The Conard File [begin November 15, 2019]:
(Dispatches from the mental health system)
Sarah made her first batik and gave it to me as a present. It was a fish. She was unilaterally in love with me. She was 43 and I was 28 and this was in San Francisco. We were residents of the halfway house Conard for mentally ill people.
Before I moved in I was at the Chinatown YMCA, renting by the month. My father had put me there after I was released from Napa State Hospital. The year was 1977 and I already been homeless once. When I lived at the YMCA I ate mostly Chinese cream-filled buns at a pastry shop at Wavery Lane, an alley off of Grant Avenue, the main street of Chinatown. My father had given me $1,000 and some nice clothes. He figured that I would bounce right back into economic life, but I disappointed him, because even at age 70 today, I never made it back to the workforce.
How do you account for yourself, mister? When I take occupational preference and skills tests I always get accounting and it tells me to work for the FBI and the CIA. A bit of forensic accounting will flush out the criminals and their money trail. I smell the money, I smell the green. It is because I am good in math. But such a job is drudgery as far as I am concerned and it is not that I am unable to work physically or mentally, but it is that I am emotionally unable to work. And there is a reason for it.
“They told him to go back to work, and he pleaded that he wasn’t ready. They said that his disability compensation was over and he needed to go back to work. That night he jumped off the roof and died.” It was not Franz Kafka who juried his disability; it was the State. And the man who related this story was the brother of the said dead man. This was not a major event in a big US city. It was the small town of Aberdeen. When logging and fishing ceased in this small town, there were a lot of alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and crime. I lived here and when I was very young, I started working. An independent contractor was my first job at age 12. I had a paper route. Then the jobs got heavier and heavier but that wasn’t why I broke down.
It was a built-in genetic time bomb. It reminds me of the cartoon in a terrorist training camp. The teacher demonstrating suicide bombing said to the student terrorists around him and said, “Now watch very carefully! You are only going to see this once!”
And when I was exploited by my family and the State sufficiently I judiciously broke down. Even a machine needs oiling but I was not perceived to have any needs. And when one is pulled from both ends vigorously enough, he will snap in the middle. All that is left of this man now is the sad and urgent lesson not to treat others this way. For in the long run, you cannot whip the horse forever to go at top speed and never feed it grass. But maybe “grass” was part of the problem. The government didn’t take care of its youths well enough and offers no guidance. Thrown to wolves are many young and impressionable young men and women. They are sold a false paradise.
Meanwhile, at Conard, Ben found the suicide note. John had left a big pot of spaghetti in the basement kitchen sink and it was turning green on red. He had not been seen for over 72 hours and so Mrs. Wake the director called the police and they found John walking towards the Golden Gate Bridge. He was taken to SF General for observations. This was a blow to the Conard management. They did not screen carefully enough and this is a statistic they didn’t want. Government grants and private donations depend on what kind of positive reports Conard can give them for their money. Everybody’s motive seems pure enough – the patients want to get well, the staff want to have success stories, and the donors really want to feel they make a difference. And so Dr. Stone the consulting psychiatrist came and address the group meeting, a pep talk.
Every resident had a psychiatrist of their own or have a day-treatment program at a mental health center. When I first moved in my psychiatrist, Ron Smothermon, was writing a book and he gave me chapters to read as he drafts them. It was a book about relationships. Ron obtained his medical degree from a Texas university and he was a firm believer in medication. Back in 1977, many psychiatrist and therapists thought that talk-therapy was efficacious. But now I can see that you can talk with me all day, and if my brain was scrambled by defective biochemistry, you will simply make no sense to me. I would be lost to delusions and illusions, not to mention inappropriate elations and depressions. I might not even feel I had a reason to live. Some honestly didn’t feel that way or felt that no one cared and so like John they would be thinking about walking towards the Golden Gate Bridge.
But for the rest of us, Conard was a reprieve. The rent was cheap, we had 24/7 supervision, we had each other, including the Yale dropout James who took Janie by the hand and used my room for sex, because Jim and Janie’s roommates were home and my roommate Allen the photographer wasn’t. I couldn’t refuse them because they had an urgent need. Sex and sexuality were quite open for just a decade ago, all the flower children descended on San Francisco. I was there that time too. I spent two summers 1969 and 1970 at North Beach which borders Chinatown and the Italian neighborhood. I had gone down there because my hometown friend from Aberdeen was there. He was gay and had a partner. Due to my puritanical training as a Chinese kid of Confucian parents I did not take part in sex of any kind, not yet, and there was a horrendous opportunity for heterosexual as well as gay sex, because in San Francisco the women outnumbered the men and so many men were gay. At least that was what seemed to be the case.
Conard itself is an old Victorian house that survived the 1903 San Francisco earthquake. It had been a hotel for world travelers. It is so interesting that the electrical outlets were still capped by a steel cover because they back in 1903 believed that electricity would “leak” the same way that natural gas would leak. It consisted of three floors and a basement. As far as the patients were concerned, the third-floor kitchen was the “intelligentsia” of Conard. It was here when Maria the well-bosomed woman of Greek descent asked me whether I liked Chinese girls or American. I said I didn’t know. I was that naïve. I said I didn’t know and that was one reason why I was at Conard. She had a different motive though. She was deciding between me or Ben. Ben is younger than Maria but he was the loud type and his father was some kind of military big shot. The only time Ben showed any deference to anyone was when I was demonstrating my martial arts kick in the house’s main living room. He said, “I wouldn’t want to walk into that.” So, Maria and Ben became a couple and rode around on his motorcycle. Yes, people pair off and change partners once in a while. My turn will eventually come with Loraine.
I don’t want the reader think that all this is amounts to no more than sex and suicides. But since most of the people at Conard are from their twenties to their forties, with most of the in their late twenties, and mental illness was quite new and in most ways unexpected, some, like me, thought it was just an inconvenient stage of life, like the acne stage of their late teens. And the management at Conard had “great expectations” of us [you know, that is the only thing about Charles Dickens that I could ever empathize with]. I found out that I could go to Cogswell College on a CETA scholarship and so I went there and majored in Safety Engineering. One of the courses was industrial chemistry, and we learned about the many ways to put out chemical and electrical fires. We even make plastic. But let me tell you, having a mentally ill guy in the chem lab was taking a chance. I could have easily dump some acid into another container of acid and have it splatter on everyone’s flesh. I almost did that. All my classmates ignored me until the teacher said that “one student” made a super improvement from the first exam grade to the second, and by then, valences and orbitals were above everyone’s head, and so they all wanted me to have a cram session for the final. This kind of utilitarian friendship I did without.