Crazy Jim versus Tripping Jesus
I moved back to my hometown five years ago, having been away for four years. Two years prior I moved to a nearby town because living near Three Mile Island freaked me out in the wake of 9/11. (I started driving around with all my cash on hand, sometimes $1000, in case I had to suddenly flee.) Moving back to my hometown at age 28 was both a result of my trajectory of failure and itself an impetus for further deterioration. That’s when my accrual of fuck-ups really started snowballing into an increasingly entropic life.
I moved into a 3rd floor room above the town’s sole bar and ended up staying there for three years. “Great move,” people would chide, “you living above a bar.” I would assure them that I did not in fact have a fireman’s pole to transport me into my favorite barstool. In many ways, this arrangement actually curtailed my heroic drinking. I was late in my rent by the third week, so I had to be mindful of the owner’s whereabouts when I went down there.
Twice, I even had the chutzpah to ask the owner if he could spot me a 12-pack. A drunk’s drunk, he surprisingly obliged. I even worked in the kitchen on occasion, as the lazy cook outsourced dishwashing duties to me. My payment? A 12-pack and food. The owner could’ve rightfully insisted on me working off my rent, but he didn’t. In spite of this liberal attitude, I found it prudent to avoid the place when he was there. When I started to hover around $1000 in arrears, there was only one bartender whose presence didn’t deter my patronage. He was the cool bartender who served me when I was 19, in spite of the fact that he studied criminal justice in college and was otherwise a law and order type.
The building was built in 1889. As one whose mindset is geared toward the paranormal, I will say that I did in fact experience some anomalous events there. Even a cursory understanding of haunting phenomena would lead one to conclude that the place could well be haunted. Aside from the question of how many derelicts would happen to die in a flop house, how many drunks’ spirits would gravitate to this house of spirits? How many drunk drivers’ last earthly experiences involved this bar?
On another eerie note with personal relevance, I found a death certificate from 15 years ago while rummaging through a dresser drawer in the hallway. The coroner’s name was Brian Willard [sic]. Had that been the name of the deceased, I’m sure I would have interpreted the find more ominously.
Without such metaphysical suppositions, the dilapidated place clearly exuded a spooky vibe. As you ascended the stairs in the darkly lit hallway, you came to what I dubbed “The Bat Cave.” This storage room was where hundreds or more of bats summered. They would, of course, find their way into the hallway and rooms. Whenever they weren’t away during hibernation, I developed the habit of not leaving my room or entering the building without a tennis racket at the ready.
I normally abhor killing something just because it is a nuisance, but I park my humaneness at the door when large pestilence fly. I became their Hitler who enjoyed the sport of Hallwayocaust. My last summer there, I eradicated at least 50 myself. To this day, I reflexively flinch whenever I catch sight of a bird in my peripheral vision.
Another aspect of this creepiness is harder to pinpoint without seeing it firsthand. Yet many who saw it were mesmerized. There was a sizable painting of a beautiful and sophisticated woman, in a red dress, that graced the spot next to my doorway. I would guess it dated from the 30s or 40s. There was something ineffable about this lady that either fascinated or creeped people out. The main question raised by the painting: how did her likeness come to grace such a rundown building? She was manifestly a classy lady, but my neighbors and I couldn’t help but speculate that maybe she was in fact simply a well-dressed prostitute who serviced mid-century businessmen and passers-through.
Her portrait was absolutely enthralling to the certifiably mentally ill. At one point I had two such neighbors, each of whom despised the other, who were totally captivated by her. It would not have surprised me to stumble upon one, or both, of them jerking off to this image of a pretty lady.
* * *
Whatever overall charm this otherwise spooky place had, that easy feeling was disrupted by the arrival of one of the aforementioned mentally ill. While disrupting our frat-like and peaceful atmosphere, he nonetheless fit in, in a way. For my part, he suckered me into his orbit his first night when he offered me a six-pack in exchange for some soup and donuts. Quite a Faustian bargain. Everyone, including the cops, referred to him as “Crazy Jim.” Never has a moniker been so apt.
Crazy Jim was a paranoid schizophrenic who smoked crack. To an abnormal psychologist, he was a twofer. To me, he was an amusement, an irritant, a source of beer, and, if nothing else, a case study. I was vaguely familiar with mental illness in general and had come to know several crackheads. I didn’t understand the appeal of crack, nor did they typically relate to my alcoholism. Actually, I can somewhat relate because of the cacoethes I occasionally experience while drinking, listening to music, or playing tennis. Unable to give myself completely to the moment, I start thinking about how I’ll get drunk or play tennis tomorrow, or what song I’ll pop in next.
