It was summer, so every morning at 8:00, Heather, Lacey, and I had to be out. That’s the way people like us were dealt with back in the sixties. Dumped on the street for our own good. It was lunatic, and we three knew it, even if the staff and the psychiatrist didn’t. The white-uniformed staff gave us lunch money, enough for a hamburger and coffee. We milled around on El Camino Real, ignoring our symptoms as best we could, until 5:00, when they let us back in. By then, we were bored, pissed, and tired. Our feet smelled.
These rules went for all twenty of us, unless somebody was physically sick or was being seen by the psychiatrist in his little office next to the dining room. Dr. Smith was young, slight, and full of book learning. Heather, Lacey, and I knew more than he did. We knew he knew that, too. That’s why he was guarded around us and rarely gave us hour-long sessions. He was essentially just our medication provider. He seemed to believe his big blue pills could solve almost any problem of a brain that had lost its mooring.
When they let us back in at the end of the day, the twenty of us ate dinner together at one long metal table. The meal was usually cheap and easy to make, like tuna and potato-chip casserole, canned corn or peas, and foam-like Bunny bread with margarine. When dinner was over, we had to get out of the dining room so it could be cleaned by the cook and his helper. There was no TV room, or even a living room to sit around in, so we went to our bedrooms. Heather, Lacey, and I shared a room on the third floor. A worn, dark-green carpet covered the stairs; but our floor sported a newer, scotch-plaid rug, red and green. Our room had four white metal beds, all in a row. We’d each sit cross-legged on our bed and make up stories about the unknown girl the fourth bed was waiting for. And we’d talk about our day that hadn’t really happened.
The staff brought meds around at 10:00. We all got those big blue pills, regardless of the diagnoses each of us had been given back at the hospital, plus one small white pill. Then the staff announced “lights out” and left. The white pill put us to sleep with amazing speed.
Heather was a big-boned, blonde girl getting off heroin. She good-naturedly showed Lacey and me her wrists the day she was brought in from the hospital. Both wrists had the widest slashes I’d ever seen, and the slashes weren’t very old – they were still bright, deep pink. I was in awe of her: heroin was supposed to be the hardest drug to beat, and this was 1969, before methadone. All of us at the halfway house knew the basics about drugs like pot, hash, and LSD, because we fancied ourselves flower children; but heroin wasn’t part of our more innocent repertoire.
Our young psychiatrist said that Heather was supposed to “adjust to normal life” here in the halfway house. Heather, Lacey, and I laughed until tears came to our eyes. “Yeah, this is as normal as it gets,” I said.
But Lacey was even more cynical. “No, he means, ‘This is as normal as we get.’”
I was pissed that Dr. Smith wouldn’t ever tell any of us what “normal” was. And our lives depended on figuring that out.
Heather was upbeat. She even enjoyed waking up in the morning to our walls with their faded floral paper, because she hadn’t had to “sleep in some park up in Frisco.” I saw Heather as already “normal.” Well, maybe not the slit wrists. But who was I to pass judgment on slit wrists? You had to have been there to know, I figured. After my stay in the hospital that summer and my friend Ned’s suicide there, I realized that taking one’s own life has guidelines known only to the executioner-victim.
Lacey was plump with short, curly red hair. She was in the halfway house because she had started to become manic -- again -- at her grandmother’s house in Redwood City, just down the Peninsula. Lacey’s grandmother was sort of like a mother to her, which was very nice, because Lacey’s real parents had long since given up on her. Her grandmother had arranged her stay here, citing “wild moods.” I wondered what havoc Lacey had wreaked on the old woman’s house, surely a nice little bungalow with doilies on the furniture.
“I’m here to be in a ‘quiet, stable environment’. That’s what the psychiatrist at the hospital called this joint.” We laughed at “stable.” “And it’s a non-environment,” she added. “None of it’s real, not even the air in the rooms.”
Lacey had just the right name, because her eyes were laced with a delicious speed racing inside her brain.
