Amos was six-foot-five and weighed 300 pounds. The vacant, insincere smile plastered to his lips made it seem he knew embarrassing information about you. He wore huge sunglasses indoors and chain-smoked cheap cigars like they were cigarettes. He was schizophrenic and kept the radio on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to keep the voices away. He was also my roommate.
We lived in the Rita Berger House, a place that housed folks who were unable to lead normal lives. I chose to live there because living with my parents in my thirties was worse. It was on Amsterdam Avenue and 82nd Street over a bar that was open until four in the morning.
Helen, my therapist, told me about the opening at Rita Berger. She described it as a “crisis bed in a crisis unit.” It sounded scary, but I was interested. She said starting the interview process immediately would be smart. I met with Ed LaSalle, a stocky, tough looking Puerto Rican with a pockmarked face from bad acne in his youth.
On his door, a sign read: “Expect good things and good things will happen.” I liked it and told him. He was like a New Age Gangster. He probably listened to rap songs with affirmations. Smack that bitch, and know you are one of God’s children. He was straightforward and made it clear I was lucky to have the opportunity to sleep in a crisis bed and I’d be getting a roommate.
The first few nights I didn’t have one; then Edmund moved in. He was withdrawn and had cruel, red welts all over his face. After seeing no one was planning on hurting anyone we finally spoke, a huge relief to both of us. We made small talk and established an uncomfortable comfort level. We obeyed the unwritten rule: Don’t ask any personal questions. If somebody wants you to know they’ll tell you.
One afternoon I came home, and he was gone. I returned a few hours later to find this gigantic black guy asleep on his bed. He wore a drab green gown from the hospital psych ward, and the radio was blasting. I turned it off.
“Put the radio on!”
What the hell is wrong with this guy? He finds WCBS News Radio 88 soothing? He’s fucking huge. Just put it on and you can turn it off later.
He quickly settled into a deep sleep. I was wide-awake thinking about what led to this moment. Drinking, drugs, arrests, lost relationships, lost confidence, loss of self. I wanted to get drunk with the people in the bar below. I wanted to leave Rita Berger and run home.
There was no going back.
The days at Rita Berger began at eight when a morning shift worker would scream into each room’s intercom: “Time for meds!” The meds line scared the hell out of Amos.
Brooklyn Earl thought he knew Amos from somewhere and compulsively told Amos about his plans to get a haircut. Every morning, Earl put on a show with his brittle, black, plastic comb, badly irritating his scalp until he was subdued by a staff member. He was completely bald.
Louise, an emaciated grey-haired woman, applied her makeup as if she drank half a bottle of tequila. She ranted obsessively about public transportation.
“The 16 bus comes every eight and a half minutes except holidays last Thanksgiving I waited forty-seven minutes and nineteen seconds to get to my sister’s house the food stunk and I was fucking angry because she served tapioca pudding she knows I like VANILLA! I’m not going back which is good because they’re doing construction on 47th I’d have to take three buses. You’d think she’d remember VANILLA!”
Amos always went back to bed after the meds line. He left gigantic puddles on the bathroom floor and didn’t always flush the toilet. He hung his dirty underwear on the top of the shower door. On my way home each night I’d stop at a fancy restaurant and use the bathroom. Compared to ours, it was the Taj Mahal. I’d spend a long time in there, ignoring the angry knocks of paying customers, appreciating the wallpaper and lighting fixtures, promising myself I’d have a bathroom like this one day.
Amos snored like a thunderstorm. I was afraid of slipping on the bathroom floor and getting there was creepy. He slept directly in front of it. In the dark, I tried to pass him without making body contact. His tractor-trailer thighs were brutishly exposed under his psych ward gown. A couple of times I grazed them, but nothing happened. I used to think about melting butter and basting them with a soft brush.
It was almost impossible to sleep because of Amos’ goddamn radio. I kept hearing the same news stories every twenty minutes. I’d go downstairs and watch the communal TV, appreciating the peace and quiet. Sometimes a resident would watch with me. They always asked about Amos.
“You live with that big guy, what’s he like?”
One night, this guy Rasahn came to watch with me. All of a sudden, Doug the overnight counselor bounded out of the office: “Rasahn, your song is on!”
