We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Oh fuck, I think. I’m gonna get arrested again.

There’s a growing cluster of uniforms in the ravine abutting our property: city employees, police, a couple of guys wearing insignia I don’t recognize.  Two cops poke at the tent in the ravine just across the fence from our tool shed. Their cars are pulled up in front of the house: those ones with the new, aggressive gray-and-black styling because the old blue-and-whites didn’t look enough like the Batmobile.

It was only a matter of time. Kevin spent most of last night screaming death threats to the trees again. Someone must have complained.

I switch on my phone’s voice recorder, slip it into my back pocket, trudge grimly into the underbrush. I pass the two whose insignia I didn’t recognize from the window: Salvation Army, as it turns out (“Gateway: The Hand of God in the Heart of the City”). They look concerned and ready to help. I wonder if they know that Kevin’s gay; the Sally Ann’s a notoriously homophobic organization.

“So what’s going on?” I ask in passing. One of them shrugs, jerks a thumb towards the center of action.

The cops have ripped away the fly and are talking to the huddled figure rocking in the exposed shell of the tent. They look up as I approach.

“Hi. That’s my tent.” Maybe not the optimal ice-breaking line, but better than back away from the homeless guy and no one gets hurt.

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They look at me.

“I gave it to him to keep him from getting rained on.” There was a torrential rainstorm a few months back, punched a hole in our roof and soaked through to the living room ceiling. I came home that afternoon to find Kevin taking shelter on our porch. He apologized for the intrusion. It was the first time we spoke, although he’d been living rough in the ravine for a couple of months at least.  “He’s harmless, really. He yells a lot, but when he’s leveled out he’s actually kind of charming.”

One of the cops is about as tall as me, and broader. The other is short enough to be susceptible to Napoleon Complex. He’s the one who first tells me to back up, who says I’m interfering with their job.

“Kevin?” I say. “You okay, dude?” The figure in the tent keeps rocking.

They tell me, once again, to back off. “The problem,” I say, “is that you guys have a really bad reputation when it comes to dealing with black guys with mental issues. I’m worried about what you might do to him.” At some point during this exchange I’ve pulled my phone from my pocket and switched to video record.

“Look, you want your tent back, we’ll give you your tent back.”

“It’s not about the tent, he’s welcome to the tent—”

“You want to record this, go ahead and record. But you are interfering with our job. So back away.”

Which, despite my gut instincts, I have to admit is reasonable. I take a few steps back.

“Further,” says the littler guy.

Another step.

Further.”

I figure I’m far enough; certainly well out of Interfering Range. “I don’t think that’s gonna happen,” I say, “But I will stay right here.”

He doesn’t push it.

And I have to admit, they seem to be trying their best at a tough job. Nobody’s tasered or shot Kevin (or me) yet. They’re not escalating in the way that ends with unarmed people shot in the back, or choked to death for selling loosies. They’re actually trying to talk to the dude.

One of the Gateway guys has dealt with Kevin before. They bring him over to try and talk Kevin out of the tent. I end up chatting with the City people; against the law to camp on public property, they point out. They gave Kevin almost a week’s warning that they’d be coming. Came by just yesterday to remind him, left a note when he wasn’t there. And there are shelters. Gateway’s got a bed for him.

But Toronto shelters don’t allow pets, and Kevin has a cat: a skittish, overweight black-and-white shorthair named “Blueberry Panda”. They used to live together in an apartment run by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. Kevin had arranged with the government to have his rent deducted automatically from his disability income. He went for months thinking that his rent was being paid; he believed that right up until the day TCHC evicted him last spring. Apparently they’d refused to authorize the direct-deposit arrangement after being unable to contact him by phone for “verbal confirmation”[1].

I explain this to the City people; they’re sympathetic but whatyagonnado. “Just hypothetically,” I wonder, “what if Kevin moves into our back yard?”

