a story by corlin.
“So what seems to be the problem.”
I am shut down by these words for they are so mundane so unexpectedly cliche that I can’t think. They are at the same moment, condescending and baneful, as if all I had to do was identify, to some certain precision, a symptom, a malady, and thus we could then begin, which also meant we would eventually conclude.
“I refuse to define myself symptomatically. If you want to help, how about we throw away the diagnostics, and get down to why my life sucks, and what can I reasonable expect you to do about it. I am not going to waste my time fitting my life into your concepts, nor subjecting myself to the judgments of some small collegiate mind.”
He is hesitant only a second, as he readjusts his estimate about my educational background. Moving some prop papers around his desk giving himself another few seconds to reestablish his cool. I am thinking that if this guy says something like “Tell me about yourself?” I am going to slowly get up and walk out of this office and just give up on the whole idea of ever asking for help again. Shit they will give anyone a license to work with drunks these days.
“Well I don’t have a clue why you are here, so yes let’s throw away all the diagnostics and figure out a way to make your life suck less. We could just go have a coffee and talk about why it is impossible to describe the inside of ones own head. Or how we can, as it has been said turn the therapist’s office into a “cell of revolution.”
Bang. He gets it in one. He says all this while pushing all the papers on his desk aside and looking at me making real eye contact. For a brief moment I can believe this guy cares, then I slip back into rich denial and warm cynicism. There is no way this young straight white suburban golf playing kid is ever going to grok some old hip iconoclastic Buddhist ex-dope-fiend, who wants nothing other than to be left alone. Yet who seems at the moment to be homeless and very hungry, and have a bit of trouble taking care of himself. The quote from James Hillman is almost enough for me to smile, but it took me three hours to walk here, and I am tired, and perhaps he is better at reading me than I am allowing. So I just nod coolly, and say.
“Well, the whole thing is just not working any more, I mean the story I tell myself about who I am and how I decide what to to next. None of it is clean anymore, nothing burns, I have abandoned passion for mediocrity. I am totally fucked. The world is totally fucked, and I am too tired to take up the fight anymore. The thing is we lost. The movie is over, and the good guys lost. Shit, damn right I feel pissed off, look around, when I guy like me can’t find a decent new novel to read, and the rest of the world has a cell phone glued to their head, or is fighting over a bit of useless sand, humanity has slowly been disemboweled by the corporate state, and …..”
I mumble on for another few minutes, then lean back into the sticky vinyl chair and just stair off into a space just left of this guy’s head. I am not going to go through the list again. Nobody can do anything about it anyway. I need to focus here. I need food and shelter. I am disgusted at myself for having to ask for food, or a couch to sleep on, or the fact that getting help from the state that I abhor, is so confusing that it drives me to panic. I used to be able to talk my way out of, or into anything. Now I fold up like an old man, at the slightest sign of any effort needed on my part, and damn this guy hasn’t turned off yet. His is just sitting there. He actually looks comfortable.
“OK, so I have to fill out this form here, so as to account for my time, but we don’t have to do that now.”
He hasn’t lost eye contact. Leaning slowly toward his desk, moving his hand vaguely over the papers now in a heap at his side.
“So you are pissed off and isolated. So what. You came here. What do you need? I get paid whether you talk or not. You got 40 more minutes of my undivided attention. Use it.” He is smiling just a bit, to take the edge off what might have seemed like a command.
Now usually at this point I tell stories, In 59 years of mindless self indulgence, I’ve got a bag full of great stories. They pass the time, liven me up in the telling. But I am so hungry, and this cheap chair is making my hemorrhoids ache. I am thinking that maybe he is not lying, that compassion is not a foreign word to him. Maybe he will just help without all the bullshit. Maybe this time. So I take the big risk. Getting my voice as calm and as flat as I can. I say.
“I am homeless, hungry, tired, and old. I abandoned my cat, Dexter Gordon, who is the only living thing I enjoyed being around. I need help. I panic when faced with the slightest bureaucracy, and I can’t take care of myself. I want whatever the fucking state will give me. But am unable to ask.”
I try and mask it, but saying this hurts and I crumple lower into myself. This breaks the longest human eye contact I have had in weeks.
Blissful silence. I am examining my shoes waiting. I feel like the young Duke in the novel Dune, being tested for his humanity, to flinch is to die, only a human can endure horrific pain and not react. I disassociate from the fear. I pay very close attention to my shoes.
Waiting is something I am very good at, years and years of waiting. Not doing. Just waiting. It is common among junkies, and Buddhist monks, and oddly for the same reasons. The longer he holds the silence, the better. As my heart rate slowly returns to normal, I bring my head up, and look over the top of the desk. He hasn’t moved. He is still and calm, and way to young to have figured this out on his own. He is not smiling, nor faking any other emotional response. His hands are loosely resting on the desk palms open about 8 inches apart and I focus on them. Now a good five minutes pass. Not so much time for me, but almost unbearable for most 30 year olds. I slowly take an audible breath, and suddenly want to smoke a cigarette.
“So do you get this?” I say, again trying for no affect. Flat.