I looked at the television and there was Rasahn, singing on screen. I couldn’t believe it! I knew and liked the song, “Flip Fantasia.” It was a rhythmic rap with a jazzy trumpet underneath. You never know who you’ll meet in a nuthouse. Rasahn ignored the television.
“Why is that big guy you’re with always smiling?”
I worked as a stand up comedian and got hired to work in Atlantic City. As I was getting ready to leave, Amos spoke.
“Where you going?”
He perked up. “Atlantic City?”
“What are you going to do there?”
“Do you deal cards?”
“No. I’m a comedian.”
“Really? You know you’re dressed like a jazz musician?”
“Do you go to jazz clubs?” I asked.
“Then how do you know what they look like?”
“I’ve seen them in independent films. I love independent films.”
“Me too. What are some you like?”
“Me too,” I said. “I’ll see you in a couple of days.”
“Bye Anthony, have a good time.”
The fact that he started a conversation caught me off guard. I was delighted. I was surprised he liked independent films and felt guilty leaving him in that hot apartment. On the bus I fantasized about bringing him.
“Another winner for the gentleman in… his pajamas.”
“Excuse me sir, they’re not pajamas. I got the ensemble in the psych ward.”
During the shows I told a couple of jokes about Amos.
“I live in the mental health system. My roommate is six-foot-five, three hundred pounds. He’s schizophrenic. Keeps the radio on twenty-four seven or he hears voices. The women who work there always scream. ‘THIS IS NOT A HOTEL!’”
“Hi this is room four….. Could you please send up some fresh towels? And four straightjackets…. one for my roommate and three for his imaginary friends.”
“One night I lost it and screamed ‘TURN OFF THE FUCKIN RADIO!’ Next morning he asked, ‘Were you yelling at me last night?’ I said, You must have been hearing voices.”
After a few weeks I’d carved out a routine. I’d sleep with Amos Monday through Thursday and spend Friday and Saturday nights at my parents’.
“Where do you go on the weekends?” he asked.
I was embarrassed to be staying with my folks. “I met a girl and I’ve been staying with her.”
Every Thursday afternoon he’d ask, “Staying at your girlfriends this weekend?” The answer was always yes. Out of guilt, I felt compelled to give him details. “Going to your girlfriends’ this weekend?” “Yes her parents invited us to go so skiing and stay at their chalet in Vermont.”
“Sounds like you guys are getting serious.”
“I guess we are.”
“Good luck with her parents.”
One night Amos couldn’t sleep. I heard him thrashing on the plastic wrapping he never took off his new bed. I decided to go down and watch TV.
“Where are you going?”
“Downstairs to watch television.”
“Do you need anything?”
“Can you go out and buy me some candy. I’m afraid to go?”
“I’d be happy to. What kind do you like?”
We ended up talking about candy for ten minutes. Amos loved most candy, but his favorite snacks were Suzie Q’s and Reeses Pieces. My list was shorter, but I let him know I’d enjoyed Suzie Q’s and her cousin Twinkies in my youth and, yeah, I know about those big pink cupcakes. We decided to go with Reeses Pieces. Being cool with the night staff, I had no problem leaving the building late at night. I found Reeses Pieces in the all-night bodega and bought two packs. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as I re-entered the building. We were finally connecting. Amos beamed an unforced, bright smile when I gave him the candy. I went downstairs knowing Amos was feeling all right.
Each night as I got closer to Rita Berger I found myself hoping Amos wanted me to buy him candy. It felt good and he got to experience the comfort and safety in knowing someone was looking out for him. One evening I was buying some Suzy Q’s and thought, why should Amos have all the fun? I bought six packs, three for each of us.
“How come you bought so many? I only wanted two.”
“Tonight, Amos, I’m down with the Suzy Q’s, too.”
I gave Amos three and took my hooch to bed. Even though it was a tiny, one-room apartment, we could be in bed and not see each other. Amos slept by the front door and the bathroom (Lake Superior), and I was in the back by the street. We were separated by a corner wall, which housed the closet at the top of my bed. One morning I opened it and found a magazine with pictures of overweight naked women. They were enormous. They looked like cattle in lingerie. It took a couple of minutes to get over the shock. Amos had to have to put it there. Why my closet? He had his own. Was he trying to tell me he wasn’t gay? That he liked very fat women? Maybe he wanted to see if I liked big women too, so we could go out chubby chasing.
