Tuesday, May 1, 2007

I picked up a Hartford Courant this morning. I read the online version every now and then. I read Colin McEnroe's column. Have been reading Jennifer W. Cooper's stories recently. Terrific stuff from both of these writers. Newspapers are in bad shape, but maybe if there was more writing like this...

Then again. Might be too late to save the papers.

Anyway. I picked up a Courant. The lead story was about a murder on Laurel Street. There was a small map pinpointing where the apartment in which the murder was committed is located. The small map shows precisely where I lived for for 4 1/2 months back when I was living with a band of Hartt College of Music students. One of the students was the famous folk singer/songwriter Jack Hardy, but that's another story...

The three story house we lived in was on Farmington Avenue. Right next to what was then called the Aetna Diner. I was a walker back in those days. I remember my first night in the house. It was a cold February night and I went for a long walk. Down Farmington Avenue, Broad Street, Capital Avenue. It was dark and I didn't see many people on the streets. It was a Sunday night.

I took a lot of walks back then. Laurel Street was on one of my urban trails. I don't remember much about it. This was a thousand years ago. What I do recall was that there was an apartment building in which stewardesses in training lived. And somewhere near there was an old typewriter factory. Maybe they were clues to what I would become a few years after that. An airman for four years. A newspaper reporter...

The story in the Courant today described a horrific scene. A young woman with a history of mental illness, a wrist cutter, was murdered after getting into an argument while playing monopoly with some other mentally ill people who were living there.

Monopoly. One of those charged with the murder allegedly got angry about how she was playing the game. Oh my God, you're probably thinking. Murdered over a game of monopoly.

In my experience working for eleven years on a locked unit, I saw lots of anger. Lots of fights. The fights broke out " over something stupid, " like someone accidently bumping into someone else in the dayroom. But it was never about the bumping into. It was always about the aftermath of the bumping into. What was said. What was said back. Tone of voice. Body language. Working on the unit was like walking for eight hours through a mine field, littered with shards of broken glass. Things could blow at any moment, over almost any thing. And you could get cut.

Monopoly! I thought as I read it. And, as I so often do, and so often did on the unit, the muse of graveyard humor grabbed me by the collar and whispered, " Providence is bad, but at least people are knocked off here as a result of stuff that the game of monopoly is BASED on. "

Real estate deals gone bad. Stuff like that.

The Hartford story is tragic. A tale of what can happen when people with serious mental illness and personality disorders fall off the radar screen.

I know, I know. I shouldn't be joking about what I read in the Courant today. But the story reminded me so much of the kind of people I worked with for years. And how dangerous it was up on the fifth floor of that hospital. Behind those locked doors.

How'd I get through it? I almost didn't. A patient came within a minute of killing me. In the eleven years I worked there, the assault was the worst one on the unit. Funny thing is, I didn't get angry at the guy who did it. I was back on the unit two days after it happened. He was gone; they shipped him out quick. But I was there. Back in the saddle. And you know what?

I even made a few jokes about what happened to me. It's how I got through it.

I don't know if the apartment building in which the murder was committed was there when I was living around the corner. Maybe it was. But I doubt it housed the kind of folks who were living there recently. When I lived in that hood, the state hospitals were still open. Deinsitutionalization had yet to be added to our vocabulary.

Still, in the strange way memory works, I think back to those long walks I used to take. I see myself in full stride, passing the place where the stews lived, spotting the red brick walls of the typewriter mill - and yes - noticing that apartment building, which I didn' t know then was also a clue...

To something else I was destined to do in the future.


Jennifer Warner Cooper said...

Thoughtful words. Tragic story.

Deinstitutionalization without support, without guidance, without oversight, then, yields this:
A young woman, just a girl, dead. In a cardboard box, cold skin annointed with bleach.

Terrence said...

Deinstitutionalization without support, without guidance, without support...

That says it. The history of the institutions is so interesting. Many of them were built on the highest, best real estate in town. It marked the beginning of a new era of humane treatment. The rest is history, and a sad, often tragic one at that. Thank you Jennifer Warner Cooper.

Senor Collins said...

well written TerRence

Terrence said...

Thanks for comments Jennifer and Senor Collins ( Who did much good work at Northampton State Hospital )