Mental Instability: on the T

Here is an attempt at writing something short on my blog, in one sitting, and posting it immediately.

The seriously mentally ill are all around us, more so since states closed their mental institutions. My encounters with crazy people have almost all been on the Boston area’s transportation system: the T.

Let’s get two things out of the way. First, I know that “crazy,” “lunatic,” and even “mad,” are seen by some as pejorative. I appreciate knowing that. To me they’re descriptive. Second, read Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, by Peter Earley. What a sobering book.  It’s a biographical account of Reporter Earley’s son’s mental illness. Simultaneously, it’s an overview, with vivid examples, of how America’s institutions are unprepared for, and overwhelmed by, the needs of people with mental illnesses.

I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to say that cell phones were the best invention ever made for crazy people. For years, it was easy to identify who was “talking to himself,” on the T or the street. Now, I assume it’s someone have a telephone conversation, until the half I can hear gets louder, visibly stressed, or just sounds odd. Those having quiet conversations with their voices disappear neatly into the crowd, unless there isn’t a crowd, or they also smell bad. Unfortunately, many severely mentally ill people are homeless, and many homeless are seriously mentally ill.

If someone’s having a quiet conversation, that’s fine by me, even if she smells bad. Sometimes I listen in; I try to get a glimpse into their world. Sometimes, they’re just rambling through a drunken stupor. Often, it’s not particularly interesting.

Today was different.

Through the fenceI got onto the Orange Line at North Station, headed for Malden Center. There were plenty of seats since all the commuter traffic was inbound to Boston. I looked at The Metro’s crossword puzzle, even though I didn’t have a pencil. By the first stop, Community College, I’d identified someone as talking to himself, not on the phone. He was speaking softly, then loudly. As always, to be safe, I took a quick look to see where he was and if he seemed dangerous. He was near the door, 5 seats away. Maybe he saw me check him out. For whatever reason, he moved to the other side of me, next to the front of that train car. No problem. He was just talking. I kept trying to figure out the crossword clues.

Then, what he was saying got interesting, so I tuned in. He was talking about being a Vietnam Vet. As a student of history, what he said rang true. At first. Here is an approximation of what he said. Unfortunately, I don’t remember enough specifics about his experience as a Vet.

“When I got home, that guy spit on me. He spit on me. He shouldn’t have done that. He shouldn’t have spit on me. He owed me. He owed all of us, all of my buddies who died there . . . What was I supposed to do when I got back here? I was a trained assassin. I knew how to kill, in cold blood. What kind of job could I get? What kind of job could they give me to do? . . . He spit on me. I could have killed him right there. I should have killed all of them. The [N-words], the [so and so’s], all of them. I should have shown them. Right then” [Approximation of a much longer babble.]

As you might imagine, this was making me pretty uncomfortable, but I figured that moving down a few seats might trigger something. I didn’t feel in such danger that I should get off at Wellington, one stop before mine. Instead, I did something else I probably shouldn’t have done. I turned on my phone and started playing solitaire. Maybe it made him paranoid. “You know,” he said, not speaking to me,

 “I hate cops. I hate them all. Even those T cops. They can try to push me around, but I’m not going to take it. I don’t take it. I’ll kill ’em. . .” [Approximation of a much longer babble.]

Now I was getting worried. Perhaps sensing he’d crossed over the line, he got out of his seat and went to the other end of the car. I breathed a sigh of relief. As we approached Malden Center, I moved to the door and looked out the window. He was still talking. There were four of us on the train car. I glanced over at him and saw that he had reddish hair, was slim, and looked young. He’d said he was 65 years old. I took a longer look and realized his hair was dyed. I made a mental note that he was wearing a red polar fleece because I knew I should probably report him.

I didn’t want to “rat him out.” It seemed unlikely he was going to act on anything he’d said. On the other hand, if I told the conductor or the T police, things could turn violent. Having one of them approach him might set him off. By the same token, our car had been empty but at Oak Grove, the next stop, the train would turn around and collect more and more passengers on the way into the city. Someone was going to be disturbed enough to report him, and with more people on the train it could get uglier.

He looked at me. I got even more worried. He moved to the door closest to him. He was getting off at Malden Center, my stop. It was my turn to feel paranoid: he was getting off because I was getting off. The doors opened. I kept him in the corner of my eye and let someone go ahead of me. He got off the train. I waited. He walked down the platform to the door I was in, looked me in the eye and said “you’re not getting off here?”

“Nope,” I replied. Thankfully, the doors immediately closed.

I can't get thereI have no idea what was really going through his head. My story is that he saw me moving my fingers over my cell phone and thought I was texting the authorities about him. He saw me stand up early, before the station, and glance and then take a second look at him. He figured I was getting off so I could point him out to the cops. I didn’t get off, and that made him confused, so he spoke to me.

I wondered: would he stay at Malden Center, waiting for me to come back? Would he take the next train to Oak Grove to see if I was there? Was he actually disinterested in me and going about his business? Maybe he was completely sane? Uh. No. Even while being dismissive of my own paranoia, I couldn’t  chide myself for thinking he was mentally ill. He was definitely crazy, and probably off his meds.

The train came into Oak Grove. I was at the very front of the train, where I usually sit so I can go straight down the stairs. At Oak Grove, however, that meant I was furthest from stairs. I walked down the platform, looking for the T people I’d seen as the train had passed by. They must have been working on the train that had just left because they weren’t there anymore.

I couldn’t hold myself back any longer. I jogged down the platform until I came to the black box of plywood where there’s usually a T worker. As I jogged, I practiced what I would say. I imagined the response: someone would spring into action and make an immediate call to Malden Center.

Nope. No springing.

I told the conductor-type (not a police officer) that I normally wouldn’t report someone just acting crazy because they needed a place to be and a way to get around, just as I do, but that there’d been this guy and I didn’t feel safe and if I didn’t feel safe, others probably wouldn’t either. I warned him that he’d been talking about being a Vietnam Vet and an assassin, and about how much he hated the T police and that he had reddish hair and was wearing a red jacket. The conductor-type listened until I was completely done and calmly told me he’d call them over at Malden Center.

In terms of my civic duty, there wasn’t anything more for me to do. In terms of my sanity, though, I wasn’t quite done. More possibilities ran through my head, including: maybe he was actually going to take the next train to Oak Grove; maybe he was going to follow me rather than wait for me to go back. But he didn’t know that the walk home was only a little further from Oak Grove than it was from Malden Center and that I was going to walk. I kept a brisk pace and imagined that perhaps I would see him on the streets of Malden, in my own neighborhood.

Then, I gave myself a little talking to (inside my head, not aloud), and regained my own sanity. How lucky I am to live in my neighborhood, to be able to walk home from the T, to have a roof over my head, to live in relative sobriety. How lucky I am to be crazy but not Crazy. How lucky I am to not be seriously mentally ill. How lucky I am, in this country where there is a growing disparity between rich and poor, to have good health insurance and health care.

That poor guy. I hope he can get the help he needs. I hope he’s okay.

P.S. not edited, not proofread, not perfect, so there!

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Mental Instability: on the T by Kim Brookes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Permission to Use.