Chicago Stories: Jeffrey Allen
Jeffrey Allen, former homeless paranoid schizophrenic and regular guy
There was a time in his life when he just a regular normal kid. Or maybe not. But he is pretty sure there was at least a short period of time that things seemed normal. He gets confused. Still, he was more normal than he is today, of this he is certain. But who and what is normal he asks? Who decides? In his experience it’s usually the ones those who claim they are so normal who are the most fucked up. He hasn’t seen it all his life but he has seen a lot, more than most anyone else could ever handle and not want to kill themselves. But the thought used to cross his mind. Not so much anymore. Jeffrey knows normal and abnormal. He doesn’t deny that he has a disease, he readily accepts it, even embraces it. He’s certain most of those he is related to were not normal, at least not the socially acceptable version of normal, a long line of mental illness.
To talk to Jeffrey, one does not get the impression of an uneducated man. He is very articulate, thoughtful and well-mannered, if scattered and a bit absent-minded. At first sight his physical appearance may contradict the man. He carries over three hundred pounds on his roughly five feet, ten-inch frame. By medical standards he is obese, a side effect of the medication he takes for his disease. It’s also the starch heavy diet he regularly eats because starchy, fatty foods are what soup kitchens serve and it’s free leaving more money in his pocket from his government disability checks. Admittedly he loves food. It can be his crutch at times. He recalls as a kid there was never a steady meal. For these reasons, and others, he walks with a cane at the young age of forty-seven years old.
His disability checks afford him his rent for a one room efficiency studio, most would consider a closet, with a semi-private bathroom and his portion of what he needs to contribute toward his life, and sanity saving medications. It doesn’t leave him room for much else.
He gets what his brother and mother can help him out with, or he simply does without. His efficiency studio room in the run-down Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) building is several steps up from his previous room. It is clean and decorated with drawings and paintings, his art, a dizzying array of his futuristic scenes that come from his very active and talented schizophrenic imagination. Healthy lifestyle ads cut out from newspapers, magazines and medication, diet and exercise instructions from his doctors adorn another wall on side of a mini sink. Examining the walls, you run into the occasional legibly handwritten notes that serve as self-reminders and what read like various schizophrenic semi-coherent writings taped to the wall. But they all mean something to him and he can tell you what every ones means.
Next to his bed stands a new mini refrigerator his brother bought him when his last broke down. Inside are neatly packed food products, some placed in plastic zip-lock baggies in event cockroaches decide to invade. A variety of medication for everything from diabetes and high blood pressure to gout is displayed atop his mini refrigerator. In front of his bed is a medicine chest where he keeps health items, cosmetics and one of the many Catholic Rosaries given him by his mother hanging from the open cabinet. On the sink is an open can of chicken broth he sips from. He is neat and clean and organized. He says the roaches only come out at night. Still, I spy one scurrying across up the wall out of the corner of my eye. In a small corner closet covered by plastic are what he refers to as his ‘Sunday Clothes’, clothing he wears on special occasion, holidays, and family outings. He cleans up well when he cares to.
A recent photo of a smiling Jeffrey and his mother at the Taste of Chicago Food Festival is taped on his room door. He proudly states that she taught him well and made him independent as he can be.
He regularly attends the mental health clinic where he receives his schizophrenia medication, utilizes the computer room and socializes with others like himself. He never misses an appointment with his social worker for any reason. Like most of the residents in his building he relies on the front desk attendant for any messages. He does not want his own computer or cell phone as he says the radio waves interfere with his brain waves.
He often dresses in a disheveled manner with a soiled tee shirt, clean sweatpants likely more out of comfortably than anything else. Jeffrey insists it also keeps those who might want to rob him at bay. If dresses like he has no money, then they will not try to rob him. He has been robbed in the past. Robbers once took his sneakers right off his feet. He walked home barefoot. He learned from those experiences.
The thick lenses of his glasses are surrounded by wide oval frames. His hair is long, well-kept and his face young. To passerby he may appear to be a hapless, hopeless less fortunate. At first sight some mistake him for a mentally incompetent miscreant. On the contrary, he is highly intelligent, educated and extremely articulate. To many, he is just another neighborhood guy. Most probably don’t even notice him as they pass by on the street. Jeffrey is one of societies invisible people. He shouldn’t be, but he is. Those lost in the cracks of society. The people we try not to think about lest we feel guilty, or God forbid must realize how truly grateful we should be for what we have. He says, except for a time of weakness when he stole a cupcake from the cafeteria in high school because he was broke, and hungry, and a few times sleeping in the park, he has never broken a law in his life.
