Crazy, and I’m sorry Joe

One month ago my neighbor Joe was murdered fifty feet up the street from my apartment.

Joe lived two houses away.  He was 58-years old.  Joe liked to smoke cigarettes as he leaned against the fence in the back alley.  He had two dogs, Rusty and Jake.  Joe had a thick gray mustache and a long pony-tail, and he dressed in dirty, worn clothes that made him look like a haggard Vietnam-veteran.  Joe suffered from schizophrenia.  He took his medications regularly and seemed to me like a spaced-out, fairly weird but generally good-hearted guy.

My apartment overlooks the alley that runs behind my and Joe’s buildings, and often in the mornings as I sipped my coffee I would open my window and yell Hello out to Joe and the dogs.  One of my favorite things was to watch Joe yell Hell-low-ooo to the little girl who lives in the house between ours.  His voice was uncommonly loud and booming and would sing-song tonally as he worked through the greeting.  The little girl loved his Hell-low-ooo‘s and would squeal excitedly as she called back to him.  Joe liked to tell me that he knew the owner of my building.  He also liked to talk about his dogs.  I was never scared of Joe.

Joe was murdered a little after 10:30 in the morning.  A storm was beginning and snow was falling gently in thick cotton balls.  I was in my apartment when I heard girls’ voices screaming outside.  Moments later I heard sirens screaming as well.  I went outside and stood on the balcony: several fire trucks were already on the street and a steady flow of police cars was descending on the area.  Standing below me was a police officer brandishing a rifle.  I called down to him and asked what was going on.  He told me there had been an assault and that I should go back in my apartment.  Inside, I looked down on the alley and watched several more policemen walking stiffly about with rifles drawn, pointing to one another and talking into the radios pinned to their shoulders.

Joe was murdered by a 26-year old man named Michael.  Michael also suffers from schizophrenia, but unlike Joe he does not regularly take his medications.  Michael has been receiving treatment for his schizophrenia from an organization located a couple blocks away from my apartment.  Joe was receiving treatment from this organization as well.  Several years ago I worked for this same organization providing mental health therapy for children and adolescents.

Joe was on the streets that morning as the snow was falling softly returning from the local 7-11.  Joe went to 7-11 a minimum of two times per day for cigarettes and soda and chips.  According to the police report, Michael heard Joe say, “I gave your sister herpes without having it”.  Michael stated that Joe then slapped him in the face and challenged, “What are you going to do about that?”  The autopsy revealed that Michael hit Joe with a camping hatchet a minimum of ten times.  After he was finished Michael dropped the hatchet and tried to walk away down the alley, where he was quickly apprehended by the police.  His body was covered with Joe’s blood and brain-matter.  Michael, who has a history of domestic violence, later told detectives, “I don’t know what came over me becasue I never done murder you know.”

I do not believe that Joe ever said a word to Michael.

The girls I heard screaming were local high-school students who witnessed the entire murder.  They had been sent home early from school due to the storm.

When I worked for the mental health organization at which Joe and Michael were receiving treatment, I worked directly with two adolescents who suffered from schizophrenia.  One of them was generally benign – he had a very low IQ, liked to smile a lot and often thought that he was the actor Adam Sandler.  Though occasionally he would become frustrated and overwhelmed, I was never scared of him.

In the mornings when I make coffee, I dump the grounds from the previous day into a separate container, which I then take down into the alley and compost.  That morning as I made coffee just before 10:30, I held the container of grounds in my hands and thought, It’s really cold outside, I don’t want to make a separate trip, I’ll take these down later.  Had I gone downstairs as is my custom I would have been on the streets at the same time as those girls. The same time as Michael and his hatchet.  The same time as Joe.

When I talk to people in the neighborhood about Joe’s death, nearly all of them eventually say, “It’s just crazy.”

