DANNY (sample chapter)

(In the 1970s, I was still in my twenties and tending bar at The Lark Tavern in Albany, NY. I also volunteered one overnight each week at a neighborhood hotline and crisis center, Refer Switchboard, half a block from The Lark.

This true story about a struggling young customer named Danny was posted on this blog in a slightly different form in 2011 and then removed when writing the book. Here it is again as a sample chapter.)

Meanwhile, as life rolled on at The Lark and at my apartment, New York State was caught in a severe financial crisis. In the struggle to cut budgets, someone had an idea to save a lot of money on mental health. They decided to move thousands of patients out of the psychiatric hospitals, placing them instead in local, less expensive group homes.

I’d heard about the plan from volunteering on the hotlines and never thought it would affect me. Then late one afternoon, one of the newly-released patients walked into The Lark Tavern. On a slow day, a quiet young man had plopped himself down at the end by the window. He lifted his hand for service, neatly dressed with an easy-going, goofy smile.

We’d all just been told a little about him. When he walked in, a counselor from Refer Switchboard happened to be sitting at the bar, and he said the kid’s name was Danny and that he had grown up in a mental hospital. Danny’s family sent him there when he was five years old because they couldn’t handle his strange behavior. For the next twenty years, his world was a row of hospital beds and the nurses’ station with a slick tile floor beneath his state-issued slippers. Now he had been released.

“It’s called deinstitutionalization,” the counselor explained as we watched Danny settle onto an empty stool. “New York is moving most of the patients to group homes, so they’ll be housed in nearby communities.” Bartending beside me, Kate asked, “Does the plan include warning all the local pubs?”

Heading down to the young man, I thought about his recent transition. I pictured them dropping him off at the group home with the car motor still running and someone saying, “There you go, Danny!” As the car door swung shut behind him, suddenly he was in the wider world. He might have stood on the front stoop and looked around, grinning. For the first time, Danny lived in a house, on a street, in a neighborhood. Each day he stepped off the stoop, there were endless possibilities. He could walk down whatever street he liked and stop anyplace he liked. On this day, he had walked into The Lark Tavern, sat down and ordered a beer, probably for the first time ever.

“I’d like a cold one!” he told me with a big smile, and then he added, “. . . my name is Danny!” I stood behind the bar. He was an overgrown kid whose only concept of what bars are like had been pieced together from watching the hospital TV. I had to think about it for a moment.

“Danny,” I asked, “should you be drinking? How about a Coke instead?”

The Lark Tavern’s interior back then

On sunny days, a bar feels so much like home. The large front window filled the place with light as Danny played a few old tunes on the jukebox. He scooped up a basketful of peanuts from the tin washtub and sat at the bar with shells scattered around him, grinning and on top of the world. “I’ll have another one!” he said, pushing his soda glass forward.

We always had a few customers at the bar in the afternoons, regulars mostly. Danny began stopping in every day. He was neatly dressed, pleasant with the staff, and the regulars barely gave him a second look after a while. They probably saw him as the quiet sort, a bit odd, but that was his business. He sat alone, but whenever one of the bartenders came over, he’d give us a quick smile and blurt out, “How are you today?” We knew he felt excited just to be allowed to stay.

The days went by, and Danny began to talk with the customers. At first, we were concerned because we’d have to ask him to leave if he made people uncomfortable. As it turned out, he was surprisingly at ease, commenting about the weather, about something on the TV, or how the New York Yankees were doing. Small differences might stop people from talking in the outside world, but it doesn’t take much to get along inside a pub. “I like Thurman Munson,” Danny said to someone watching the televised baseball game beside him. The man agreed while Danny sat beaming. He was a regular guy now, talking about everyday stuff in a bar. “I’ll be right back,” Danny said when he got up to go to the men’s room. He gestured to his barstool, making sure I would save it for him. He had found his spot.

Then he started to take an interest in the women. I should have seen it coming. It’s a different conversation, talking with a woman in a bar. Most of the women couldn’t be bothered with Danny, and they let him know. They didn’t respond or looked the other way. One girl swiveled in her seat, turning her back on him while he was talking as though something else had her attention. Danny realized it was a lost cause and quietly got up. “I didn’t mean to trouble you,” he said, returning to his barstool.

One afternoon, a new woman came into the bar, and she seemed somewhat friendly toward Danny. She gave him a casual nod as he introduced himself, and when he sat beside her, she appeared attentive and listened to what he had to say. Danny told her he liked her dress. He got her to laugh a few times. “Wait, I’ve got another one!” Danny said, and they talked for almost an hour. A few days later, they sat together again and this went on for several weeks. They’d sit and chat when at the bar, and Danny eventually told me they planned to meet somewhere for lunch.

