I remember the time of the Big Canteen, irretrievable otherwise. It was the time of ground parole, and a liberty for the mentally ill that I haven’t seen since. There’d be people around, crowding the tables and the counter space in the big canteen. There’d be people talking in loud voices and getting themselves some of that precious brew to go along with their darling cigarettes.
Did you know there were four-packs of cigarettes back in the day when cigarettes were not almost contraband, the way they are now? That’s right, four of them to a pack. That coveted cheeseburger was brought to your table by Lois or Alice. There were these tired, old counter helpers and waitresses to bring us our orders.
You’d better watch your manners, too.
Cigarettes and coffee made the big canteen go round. The smoke was almost overwhelming, even in the nostrils of a well practiced chain smoker, like me. The smoke was so thick, no one cared, frankly. This was a time of the proverbial great depression. Everyone was accustomed to the ever presence of smoke, everywhere we turned, right up until the time the laws changed.
This was a time before the cancellation of all the Federal Welfare Programs. They didn’t feed us much on the wards then, probably never did, but you could get a fresh cooked meal at the big canteen. All it took was a little money, at great depression prices. One was always reaching for dollars, and owing a few cents. Most of us didn’t have an awful lot of money, but didn’t need it, either.
Maybe your fresh cooked meal was only a cheeseburger, but it was glorious at that. There was a short order chef behind the grill, and he’d knock you into next week, if you said anything he thought you shouldn’t, when you were talking to Lois or Alice. When that burger arrived, you could actually smell the hot grease. When you picked up that burger, it was actually hot.
This was before the cancellation of smoking privileges, nationwide, when people still had some civil liberty to enjoy it within the State Hospital System, before this country eroded our civil liberties as far as they’ve gone. A patient could hop the low fence in the back yard of Brick Four, if that’s were you lived. If you could get past all the locks, you’d head down to the big canteen.
All my youth, I was a rebel. I was always running away from things, just to make certain I did not learn my father’s violent oppression. It worked, too. Mother understood, she never knew where I was. I had a lot of half baked ideas about Rights and Civil Liberties, Nazi’s and whatnot. I’d been to university, and was all filled up with what the government could do.
Nobody cared where you went, just as long as they knew you’d be back. Brick Four was there for admissions people, like me. I was considered a split risk for a long time, because I’d hop that fence in a heartbeat. I kept going up across the highway. Once, I even got clear to the local park and made a spectacle of myself. The last time I went, I went the whole way to Berkeley, CA.
They wouldn’t admit me after that.
I always knew how to get away if I really wanted to. I was a child runaway from the time I was five. I never gave my stance a second thought, because I was always competent. I could always take good care of myself. No one reminded me I couldn’t get off the grounds. That was a given until the time I fell and broke my hip. Up until that time, I could always get myself up off the ground.
I believe it was about the time of 1975 -76, at the end of our civil liberties as a nation. I was a volunteer on Brick Four, if I remember right. I was pretty scared when I walked into the Big Canteen for the first time. Nobody ever felt comfortable there, the least of all, those who had a little money in their pockets. It was a dangerous proposition to buy a carton of cigarettes at the big canteen.
The vultures would be on you pretty quick, begging cigarettes and whatever else they thought you had, before you ever left the big canteen. That’s what was so scary about it. If you’d been there long enough you’d already learned the hard way. Tell those guys no, real short and sweet, regardless of how many smokes you had on you. If you started passing out cigarettes they’d become like roaches.
There was a million of them.
I became a volunteer at the state hospital center, way out in the country, because I etched myself a little attention-getter on my arm. It’s still there. I was wearing six stitches in my left wrist, where I thought I could cut the life out of myself. I had no clue I’d have to muster a lot more self malice and self loathing than I ever had so far. I had not understood yet, that my life belongs to The Holy One.
He won’t take my life until it’s time.
There have been many tormented souls at state hospitals, for a very long time. I know you don’t believe me, so line yourself up yourself first visit and ask some of the oldest trees. I thought I was smart. I was a White patient on an all Black ward, honky though I am. I learned slave language and street customs. I learned to butcher the English language until the Blacks were calling me Tarzan.
I tried to set some of those trees free, but they weren’t interested. All they said was that it would kill them to cut them down, but I had no interest in killing trees. I just thought it would help them to rescue them. I would sit on a bench, summer and winter, if it wasn’t impossibly cold. Did you know there are some trees who are very learned individuals? They told me about it, too.
Talking to trees helped me understand that liberty imparts wisdom. They talked about the free people who were known to live in the weather, and the fact that mostly the early settlers had killed off all the free people. The free people kill enough animals to eat enough to the keep the balance. That tree thought I didn’t understand, but I did.
I understand the oldest trees and the oldest men, who would live out in the weather and take care what they kill. I’ve published my thoughts about talking to trees, and know people who live in the weather right now. Some people say that all I am is sick. I’m actually thinking about living in the weather again, but have grown so green I’m not certain I could live out there again.
Last I lived in the weather, I was a child, like the old men who stay alive drinking Mad Dog 20/20. I was a fugitive from my father’s violence then, but now, there’s none of my father in me. I learned a lot of my political attitudes from living out in the weather. Well, it occurs to me that with a hip replacement, I know I could not lie down on the ground out there. I’d never get up.