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When everyone is insane, ‘Tis folly to be wise
(Paul Samuelson, 1970 Nobel economist rephrasing Thomas Grey)
If you can keep you head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you
(Rudyard Kipling: IF)
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
(William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
Talk to us before you judge us.
(quote from homeless person in People Like Us, Facts and Stories About the Homeless, Virginia Lee Siewert)
I wrote earlier about B-Not (Bruce Knot) “we had our share of strange folks in and out of the Sea Gull.” Alan Graham aka Captain Fathom and a flasher I call Trench Coat in Here I Am Washing Dishes were two examples I’ve already discussed.
It’s common to classify such people as mentally ill or “nuts.” However, Roy Porter in his excellent Madness: A Brief History, tells us that the distinguished psychiatrist Thomas Szasz alleges that “mental illness is not a disease, whose nature is being elucidated by science; it is rather a myth fabricated by psychiatrists for reasons of professional advancement and endorsed by society because it sanctions easy solutions for problem people. Over the centuries, he alleges, medical men and their supporters have been involved in a self-serving ‘manufacture of madness,’ by affixing psychiatric labels to people who are social pests, odd, or challenging.”
If Szasz is correct, we should be careful how we label and think about people who appear eccentric to us. This is not to minimize the threat that some clearly deranged people pose to society, people such as Leonard Lake, Charles Manson, Aaron Bassler and many others that have terrorized the Mendocino coast. But, not all the strange folks that passed through Mendocino fell into this category.
Read, for example, the wonderful story about Cat Lady by Eleanor Cooney. Nellie, or Cat Lady as she was more commonly called around Mendocino, often visited the Sea Gull. Living in her car with her cats contributed to her lack of personal hygiene, and I realized that I could not allow her inside the restaurant. We developed an understanding. She would open the front door and wait for the host or hostess to walk over and take her order. Then, she would wait outside until the order was prepared “to go” and delivered to her. I was often the one who made the delivery and I remember her lovely face and her laughter. Nellie was definitely a free spirit. I know she had a sense of humor as well. For lack of alternatives, she sometimes bathed in Big River. Once some kindergarteners on a field trip to Big River Beach witnessed Nellie with her leashed cat, holding her dress up at shoulder level totally au natural underneath marching along the beach. The teachers adroitly diverted the attention of the innocents and concluded the field trip a bit earlier than anticipated.
We all have a story to tell, especially those who are different from the ordinary. David Clayton, the famed architect and builder of the new Sea Gull, loved to leave unexpected surprises in the stud wall behind the finished paneling. He built a brick fireplace in my house, not because I wanted a brick fireplace but because we had several extra bricks available for free. Several years later when I could afford a tiled fireplace, I removed the bricks and in the framing behind I found the story of Mary MacClaren.
Mary MacLaren is holding a copy of a 1921 issue of Photoplay with her picture on the cover. She was a silent screen star then. In the article, she was 79 years old and living in Los Angeles. The authorities were seeking conservatorship of MacLaren, contending she lived in ‘submarginal’ conditions and could not provide for her basic needs.
I think David left that as a lasting lesson for me and I have it on the wall in our utility room where I see it every time I go outside.
Clearly none of us can imagine today what the future has in store for us. A musician who often played at the Sea Gull has a story, like so many other unfortunate stories, that should give us pause before we jump to conclusions about why some people live in the circumstances they do. For a time, Michael Equine played with the band Cat Mother and achieved a level of success seldom achieved by many musicians. But, over time his life changed. Money earned through hard work was stolen and the world changed around him. He moved to Mendocino and lived on the coast for thirty years. A few years ago he moved to Santa Rosa and is now living out of his car after selling his drums and his guitar, the last of his music possessions.
Shar and Rex were a down and out couple that roamed the streets of Mendocino and often came into the Sea Gull. While some of the waitresses and patrons objected, we served them and they were never a problem. Shar amused herself by drawing pictures of horses, always horses. I wonder whatever happened to Shar and Rex, and if she was able to have a horse of her own.
