"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Creep–The World of the Demented, The Deranged, and The Weird

I am very good about going to the gym.  It is my Maginot Line and my firewall against fat and wasting.  I pump, lift, stretch, and bend every day to keep heavy, fleshy, and tubular overhangs at bay; and to stave off physical erosion and decline - spindly, striated, stringy arms; chicken wings, and stick legs. It has never been a matter of health, but vanity pure and simple. Although my attractiveness to women has become limited to widows of a certain age, I, like most men, don’t give it up easily. As long as there is at least some definition to the bi’s tri’s, lats, and abs; no turkey wattle, and a straight, confident spine,  there is still some hope.

The gym is a circus.  Although more side shows that main events, more freaky dwarves and bearded ladies than elegant tigers and stupendous elephants, it is still a circus.  There is Hamster Man, a pointy-nosed retired lawyer who runs the treadmill like a rodent on a wheel.  Jabba the Hut, a 400 lb. black man who displaces half the water in the whirlpool. Death, a grey, stalky woman with a fixed stare into some scary afterlife who pumps the ellipticals in a weird, stationary race with the Grim Reaper. There is the Man Who Polishes His Balls, Water Man who stays in the shower for hours, and The Barking Scarecrow – a stringy woman of 70 who clatters up and down the stairs in her track shoes and bangs on about organic veganism to whomever will listen.

This Barnum & Bailey troupe is the only thing that keeps up my flagging interest in the gym.  Logic tells me that whatever will kill me has already had decades of a head start – genes deformed by PCBs from the Meriden paper mill; DNA  inherited from Uncle Frank who died early of too few amino acids; sunburn as a teenager who baked on Miami Beach during Spring Break to get a Hollywood tan; or a prematurely softening brain from the Salvatore side of the family.  But vanity and American optimism say otherwise.  Shvitzing, lifting, and jogging will ultimately pay benefits in my Golden Years.  So I lift up the flap to the big tent every morning at 7 and go in. 

The only problem in all this is The Creep.  How this total weirdo ever got a membership to my tony Northwest Washington athletic club – second home to litigators, surgeons, and lobbyists – is a mystery. He is all bad, black hoodie and attitude.  That alone is scary, but he is also unhinged – something crazy drives him just as some demons drive Death to pump for hours on the ellipticals.  He does his prelims between the first phalanx of stationary bikes and the treadmills.  He hops, prances, and trots trussed up with athletic tubing, hernia belts, and braces; and looks like he has just escaped the restraints of Torquemada’s rack.   He glares, scowls, and sneers; then starts his routine on the machines.

I can’t look at him.  He obviously has the same right to be at the gym as I do, but his demented routines are so far from the conservative Washington norm and my own standards of propriety and civility that I want him removed.  I want his membership to be cancelled and every trace of his violate and aggressive behavior expunged.

Perhaps I am being oversensitive, I think, so I look around for signs of disgust and revulsion in my fellow gym members.  Nothing discernible.  If they are offended, afraid, or put off they don’t let on.  I change my hours, but The Creep is always there.  I become paranoid and go at odd and off-hours, but The Creep is always there.  He must have no home, I reason, and his 24 hour refuge is the Northwest Athletic Club.   He must wait until closing, then sleeps on the locker room floor. No matter when I go, The Creep is there.  I wonder if he is on to me and has connected with my own crazed mania to discover him.

My first remembered encounter with crazy people came when I was eight.  My father had taken me to a Yankee World Series game, and we were headed down to Grand Central on the subway. As the train rocketed its way to Manhattan a man with no shirt, sequined tights and a multi-colored beanie came through the car. He held a Bible and quoted from it. I can only remember his ecstatic, wild look as he preached about Jesus, salvation, damnation, hellfire, and eternity.

Another indelible memory is of Rectangle Lady, a woman all dressed in black who marched in straight lines up and down the block between 114th and 115th Street on the Upper West Side.   She did precise military turns at the end of the block, pivoted, and marched back up the way she came but on the curb side.  She, like Death at the gym, had a vacant, long-distance stare.  She was looking into some weird, dark universe that had nothing to do with the Latino fruit stands, Orange Julius, and Nathan’s Finest of Broadway.

Life is generally normal and uninterrupted by craziness. People for the most part hew to tradition, convention, and commonly accepted norms of propriety and probity.  Which is why when unhinged weirdos show up as blips on the radar screen, it is time for reflection. 

There is a well-dressed man who takes the Red Line to downtown Washington every day at the same hour.  He talks to himself the whole time.  He doesn’t mutter or mumble, but converses.  Who is this unknown communicant who rides the train with this commuter every day, I wonder? In what fantasy universe or unspeakable hell of his mind does he or she reside?

There is a man who boards the train at Friendship Heights, and no matter what the weather, he is dressed for Arctic winter. He wears four layers of clothing – parka on top of car coat on top of gabardine on top of sweaters and thermal insulation. In his mind an Ice Age has come to the upper world – the Potomac frozen solid, snow piled high around Admiral Farragut’s statue, wind whistling down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the sun beginning to dim, fade, and die.

I have seen people with unstoppable tics, driven to blinking, shrugging, twitching, and sniffing to the beat of some internal drummer who won’t stop.  The woman with the Safeway bag, for example, whose facial tics are so distorting that she has to count her subway stops.  Her vision and hearing are so distorted by this internal noise that she can only know when to get off by number.

I have heard of people who are paralyzed by paranoid concerns about the gas and cannot leave the house. They check the burners on the stove, yell loudly, THIS STOVE IS OFF!, but are so obsessed that they return to the kitchen again and again.  They become trapped. Millions of people suffer from phobias, irrational fears, and upsetting but minor compulsions. There are so many people who are freaked out about crossing the Bay Bridge that there is now a valet service whose drivers will take panicked drivers across the span.

All of us have some quirks, ill-adjustments to modern life, and strange preoccupations; but we are still on the normal curve.  It is the creeps who demand our attention.

‘Mental illness’ is too tame a descriptor for the weird, creepy behavior of the deeply demented. Hundreds of San Francisco’s homeless should be institutionalized for schizophrenia, and thousands more suffer from raging psychological torments so severe that they hurt others.  These unfortunate souls need attention, but they are still on the charts.  The Creep at my gym, Rectangle Lady, or Beanie Man are not. They do not show up on any accepted navigational maps.

We can understand tics, fear of heights, spookiness about spiders and black marks on fences; but we have absolutely no idea about what is going on in the mind of The Creep.  He is just as human as the rest of us, and he has been dealt both  good and bad cards. He acquired some admirable traits and some he wishes had never been affixed to his double helix.  But he inherited – through nature and nurture – some unexplainably weird ones as well.  He exists on a different plane.  He leaves the gym and sees Connecticut Avenue like Vincent saw Arles; or how Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway saw the world before they blew their brains out. 

In many primitive cultures such deranged, wildly insane people were considered diviners or prophets.  They were not off the charts but most definitely on them, for they offered the rest of society a vision that was not inhibited or constrained by traditional perception.

I really want to get to know The Creep, but I am scared of him.  His insanity has too many aggressively sharp edges.

If I can’t know him then I have to avoid him.  His obsessive routines are too frightening; and at the same time too close to home. The leap from self-centered indulgence and preoccupation to the madness of The Creep is too short for comfort.

We tend to ignore people like The Creep, marginalize them, forget them, stuff them into trash bags to be carted off by the city.  I cannot do it.  The Creep, Rectangle Lady, and Beanie Boy will never be erased from my memory.

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