Jim fit the profile of the addict who was always either stealing from you or giving you stuff. I’ve seen the type before and since; it’s like a form of bipolarity. I wondered if, in the mania of chasing the crack dragon, they were able to keep a precise running tally. “Let’s see, Dude bummed four smokes and two beers last night, but I stole $5 and he gave me some soup, so…” And if such a crackhead in your life is just a casual friend, they will generally leave your life unexpectedly. Hence it’s up to chance whether you come out ahead or behind on the implicit arrangement. Call it playing the rock market.
By Jim’s own account, he was an army veteran who currently worked for the CIA. When I mentioned that I used to teach philosophy, it just so happens that he used to do that as well. With all his diverse experience and talents, he was our own little Benjamin Franklin. A neighbor and I started calling him “Bennie” for about a week, but he astutely corrected us every time.
Although its exact nature was sure to be classified, Jim’s training and expertise at the Agency equipped him with a preternatural acumen for espionage. Therefore, when he appeared at my door at 2:00 AM one night, threateningly claiming that he’d seen me get a minor girl drunk, he must have thought that I was in disguise when said incident occurred. I’m hoping that he assumed I was simply incognito, because if he knew the truth, that I was in fact a shape-shifter—well I just don’t want to think about it.
He could also sense when he was being surveilled. He knew, for example, that the landlord’s girlfriend had placed cameras in his room. He later accused me of being complicit in the matter, perhaps thinking that I enticed my li’l Lolitas by showing them naked pictures of him. He was so irate about this betrayal of his right to privacy—which, as a veteran, he would have fought for—that he stormed into the crowded bar and confronted the landlord. It might have signaled a lapse of judgment when he blew his cover, yelling, “I work for the CIA and I’ll have this place shut down!” The owner laughed casually and told him to go to bed, but I could tell that, deep down, he was nervous.
In recounting the episode to a friend one day as we got stoned, we concocted a scheme to actually put cameras in his room. We could stream the content to a website where people could watch Crazy Jim flipping out about being spied upon while actually being spied upon. While a great vision of both absurdist and realist art, I knew Jim had a vindictive streak. When he inevitably discovered the plot, he could turn the tables on me by relocating the cameras to my room. God forbid someone would log on to crazyjim.com at 3:00 AM, when they show those Girls Gone Wild infomercials, and see me—well, it wouldn’t be as bad as being outed as a shape-shifter.
* * *
Suffice it to say, Crazy Jim couldn’t last that long at Hotel Hell. I truly believe in the “Live and let live” philosophy, but this menace had to be stopped. Everyone had had enough. The last straw for me came the one night as he blared Black Sabbath for the umpteenth time in the middle of the night. (I neglected to mention his affinity for the dark side, which rounded out his mental illness and drug abuse in an unholy trinity.)
I knocked on Jim’s door and told him to turn down that “devil shit,” a blunt tactic that my neighbor had successfully used with him before. I told him that I needed sleep because I had to get up for work in two hours. He muttered dismissively. “Whatever,” he then forcefully added, “you don’t even show up half the time anyway!” True, but I didn’t want to waste a sick day when I was sober. He complied with my request, for about two minutes, then resumed playing it at an even louder volume.
I went downstairs to a vacant apartment to try to get some rest. After a solid five minutes or so of sleep, he burst in, ranting that I was part of the program that spied on him. Luckily, I bolted up right way and imposed my three inch height and 50 pound size advantage over him. With my physique of an out of shape athlete, he would need a lot of craziness to overcome this differential in a physical contest. It was fortunate that I got up so quickly, lest he start kicking me as I lay there. As I proceeded to get ready for work, he was storming up and down the hallway, loudly blathering that he was going to get us all.
I am nonviolent to the extent that I hate even hearing people argue. I even try to avoid killing bugs and other pests who are just doing their own thing (with the notable exception of the bats, of course). Yet I truly wanted to throttle him that morning. So, what was the proper thing to do?
Become a childish tattletale, of course.
Yes, I “told” on him to the landlord. I was in hot water with him myself, both for being so deep in the hole as well as for my housekeeping habits. If you looked at the maelstrom in my room, you would think that a blind, junk-shooting paraplegic lived there. Who was I to complain about another tenant? Nonetheless, I wrote a well-written letter to the owner explaining what had happened. He already knew about Jim’s shenanigans, but he also had a place in his heart for a tenant whose rent was promptly paid by social services. The clincher was that I mentioned that Jim had a grudge against his girlfriend and was making threats against everyone in general. That proved to be the last straw, and my letter helped evict a mentally ill man in the beginning of winter.
