Off the Rails
Gary Teter is 61. He has been homeless, imprisoned, addicted. He was supposed to be something more. Just ask his son. Just ask him.
By Ben Saxton
Hey, Ezra, how is it? For me, kind of bad.
I’ve got a girlfriend your age, so it can’t be too bad. Nevertheless, it’s rough. I just got a job half-time, but was fired in three days. I still don’t know why.
Gary Teter had not seen his son for a decade when he wrote this email in February 2013. Ezra had been a student at UT-Austin in 2001 when his father had appeared at his dorm after midnight, harried and pale, on the run from cops. Gary has been running for a long time. In the late seventies, bipolar disorder turned his world upside down. He abandoned graduate school, where he had studied linguistics, used whatever drugs he could find, and left his wife and infant son. The next thirty years were a haze.
I met Gary in the spring of 2013, after he’d served time in an east Texas jail for cocaine and heroin possession, and when he was sixty-one. At the time, Gary needed to find a job. The search was not going well. Little in his life does, even though he struggles to fix it. He spends much of his time at the Bezalel Art Studio in Houston, where painting shelters him from the necessity of finding money, of writing job applications, of not seeing Ezra.
The art he makes there is powerful. In today’s painting, an abstract oil pastel, brilliant sunbursts explode over an emerald field and a crooked shed. Gary flicks the canvas with swift, efficient brushstrokes and the sky blazes brighter. He glares at his creation from behind red-rimmed glasses, a kind of furious intelligence visible in his face. Suddenly he winces and grasps his shaggy gray hair. “I got to go make that job application,” he says in his Texas twang. “Man, I’ve been procrastinating.”
I ask Gary how things are going. He groans. “Things were so good, then they got a little rough, then they got good again, and now — I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I need some money, man. I’ve been calling my dad but he’s fed up with me. If I don’t find any, I’ll get kicked out of my halfway house and I’ll be living in the woods again.” Springing from his seat, he peels off a blue smock, grabs his duffel bag, and limps toward the door. “I got to make that application at the Clubhouse!”
The Clubhouse is shorthand for St. Joseph House, a work-based community for men and women with histories of mental illness, where I volunteer and try to help a little. Its origins can be traced to six patients from Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York, who met in a hospital “club room” to read, talk, paint, and spend time together. In 1948 they started a group, “We Are Not Alone,” that aimed to recreate outside hospital walls the respect and support they felt in their inpatient meetings. The group blossomed into Fountain House, the New York City community that pioneered the “Clubhouse model” of psychosocial rehabilitation. Today, more than three hundred Clubhouses exist worldwide.
At first, St. Joseph House confused me. There were yoga instructors, scurrying nuns, women furiously scrubbing dishpans, and grizzled men dozing in the hallway. Michelangela, the Clubhouse turtle, ambled through the spacious back yard on her daily stroll. It took time, but I became a familiar face. I’m the tall guy with the dog. If I show up without Max, my border collie mix, someone inevitably frowns and asks, Where’s your dog?
When Gary, Max, and I reach the Clubhouse on a clear afternoon in December 2013, coffee is being served. Ten members smoke on wooden benches near the main building, an old plantation-style house with tall white columns. Their mood is weary and expectant, like travelers anticipating a train that may or may not come. The only thing to do, it seems, is wait.
But Gary is all action. He scurries to the porch, oblivious to the stare of an enormous man who looks like a gruff Chris Farley — Clay Kibler, a member of the staff. Clay heaves a disgruntled sigh and wonders: What do you do with a guy who always bums a quarter for the bus, a dollar for cigarettes, five bucks for food? Who takes no responsibility for his actions? Who still lives off his parents? To rely on an eighty-year-old man to support your sixty-year-old ass is just sorry, he thinks. Clay, who is bipolar and a recovering addict himself, has remained skeptical that Gary has made any progress in the year that he’s been at the Clubhouse. He has racked up a few nicknames, though, including: Hurricane Gary. The Nutty Professor. Teeter Totter.
