by Glenn Reed
(Swans - August 26, 2013) "Fuzzy's dead."
My mother made the statement over midway through my most recent conversation. Like an afterthought. Or as if it suddenly popped into her head after I asked about any news about anyone else. It's not that she didn't care. She's 84 years old and quite forgetful, after all. And it also seems that every time I call now, there's news about someone else that my parents know dying. And they always say it matter-of-factly.
Tears did come to my eyes though. "Damn!" I thought. "He was two years younger than me" (I'm 54). And despite the fact that we had almost nothing at all in common, something in me connected with him on some level. Maybe it was the fact that I felt us both to be misfits in this society.
"Fuzzy" was a nickname that my parents gave Mike, and I don't know if anyone else used it or not. It was a logical choice, as Fuzzy's beard could best be described as feral. It almost gave the appearance of Spanish moss on a tree, except that the tree itself was fairly gaunt and scraggly. His thin stature and worn-out face made Fuzzy appear older than he was and much probably due to his many years of alcoholism and smoking.
Not to mention a life of hardship, tragedy and disappointment.
I first encountered Fuzzy about ten years ago when I lived in Seattle and was visiting my parents in northeastern Vermont during the late summer. My stepfather had heard from a friend in-town about someone who was a real handy carpenter and who would work "under the table" for cheap. My parents have a big, old Vermont farmhouse on 23 acres that they were getting too old to take adequate care of, and they also lack the money to pay the going rates for good carpenters and contractors.
Every visit home from the West Coast I'd been getting increasingly concerned with the state of the old homestead. Everything needed painting. The roof over the porch sagged and many boards were beginning to rot. Light fixtures inside were malfunctioning and ceiling cracks were everywhere. One night we were actually sitting in the den watching TV when there was a sudden crash that came from the direction of the stairway. A huge junk of ceiling had actually broken off and junks of plaster and a coating dust covered the stairs.
Fuzzy could fix anything. Patching that hole in the ceiling was just one of his many successful projects around my parents' house. He performed miracles with hammer, nails, paintbrush and drywall. That is, when he was sober. And when he wasn't chewing your ear off with stories on one of his smoke breaks while he sat on a lawn chair in the garage.
Those stories revealed a lot about our profound differences. Fuzzy was a native Vermonter, while I was a transplant from Massachusetts, as our family moved to New Hampshire in 1972 and then Newbury, Vermont, in '74. Fuzzy went into the service (Army), while I went to college. I never was married nor had kids, while he was married, divorced and had children. I was never much of a drinker and never smoked, while Fuzzy did both. In excess. Fuzzy used his carpentry skills for years to survive and thrive, while I found that my degrees and motivation didn't necessarily translate into job success because I always questioned the games and power struggles that exist every workplace. And I tend to be more honest in an interview because I'm not one to b.s.
In the end, Fuzzy struck too many discordant notes in the predominant system and fell into that group of castaway people for which our society is so adept at dumping. He plummeted off the radar. Ended up homeless. Divorced and unemployed and hitting the six-packs every day. The court system, so judgmental (forgive the pun) of our throw-away society, castigated him for not paying his child support. In fact, when I first met him they were threatening jail time even though he was unemployed (and pretty much unemployable) for amounts of money he couldn't possibly pay. He did serve some time incarcerated, in fact, and there certainly was no money for him to make during those periods. On top of that, he had moved in with a "girlfriend" who had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and who was frequently violent.
Ah, I'm not one to defend "dead-beat dads," but there's clearly bigger game to be caught on this front. You can't get blood from a stone, as they say, especially when that stone has got major mental health issues.
It was during one such extreme episode that Fuzzy had taken to living in a pipe somewhere in a small town south of where my parents live. In the middle of winter. Winters in Vermont, of course, are biting cold and often snowy. I never was told the exact location of this pipe, but I could not imagine it ever being particularly homey.
By coincidence, when I first met Fuzzy I had been working as residential counselor and case manager in the mental health field for a number of years. I'd fallen into the job out of the desperation of not being able to locate a position in my profession for several years in "thriving" Seattle. I was under-employed, not making a living wage (well I was, but had to have a roommate for a tiny, four-room apartment), and still butting heads with the powers-that-be through my union activism. Oh hell, I've never been in the Microsoft and Starbucks clique anyway.
"So that's him," I thought with fascination, when my mother told me that Fuzzy was working one day at the house. I looked out the window to the porch and saw this scarecrow figure and Rasputin-like beard. He was intently chipping away at the paint on our porch railing, in preparation for the also-tedious job of repainting it.
After introducing myself, I quickly learned how Fuzzy could slowly, but surely, draw you into an extended conversation. The first stories that he told me were of his experiences in the Army. Some of them gave me real chills. The last time I'd had such a vivid sense of some of the harsh realities of life in the military were in brief talks with Vietnam vets who were protesting with me against Reagan's arming of the contras in Nicaragua.
Both times, my own travails in life seemed to shrink in comparison. I felt a real awe and respect deep inside for what these men had experienced.
On another trip home, my stepfather informed me that he had given Fuzzy "a break" because he was drinking too much. I knew that Fuzzy had had a few hiding places in the barn, garage and extensive sheds connected to our old farmhouse. He could still work after one can, but there were those periods when....
I'd met, and worked with, hundreds of our society's castaways by that point. A majority of them had been homeless. Probably most had dual diagnoses of mental illness mixed with substance abuse issues. All were mentally ill, including people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Services for these people are always inadequate. The mental health system is dysfunctional, largely due to the fact that it's always jumping to the tune of a political system that doesn't prioritize those in need. Every year, federal and state budget monies for mental health are being cut.
And every year, I saw a few more clients die. A suicide here. Choking on vomit while asleep. Heart giving out due to years of poor health exacerbated by a cocktail of psychotropic meds, side effect meds, side effect meds for the side effects, meds because the drug companies are always promoting a new med.
"What happened?" I asked my mother regarding Fuzzy's sudden death. Here I am again, having escaped mental health for five years and gotten back into my chosen profession, I'd been laid off, among the long-term unemployed, and now working in mental health again for wages that I'd made twenty years prior.
"He was just not feeling well and went to the hospital and died," my mother said. No details yet. They don't know if they'll ever get them because of Fuzzy's outsider status and lack of connection with his family.
I think that at last count, I could remember about 40 clients that I had known over the years and that had died. Some of them I'd seen infrequently, and I can't remember their last names. But the faces always remain in my head. Some had had memorial services in whatever facility I was working in at the time. Others had not. Some had family. Others we never were able to locate any family.
So Fuzzy's dead.
I think of the cemetery back in Seattle for such people. Flat stones in mown grass. Nothing upright but the trees that shade the names. If there are names.
I think of past history, where they referred to "pauper's graves." Mozart is in one such grave.
I think of my own estrangement from our cold, capitalist society through unemployment and any questioning of that system. I think of the people who never get any write-ups in the newspaper obituaries.
I think of Fuzzy, who had heard one day about my interest in antique bottle digging. He'd told me of an old dump site he'd discovered one day while exploring the woods near his home in Peacham, Vermont. This was way back when he was a teenager. I was all excited and asked if he remembered where it was.
"I don't think I could ever find it again," he'd replied.
I'm thinking that someday I'll go looking for it. Even though I haven't the slightest idea where to begin, except for a small town in northeastern Vermont.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed Glenn Reed is a writer and activist from Fair Haven, Vermont, who works in the non-profit world. (back)