Faces from the Edges: John Brown

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The first day I got my camera back in New York (after complaining nearly every day for more than two years, “I wish I had my Nikon”), I took hundreds of photos. This is my favorite photo of the entire day. This is John. He said I could take this. John is one of my favorite people along Lark Street. I listen to him walk by beneath my window every day, and on days when I don’t see or hear him, I worry.

John has schizophrenia, so is often misunderstood. He has his lucid moments, and some that are less so. Whatever state he is in, he never bothers anyone. It’s only that sometimes he talks quietly to himself, and other times he doesn’t. Sometimes he is connected to the outside world, and sometimes he seems to be lost in his own world. I say hello to him every time I see him, and sometimes he walks mutely by without seeming to recognize me, but other times he recognizes me, says hello back and we have friendly conversations. Yesterday, for instance. Yesterday was a good day for both of us, and we had a long chat in the warm spring sun.

When I first moved to Albany, John was sleeping on a park bench up on the corner of Madison and Lark, not bothering anyone. I used to walk by him often, and I felt so bad when I would see him trying to sleep on that hard and uncomfortable spot. I kept wanting to bring him a blanket and pillow, but I had few resources myself then, and I had no blankets or pillows to spare.

Then this shit head who lives nearby on Madison called in a bunch of complaints about John, for daring to be both mentally ill and homeless in public. I know this, because the shithead in question actually bragged about this to me once. So the city took away his bench and, for awhile, John would just sit on the ground where the bench had been before. I couldn’t believe anyone could be so cruel as to have taken glee in doing this to him, and I told this to the thoughtless jerk who had called in the complaints. Instead of having any shame about it, though, the shithead puffed up like an adder and expounded to me about how “the homeless people are wrecking this place” and how he felt he had the law on his side. I walked away in disgust, and refused to speak to him further. (On a related side note, I’m told that the shithead basically stole the house in which he lives from his girlfriend, who got it because her aunt died and left it to her. Shithead loaned her a small sum of money, in exchange for getting his name on the title as the owner of the house, and even after she repaid the money, he kept the house. Same shithead also once threw a tire iron at me, because I declined his help with a flat and told him I would rather take the car to a mechanic than have him touch it. So somebody sure does go around the neighborhood causing problems, but it isn’t John.)

A few months later, I was astonished to learn, from a neighbor in my building, that John had once lived in my apartment! He had gotten evicted right before I moved in, and I only got the place because John had been thrown out. Jesus, what guilt I felt then! I found out that all the bills and things that had been coming to my address with the wrong name on them were for him. That’s when I first learned his name, and this is how we became friends. I had been saying hello to him when I would see him, but we didn’t really interact otherwise. But after I found this out, I started collecting his mail for him, and that’s when we started talking. He loves my dog, and in fact helped me protect her once from a mean dog on the street.

I also found out, from the same neighbor who told me about John being evicted from my apartment, that John had not always been sick, but he had been in a wreck when he was a little kid, and his symptoms started showing up shortly after he got a head injury in that wreck. (While science argues about whether or not traumatic brain injuries can cause schizophrenia, people like John live with this syndrome all over the world.) So if you think he deserves to be treated as less than human because he has mental illness, please realize that you could be there pretty easily yourself.

Having been homeless myself once, I had a lot of empathy for John, and I couldn’t understand why he was left out there to fend for himself when he was so sick. Homelessness is hard enough for people who aren’t struggling with schizophrenia. What a survivor he must be! (Though, sadly, a lot of people with this condition wind up on the streets.) The weather started getting really cold, and I got really worried about him. I’d see him, shivering and cold, always outside. He started getting sicker and sicker, and I wondered why he wasn’t getting any help. Clearly, the system knew about him, as some of the bills and things I was getting were coming from hospitals and social workers. I started trying to enquire around, trying to figure out why he had been left to fend for himself on the streets. The best answer I could get from anyone was that he was out there because he didn’t jump through the right hoops to be able to stay in my apartment. Why was that his only choice – living independently with a mental health issue that would have floored anyone, or homelessness?! Why was he expected to navigate the ins and outs of paying rent and bills by himself in the first place? No one I spoke with had an answer. I’m not sure why this would have surprised me, given my own experience with the safety-net-that-isn’t. But I did find it just shocking.

One day, John disappeared from the streets and I got worried about him, so I started asking around again. I was told that he finally got housing again, after nearly freezing to death over the winter last year. When the weather warmed up again, I started seeing him again along Lark street. These days, he has decent clothing, and is clean and seems to be in better condition. He’s more lucid more often now, probably because the burden and stress of homelessness have been removed from him, so that he can heal. (Homelessness is hard, and can bring on mental illness in anyone. When someone is already struggling, it can put them right over an unreachable edge.)

It’s taken a long time to get to know John through the barriers that mental illness put between him and the world. But after two years here, I can finally say that we are friends. He’s a person worth knowing, and this is a wonderful guy. And it turns out, he is also awesomely photogenic! He hasn’t seen this photograph yet, but I told him how well it turned out. “Next time,” he said when I told him, “I’ll smile.”

 

 

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