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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Uncle Marky

Don't give him anything, she said to me. Who, I asked? That dirty man out there. He's here all the time, begging. I tell everyone not to give him any money, he's just going to spend it on drugs.

Hard to tell on his age. If I had to guess, I'd say he was around 55-60 years old. Vietnam Vet, his sign said. Hungry, please help. God bless. I gave him $20 and told him he'd better find a new corner store to hang out near. That woman inside is telling people not to help you out. Well, you did it anyway, he said. You are a good person. There are other good people around here. I'm okay, despite what she says. Ok, well take care of yourself, I told him. You too darlin, you too.

I managed to make it to my car, before I started sobbing.

Every time I saw my Uncle Mark, I always said that to him, take care of yourself; and that was his exact reply.

My uncle had a hard life. When he was seventeen years old, he drove his car over Mulholland in Los Angeles. There weren't seat belts in cars back then and he and his buddy were thrown threw the windshield. His friend died instantly, but my uncle survived. However, his car rolled over his head. He spent months in the hospital, but all they could really do was wire his jaw back together and wait for him to heal. His hearing was shot to hell, but they thought he made a full recovery.

He didn't. Close head injuries cause so many more problems. Especially back then, when they knew nothing about the brain. I mean we're talking 1968 at the latest here. After awhile, my dad and his other siblings just started calling Mark, eccentric. Because he was. He did and said strange things that no one understood. But he built himself a successful business and they just figured he'd be fine. He was 24 years old when he had a psychotic break. He put air plane fuel in his motorcycle and drove out of LA. At some point the cops started chasing him, but they couldn't even begin to catch up. We laugh about it now, but his bike engine melted right outside of a mental hospital. The cops took him to jail. My dad and mom bailed him out the next morning. He sat in the floor of their car, in the backseat, with a blanket over his head, talking about the little people coming to get him. My mom suggested they take him back up to the Psych hospital.

He made it there six weeks, before he checked himself out. He was highly intelligent and could charm anybody. He wouldn't shower (the soap was poising him), or take the meds (they were stealing his soul) and he was competent enough to prove to them that he wasn't a danger to himself. His diagnosis was acute schizophrenia due to head injury.

From that day forward he lived on the street. No one knows what happened to his business. One day he had it, the next there was no record of it. All we know is that when he applied to Disability, they were shocked at the amount he'd get every month. (Nnot that it was much towards the end of his life, when my dad was supporting him, but as a 25 year old, it took good care of him.) It's based on how much you put in when you work and he'd put in a lot in 8 years of working.

He lived under a freeway on ramp for the 405. For my entire childhood, he lived under freeway on ramps. He liked that life. He felt safe in that life. Brought inside for a family function, he stayed in a corner with his back to the wall and shouted at people across the room. He brought me presents at Christmas and never forgot my birthday.

At my dad and step-mom's wedding, my other uncle and my grandpa held him down to shower him. He asked them too, because he didn't want to miss the wedding and he knew that was the requirement. At the ceremony, which was on a boat in the marina, he stood outside and took pictures of the sunset. But he was there. He loved his family.

My uncle was a bum until I was 15 years old. He wasn't one with a sign, but that's because he got a check each month. He didn't drink, nor do drugs; he never smoked or caused any trouble. He was mentally ill.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of people on the street are not druggies. They are the mentally ill. There is nothing in this county for the mentally ill, unless you have money. Most of them are just ignored. We pretend they don't exhist. There is no place for them; Ronald Regan did away with those places in the early 80's. Before then, there were places where they could go. State funded places. Yes a lot of them do drugs and drink, but that doesn't negate the fact that they are mentally ill. Drinking keeps them warm in the winter, it helps them survive.

Mark lived in an apartment that he took over after my Grandfather died in 2003. Before then he'd lived in my grandmother's backyard since 1995, because he kept getting run out of his favorite spots by younger bums. He still didn't shower, nor take meds. He collected toilet paper rolls, which he kept in his clothes for warmth. He had seven toothbrushes, one for each day. He didn't eat right and he only washed his clothes, because the cat told him too. He had seven couches in his one bedroom apartment. Because the people needed a place to sit. The people, were the people in his head. He lived there, until his death in January of this year. He died from heart failure, a product of the diabetes that he wouldn't take care of.

But he was my uncle. He wasn't harmful. He never hurt a soul. He was just a guy with a mental illness. A bum, who preferred the open air, to a closed in space. He was my uncle Marky.

I have always given to bums and I always will. Money, clothes, food. Even if I have nothing, I will smile and be kind. Because each and every one of them, is a human being. Each one of them, could be someones Uncle Mark.

20 comments:

Jaden Paige said...

*sniff*

That is a great story... Sad, but great, and true... How true it is that most people just pass on by, overlook these homeless who they make all kinds of rash assumptions about but refuse to consider that they might NOT be who they assume.

You are a kind soul. Thank you for sharing the story of your Uncle Marky.

thedailysnark said...

okay, gonna try this again. I couldn't sign in before...

