Mad Boy Blind World
Madness, in its wild, untamable words, proclaims its own meaning; in its chimeras, it utters its secret truth. — Foucault, Madness & Civilization
Much madness is divinist sense-
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
– Emily Dickinson
Several days ago I sat down at a Starbucks. It’s one of the huge, new Starbucks, with wine and carefully selected music just a touch to the left of the mainstream (and therefore utterly mainstream), too much airconditioning, too much perfume, and, at this location in the Cherry Creek area of Denver, far, far too much money. It’s the sort of place where older men come in wearing thin sunglasses worth the low five-digit range, sweaters thrown across their shoulders like it’s still 1987 and they just read the Preppy Handbook. Usually they don’t hold the door for anyone, but they are very good at gently commanding their Newfoundland or Bernese Mountain Dog or Goldendoodle to sit, wait for master, while master buys a 6$ coffee and doesn’t tip.
The women wear heels, but badly. Why is it no one knows how to walk in heels? It really isn’t difficult: one simply slides them on, and then strides as if wearing no shoes at all. I see this done very rarely. At any rate, the women have often had “work” done, as if their faces are on-going construction sites, trying to modernize for the men in their lives. They stare without embarrassement at younger women, who are plentiful at this spot, and all seem to be coming from “yoga” class, wearing long earrings and tank tops that reveal the shoulders and tights from Lululemon that cost more than some families spend on groceries in two weeks.
I like to write and read here. Guiltily I also like to people watch, and observe the uptight interactions of Denver’s growing population of the wealthy, the status conscious. I find these people a little amusing, as I grew up in Denver, and know what the antecedents of the city really are: oil, boom and bust, dust, rednecks, attractive but for the most part sort of unremarkable architecture. There is a certain sort of old Denver progressive, now being quickly fazed out of the city due to age and the rising cost of living: she likes cats, she’s kind of boring and then bursts forth with some eccentric habit that pulls one in again. She’s never heard of voting Republican but isn’t angry about it; when she takes vacations it’s with groups of like minded greying friends who wear hiking clothes to dinner. This is the original Denver, or at least the original Denver of the last 40 years. It is the small provincial city I knew as a child, and found as boring then as I do now: hiking and Mother Jones and an appreciation for jazz as long as it’s not too avant garde; book clubs and summer rentals in Grand Lake. Cheap homes, unpretentious gardens, work, weekend; Pat Schroeder was king and queen all wrapped into one tidy poly skirt-set.
Things have changed, radically, on both coasts. Denver, along with so many other “fly-over” cities, has become ripe for the picking, picking over, tearing down, building up, and re-populating for people with wealth but not so much wealth they want to see it all invested in a two bedroom condo in New York when with the same cash they can buy a small mansion in Park Hill. So now the city is different. I think it’s disgusting, personally, which is why I moved out of it, and as soon as my children reach middle school I will move far, far away from it. The people in Denver now clearly yearn to make Denver a small San Francisco or Williamsburg, which is unimaginative, redundant, and comes off as silly and even more provincial looking than the city was before the people with the extra dollars arrived.
I do digress terribly. But do I? The original intent of this essay was to be about a boy. A suffering boy, overtaken with pyschosis. The more I thought of the boy, however, the more I thought of the context of his life: his existence in a city that quite literally has no room for him and his ilk any more. There is no room, no resources, no care for the people on the edges, people who struggle internally or people who struggle with two jobs and four children. Where, now, do these people live? The outer, outer suburbs. Thornton, Commerce City, far East Aurora. Yes. See? There’s room after all.
And what of schools, and the price of gas (Denver has no real public transit), the price of food, the price of rent? I know a woman with a Master’s degree, intellligent, highly experienced, who I fear is on the verge of homelessness. Her rent is $1000 a month. In the outer suburbs.
So, on that day I saw the boy, I was sitting at the cold but wildly beating heart of the New Denver. To park I dodged assholes in BMWs, overheated Mexicans guiding traffic around some new, hideous development, and pedestrians in heels who gimped slowly across the street. It’s like playing ping-pong to drive in this neighborhood, with the dark skinned people unwillingly playing the most dangerous part of the game and the rich, who are important and need to get somewhere – now – irritated that they must dodge something not really worth their attention.
I perched on an out of the way chair, and began writing. A few moments later I smelled something, something alien to that part of town; it was a combination of the oldest body odor a human can have, and trash, and, somehow, exhaust, as if the streets had left a trail from the thousands and thousands of cars on the road, and the trail led to this….. child. After the smell arrived, I looked up. Everyone looked up.
With distracted, unfocused steps a boy was making his way from the front of the cafe, where the workers had given him a large cup of ice water, to the back, where I was sitting. He wasn’t swaying but he wasn’t steady either. His thin body was drugged and overheated and fatigued, and his walk seemed to mirror the utter vulnerability of his ruined mind.
It is unusual to speak with someone who is truly mad. It is unusual, and startling, sort of interesting, and deeply, deeply sad. The child caught my eye, wouldn’t let go. I didn’t look away. I would have felt ashamed if I did. He came and sat down across from me.
We stared at each other. He looked surprised, either to find someone who would look at him or at the fact that he was sitting in an air conditioned place, and could rest a moment. He couldn’t have been more than 16 or 17. He was mixed race, with lightish-black skin, and huge eyes, set far apart. Lashes like a mascara ad and full, perfectly shaped lips. I thought perhaps he had some Native American blood, as his cheek-bones were high, and wide, though his hair was an unkempt afro. He was so thin he looked drained of his own blood.
As soon as he sat down, he stared and stared and began talking of all his myriad hallucinations. At least I think they were hallucinations. His voice was steady and clear, and he was quite confident about his own reality. Suddenly, in a moment of stunned awakening, he regarded me. “You are a writer?” he asked, looking at my pen. “Well, I like to write,” I said. And then he was off again, to a place I couldn’t follow. “I wrote a book once. It’s about science. And the universe. And planets. I like to read about planets….” And he went on from there, until, selfishly, I decided to take my time back.
“Look,” I said. “I have to get back to my children soon. I think I need some time to write.” We never broke eye contact. I was just… honest. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, OK. Well I need to clean up.” And he proceeded into the bathroom, where he took a half hour long sponge bath in the sink. Naked. I know because he didn’t lock the door, and people kept walking in on him. And god bless the Starbucks workers, they didn’t do a thing about it, despite the mortified complaints from the rich folk.
When he left he smelled better, and walked better. He forgot his iced water at our table. And then he wandered off into the street.
For the rest of the day, and every day since, I have wondered: where does that child live? How does he live? I suspect he’s on the street. Does he sell his beautiful young body so he can buy Doritos at the all night 7-11? Does he have a mama who is looking for him? Or a mama as fucking crazy as he is? Or a mama who kicked him out?
What does madness do with itself, when it’s beyond some capacity to be dressed, to be indoors, to be safe from the even worse madness of abuse and the pathological indifference of our society?
Of these questions I was reminded yet again just two days ago. I write these words from New York City, where there is money and madness everywhere. At Penn Station, the day I arrived, there was a wild looking man, who seemed more bear than human, screaming from the doors of the building. There were streams of people everywhere; most of course didn’t notice him. One woman though, fresh off a plane, ready to see the Big City, took out her smart phone, covered in bejewelled plastic. With long pink-painted nails I watched her select “video,” and for the next 90 seconds or so she recorded the man as he screamed and wailed about stars and the galaxies, waving his arms wildly, his eyes blackened with anger and wild with confusion.
What, I thought to myself, is the true madness here? The one who is afflicted or the one who celebrates the affliction?