They look at me as though I’m the one rocking back and forth in the tent. “Well he wouldn’t be on public land, but there’d still be the disturbing the peace issue.” And they’re right, of course. The current situation is unsustainable. A few nights back I found myself standing out in the rain at 2 a.m., peering through the fence to see if the fire Kevin had lit was in danger of burning down our shed or setting the ravine alight. It wasn’t; but obviously the guy needs help. I just don’t know if the current system can give him any. In terms of mental health this place has gone to shit ever since the government decided to cut costs by classifying everyone as an outpatient. It’s a lesser-evil sort of thing.

Gateway guy has made no progress; Big Cop (Officer Baird, I learn later) approaches me and says, “I think we got off on the wrong foot. You don’t know me, you’re judging me by the uniform. I’m honestly trying to help this guy; you say you have a relationship with him? Maybe you could try talking to him?”

“Well, sure,” I say, suddenly feeling like kind of a dick.

We go back to Kevin’s tent— my tent, until I gave it to him on the condition that he stop screaming death threats in the middle of the night (or at least that he make it really clear that those death threats were not aimed at us). I remember he smiled when I said that, looked kind of rueful. Now that I think back, though, I realize he made no promises.

He’s originally from Trinidad. Speaks with this cool accent. Back in the nineties he earned a degree from the University of Toronto: dual major in chemistry and philosophy. How cool is that?

Now he huddles half-naked in the woods, and rages against monsters at three in the morning.

*

“Kevin?  Dude? Remember me?”

The tent stinks. There’s a tear down one side where the local raccoons tried to get at Blueberry’s kibble. A small mountain of Bic lighters spills across a dirty scavenged mattress.  A drift of empty plastic bottles. Half-eaten meals gone bad in foil wrappings. A couple of empty prescription vials (big surprise there). Kevin’s knapsack: the thin edge of a grimy Macbook peeking out from a nest of balled up socks and underwear.

He sits in the middle of it all, half-clothed: a dirty sleeping bag wrapped around his shoulders, a forgotten cigarette burning down between his fingers. He looks a little like a performance-artist channeling that mud-and-garbage Devil’s Tower Richard Dreyfuss sculpted in his living room, back in Close Encounters.

After our first sodden introduction, Kevin would wave a cheery “Hello neighbors!” at the BUG and me during his comings and goings. Occasionally he bummed a twenty to pay for a shower and a roof at the local bath-house; once he woke us late on a Saturday morning to ask if he could use our bathroom. Every now and then he’d push it a bit— asked if he could keep my hammer with him in the ravine, asked our house-sitters for the household WiFi password while we were out of town— but he also took No for an answer. We were a bit worried, at first, about getting sucked into a camel-nose scenario, but the dude always respected boundaries. Always cheerful and charming, in the light of day at least.

A centimeter of ash drops off the cig and smolders on the mattress.  I try to tap it out. Kevin flinches away and doesn’t look at me.

I ask how he’s doing, try to invoke past shared experience to bring him out of it: “Remember when we set this tent up? Fucking insects nearly ate me alive.”

Insects don’t exist in Alzheimer Space,” he snaps.

It’s a start. It’s more than he’s said to anyone else. I slide a bit of aluminum foil towards him across the fabric: “Just to keep the ash from, you know, setting the mattress on fire.”

Ash does not exist in Alzheimer Space. Mattress does not exist in Alzheimer Space.

“Dude? What are you—”

You do not exist. You do not exist in Alzheimer—

Finally it clicks: All time and space.

“You do not exist in all time and space. Nothing exists in all time and space.”

In principle it’s a decent coping mechanism. On some level he must know that the voices he hears at night, the things he rails against when the rest of us are trying to sleep, don’t actually exist. So he’s rejecting false input, only he’s— overgeneralizing. He’s rejecting everything as unreal.

I am false data. Why would he believe anything I say?

I try a bit longer, take some small satisfaction that at least I’ve got him talking, even if only to deny reality. Finally I crawl out of the tent, turn to Baird & Bud: “He’s gone totally solipsistic.”

