“They say Caesar was born in a caul. Well, I was born in a Chevy, but it don’t seem like that count for nothin’. He get ‘Hail, Caesar!’ and all I ever get is ‘Hail no!'”
Thus began my association with Curtiss M. Jones, the self-styled Marquis de Carolina, drug dealer, man about town, “love machine,” and pimp extraordinaire. He once described himself to me as “da pimp de la pimp,” and while his “wordiage” (another of his terms) may have run slightly afoul of the style guide, he got full marks for originality, and his meaning, as always, was crystal clear.
Curtiss (“don’t forget that last S!”) was a sometime outpatient in the North Carolina V.A. Hospital I worked at one summer during my training days. He was a Vietnam vet who had suffered a ‘service-connected disability’ during his tour of duty. I still don’t really know whether his manic-depression (now gussied up as ‘bipolar disorder’) was really brought on by what he went through in Nam – he used to say it was, or it wasn’t, depending on his mood and how he felt about me at the moment – but the fact is, when he went away to serve his country, he had a 3.75 grade point average at his inner-city school (he once showed me the report cards, which he’d preserved carefully, like holy relics, in a sealed plastic bag), and was aiming for college, and when he came back, he was a changed man.
This may sound like a crackpot theory, so feel free to toss it out if it doesn’t make sense to you, but oftentimes, when people suffer from psychiatric conditions (bipolar, oppositional-defiant, Tourette’s, even ADHD) that temporarily hijack their ‘regular’ mind or behavior to a raw and more coarsened place, their day-to-day personalities eventually start drifting in the direction of their ‘altered’ states.
Maybe I can explain it this way: let’s say you’re an actor, a person who is normally quiet and unassuming, even reserved, and you win a role in a play, as a rowdy, roistering truck driver. You play this role over and over again, until finally, you find yourself beginning to incorporate aspects of this truck driver into your ‘civilian’ behavior. Your girlfriend says, “Did you just call me ‘Babe’?” Your friends say, “What’s with the Brooklyn accent?” You’re calling AT&T to discuss your bill, and you hear yourself shouting, “I wanna talk to your boss’ boss – now!” It’s not that you’re becoming someone else, really, it’s more that playing that role has pulled out of you parts of yourself that might otherwise have remained relatively dormant.
Well, I think this happens with state-shifting emotional conditions, too. Even if you’re normally a quiet guy, once you’ve stayed up all night long three days in a row, in a hypomanic state, calling everyone you know, yelling at them for hours on end about your plans to save the world – well, it changes you. Once you’ve ‘gone off’ and shouted at the school principal that she’s a “crazy, stupid bitch,” you change. Once you’ve punched out a co-worker because you thought he was listening to your thoughts – you change.
Yes, you revert to your regular self between episodes, but it’s never the same: there’s something lost, some innocence or inhibition, some buy-in to society’s norms, that can never be completely restored to mint condition – a certain figurative loss of virginity, that can never be put to rights again.
And this is what I think happened to Curtiss, during and then after Vietnam. In his hypomanic states, he ‘became’ a certain kind of character – loud, brash, flamboyant, maybe a caricature of people he had known and seen in the ghetto where he was raised – and he gradually became that persona, even in his normal state.
And once he became the Love Machine, The Marquis de Carolina, I think he stayed there because it gave him a kind of shield to put up against the pain of what he had lost: the bright young man on the way up and out of the ghetto, the sensitive, unsure man who had no concept of how to carry off who he really was, into adult life.
And beyond a certain point, it was too late to go back, too late to be that kid anymore, too late to do anything but go forward as the ‘new’ Curtiss, the pimp de la pimp.
We would talk in the little, threadbare office that I – as the punk kid trainee – was allowed to use. He would give me that pimp-ass jive, and I would try to turn things around in a more therapeutic direction. I usually failed. But I always liked him, and I think he at least got a kick out of me.
Well, one day, during free time in the big day room, while the other guys were watching TV, Curtiss grabbed a cup of coffee and came over to knock on my door while I was doing paperwork in my cubbyhole.
“Hey, little chief – what’s the haps?”
“Hey, Curtiss – nothin’ much. Pull up a chair.”
He folded his big, lanky frame down into one of the straight-back, utilitarian chairs that were ubiquitous at V.A. hospitals, and scooted it over to me. “Whatcha scrabblin’ down there, little chief?”
