On Craziness

Jihan Jude

If I were standing atop the Empire State building, looking out through one of those rusty, coin-collecting magnifying machines, this is how I would see the world: fits of violence and passion, fits of confusion and pure psychosis.

Queens, New York

My eyes land on the corner of 99th Street and 57th Avenue in Queens. Outside of the moldy and creaking Laundromat, next to the bank, there aren’t many cars today. The long stretch of road is clear until it reaches the highway. Cascading trees sweep the streets and sidewalks like giant brooms. Their branches and leaves are the only things swaying in the background. The crisp clapping of thong sandals against the back of my heels and pavement grows louder in my ears as I see the hobo screaming at the black road in front of him. His gangly arms flail and his head ticks left and right-his throat clogged up with so much agitation only huffing and squeals escape. His legs kick up straight and thin like golf clubs and drown in his dingy short trousers.

Maybe he’s upset because the streets tripped him, stuck out a leg and made him fall hard, made him skin his knee. Maybe he was up all night snorting coke or shooting up crack in the dark alley where my friend from elementary school named Ira Scott got shot. The alley where children take a shortcut to the swings and slide and sandbox behind. The sand there is dirty: bits of glass, cigarettes, dirt-brown stuff. Swerving his fist in the air, gesticulating like Hitler during an angry oration-pacing back and forth-the pauper points an accusing finger at the road, ordering it to man-up to some vile, unthinkable deed. The black smudges on his skin-dark and tough-looking like beef jerky-say he’s unclean, hasn’t bathed in who-knows-how long. The clapping of my heels is almost unbearable now as my sense of hearing seems to be the only thing functioning. Something in the back of my mind tells me to avoid him. I think quickly and cross the street-hearing “I’ll kill you” as I walk away.

Antigua, Eastern Caribbean

I shuffle my feet on the steps outside of Mr. Piper’s Drug Store, a popular pharmacy in the capital of Antigua, a small island in the West Indies. It’s dusky out, many people stand in pairs in the road as the setting sun stains their clothes, washes their brown faces. I engage in gossip with my cousin as most people do: the gay guys on the other corner of a gated store, the marathon runners in the street-everyone minding each other’s business. Like red-breasted robins, the runners puff up with machismo. Tilt their heads and chins as if to say Hey look over there, two “Anty-man” dem. They probably steal extra glances through their sunglasses at the two defiant men in pink, pointy-toe heeled boots and afro-mohawks. The runners’ shades don’t mask their gruff expressions, and perhaps not their equally gruff thoughts. My cousin tells me that if it was night one of the gay guys would get a glass bottle broken upside his head.

Little girls and older women stretch their quadriceps in the street, one little girl doesn’t have any shoes. Her body’s small but sinewy, with the hidden power and grace of a gazelle underneath her small clothes. Her black hair stands in defiance to gravity and the wind as she takes off with other runners in the street. Her feet are probably used to the beating of gravel. Yet this is not America; there are more broken bottles and shards of glass in the streets here than there, more pebbles and rocks, and cigarettes and knives, and food wrappings and meat bones, grime and sewage and garbage and filth. Maybe she lives in one of those shanty houses I have passed before when driving into town, the houses where defeated old men with watery eyes stoop all day on the concrete steps outside of their one-room abode.

There’s a half eaten peach on the ground. Or maybe it’s an apple-a yellow apple illuminated in the last few rays of sunlight. A tall dark man with no shoes, yellow shorts, red shirt and bouncy arms takes long strides like a gangly slapstick clown. He reminds me of Goofy, the buck-toothed bumbling cartoon idiot of my childhood. In all of his bounce and spunk he looks removed from the greater scene of commotion around him. Suddenly he stops walking and bends over.

“What is he doing?” my cousin asks looking over her shoulder.

We lean forward and stare at this man’s black leathery feet. “Eech!” my cousin exclaims, holding her mouth. He sees the piece of fruit on the ground that flies have been sucking on in the heat, and that green claw-toed lizards have been watching. He picks up the fruit and bites it, nibbling and working at a piece in his mouth. That fruit must leave a gritty after-taste.

But he doesn’t spit the piece back out. Without a second thought Goofy flings the fruit over his shoulder like a superstitious woman would salt and simply walks away. Meanwhile Subway, the food chain sponsoring the marathon, provides free beverages and six-inch sub sandwiches at a minimal cost in the shade.

