By Curtis Price
Posted on June 11, 2021
On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.
I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.
Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless, prisoner under their control. I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.
To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.
No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.
A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration? Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.
I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.
It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.
I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.
At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.
I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.
I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.
Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”
At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed. I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.
People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her. Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.
We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.
Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won- the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf. The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)
On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.
On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.
The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.
I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days. Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.
The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren. Edited and with an introduction by Bettina Drew. University of Texas Press, 1995
In “Texas Stories,” Nelson Algren populates his hardscrabble vignettes with the flotsam and jetsam of Depression-era America; characters that drift obsessively across the desolate, windswept Texas landscape like so many sagebrushes tumbling down the gullies of a prairie ghost town.
But even though the tramps, loners, carnival hustlers, whores (not “sex workers”), illiterate Okies, and Mexican convicts on the run gathered in these 14 short stories and sketches written at different stages of Algren’s long career belong to an era long since passed, “Texas Stories” resonates with contemporary relevance.
This is because Algren, who died in 1981, blends a sharply-honed psychology with his trenchant social protest, avoiding cheap sentimentality by focusing as equally on the tragic-comic and grotesque aspects of his character’s motives as he does on the underlying economic and social wrongs that have sent them spinning to their fate.
At his best, in short stories like “Kewpie Doll,” the balance works powerfully. In “Kewpie Doll,” a mundane, descriptive account of a boisterous crowd of poverty-stricken rural townspeople pilfering a train for winter coal, yields sharply to a horrifying conclusion – the decapitation of a child lost in the crowd on the tracks as the train takes off, all the more tragic for its seeming randomness. (It’s a powerful, disturbing imagery that Algebra recycled in “Somebody in Boots,” if memory serves me right.)
Unlike most of the U.S. left, Nelson Algren wasn’t afraid to embrace the tragic sense of life, something the American South marinates in, and which finds its highest expression in the blues tradition as well as classic C&W such as Hank Williams. He scorned those who had “pink pills for social ills” (that could have been a line in a hip-hop track!), which explained why he was of the left without being in it. After a brief dalliance on the periphery of the CP in the 1930s, Algren never joined anything again, preferring to be the perpetual outsider who could speak the truth without stepping on the toes of tender, mawkish sensibilities and rigid, party-line orthodoxies common, respectively, to reformist and revolutionary milieus.
This hard-nosed social realism is a welcome contrast to the shallow “fully automated luxury communism” found in professional-managerial class circles in coastal elite cities, toxic waste-dumps of flatulent, campus-metastasized leftism, in which this layer stokes Twitter and social-media-fed recrudescence that is the polar opposite of genuine engagement.
Linking the Southern blues tradition to radical politics, with greasy overalls and dirt-under-fingernails, will be an ongoing subject that we will return to in future essays. In the meantime, it’s well-worth remembering one of Algren’s favorite quotes, from the Russian realist writer Alexander Kuprin: “The horror is that there is no horror.”