It didn’t look like I would be going to New York City that winter after all.
Neither would I be heading back to college in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Greyhound bus fare that my girlfriend Joylynn had wired me to escape over the Louisiana state line was waiting at American Express, but I wouldn’t be claiming it anytime soon. As I lay on the bed in the darkened ward, on the other side of barred windows the night sky over uptown New Orleans crackled with fireworks. It was New Year’s Eve of 1968 and bombs were exploding in Viet Nam. Both in Southeast Asia and within my own family, we were at war.
The world was on fire.
At that moment, I should have been on my way to a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg, walking down St. Mark’s Place dressed in an Afghani sheepskin coat, huddled arm-in-arm with Joylynn like Bob Dylan on his Freewheelin’ album cover. Joylynn’s Buffy Sainte-Marie- like mane of straight Indian hair would be whipping in a gust of winter wind and smelling of patchouli; we would be sharing hot fish-and-chips wrapped in a cone of newspaper. Or perhaps I should have been with the other angry soisant-huitards—the student generation of sixty-eight, as they later became known — as they made love in the corridors of the Sorbonne and prepared to take over the university that May. Or with Dr. King in Memphis, singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Or back in San Francisco, a city I’d visited last July during the Summer of Love, climbing Union Street through a chill fog, on the way from the basement of City Lights Bookstore to the literary discussion group at Gavin Arthur’s house. Or, at the very least, I should have been with my friends in the French Quarter, dancing in the raucous third bar of La Casa de los Marinos on Decatur Street, raising a Dixie beer to toast in the year that would tear the globe apart.
Instead, on the eve of the revolution, I was on Rosary Three, the “acutely disturbed” ward of St. Vincent DePaul, a mental hospital run by the Daughters of Charity. Originally founded as the Louisiana Retreat Asylum for the Insane, it was a forbiddingly gothic brick building straight out of a Dickens novel. That evening, as far as I could tell, I wasn’t disturbed, acutely or otherwise, or not until the old man in the bed next to mine tried to commit suicide by ramming a sharpened pencil up his nose. After the orderlies cleaned up the blood and buckled him down with leather restraints, he spent the rest of the evening bucking in his harness, whimpering like a wounded hound. Inside, I was also bucking in my harness, but my drained pallor probably read more as shell-shocked. I felt betrayed by the very people who had brought me into the world.
How could my parents do this to me?
On the other side of the window, passersby on Henry Clay Avenue shouted “Happy New Year!” to each other as fire crackers popped in the distance like the approaching Tet Offensive. My teeth clenched every time I thought about the war, to which thousands of young men my age were being shipped off every month to slaughter people they didn’t know and to be killed by them. I would have moved to Canada or shot off my little toe or become a conscientious objector before letting that happen to me. The night before, in the basement room where I slept at my grandparents’ house on South Clark Street, I’d been writing a fiery poem denouncing the war. The smudged page was now packed among other papers, along with a few pairs of jeans and army-surplus shirts, in the vinyl valise I rescued from the basement before the cops nabbed me. That had been my fatal flaw: the poetry manuscripts for which I returned home. Otherwise, I would have made it to American Express, picked up Joylynn’s bus fare, and snuck out of the state on a Greyhound.
I would be free.
I berated myself: what a dumb decision. All for a few poems. But maybe I wanted to be caught, caged like Ezra Pound in Pisa after the war. Perhaps being committed to a mental hospital validated me as a poet like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and Allen Ginsberg, all of the tortured souls that I was reading. No, I decided, it would have proven my mettle more to go to New York and read my poetry to the audiences at St. Mark’s-on-the-Bowery. That was where I’d been heading, to the bohemian literary life I yearned for with every fiber of my pale, skinny body.
The deal had been this: I was to audit classes at New York University while I expanded my term paper on radical new fiction — the French nouveau roman, Beckett, Burroughs, Pynchon and other American postmodernists, although that term had yet to be invented —into a book. My mind was percolating with ideas. This was a semester of independent study I’d cooked up on my own, one that I called “Junior-Year-Abroad-at-Home,” because I hadn’t been able to afford to study at a European university that year. My professors at Florida Presbyterian College, whose innovative program was inspired by Antioch College, had approved my project enthusiastically. As a minor, all I needed was for my mother to sign the papers authorizing me to receive my scholarship money in New York.
But she would do so only on one condition: that I talked to her psychiatrist. Dr. Kyle Hamm taught experimental psychiatry at Tulane University and was an expert on adolescent schizophrenia. He would make the decision, although I’m sure that he had already made up his mind long before I showed up at his office.
“I know what you’re really going up there for,” my mother told me the day after an unusually tense Christmas. “To take drugs and hobnob with Communists. That beatnik college has destroyed your values.”
The previous morning, while my father had been driving us to the lavish Christmas spread that his sister put on every year in Metairie, he warned me that I shouldn’t talk to anyone.
“Not talk to anyone at Christmas?” Here we go, I thought. My hand grabbed the inside handle of the car door. I had put on a tie and plastered down my unruly hair. What more did they want?
“About your crazy ideas. What you said last year about napalming babies really upset your Aunt Genie.”
I told him to stop the car, then jumped out in the middle of traffic on Jefferson Highway and caught the pokey Kenner Local bus back to my grandparents’ house. I had Christmas dinner with them at my aunts’ run-down plantation house on Bayou Road. The Chauffe sisters were still recovering from World War I, and there nobody cared a hoot what I said about Vietnam. All over seventy, these French Creole ladies barely spoke English and were too busy yakking about food and people who had died long before I was born.
