The “mad” el mariachi of Central Avenue

Reading Weekend’s At Bellevue, by Dr. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist who worked for nine years in the psychiatric unit at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, I’m trying to be as understanding about mental illness as I can. It wasn’t long ago that a person very close to me admitted himself to a psychiatric unit and I waited until the early hours of the morning while the attending psychiatrist decided whether or not to keep him over night. He stayed in the secure psych unit for nearly three weeks and since leaving shows me that he’s made little progress if any at addressing his mental illness. It’s terribly sad, really. I understand that the brain is an organ with all types of circuitry and chemicals. If those components are off, even just slightly, a person’s life can become a burdensome, living nightmare.

I have minor quirks in my own brain, contributing to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, panic and minor depression that comes and goes occasionally. I’m rather lucky.

Knowing I’m lucky and how much the mentally ill suffer and the bullet I’ve largely dodged a bullet, I’m sensitive to the suffering of those who are judged as mad. But as Dr. Holland says in her book, there is humor to be found in mental illness, no matter how painful it can be. I guess the humor is what helps you deal with it.

Every urban neighborhood has at least one or two interesting mentally ill characters. When I lived in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn we had a guy who used to walk down Broadway, under the JMZ trestle wearing very short soccer shorts, a cut-off shirt and a headband. He was also always carrying a boombox playing LITE-FM songs.

Up here in my section of Albany we have one gentleman whose mental capacity is certainly a bit compromised by some type of issue in his brain.

This man reminds me of Joe Pesci, at least he sounds like Joe Pesci. Normally, he’s screaming and railing about something as he walks westward on Central Avenue. His demeanor seems frustrated, angry even, but he’s most certainly like the majority of mentally ill folks in that he seems harmless.

I’ve seen this man passing on foot the CDTA bus stop for nearly two years. It used to be that he’d turn around and scream at nobody, but one day last year I noticed he started carrying a guitar case. I wasn’t sure if he actually played the thing or just carried it around with him, but sure enough a few days after seeing the case, he was carrying an actual guitar, a smashed up guitar, but an instrument nonetheless.

Over the course of the year I’ve seen this gentleman walking in all types of weather with one or another type of guitar. I’ve seen him with acoustics and a model that reminds me of something Chuck Berry would play. Being that I have my camera with me often, I would sneaks shots of him as much as I could as I would wait for the bust. Unfortunately for me, I haven’t gotten too many shots, only those from a distance. That is until last week, when walking down Central Avenue to work, I decided no matter how he seemed, I’d take a photo of him.

On that morning, I was able to get him to turn my way while I fired some shots. He ranted about someone who supposedly took his picture for a newspaper but didn’t put it in the paper (or at least that’s what I thought he said).

I was thinking I could walk to work more often this summer and try to get as many shots of this strange character as possible. After getting the shots of him I was concerned he may not grant me that type of access. Then I realized, he may not even care at all or forget for that matter.

Today, as I went to get some coffee, I saw the el mariachi again and took out the camera. He stopped walking and welcomed me to take his photo. I thanked him and then went in to get a cup of coffee. When I came out of the Dunkin Donuts, he was still there on Central Avenue, strumming, actually putting together chords. It wasn’t quite melodic, but it wasn’t as if he were aimlessly strumming. I took the camera out, but not to take any photos of him. I took some shots of a deliveryman across the street unloading a beer truck when I heard the Joe Pesci-like voice shouting to me.

“Take my picture,” the guitar man said. I aimed my camera at him from about 50 feet away but was discouraged when his welcome pose turned hostile and he began giving me the middle finger. It’s been a while since I got the middle finger. Being sensitive to the fact that this man’s screws are a bit loose, I decided just to smile and walk to my car. Within seconds he was talking to me, loudly but in a friendly manner. I asked him how many guitars he had and he told me he had another. He had one in California he told me and then corrected himself and said Colorado. He then muttered something and walked away.

Any feeling of guilt I had over taking his photo, an image of this mentally ill man went out the window. I suppose he’s something of an interesting character for our section of Albany. I’ll see if I can post more.


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