Bad karma? Maybe a little, but others’ safety and well-being were involved. Over the next few weeks, my neighbor and I would mitigate this bad karma when on-his-meds Jim calmly sought to catch a few hours of sleep in his old room. We’d let him in and make sure he was out before the landlord arrived to open up the bar.
There’s a funny postscript on this part of the story. Not surprisingly, Crazy Jim claimed to have “powers.” I would not be surprised to find that certain mentally ill people do indeed have paranormal abilities. In fact, at least once Jim seemingly answered my desperate attempt to telepathically reach him to let me in when I was locked out in the cold.
More shocking was that the day he was about to be evicted, he inexplicably turned in his key and told the owner he was moving out. No matter how you slice it, that was just eerie. Did he use ESP to divine that he had no choice but to move? Did his common sense tell him that? Or, did he have cameras in the bar?
* * *
Two and a half years later, I was out smoking on the mission’s porch. I turned around to answer a tap on the shoulder and saw Crazy Jim, sporting that shitty grin, asking, “Remember me?”
“Holy shit!” I yelled, and actually physically recoiled. It instantly occurred to me that he was staying here and that he would seek to buddy up with me, a big man on mission. I played off my initial response as pleasant surprise. “Man, how are you doing? I was wondering if I’d ever see you again.” Yep, I can be as phony as they come. I blocked out his rambling answer, as I was trying to lower my exposure to nonsense.
As if mental illness were contagious, I muttered to myself as I walked away, “Fuck you karma.”
As Steve and I sat in the chapel for devotions the following morning, we were trying not to laugh aloud at another misfit who had arrived several days earlier. He was a middle-aged guy with long blond hair and a beard. When he first arrived at the mission, I observed him kneeling in awe in front of the stained glass picture of Jesus that greets you as you enter. He was touching it with one hand and had the other hand raised in the air in praise fashion. I’ve seen normal Christians come close to practicing idolatry when it comes to crucifixes, Bibles, and the like, but this guy’s fetishism was over the top.
During devotions that morning, this guy continued his antics. He was repeatedly saying “Amen” and “Praise Jesus,” continuing with the hand in the air bit. I’m sure that just in case Jesus can’t audibly hear that he’s more than just alright with you, the hand waving is sure to get his attention.
The devotional leader that day, Ronald, was a black charismatic preacher who ordinarily got off on this type of thing. I can imagine him exhorting his flock, “Let the Spirit flow through you, my brothers!” Yet he was having none of that from this particular brother. He sternly told the guy that he normally appreciated that kind of feedback, but today he wanted to make sure his message got across unimpeded. Either the Holy Spirit was not allocated floor time in his lesson plan, or he didn’t like Whitey stealing the brothers’ worship style. It’s bad enough they had to suffer through the Eminem era. Most likely, like me, he couldn’t figure out if this guy was a genuine zealot, a drug addict, or just a plain nut. I’d say it was probably all of the above.
I slipped a note—yes, this whole experience has brought about a raft of juvenile behavior—to Steve that read, “That guy took the brown acid at Woodstock.” He grinned and fired one back that read, “No, he’s Tripping Jesus.”
Heads turned as I let out a sharp bark of a laugh. “Tripping Jesus” was great! It worked on an ambiguous level that the former poet in me relished. Did it mean that he was high on Jesus, or that he was Jesus tripping? “TJ,” as we started referring to him, continued similar antics over the next couple days. I assumed it was an aberration when he got into a heated argument with the desk manager about missing a large amount of money from his locker. Maybe the pressure of possibly being the messiah was getting to him. When Jesus flipped out at the temple, after all, there was mammon involved. Look it up; it’s in the middle.
* * *
We tend to think of conflict and fights in terms of polarization. The black guy and the white guy, the city slicker and the redneck, Russell Crowe and anyone who’s not Russell Crowe. Such dichotomous opposition does occur, but I’ve also seen a number of disputes occur between people of similar stations in life. Two black guys may seek to fight in an all-white bar, or two punks may have beefs with each other while in a mainstream venue, and so on. I swear I once almost saw a “cripple fight,” à la South Park, over a game of pool. Had it gone down, I didn’t know how it would be refereed; isn’t everyone a winner at the Special Olympics?
Whereas the other type of fight occurs because of the perceived threat one poses to the other’s values, this type occurs because one is seeking alpha status as the representative of that type. I’m sure there’s sociological and psychological theories about this, but this isn’t a research project.