In the dining room, the director of St. Joseph House, Grant Kennedy, joins our table. He’s a plainly dressed, good looking man in his late forties who came to mental health after working abroad as a trade journalist. When I told Grant that I was interested in Gary’s story, that I wanted to know how a man with so much promise went off the rails, he wasn’t surprised. “Gary’s easy to have an affection for,” he said. He noted Gary’s intelligence and added that he often clings to others until his relentless exuberance wears them out. Grant himself had been one of those people. Isabelle Perreau, who teaches French at the Clubhouse, had been another. You might be that person now, Grant suggested.
I’d certainly grown close to Gary. I found myself stopping by the art studio, taking him out for pizza, swapping books. And following his job search. Gary had recently washed dishes at The Chocolate Bar, a dessert shop near Rice University, but he was fired in three days. He wouldn’t stop talking. Or, maybe, he couldn’t stop talking.
Gary gobbles a cookie and heads upstairs to start a job application. Five minutes later he’s back. “That was quick,” says Erin Joyce, a Clubhouse member.
Gary flings his arms up. “I tried! I tried. It’s just, I — I got a Berlin Wall. I can’t get into the computer, I don’t know why. People don’t sign off, and that somehow messes me up.”
“Can you log on yourself?” Grant asks.
“I don’t know how to do it,” Gary says. “Apparently I don’t.” Erin rolls her eyes.
David Snider, another Clubhouse member, a gentle man in his forties, studies his toes underneath the table. “A lot of times,” he says softly, “to feel better — ’cause I have a lot of tough days where I just want to say the heck with it — I’ll tell another joke.”
“Oh, that’s good!” Gary says. “Supposedly if you laugh, that helps a whole lot.”
“That’s why they say laughter is the best medicine,” Erin says.
David looks up hopefully and tells us the one about a priest and a nun at a golf course: Father gets down, swings: “Oh my God, I missed!” “Father!” says the nun, “talk like that again and you’ll get struck by lightning from heaven.”
“Sister, I got this, don’t worry,” Father says. They get to the sixteenth hole and he swings again: “Oh my God, I missed!”
And what do you know — lightning comes down and strikes the nun. Then you hear a deep voice behind the clouds: “Oh my God, I missed!”
Laughter fills our corner of the Clubhouse. David beams. Gary grins, reaching for another cookie, and the job application’s urgency fades into a sleepy Friday afternoon.
Sorry it’s taken me so long to write back. Things are ultra-busy in this colossal town.
My parole stuff is onerous. It’s overwhelming. Without an I.D., it’s well nigh impossible to do anything! Texas Department of Corrections lost my Social Security Number and Driver’s License when I got out in 2012. I haven’t had any since. It’s even worse now. When you’re born out-of-state, e.g. Kansas for me, it’s a labyrinthine, Catch-22 process to get a legit Birth Certificate. Thus, I’m in Limbo now. See why Texas has such a high recidivism rate? It’s so hard to become resurrected that it’s a temptation to, yet again, fall like lightning from Grace! But right now I’m in good stead with Everything. And this program here @ St. Joseph is also great. I must go now! Please write!
Gary and I slide into a booth at Natachee’s Supper ‘n Punch, a midtown café near the Clubhouse. Gary’s cavernous eyes are framed by a filthy white hoodie. He looks like a shabby Jedi.
There hasn’t been much progress on the job search in the last two months, Gary tells me. “But” — he plops a wrinkled notebook onto the table — “I’ve got a lot of writing I want to do. You know how that is. I was thinking about writing a story about an artist who starts getting messages from another solar system, and then I’d explain some of that out — phenomenologically and hyper-phenomenologically. It could be an amusing story. My problem is I can’t get plots and stuff together. But I could make a kind of prose poem. A proem.”
“A proem? Is that a word?”
“I don’t know.”
“It might be a word,” I say.
“I think it is. I believe it is,” he says.