“Oh, just notes. Ideas.”
He cracked open his Zippo and fired up a Parliament. Being a Southern gentleman, of course he offered me one, too, knowing I’d refuse it – then took a deep drag on it and arranged his coffee and beanbag ashtray just so. (God, I miss people smoking, even though I never had the habit myself: there was a certain gentility, a languorous ritual to it all, a kind of ‘styling’ to how you lit up, how you held it, how – and when – you knocked off the ash, even how you stubbed it out, that we don’t have anymore, to our great loss, in my opinion.)
Well, anyway, as I say, once Curtiss ‘set up shop,’ we began. “So, exactly what’s the deal with y’all’s bein’ here, anyways?” (The “y’all” referring to me and my fellow trainee.)
“Oh, it’s just a chance to make a little money, and get some experience over the summer, between classes.”
(Flick of ash, another long draw) “So, what kind of classes you talkin’ ’bout? Figurin’-people-out classes, or how-to-talk-to-people classes, how-to-tell-people-they’re-crazy classes, or what?” He gave one of those wonderful Bill Russell cackles, if you happen to know who Bill Russell is, and if you don’t, you’ll just have to make do with Samuel L. Jackson.
“Well, so far there’s mostly a lot of learning about the history of psychology, a lot of memorizing old guys who were important, a lot of terminology, famous experiments – that kind of thing.”
“What for you need to know all that shit, little chief? That’s not even about crazy people.”
I nodded wearily. “You got that right. But you see, we’re trying to get Ph.D.’s, and a Ph.D. is a research degree: that means you got to know the history of psychology as the science of human behavior – not just all about crazy people.”
He nodded back, skeptically. “So when do the crazy folk come in?”
“Later – next year, after we pass this big test about all the stuff I just told you about.”
“Sh-ee-it, boss.” (Understand – in the South, ‘shit’ is a three-syllable word.) “You got to be kiddin’ me: you mean they put you through all that, before you can even get to the crazy people?” He coolly got a new Parliament going from the glowing end of the old one – like I say, a lost and most wonderful art.
“Yep, that’s what I’m saying.”
Curtiss shook his Afro back and forth sadly. “You got it baaaad, brother.” He thought for a moment. “So, y’all ain’t yet even learned how to be with crazy folk, have you?”
I smiled. “Well, technically, I guess you could say that – yeah. Officially, I’m just sort of faking it until I learn the real deal.” I took a swig of my Coke, and lowered my voice, confidentially. “Now, I’m counting on you to tell me when I fake bad, okay?”
He gave one of his rich, raspy, Parliament laughing-coughs. “Sh-ee-it, little chief – you fake good, for a white boy! Now, you take some of them staffs been around here for years, supposed to know all they is to know about crazy folks: god damn it to hell, they talk to you, it sound like a robot:
‘Hell-lo, Mis-ter Jones. Would you like to share with the group how you’re feel-ling to-day?’
We both laughed out loud at his spot-on impression of one of the very uptight staff psychologists.
Then he went on. “And here, you never even studied crazies, and you talk like a human bein’, and like I’m a human bein’.” He paused, thoughtfully. “Shit, little chief, all you been doing is studying, and after this, y’all just goin’ back for more studying.” He rubbed his chin. “You know what, I should set you up with one of my girls – show you some fun, show you what life really about. My treat – what you say?”
I could see he meant it – and meant it as a genuine gift. I was flattered. “No, Curtiss – that wouldn’t work. I’m married, you know.”
He cocked his head, frowning protectively. “She cute?”
I nodded, “Yeah – she cute, she real cute.”
He cocked his head again. “She white?”
I laughed, “Yeah – she’s Hungarian.”
His mouth flew open. “Son of a bee-yitch! I was with a Hungarian gal one night. Heard her on the phone with her Mama once: they talk crazy talk! Couldn’t make out a word of what she sayin’, and I know some Spanish, some Gook, even a little Frenchie.”
“Did you take French in school?” (Yes, my clumsy attempt to shift to a ‘therapy’ mode, but don’t judge me: I hadn’t studied crazies yet, you know!)
His eyes softened and turned thoughtful, as he fired up another Parly and toyed with his lighter. “Long time ago, chief. That was a looong time ago.”
“Like another lifetime, you mean?”
“Like another person’s lifetime, I mean.”
