Of the World Looking Over the Edge

About twenty-two years ago, I was standing in my kitchen first thing in the morning with an eerie feeling, when I turned around and saw Sam standing in the doorway, pale as a sheet. His hand was bandaged. Sam had spent the night at the hospital. He asked if I could pay the cab driver.

This is Sam. I did not take this picture.

This is Sam. I did not take this picture.

I grabbed my wallet and ran outside. When I came back to the kitchen, he told me he’d put his hand into a saw and nearly cut off his fingers. In the days that followed, he couldn’t even look at his injuries. I cleaned and bandaged them. He recovered. We had a four- or five-month disastrous relationship and an agonizing breakup that burned a hole through me I try not to remember in any great detail. We both behaved very badly; we could not be friends.

Why did he have this? Why did he give it to me?

Why did he have this? Why did he give it to me?

Sam was whip-smart, funny and genuinely interesting to talk to. We’d gone to art shows, music shows, poetry readings. He introduced me to great music and made me a wooden cassette case to get all my tapes off my bedroom floor. Knowing him changed the way I viewed myself as an artist. He could be a complete bastard or a patient best friend. We took pictures of ourselves and each other. Later, when I got this roll of film developed, I had someone else look at the pictures. It was too painful to see him. The pictures languished in a cigar box. In some of the others, I look so young to me. After I finish this blog post, I’ll put these pictures away. I may never look at them again.

Thursday night, one of my old housemates emailed that Sam was dead, died late last year. A little googling revealed that Sam went missing in November, 2013. A month later, his body was found. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

Samuel P. Hoyt, 46, according to his stepfather, is believed by investigators to have jumped from the Lee Bridge in Richmond on Nov. 22 after being seen at the Virginia War Memorial by a guard there.

Most of his personal belongings, including a recently issued prescription for high blood pressure [Note: no one gets a prescription for high blood pressure, idiot.], were found at the memorial on South Belvidere Street, where witnesses described him as “disconsolate and troubled,” said stepfather Bruce Littman.

An autopsy showed that Hoyt drowned and suffered internal injuries consistent with a fall, Littman said. Hoyt’s body was spotted by a tugboat crew below the Osborne Boat Landing in Henrico County on Dec. 31 and was recovered by county water rescue units.

Hoyt’s mother, Catherine, and Littman said a cousin in Ashland visited by Hoyt was concerned about his well-being after the self-employed, unmarried carpenter expressed paranoid thoughts and was having difficulty separating reality from bursts of delusional thinking.

An aunt and uncle in Richmond also feared for Hoyt’s safety when they saw him take a knife from their kitchen. They took him to an area hospital, where he was assessed by a psychiatric social worker, Littman said.

And now I’m angry.

Littman said a psychiatrist was not consulted, nor were other family members contacted who had more knowledge of Hoyt’s past. Hoyt, though, had seemed rational for much of his life and worked as a carpenter and Web designer, needing help with finances only in recent years.

“He kept his secret (of delusional thoughts) well,” Littman said. Hoyt was a graduate of Douglas Freeman High School and Virginia Commonwealth University and had attended graduate school at Rutgers University on scholarship, Littman and his wife, Catherine, said.

The morning after being released from the hospital with no finding of mental issues that warranted detention, Hoyt threw furniture in the uncle’s home through a window and left.
Littman said that when he was found in the river weeks later, Hoyt was identified from the hospital bracelet on his wrist, from documents left at the war memorial, and a DNA sample from his mother.

“We are very sad about what had happened and are concerned that this is happening at a time when Virginia is considering important changes to its laws dealing with the rights of mentally ill people,” Littman said last night.

Littman stressed that procedures need to be tightened that mandate more thorough assessments of a person’s mental condition, especially people without insurance such as Hoyt.

The stigma of mental illness is deeply ingrained in us. The half-assed article’s author struggled with language throughout, but most obviously here:

A man found dead in the James River on New Year’s Eve had been missing for more than a month and was feared by family members to be suffering from a mental condition.