Once Gary starts chattering, there’s no stopping him. He swerves, staccato, between his three obsessions: art, women, and God. He luxuriates in distant romances and affairs, all of the girls decades younger, most of them saintly whores straight out of Dostoevsky. He says they bring him closer to the divine. “Once I entered a state of euphoria by talking to God,” Gary says. “It was about the happiest three hours of my life. I know that could be a mania but, regardless, I was happy and straightening my life up. Then I got depressed. I usually go through depression once a day. Man, there’s nothing worse than that.”
“What’s it like?” I ask.
“Depression?” Gary’s owl-eyes trawl the ceiling. “Oh, I’d describe it as — a pang of alienation. No hope, nothing matters. It’s been going on for a long time.”
Gary’s father, Oral Teter, was short and stocky with muscles like Popeye. Everyone called him Buster except for his sons, Gary and Rex, who called him Pappy. On summer mornings the three Teters followed their spotted hound dog, Droopy, out to the brook, where they fished and looked for toads. They played catch and Oral taught them how to drive his grape-colored ’64 Ford Galaxy. You’ll need to know how to do these things when you get older, his father would tell them. But Gary wasn’t interested in baseball or autos. He liked when his mother, Erma, read him fairy tales, or when he lost himself in comic books about space aliens.
When the family moved to Houston in 1963 he felt out of place, a twelve-year-old hippie among cowboys and jocks. But he had a special talent: Sitting in the Deepwater Junior High gymnasium, he could gaze into his friends’ eyes and discern their destinies. Most of them thought that he was a weirdo. But a few of them, especially a pretty blond from the eighth grade, kept coming back. He hoped that she would be his girl.
One day, in the school parking lot, he spotted her getting into a truck with some boys, and something snapped. The baseball bat that he flung at the truck bounced harmlessly off its hood. So he took a razor blade from his back pocket — stored for safekeeping, for times like this — and slashed his left forearm with swift, efficient strokes. The psychiatrists called it an adolescent adjustment crisis. Two years later, when he swallowed eighteen Secanols, he realized that depression would always be nearby, watching and waiting.
Life got better when he moved to Austin for college. Professors liked him. Classmates, impressed and amused by his grandiosity, called him Gary Nietzsche. He studied poetry, iridology, astrology, the Tarot — anything that might unlock the divine mystery of the cosmos. He earned straight A’s in Japanese, Italian, Swedish, Old Norse, Sanskrit, Russian — so many lovely languages! — and graduated with honors in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1977.
He met a girl who liked his frizzy afro and the way he strutted on stage with his band, craving attention, flailing on an electric guitar in open tuning. Soon they were talking, flirting, smoking dope. Their wedding day a few years later was the happiest he had ever felt. By the late seventies he was a proud father, a graduate student in linguistics, and a psychiatric aide at Austin State Hospital.
Things fell apart. He worried about his son, Ezra, all the time. Anxiety consumed him.
He abandoned school, learned that he was bipolar, started using every day. He graduated from pot and coke to amphetamines, barbiturates, Dilaudids, stuff that gives you a better high than heroin. He spent his wife’s paycheck, pawned friends’ instruments, stold drugs from Austin State Hospital, begged his parents for cash. If you care about my wife and baby boy, he pleaded, then please send just a little more. One night, with Ezra watching, he punched a hole in the wall and stormed out of their cramped apartment. Soon he was gone for good.
He wandered among Texas towns, county jails, halfway houses. He was a vagabond. Then the nightmares started. They were always the same, he said: A horde of prison guards, policemen, and junkies chase him through a maze of vacant buildings. He scuffs rotten plywood with his boots, scrambles down dusty corridors, slips into a secret room — a library — with towering bookshelves. Clutching the heaviest tome, he peels apart its musty pages. The book, like the dream, is strangely familiar: a sprawling novel of alien omniscience that elucidates the cosmos with mathematical precision. Frantically flipping the pages, on the verge of divine discovery, he wonders: is this the beginning of my apotheosis?