“It must be weird to feel that disconnected from your old life, and your old identity.”
He took another deep drag, contemplating the holes in the acoustic ceiling tiles like a sailor searching the stars for his bearings. “It used to. Now – I just . . .”
“I stay away.”
“You mean, from the memories? The way things used to be?”
“From the whole thing.” His right foot started beating fast time. “I got my girls, I got my V.A. check, I got this place, I got a place to live, I got every fuckin’ thing I need.” His voice was suddenly defiant, steely.
He was smoking fast now – hard, his zippered Italian boot pounding time on the dingy linoleum of my cubbyhole. I could feel his anger flare, and I knew he’d hit a wall – we’d hit a wall. I scrambled for a way to ‘reserve’ the emotional space we’d just shared, keep it safe and available for future reference, like those report cards in their plastic bag.
I watched him for signs, but his face was a mask now. And a shield like that can’t just be peeled back like Caesar’s caul.
He suddenly turned to me, that big, jive “Marquis de Carolina” smile pasted back on the mask, and said, “That’s it, alright, boy – we gotta get you laid, before you go on back to where you came from, and all that studyin’.” He pulled out his “little black book” and read, as he flipped the pages, licking his fingers studiously between flips. “Sophia? Naw – too black. Maria? No – too ugly. Carrie? Yeah – she the one for you, little chief. Smart, and pretty – and she likes to talk a lot, like you.”
He looked up at me. What we did before, what he let me see, was gone baby, gone. “What do you say to Carrie, boy?” My lack of enthusiasm pained him. “I am doo-in’ you a favor here, boy! You need some action, before they turn you into a sci-en-tiste, little chief.”
I felt sad. I felt like crying. I was only beginning to learn myself as an ‘instrument,’ learn myself as a young therapist: I had the capacity to feel other people’s feelings directly, especially if they didn’t want them. My body collected unwanted feelings like some people collect stray cats. Of course I didn’t know this then – I just felt sad, guessing that maybe it was because I had failed in helping him. He was right: I hadn’t yet studied being with ‘crazy folk,’ and had no idea, really, what to do even with my own ‘stuff.’ I was awash in his rejected emotions, and in my own confusion about what had just happened, with no way to right the foundering ship.
I must have been staring straight ahead like a dope as I felt all this, because suddenly I heard his voice saying, “Don’t feel bad, little chief. For a guy who ain’t studied crazy folks, you do good – real good. I just know, some day, you’re gonna be a big chief.” His eyes went to the ceiling again, his hands fishing his shirt pocket for his Parlies. He paused, licking his lips, then cleared his throat. “See – it’s, uh, it’s just that, for me, it’s too late, little chief. You got here too late, is all.”
I’m pretty sure I had tears in my eyes, and I think I heaved one of those stifled sighing-sob things, the kind that’s not crying, but not not, either. His eyes were glistening, too as he flicked them at me. And in that moment, we knew each other. I saw things in him that he didn’t want to know, and he saw things in me that I didn’t even know I had, yet. It was deep – something beyond patient-therapist, beyond black and white, beyond V.A. hospitals. An instant in time, but forever.
He turned to leave, the big smile back, and gave me a little half-salute. “Later, big chief; the Marquis, he got to go.”
I lifted my Coke in his direction. “Hail to the Marquis!”
I thought about the Marquis and me all the rest of that afternoon – the magic of it, the specialness of that one moment we’d had – and I wanted more. I knew I was gifted – to feel things, to know people, to see who they really were, but I also knew that my gifts were raw and undeveloped. I had a lot more work to do, to make that magic happen again and again, but moments like this made me want to hurry up so that I wouldn’t be “too late” the next time.
After work, I locked up and walked to the parking lot slowly, through the heat and humidity of the North Carolina summer. I got into my car and headed for the tunnel and home. On the way, I watched the people in the cars around me, looking ordinary and normal. But I knew better now. What were their secrets? What were their shields? Was I ever really going to be good enough to be a big chief?
As the rush-hour traffic came to a halt, my eyes fastened on the old, beat-up green car in front of me. It had that familiar ‘bow-tie’ logo on it, the letters spelling out ‘Chevrolet.’
I smiled, remembering the Marquis’ story about his birth, and thought to myself, sometimes even a beat-up old Chevy can be a pretty classy ride.
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.