What is that, I ask you? His family knew well that Sam was ill. Sam joked that bipolar disorder was “the family bug.” I accepted this without judgment because mental illness hasn’t visited my family so much as moved in and ordered pay per view. My father’s grandmother spent much of her adult life in institutions and died under suspicious circumstances in a notorious asylum. Many members of my family have mental illnesses, both treated and untreated, and I was seeing a therapist at the time, so Sam’s problems didn’t feel unfamiliar or threatening. At times, he was very far away and negative. His mood would spiral and he would be unreachable. Kindness didn’t help; he could not accept it. He needed treatment, but I see now he didn’t get it. He didn’t even get evaluated by a doctor on his way to committing suicide.

Knitting Factory, NYC, 1.1.93 with Robert for my poetry reading and remarkably expensive beer.

Knitting Factory, NYC, 1.1.93 with Robert for my poetry reading and remarkably expensive beer.

This is the system we live with now. Unless the patient is cooperative and wealthy, we can’t find help – and almost no patients are wealthy and cooperative. In New Jersey, family members can seek court-monitored outpatient treatment for violent patients in denial, but without a history of violence, the courts don’t get involved. Even the expanded program can’t order patients to take their medication. Those programs can be effective for patients with documented problems, but people like Sam aren’t violent and have no documented medical history. You can know that your family member is very ill, but you may be unable to demonstrate that illness to medical or legal professionals, as Sam’s family was not.

Sam in our backyard

Sam in our backyard, inventing the selfie stick.

This problem may be more common than our society is willing to acknowledge. My mother’s first cousin suffered a breakdown and became homeless; we do not know if he’s dead or alive. My extended family faces a similar ordeal: a family member who at one time sought medical attention in Utah, was diagnosed borderline schizophrenic and prescribed medication. He soon stopped taking the medication and has for some time been living with a girlfriend, but he hears voices and files lawsuits and calls the police to report his hallucinations. I talked to his local, rural police, who were well aware that our family member – let’s call him Tommy – was mentally ill and not trying to make trouble. The police agreed that he was no danger to them, but Tommy’s delusions were eating up police time and resources. We believe they charged him with something small. Next thing we knew, Tommy drove across country and turned up at his father’s house. It did not go well there. Tommy’s father wanted him to stop doing all that stuff, meaning hearing voices and talking to them. They argued and Tommy came to New Jersey. During the day, Tommy looks fine. At night, his symptoms are much worse. He is staying with a friend. We expect that situation will break down fairly quickly and have been searching for what to do next.

While he is in New Jersey, we will look for help here. Tommy does not have a job or insurance or a fixed address. We don’t know if he’s going back to Utah. He may be homeless. He says he’s thinking about going to Florida, but doesn’t know anyone there. He is looking at apartments here in the small town. I suspect I’m going to spend a lot of time on the phone and Pete is going to work hard to protect Tommy from the police. We cannot expect the police here to be understanding. We can’t prove Tommy needs help before something happens, and that is where we as a society fail our mentally ill cohort. Seeing a therapist is fucking expensive and treatment has not advanced a whole lot. Medications don’t work on everyone and work differently on different people. The whole thing is a crapshoot and try getting insurance with this pre-existing condition. Even so: treatment is better than no treatment, and maybe if Sam had been treated and his illness taken seriously, he might still be alive.

It has taken me days to write this. When I mentioned I was having trouble putting all this into words, a mutual friend wrote me:

I remember helping him mount a piece once. It consisted of two huge counter-rotating sheet metal cylinders one inside the other with openings arranged so that as the cylinders spun they would only occasionally line up. Once you’d gotten inside you had to wait inside that barren metal space till the openings lined up again and you could get out. I remember asking Sam why while we were wrestling the metal into place and he said he wanted to ‘force’ people to be inside their heads, to be alone.

I can’t help but think of that now.