At the time, my long blond hair curled over my back collar — later it would creep down to the middle of my back — and according to my starched-shirt father, I dressed like a “hick.” My parents found out that I had been arrested at a Civil Rights demonstration during a garbage strike in St. Petersburg, after which I spent the night in jail with several of my professors and the striking black garbage men, and that I had organized a college march against the war. The dean called them to report that I had attended an off-campus “pot party.” An older poet—John Foret must have been thirty-five at the time—was hanging around the campus, turning us onto LSD. John, an on-the-road friend of Jerry Jeff Walker and Gypsy Lou Webb from the Golden Triangle of the New York/San Francisco/New Orleans circuit, was a devotee of Aleister Crowley, and told me he was a Satanist. That, of course, thrilled me.
On the other hand, I was an honors student on full scholarship, one who had begun to publish his writing, and figured that my mind was my own to blow. I was following Rimbaud’s invitation for the young poet to “dérange tous les senses,” and Aldous Huxley’s advice to “cleanse the doors of perception.” I’m not sure how my mother found out about the protest marches or the Satanist poet or the LSD, but I really didn’t understand what she was so worked up about. After all, every other nineteen-year-old in the country was busy doing “our thing.” From Davey Crockett coonskin caps to acid trips to 401(k)s, that has been the synchronistic curse of our massive generation.
Once in New York, my mother envisioned me running the streets wild on dope, protesting everything she held sacred like those long- haired kids on the TV news. I entertained quite a different fantasy and saw myself having an intense conversation about the new aesthetics with Susan Sontag, smoking cigarettes over espressos in her West Village kitchen. Why couldn’t Susan Sontag have been my mother? Why did I have to be born into the most ignorant backwater in the country, with its racial turmoil and police brutality and corrupt politics and nineteenth- century manners? I intended to split this jailhouse as soon as I could, to “shun that house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun.”
So on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, after lunch at my grandparents’ house on South Clark Street, where I had lived since I was sixteen, my mother and I took the streetcar to Dr. Hamm’s office on Napoleon Avenue near St. Charles. My mother conferred with him for an hour while I waited in the reception area, engrossed by the centipede crawling across the wall in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy. Finally I was called in.
I intended to dispense with this hassle pronto.
Dr. Hamm didn’t rise to greet me when I entered the office. I reached down to shake his hand as he was lifting his prosthetic right leg to cross it over the left knee. He winced as the metal joint squeaked and
I plopped down into a chair, seething with resentment. The one-legged psychiatrist was square-jawed and Germanic, with a snub nose and beady eyes, the face of an Alabama farm boy. Because of his name, Dr. Hamm reminded me of a pink piglet, that is, when he wasn’t calling to mind Samuel Beckett’s protagonist Hamm from Endgame.
He asked me what the heck I planned to do up there in New York City, shaking his head and leaning forward with a smirk, as if I were expected to tell him a dirty joke. He probably assumed that I was going to spill my boyish guts about crash pads and balling chicks and dropping tabs, but instead, knowing he was a college professor, I laid it on thick, real thick. That was the one thing I knew how to do, impress college professors. While he sat observing me through steepled fingers, I rattled on breathlessly about how the medium was the message that had reconfigured our consciousness in this McLuhanesque age; how contemporary fiction was reflecting this new phenomenological mode of fragmented perception with the boundaries between characters dissolving; how chronology was warping to fit the time bends of an Einsteinian universe; and how our loss of faith in the objective authority of a supreme narrator reflected the death of God.
Take that, I thought. Maybe this professor would be so impressed by my radical theories that he’d invite me to deliver a paper at Tulane. Then my mother would have to eat crow.
“I see,” he said, once again lifting the creaking prosthetic ankle over his good knee. “Are you ever afraid you are dissolving?”
“The whole cosmos is a ‘Heraclitean fire,’” I said, quoting the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Everything is in flux.” I assumed that would end the conversation. I’d demonstrated that I was smart. Smart people weren’t crazy, were they?
“Tell you what, I think you need to stay here in New Orleans and see me three times a week.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I snorted. Who did this crippled piglet think he was?
“Your mother and I wouldn’t want you to go to New York and have a breakdown.”
“Neither is going to happen,” I said, leaping up, “me staying in New Orleans or having a breakdown in New York.” Unlike most nineteen-year-olds, I knew exactly what I was doing, or thought so at the time.
“Then we’ll have to put you in the hospital.” I
laughed out loud. “Who do you think I am, Ezra Pound?” That was the most absurd thing I’d ever heard, like the plot of some gothic novel. Wait till they heard about this in New York.
At that point my mother walked back into the room, and Dr. Hamm shot her a complicit look of concern. “The doctor thinks,” she said, “that in your condition you need — ”
“What the hell is going on here?” I demanded.
I was surrounded.
Dr. Hamm picked up the telephone to call the Coroner’s Office. I listened just long enough to understand that he was arranging my commitment. I bolted from the office, ran down the stairs and onto Napoleon Avenue. At the corner of St. Charles I spotted a phone booth. I dug into the pocket of my jeans, where all I could come up with was a handful of change and a few crumpled dollar bills. My mind was racing. I knew that in New Orleans the coroner could commit people without a court appearance but figured that the police jurisdiction to enact the commitment ended at the state line. I dropped a nickel, collect, to Joylynn in Ft. Lauderdale, who was home with her parents for the holidays.