“That’s great, Danny,” I said, although I wondered if it was the best idea. If you stepped back and noticed him, he was a good-looking guy—but he’d grown up in a mental hospital. He didn’t have a job.

By now, we knew that the woman worked as a receptionist in the downtown government offices. She was a reserved, early-thirties brunette, pretty in a way. She sat with her drink and Danny had his Coke, and it made you wonder, “What’s the story there?” When the two of them left early on a weekend afternoon, one of the new waitresses suggested they were probably having sex. “Maybe Danny is a good lover,” she said, and somebody called out, “Yeah, right!”

“He might be really hung,” the waitress said, and the entire place burst into laughter.

Evidently, they had a good lunch because they continued to meet at The Lark, talking about whatever they’d just seen on the bar’s TV. Sometimes when they left together, Danny struggled to keep the smile off his face. After a while, I wondered if I should say something to her. She had to know about Danny and the hospital, but to bring it up, so she kept it in mind. Social life can be chancy in a bar. I remember a Refer counselor once brought a client into The Lark; she handed him a Coke and introduced her “friend” to the other customers. Maybe she wanted the man to feel more comfortable in public places. This must have looked like the perfect spot to practice. “As long as you stay with him,” I thought.

But Danny and the woman from the government offices appeared to get along well, and their contact did Danny a world of good. Maybe it was the sex if they were having sex. He was definitely more relaxed, more confident now, and he’d order his Coke as though he really belonged. All the staff liked him, and he had a friend for the afternoons spent in the neighborhood bar. For him, it was fall days, football games on the TV, and an individual basket filled with peanuts in the shell. Danny was at the jukebox when Kate said, “He’s hung his life on The Lark Tavern like a coat on a hook.”

As the days continued to pass, however, we noticed a gradual change in Danny. It’s hard to describe, but there were small things—a difference in how he acted or how he sat on his stool. He’d turn to her with his hands in his lap and almost a pleading expression. Everyone might feel that way sometime, but they usually don’t show it in a bar. In those moments, Danny didn’t seem old enough to be in here.

The woman had been patient at first, but clearly something was changing. Now they’d face each other in what looked like arguments. Their voices remained too low to be heard, but her gestures were stern, choppy. And sometimes, she would stare at him hard without saying anything. Finally one afternoon, she stood up in the middle of their conversation. “You have to leave all that behind you, Danny,” she said, picking up her purse and jacket. “You have to stop living in the past.” Then she left. We never saw her again.

“She and I will have to wait for a while,” Danny explained a couple of days later why she hadn’t been stopping by. “She’s very busy with her work right now.” All the staff knew the relationship was over.

Danny tried to talk with other women, but they silently ignored him or sometimes stood up and took another seat. So he sat with his hands wrapped around a glass of Coke. “Danny,” I said, standing across the bar from him, “maybe it would be better not to mention the hospital right away.”

“What else am I going to talk about?” he looked straight at me. “That’s who I am. It’s all I’ve got.”

A week later, Danny sat by himself, not talking with anyone. The staff paid attention to him whenever we walked by, asking how things were going with the usual cheerfulness. But he didn’t smile. I wanted to do something, but what? He stayed in his spot, with an empty stool on either side, alone in the crowd. At one point, he got up to go to the men’s room. When he didn’t return for a while, I knocked on the bathroom door. “Danny,” I said, knocking, “Danny, are you in there?” With no response, I twisted the doorknob, knocking harder. “Danny, what’s going on, pal? Are you OK?”

When pounding on the door didn’t bring an answer, one of the regulars came over and Kate ran out from behind the bar. Someone grabbed a hammer and a screwdriver, and we popped the bolts from the hinges, pulling the door out of its frame.

Danny sat alone on the bathroom floor next to the sink with his back against the wall, his shirt unbuttoned and pulled out. Blood was splattered everywhere. He sat in a small puddle of it. With his shirt sleeve soaked and arms loose at his sides, a razor blade had fallen on the tile near an open hand. At first, he didn’t move at all, but then he lifted his head and looked up at us.

Danny was finally carried out on a stretcher. A paramedic shoved equipment back into a medical duffel bag as they took him outside. “He’ll be fine,” the paramedic said, “his cuts are across the wrist . . . it takes a long time to bleed to death that way. Cut yourself lengthwise, open up a long section of the vein, and you’ll be dead in a few minutes.”

An ambulance was backed up onto the sidewalk in front of The Lark with its rear doors open. Two small fire trucks had parked beside the ambulance. The lights on the vehicles continued flashing their warning in silence, but it was too late now. I stood at the end of the bar by the front window and watched the ambulance doors close.

We didn’t see Danny after that. When we followed up with the Refer counselors, we found out he was going to be OK. Later, we heard he’d been sent back to Marcy State Hospital.

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