The point is, based on either criteria, Steve and I could see that TJ and Crazy Jim, whom we now started calling “CJ,” could be headed for a showdown. They were both nuts, even by mission standards, but CJ was oriented toward the dark side, whereas TJ manifested dysfunctional religiosity. We began to make imaginary bets on how it would occur and who would triumph. Steve didn’t know CJ, but he could tell that he was “way, way out there.”
Steve put his “money” on CJ for the craziness factor, but I thought that TJ’s size factor would win out. Plus, of course, he had the Lord on his side. We agreed that it would be a public spectacle. Fights over real matters may take place in private, but bullshit machismo fights are more likely to occur with an audience. The mission was no place to be evicted from for trivial reasons, but I’ve seen more rational people engage in brinkmanship under absurd pretexts.
I might be coming across as blasé here, but, as I said above, I hate fighting. The last two times I saw a bar fight coming on, I just left. For me to abandon an undrunk beer speaks to how repugnant I find it. I’ve played my part in breaking up fights, but I pretty much gave up such peacemaking when my dad warned me that he had seen a lot of guys get beaten up for doing so.
Speaking of my dad, it’s interesting that I inherited neither his fighting instinct nor my mom’s aggressive argumentativeness. Their alcoholism sure was handed down to me, but apparently the pussy gene is recessive. My dad used to get into a lot of fights before I was born. He stopped when he almost killed someone in a boxing bout in the navy. Yet that rough-and-ready mindset never left him to the day he died. About two years before his end came, while his body was being ravaged by cancer, I saw him dump a beer over someone’s head at a picnic because he felt disrespected. This guy was no wimp, either. He was roughly my age and was doing back flips in one of those inflatable bounce houses that was rented for the kids.
He was a crazy motherfucker who didn’t seem likely to back down from anyone. Yet he had a great look of fear in his eyes when my dad gave him that beer shower and shook him by the shoulder, saying, “I got a problem with you, buddy…” The situation quickly de-escalated and, as often happens in these situations, the two Carls went on to become buddies and card partners for the rest of the day.
As he drove me back to my place, a little role reversal was in store for my dad. I chastised him for almost getting in a fight that he already told me could kill him. All to make a point? His obstinacy was typical of any good drinker. “Goombada” (his term of endearment that I guess was a variation of the Italian “goombah”), “I knew I’d be okay because I had an ace up my sleeve. You. I know you’ve gotten your buddies’ backs before, even though you’re not into fighting. I respect that, by the way.
“So I knew you’d have your old man’s back. And you were two inches from me when I confronted him, shoulder to shoulder. And hell, you even put down your beer! He knew that if he came at me he’d have to deal with you. Plus, he was sitting down, so I had him myself before he even got up. Thanks son. I love you.”
As I was writing this, I had a sentimental urge to hear a Bob Seger song, as he was my dad’s favorite singer. I turned on the radio in hopes of hearing one, and sure enough the next song I heard was his “Running Against the Wind.” This extra space represents where the teardrop hit the page.
* * *
CJ v. TJ occurred after devotions tonight, about four days into CJ’s stay. Whereas people just thought TJ was a fruit loop, CJ was butting heads with everyone. I’m surprised he made it this long in a place that celebrates the Lord. I thought their showdown was going to occur earlier in the day in the lunch line. An argument had transpired, and I heard CJ loudly say, “Say you’re sorry! I want some respect! You don’t know what I can do.” There were no staff on hand, but other residents were interceding, telling them to cool it. In a quiet voice, TJ said he was sorry and magnanimously extended his hand for a shake. CJ accepted it and responded, rather incongruously, “You’re welcome.” Point CJ.
That proved to be only a prelude for the main event. I only happened upon the aftermath, but as we were headed down to the dorm, one of them bumped into the other. Sorry if this showdown is anti-climactic, but it was merely a two-shove contest. CJ shoved TJ, and TJ pushed back. Everyone cleared out of the way. The desk manager, a tough and intimidating guy, got in between them. He loudly ordered them both out. They were being discharged and could pick up their things the next day. CJ started to argue, but he was forcefully rebuked. They both left and I don’t know if anything further became of the matter. Maybe they smoked the peace pipe, packed with crack, afterwards.
So if you’re like me and hate to see a draw, I guess you’d have to score the “fight” for TJ because I was told that CJ was shoved a bit further. That was the argument I made to Steve concerning our wager. It really is too bad that they got kicked out, but they belong in other institutions, especially CJ. He’s a virus.
The whole episode, with the expectation that something bad was going to go down, possibly making life more difficult for the rest of us, left me stressed out. Fortunately, tomorrow is a Saturday and I have off from the kitchen. I could be away from the mission for 12 solid hours. I have already made arrangements to see the doctor.
My Russian Therapist