“What a horror show!” I gasped, shaking my shaggy head in disbelief. “My mother’s creepy doctor is going to commit me to the loony-bin. I need to get out of the state fast. Please wire me twenty-five dollars care of the downtown office of American Express so I can take the bus back to St. Pete. And meet me on campus tomorrow night, if you can.”
It would take several hours for the wire to go through, so I decided to stop by my grandparents’ house on South Clark Street to collect my manuscripts and a change of clothes. When I arrived, Mémère, my mother’s mother, was sitting in her cane-backed rocking chair in the parlor reading The Times-Picayune.
“What are your plans for New Year’s Eve?” she asked. “Do you want an artichoke?”
“Pas parler maintenant,” I shot back in the kitchen French she was teaching me. Adrenaline pumping, I sped downstairs into the cold, dank basement, threw my papers into the vinyl valise with which I’d traveled home, and then raced out of the side door into the narrow alley between the raised shotgun houses.
Hands resting on their holstered guns, two policemen were walking up the alley as I was scurrying down it, clutching to my stomach the valise filled with poems.
“You must be Jimmy,” one of the cops drawled in syrupy tones. “Come with us, young fellah, and everything will be all right.”
“Where are you taking me?” In a panic I glanced up and down the alley.
“They say you been sick and need to go to the hospital.” The cop grabbed me by the elbow and yanked.
They dragged me out of the alley and toward the squad car parked in front of the house. Mémère was standing on the front porch, wringing her hands around a dish towel, tears streaming down her face. She caught my eye as they were shoving me into the back seat of the car. I felt so sorry for her, having to witness this. After his death, her teenage son Jimmy’s mangled bicycle had been delivered home in a police car. Now she must think his namesake was a common criminal.
“Hear you a college boy now,” said one of the cops, turning around to face me, a smarmy smile pasted on his luncheon-meat face. “Where you go to high school, son?”
“Ben Franklin,” I said, bracing for the response. Franklin was the nerdy college-preparatory public high school popularly associated with Jews, sissies, and Civil Rights activists.
“Figures,” the cop said, swinging his big belly back around.
We rode without speaking until we reached the looming iron gates of St. Vincent DePaul Hospital, where orderlies rushed out to escort me to the third-floor acute ward called Rosary Three, still clutching the vinyl valise of poems to my stomach. In some memories of this moment—one that sliced my life like no other into a clear before and after — the cops turned on their siren and flashing red lights as we sped through the violet twilight of the last day of 1967. During those final moments of childhood, I studied the menacing city of my birth through the grimy squad-car window, saying goodbye to the boy I was leaving behind.
“Whack her ball,” barked Miss Hinds, the head psychiatric nurse. “Knock Gretchen out of the way.”
We were playing croquet on the hospital lawn, part of the recreational therapy that would turn us into well-adjusted human beings. When I found out that Nurse Hinds was a Unitarian, I loaned her the copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that my professor Dr. Carter had sent me in a care package. “A good read,” she told me later, returning the book, “but you’ve got to admit Randle McMurphy is crazy.” Now she was trying to teach us what was sane.
“But I can just as easily go around Gretchen’s ball,” I protested, angling my mallet to take a slant shot through the wicket. “Why would I want to hit her?”
“So she won’t win,” Nurse Hinds said, “and you will!”
“But if I can get where I’m going without bothering somebody else—”
“That’s not how you play the game,” our Nurse Ratchet insisted.
"We’re playing love croquet,” Gretchen explained to her. “Non- confrontational, harmonious. . . . ”
“You’ll never win that way,” Nurse Hinds said.
“We don’t want to win,” Gretchen said, shaking her untamed mane of hair and stomping her foot.
“Then why are you playing the game?”
“Because you’re making us,” Gretchen said. “I’d just as soon be reading T.S. Eliot.”
I had met Gretchen Hirt during my first few days on the ward. She was my age and had been reading The Wasteland and Other Poems, so we hit it off right away. The musician Al Hirt’s daughter had been a rising starlet in Hollywood, but something happened —she never told me what — and her family had shipped her home directly to Rosary Three. We read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” aloud to each other. Gretchen didn’t want to play their stupid reindeer games any more than I did and seemed no loonier than I was. Both budding artists, together we tried to figure what we were doing among the manic screamers, saucer-eyed catatonics, schizoid babblers, drug-addicted nurses, society-dame alcoholics, and failed suicides.
This was what we came up with: We’re here because we’re crazy and we’re crazy because we’re here. To stay sane, we would skip up and down the corridor, holding hands and singing our Alice in Wonderland jingle. Which in itself must have seemed pretty nuts, although we thought it was hilarious. What most disturbed us was the possibility that our sanity was a delusion and we were, in fact, as bonkers as they claimed.
And that we’d never get out of there. W
henever I tried to convince Nurse Hinds that I wasn’t mentally ill but that my family had committed me for my ideas, I would get a knowing look: they all say that. Evidently the most telling symptom of being crazy was insisting that you weren’t. The only person who didn’t believe I was mad was the patient down the hall who accused me of being an undercover psychiatrist planted on the ward to spy on her thoughts.
Gretchen dreamed of returning to her acting career at the Gallery Circle Theater in the French Quarter. Now that the Junior-Year-Abroad- at-Home plan was squashed, I wanted nothing more than to get back to my classes. Gretchen’s plan was to sweet-talk her daddy, who was paying for the private room in which she sat on a satin-quilted peach bedspread in a matching satin-quilted robe. My own plan was hatched when Joylynn took the bus from Florida to New Orleans, checked into a cheap motel on Tulane Avenue, and I snuck her in as my cousin.
