from June 9, 2012
I can’t remember the quick way out of town anymore, and while we were stuck in traffic on North Capitol Street this morning, we saw this man standing at the entrance to this building, which is listed as the address of the Ida Mae Campbell Wellness & Resource Center. From behind the man looked like he was perhaps a businessman or even a doctor, but as we waited in traffic he remained at the door, and after a moment I could see that he was staring at a sign above the doorknob. When he turned around briefly, I could see he had a totally blank expression on his face, the look of someone who is far beyond just being lost. Then he turned back around to stare at the sign.
The DC Department of Mental Health lists The Ida Mae Campbell center as a resource, but this building has also recently been listed as on the market, so it may be that the wellness center no longer operates in this building. This reminds me of when I was in high school and worked in a church rectory which in the evening was a place where homeless men and women could see a social worker from the local St. Vincent dePaul Society. On occasion the social worker wouldn’t show up, and I’d have a waiting room full of homeless and mostly mentally ill people needing assistance. Since the priests weren’t to be bothered with this task, I had to talk to them and tell them there was no one there to help. I didn’t like having to tell them there was no one there to help, but as for time I spent talking to them, that was one of greatest educational experiences of my life. Because it was then that I realized that, hidden within the gibberish, the hallucinations, the paranoia, and all the other things so far removed from reality were some great truths and observations about the world.
This is not, mind you, that romantic view of madness as a thing that frees the mind to see things that the sane mind neglects. What’s often missed with this view is that madness takes a lot of work. These men and women had no homes and no jobs, but no one can tell me they weren’t working. With all the things they had going through their minds—the enormity of which I got a sense of from talking to them and which I know of somewhat through my own relatively minor issues—no one can tell me that what they go through isn’t hard labor.
And just as great wisdom can be found in a book five hundred pages long, you can also find it in that brief snippet of clarity from a man who’s so far gone he can barely stand still without his eyes going wild over everything that surrounds him, from a woman who can say everything that needs to be said in response to the question “How are you?” with a simple “I sell flowers on the street.” Just like the five hundred page book, it took a lot of work and a lot of years to be able to say “I sell flowers on the street.”
Photograph by Jose Padua