“What’s sol—solistic?”

“He’s not recognizing anything beyond himself as real. I think he thinks we’re all hallucinations or something, like he’s some kind of Boltzmann brain.”

By now the paramedics have arrived. Officer Baird and I stand back and watch one of them squat down, ask Kevin to come out.  “Just want to test your blood pressure, buddy”— which, if not a bald-faced lie, is so very far from the whole truth that it might as well be. And yet, what else is there to do? Kevin couldn’t even pass a Turing test in his current condition.

“You know, the press paints us in a really bad light,” Officer Baird remarks. “There are a few assholes, but most of us are good people. I’m a good person.”

I actually believe him. That last part, anyway.

“I get that,” I say. “The trouble is, you good people cover for the assholes. You have to, because you need to count on them when you’re in a tight spot. I understand the dynamic, but you gotta admit that suspicion is a reasonable mindset to take into these things.”

“I’ve had training in this sort of thing. I go for de-escalation.” (I immediately flash back to a couple of other incidents in my past where LEOs, fully free to escalate, stepped back and chose to engage instead. And others where they, well, didn’t. Funny how the latter interactions tend to loom so much larger in memory.) “I always try to resolve things peacefully,” Baird continues.

“And ninety-five percent of snakes are harmless—” invoking my most-favorite ever biology-cop analogy— “but you still carry an antivenom kit when you go into the desert.”

He shrugs and, I think, concedes the point.

Kevin’s been contained. The paramedics wheel him past on a stretcher. He’s buckled down and strapped in. His hands are cuffed behind his back. He looks around, lost. “Could you take the cuffs off, please?” he asks. “I’m not a violent person.”

Three minutes, tops, since nothing existed in all time or space. Just moments ago he was stuck in a loop that denied the very existence of external reality. Now he’s perfectly coherent. He doesn’t understand why he’s being treated this way.

They don’t take off the cuffs. I don’t blame them. It breaks my heart anyway. I tell Kevin I’ll take care of Blueberry while he’s away (the little pudgeball fled into our backyard while all this was going down). Officer Baird and I wander after the gurney; he gives me his badge and phone number, and his email in case I want to follow up (“I probably won’t be able to give you any details— that’s Kevin’s confidence— but I can at least tell you he’s okay.”) I wonder if he’s the kind of guy who’d be willing to answer a few background questions if I ever put a cop in one of my stories.

The city employees move in with garbage bags and blue latex gloves. They say I can have my tent back if I want but it’s a write-off; I salvage the hollow bones (gotta be able to find a use for those somewhere) and let them collect everything else for disposal.

The ambulance drives away.

There are two people in Kevin’s brain. They don’t play well together; only one is in control at any given time. Some kind of switch toggles between them. I hope Kevin can find a way to keep his hand on it.

What? I told you she was fat.

What? I told you she was fat.

In the meantime, a black shape lurks in the underbrush and glares at me with yellow eyes. She’s lost her best and only friend; Kevin may have his issues but those two have been together for almost ten years, and he chose to sleep without a roof over his head rather than abandon her. So we won’t abandon her either. She still doesn’t trust us as far as she could throw an ibex, but she creeps out of cover to eat the food we serve, once we’ve gone back inside.

I guess it’s a start.


[1] This is typical of the TCHC; they treat their tenants with contempt and every request as a shiftless attempt to game the system. I lived there for years, fighting rearguard against bedbugs and bad electrical wiring. When I asked them to deal with the black mold in my bathroom or the meter-wide hole in my ceiling, they literally laughed in my face.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday October 16 2017at 02:10 pm , filed under misc . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

24 Responses to “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

  1. It’s pretty amazing that Baird even understands that there are those kind of cops around. How would he expect us civilians to recognize that he’s one of the good ones when he has his gang colours on?

    Good for you for looking out for Kevin, especially given your previous history with LEO’s. I’d be surprised if your heart wasn’t racing.