“I spoke to the American Civil Liberties Union,” she told me, smoothing the wrinkles out of her paisley mini-dress after the long bus trip. “They’ve been looking for a test case for these coroner commitments and think you could be it. I can’t believe how crooked Louisiana is. I brought the A.C.L.U. lawyer some letters our professors wrote about what a stable, hard-working student you are. The only other idea is that Dr. Carter said he would adopt you. But the lawyer said you can’t just adopt somebody else’s kid out from under them. Bummer.”
While I waited for the A.C.L.U. lawyer’s visit, I was kicked out of the ward dorm. The other patients, including the old man who tried to kill himself by ramming the pencil up his nose, didn’t want to share it with a hippie. I was considered a hippie because I fashioned a mobile out of multi-colored tissue paper that I hung from the lamp next to my bed. I also read and wrote all day and sometimes stared into the trippy kaleidoscope that Joylynn had brought me, muttering wow.
Much to my relief, I was transferred to a padded cell.
In my own windowless tile cell stripped of its padding, I could read and write well into the night, pretending that I was back at college. Every evening I fell asleep clutching the patchwork pillow that the artist Jeanne Meinke had stitched together and mailed to me from St. Petersburg. Jeanne’s husband, the poet Peter Meinke, was one of my professors, and she had covered the pillow with squares of leftover fabric from shirts she’d made for other faculty. She even enclosed a guide identifying the swatches: this square was from Peter’s shirt, that one from Eliot-scholar Dr. Carter’s, another one from theater director James Carlson’s, another from literary critic Robert Detweiler’s, another from artist Margaret Rigg’s. These weren’t people who pitied or even just liked me but those teachers I admired who actually believed in me, as if I were some imaginary creature like Tinkerbell. Whenever I put my head to the pillow, I could hear their distant clapping, better than any sleeping pill.
Yet Jeanne’s patchwork pillow wasn’t what Dr. Hamm had prescribed. Twice a day patients had to line up at the nurse’s station for their meds. Mine was Thorazine, a powerful antipsychotic sedative that caused tics. Rather than allow myself to be turned into another twitching ward vegetable drooling in the corridor, I stuck the Thorazines under my tongue before I took a gulp of water and swallowed. I should have flushed the pills down the toilet, but frugal hippie that I was, I stuffed them into a sock in my clothes drawer, hoping that I could trade them on the street for some pot or hash when I got out. Nurse Hinds discovered my stash and assumed that I was saving them up to do myself in.
I was put on suicide watch, called Constant Visual Contact. The door to my isolation cell was propped open, and chain-smoking black orderlies were stationed outside to observe me. I found out they weren’t being paid much and encouraged them to form a union and strike like the garbage collectors in St. Petersburg with whom I’d spent the night in jail. That bit of rabble-rousing got reported, and I was prohibited from speaking to the only normal people on the ward.
Everything I did to preserve my humanity made me appear crazier.
Three days a week I braced myself. I could hear Dr. Hamm’s aluminum crutch creaking down the corridor long before his Alabama farm-boy face appeared grinning at my door. Sitting in my isolation cell, he accused me of withdrawing. I wasn’t playing croquet right. I always had my nose in a book. I didn’t “share inner-feelings” during the screaming matches of group therapy. I was refusing medication and provoking the staff. Didn’t I want to get better? The crippled piglet shook his head, at a loss about what to do with me.
Unless I improved, there was always shock therapy. Or he might have to transfer me to Seton, the ward for disturbed adolescents where the average stay was two to three years. I’d heard that life on Seton involved twenty-four-hour-a-day group therapy and that every time patients there used the toilet, they were required to invite someone of the same sex to accompany them. That would have cured my withdrawal. And Seton’s buddy-up trips to the bathroom certainly would have discouraged me from exploring any homosexual proclivity, which I sometimes suspected was the real reason I was locked up. Dr. Hamm never broached this indelicate subject with me — and years later I would find out why.
My accountant father had a more down-to-earth idea. “Look, you’ve been perverted by The Communist Manifesto,” he told me, “and if you don’t come back to reality before the college’s insurance runs out, we’ll have to send you to Mandeville.” The state-run mental hospital across Lake Pontchartrain at Mandeville was a notorious snake pit from which few ever returned. But that gave me a clearer idea of why I was locked up in St. Vincent DePaul, which had less to do with The Communist Manifesto than with easy insurance money. The doctor and hospital were making out like capitalist bandits.
For people with good insurance, getting rid of a troublesome relative was a mere phone call away. Another convenient part of this system was that on Rosary Three, only relatives were allowed to visit patients, who were usually committed by their families. So one day my Seminole heroine Joylynn appeared holding hands with an A.C.L.U. lawyer, who was posing as my so-called cousin’s husband. Together the three of us huddled inside my isolation cell, conspiring in whispers. The young lawyer’s brow creased, studying me. To my relief, he finally observed that I didn’t belong there. So he would file a writ of habeas corpus, which meant that I would be scheduled to appear before a magistrate. Then if the judge didn’t release me on the spot, the lawyer would lodge a suit for involuntary detainment against the hospital, the doctor, and my parents. He explained that this would be a test case to challenge arbitrary coroner commitments in the state of Louisiana and warned me not to get my hopes up. The outcome was dicey.
