can be heard pounding from houses and woodsheds, the entropic notes rising to cloud. Poverty and woe raise a howl to the powers that be beyond the sheltering sky. And behind the curtain, the fourth dimension makes its cryptic plan.