    As far as the police are concerned, I don’t think it’s the bad ones that are the problem. The whole institution is a tool for managing and disciplining the poor and it’s the good ones who are used to somehow justify it’s existence. “Sure, fixing the TCHC’s $1B backlog in basic maintenance would be nice, but we need to pay our armed bureaucrats in black uniforms, they keep us safe from criminals”

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  2. Thanks for the equitable and straight reporting.

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  3. Jesus, what a heartbreaking, no-win situation. Good on you for doing so much for both of the guys in Kevin’s brain, and for Blueberry. You’re a good man.

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  4. I never trust anyone who self-identifies as a good person. But then, I’m probably projecting, because I’m pretty much a terrible person–though I’m better than I used to be. Evaluating the evidence, the officer probably is a much better person than I am, so it’s possible his statement is accurate.

    Anyway, I hope everything works out for everyone involved, and that Kevin gets to see Blueberry again.

    And a personal thank you to you Dr. Watts for not getting yourself beaten down and/or arrested again. I hate having to worry over your legal and/or biological misadventures.

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  5. Kevin’s case is pretty common around here. My town is one of the only ones in the region that takes no major action against homeless people. There’s a trash can with a biohazard sign next to the bridge where they can dispose of needles. It’s really sad to see people so divorced from reality they can’t do anything but scream at nothing, but I’ve never been harassed or even yelled at by any. Every once in a while you can even get a good conversation out of someone who obviously didn’t sleep indoors last night.

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  6. popefucker,

    That is the big sad part, the line between genius and crazy is thinner than we want to admit. If you look into the history of most big brains, you will find some kind of “eccentricity”. But the thing about the ones that rose to fame are that they had someone, friend or family, that stuck with them through it all.

    Society, as long as the pr quarter profits must rise mentality is allowed to rule, do not have the capacity to be such a friend to everyone that is tap dancing on that line.

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  7. Well done, both on defusing the situation and not getting yourself in any trouble.

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  8. I wonder where and when his life went off the rails so completely. I am sure there is a fascinating story behind it.

    That being said, i am really glad that nothing untoward happened to you. When i read the headline, i was pretty sure that this time, you would actually go to Jail for some trumped up charge or another.

    Also, are Canadian Cops as bad (or seen as bad) as US-Cops? I probably just lead a very sheltered life, but here in Germany, most people (at least everyone i know) dont see the Police as threatening at all.
    Just recently, we had a big, burly guy screaming that he wouldnt get out of his car in front of my workplace, and also threatening that he had a gun etc…he was neither gunned down, nor tasered, not even arrested afaik.

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  9. Boltzmann brain (hadn’t heard of this before): To me, the idea of sentience arising in media other than a brain structure seems at least as likely as it needing a brain structure to exist. I feel like an idiot even using a term such as “likely” in this context, but wtf, the term “media” or anything else relating to what we understand as material reality is equally suspect in this context. On the strength of the empirical evidence for the existence of a world outside of ourselves (or rather, the lack of such evidence), the only “sensible” description of reality seems to be the solipsistic view. I find it easier to take it on faith that 1) my observed world actually exists, and 2) y’all aren’t actually philosophical zombies, but that’s because, pragmatically, having faith on this point makes living easier (I get to keep my cats with me, and live inside), not because reason and evidence fundamentally support those conclusions.

    On a different level, the existence of Boltzmann brains would explain a number of psychiatric “disorders”.

    Hope TCHC finds a place for Kevin again so he can get his cat back (despite the animal’s current excellent situation).

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  10. Oh…heartbreaking, Peter. But good on you for helping him as much as you did, not ending up arrested again, and most especially, for not abandoning Blueberry (not that I could ever see you doing that). It’s about time for another Kibble Fund donation, methinks…call it for Blueberry Panda!

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  11. You have the most interesting life. Weird stuff like this never ever happens to me.