One evening later that week, I was sitting with Joylynn in the recreational therapy room as rain lashed the wall of barred window panes and a January storm blew outside. Suddenly my mother and great-aunt Marguerite filled the doorway, their hair spiked straight up in rigid wind-whipped peaks like the demons in a Chinese opera. Joylynn cowered, and I grabbed her hand. She was my first real girlfriend, and in spite of the surroundings, I was beaming as I introduced her.
“What’s she doing here?” my mother asked, ignoring the introduction.
I let her have it. “Joylynn quit college during the second semester of her senior year, just before graduating, to stay in a motel on Tulane Avenue at her own expense to help me get through this. She loves and understands me, and I would be completely freaked out now if it weren’t for her.” I squeezed Joylynn’s hand tight, hanging on for dear life. “That’s what she’s doing here.”
My mother yanked a wad of photostats out of her purse. “Then I suppose this habeas corpus business is her doing.”
My great-aunt Marguerite, obviously along for moral support, stared at the floor. This was not how her generation did things. Nobody in her Creole family was ever put into what they called a “home,” and children did not sue their parents. Pepère decided these matters at the kitchen table over bowls of gumbo.
“Those papers,” I shouted, standing up to face my mother, “mean I’ll finally get to appear before a judge before I can be plucked off the street and locked up in your wintry tower.”
“Oh honey,” my mother said with a grimace, “we were trying to spare you that. Do you have any idea what a luuunacy hearing is like?”
I shot her a determined look. “Guess I’ll find out.”
After they left, Joylynn’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Does their hair always look like that?”
The next day I graduated downstairs, to Rosary Two.
My first visitor on the less restricted ward on the second floor was the Satanist poet, John Foret. He tagged along with my friend Lynn Bultman, who came to see me as soon as she heard I’d been promoted
from Acute. Dressed in flowing robes and draped with amulets, John, one of the most charming con men I’ve ever met, must have imagined himself a suitor like the poet Verlaine. He brought the mad young Rimbaud a single red rose, one which I never received. Lynn said that John traded my red rose for a dose of speed with a psych tech whom he chatted up along the way. As nuns floated along the breezeway in their sailboat wimples, John, Lynn, and I sat on the steps next to the building’s cornerstone (“Louisiana Retreat Asylum for the Insane, Founded by the Daughters of Charity in 1853”), talking about what was going down in the French Quarter and concocting an elaborate escape scenario that involved a fake laundry truck, stolen uniforms, and me being smuggled out in a cart of soiled linens.
I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. If only for a moment, I was back in the life.
The real world was still out there, difficult as it was to imagine, and my first week on Rosary Two brought one piece of cheering news. As soon as I was committed, I’d dropped a line to my local draft board, which I was required to keep apprised of my whereabouts. On a sheet ripped from my poetry notebook, I scrawled this request: “Please change my permanent address from 421 South Clark St., New Orleans 19, La., to St. Vincent DePaul INSANE ASYLUM !!!, 1038 Henry Clay Avenue, New Orleans 18, La. Thank you for your attention to this matter.”
One month later, on Thursday, February 1, I received a new Selective Service System card in the mail. I was reclassified as 4-F, unfit for military duty. Standing at the nurses’ station with my new draft card in hand, proudly incapable of invasion and slaughter, I flipped through The Times-Picayune. The newspaper reported that two days earlier, the bloody Tet Offensive had been launched, and yesterday Viet Cong soldiers attacked the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. American losses were heavy. Anybody in his right mind — and I still counted myself in this number — could see that Lyndon Johnson’s demented game of dominos in Asia would end tragically. I cringed at the grisly photograph plastered across the front page of a Viet Cong officer being shot in the head by a South Vietnamese policeman, a photo that would become iconic to the anti-war movement. My heart sank wondering how many draftees had been blown to pieces in a Southeast Asian jungle on the same day that I got my 4-F reclassification. I needed to get back to St. Petersburg, where I’d been counseling prospective draftees to register as conscientious objectors to war, mostly by reminding them that “girls say yes to boys who say no.” But at least now I wouldn’t have to become a Jehovah’s Witness or, almost as bad, shoot off my little toe.
Even if I dropped out of college, my next stop would not be Vietnam.
My next stop, during this tricky new Year of the Monkey, turned out to be the Audubon Park Zoo, where that week we patients were taken on a field trip. For the first time in what felt like forever, I inhaled the deliriously free air circulating on the street as guards marched us double-file toward the zoo along sidewalks buckled by the thick roots of the stately live oaks overhead. My exhilaration crashed as we stood in front of the first cage. I wondered whose brilliant therapeutic ploy it had been to bring incarcerated humans to stare through bars at caged animals. Zoo-goers kept a wider berth from us than they did from the tigers and alligators, holding their kids close as our ragtag column of inmates shuffled past. In front of a mangy, depressed-looking lion’s cage, a schizophrenic doubled over the guard rail and puked up her popcorn. This seemed to set off other patients, who began to act out, babbling, crying, and screaming.
Nurse Hinds took control as onlookers backed away from our bedlam.
As a chameleon of impressionable adolescence, unsure about who or what I was, this was the first time I was trying on my new lunatic identity in public. It occurred to me that at least half of being crazy was playing crazy, meeting social expectations of what the mentally ill looked and acted like. Shifting my gaze back and forth between the ratty caged lion and my pallid fellow inmates, I also started to act out. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears by what I saw.