***

All of these sights merge like splotches of color and light and funnel back to this memory of a documentary I saw in the fall of 2006. A story of poverty, AIDS, and life in one of Kenya’s largest slums called Kibera. There droopy-eyed children sniff glue to stave off hunger. My mind settles on this particular frame of a man, weepy-eyed and snot-nosed, smiling as he cuts his non-existent fingernails with a crude metal toenail clipper. He just keeps clipping and clipping and clipping and clipping. I hope that the clipper is too dull to do any damage, but wouldn’t that be something if it wasn’t? And he is just happily cutting away at his flesh because having no food or no job, or no family or no inspiration, or no medicine makes him find pleasure in all the pain other people take an Advil to erase.

This predicament of this nameless man I’ll call Clipper reminds me of how I felt as a child encountering homeless people for the first time in a shopping area of South Jamaica, Queens. My step-mother took me and my siblings on a shopping trip for school supplies and clothes. The streets were crowded and this big white statue that looked like a two-dimensional cut-out of a man towered above me. One or two more of these statues were dispersed throughout the square. Someone yanked my arm, I think it was my older sister, and I reluctantly tore my gaze away from the statues. But my eyes landed on something else instead.

A woman huddled around a slim tree, clutching her shopping cart. She wore a big dingy coat despite the summer heat, and watched us as we hurried by. Her face was oily and her lips were big and chapped. She was asking for a dime. Just ten cents. Hadn’t anyone seen her, and if they did why was everyone walking away? My eyes lingered on her for a moment, and then I asked my step-mother for a dime. She did not give me the dime and I think she said something like “If we give to one then we’ll have to give to all.” But what’s wrong with giving to all if it’s just ten cents, can’t most people afford to spare a dime?

I dreamt that someday I would stop and listen to what they had to say and take them in, the poor women that littered the streets in this part of town. I imagined building this woman a large pink house with many bathrooms and soft warm beds, and she could invite her friends if she wanted to. She could take a bath and cut her nails that were brown and too long. She could go to the dentist like I do, and get free toothbrushes and stickers and candy. I was in elementary school then, but now that I’m in college I know that change is not that simple.

If I were actually on the Empire State Building (which I went to maybe two or three times in elementary school) viewing the world, I’d step back and stoop down, on my knees and pray to God that he or it would stop the cycle of poverty and sickness humans have created and justified since the world began spinning. But I’m sure many people already have.

“We didn’t start the fire,” sings Billy Joel. “It’s been burning since the world’s been turning.” It’s probably nice to think that we haven’t started any fires, even tiny ones. Yet each of us perpetuates inequality in some way for callused-hand laborers who grow the tomatoes we eat in our Burger King cheeseburgers, the sauce on our pasta and pizza pies. We perpetuate it, but is it our fault? The world makes people crazy. More specifically all people have the potential to have a psychotic break or experience breaks from consciousness due to difficult or warranted circumstances. Is “craziness” one way that we cope, one way we escape and even reject reality?

***

I’ve experienced fits of violent and passionate feelings. Usually in dreams but not always. The exceptions were times I felt extremely angry and images sped through my mind of fiery and combustible things. In dreams I mostly saw myself. Calm at first, but then there’d be this snap in my ears, like the crunching and breaking of tree bark right before someone yells “Timber!” I’d end up smashing the television into the mirror and tearing apart my mother’s blue and white feather pillows with my hands, and throwing white figurines and statues into the walls and wooden cabinets, and then breaking off a chair leg to bash in the cabinet doors and knock down picture frames, and just completely inverting my whole broken up and twisted apartment on its head in the shape of an upside-down triangle, as feathers and sparks showered down around me.

I was superhuman. I felt the adrenaline, the grand rapids rushing through my chest. I remember that I was scared as I dreamt because I heard the door buzzer, which meant Mom was home from work. On the verge of tears I wanted to clean up the mess I had made. I sprang forward in the bed, my shirt cool from sweat. Somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling of being outside of my skin, like an extraterrestrial floating in a corner of the ceiling. I scanned the room, the mirror was intact, the TV whole. There were no drifting feathers. But it had seemed so real. My eyes were clammy and felt stuck like I couldn’t close them. Then Mom came in, fuchsia lipsticked and high black bunned. She rubbed my neck and forehead asking if I felt better. Her hands were cold. I grimaced.

“Ooh Jay, you’re sweatin’ bad. You have a fever,” she said.