After a couple of Suzy Q’s I was high on sugar and started talking loudly. “Amos how many have you had? I finished two.”
“On my first one.”
“I feel wasted.”
“What do you mean?”
“I feel drunk.”
“You’re acting crazy. You’re scaring me.”
“Amos, I wanna ask you a question.”
“Do you want to have sex with any of the ladies in the office”?
“Only the fat ones.”
We started eating candy almost every night. In the spring, we’d eat on the fire escape and smoke his disgusting cigars. He grew up in the projects behind Lincoln Center. He had an older sister. His mother lived alone and liked her privacy. He’d been hospitalized for trying to hurt (maybe kill) someone who’d been teasing him for decades. I didn’t press for details. Telling me about himself at his own pace was healing for both of us.
We were out there one night and everything changed when Amos said, “I just wish I could have a nice job and my own place.”
This is exactly what I wanted…more than anything.
“If I had a nice apartment I’d let you live there for free. I love you, Anthony.”
I’ve had a few girlfriends profess their love. None of them did with as much innocence and sincerity. The candy was sweet, but the moment was sweeter.
He was the loneliest person I’d ever known. I wanted to go to the projects and scream at his mother, “Your only son is living in a crisis bed one mile from here. Maybe you should say hello.” I wanted him to tell me how we could contact his sister, but he didn’t know where she was. I was also isolated and had been for a long time. Drug addiction and alcoholism is a lonely business. The world gets smaller and smaller until you end up on your parents’ couch. Thanks to candy, the ache of isolation vanished. We weren’t alone anymore.
I had big plans. Amos was going to experience the world and I was going to be his tour guide.
“Amos, do you want go to a Yankee game?”
He’d never seen the ocean. “Amos, do you want to go to Jones beach? You’ll finally get to see the ocean.”
“No thanks Anthony.”
“Are you sure? You said you wanted to see it.”
“I’m sure Anthony.”
“Are you scared?”
“I’ll be with you the whole time. We could try it and if you get uncomfortable we’ll come straight home.”
“It may not be as bad as you think. If you change your mind let me know.
I thought we could start small and build up to a bigger outing. “Do you want to go across the street and eat some sweets in the coffee shop?”
“OK, just let me know if you change your mind. It might be fun.”
One night I came up with the perfect proposal. “Amos do you want to go to an independent film?”
“No thanks, Anthony.”
Frustrated, I left him alone. If candy and cheap cigars were enough for him, they were enough for me.
I got stronger while Amos maintained. We knew I’d be moving on while Amos would be stuck in the system for years, possibly forever. It hung in the air like the stench of rotten egg salad. When I offered to get candy, he pretended to sleep. It pissed me off but it was also a relief. Were we really gonna become roommates and live happily ever after? The distance made it easier for us to move on.
In the beginning, I saw Amos as a frightening, mentally challenged brute. I was wrong. He was a person with a heart, a heart just like mine.
Eventually we got moved to another site on 125th Street. The room was smaller, and there were no beds: just two used mattresses on the floor. They were so close to each other, sleep was out of the question. Thanks to his meds and his radio, Amos slept easily.
I couldn’t stay in the system any longer. I started staying at friends’ houses and only went to 125th if I had nowhere to go. Amos and I barely spoke. All he did was turn his back to me and sleep. The sound of the radio (the volume was louder on 125th Street) and sight of the slow rising and falling of his huge body in psych ward garb made it impossible to feel remotely comfortable. A few days later a friend invited me to live with him in a nice apartment on the Upper West Side. I was in the system no more.
I ran into Amos a few years ago. We recognized each other right away. He had white spittle on his lips and looked agitated.
“Are you OK?”
“I haven’t been taking my meds.”
“You probably should take them.”
“Where you living these days?”
“Still on 125th, but they’re moving me any day.”
“I don’t know. Where you living Anthony?”
“I’m on 95th Street off Columbus Avenue.”
“95th Street, Upper West Side, I bet it’s beautiful.”
“It’s pretty good.”
“Who do you live with?” I hesitated.
“That’s great Anthony. I got to go.”
“You sure? We could go get…”
“I got to get back to meet my social worker.”
Before I could respond he’d turned his back and started walking.