For the first week I am restricted to the ward. They want to make sure I don’t go rabbit and jump the fence.
I am bored, bored, bored, bored. I rather thought being in a mad house would be more interesting. I am still put out by the whole no basket weaving thing. I tell you when Chinese Karaoke night begins to look good to you, you know your life has taken a wrong turn somewhere. Imagine being trapped in a doctors waiting room 24/7 without even the old national geographic to browse through and you have it.
There is a TV, but over half the residents are Asian and they camp out in the TV room, making sure the station stays forever on the Asian language channel. I became a fan of the crime fighting noodle chief.
After the first week I am allowed to explore the rest of the facility. Down stairs there is an activity room a computer room and a small store where the residents are taught how to run a cash register,. The store has coffee, real coffee. It costs a dollar. We residents are given a ten dollar a week allowance. I am thinking I may have to switch from my camels to hand rolled, ten bucks, it don’t go far.
Activities room that sounded promising, still considering my last encounter with ‘activities’ I approached the room with some trepidation.
First thought, ( So this is what happens when the roomer room kids forget to put away their toys.) The activities room is a bright sunny room with several long tables, a couple of sewing machines, a sitting area with a round coffee table covered with magazines. Every table top,every semi flat surface is covered with things, odd bits and bobs, material, plastic toys, a few old and war scarred GI Joes.
Even though there was much evidence of activity laying about the only one in the room doing anything was one little Asian woman bent over a sewing machine. The other people in the room were all sitting around the coffee table thumbing through magazines, or playing with dolls.
This is Rose’s domain. Rose is five foot two with eyes of corn flower blue a mass of long tangles of white hair with a large purple silk flower stuck in it. She struck me as a Pekingese sort of woman, short, fluffy, cute, and rather over excitable.
“Hi there,” I introduced myself to her.”New here, just need a corner to set up in so I can do a bit of painting.”
“Ohh ohhhh, oh, hummm., well, we really don’t have a lot of paint.” She tells me, practically vibrating in place with nerves.
“Not to worry I have my own.” I hold up my yellow tackle box. “Even have my own canvases, so not to worry.” I smile.
I had brought down some of my collages and she seemed impressed. But then I figure people are overly impressed when mad people do anything creative, their judgment standards are lowered.
“Ohh your so creative.”. She croons.
“Where can I set up?” I ask.
“Ohh hum ohh, have you ever made dolls?”
“Dolls? No I don’t make dolls, I paint, make beaded jewelry.”
“Ohh there are so many wonderfully creative people making dolls these days.”
She turns and flutters off returning with doll magazine, which she shoves into my hands. On the cover a leering Rhett Butler
I try to hand the magazine back but nothing doing, she flutters off to fetch more doll magazine.
“I so love creative people.” She says. “ You know, I tap dance. There’s a group of us, the post menopausal women’s tap dancing group. And I walk on stilts at charity events.”
I can’t help the image in my head. This fluffy little white haired woman tap dancing on stilts and then I imagined her tap dancing on stilts with a group of short older women, all tap dancing on stilts, line dancing on stilts. I imagine her doing the can can on stilts.
“oh now the dolls, let me show you so many lovely dolls being made these days.”
I try again to hand the magazines back. Being as nice as I can about it. She hands me more doll magazines.
“Yes, I know, many people doing wonderful things with soft sculpture. But I paint, do collages, sometimes I make beaded jewelry. Can I set up in a corner of that table over there?” I look over to a table that looks a bit less cluttered then the others.
Once more I try to hand the magazines back to her, juggling to keep hold of my tackle box.
“I really don’t care for dolls. I paint. Thank you but I really don’t have any interest in dolls.”
I am being very very nice. I hate dolls.
You can use the sewing machines and I have lots of scrap cloth. I bet you had lots of dolls and made all their clothes didn’t you?”
Ohh yes I had dolls. Lots of them. My grandmother imagined having a granddaughter who was cute and giggly in pretty dresses and hair ribbons, cooing over dolls and running from spiders. She did everything in her power to make me that girl. Her efforts in this regard did nothing but annoy us both.
I got dolls, lots and ,lots of dolls. Every birthday, Christmas, even Easter. I got dolls. I wanted Lincoln logs, I got dolls. I wanted an erector set, I got dolls. I wanted a bow and arrow set I wasn’t surprised I got dolls. One memorable Christmas I got a doll you actually fed Imitation baby food to and it crapped it’s diapers. I held that doll wondering exactly how you are supposed to feel when your grandmother gives you a present that is supposed to shit on you.
I turn to her and really this doll thing is starting to work my nerves.
“Actually the only thing I ever did with my Barbies was strip them naked shave their heads and throw them at passing cars.”
“Ohh but why oh why would you do such a thing?” She puts her hand to her face her corn flower blue eyes wide with horror. All conversation in the room stops and everyone turns and looks at me with shock.
“Why would you do such a thing?” She repeats her voice trembling.