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  12. The K:
    Also, are Canadian Cops as bad (or seen as bad) as US-Cops? I probably just lead a very sheltered life, but here in Germany, most people (at least everyone i know) dont see the Police as threatening at all.

    Yep! They just aren’t as militarized here as they are in the states, so can’t do as much damage.

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  13. Greggles,

    That is disheartening to hear. I´ll stay in my Eurobubble then, where i can at least pretend that the police is here to protect and serve.

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  14. Greggles,

    It’s comforting to know I’m not safe even in Canada. /s

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  15. Writes the good right and fights the good fight. You’re a good man, Pete.

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  16. The K: Also, are Canadian Cops as bad (or seen as bad) as US-Cops? I probably just lead a very sheltered life, but here in Germany, most people (at least everyone i know) dont see the Police as threatening at all.

    Depending on ethnicity and economic status, most people in the US don’t feel threatened by cops either. Police don’t even *see* me in a crowd, and it would never even occur to me to worry about police intervention in my activities.

    Sadly, my experience is not universal.

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  17. There is good reason to think Canadian police are considerably less harsh than American police. The American cops shoot 2.9 Americans per million per year. The Canadian cops shoot only 0.7 Canadians per million per year. That’s a huge difference.

    http://theindependent.ca/2015/04/14/stop-the-killing-fatal-police-shootings-in-canada/

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  18. Thanks for sharing.

    Recall being impressed with Toronto’s care for the mentally ill some years back when I visited. My acquaintance said he had to go to work, which I was unsure was true given some of his other beliefs and statements. Randomly ran across him and a group of others going on an outing with a social worker. He also had a roof over his head and I assume means to eat.

    You know, the simulation theory of the Universe sometimes works pretty well even when you’re not completely, or even mostly, brain-broken. It’s all good just 1s and 0s, nothing to get uptight about. 😉

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  19. Good on ya for helping Kevin out. It makes me so angry that people like Kevin get treated like shit in this day and age. We should be better than this.
    .

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  20. DA,

    In a way it’s the same in Germany. German police don’t have statistics on people with mental health issues getting injured or shot by them, but a journalist did some digging on this some years ago (it’s on youtube, can’t find it right now) and found that you’re way more likely to be killed by police when you’re mentally ill. They just can’t seem to switch between dealing with sane criminals and insane innocents and go for brute force pretty often because the screaming guy in his underwear just doesn’t do as he’s told.
    I work as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital and witness this daily. They’re not all bad per se, but definitely undertrained for these scenarios.
    A few years back a guy was shot dead standing in a fountain in Berlin, if you watch the footage of that incident it’s glaringly obvious that this needn’t have happened if the cop had had even the tiniest clou how to deal with this.

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  21. Best wishes to Kevin in the hope that he will get the help he needs. Props to you for acting like a human being and showing compassion when and where it’s needed.

    While he’s recovering, see if you can send a few pictures of Blueberry to Kevin – It should go a long way to making him feel better knowing that his friend is safe and being cared for.

    I have to say, this post was so well written that, at first, I thought you were treating us to another Fiblet. Your smooth prose and storytelling style make me anxiously await your next book.

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  22. Well done and well told.

    All the best for Kevin. As ken said, pictures of Blueberry might give him some comfort.

    Also, some hospitals are experimenting with allowing pet visits. Hopefully that trend catches on.

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  23. Army vet yelling death threats in the middle of the night… I have to say that, unless I was in a context where the mental health institutions where medieval level bad, trying to get the person committed would have been pretty high on my list of things to try.
    Don’t get me wrong, giving a tent if I had one and someone needed it, a few dollars for showers, feeding the cat and filming the cops I would like you think are within my capabilities. But engaging the cops on that level with your experiences, considering, if just briefly, offering your own backyard and just accepting the whole situation before someone else called the authorities. That really is something else.

    And while I personally am pretty happy where I’m at on these things, I do think the world would be a better place if more people acted like you.

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