Jeffrey Allen is just another guy on the street who used to be homeless and now is not. Except he isn’t the stereotypical former homeless. Nor was he ever the stereotype when he was living on the streets of Chicago. He isn’t a drunk, a drug addict, a criminal or a serial degenerate bum and lazy slob. Nor was he the guy begging for change or dumpster diving. Jeffrey says he tried panhandling a few times, but it just wasn’t his style. He learned from his childhood how to utilize social services in a positive manner and make do with what he has. His mother taught him well. He’s just not any of those things the average person associates with those living on the street or in dilapidated rooming houses. Jeffrey is mentally ill and has been since age eighteen and very likely long before, during his childhood.
He was diagnosed as a Paranoid Schizophrenic early on in college. He comes from a long line of family members with any number of addiction issues and mental illness problems. The sad part is, where most all of them contributed in some fashion or other to their own demise Jeffrey did nothing to contribute to his. It was just bad luck of the draw. Sometimes in life all we can do is play the cards we were dealt. Jeffrey has played his cards the best he knows how. To make it on the street one must have some street savvy and a strong desire to survive.
He received a full ride college scholarship at Northern Illinois University. He had what looked like a promising career in musical theater and dance when his world came crashing down around him. Just when he thought he had it all, it all slipped away. A seemingly recurring theme throughout his life.
The night he checked out mentally he was working a mid-shift at the local Jewel Foods Store. He can’t recall much except one minute he was busy re-stocking merchandise in an isle and the next he was walking down interstate I-88 headed for Chicago in the middle of the night. Somehow, he successfully completed the almost 80-mile trek from rural Dekalb Illinois to Chicago. He appeared unannounced late the next day at the home of childhood family friends. The way he recalls it is this family were the only ones he could think of in his mind as if they and their home were a beacon in the night calling out to him. From that illness defining moment forward Jeffery would bounce around from place to place, street to street, alleyway to alleyway, cheap slum rooming house to the next for much of the next several months and ultimately years.
At the beginning for a period there was nowhere or no one he could turn to. His mother who surely loved him dearly was herself homeless and moving from place to place. She did whatever she could for him. His older brother at nineteen years old had already in prison for two years when Jeffrey’s mind snapped. His father struggled with his own alcoholism and addictions issues and was generally unavailable in any useful or real sense. Jeffrey never turned to alcohol and drugs. He knew his family history all too well and didn’t want to test those waters, but he’s sure alcoholism and addiction stirs somewhere deep inside of him.
It would be his older sister who with a young child of her own and recently married to her second husband who would open her doors and take him in until he would ultimately leave again. She had taken him in before. That was when his brother had gone away to prison, his family life or what little there was of one totally collapsed and when his mother finally lost their home. Knowing their mother was in no position to raise him she decided to take him or fight for him in court. It was easier for all concerned for her to take him. She insists if ever there were two people who should not have had children it was her mother and stepfather who are her brother’s blood father, her birth father having died when she was four. For whatever abuse the others took she took the brunt of it. Punching bags. But they even got use to that.
Jeffrey says his father grows uncomfortable whenever he used to question him about why? He believes it’s easier for him to live with himself by acting like it never happened, so he quit asking long ago. He recounts the time his father drove him to his college entrance interview. His grades and intellectual abilities garnered him a shot at a real life. He remembers it like it was yesterday. He father seated in the room next to him as he was interviewed by a university guidance counselor who asked Jeffrey why they should accept him as a student. He said to the counselor; “My brother is in prison, my mother is mentally ill and half a bag lady and my father is a barely functioning recovering alcoholic and drug addict. My sister is the one doing best out of us all and she’s an unwed mother trying to make it day to day. If you don’t accept me, I’m screwed because I have nowhere else to go.” Things went well for the first few semesters until the other shoe dropped. Eventually, after stays in various psych hospitals he was diagnosed with an organic paranoid schizophrenia. He doesn’t necessarily agree with the ‘organic’ part, being it was inevitable, genetic and unavoidable. It was in him the day he was born like a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode and poison his mind, though he believes a large part of the cause was growing up the way he had.
In more lucid times he used to ask himself why it was him who had to be sick? What did he do to deserve such a hopeless fate? Then after years of bouts which often left him homeless and sleeping in parks and streets, he received the help he needed and began to understand his disease. Thought it did not make it any better it was easier to handle when he finally understood it. He no longer feels sorry for himself and knows that is normal. He accepts and deals with his disease now. There are many who suffer in milder versions of paranoid schizophrenia Jeffery does not have such luck. No, his would be extreme and likely just worsen or at very least relegate him to a life of government assistance and medication.