It’s cliché but I can’t think of a time when I saw him without a smile. I really can’t. the only time maybe was when we were at the barracks breaking up radiators for metal casting. My sledgehammer bounced back and hit me on the shin and I had a piece of iron in my leg (still have the scar and a divot in my bone). I don’t know who was yelling louder, Sam or me. He was so upset. He gave me all the money he had on him at the time for the hospital because I had no health insurance. Fuck you Virginia.

You say he loved to say his name, it gave him pleasure. You say he always smiled, that he helped, that he gave a shit. You say he was a good sweet guy who drew people to him like a candle draws moths. You say no fucking more. No more senseless waste of such beautiful life, no more because we can’t take responsibility as a society to help those in need, no more shit heel politicians trying to slip out from the blood and misery on their hands, no more people alone and staring down a world gone completely sidewise and strange, afraid and desperate and doing stupid things. No more. No more.

Let us say all that and one more thing.

Sam, a little blurry around the edges. I took this picture.

Sam, a little blurry around the edges. I took this picture.

In the winter of 1992-1993, we had snow storm after snow storm. My car was frozen into a bank of plowed snow. During one blizzard, Sam and I suited up in our winter warmest and made an Arctic expedition down our street. Where the road stopped, we made a tricky descent where we knew a path into the park lay. The ferocity of the wind made breathing arduous and visibility was limited to a few feet. We trudged through the thigh-high snow across the park. Sam was very strong and not afraid of pushing through the seemingly endless snowy hills and mountains. At one point, we took refuge behind a building to catch our breath. All familiar landmarks were obscured by the vast whiteness, so we climbed a steep hill and emerged from the park in a place between some trees. Triumphant and exhausted, we found our street and made the climb up the hill to our house. A bunch of people were snowed in at our house. When we realized they would be hungry, we made a second Arctic expedition to the grocery store four blocks away. This is how I wish to remember him: smiling, capable, strong. If we were a just people, he might have grown old that way.

Knock On the Window Pane

Lettuce. Is too!

Lettuce. Is too!

Pssst! My little town has a weekend-long, town-wide garage sale every September. Last spring, a friend who teaches second grade in the city about 200 yards across a mossy river, asked folks to clean out their shelves for extra kids’ books. Yesterday, I collected the books on my street; I wish I could have gone a few blocks in any direction, but my creaky back lodged a formal complaint. Anyhoo, books for the kids. Shhhhhh! It’s a secret!

Eucalyptus and Asparagus, obviously on their way out for a couple of cosmos.

Eucalyptus and Asparagus, obviously on their way out for a couple of cosmos.

Music Plays I Sit In For A Few

My neighbor put up her friend’s article on Facebook.

DEAR WHITE FEMINISTS, YOU CANNOT AFFORD TO IGNORE WOMEN OF COLOR ANY LONGER

Reckonings of all sorts are coming. It has been a good time to listen and learn. What are we talking about here?

Okay, mainstream feminist community, it’s time that you and I had a little talk.

You’ve not only screwed up. You’ve screwed up badly. And it’s usually after you’ve been given chance after chance after chance to get your act together.

That’s why I have a proposition for you. It’s time for a Come To Jesus meeting. Hear me out.

Jesus and I meet for cocktails all the time, which may be why I screw up all the time. Even though I know the author is not speaking to me, what have I done?

The celebrity nude photo hacking scandal is just the latest way in which mainstream feminism has screwed up with women of color.

Let me stop right there and stipulate a few things.

1. I have no time for celebrity gossip because my own shallowness is very high maintenance.
2. I am not making fun of the author or light of her points; au contraire, it is I that are small and covered with fur.
3. Being a celebrity means that pictures of your flesh are worth money, especially to creeps. If you take nude pictures for your own fun, some jackhole will steal them because they are worth money, especially to creeps. This is part of the Being A Celebrity package. Everyone, I hope, understands this sordid crap, so I’m not sure where we’re going.

