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There was a time in his life when he just a regular normal kid. Or maybe not. But he is pretty sure there was at least a short period of time but maybe not. He still gets confused at times. Still, he was more normal than he is today, of this he is certain. But who decides who and what is normal he asks? From his experience it’s usually the ones those who claim they are so normal who are the most fucked up. He has seen it all of his life. More than most anyone else could ever handle and not want to kill themselves. Jeffrey knows normal and abnormal. Not to say anyone he was ever related to was normal, at least not the socially acceptable version of normal.
To talk to Jeffrey one does not get the impression of an uneducated man. Though his physical appearance may contradict the man. He carries over three hundred pounds on his roughly five feet, ten inch frame. By most standards he is obese. Partly a result of the medication he takes for his disease, partly the starch heavy diet he regularly eats because starchy, fatty foods are what soup kitchens serve and it is what he can afford on his government disability checks. For this reason he walks with a cane at the young age of forty-seven years old. His disability checks afford him his rent for a one room studio with a private bathroom and his medications. They don’t leave him room for much else. He gets what he can from his brother and mother or does without. His studio room in the run down Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) is decorated in a dizzying array of his futuristic, artistic drawings, cut out ads from newspapers and magazines and healthy living articles given to him by his doctors. Looking over the walls you run into the occasional legibly hand written notes and schizophrenic writings taped to the wall. A smiling picture of Jeffrey and his mother at the Taste of Chicago festival is taped on his door. Next to his bed is a new mini refrigerator his brother bought him when his last broke down. Inside are neatly packed food products and a variety of medication for everything from diabetes and high blood pressure to gout. In front of his bed is a medicine chest where he keeps health items, cosmetics and a Rosary given him by his mother hanging from the open cabinet. On the sink is an open can of chicken broth he sips from. He is neat and clean and organized. He says the roaches only come out at night. Still, I spy one scurrying across up the wall out of the corner of my eye. He regularly attends the mental health clinic where he receives his schizophrenia medication, utilizes the computer room and socializes with others like himself. He does not want his own computer or cell phone as he says the radio waves interfere with his brain waves.
He dresses in a disheveled manner with a soiled tee shirt, clean sweatpants likely more out of comfortably than anything else. The thick lenses of his glasses are surrounded by wide oval frames. His hair is long and well dressed and his face young. To passerby he may appear to be a hapless, hopeless less fortunate. Though most, likely just don’t even notice him as they pass by on the street like so many other of his peers. Those lost in the cracks of society. The people we try not to think about lest we have to feel guilty or God forbid actually realize how truly grateful we should be. At first appearance some may even mistake him for a mentally incompetent miscreant. On the contrary, he is highly intelligent, educated and extremely articulate. Except for sleeping in the park he has never broken a law in his life.
Jeffrey Allen is just another guy on the street who used to be homeless and now is not. Except he isn’t the stereotypical former homeless guy begging for change or dumpster diving. Nor was he ever the stereotype when he was living on the streets of Chicago. He isn’t a drunk, a drug addict, a criminal or a serial degenerate bum and lazy slob. He’s just not any of those things the average person associates with those living on the street or in dilapidated rooming houses. Jeffrey is mentally ill and has been since age eighteen and very likely long before during his childhood. He was diagnosed as a Paranoid Schizophrenic early on in college. He comes from a long line of family members with any number of addiction issues and mental illness problems. The sad part is, where most all of them contributed in some fashion or other to their own demise Jeffrey did nothing to contribute to his. It was just bad luck of the draw. Sometimes in life all we can do is play the cards we were dealt. Jeffrey has played his the best he knows how and as well and better than any professional gambler could have ever in his situation. To be in his shoes one has to have some street savvy and be able to think on his feet.
He had a promising college career in musical theater and dance at Northern Illinois University when his world came crashing down around him. Just when he thought he had it all, it all slipped away. A seemingly recurring theme throughout his life. The night he checked out mentally he was working a mid-shift at the local Jewel Foods Store. He can’t recall much except one minute he was busy re-stocking merchandise in an isle and the next he was walking down interstate I-88 headed for Chicago in the middle of the night. Somehow, he successfully completed the almost eighty mile trek from rural Dekalb Illinois to Chicago. He appeared unannounced late the next day at the home childhood family friends. The way he recalls it is this family were the only ones he could think of in his mind as if they and their home were a beacon in the night calling out to him. From that illness defining moment on Jeffery would bounce around from place to place, street to street, alleyway to alleyway, cheap slum rooming house to the next for much of the next several months and ultimately years.