There was a woman who lived in her car outside the restaurant. We were all concerned about her and her safety but there didn’t seem to be much we could do. One evening when I was on the register she came into the Coffee Shop and sat at the counter. The Coffee Shop was empty at the time but the dining room was busy. At one point I glanced over to where she was sitting and realized she was removing her clothes. Before I could think what to do, the disrobement was complete. Luckily my friend and manager, Marlene, was close by. She and one of waitresses helped the woman back on with her clothes. Not knowing what else to do, we called the sheriff and he escorted her to Ukiah where they kept her for the allowed 72 hours. We all thought she would be safer there. There were no charges filed. We hoped she might get some help but apparently not. After the 72 hours she was back in her car outside the Sea Gull. Eventually she left.
Many who lived in Mendocino in the Sea Gull days (1970s and 80s) will remember Matthead. He was an indigent man who wandered the streets and sometimes came into the Sea Gull but mostly just stayed outside. He got the nickname because of his wild, matted hair that frightened many who saw him for the first time although he was never violent or threatening. He usually slept in doorways or other dark places. Early one morning, a visitor staying with me was out for a walk and saw flames rising up from the deck of what is now the Mendocino Café building. In those days we rented that building, called the Attic, as part of the Sea Gull Inn. Matthead was so cold the night before that he had built a fire in a coffee can up against the building. While sleeping soundly, he knocked over the coffee can and the fire took its normal course. Luckily it was only a small fire. He felt terrible about what he’d done and apologized profusely. There were no consequences and we repaired the building at minimal cost. Later we found out that Matthead’s name was Jim Taylor and that he was an heir, some say the sole heir, to the Taylor Manufacturing Company (still in existence). After Jim’s true identity was known, he cut his hair and used to walk around town wearing an old sports coat smoking a pipe although I don’t think there was anything in it. Later he became ill and walked with a severe stoop. The last time I saw him, he walked by the register toward the bathrooms in the back of the restaurant. He gave me an odd look and then recited this poem.
It’s in the water
It’s in the air
It’s in the food
Jim Taylor, vagabond, poet
I don’t know what “it” was but I suspect he was referring to something carcinogenic. I heard a rumor later that he died of cancer, but I’m not sure about that.
Riches to rags stories remind me of the Frank Norris book Vandover and the Brute but every story is different. I don’t want to generalize. It is true though that we all have a brute inside and for some of us, it overpowers. I’m a sucker for stories about strange folks, especially those that hang around restaurants and bars as so many do. If you are like me you would enjoy Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories by Joseph Mitchell. The section McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon is a classic and Joe Gould’s Secret is Mitchell’s tour de force. If you don’t like to read, you can just hang around any local bar or restaurant and chances are a story will play out in front of you.
One incident I heard about happened when I was thankfully absent from the Sea Gull. Jerry McIntyre, the town barber who moonlighted as a bartender, was downstairs in the old Cellar Bar when a threatening character came in. Jerry wasn’t too sure how to handle this fellow. Frankly I’m sure he was intimidated. Jerry’s wife at the time and my manager, Marlene, was on the register upstairs. The man quickly grew bored with the lack of customers in the bar and charged up the spiral staircase to the dining room. At that time, there were five large wine barrels in the center of the dining room acting as a room divider or sorts. There was a beautiful, intricately carved chess scene sitting one on one of the barrels. The man, screaming and yelling, knocked over the barrels, smashing the sculpture to smithereens. Then he walked to a table where local musician Arrigo D’Albert was sitting. Arrigo’s broken leg was in a cast and stretched out on the chair beside his table. The man, with a wild look in his eyes, picked up a dinner knife and smashed it onto the table where Arrigo and his friends were sitting breaking it in two. He then looked at Arrigo’s cast. I can only imagine what must have gone through Arrigo’s head at the time. After some time, the man walked away, went out the front door of the restaurant and down the street. Marlene had already called the sheriff but the response time is not very fast in Mendocino. By the time the sheriff arrived, the man was gone and we never saw him again.
The owls have hardly sung their last,
While our four travellers homeward wend;
The owls have hooted all night long,
And with the owls began my song,
And with the owls must end.
