Back in my old neighborhood, there was a guy who lived in a private junkyard right next to an industrial launderer a few blocks from my house. He put together a makeshift shelter out of the body of an old Volkswagen Beetle and some dirty blue tarps. No one would have known he was there except that he had to make regular forays into the non-junkyard world to buy himself forty ounce bottles of Budweiser beer. Pass by the junkyard around ten o’clock in the morning, you’d hear the clanging of shifted metal as this guy hauled himself out of a scrap heap to panhandle. Pass by again around three in the afternoon, you might catch him shuffling back home through a hole in the fence, hauling a grocery bag laden with brown bottles of beer. I considered him a whacked-out wino, part of the natural scenery. He was only one of maybe two dozen drunken adults wandering thoroughfares from Main Street to Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens. You’d see them with their Army-issued field jackets and free t-shirts from various cigarette promotions, begging for change and openly drinking right next to the very bodegas that sold the brew.
And it wasn’t just my neighborhood, but every neighborhood I visited growing up. Times Square was littered with as many as a hundred stumbling, disheveled people, often sleeping openly right on the sidewalks. Friends’ suburban neighborhoods in Long Island each had their special crazies, often lurking around the local strip mall or panhandling at highway exit ramps. I called them bums, I called them drunks. I called them winos and homeless people and crazies. I paid them no more mind than a lamp post or a mailbox, these people were everywhere and I took it for granted that this is what society looks like. Where did they come from? How did they end up living in a small junkyard in Flushing? These were the kinds of questions I never asked. They may as well have been birthed right there in the gutter, weaned on cheap beer and raised by greasy rats.
Things are no better today. The homeless Vietnam Vets of my era have largely died off, to be replaced by homeless veterans from more recent conflicts. You’ve got junkies and schizos and people having loud conversations with antagonists visible only to them. There’s a guy who sits outside of my office and beats a stick against the bottom of a soup pot for hours at a time. You get used to them, let loose a little change here and there, but for the most part you blow by these people, since to stop and help everyone in need seems an insurmountable task. You might feel sympathetic, you might feel annoyed, but one thing people rarely think is that these people might be dangerous. What danger could a malnourished looney pose to a well-fed guy that’s got all his marbles? So we allow ourselves to become complacent.
Part of this complacency is borne, I think, of despair. What should we do for the mentally infirm? What can we do? We can lock them up and pump them full of Thorazine until their medical insurance runs out, then they’re back out in the wild. There are no miracle cures, no way to reason with someone who is perpetually hallucinating. We can intervene on our obsessive friends and family, we can commit our suicidal children, but there’s not a lot of help forthcoming for the strange dude lurking on the street. It’s assumed that there’s some dreary procedure in place to handle these outlying integers of society, but the fact is that there’s nothing satisfactory. Prisons end up picking up as much mental health slack as they can, and then only after someone has been convicted of a crime. Very often, that’s too late.
We live in a time that we can mitigate our anxieties with medication and indulge our narcissism in a therapist’s office. Many of us seem to accept the fact that modern life will drive you at least a little crazy. But why does this have to be the norm? Isn’t a society that drives you insane a failed society? And what about those without health insurance, do we accept them as regrettable casualties in the war to figure out what the hell we want to do with ourselves? Sadly, I have no answers, only more and more questions. Because the truth of the matter is that we’ve always had crazy people, and we’ve never known quite what to do with them. Maybe we should privatize mental health hospitals, make a business out of incarcerating the insane. But then I’d worry that I might ultimately be given a rubber room right next to yours.