On Madness

8 01 2009

I’ll break the ice with a little joke. A man was driving down an unfamiliar road which had a very tall chain-link fence running alongside it. He soon passed a gate with a sign saying, Sunnyvale Mental Health Facility. The man could see scores of people wandering aimlessly around the immaculately-groomed lawn beyond the fence, all wearing identical pajama-like garments in various pastel colors.

A few minutes later, his car lurched and gave off the distinctive whopwhopwhop sound of a flat tire. Cursing, the man pulled onto the shoulder next to the fence to change the tire. Several of the inmates had apparently seen or heard the blowout and wandered toward the fence nearest to him. He was nervous, but did his best to ignore the small crowd of observers, who watched his every move in an eerie silence. He had enough presence of mind to place the lug nuts from the flat tire inside the upturned hubcap to keep them from getting lost in the weeds near the shoulder of the road, but the ever-growing crowd of loonies watching him in spooky silence was really getting to him. He tried to hurry, but the spare slipped off the wheel lugs and fell out of his hands. The tire landed on the edge of hubcap holding the lug nuts and flipped it into the weeds like a tiddlywink.

More cursing ensued. The man finally managed to get the tire onto the wheel lugs, but could only find one lug nut of the original five. After several fruitless searches through the weeds, the man sighed heavily and tried to figure out what to do next. As he stood and glared at the car, he heard someone say, “Hey!“.

He quickly turned around,  and one of the inmates at the fence called out, “Take one lug nut from each of the other wheels. That will give you four lug nuts on each wheel, which ought to get you into town if you drive carefully.”

He thought about it for a second, then broke out in a broad smile. “You know,” he said cheerfully. “That will work! Thanks for the tip.” He quickly put the inmate’s words into practice and grinned in satisfaction. He turned around to thank his benefactor.

“I’d probably still be trying to figure that out if you hadn’t chimed in,” he said. “What on Earth are you doing in a loonie bin?”

The inmate replied, “I’m crazy- not stupid.”

Just because someone is goofier than bug shit doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stupid. You may wish to remember that when you deal with people who have mental problems- and there are lots of people in this country who fit that description. Whenever possible, try to treat the mentally ill with the same courtesy as everyone else. Being condescending or rude is both needlessly cruel and counterproductive. After all, the loonie you just ignored might be able to point out some fact or otherwise help out.

Consider, for example, the case of Norton I, Emperor of America and Protector of Mexico.

Briefly, Joshua Norton was a San Fransisco businessman during the California Gold Rush who went round the bend while enduring a painful bankruptcy. On September 17th, 1859, he delivered a proclamation to several newspapers in that city declaring himself to be Emperor of the United States. At least one paper printed the proclamation, and for the next couple of decades he marched around the city inspecting public works and officials for proper functioning and issuing proclamations whenever the fancy struck him. Several of these proclamations were useful or prophetic: he called for the construction of a bridge or tunnel connecting Oakland and San Francisco, which came to fruition nearly a century later. He also demanded the establishment of  a “League of Nations” to prevent wars. Other useful decrees called for the dissolution of Congress and the abolition of the Republican and Democratic parties. Clearly, the Emperor was a man ahead of his time.

San Francisco being the city that it is (even in the late 19th century), Emperor Norton became a beloved (or at least tolerated) fixture of the city. The city paid for upgrades to the Royal uniform, and police officers would salute him as he passed. At intervals during his reign, he would issue bonds or scrip for US currency, which were duly honored as cash in many establishments. Several establishments which the Emperor frequented (because of their “free lunches”) adopted brass plaques boasting, “By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty, Norton I“.

One hundred and twenty-nine years ago today (January 8th, 1880), the first and only Emperor of the United States was walking to a meeting of the Academy of Sciences when he collapsed and died on a rainy sidewalk. People in the city paid for a royal funeral, which was attended by an estimated twenty thousand residents. When San Francisco closed and moved all the cemeteries outside the city in the 1930s, the city paid to move Norton’s remains to Woodlawn cemetery, and a large stone marks his grave- inscribed with the words, “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”

The best epitaph for Joshua Norton was given by a city official more than ten years before the Emperor died: “He has shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.

This is exactly the sort of ruler our modern civilization needs- one who rules best by ruling least. Norton’s demands upon his subjects were few and limited largely to basic needs. He provided both foresight and the benefit if a good example to others.

Tonight I will raise a glass in his memory. We could use a few more gentle madmen.

Current status: Amused

Current music: Mandlebrot Set by Jonathan Coulton