Sunday, March 06, 2005

Nightmares and train wrecks

I spent Saturday with an old friend whose life has turned into one long, slow-motion train wreck. Nothing tragic has befallen him—no life-threatening illness, no loss of a loved one, no great artistic failure—but he suffers from a cognitive handicap that isn't commonly recognized as a disability: He has absolutely no common sense.

Unless a person like this lives with a family that protects him, he has no way to survive in modern society. Money vanishes (he's squandered two modest inheritances). Friends get tired of bailing him out of the same problems, over and over, and drift away. He falls victim to every "success" scheme on the planet. And he sets his goals so unrealistically that, even if he achieves them, he either decides he doesn't like what he's got or he panics--and throws it all away.

My friend is in his 50s, in poor health, unemployed, and in danger of becoming homeless. The modest talents that sustained him through his 20s and 30s were never disciplined into any actual professional skills, so he's pretty much unemployable. The lack of common sense means that he can't follow even the simplest directions from an employer--whatever they tell him to do, he wastes hours inventing a new, wholly original, approach to the task. Reactions to this range from amusement to puzzlement to rage, but, eventually, they fire him. His resume has long since gone from suspicious to unthinkable. The menial jobs he could get are, of course, the ones he's most likely to be fired from because his behavior--that of a very eccentric professor of some arcane, left-wing social science--is so inappropriate.

It's trying to be around this guy in any circumstances, but on Saturday it was particularly soul shriveling. He was having a garage sale preparatory to moving far away for a job he has not yet gotten but believes he will shortly get.

He'd asked me to come by the night before to help him price large items of furniture. Once I get in the vicinity of the train wreck, I can't help it: I start pleading with him to put on the brakes and I trying moving everything of value to the back of the train.

The furniture was ghastly, for the most part, ranging from shiny 60's suburban hutchs to massive 70's blond oak coffee tables. Shelves were missing, and everything was covered in dust. The two or three bookcases that were desirable looked much less so in the company of all the squalid junk. An expensive mixer and Cusinart looked like they'd never been cleaned. It soon became apparent that he didn't have any tags to put on the items we were supposed to be pricing, so I went back home to get some.

Much of the garage sale merchandise was still packed in boxes, mixed in with old financial records and other personal papers. While taking a ladle out of a box for the sale, he'd begin shuffling through the papers and sorting them. We'd have been there all night if I hadn't moved everything that didn't belong in the sale into an adjoining room. I then priced the large items, chose a bundt pan to buy, and would have fled--except that it turned out I didn't have $10 to pay for the pan, just a $20, and it turned out he had no change. Actually, he had no money at all.

My friend insisted on coming with me to the drugstore, where I made some purchases--including an energy bar for him--got change, and gave him 10 ones.

In the morning, I was back with $50 from the bank in change, figuring he'd need it. The sale was starting, people were coming in, and there he was, standing in the middle of the room, complaining about his most recent job interview. The boombox he was selling was blasting shrill folk music so loudly that he couldn't hear any of the questions buyers were asking. A box of personal files on one of the sale tables had a photo album, circa 1990, with pictures of two of his friends smoking dope. (I hurried it out of the room, thinking with some amusement of how irate those two would have been if they'd known that album had been on public display.)

The garage sale scene was so depressing (a couple of his customers were as crazy as he) that I could take only a hour of it, and fled for a latte. When I returned in the early afternoon, bringing a sandwich for him, he was dragging yet more large pieces of furniture down from the attic for the sale, which was by now more than half over.

At the end of the day I came back to help put a few things away but I didn't stay long. It was just too overwhelming. He'd made about $400, but was still surrounded by a Stonehenge of big, ugly furniture that he would have to dispose of, somehow. Miraculously, the rust-red velvet couch missing one wheel had vanished.

"Take all the $1 stuff to the dump," I urged him, waving at the table full of warped, greasy plastic cutting boards and 10-year-old giant containers of spices. "Don't keep carting it around!"

I suppose I could have packed the dreck up myself and carted it away for him, but I didn't. I came home, took a bath, and went right to bed. Not surprisingly, I had long, complicated nightmares. In one of them, someone was trying to kill me. If one day with my friend is this depressing, I can only imagine what a whole life of being him must be like.

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