For while they all were travelling home,
Cried Betty, ‘Tell us, Johnny, do,
Where all this long night you have been,
What you have heard, what you have seen:
And, Johnny, mind you tell us true.’
Now Johnny all night long had heard
The owls in tuneful concert strive;
No doubt too he the moon had seen;
For in the moonlight he had been
From eight o’clock till five.
And thus, to Betty’s question, he
Made answer, like a traveller bold,
(His very words I give to you,)
‘The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo,
And the sun did shine so cold!’
–Thus answered Johnny in his glory,
And that was all his travel’s story.
William Wordsworth, The Idiot Boy
Radio Man was another who roamed the streets of Mendocino. I often watched him outside the window while working the register at the Sea Gull. He walked around town pushing a shopping cart full of flotsam and jetsam. On the top of everything in the cart was a large transistor radio with the antenna always out, the radio sometimes blaring and sometimes not. Radio Man always wore a thick jacket with many tears and rips from which the stuffing was hanging out. To my knowledge he didn’t speak to anyone and did not come into the restaurant. After a few months, he simply disappeared.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen, Anthem
I’ll relate just one more short story about a cook, Peter, who worked at the Sea Gull with his brother, Jon. Peter was a fine cook but he had a terrific temper. We had a brick in the kitchen that we used sometimes to hold down a pot lid for something cooking on the grill to keep it flat against the heat. Peter didn’t like tourists looking in the kitchen window while he was cooking. One day he noticed someone staring at him from the outside. He picked up the brick and threw it threw the glass windowpane. Luckily it missed the tourist.
Jon was charged with rolling out the cracker crumbs that Peter used to bread the fish. Peter insisted, rightly, that the cracker crumbs should be rolled out to a fine powder so that they would adhere to the fish. On a particularly busy evening, Peter grew furious with his brother because the crumbs were not up to standard. Peter grabbed a chef’s knife and chased Jon out the back door. To escape Peter’s wrath, Jon ran all the way behind the Sea Gull Inn and into the middle of a blackberry patch, getting scratches all over his arms and face. When we found him, he was shaking in fear. Whether or not Peter would have used the knife to cut out his brother’s liver, I do not know. But, I knew that I could no longer tolerate Peter in the kitchen. Shortly after, we closed for some remodels, and when we reopened, I informed Peter that I was not going to hire him back. I was a little worried about that, but we parted more or less on good terms.
I chose the title for this blog from a comment posted about Abandoned Suitcases Reveal Private Lives of Insane Asylum Patients. The comment was from Jackie:
I was a voluntary patient at Mendocino State Hospital in CA, 1966, when I was 20. These photos bring back the people I knew at the hospital, in how the photos create such a feeling of the person. MSH was located in a beautiful part of CA; a safe place for chronically ill and those, like me, suffering and in transit. Reagan shut down the system when he became CA gov; a crime. Re: “Mary Says” “…I would like to point out that using the phrase ‘went nuts” may be a little insensitive, especially in this context.’ I’d gently disagree, in this context, as was pointed out in the article, we cracked pots have a sense of humor. Thanks for this.
Shakespeare famously wrote in a Midsummer Night’s Dream that lunatics, lovers, and poets have much in common.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven
And as imaginaqtion bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
I’ve always believed that genius and insanity are very close. Like Szasz, I’m not sure that mental illness is a disease, at least not in every case. I have only a few personal anecdotes to prove my point but I can say that I’ve almost always found that if you treat people decently and with respect the result is usually positive. And I will say one more thing. The strangest people are always the most interesting. If you want a boring life, stick with people just like you. If you want a memorable life, don’t be afraid to interact with people who seem out of the ordinary. You might be surprised at what they have to say.
If you enjoyed this blog, you might enjoy these books.
West of Then: A Mother, a Daughter, and a Journey Past Paradise
Tara Bray Smith
People Like Us, Facts and Stories About the Homeless
Virginia Lee Siewert
Up in the Old Hotel
Madness: A Brief History