The other schizophrenic I worked with through the clinic I will called Chris.  At the time, Chris was 16 and 17-years old.  He had been moved from foster home to foster home throughout his life.  Chris was a tall, scrawny white kid with greasy hair and bad acne.  Over time he came to identify himself with black hip-hop culture; he found something in the violence of the lyrics that resonated with him.  He was very religious and often heard Jesus talking to him.  When Chris heard Jesus talking to him it was very important to Chris.  As a quasi-joke I would sometimes tell him that Jesus didn’t want him to fight with his foster family any more.  Often as I was driving home after a session with him I would think, What’s going to happen when Chris hears Jesus tell him to shoot his teacher?

I was never afraid of Chris when I was in-person with him.  I have always been scared of what Chris will someday do.

There is no explanation for Joe’s murder. Like my neighbors said, the only way to make sense of this situation is to call it “crazy”.

I recently contacted a former co-worker who keeps in touch with Chris to ask about Chris’s situation.  Chris recently turned 23-years old and is currently in prison on multiple burglary counts.  His association with hip-hop culture has endured, and he seems to envision himself a rapper now.  His last update on his Facebook wall reads, “MAN IF YOU CANT EXCEPT REALITY AND WHAT IT REALY IS THERE IS NO POINT IN THE EXISTANCE OF MAN THE WORLD IS A CREWL PLACE AND GIVES AND TAKES EVERYTHING IT CAN SHATTER YOUR DREAMS THAT IS ALL I HAVE TO SAY”

Crazy is what we say when confronted with the inexplicable.  But Crazy is not a sufficient category of explanation.  Crazy is the anti-category.   Crazy is the inherent potential to overturn everything we think we know, and it is a potential that lies within us all.  Saying that Michael killed Joe because Michael is crazy does not explain anything.  It is a descriptive effort that is at best feeble, and at its core, quivering and brittle.

The main reason I quit the mental health clinic was because when I looked at kids like Chris, I knew, in some deep, inexplicable way where their lives were headed.  Most often it was not a good vision.  This should not be read as some over-the-shoulder, I-told-you-so self-shielding—despite appearances, at heart I am not a cynical man.  But I am also not a blind man. After working with Chris and others like him I came to believe that their paths were firmly set long before I ever met them.  The combination of chemistry and environment, of society and economy, of history and blood, would always win out over the one or two hours I spent each week with them. It’s not that what I and my co-workers did failed to have an impact; rather, the impact would never amount to much more than standing on the shore yelling at the ocean to stop encroaching.  There were simply other forces too strong at movement.

Seeing in a child’s bruised face the outlines of an adult who will one day beat others was enough to drive me crazy.  For better or worse I never lost it completely; instead, I took the anger and sadness and shame I felt out my liver.  Eventually I quit. To this day I think about the kids I worked with—all of them were, in all sorts of ways, beautiful.  I loved many of them, several more than others.  Most of the ones I loved most always scared me in some way, and without negating what I just wrote, I fear that the people I imagine many of them have and will become would sicken me.

Sometimes I imagine all our human systems of explanation – our sciences and technologies and philosophies and so on – as a cart or carriage we have created to carry us across the rough terrain of the world we’re confronted with. “Crazy” is the lynch-pin that connects the axle to the cart, and once it is released all our systems and explanations go clattering off and we’re right back in the shit again.

There is no explanation for Joe’s murder.  For all of his quirks he was a kind man.  He deserved better.

I am sad to write this, but I believe Chris’s path will only continue downward.  To those who might question my predictive abilities, I will openly admit to hoping to be wrong.  And to be clear, because some kind heart out there will pleadingly think it: Yes, I do believe in redemption—or if not redemption than at least the capacity to change and improve—but, and this but’s a big one—if you’re a poor, stupid, clinically sick white kid trying to be black, a kid who never received love from the people who made you, a kid who can scarcely fumble through a multiplication table and who can barely afford a hair-cut, I’d say your chances of qualifying are pretty slim.

When I think about Michael who murdered Joe, all I can see is a very lost, confused, sick man.  Like all the rest he too deserves better.

But theres’ the rub—with Crazy you don’t get better.  You get only what you can knuckle-forth from the shit-stained facts.  And in this case, all I can get a grip on is crazy.

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