We’re getting more than a little tired of having us and our issues ignored unless they happen to dovetail with what you find important. We’re tired of having to fight for ourselves with no help or support from you. And we’re especially tired of being expected to champion your issues without question.

Yep. Straight up: that happens. If you pay attention, you can see that everywhere.

When a hacker dug up nude photos of luminaries including Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, supermodel Kate Upton and Olympian McKayla Maroney (whose inclusion brought the whole “kiddie porn” aspect to the discussion) it led to a lot of columnists and feminists to do a lot of writing. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the emphasis wasn’t deserved, because it was.

Um…celebrity gossip?

But, my mainstream feminist sisters, you all missed some folks when talking about your outrage.

Were it not for the folks at Essence Magazine, and believe it or not, the Washington Post, we never would have known that among those who had their privacy violated in this most heinous of ways was singer (and fellow Philadelphian) Jill Scott.

My shallowness is starting to peel.

How a multi-Grammy-Award-winning artist and actress escaped your notice has me a bit confused. That the nasty comments her photos garnered on Twitter got past you also makes me scratch my head a little since any time someone says something sexist to a woman on social media, mainstream feminism swarms like angry bees.

But since it’s not the first time that a woman of color has stood alone and without a mainstream feminist champion, I’m also not surprised.

I read Twitter for fun, only a day or two a week because I am ancient and have to double-bolt the front door to keep Death out on the porch, so I would not have noticed bees. Even so, it has not escaped my notice that any news story containing an African-American man or woman is followed by a radioactive comments section. The language of news stories is often biased and troubling. The obviously white commenters are often oblivious or rabid. This shit can really make you scratch your head for the future of humanity. I wade in, punch my way out, for all the difference it makes to the subjects of these stories. Also: I would not claim to be a mainstream anything; the author is not talking to me. Anyhoo:

In fact, Scott joins a pretty illustrious group that includes Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (one of the first women to run for president, although you never hear about it), First Lady Michelle Obama (the whole Fox News “baby mama” thing being my personal favorite), and a variety of other women of color.

She joins a group that includes women like Maria Fernandes, who died while taking a nap in her car between her four part-time jobs and Debra Harrell who is looking at 10 years in jail for felony child neglect for leaving her child in a park while she worked because she had no other child care option.

Every last one of us would be better off if we could get Fox News out of the hen house. Shirley Chisholm is one of the giants of modern American history. Michelle Obama is brilliant, accomplished, in enviable shape and seems like a genuinely kind person. This made me curious: what feminists does author Denise Clay read? What am I not reading? Let’s come back to this.

Scott joins the thousands of Black and Latina women who are currently missing and that get no face time with Nancy Grace. Now as I wrote that previous sentence, I realized that someone is going to say, “How can you say that we totally ignore the issues of women of color?! We spoke out for Janay Rice…”

That’s a no-brainer. Mainstream feminism couldn’t afford to ignore Janay Rice. Ignoring the video of a woman getting knocked completely out by her football player husband would have made you all look as hypocritical as Newt Gingrich leading a marriage encounter group.

And my recommendation for “Come to Jesus” would have quickly become simply “Cuss You The Hell Out.”

Nancy Grace scares me, but I absolutely see the point. Somewhere, I read that when Laci Peterson went missing, 19,000 other people were missing from California alone. I’m kind of obsessed with missing persons, so I am aware that when a person of color goes missing, the odds of a family getting help from the police and finding the person alive are truly miserable. The media’s fixation on missing blonde girls seems like a sickness when so many other people need help.

I keep watching Janay Rice’s face for hopeful signs, but worry about something in her eyes. I am afraid for her. A lot of people are talking and writing and talking some more, but I have said and written nothing because I am thinking about her family and that worries me, too. A woman can’t attain a certain age without encountering abusers and survivors and people who did not survive. I am well aware that I cannot save her and hoping she reaches out to the right people is both too much and not enough.

The stakes are a little too high for that with the 2016 Presidential Primaries coming around the corner.