I thought of a patient whom I knew only as Teacher-of-the-Year, one who hadn’t come with us to the zoo because it was her time of month. She was a crisply suited professional who marched up and down the corridor of Rosary Two every day carrying a briefcase, as if on her way to an important meeting. Last year, they said, she had been voted “Teacher of the Year” for the whole country, and she appeared undoubtedly sane. Except when she had her period. Then, with alarming howls of pain, she set fire to her pubic hair. During these savage episodes, she let everybody within earshot know that her stepfather had raped her during childhood, and that she intended to burn his seed out of her so she wouldn’t have his baby. The hospital was the only opt-out card she could play to escape from what I imagined were the impossible circumstances of her life. The shocker for me was that, committed or not, like most patients on the ward, she wanted to be there. Once I asked Teacher-of-the-Year if she would leave the hospital if she could, and curling her upper lip, she sneered that my question was “pseudo-intellectual.”
Or even more disturbing: one evening I heard the familiar strains of “Milord” soaring from the recreational therapy room. A new patient, a balding man with stooped shoulders, was chain-smoking cigarettes and listening to my favorite Edith Piaf album on the portable phonograph. Here was somebody I could talk to, I decided, dropping into a nearby chair. It turned out that he was a psychiatric nurse at another hospital, one who checked himself into DePaul as a patient whenever he had a vacation. My mouth fell open in disbelief.
The most difficult aspect of the hospital for me to accept, even more than my own involuntary confinement, was that older people had been so maimed by life that they actually wanted to be there. They couldn’t hack the jungle so they chose the zoo. If these were the casualties, what kind of upside-down world awaited me? For a variety of reasons I couldn’t understand at the time, everyone on that ward needed to be there, the doctors and nurses as much as the inmates, to sustain their own gated subdivision of alternate reality. Despondent beyond words at my first experience in the outside world as a newly minted mental patient, I trudged back from our field trip to the zoo and called Joylynn at the motel on Tulane Avenue.
“I need to get out soon,” I told her, “before I start thinking that I really need to be here.”
“Any day now,” she said. “The A.C.L.U. is still working on it. The lawyer says he has Dr. Hamm and your mother on the run.”
As Mardi Gras approached and the first parades passed along St. Charles Avenue, a new patient appeared on Rosary Two, a heavily rouged elderly lady who called herself Eustacia Beauchaud. For the first week, she thought she was on a cruise ship, and red wig askew, would leave her private room dressed to the nines to strut up and down the corridor, waving to her glassy-eyed public like a debutante maid on a Carnival float. We soon found out the source of her high spirits. Every few days a friend would send her an enormous flower arrangement or fruit basket with bottles of Gordon’s gin tucked into the bottoms. She spoke with a refined country drawl, lived on a plantation in New Roads, Louisiana, and was the former mayor Chep Morrison’s aunt. Her real name, I discovered years later, was Eustacia Doumanchaud, but we called her Miss Beauchaud, which in French, she reminded us with a naughty wink, meant “good and hot.”
“I was at a family dinner at a long, long table,” she told me, gesturing the entire length of the ward corridor, “having one too many cocktails, and my face fell smack down into a bowl of turtle soup. I almost drowned. The next thing I knew, I woke up here. Someone had even packed me a suitcase with all of my loveliest frocks. It took me a while to figure out this wasn’t the Caribbean cruise I’d signed up for,” she said with a rueful chuckle. “Face it, honey, the food here just isn’t up to par.”
It turned out that Eustacia Beauchaud not only sang but played barrel-house piano. After dinner she would sashay into the recreational therapy room trailing her motley retinue of inmates, where she would entertain us at the old upright with her repertoire until the orderlies jangled their key rings at Individual Lock Up Time. She wrote her own lyrics, and my seasonal favorite, despite the circumstances, was one that began: “We’re just twenty-five minutes from Canal Street / Let’s go see the parade!” Most of her songs were preceded by a story, like the one about the origins of “Lady Levee,” the levee’s answer to “Old Man River.” Those lyrics had been commissioned by the novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes for her novel Dinner at Antoine’s. But before Miss Beauchaud would launch into her famous song, she always informed us that Miss Keyes was a real bitch.
“She came up to stay in New Roads to write some book or another,” Miss Beauchaud would say, batting her false eyelashes, “and invited us ladies to lunch. You know how we are, so I asked, ‘Miss Keyes, is there anything I can bring?’ And she told me sandwiches. I said, ‘Sandwiches? How many do you mean, my dear?’ She said, ‘You know these ladies’ dress boxes from Maison Blanche? Fill up one of those.’ Well, I never!”
As far as I was concerned, the hospital should have put this old dame, deposited here periodically by her family to dry out, on payroll. She was kick-ass alive and did more for my spirits than the tense sessions with Dr. Hamm, the hours of croquet, pottery, and group therapy, and certainly more than the distressing field trip to the zoo. The other inmates and I applauded, joked, and even laughed. Occasionally Miss Beauchaud’s audience became so rowdy that the night nurse on duty would stomp down the corridor to stand at the doorway, arms folded, frowning in disapproval. Just before we were locked up for the evening, Eustacia Beauchaud would end the performance by playing “Dixie.” During the finale she raised her spindly, varicose-blue leg to the keyboard to pick out the notes with the spiked heel of her shoe. Then strolling arm-in-arm, a black orderly would escort the old white lady to her room, high heels clicking down the empty corridor.
