July 30, 1989, Toronto, ON: It’s the bittersweet 30 before work. It was a sleepless night. I don’t remember dressing or washing my face this morning. I do a spot check of my reflection in the shop window. Acceptable. Keep moving. I push open the door of this month’s favourite coffee shop near Bay & Davenport. The invigorating mixture of fresh java and burning carafes awaken the hairs in my nostrils. Ahh, mocha java!
I’m struggling to erase the memory of last night’s skinning by the Kraljevo Girl. How many now? It’s now at least once a week. If I can only hold on today, the rest of the week will be okay. She just has to let off steam then she’s her bubbly self with her friends and ‘her’ family. Grit your teeth; she didn’t really know what she was saying. I know this for sure because I once raised something she’d spouted during her hot-blooded Balkan moment and she had no recollection of saying it. I know I heard it. I also know I will feel it for a few more days until I once again come under the spell of her charm and sex.
Armed with a cuppa Joe, I pass ‘Bugs’ the local skidder. Apparently, he holes himself up against the night air inside the #345 bus shelter at the corner of Posh and Downtrodden. Urban legend leads many to buy into the story that Bugs is actually living on the streets by choice, that he in fact, a multi-millionaire. It’s unlikely, but it seems to help everyone sleep knowing they don’t have to help him. Love the guy, helluva`character, but as I pass, the stench thrust my mind back to a rather nasty episode in my life that I thought you should know about.
Skidders serve a purpose … daily reminders of how close we all are to losing everything. They are the most visible of those of us who don’t ‘fit the norm’. Nasty, yes, but … they can be ignored and forgotten the instant we pass by.
Loony bins cannot.
Currently referred to as psychiatric hospitals, these and other similar institutions have served to ‘disappear’ the world’s misfits for centuries. In the name of social order, these have been the recipient of society’s two-pronged process of purification and exclusion.
They have appeared in many different forms. In the middle ages, there was no mistaking what horrors lay inside, if Hogarth’s depictions are even remotely accurate. In the 19th century, yesterday’s insane asylums became ‘sanatoriums’ and could easily have been mistaken for country clubs, they were built with grand and glorious facades to mask the brutal unpleasantness inside from the general public.
These things have been known by many different names. We label and pigeon-hole things we find too complex to make simple or too difficult to deal with on a superficial level. So, ‘that place’ down the street becomes known as ‘booby hatches‘, the ‘funny farms‘, the ‘madhouses‘. There, that’s better! That helps trivialize the heavy knowledge that tortured souls reside within their walls.
They say timing is everything. Mine was bad. I had just seen the recently released One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest the night before my first visit to the ‘Highbury Hilton’. Naturally, I expected to see Ratched and Randle squaring off over the meds. But, what I saw and heard instead, what I felt to the very core of my soul was no act. I walked into a room filled with zombie-like characters, frighteningly pale green walls, and caged windows. I stood stiffly near the entrance, greeted by the aroma of stale piss and fresh defecation. I heard screams in the distance. As the gowned inmates slid past, those screams helped mute out the soul-destroying slow, steady, repetitive mumbling and sobbing. On the caged television set, there was a new episode of Sanford and Son. Even Redd Foxx’s best “Here I come Elizabeth!”, couldn’t seem to get a response from the two inmates actually watching. No, wait, I remember seeing the tall, gaunt guy’s mouth twitch when Redd said to Lamont, “Hey dummy”.
The sound of a buzzer broke my concentration as ‘Ratched’ opened an inner door. My mother and I were shuttled into the inner sanctum. “Number 17, this way,” she said blandly. We walked down a sterile hallway of closed doors. 16 pale blue doors with tiny screened windows passed before I looked up to see ’17’. Ratched peered in, shoved the key in the lock, turned it, and entered. I forced my parched mouth to salivate with a perceptible gulp, rounded the corner and stood still in the doorway. There. In the corner. Sitting in an orange plastic chair. Looking out the window. My father. “Oh God”. My father …
… and the last piece of scaffolding holding up my world came crashing down around my heart. It seemed the inmates grew frantic as I shouted inside his head,
“Don’t cry, don’t cry, DO NOT CRY!”
But, just as the sandcastle on which my childhood was built started to crumble away, construction started in earnest on a bastion so strong, so impenetrable, that it still stands to this day. The only cracks that reveal my true self, my vulnerability, my humanity, are those to which you and your brother freely enter. The cracks to which your mother once had entrance, but have long since been sealed off forever.
My father, your grandfather, was ‘committed’ to fix the alcoholism – dry him out. That didn’t work. AA didn’t either. He had lost his stature as a top paper salesman at Kilgour, and again later as Kilgour gave way to Domtar, and further changes. He quit – or so I was told – to start his own business. That didn’t fly. He reached the pinnacle of his existence when he became president of the local Masonic Lodge. Then, that was taken away. His best friend died. He got lost, and spiraled out of control.
Within a few years he was dead. Alone on the floor of a ghastly basement of a down and dirty apartment building in a rundown section of town. My uncles hadn’t heard from him for a while. He’d died a couple of days prior, the internal bleeding refused to stay internal and they found him in a pool of the stuff.
And then, in true WASP fashion, it was hushed up, My mother was shut out by his side of the family. They had divorced a few years before that.
His story was supposed to die on that floor.
Being adopted with no ‘real’ past has pros and cons. For many of us, it tends to make the study of history even more attractive. I may have been lured to it in order to dig up memories, drag skeletons from the closest and generally make people uncomfortable. As I age, it also seems a way to give my father back his robust, boisterous, ‘good-time Charlie’ voice, that same booming voice that had brought so many people together for fun times.
He was a magnet, a cyclone – he pulled people to him with the centrifugal force of a twister. But, like a twister, there was considerable damage to those in the direct path of the storm. I recall marking the booze bottles, watering down the vodka, the broken glasses, the rage, the confrontations, the busted furniture, and most of all, the tension – that invisible, gnawing tension that needed to be buried deep in my gut … so deep it still keeps me ‘normal’.
Son, they were ‘Mad Men’ times … lots of sex, booze, and music running headlong into the ‘free love’ of another generation dancing freely through the age of Aquarius.
Too young to appreciate it, too young to know anything else, I was totally caught up in it – and it was so much fun.
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, Peter Sellers, The Party.
“Those were the days my friend, I thought they’d never end” …
… but they did.
Sorry Dad, gotta go … Time for work.
No problem kid, have a nice day. See you tomorrow morning, same time, same Bat-channel.
And there he sat alone for the next several hours nursing his coffee, then left.
I must hear the rest … tomorrow morning.
This story winds up in a psychiatric hospital located on Highbury Ave, in London, Ontario, a place lovingly known as the ‘Highbury Hilton‘.