“Yes, I think I do.” His voice is even and with a hint of relief that I spoke first absolving him of proving his inexperience at waiting.
“Can you help? I mean actually do something, besides all this sitting and telling stories to each other.”
Damn. My voice breaks for this last line. I was going to try and regain eye contact but now with a small shudder I realize I have given away to much, my voice has been driven by real hunger and loneliness and has reveled my desperation. This is the worst possible way to hustle, every instinct I have tells me that this much honesty and vulnerability is doomed. Even young women see right through this. Now I am truly fucked. My head refuses to move any further. I sink to the bottom.
There is a long pause.
“I think we can do some things right now, today…..”
He is struggling not to lose his cool detachment. Something not so small has shifted in him. I can hear in his voice both his youth, and a bit of ignominious anger that an older man is sitting across from him who has been completely ground down by life.
“I can call,…. or,… well we can just go and, ….. lets see if we can get some…..”
He is clearly at a loss now. He has remembered some bit of his past or some disquieting dream. A large crack has appeared in the mantel of his grounding beliefs.
“I am sure we can find….. ”
He is asking for eye contact. He is asking me to help him.
“Well maybe I…. could….”
I bring my head up and back, sitting a bit straighter in the chair and incite with a glance just above his head. “ Yes ….?” and with that our eyes regain contact. More silence begins. This is not the waiting silence of shame or disillusionment but more the silence of two old buddies sitting in a bar, or in a fishing boat. Not so much silence as nothing needful to say. We just relax into it. He is really not as young as I thought, and there is some rough history in the few lines on his face. This is not a contest. We are just looking, nothing personal.
“Yes …?” I prompt again, this time moving my hands for the first time, bringing them up onto the armrests, where he can see them. I try to say this one word upbeat, as if to answer some trivial question about the rain.
He shifts in his seat and with a visible little spasm has now found whatever it was he lost. He slowly starts to move his hands, as if feeling the texture of the wood desk for the first time. His eyes widen.
“OK, food, and shelter, and a library card, and maybe a bus-pass, and health insurance, and….”
He is moving again, his eyes break away from mine as he looks for a piece of paper and a pen.
“…and some clothing, and … no the shelter is no good, housing and…. no, first food, Are you hungry now? He has shifted into second gear and is on his way.
I am nodding and watching him move. I can see him clearly now. He has a working class side, a get-things-done side, he didn’t show before. We are creating a revolutionary cell. He is no longer helping me. We are just two guys fixing something that is broke, handing wrenches to each other. “Yes” I say again, “Food first.” and begin to come to life some myself.
“Ya know I’m hungry too”. He is doing some damage to a yellow legal pad, with a pen like a cutting torch. “How about lunch?” He is writing furiously now, making a plan, drawing a blueprint for my escape from mediocrity. He looks up for my assent, and then makes a jab at the phone. We have hit third gear. “Mary, I’m going to take an early lunch.” he throws into the speaker phone. “In fact I am taking the rest of the day off, and going to lunch!” He grins at me while saying this last and then stabs the phone off.
At this point I am along for the ride, I follow his cue, If there is a meal and even the possibility of hot running water in the future I am game for anything. I’ve got to be careful here. If I show too much neediness now this might all fall apart. What I’ve got to show is a willingness to be worked on, a friendly comrade in a plot to apply whatever energy he is now spewing like hot sparks from a grinding wheel.
He looks hard at me. I say “ya, let’s go” He looks again, as if for the first time. It is a look not born of role, or judgment, but of a shared task. It is a look I haven’t seen in 30 years. A determined, what side are you on, look. Whole decades of research go on between us, and I look right back. He rises out of his chair, and starts to do about fifteen things at once. I have brought nothing with me so I act my age and slowly get up and mosey toward the door, This gives him enough time to grab all the ingredients of our escape. Cell phone, coat, legal pad, and what few papers that would ever prove I was there. He is making quick and decisive moves, still throwing off hot orange sparks and we meet at the door. For just a second he looks over my shoulder at his office, igniting.
“ You know I could get into a lot of ….”
“Ya I know all about it.” I interrupt, “Why don’t we just ….”
“Ya, why don’t we just do this, He says. ”I really am hungry now”
He speaks this, in a sing song kind of way, as if it was something he has said every day for years. He rips open the door. Completely committed now.
We slow down only as we pass the front desk where Mary sits, the keeper of appointments, the soft spoken caregiver, who’s life work is the nurturing of all the lost souls that keep this center at the front lines of psychiatric patch-up work. We walk right past her without a glance or nod, but I do look down and shuffle a bit, just out of habit. The front room is a black hole of need, a thick marshy place of survival skills and the overly medicated. But we have the momentum to carry us through. He does not stop, despite his name being called behind him. Adding a touch of my spirit for all of this I step ahead and open the clinic doors, hitting them both with my palms banging them outward.
We grab asphalt and I need a smoke bad, as I fumble to light up, He slows down and then stops suddenly and says.
“My name is Paul.”
“Corlin” I say blowing smoke away from his face.
Old comrades now, we don’t even need to shake hands.
Sometime into my second big greasy hamburger, eating in silence across from Paul. I hear the sirens, and watch the engines race past.