Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I once had a friend who was insane, back when the word meant something frightening and incurable. My friend’s name was Danny and our parents were close; we were two French families of average standing recently arrived in the US. Danny was my age, owner of a mind already complex enough that I thought him odd but fascinating. He seemed to know everything about America and would take me touristing in the back alleys of his parents’ neighborhood. In time Danny’s illness would be better defined as being bipolar; he would experience mood swings so violent they eventually overpowered him, elation giving way to suicidal depression, then back.

Danny was a kid who stuttered and had transformed himself physically by haunting the first gyms in the area. He worked out several hours a day and developed a massive muscularity; he shaved his head when the rest of us grew our hair shoulder-length, and at night he read the works of French philosophers. When he hovered around sanity, he would call me and we’d go for walks and talk of existentialism, Sartre and Beauvoir and Camus. He would fall in love violently with one girl or another, showering her with far too much attention, too much fervor for his age, and she would flee after a short, overly intense time, unable to match his enthusiasm and passion. Then he would be heartbroken, retreat to a rented basement room in a mostly Black section of town, and exorcize his demons with alcohol and cocaine. When he re-emerged, he would be thin, almost wasted, wearing a haunted and feral look.

After a while it became increasingly difficult to discern truth from fiction in Danny’s tales. He would vanish for a year and return fit and smiling, claiming to have trained with the Alpine Hunters, the elite mountain infantry of the French Army. Another time, it was six months spent with the Foreign Legion. He once appeared at my apartment door dressed like a character from a Raymond Chandler novel, claiming to be a detective investigating a kidnapping in the building. He had a gun, took it out and waved it around in my living room and told me I was his one and only friend. He switched between French and English, the former for emotions and the latter for facts, or a close cousin thereof. He returned three times that month, once with an equally troubled partner, a young blond American male who was also armed and dangerously quiet. That day, Danny insisted I fix some plain white rice which he ate with hands, then he gave me one of his treasures to hold, a small empty tin of Dr. Albert’s Cocaine Pills, manufactured almost a century before. 

Then he vanished from my life for two years. His father had passed away a decade earlier and I occasionally saw his mother at the Giant food store where we both shopped. The news was never good. Danny would come home, sign himself into a psych ward, take the prescribed meds and start life anew. Once he became a popular trainer at a local gym but was fired when a client complained about the harshness of his methods and techniques. He worked at a print shop, another time as a bike messenger, yet another in construction. After a month or three he would stop taking the meds; they depressed him, ruined his libido and left him feeling hung over for days at a time. The slide would be gentle at first, hardly noticeable. By the third week he would cease going to work. By the fifth week, he would be back on the streets. There were more made-up jobs, and as sanity slipped, so did the tenuous hold he had on reality. He once directed traffic during rush hour in Georgetown and from all reports did a good job of it. He was an undercover CIA agent, a reporter, a pimp. The very last time I saw him, the encounter was surreal, even baroque. I was walking home late from a nearby friend’s home when a near-naked apparition wearing a loin cloth and a mask made of tin foil leaped from a doorway. Danny. He told me he had been following me for days, there were evil people bent on doing me harm and he would protect me. Then he vanished into the city night.

I’ve since met a slue of bipolar people, with illnesses of varying severity. Medications today, I am told, have improved and produce fewer side effects and the illness is more treatable than it was a few decades ago. This didn’t help my friend.  Danny killed himself many many years ago in the underground garage of his mother’s apartment building. I have no idea why I am thinking of him today, save that I think his death occurred around this time, a couple of weeks after Bastille Day. His mother died a short time later. I think there is a sister who left home long ago and married a marine who took her to Okinawa, but I’m not sure.

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