Finally Joylynn brought me an encouraging message from the A.C.L.U. Apparently the time limit was running out on the writ of habeas corpus, and my parents and Dr. Hamm were hesitant to involve themselves in an expensive court case. They were ready to negotiate. The deal they offered was this: I would be released into a half-way house for mental patients and juvenile offenders, which would provide me with limited mobility, if I agreed to sessions with the psychiatrist twice a week at his office until he felt that I was “making progress.” My own condition, I countered, was that I would have to be out of the half-way house and into my own apartment within a week. We went back and forth on this. A month. Three weeks. Finally, when two weeks were agreed on, I felt victorious.
“Of course,” I promised Joylynn, “any minute we can hop on a Greyhound bus and escape the state, back to college in St. Petersburg.” But now was the middle of the semester, I was no longer a registered student, and she had withdrawn two days after the drop deadline. Even though she had paid a full semester’s tuition, she wouldn’t be graduating. We could leave but to where? “Now that it’s time/ Now that the hour hand has landed at the end,” rasped the mournful voice of Nico on Chelsea Girl, a record I wore out on the hospital phonograph. “I want to know do I stay or do I go / And do I have to do just one....”
“If I had my druthers,” answered Eustacia Beauchaud, pounding her red-hot piano, “I’d d’rather be down in old Louisiana.” For Fat Tuesday, the nurses were planning a Carnival ball on the ward. Miss Beauchaud had been elected queen, and we were supposed to costume.
“Who,” Nurse Hinds asked me, “are you going to be?”
Good question. Who exactly was I going to be? A mental patient? A poet? A college student? A hippie?
On the Sunday afternoon before Mardi Gras, I stood staring out of the barred windows of the recreational therapy room at a pewter- gray February sky that hung over the gabled rooftops of the Victorian hospital compound. Most of the schools and churches in New Orleans were still segregated, and it was only within the past few years that whites and blacks could sit next to each other on streetcars or use the same rest rooms. The city struck me as brutally backward, nowhere I wanted to call home. But from the window I could hear a crowd cheering and a band playing as Thoth, one of the day parades, came marching down Henry Clay Avenue, right in front of DePaul. Childhood instincts intact, I longed to be down there, my foot tapping on the curb, yelling “Throw me something, mister.”
As the din from the parade trailed off down the street, I glanced around the hushed ward. Battered ping-pong paddles were piled with worn leather restraints on a chair next to the upright piano. The scuffed linoleum floor, littered with paper med cups, smelled of Pine Sol and vomit, and beyond the pale amber light of the glassed-in nurses’ station, somebody was crying her heart out.
Look at what this town has done to me, I told myself.
I was released from St. Vincent DePaul on Mardi Gras morning, February 27, 1968. I stashed my vinyl valise filled with poems, books, and the patchwork pillow in my locker at the half-way house, signed out, and hightailed it with Joylynn to the French Quarter. Costumed as the lost waif that I was, I stood back from the madcap revelry, observing the supposedly sane world at a cautious distance from behind my John Lennon sunglasses, like Alan Bates in King of Hearts. I reconnected with my tribe of older bohemian friends and visited my high-school haunts: drinking at the Napoleon House, eating at Victor’s, and dancing among the foreign sailors at La Casa de los Marinos and the Acropolis. Joylynn and I borrowed somebody’s bed for an hour. Neither of us could stop crying, except when we burst out laughing. “We’re here because we’re crazy,” I kept saying between hungry kisses, “and we’re crazy because we’re here.”
Amid the drunken anarchy of the day, I learned that the city was in another kind of uproar. After a lengthy headline-grabbing investigation, Jim Garrison, the District Attorney, finally had indicted a prominent businessman named Clay Shaw, along with a slew of local crackpots, for plotting the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas five years earlier. The trial was set for that summer. Garrison maintained that every day “the involvement of high officials in the U.S. government becomes more apparent. The key to the whole case is through the looking glass. Black is white, white is black.” These words, spoken by the man in charge of the civic order of the city, were there to welcome me back to reality as I stepped through the looking-glass of the loony- bin and out onto the street.
Somehow I survived two weeks in the half-way house, dutifully signing myself in and out, sitting tight-lipped in the corner during boisterous group therapy sessions. I’d never before known any real drug addicts or juvenile delinquents, and I was all ears for any useful tips on how to be a more spectacular fuckup. Joylynn and I then rented a one-room attic apartment with a skylight and Juliet balcony at 929 Dumaine Street. The chipped woodwork was painted lavender, the kitchenette red, and the sloping floor black. The sink was backed up, the walls crawled with cockroaches, and I’d never felt so free in my life. In my first home as an adult, we made love on top of clothes hot from the dryer and cooked spaghetti whenever we felt hungry. In the distance, cathedral bells chimed from Jackson Square, and at sunset we would sit hand-in-hand in front of the dwarf balcony under the slanted ceiling decorated with a Theda Bara poster, watching the moon rise over the slate rooftops of the French Quarter. The lustrous tress of Joylynn’s hair would be draped like a silky shawl around her bare shoulders and one of our four scratchy records would be playing on the portable phonograph, usually Bob Dylan:
Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
And for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
I got a job pasting due-date flaps into the backs of books at the public library, and Joylynn worked at Lerner Dress Shop on Canal Street. John Foret, the Satanist poet, had moved on to the Haight-Ashbury to stay at the writer Irving Rosenthal’s commune, but I did manage to reconnect with Gretchen Hirt, just released from the hospital, who was performing in the anti-war play Viet Rock at the Gallery Circle Theater. At the cast party, I found out that almost everyone else in the production had passed at one time or another through DePaul. Laughing, somebody told me that being committed to DePaul was a New Orleans rite of passage. I didn’t want to belong to his exclusive uptown club and almost slugged the supercilious brat.
