I see him again. He stands between the stopped cars at the intersection with a sign saying “suffering from cancer. Please help me, God bless”. It is common knowledge these panhandlers are astute enough to learn what kind of signage most often will give them a coin or dollar bill. I suspect it is no different than market research results gleaned from studies of commercials that work best just not as expensive to get the results.
His still handsome face is tanned with a couple days beard growth. His shoes have holes and a flapping sole. It appears his once khaki colored pants are several sizes too large for his slim waist. A worn, frayed belt barely holds his pants up. Today his shirt has been buttoned askew. His shopping cart has his belongings. He doesn’t seem to notice or mind the looks of disgust from the many who motor through the intersection.
I wondered what happened to him to cause the music to leave his life. He was born like all of us. A fresh opportunity to grow and pursue whatever he wanted to become. What took the music out of his life. Did he hear too many tunes that were overpowered with discord. Were negative lyrics played over and over again enough times to convince him they were true.
What did happen. He was hearing the chorus within his own mind. Voices repeating and repeating again. They becoming so prominent in his head they became better friends than the voices attached to bodies he saw daily passing as if he were invisible. Now he doesn’t trust anyone except those who play in his head.
Every day he is passed by motorists who ignore or secretly glance at him. They are afraid of him really. Obviously, there is something wrong and if by getting too close it could happen to them. The reality of it is he started out like most of them.
He graduated from high school in the top third of his class. He had a pretty girlfriend. His parents were proud of him when he received his letter of acceptance to NYU. He packed, said goodbye to his friends and family, and moved cross country to the dorms at NYU. He didn’t tell anyone sometimes he heard a different chorus in his head over the past year. They didn’t sing all that often but when they did, he listened to their chorus.
Arriving at NYU was a flurry of activity. Dormitory living and roommates. Class schedules and matching them to classrooms. What didn’t changed is the chorus in his head except the individual voices were becoming more distinctive as solos.
The semester proceeds and studying seems to be constantly interrupted in it’s quietness with the music changing into voices talking rather than singing. They say, “We’re your friends, be careful of the roommate. He’s not to be trusted.” That, first signal of his paranoia emerging. “It’s OK, we can be trusted, we know what ‘they’ are thinking. We will protect you, just listen and follow our lead. You need to be afraid of everyone, no one can be trusted.” And they were right. People did bad things. The television played the bad things over and over. He saw Time Magazine and others that said other people did bad things. No one could be trusted.
As the semester continued, he couldn’t study anymore, the voices overpowered his concentration. They told him what was really happening around him. Soon, he realized t even his parents were changing. They asked him strange questions. They wanted him to come home. They too could not really be trusted. His best interest was not their motive. The only ones he could trust were the voices in his head.
College was no longer a safe place. No building was safe. No person was safe. Only the voices in his head could be trusted and even they were not singing anymore. They couldn’t sing because even music couldn’t be trusted. Only the voices could be believed.
It’s fifteen years later and here he stands at the intersection with his safe possessions. He says thank you for the handout and the sandwich I gave him. Today the voices let him have the whole thing. Sometimes they won’t let him eat the filling or the bread. Today is different.
In reality it is really the same. The music has left him with only the trusted voices for company, direction, and enough lucidity to endure each day and night on the streets where he feels safest. I know that there, except by the grace of God, it could have been me or you standing on that intersection with the music replaced by the voices of schizophrenia.
(c)Maralene C Strom revised 12/2017