On the foggy summer streets of San Francisco, we good Catholic children of St. Thomas Parish gathered daily to choose teams for our favorite games. “Eeny meeny miney mo, catch a nigger by the toe, if he hollers let him go, 1-2-3-4-5.” Our good Catholic parents watched and smiled.
Fifty years later, the memory takes my breath away. We were not mean or hateful, just unbelievably stupid and ignorant. Today our raised consciousness recognizes discrimination against blacks, women, gays, even the height and weight challenged.
We don’t always solve the problems, but at least we see them. Still, discrimination exists. I came home from a class one night and sat down to watch a TV show with my daughter Lara who had recently moved back home.
The sitcom plot took a turn when a crazy woman just out of the crazy house came over and acted crazy. The laugh track was cranked to the highest volume and my stomach knotted.
“Oh, my gawd,” said Lara lunging the recliner back to upright. “This is the third show this week that is getting laughs off the crazies.”
Eeny meeny miney mo, catch a crazy by the toe
Once again we are woefully ignorant and insensitive. Look at our very common expressions. Better yet, listen to them. “What a nut job!” “I’ll be ready for the loony bin!” “He’s such a schizo!” “You’re driving me crazy!”
We don’t mean to be cruel or thoughtless, but ignorance is no excuse either. Millions of people in this country suffer from mental illness. TV commercials promote pills, but they don’t deal with the reality of people drowning in darkness, randomly selected for a pain beyond that most of us will ever know. A pain that goes beyond will, a pain to which they are neurologically chained.
Christmas 1990. I sat with my friend in her motel room, the floor like her mind was strewn with a clutter she could not clear. She had divorced her husband and her children were exhausted from begging her to get up. I was her only visitor.
How dare this pain be used for humor or cheapened by squeezing a pill commercial in between foot and yeast infections. We would not dream of passing a man on the street who was having a heart attack, yet we pass—albeit squeamishly—a man having a conversation with the voices in his head.
In a society that ruthlessly pursues wealth as the marker of success, we dismiss those who are not achieving without ever trying to distinguish between those who won’t and those who can’t.
When I was growing up, the ultimate threat was “We’ll have to send you to Imola”, the state hospital in Napa.
Governor Reagan stopped that when he emptied our mental institutions and filled our streets. The lucky ones stayed at Imola, safe and supervised. The others we step around on the streets—or laugh at on TV.
“That’s it! “ Lara said. “I’m going to write a letter! I should have taken some stationery when I left the hospital. I’ll tell them a thing or two.” She could.