Issue 24, Summer-Fall 1960
The room on Vernal street in Los Angeles was the last room my father rented for us. In that old green three storied house with pigeons and gables and fire-escape, he went over the line and his decline wasn’t anymore a matter between father and son. For he assaulted a woman in that house, the woman he had liked the most and spent some nights with. It was a Saturday twilight and I had been readingon the bed up in our room and had thought the noise nothing unusual. Outbursts of voices came at any hour from the rooms below us, and along the hallways after two in the morning the homing tenants bungled and cursed. But someone leaped up the stairs and threw open the door and shouted at me to grab a blanket or a coat or something for crissakes and wrap your old man up. He had run out of the house with nothing on but the soap from the bath he’d been taking in the woman’s rooms.
Under a date palm in the yellow dirt and yellow grass of the steep front yard of another rooming house half a block away, he stood shouting threats at the woman he’d left lying on the floor; and roomers watched from porches and from windows, and across the street men and women from the bar stood under the red neon goblet, laughing. He was marble white in the twilight, and the sour bar smell of his breath mingled with the carbolic smell of the soap. When I tried to cover him, he struck me with his elbow, sharp in my ribs as a crowbar; but when the police came, he permitted me to throw the blanket around him, knowing, as he heard the slamming of the car doors, that they were going to bums rush him home for his clothes. As I crossed the blanket at his back he was Noah blasting his son Ham for laughing like a fool at his nakedness and for calling his brothers into the tent to see their father sleeping off the wine.
The ward was located in the old hospital, as it was called, a rambling place of red brick curtained by ivy, and a block west of the new many-storied structure of concrete. I brought his suitcase, as the young man social worker had told me in some huge loft of hundreds of desks and social workers in an agency building somewhere else in the city. It contained his suit of navy blue worsted; his one white shirt and striped tie; his gray work shirt and white work socks, and his dry, bumpy, carpenter’s work shoes. And over my arm I carried his raincoat and in my pocket his wallet, containing, under celluloid, a snapshot of my mother taken the year before she died a dark-haired girl in a short, flowered dress, and a snapshot of myself at the age of five, standing high in the bowl of a drinking fountain.
The bald fellow in shirtsleeves in an office on the first floor told me, as he accepted the personal property across the counter, that my father had shown enough improvement in the past week to permit him among the more tractable patients on the second floor and that yesterday he had been moved up from the basement quarters. He told me, also, that my father had been examined by staff psychiatrists and the institution they’d chosen for him was Camarillo, in the coastal hills near Venture. I was leaning my elbow on the counter, smoking a cigarette in my father’s manner, which I had always thought was extremely worldly: removing the cigarette not with the tips or even the middle of the fingers, but down in the crotch of the two fingers so that the whole hand covered the mouth in the doing of it; and with this gesture demonstrated my reasonable nature. (If the father was unreasonable it did not follow that the son was, also; the son, said the leaning elbow, said the cigarette in hand, might profit in wisdom by the father’s breakdown in a six weeks ordeal in hotel and house keeping rooms.) Though it did not matter to this clerk whether I approved or disapproved of their taking my father off my hands. In this old brick building of ramps and ivy and barred windows, the personal element was extraneous; it was a place run by public taxation and the public was protecting itself. The thousands of the city who had never heard of him and never would hear of him were afraid of him, and his confinement and classification was a matter between him and them. When the police had escorted him, in his cotton trousers and with his unbuttoned shirt hanging out, down the house’s two flights of stairs, the tenants of the house and tenants of the neighboring houses had assisted in his descent, their contempt seeming to shove him down from person to person.
Climbing the rubber carpeted ramp to the second floor and crossing the hallway, I pressed the bell to the side of double doors.