Thursday, September 4, 2014
Robin Williams and My Friend Norm in What Dreams May Come
In memory of Robin Williams, last night I watched What Dreams May Come, one of my favorite movies. Williams, in the film, plays a man who descends into hell to rescue his wife after she ends her own life. Hell is portrayed as a surreal state of self-absorption and denial that results in a person's total isolation.
This lines up pretty closely with what I think hell is.
I've watched What Dreams May Come many times, but what struck me last night for the first time was how much Robin Williams--if you added a beard-- looked like Norm, a friend I made in Portland, Oregon's skid row back in the late seventies.
Norm had been a philosophy major at Santa Clara College and it showed. Whenever we got into political, theological, or otherwise "deep" conversations about anything, he would inevitably switch sides in the middle of the discussion and argue the opposite point of view. This drove me crazy until I realized that although he could argue any perspective passionately, he really didn't have a point of view. Rather, Norm had points of view. It wasn't the position that mattered to him. It was the discourse.
We were both in our twenties, fresh out of college, and still believed that positions, opinions, ideologies--whatever you want to call them--mattered. Four decades later I marvel at the energy we had then to expend on such heated exchanges.
But we weren't just debating in an ivory tower. Both of us worked in an agency that tried to help chronic alcoholics in Portland's skid row. For the uninitiated, skid rows can be found in any city. They are areas packed with dank single room occupancy hotels (also known as flophouses), convenience liquor stores, Gospel missions, and bars where you can get fleas with your beer. The residents are generally men, many of whom are disabled military veterans, who have chronic alcohol and substance abuse issues. My job--on paper--was to be a crime victims' advocate. However, I did very little crime victims' assistance. The agency I worked for was pretty disorganized and rarely knew when cases were going to court. So mostly, I went around to the flophouses with a nurse and did health checks, delivered Meals on Wheels, and listened to the sad life stories of those who were sober for the moment.
It's an understatement to say that most chronic alcoholics living on skid row aren't especially concerned about hygiene. It took me a while to learn to control my gag reflex upon entering the foul smelling hotels. A lot of the guys told me they got mugged pretty regularly. Disabled and drunk, they were easy targets. You'd think the acrid odor of urine, excrement, and vomit that emanated from the men would have provided some protection against crime by acting as a chemical barrier. But when they staggered out to buy booze or smokes, thieves apparently didn't mind the reek, and clubbed or knifed the guys to steal what little they had. Who knows? The thieves probably smelled pretty bad, too.
Having the stench and violence of skid row as the backdrop for our heated debates about the meaning of life, the value of religion, and the causes of poverty and other social evils, gave Norm's and my exchanges even greater intensity than they might have had under other circumstances. To top it off, Norm was a Catholic-he was raised in an arch conservative Irish Catholic family-- while I had grown up in a fundamentalist Protestant church and had had a bellyful of Christianity. Mercifully, Norm was not pedantic or proselytizing about his religion. Even about Catholicism, he had multiple points of view and could poke fun at the Church with the best of them. He, unlike me, didn't take himself too seriously. In the heat of debate, he would wink at me, stroke his unruly beard, and break into the goofiest grin I have ever seen on God's green earth. The grin said, "Connie, you've been had." I saw that grin again and again as I attempted through arguing with Norm to make sense of skid row and to some extent of the larger world.
Norm was very popular on skid row. He was known for his kindness and integrity. The men who came into the agency always sought him out. Even when he had to put on a stern look to remove a client from the agency for being disorderly, he did it in a way that allowed the man to keep his dignity. I admired and respected that about him. Norm had a light touch with people. One of his favorite ways to get folks to ease up when they were getting too intense would be to say in a fakey hypnotic tone, "You are as light as a feather." And then grin. It usually got people to laugh. Even the drunk ones.
I haven't seen Norm for a long time. After a few years in Portland, he went back to California and became the director of a social service agency and I moved to Wisconsin to work as a counselor. What were the personal demons that attracted us to skid row in the first place? I don't think Norm had any but mine was that my father had died of liver disease due to alcoholism in a flophouse in Chicago. I never saw him when he lived on skid row but after he died, I guess some part of me wanted to see what that version of hell looked like. In Portland, I got to see the end game: the slow and excruciatingly painful suicide that uses alcohol as a weapon. My dad had definitely suffered as much or even more than those of us who had borne the brunt of his illness. After working on skid row, I hoped he wasn't suffering any more.
I can see and hear Norm in my mind's eye now. He's grinning. "Remember, Connie, you are as light as a feather." He's right, of course. In What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams' character rescues his wife from hell by being willing to leave heaven and to go and stay with her in hell. This action breaks her out of her self-absorption. They both float up like feathers into a heaven of their own making.
Wow. This would be a great discussion to have with Norm. I wonder what he's doing now?