May 30, 2006

The Last Letter From Lem

Filed under: Letters From Lem — Twin A @ 10:22 pm


“In the late 70’s and early 80’s the Lower East Side
was a war zone, and I lay on my back in an empty
building with cockroaches crawling over my chest. I
made love to two women in that building, but there was
a third that I wanted more than any, and her name was
Mercury.” Harry Lomax laughed. “You know Mercury,
right? With the wings on the helmet?” I nodded
hesitantly, afraid that he was going to eat my head.
“Ha ha,” he cackled. “I know you know her.”

Red and I sat at the back of the day room, stupefied.
Harry sat back and started mumbling to himself. I
then came up with an excuse to slip by him (something
about cups and snacks) and Red followed. On the way
out, he whispered something to Red. “What was that?”
I asked. “He asked me if you were my husband or my
brother. I told him you were my friend.”

I have to admit, I felt a certain protective fraternal
feeling towards Red, but she’s the kind of girl who
can look out for herself. And after a day where we
had seen Harry Lomax try to leave 20 East by throwing
himself with full force upon one of the grated windows
in the day room, we felt like the Bobsey Twins getting
past him while he was still lucid.

Now we’re both out, Todd. We left at the same time
today, Tuesday 11 a.m. I walked across the yellow
line that patients may not cross, but somehow I feel
like I’m still there. Tonight I am haunted by the
people that still sleep on those shitty little beds,
cursed by a Republican government to live out the rest
of their lives in a contracting welfare system where
the bottom rung is the mentally ill, and the lowest of
the low are the mentally ill substance abusers.

I ended up there because I had a nervous breakdown and
threw myself out a window while high on a couple
things. Those things go on your record, and that
determines where you stay if and when you go to a
psych ward. I went to a dual-diagnosis locked unit–
that is, a unit you can’t leave for at least a week
for mentally ill substance abusers.

I voluntarily committed myself, which cut my stay down
to two weeks. That, and the fact that I played it
cool as ice while I was in there, going with the flow,
telling the doctors no, no, and no in as calm a voice
I could muster, while inside I wanted to go all Girl

That’s the name Red and I gave to the little
20-year-old who freaked out and kicked the walls and
screamed one night when they dragged her in, screamed
and screamed until they put her down with a five-foot
needle. Turns out she was a junkie but that didn’t
console me any.

Anyhow, I’m still in 20 East, thinking about how my
skin color and my social class got me out of that
sooner than my fellow inmates. Let me tell you who
I’m thinking about tonight:

Samuel Baptista, who played the best game of checkers
I had ever seen until I saw him get beaten by a West
African staffer,

Austin, the young guy who tagged along with Shakeer
and talked about how he was going prescribe ‘gnac and
sex all night to all the patients (the ultimate cure
in my opinion),

Vivian, who cleaned up after everyone and taught me
how to play spades,

Nasheeda, or Yvette, who is HIV-positive but still
talked about how she wants some dick loudly, while I
was finishing The Arabian Nights (thanks Twin B),

James, who had been in and out of the system since ‘95
and kept creeping up behind Red and telling her she
smelled good,

Ed Michaels, a vagrant from Detroit who ended up here
because his feet hurt and he wanted to rest in the

Ray, an old bruiser of a man who reminded me of one of
my mother’s lumberjack uncles,

Phil, another well-off suicide (slit wrists for him),

Peter, who claimed he was there by accident and was
ALMOST totally convincing,

Denise, who had a strange lump in her belly but wasn’t
pregnant or cancerous,

Anthony, who walked around like a zombie,

LaFawn, who rapped poorly, had a lazy eye and stuck
his finger in my belly button and asked Red about hers
(turns out he’s a bisexual fetishist),

Miguel, the only sane person left after Red and I
left– the sweetest, most gentle-hearted man you could
meet– full of self-loathing and convinced he was
going to die an alcoholic.

For all of these people, trapped in a downward spiral
in a system that offers no help, I say a prayer
tonight. Because prayer is what you do when you have
no other options left.

Please, God, Universe, whatever– have mercy on them.
Get them through the endless cycle of days and nights
where you are constantly medicated and prodded and
bored and you forget what day of the month it is. And
you snap and then you stay there.

Like I almost did. Tonight, I’m still there. I half
expect that this apartment, which I have been gazing
at from a distance for two weeks, will melt away
during the night and I will be back in that white room
with Felix Felix, plotting how to hoard snacks for the
day. That’s the kind of thing that happens in The
Arabian Nights, you know.

White boy, interrupted,


1 Comment »

  1. Welcome back to the outside, Lem.
    General consensus among those of us who’ve had some experience with the “mental health” system in this country is that the best part is realizing how not crazy you are. Or, more to the point, how crazy everyone actually is, and how the only thing keeping us on this side is fguring out how best to appear sane.
    This may seem like an odd thing to say - but I’ve enjoyed reading your letters.
    The fact that you could maintian your focus & lucidity in that situation is a testament to both your intelligence and your strength of will.
    I don’t know you well…but I suspect you’ll be fine.

    Comment by Erin — May 31, 2006 @ 2:51 pm

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