At the beginning for a period of time there was nowhere or no one he could turn to. His mother who surely loved him dearly was herself homeless and moving from place to place. She did whatever she could for him. His older brother at nineteen years old was already in prison two years when Jeffrey’s mind snapped. His father struggled with his own alcoholism and addictions issues and was generally unavailable in any real sense. It would be his older sister who with a young child of her own and recently married to her second husband who would open her doors and take him in until he would ultimately leave again. She had taken him in before. When his brother had gone away to prison his family life or what little there was of one fell apart when his mother finally lost their home something long overdue. Knowing their mother was in no position to raise him she decided to take him or fight for him in court. It was easier for all concerned for her to take him. She insists if ever there were two people who should not have had children it was her mother and stepfather who are her brother’s blood father, her birth father having died when she was four. His father winces uncomfortably when he recounts the time he drove Jeffreyto his college entrance interview. He sat in the room with him as he was interviewed by a university guidance counselor who asked Jeffrey why they should accept him as a student. He replied, “My brother is in prison, my mother is mentally ill and almost a bag lady and my father is a barely recovering alcoholic and drug addict. My sister is the one doing best out of us all and she’s an unwed mother trying to make it day to day. If you don’t accept me I’m screwed because I have nowhere else to go.” Things went well for the next several months until the other shoe dropped. Eventually after a few psych hospital stays he was diagnosed with an organic schizophrenia. Organic being it was inevitable, genetic and unavoidable. It was in him the day he was born like a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode and poison his mind.
In more lucid times he used to ask himself why it was him who had to be sick? What did he do to deserve such a hopeless fate? Then after years of bouts which often left him homeless and sleeping in parks and streets he received the help he needed and began to understand his disease. Thought it did not make it any better it was easier to handle when he finally understood it. Where many suffer it schizophrenia in milder versions Jeffery would not have such luck. No, his would be extreme and likely just worsen or at very least relegate him to a life of government assistance and medication.
Government assistance was nothing new to him, he grew up on steady diet of food stamps, church food boxes and public aid. The highlight of his young school life was the free lunch cards he and his older brother got. Whereas his brother played in gangs and hung out on the streets rarely even entering the school building, Jeffrey was a straight A student who did all the right things and had a talent for drawing, painting and dancing. He once received an offer from a prestigious New York City art school to attend a summer camp but could not attend as his mother just could not afford to put food on the table much less send him off to New York City. There just wasn’t enough. It seemed there was just never enough of anything at home. Electricity, telephones and other basic utilities were hit or miss as was food and any of life’s extras.
He doesn’t recall much happiness in his childhood. When asked by his counselor to recount to her a happy childhood memory he scrunches his face obscenely, shrugs his shoulders and says with all the candor he can muster, he has none. No, there are none. His older brother’s childhood memories seem to reflect the same feeling. When asked an opinion on Jeffrey’s response his reply is only, “I guess it’s like the kid told you”, he avoids the question any further. Jeffrey’s recollection of childhood was drinking, violence, uncles in and out of prison and his father usually beating up his mother or anyone else within his reach. “That was just how it was” is all he can say to. “Not everyone gets to live the ‘Father Knows Best’ life. But I used to watch it on television with my brother as a kid. We could never figure out if people really lived like that. We know we didn’t. We’d watch that and the ‘Creatures Features’ black and whites. We would hide with each other under the blankets in case the Wolf man or Dracula came to get us. We always felt like someone was coming to get us.” Then he launches into an incoherent volley of gibberish before he comes back down to reality. The movie ‘The Fisher King’ comes to mind when talking to Jeffrey. Some would think his childhood contributed greatly to his disease but his doctors say it was simply inevitable.
His mother is a kindly but tough lady with eyes which dart around the room seemingly in search of potential danger or unwanted advances. She by all accounts had a tough life. She is not a hugger or “I love you” type of mom. Yet there is no doubt she loves her children in the best way she knows how. She is more apt to shake your hand and tell you be careful. Her life is in a constant state of recession or just trying to make it. But she concedes, this is the best time of their lives. She and her two sons seem to be together more often than ever before. As much as possible. She and her daughter have probably spoken two or three times in twenty years and have been in the same room as many times in those years. Bad feelings and memories run deep. Yet she loves her as much she says. She loves all of her children the same. She shrugs not unlike Jeffrey does and says, “You do what can and hope for the best. It’s a rough life sometimes. My kids had a rough life and I made a lot of mistakes but you can’t change the past just move on. You have to rely on God and the church. They’ll never let you down. But we’re better now than we’ve ever been.”
It seems everybody in the neighborhood knows Jeffrey from the Chuck the waiter at the local Chinese restaurant to Yango the owner of the Greek hot dog stand down the street. He is likable and friendly and knows how to circumvent the often dangerous streets of his neighborhood. He is well aware of when not to walk the streets. He is street savvy as one gets.
Jeffrey gets down now and then. He is not afraid to voice his discontent and anger when he does have it yet it is rare when he does. Yet most times he is happy and in a good mood especially when he gets together with his mother and brother for lunch or dinner. Its a few moments away from the monotony of his life. He accepts his fate and says, “This is my life. Sleep late, be bored most of the day and take walks around the neighborhood.” He shrugs, “That’s the life of the mentally ill.”
(To be continued)