I don’t believe Hillary Clinton even a little bit when she says she doesn’t know if she’s running for president yet. When she finally decided to make a statement about the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri, that was your cue. Or it should have been. Granted, she was late, and her lateness tells me that her “Kitchen Cabinet” has everything but Dishes Of Color in it, but she said something.

Everyone knows that when Clinton puts her “running for president pantsuits” on in 2016, you’re going to want women of color to be down with the cause. Some of you are still mad that we didn’t fall in line in 2008 and put your girl in the White House.

If you want us to help you make feminist history, women of color want something in return. We want our issues addressed. We want our contributions valued.

Yeah…about Hillary Clinton: I don’t know. She’s tough, she’s smart, but her politics are about 5.5 miles to the right of mine. She makes compromises that make me cringe, though every so often, she really comes through. She’s a politician who consistently surrounds herself with terrible, craven advisors. There’s a lot to worry about here, but even more worrisome is any Republican at all in the White House. Congress is fully fucked, the Supreme Court is churning out corrosive decisions on economics and money in politics and the last thing we need is a Republican President cutting the brake lines to speed our slide into serfdom. I’m not wild about the corporate Democrats, but a Republican President appointing a Supreme Court justice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg scares me. It’s not a great reason to keep turning up at the polls every four years, but it’ll do.

Hillary-based equivocation aside, hearing and addressing the issues of women of color is in everyone’s best interest. People who believe that for one group to prosper, another must suffer are simply wrong. The public discourse is full of this easily detectable crap: we don’t have any money, we can’t do such and such, who’s going to pay for it? As a society, we have all the resources we need. For our purposes, though, they’re in the wrong places and in the hands of people intent on keeping us desperate and separate.

Speaking for myself, I have been watching Ferguson with horror. If the situation weren’t deadly serious, it would be laughable that the police department should behave monstrously and think it wouldn’t be seen by the entire world for the monster it is. Speaking for myself, I felt like I was watching a dying creature in a vain struggle to survive a mortal injury because – in my opinion – the balance of power has already shifted. The thing does not yet know it’s dead. Two nights ago, the Ferguson City Council meeting on Twitter cemented my belief that in one election or perhaps two, Ferguson could be a much different place, depending on the determination of the people. It won’t be easy, but I think they can do it. Register everyone to vote, vote those paper-shuffling fuckers out, dismantle the system that ties up the African-American population in the court system. Then they have to be careful, because the system will try to rebuild itself.

Speaking for myself, I’m not sure how I can contribute other than listening when other people speak and trying not to be a jerk, especially to people who meet jerks aplenty in daily life. On this here bloggy, I’m more or less talking to myself in a Dear Diary way, with a vegetable garden and sidewalk cracks, but this situation and Clay’s exhortation are not about me. It’s true that I used to write about the many, many Maria Fernandeses and Debra Harrells of this world and haven’t recently, but I am not writing much about anything recently. Still: it’s not about me. I don’t have to be afraid or defensive. It’s okay to learn.

Sung By Anyone

I'm no better at crocheting than knitting - at which, you may recall, I am terrible - but it occurred to me I might stitch up scarves for the men's shelter, though not the shelter itself. It is a building and does not wear scarves, silly.

I’m no better at crocheting than knitting – at which, you may recall, I am terrible – but it occurred to me I might stitch up scarves for the men’s shelter, though not the shelter itself. It is a building and does not wear scarves, silly.

Even so, it's not all glamor being me! This weekend, I smashed my thumbnail below the nail line, necessitating the cutting of my nails. TRAUMA! I also steamed the crap out of my thumb, during which moment my one thought was, "Shit, I will NEVER do this to an entire lobster!"

Even so, it’s not all glamor being me! This weekend, I smashed my thumbnail below the nail line, necessitating the cutting of my nails. TRAUMA! I also steamed the crap out of my thumb, during which moment my one thought was, “Shit, I will NEVER do this to an entire lobster!”