“This is going to be a giant one,” she said, observing herself in the mirror of our bedroom. “I know they’re going to send me back to the hospital.” Where she’d been many, many times, she added.
Lacey’s cocky stance against the inevitable bad ending made her a different kind of hero than Heather.
At twenty-two, I was the oldest patient in the halfway house. I felt bent under the weight of gray concrete slabs on my shoulders; my uncombed black hair fell in my eyes, and my weary feet trudged through the air around them. My problems were “philosophical,” the shrink at the hospital had said, before I was discharged and sent to this place.
“Philosophical problems” meant, as far as I could tell, a case of bad depression the doctors wouldn’t admit they couldn’t treat. They just gave me a lot of the big blue pills. It was, as I said, 1969, during the “Vietnam Conflict,” when a lot of things couldn’t be treated.
I’d made a friend, Ned, at the hospital. He too had “philosophical problems” when he got back from that war. I never asked him about ‘Nam. It would have been like asking someone with cancer about his operations. Ned and I took walks around the hospital grounds, trading grimaces about institutional food and telling little secrets about the other patients.
Each morning at 8:05, Heather, Lacey, and I set out from our old brick building situated in the middle of a commercial block. We started our journey up the dreary part of El Camino Real which runs through San Mateo, which is hardly anywhere at all.
I eventually came to see that the halfway house policy had some logic. If we hadn’t been out wandering the streets, we would have sat on our white metal beds lined up against the wall, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and trading war stories and hiding from society.
Instead we spent the morning smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and trading war stories in a huge, 1950’s, glassed-in diner with weirdly slanting roofs called The Polynesian Palace. It stood out in modernity in the drab little town. Sporting flowery t-shirts and ratty bell-bottom jeans, some of the other kids from the halfway house started following us there, and soon there were so many of them at the counter and in the red booths repaired with silver duct tape that the waitresses began to dawdle serving them. It became clear that they didn’t want strange kids who yelled indoors and chased each other from table to table to take the place over. Eventually, after they’d had to wait and wait, most of the kids took their business elsewhere. But Heather, Lacey, and I had always been well mannered, so we knew we were still welcome.
When we got bored telling, retelling, and embellishing, we moved down El Camino. We browsed the thrift store that had once been a warehouse, then the store that sold nothing but bar stools, then the dusty used-furniture store with faded orange linoleum floors, and finally the antique store with its little glass bottles and vases. Mostly we just chatted with the shopkeepers, who seemed to enjoy our company, although Lacey’s wild eyes and rapid speech made a few of them discretely steer us away from their breakables.
Late afternoons we’d walk around in the small, scuffed-up municipal park by the bus stop. Day-dream time.
Lacey would dream about never going back to the hospital. “Someday I’m not even going to remember what those tiny white rooms look like,” she said.
Heather would dream about being “adjusted.” “Can’t you just see me, a suburban housewife who fills little books with Green Stamps from the grocery store?”
And I’d dream about not having “philosophical problems,” about not having the pain that filled my chest and made me stare at blank walls. I imagined a day when they’d have pills for that.
It wasn’t that we believed we’d be cured of our woes in the immediate future; it was just that daydreaming together was a way of being cynical and hopeful at the same time.
We’d make plans, too, big and small ones. We planned to count the cracks in the sidewalk along El Camino Real. Or we could stand on a busy street corner with our thumbs outstretched, looking like hippies. “Heather, you could show us how, since you lived on the street,” I said. Heather refused – she didn’t want to get in trouble with the law. Her stay at the halfway house was court mandated. Besides, she was now repulsed by the begging and stealing that had to do with her old life. Lacey and I dropped that idea, out of respect for Heather.
We planned to create a miniature circus of performing pigeons, just the right size for a street corner. We got the idea from admiring the pigeons in that dusty park. Eventually, we could tell one from another by size, amount of pink iridescence in their grey feathers, and what we took as friendliness. We had a favorite one that strutted in circles on the cement, proud of his appearance, and then took off in a great flutter. We named him Manny, after Man o’ War, said to be the fastest, most beautiful horse of all times. Kind of the opposite of stupid pigeons and almost vagrant girls.
