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We called him “Crazy John,” and he lived, it seemed, on the streets of downtown St. Petersburg. Most folks remember a Crazy John from their youth; that oddball who wore strange clothes, or babbled incoherent phrases over and over, or maybe just sat on a bench and stared into space all day. Always the butt of teenage jokes; sometimes baited to perform his or her standard “act,” but mostly scorned and feared, as if a leper.

John was a weight lifter; a huge man, with bulging muscles and rippling veins that stood out on his head like trapped snakes trying to break free. As a boy of only nine years, my fear of John was great, but as I grew older and realized that he never really hurt anyone or did any harm, that fear began to subside. Back then (in the early 1950s), we kids spent a lot of time wandering around downtown, checking out the dime stores and other businesses, and hanging out at the drugstore soda counters. I noticed that John sort of made “rounds” downtown, stopping in at various businesses where he would be greeted by the owners and employees like an old friend. And I began to wonder why these people put up with him.

You see, John’s “act” was a strange and scary one. One minute he would be conversing in a fairly normal way, and the next he would be shouting a string of almost unintelligible curse words, sometimes pounding his fist on the nearest wall or counter. Then, just as suddenly as he had begun, he would stop, look down at the ground, and move slowly away, mumbling quietly. John’s presence and these episodes became so commonplace that, by the time I was sixteen and had acquired a driver’s license, I used to pick him up as he hitchhiked down Central Avenue, and was even tolerant when he occasionally threatened to bash in my dashboard during one of his fits.

Many years later, I learned that what we thought of as John’s craziness actually had a name. It is one manifestation of a disease called Tourette’s Syndrome, whose symptoms range from involuntary movements, such as facial tics, to obsessive-compulsive behaviors, to violent mood swings. In John’s case, the disease manifested itself as "coprolalia" or what is called the “cursing syndrome.”

It seemed that, even in those years, some people had learned a tolerance for the mentally ill, as long as they were deemed harmless and did not cause undue problems. But the stigma remained and the fear was widespread among those less tolerant or understanding. And, unfortunately, that fear and stigma remain today. Today, also, there is the added problem of pervasive street drugs available to those mentally challenged folks who have been more or less abandoned by society to live on the streets.

My impetus for writing about Crazy John came from a poem recently passed along to me in an e-mail. The poem, by a mentally ill fellow named Moe Armstrong, struck a chord and brought back memories of John. It appears below.

My name is Moe Armstrong
I am mentally ill
I need to believe
I can make changes
I can become a better person

Being a broken person, gives me the chance
To rebuild myself
To a position of stronger unity
Unity with my hopes, and realities for, peace of mind
Unity with others, for their opportunity, to get to know me
Unity so that I can love, and be loved again

I have a chance in life
To gain happiness
I got this chance, because of my mental illness
My name is Moe Armstrong
I am mentally ill
I need help and assistance in life

I am asking for help
I have been mentally ill a long time,
I have suffered a lot
I have caused other people suffering
I have a chance to feel better
I have a chance to become happy

I've had this psychiatric condition a longtime
I will have this psychiatric condition a long time
I want to keep learning and improving
Mental illness devastated my life
I now have the chance to learn, social acceptance
I have the chance to discover, personal happiness

This chance
This opportunity
I might never have gained, without my mental illness
Losing myself to the despair, of mental illness
I now have the chance, to be a happier person
More secure in my happiness
More secure in my peace of mind
Than, ever before in my life

My name is Moe Armstrong
I am mentally ill

At times,
I do need help
I have learned to continue on

Virginia Beach, Virginia
May 25, 2001

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