I see him from time to time. Maybe every couple of weeks during the summer; much less so in the rotten weather. At times he’s sitting outside the Metro, asking for change. At others he’s sound asleep on a bench, not unlike the fellow pictured above, down on the subway platform itself, oblivious to the bustle and workaday noise all around him, oddly serene. When we meet under other circumstances, on the street or in a park, he always has a smile for me and a handshake or, in keeping with the current trend, a fist bump.
Although never close friends, we have known each other since we were children. We are about the same age, mid-fifties. His family – parents and five children – lived up the street from me. Now when I think back about his family, the first word that comes to my mind is dysfunctional; problems of mental illness exacerbated by alcohol and drugs, never a good recipe. The mother was an attractive if mousy woman, the father a successful stockbroker, but rarely sober. The siblings had their own demons.
After hanging out with the same group of friends as young kids for a few years, we drifted our own ways, as people do. Over the last forty-five years we have crossed paths a handful of times, and gone years without seeing each other. He evidently on a downward spiral, while I, by comparison, have been cruising along. When I was in my twenties, I used to see him as I was walking to or from work downtown. At that time he was wheelchair-bound, allegedly the result of a conflict with his father on a balcony that resulted in a fall.
After a lapse of a decade or so we met again. Ironically this time he was pushing his mother in a wheelchair in the park when he called my name. We exchanged greetings and he asked his mother if she remembered me. She seemed to be heavily sedated, and did not answer. Although she was not replying, he was proud of her, telling me she had had a tough time with four out of her five children having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. I wondered, but did not ask, if he was implying that he was the lucky one.
I had no contact with him over the next several years, but I noticed his parents’ obituaries in the newspaper and saw a television news report about one of his sisters whose son had been abducted by her estranged husband and held on a cult compound in California, thereby involving the FBI.
Then a few years ago, after a lengthy period during which I did not see him, but occasionally, out of pure curiosity, wondered what had become of him, he was back. I was walking along a main street at noon when I heard my name called and there he was. I asked him what he was up to, and he was his usual vague and evasive self, so I did not push things. I mentioned I had seen his parents’ obituaries and he explained that was done for insurance reasons, and that they were both fine. I sensed something was seriously wrong with his grip on reality. I inquired about where he was living; he chuckled and, indicating with his hands the immediate vicinity, said, right here on my turf. While we were catching up on family and friends he started to include the person beside him in the conversation. Sadly, and more than just a little eerily, there was no person beside him, but that did not stop him from talking to them.
Ironically it was only later that it dawned on me what he meant by his turf. Given his imaginary interlocutor and thinking he had lost total touch with reality I did not put too much stake in anything he said. Then it occurred to me that the area where we had been standing did, indeed, at one time, belong to an earlier generation of his family. The original owners donated the land to the city and in return there is, to this day, a small street named for the family.
I ran into him just a few days ago and although he looked pretty good physically, he clearly was not firing on all cylinders mentally. He insisted that he had to leave the country because he was the rightful heir to the British throne and was required to be in England, but was quite perturbed that his ‘brigades’ were not pulling their weight to affect this move. He claimed he could not do it alone, then walked off mumbling about being let down.
I have been told by others who know him that he and his siblings receive monthly allowances from a trust fund, and that in addition to his mental illnesses, he has a bad heroin addiction. Odd that folks keep describing it as bad, as I can’t image a good heroin addiction. I am certain there are many characters in the city with similar conditions, but he is the only one I have known for so many years and whom I have, over those years, watch deteriorate.