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

Monday, January 31, 2022

Conversations With The Man Who Talks To Himself–Joining The Community Of The Unhinged

Most people want to make sense and at least put on a good show.  There are the usual non sequiturs and wandering off the rails into the reeds, but they come back to the main line, logical, consistent, and understandable.

That is why my conversations with The Man Who Talks To Himself take on a certain postmodern character.  Nothing really makes sense, philosophers say.  Nothing has any meaning, conditioned as it is by history and the random but significant influences of race, gender, and ethnicity; so why the big deal about making sense? A community of the disoriented and unhinged is better than one insisting on truth, fact, and reality.

I often visited my great aunt who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and although she appeared as normal as could be – genial, gracious, and warm – she made no sense whatsoever, circled around bend after bend from morning till night, but as happy as a clam in a world that she had created from bits and pieces of her past, television soap operas, the fairy tales of her childhood, and stories told by Uncle Harry or her grandfather Lucca, dimly remembered. 

She told stories of the Pope’s visit to her nursing home and how impressed she was with his red shoes and crozier; how they knelt together and he forgave her sins of a lifetime.  “Surely”, he said to me, “you never meant to do that”, and “I understand completely”; and “Come visit me in the Vatican”.

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Or the time that St. Margaret’s organized a male strip show, men straight from the Las Vegas runways, all G-strings, tinsel, glitter, and pasties, who took it all off and let the ladies sample the goods.

Or when the President of the United States finally got it off his chest, that romantic idyll he had had with the Czech physicist who looked like Hedy Lamarr and just as smart but who jilted him.  “Me, the President”, he said to me, my aunt said.  “Me? No one jilts the President”.  And so on.

Her sister and her daughter were obviously concerned about her mental wanderings, her loss of logic, and her inability to make sense.  Whenever they visited her, they kept trying to pull her back; but she resisted.  “Leora”, her sister would say, “Now, you know that the Pope didn’t really visit St. Margaret’s”, but Leora insisted that he had and went on to describe the altar boys he had brought along with him.

“Cute little things’, she said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they held something other than the paten”, and with that chuckled and chortled while her sister frowned and shook her head. “You should have been there, Essie”, Leora said.

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I being on a more remote branch of the family tree had no such compunctions about engaging Aunt Leora.  I happily joined in her fugues and happy idylls. It didn’t matter whether she was spinning yarns about the President, the Pope, or Las Vegas male strippers, she was still my great aunt, and no flights of fancy could change the way she had always been.  What did it matter if she made no sense if I could make no sense with her and enjoy her company the way I did ever since I was a child?

Which brings me to The Man Who Talks To Himself, a late middle aged man who comes to the gym at the same time I do, and who is more than likely an early retiree from Bethesda or Chevy Chase, completing the rhythm of long days like everyone else with exercise, schvitz, and a shower.  But as he undresses in the locker room, he talks loudly to himself and, like my great aunt, makes no sense at all.  He talks about impossible trips to the Yukon, berates himself for overeating, harps on about Millard Fillmore and Martin van Buren, and laughs out loud.

I don’t know him, but knowing that he has loose wiring, I prefer to keep my own counsel in my own space. Yet I cannot help talking to myself with him.  When we are alone in our corner of the locker room, we individually tell our own stories, laugh at our own inside jokes, and rattle on about everything and nothing in particular.  It is never a duet, more like a prayer meeting with call and response – my irrelevances after his in the same cadence and rhythm, in the same eager or petulant tone, and with the same guffaws.

He never acknowledges me, never turns in my direction, never looks me in the eye, but energized by my wandering soliloquies, amps up his own. It is crazy pas de deux.

The gym has its share of oddballs. There is Death, a grey, skeletal woman who not only runs on the treadmill, but seems to be outrunning something awful.  Her face becomes more drawn and ashen the more she runs.  She is as frightening as the woman on the stationary bike, all desperation and unholy intent.  No one can  remember ever seeing her get on or off. She is always there, pounding away in some horrible, unknown distance, eyes on some fearful thing waiting for her.

Jabba The Hut, is a mammoth 400 lb. fat man with elephantine legs and a huge bariatric scar from abdomen to gullet, a reminder of his failed operation to tie off his intestines.  He spends hours in the whirlpool, the only place that gives him some comfort, relieving as it does gravitational pull.  Rolls of fat shake from his neck to his feet every time he takes a step, water pours over the sides of the whirlpool as he slides in. As he sinks down to the very bottom, only his surprisingly very small head shows above the water line.  With all the foam, spume, and roiled waters of the pool, no one can tell who is in it; but when he gets  out, no one can look away. 

Image result for images jabba the hut 

The Man Who Polished His Balls is an entire vaudeville act.  When he finishes showering, he begins drying his balls – not the casual, practiced, indifferent rub; but a deliberate stropping.  With a hand on each end of the towel, he whacks away at his crotch like a shoeshine boy. Whippety, whippety, Whopp!. Whippety, whippety, Whopp!, first on one side then on the next. 

Then, changing direction and angle and bent over from the waist, he snaps the towel back and forth, up and down. “Be sure to get yourself nice and dry”, he says to himself, “Got to get at the important nooks and crannies of the body.  With a dry body you will never get a fungus."

The Barking Scarecrow is as nutty as a fruitcake.  She is tall, gangly, stringy, gangly, bony and neurasthenic. “Not an ounce of fat”, she barks.  Angular where there should have been no angles, protrusions instead of rounded flesh, scaly, corrugated shins and ankles.  She runs miles every day, then bikes tens more, comes to the gym to work out, and then rides and runs home.  

Halfway through her workout, she sits on one of the machines to eat her lunch of carrots, radishes, raw lima beans, and water.  And between bites she bangs on about her job at the elephant house at the zoo, her work with wounded raptors, and her engagement in liberal politics. The more you listen, the less she makes sense.  As she rattles on, her stories run together, elephants and elections, tendons and high fashion, girlhood and her bad marriage.  She is as batty as they come, but it is hard to turn away.

The older I get, the less I want to make sense, and want to drift into the same fabulous world as my great aunt; but my genes, family, education, and the conditioning of a long life have made it impossible.   I am as logical as can be, and my only concession to wobbly, wooly, and fantastical thinking is my pas de deux with The Man Who Talks To Himself and listening to the crazy rants of the barking scarecrow and the man who polishes his balls.

I am told that many people with Alzheimer’s do not have such genial visions of popes and strippers, and instead see horrible things, have terrible, frightening nights; so my great aunt was lucky, and so was I.  I could be part of her world even though she could not be part of mine.  As far as the crazies at the gym, I now never look askance at them.  I just listen and watch.

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