Often after work Joylynn and I hung out at Brocato’s on Ursulines Street, a tiled Italian café where a blaring TV was mounted on the wall. It was there that, squinting up at the tiny screen from our ice- cream parlor chairs, we first heard of the My Lai massacre and the May student revolution in Paris. That was also where we witnessed the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. We sat hunched over at our wobbly café table, trying to digest the numbing footage. Our government was unleashing unimaginable violence in Southeast Asia, and as Malcom X said at the time, “the chickens are coming home to roost.” That spring even Andy Warhol was shot, by an ex-mental patient from a feminist organization called S.C.U.M., the Society to Cut Up Men. It wasn’t easy to make plans on such a treacherous battlefield. I wanted to publish the book of poems I was typing up; Joylynn dreamed of going to New York to audition for the new musical Hair. We settled for another cappuccino or a lemon ice. I still had to see Dr. Hamm twice a week and was afraid that if I skipped a session, he’d have the cops pick me up and take me back to DePaul. The Greyhound bus station was only two blocks from the library on Tulane Avenue where I worked, but for some reason it took me months to get there.
Everywhere I looked, the world was in flames. My heart was a Molotov cocktail, and my mind a kerosene factory ready to pour every last drop that it distilled onto the towering conflagration around me. As far as I was concerned, everything couldn’t burn quickly enough, including flags, Selective Service Centers, draft cards, university administration buildings, police cars on Parisian streets, ghettos, and bras. No matter how many times I blinked, wherever I looked I saw only charred ruins. I didn’t have a shred of faith left in any form of authority, whether the government, military, law, education, church, family, or the worlds of medicine, science, or even letters, for that matter. Anyone in charge of anything struck me as a pathetic buffoon, not to be trusted. If what we were by then calling the counterculture hadn’t already existed, I would have dreamed it up on the spot. I took as dead serious Bob Dylan’s lyric “to live outside the law you must be honest” and identified myself as an outlaw, an underground gypsy ready to rob, scheme, scam, and sabotage a dishonorable society in which I wanted to play no part. I vowed to live a just life among children, poets, lovers, artists, clowns, revolutionaries, and my fellow madmen.
I tore up my draft card and the hospital release papers, then threw them in the trash.
Before I’d ever had a chance to join the world, I quit.
It wasn’t until mid-June that I finally made it to the Greyhound bus station lugging my vinyl valise. My professors had gotten me a summer job teaching writing in the Upward Bound program at the college, and Joylynn would join me in St. Petersburg within the month. Dr. Hamm had finally sent me off with the less than mollifying words: “I’ve never treated anyone quite like you. Your head is more connected to your gut than I thought.” As the bus swerved out of the station on Tulane Avenue, I studied the city through a lime-tinted window, trying to envision the future.
At the time I didn’t know it, but the A.C.L.U. test case about coroner commitments would eventually be won — eight years later. I never could have conceived that within a few years I’d stumble upon Gretchen Hirt’s name carved onto a marble plaque a few crypts down from my own family’s tomb in St. Louis Number Three Cemetery. I had no idea that both my mother and sister would continue as Dr. Hamm’s patients until he died of a heart attack in the late eighties. After my father’s death, they’d quarrel over which one would schedule the first available appointment with their psychiatrist, whom by then I was calling “Dr.-Rent-a-Dad.” And never could I have imagined the drunken conversation that I’d have one evening far in the future with a radiologist named Russell Albright at his antebellum home on Royal Street, a mansion where slaves chained in the attic had been ritually tortured by their mistress, the sadistic Madame LaLaurie.
There Dr. Albright would confess to me that the great love of his life had been a married family man named Kyle Hamm, with whom he had an ongoing affair until the psychiatrist’s death. As I spoke with the radiologist, my mind swarmed with the popular legends associated with his house, of Madame LaLaurie’s “medical experiments” in the attic, during which she supposedly sliced off the top of a slave’s head and stirred his brains with a spoon, or severed the arms and legs of another slave and reattached his limbs backwards, so that he resembled a crab. Was that what Dr. Hamm’s “experimental psychiatry” had done to me, made me into a crab person, cut up and sewed back together all wrong? Did every New Orleans memory, if you waited long enough, turn onto a macabre haunting? After talking with Dr. Albright, I ran out of the LaLaurie mansion to sit on the curb in front of the house, head between my legs, revisiting the horror of what had happened thirty years earlier.
You’re here because you’re crazy and you’re crazy because you’re here.
But now, on that bright June morning in 1968 when I finally made it out of the city in a Greyhound bus, it was the future that beckoned, not the past. At the moment I didn’t know that I was also bisexual, or that in six years Wesleyan University Press would publish my first collection containing the DePaul poems, or that I would spend much of my life abroad, or that I would ever tell this story, one which for decades I tried to forget. I was nineteen years-old, trembling with the newness of myself, and the violent year that would brand my generation for a lifetime was opening before me through a bus windshield with all of its hidden promise and unforeseen consequences. As the Greyhound wheezed along Tulane Avenue, I shoved the vinyl valise containing my jeans, patchwork pillow, and manuscripts under the seat, leaned back my head in relief, and yanked down the window shade, vowing never again to set foot inside the city of New Orleans. If only for a moment, barreling toward the future in a cloud of diesel exhaust, I thought I heard the chimes of freedom flashing.