We passed our days, one followed by another.
Sure, each of us was in her own little hell; but beyond that, we were just kids and we had nothing to do, nothing to give us real meaning, and almost no one to lean on.
Well, Lacey’s grandmother in Redwood City must have cared about her, at least enough to get her admitted here, rather than just sending her and her mania out the front door.
But Heather never mentioned anybody, except once: she had an aunt in Florida. I felt unbearably sad for Heather.
My parents came down from San Francisco to visit me once on a Sunday afternoon. They brought me a pair of new blue jeans and a carton of Marlboros. I could see they were scared of what they were getting themselves into -- Father hid under his three-piece suit and Mother under her cashmere coat. I gave them a little tour of the halfway house. Mother said, “This is very nice. I hope you’re being well treated here.”
Father asked, “Where can we go to get a cup of coffee together?”
The only place I could think of was the Polynesian Palace. As we walked there, I pointed out the antique store, the bar stool store. “That’s very nice,” Mother said.
I found us a booth when we got there that wasn’t too mended with silver tape.
Father ordered apple pie; Mother only got coffee.
When the pie arrived, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream on top, Father just sat there. Then he started crying.
“Lloyd, Lloyd,” Mother said.
We got up and left.
One day Heather’s aunt in Florida sent her $25.00 cash in the mail.
That was a lot of money in 1969.
That evening Heather spread the bills out on her bed. “It’s the first money I can remember that’s not going to go for smack.” For a moment, she looked magnificent – taller, prettier, blonder. But the magnificence faded to confusion.
“What do you spend money on?” she asked us. “Bar stools? Old dishes?”
“I spend it on funky jewelry and psychedelic posters,” I said, thinking back to my jewelry box and my bedroom walls at home, up in San Francisco. Then I was ashamed. Lacey and Heather probably didn’t have fathers, anyway not fathers who would buy them anything they wanted.
Lacey said, “Let’s make a big dinner for everybody here!” She jumped off her bed and hugged Heather and me in her enthusiasm.
Heather and I agreed that would be fun. We planned and made lists.
How much Ned had hated institutional food. I could have invited him here for our big dinner. What fun – talking with him again, introducing new friends. Ned. I hadn’t ever told Heather and Lacey about him; and, tears in my eyes, I suddenly had to turn away from them, toward the wall with its faded flowers.
The next morning we walked to the supermarket around the corner from the halfway house. We got a ham big enough for 25, and all the other food we thought would go with it: sweet potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, real French bread, real butter, cranberry sauce, and raisins. Lacey said she knew how to cook all that. I hoped that was true, because I just cooked hamburgers, hotdogs, and Campbell’s soup. And Heather had been living on the street since she was 16, far from any stove.
At 19 now, Heather was strong despite all the drugs she’d used, so she carried the ham back to the house. Lacey and I carried the lighter stuff. With the three of us standing there on El Camino Real holding all that food, the day-guard had to open the door. The white-uniformed staff quickly met upstairs in their little office to discuss the dilemma and then came down and gravely told us the kitchen was ours for the afternoon. I was proud of them for that. Anyone who could break their own rules for a good cause was, well, cool.
I was in charge of sticking the ham in the institutional-sized oven and checking it periodically as it baked. I didn’t know what I was checking for or how to use the cook’s big metal meat thermometer, but I took my duty seriously and opened the oven every 20 minutes to stab the pink meat with the prod. Lacey showed Heather how to shuck the corn and boil it in a huge steel pot. Lacey was getting more and more excited, bopping around Heather and me, talking fast, forgetting where she was in her sentences. But she slowed down a little when she described helping her grandmother with Sunday cooking. “She taught me how to make a Sunday ham and a pot roast and a turkey just stick’em in the oven, isn’t that fast isn’t that fun!”
At 4:00 Lacey made her piece de resistance: a real ham sauce with raisins. All three of us sampled it from a big spoon. In her excitement she’d loaded it up with brown sugar; it was thick and sweet like melted candy.