I look around the room at all the horrified faces and I can’t help but think that being in a mad house the standard of shocking behavior should be set somewhat higher than a little prepubescent Barbie mayhem.
Look at her and completely deadpan I tell her.
“It was one of my first performance art pieces.”
“Performance art?” He hand still to her cheek her voice still trembling.
“Yes, I called it. ‘Plastic women never know when to stop smiling.
“Well they are made of plastic aren’t they? They can’t stop smiling.” She said.
Finally convinced of my unsuitable nature for dolls she finally allows me to hand back the doll magazines.
“If you should change your mind.”
“I’ll be sure to let you know. Now if I could just set up over there? I’ll just clear off a little space shall I?”
“Ohhh oihh, hmm, ohh yes now over here.”
She leads me to the sewing machines where an Asian woman is busy sewing bits of cloth together.
“This is Carol, she is working on a really wonderful quilting project.”
“I don’t quilt.”
“Ohh quilts these days are soo creative. I attended a modern quilt exhibit and I was just blown away.”
“Yes, yes I know, many people have been doing great things in modern quilting. But I don’t quilt, thank you.”
Ohh lord she is handing me quilting magazines.
“And this project we are working on is soo wonderful We are making quilted sleeping bags for the homeless.”
“Yes, I’m sure it’s a wonderful project but I don’t…”
She hands me a little brochure about this quilting project. On the cover of the brochure a drawing of what looks like an unkempt, bearded, very sad giant patchwork caterpillar. (Poor sad caterpillar who has lost his hookah).
“I’ve been involved with this project for three years. You see we make the top quilt here then send it off to a woman’s shelter where they do the top quilting and the zipper. Then they get handed out free to the homeless.”
(Three years? She’s been doing this for three years. Why is it that I have never seen a single homeless person wearing one? If a giant patchwork caterpillar were inching it’s way down the streets of San Francisco, I’m pretty sure that I would have noticed.)
Carol is busy sewing scraps of cloth, Rose is busy talking and as she is more than capable of handling both sides of the conversation my mind wanders off contemplating the question.
Three years she’s been working on these things and I’ve never seen one actually in use.
I know what she thinks she is doing. Her good intentions surrounds her like an overly sweet perfume. Quilts to her mean home and family. I can see her imagining the women in the shelter all gathering around and quilting together in a lovely picture out of some dull chick flick. Empowering themselves with shared stories of life’s miseries over the warm quilt. And she sees the homeless person receiving the quilt as some colorful warm reminder of home and care. All good things, why haven’t I ever seen one?
First problem the colorful nature of the gift. The homeless by and large have the same survival instincts as pigeons. They want to blend in with the surroundings, not stand out. You stand out you get noticed most often by people you don’t want to be noticed by. Also dark drab colors don’t show dirt as much.
I lightly finger the fabric Carol is so busy sewing. It’s the lightest cheapest summer dress material. That would last all of five minutes on the street.
It is made with a very long zipper. Zippers get jammed with hard use and a broken zipper must be replaced, this would be difficult for a homeless person to do.
The most popular blanket on the streets is the army green wool felt blankets. They are made for hard use, can air dry, and best of all even when damp will still keep a body warm.
Quilts on the other hand take in moisture like a sponge. When wet a quilt is nothing but a heavy heat sapping mess. Air dry a quilt and you have a damp quilt. Laundry I would think is not high on the homeless what do I do with this dollar list.
Three years, she has been doing this for three years and in three years she hasn’t once thought if what she is doing is in anyway useful. So wrapped up in her good intentions all reality is blissfully ignored. There are times I really hate liberals. Honestly sometimes they seem to think that if you have good intentions you need never bother about using your head.
(Be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice) The thought running through my head like a mantra. (Be nice be nice, be nice, she means well be nice)
“I’m sure it’s a wonderful project but I don’t quilt.”
She hands me a video tape.
“You can watch this it will tell you all about it. People are doing this in cities all over the country.”
(Ohh my God. ) I imagine all the wasted effort going on all over the country. People churning out thses ugly useless things, feeling very very good about themselves. (A Fucking video tape. People all over doing this and not one actually taking even a minute to think about the homeless as other than a sad abstraction a thing to work out the personal karma on.)
(Be nice, be nice, be nice)
“Really it’s nice, but I just don’t quilt.”
She finally gives up and allows me to clean off a space on a table. She flutters around worriedly as I move things.
“Please be careful.” She mumbles something about a project. I am being careful, I swear.
I lay out my brushes, I take out a couple of tubes of paint.
“Be careful please don’t make a mess.”
I’m being careful, I’m not making a mess. I am not taking my bright yellow tackle box and bashing nervous annoying little yattering munchkin over the head with it.
“No no bad mental patient, eat your own crayons.” I wrestle one of my water color pens out of mouth of a man who looks like an Evil Buddha.
I give up. Pack away my brushes and paints and take my yellow tackle box and go back up stairs.