Straw Hat for a Madman

RoyalandMainThis clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks
– Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

When we first moved here I’d see him walking all over the place—downtown on Main Street; by the abandoned houses at South and Osage that look like the wind should knock them over any day now; on Royal Avenue where it climbs the sort of hill you see in San Francisco (only you know this sure as hell ain’t San Francisco) then curves toward the Texaco station on 14th Street.

He was probably somewhere in his 60s and he walked with a cane and always seemed to be wearing an old, beat-up straw hat. He looked like he’d stepped out of some Norman Rockwell painting and then been given way too much to drink before being left out in the sun for about forty years. But what was most notable about him was that he regularly had these outbursts where he’d scream—scream at cars, scream at people, scream at storefront windows as he waved his cane in the air. I saw him nearly every day for the first few months we were here, and all that time I never saw him actually speak to anyone—it was always just these outbursts, and the silent walking in between.

Then once, I saw him approaching on our street as I stepped out of the car after coming home from dropping Maggie off at school. I looked toward him and nodded, saying “Hi.” And, like anyone else, he nodded back and said hello. Then he walked a few paces and had one of his outbursts again as he let out a scream and shook his fist like a man who, once again, had lost control.

I could sympathize with him. Having Tourette Syndrome, I may, at times, look a little bit out of control. Sometimes, of course, I am. But when I lose control it’s just my thoughts running wild and free—or sometimes getting stuck like a car with its rear wheels in the mud—and has nothing to do with any strange movements Tourette Syndrome compels me to make.

Running into someone with an affliction similar to mine, whatever that affliction is—and I have no idea exactly what the man in the straw hat suffers from; it may be Tourette’s or it may be some other pain in the ass disease—can be refreshing. The last time I regularly saw someone with a similar condition was when I lived in New York’s East Village in the 90s.

Davy worked in my landlord’s flower shop on the first floor of the building I lived in on Avenue B. He was a nice guy who had this West Side Story sort of look with greased wavy hair and a plain white tee shirt. A lot of times when I brought down my rent check, he’d be the one there.

“Well,” he’d say, and then nod. “Thank you.” His voice was deep and he spoke slowly. “I’ll give this. To Bob. So he can put it. On the books.”

Davy always looked a little bit out of it, and it was obvious that the reason he had this job was because he was my landlord’s nephew. Still, if he was the only one around and I went down there because my bathtub wasn’t draining or, as happened one time, water was gushing out of an exposed pipe in my bathroom, he tried to be helpful.

One night, walking home from my job in midtown Manhattan, just as the sun was going down, I saw Davy walking on the other side of the street from me on 4th heading toward Avenue A. As he walked he’d stop, twist his body, grunt, then look up at the sky and scream. Then he’d walk on normally for a few more steps before contorting his body again and waving his arms in a fit of what was sometimes called “St. Vitus’s Dance.” When Davy was close, on the opposite side of the street, he saw me and gave me a look. It was one of those yeah, whatever sort of looks and we kept going our separate ways as if nothing new or unusual had been revealed.

Again, I don’t know exactly what condition Davy had, but I knew then that he was one of my people. And one of the things that people like us seem to have in common is that we don’t like to explain it. I could, for example, explain to someone who’s looking at me, concerned, perhaps, or even frightened, that “it’s not a dance, it’s a disease.” But I’m not one to spoil a decent mystery like that. Besides, it’s not like I owe anyone an explanation for what I am.

Of course, I don’t have it that bad—certainly not to the degree where I’m shouting obscenities all the time (when I curse someone out, it’s not a disease speaking, it’s me, expressing my feelings). Most of the time I can control the odd tics and random grunts and the only place I really let loose with it is when I’m home, inside the house. Maggie learned long ago that “Daddy’s noisy.”

Another place where it’s sometimes hard for me to control it is at the movies. And at the Royal Cinema here on Main Street one time, some people moved away from me, Maggie and Heather during a late afternoon showing of Mamma Mia! But it wasn’t because of any noise I was making—it was because Maggie was singing along softly with the songs as she watched them being performed on the screen. There was no way either of us was going to tell her to keep it down, because how—and why—would you try to control that kind of exuberance? If you find it disturbing, then move away. Likewise, if you find the odd movements and random noises I make strange or unpleasant, you can take a walk, too.

I don’t see the man with the straw hat much anymore. Maybe he’s on meds now, the kind that knock you out and make the real world a total stranger to you. Maybe something happened to him. Or, maybe he moved—to New York where he can add to the noise Davy makes and where no one will think twice about it.

Me, I’m still here and I’ll be here for a while, roaming the streets sometimes. And, in these days when unfounded fear and paranoia seem to be on the rise, I’ll be trying to walk like a normal person.

-Jose Padua

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2 responses to “Straw Hat for a Madman

  1. Oh man! That is a guy named Henry. A really sad story, he was a postal worker for years, retired and then moved into his Mom’s house to take care of her. I believe he had a series of strokes which atrophied part of his brain and viola! Dementia. His Mom died and then his brother declared him unfit, sold the house and kicked his brother, Henry out on the street. For awhile Henry would hang out at the Handy Mart (where I ran into him) and sleep in a shed behind the firehall. Finally, the firemen found him a spot in a “home”. Occasionally he still turns up but I haven’t seen him in a while.
    I did have a “conversation” with him one night that made me feel like I was on an acid trip. It went like this:
    Me: Hello
    Henry: the mooooon and the stars <mumble mumble)
    Me: The moon, oh yes, it is spectacular tonight.
    Henry: mumble mumble DAMMIT mumble mumble
    Me: Have a good night! Love the hat.

    Henry just smiled.

    • shenandoahbreakdown

      Wow, I figured that someone must know him. Let’s hope he’s doing OK in his home–though the streets ARE a little less interesting without him walking around. Anyway, thanks for the info, Molly. And here’s to Henry!

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