At 4:30 we set the table for twenty residents and four staff. Lacey put an American flag in a vase in the middle of the table and danced around the room when she saw how tasteful everything appeared. “It’s good enough for ladies from San Francisco!”
Heather stared at Lacey for a moment, a dish towel and a pan in her hands. Then she smiled past Lacey’s shoulder and said, “Someday the three of us will go up to Union Square and get banana splits at Blum’s, and we’ll wear dresses.”
Kids started drifting in at 5:00, after a hard day’s wandering around town. They looked at the table, at us, and at each other. One boy said in amazement, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Another said, “Sheeeit!” Then they went to their rooms.
Lacey, Heather, and I looked at each other, puzzled. We hoped we weren’t doing something wrong.
But we weren’t. When the 5:30 dinner bell rang, in came all our friends, dressed in clean clothes and shaven, to sit at our table and partake of our great big, wonderful dinner. A moment of silence, with bowed heads. Then cheers and applause and stamping of feet as Heather proudly lugged in the heavy platter with the ham. Smiling as they passed bread, butter, and bowls of vegetables, even the staff made conversation with the residents while they ate. I basked in the good vibes, as we said back then. And I was proud to have done something useful, something for my friends. Dr. Smith wasn’t there, because he always went home to dinner with his wife and small children. Lacey, Heather, and I hoped it was a “quiet, stable environment,” where he could readjust back to a “normal life” with no “philosophical problems.”
Then the grand finale: the regular cook had ducked out while we were making our dinner, and he’d gotten a tub of Baskin-Robins chocolate ice cream for all of us. That’s when we knew he approved our seizing his territory for the afternoon.
Lacey’s mania took off badly that night. She couldn’t stop talking, and her eyes caught light from the street lamp outside our window. Eventually, Heather and I gave up on sleeping through Lacey’s ten-minute-long sentences. The next morning, after some injections, she was taken away. To a tiny, white room in the old hospital, I assumed.
I didn’t get a chance to say “good luck” to her, or “I’ll miss you, Lacey.” The ambulance people sped in, up the stairs, put the girl onto a stretcher, and back down the stairs, in five minutes.
After they took her away, Heather and I couldn’t move. We just curled up on top of our beds. Dr. Smith said we didn’t have to go out that day.
I wondered how many healings and how many failures that old floral wallpaper had witnessed. And those four metal beds side by side -- two of which were, for the moment, empty – what lives had they accommodated? Some girl from somewhere would soon take Lacey’s bed. Mine would eventually be empty too, and then taken by someone new.
A day later, I realized I was ready to leave. Just like that. The ham dinner had changed me. I no longer wanted to count cracks in the sidewalk -- I wanted to stride all the way up El Camino Real, all the way home to San Francisco.
The grey concrete slabs on my shoulders were crumbling away in chunks. I pulled my long hair out of my eyes. My feet moved easily. My life became do-able. I imagined fishing in the Bay with my father; staying up late to read; above all, planning my future.
Dr. Smith saw me in his little office two days after Lacey was taken away.
“I think you are ready to leave, and the staff agrees.”
“Does that mean I’m ‘normal’ now?”
He smiled. “We feel you have come a long way in solving those personal problems of yours.”
Then, amazingly, he asked me how I did it.
“I had fun.”
It took him a minute or so to process that.
I sat there in his stiff chair and waited.
“Well, whatever has worked for you – that’s the main thing,” he conceded.
Strong, blonde Heather stayed. The law said she had to. Anyway, she had nowhere else to go, not for now. But she would. Almost everybody does.
Since there were no legal constraints on me, I packed my suitcase that evening. Heather sat on her bed and watched. When I had finished, I looked up at her; we silently gave each other the “peace” sign, fingers of outreached hand in a “V.”
The next morning, I took the bus up the Peninsula. We passed the military cemetery, where Ned had been buried three months before. It was all green and white in the morning brightness, the headstones identical for row after row after row. I could never have located Ned’s. Just as I could never have located Heather or Lacey again if I tried.