Wow. What a moving and amazing post. Thank you for writing this.

I try to give when I can because everyone is someone's uncle, brother, aunt, whatever, and they deserve respect and to be treated well no matter what. Especially these days, because There By The Grace of God, right?

Fairly Odd Mother said...

I made it to where you got to the car and started to cry at that same spot. It is so sad that, for all we know, mental illness is still one area where people just try to ignore it, hoping it'll go away.

Thank you for telling us your Uncle Marky's story. The thought of him agreeing to be held down for a shower so that he could be at your wedding breaks my heart b/c it shows what a kind soul he was.

Delusional Girl Ruby Soho said...

This is a great story.

Society forgets that mentally ill people self-medicate. It is easier and cheaper and has far less social stigma to be an addict than "crazy."

iMommy said...

This is a great post, both because it tells your Uncle's story but also because it makes a statement about the way that we, Americans, society, treat the mentally ill (and the disabled, and those struggling with addiction).

We've done away with slavery. It's no longer politically correct to say racist things, and hate crimes are not legal and, increasingly, not tolerated.

Why, then, have we paid no attention to those with differences that are not so superficial/obvious as skin tone? Why are the mentally ill, the disabled, the addicted so unworthy of our recognition, our assistance, or respect?

I give, when I can. I smile, always. I will usually keep on walking by, not stop to chat - because like anyone else, I don't know these folks. But I am kind. My mother taught me that and I believe that it's important.

"What if he's an Angel, sent here from Heaven and he's making certain that you're doing your best to take the time to help one another - tell me brother would you pass that test? You can go on with your day to day, trying to forget what you saw in his face, knowing deep down you could have been his saving grace. What if he's an angel?"

Schmutzie said...

You are being featured on Five Star Friday!
http://www.fivestarfriday.com/2009/03/five-star-friday-edition-46.html

Lesley said...

This post is so good! So, so, so, so good that if we measured it on the Post Goodness Scale we wouldn't be able to BECAUSE THE SCALE WOULD NOT GO HIGH ENOUGH!

My dad used to regularly go to the Goodwill and buy coats and hats and warm clothes and go pass them out to the homeless people around LA's Skid Row. (He had a security job at the time that would take him through this area.) I remember finding this out sort of accidentally when I was young and having it forever change the way I viewed him. I always loved my dad, but after that? I admired him as a human being and was proud to be his daughter in a way I was maybe too young to articulate at the time, but understood all the same down in my gut.

Congrats on Five Star Friday!

mames said...

hi there.

i came by to say thank you for buying the auction pieces from childspayx2.

this post hit me so hard. my husband has just come out of a week of roughness after a freak fall when we were away last weekend. he is okay, i hope.

and i myself once worked as a physical therapist in a rehab specializing in people with brain injury. it is a world that most do not know, have no comprehension of in any real way.

i wanted to say thanks for buying the pieces, and now i can also say thanks for sharing this.

amiee

anymommy said...

This is absolutely lovely Issa and beautifully told. You are so right, it is very easy not to see people suffer, or to pretend it's their fault for some reason. Thanks for sharing this your uncle's story. I will remember it.

Have you read The Glass Castle? I just started it and I absolutely love it. You might too.

Maura said...

Really great post -- you totally deserved the Five Star Friday nod.

It's frustrating that how much money you have determines how much care is available to you when you're mentally ill, but your story illustrates that, for some people, they will almost never seek out that care. It's important to remember that they're people, too, and act accordingly.

tish said...

great post.

Kirsten said...

Lovely... and very deserving. *wink, wink*

Tarrant said...

Beautiful. Thank you for sharing it with all of us at BlogHer. I enjoyed meeting you and sitting backstage with you.

Manic Mother said...

Going through reading all the goodness I missed at Blogher. I really appreciate your post, being mentally ill myself, we are all to often misunderstood. Thank you.

♥georgie♥ said...

I am reading all the keynotes that i missed(since I couldnt attend) at BlogHer...i am in tears...this post has touched me and inspired me
Thanks for sharing your story

Sara @heartmychloe said...

I love this post. I think that it is one of my top favorites this year.

I'm so glad you were chosen as a keynote speaker....I just wish I could have been there to hear you read this yourself.

Next year!!!

Tiffany @ Lattes And Life said...

I wish I could make so many people in my life read this post. My mom has called me a bleeding heart liberal all my life..says I'm naive and gullible...all because I refuse to believe that everyone on the streets is a doped up criminal. All because I spent a few years volunteering my time in prisons. All because I worked tirelessly to help women in abusive relationships. Because after all..."why don't they just leave?". Thank you for giving a NAME and IDENTITY to the homeless population. You did a great thing here!!

sally said...

Came across this from a BlogHer link. Thank you. My brother isn't on the streets thank God but he could be someone's uncle Mark. I see why you got picked to present. :-)

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Kate Coveny Hood said...

Not sure how I missed this the first time around - but it really is wonderful. I grew up in the city and always gave to the homeless. Just a dollar or two if I had it. I always thought that you never know...