I bumped into a stranger the other day. We were in the locker room. (Men’s.) Two rows over, I could overhear him. His self-mumblings rose and fell. Gym bag hoisted over shoulder, I’m walking out. In his underwear, the guy waves and stops me to apologize. Introducing himself, he extended a hand and asked: “Do you ever catch yourself just — talking to yourself…?”
I weighed the question for a long moment, then corrected: “OUR-selves…”
Kindred spirits, we laughed.
“I’ve been talking to myself since I was a kid,” he confessed. Living out west for decades, he still carried that thick Bronx accent.
I suspect most of us alone mumble to that Not-Someone-Else in the room. Most of it’s innocent, clipped and observational, like: “Well son-of-a-gun” or the epiphanous: “Wow! I never thought they made them that big…!”
Don’t blurt THAT out in church…
Technically, I have siblings and sibling-ettes. In reality? The first 13 years I was raised as an only child. My mom didn’t particularly want the job of taking care of “…a no-good little lousy animadvert wise guy” and especially one who’d correct their jailkeeper with the same last name that “animadvert” was verb, not noun and certainly never an adverb. I spent much of childhood in solitary confinement.
From toddlerhood and beyond, sitting in dark rooms and locked closets, in bath tubs or Studebaker back seats, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet a pretty swell little kid.
It took decades to finally appreciate the introduction.
Alone, naturally, conversations would arise. I’d invent invisible friends, interesting people from other times and dimensions, from warrior poets to friendly ghosts. At 6, I read Kipling’s original “Jungle Book” and became friends with Mowgli. Me and chain-smoking Huck Finn were best of pals and he taught me how to sneak out without moving an inch from my cell bunk. I chatted with my guardian angel, though I couldn’t get a darn name, first or last, from the guy. I remember asking him: “How did you ever get a job like that?”
It seemed Guardian Angel was a better gig than saint. From what I learned in catechism, you had to be boiled in salad dressing or become Kindling of the Heathens (Good Band Name!) to earn sainthood. Being an angel seemed a more exciting, Greek god calling (I also read Bullfinches’ Mythology; wasn’t supposed to). Michael the Archangel beat up more people than John L. Sullivan and, from Renaissance painter depictions, Mikey wore the coolest Marvel Comic armor. Plus? Guardian Angels could fly. Saints?
Like a humorless second-grade substitute teacher.
I’m not sure what my crimes were at 7, but, I recall in March or May, I was sent to bed early. Again. Like in February.
For “thinking I was so damn smart.”
I didn’t say it. But I thunk it: “Define — ‘so…’”
I pretended my bed was an island and that swimming around were mer-pals. We’d talk and giggle. They’d get scared when a distant coyote howled and we the Visible and Invisible would scamper under blankets and pillows to whisper. Mom would sometimes crash through the door, demanding to know with whom I was speaking. The easy scam was to lie and say, “No one…” Once, I came back with “Saint Michael, the Archangel.” Mom hailed from the Spanish Inquisition side of Holy Mother Church. My answer drew severe physical repercussions coupled with more time in the penalty box and worse? Cripes, I HAD BEEN chatting with Big Mike. Worse? How could a supposed adult mind be so violent, insane and nonsensical? Were we NOT taught to pray, but, Satan smack you for eternity if Anyone answered you back?
I haven’t chatted with St. Michael in eons. I hope he’s well. There’s people on The Other Side with whom I converse. And they with me. My dad. My pal, Laura Raynor. My second mom, JoAnn Peters. I hear sometimes distinct voices, feel that unmistakable essence. We smile. And laugh. Sometimes, I hear their well-wishes. Chatting — with just myself? I’ve had great conversations, sorted important things, cheered myself on when it’s too late at night to measure with clock hands. My experience? A good chat with yourself is rarely long, a sentence or two at best. But, one must be careful. For good, functioning schizophrenics we, if you catch yourself screaming in the tongues of dead languages, it might be time to word-search “Butthead Nutburger” on Google and I/we don’t mean the World War II German rocket scientist.
A couple years back, I was sitting in a McDonald’s in L.A. An old but ferocious homeless guy, light years off his meds, stood and screamed about Modern vs. Biblical Life and Government Jackasses. His pacing was perfect, his outrage passionate, everything he spittled out was spot-on. I glanced away, giggling. Not because he was nuts. He was. I laughed because I recognized him. He was me. His rants, style and verbiage, mirrored many of my own carefully crafted op/ed pieces.
I recall another conversation with, well — me. A question arose from a place bottomless yet safe, one we should be careful exposing to a shaming outer world: “What’s wrong with me, that I can’t love myself?”
One need not dig deep, or, dig — period. These questions, magic, mysterious, uncomfortably familiar, have a way of finding you. Isn’t it strange? This great and scary taboo of building a relationship with that one person who is always there — you — with sins, shortcomings, gifts, secrets, imperfections and delightful qualities.
Funny how we go to such great lengths to avoid this person.
I told someone, more than once: “I have this great friend. He’s just a peach, true heart, smart, witty and so damn, unrelentingly hard on himself. You actually know the guy. He’s closer to you than family or friend, kidneys or feet, has your name, looks just like you. Maybe, one day, you should meet him.”
It could start with something as simple as a little conversation…
John Boston (both of them) is a local writer.