Government assistance was nothing new to him, he grew up on steady diet of food stamps, church food boxes and public aid. The highlight of his young school life was the free lunch cards he and his older brother got. Whereas his brother succumbed to gangs, hung out on the streets and rarely even entered a school building, Jeffrey conversely, was a straight A student who did all the right things and had a talent for drawing, painting and dancing. He once received an offer from a prestigious New York City art school to attend a summer camp but could not attend as his mother just could not afford to put food on the table much less send him off to New York City. There just wasn’t enough. It seemed there was just never enough of anything at home. Electricity, telephones and other basic utilities were hit or miss as was a refrigerator with food and any of life’s extras.
He doesn’t recall much happiness in his childhood. When asked by his social worker to recount to her a happy childhood memory he scrunches his face obscenely, shrugs his shoulders and says with all the candor he can muster, that he has none. No, there are none. His older brother’s childhood memories seem to reflect the same feeling. Jeffery says, his brother always seems to remember things better than they actually happened. He’s convinced that how he managed to survive in his own mind. He’s not as much an optimist. When asked an opinion on Jeffrey’s response his brother says, “I guess it’s like the kid told you”, he avoids the question any further.
Jeffrey’s recollection of childhood was drinking, violence, uncles and cousins in and out of prison and his father usually beating up his mother or anyone else within his reach. “That was just how it was. Not everyone gets to live the ‘Father Knows Best’ life. But I used to watch it on television with my brother when we were kids. We could never figure out if people really lived like that. We know we didn’t. We’d watch that show and the ‘Creatures Features’ black and whites. We would hide with each other under the blankets in case the Wolfman or Dracula came to get us. We always felt like someone was coming to get us.” Then he launches into an incoherent volley of gibberish before he comes back down to reality. The movie ‘The Fisher King’ comes to mind when talking to Jeffrey. Some would think his childhood contributed greatly to his disease, but his doctors say it was simply inevitable. His brother says, “The boogie man was always just around the corner, and it got him. Maybe it got me a little bit too.”
His mother a pretty, tiny woman, is loving, loyal, and a devoutly religious Roman Catholic. She is a tough lady with eyes that dart around the room seemingly in search of potential danger or unwanted advances. She is suspicious of most people. She by all accounts had a tough life. She is not a hugger or “I love you” type of mom. Yet there is no doubt she loves her children in the best way she knows how. She is more apt to shake your hand and tell you be careful than hug. Her life is in a constant state of recession and just trying to make it. But she concedes, this is the best time of their lives. She and her two sons seem to be together more often than ever before. As much as possible.
She and her daughter have probably spoken two or three times in twenty years and have been in the same room fewer times in those years. Mistakes, bad feelings, and dark memories run deep. Yet she loves her just as much she says. She loves all her children the same. It makes her happy that her daughter found a good husband and in-laws to call family. Though mother and daughter may not speak, Jeffery and his brother speak with their sister often. She was their lifeline. As she always has, she checks in to be sure everything is okay. Like Jeffrey does, his mother shrugs her shoulders and says, “You do what can and hope for the best. It’s a rough life sometimes. My kids had a rough life, and I made a lot of mistakes, but you can’t change the past, just move on. You have to pray and rely on God and the church. They’ll never let you down. But we’re better now than we’ve ever been.”
It seems everybody in the neighborhood knows Jeffrey from the Chuck the waiter at the local Chinese restaurant, to Yango, the owner of the Greek hot dog stand down the street. Passerby, mostly elderly and less fortunate, wave hello to him when he walks down the street. He is likable and friendly and knows how to circumvent the often-dangerous streets of his neighborhood. He is aware of when not to walk the streets. He is as street savvy as one gets.
Jeffrey gets down now and then. He is not afraid to voice his discontent and anger when he does, yet it’s rare when he does. Most times he is happy and in a good mood especially when he gets together with his mother and brother for lunch or dinner. Since his mother’s passing his sister has picked up the mantle of matriarch of the family. For as much as the forces has tried to separate them all, they have managed to stay together.
He is engaging but cautious. He doesn’t mind talking about his life. Before her passing his mother convinced him to try a cell phone. Now it keeps him in touch with family. No one has to come by his apartment building to make plans. Family plans are just a phone call away. He finds he enjoys the phone, it’s a few moments away from the monotony of life. Recently, he asked his brother for a laptop if possible. He thinks he’s ready to venture out into the world of technology a bit more. These days it helps fill his day and keeps him informed.
Jeffrey accepts his fate and says, “This is my life. Sleep late, be bored most of the day, write on my computer and take walks around the neighborhood. I’m writing a play. I figure, why not?” He shrugs, “That’s the life of the mentally ill, if you’re one of the lucky ones.”