Then he wakes up — in a warehouse, or by a bridge, or underneath a tree, and always alone.
One day in Fort Worth — it happened to be a chilly morning in 1983 — he spotted an old dope buddy wheeling a dolly along Pennsylvania Avenue. I got something, the man said. Thirty bucks. Easy money.
They strolled to a beat-up house where, years before, they had crashed and partied. Gary busted a boarded window, climbed inside, and wheeled out a chest of drawers that they would sell to Lemon Tree Antiques, a nearby thrift store. The cops were waiting there to arrest him. He had already done two short stretches, both for prescription drug forgery, but they hit him hard this time. Eighteen years. Now he was a criminal.
Dear Ezzz, I pray that you’re doing o.k. I wanted to add to the letter I wrote. Oh, I must say, even though I’m in good shape, I am 62 yrs old, and I must take that into account! Thanks for worrying! But, I asseverate, I’m still vibrant. The name “Teter” I think is Dutch. The first Teter in America was Hans Teter. I read this in a genealogy newsletter Rex was sent. It was in the room I had when I paroled to my folks. Also, on my Mom’s side, we are black Dutch & black Irish. That means Latino & Dutch & Irish mixed. I think I read that Spain invaded Ireland. We also have American Indian. So, we’re miscegenated — the best thing to be!
More later. Ciao, love, Dad.
“You’re an Aries or a Pisces?”
“Pisces,” I say.
“Yeah, I was gonna say, you seem like a Pisces,” Gary says.
“What’s the difference?”
“Pisces is more concerned about people’s feelings, more empathetic, things like that.
Whereas Aries — like me, I’m an Aries, I just run ramrod through things, and half the time I
don’t realize I’m disturbing people. Anyway” — Gary swerves to a previous topic — “I was in Eastham State Prison for seven years on that eighteen.” He chuckles. “Lovelady. Of all places — Lovelady, Texas.” Brandishing a coffee cup, he flags our waitress. “Say, can I get some dessert?”
I’ve listened to these stories over and over, in coffee shops and on grainy tape-recordings, and have grown used to their texture and pace, to the way Gary’s voice accelerates as he describes that shack in Fort Worth, that chick from Dallas, that binge outside Austin. At some point I realized that, for the last thirty years, Gary’s life has resembled a grotesque sequel to Groundhog Day. There’s no groundhog, no whimsical romance, no Bill Murray. But the film’s central trope — the nightmarish repetition of a single day — has governed his existence since he busted that window in 1983. Gary’s Groundhog Day starts somewhere in Texas. He spends it chasing drugs and money and women and shelter. It ends with a petty crime, an arrest, and an evening of fitful sleep — prison — until he wakes up on the street. Then the cycle starts over.
Having done time at nearly twenty of the 150 prisons across Texas, Gary has severed relationships with his family. His ex-wife says she has put her anger behind her, but she has no desire to reunite with her husband. Rex Teter, a music teacher and pastor in Pasadena, hates that his older brother has constantly harassed their parents for money. Oral Teter, who lives in Leona, Texas (Gary’s mother, Erma, passed away in 2007) believes that Gary is a con man and a chronic liar. But he loves his son and, despite frustration, occasionally sends money to the Clubhouse.
Ezra Teter doesn’t remember much about a father who left when he was five. He recalls some of the bad scenes, though. Like the night when Gary cracked the wall of the cramped Austin apartment. And the last time that Ezra saw his father, ten years ago, when Gary appeared at the UT-Austin dorms after midnight. The cops had found a small bag of cocaine. He would flee to Mexico. The next day, when he was thinking more clearly, Gary turned himself in.
For the last seven years, after he bicycled into South America and settled in Sao Paolo,
Brazil, Ezra has lived in self-imposed exile. He believes that the United States denies many citizens, including his father, the chance to succeed.
Despite Gary’s occasional outbursts, Ezra considers him a gentle man who has been punished harshly for his nonviolent crimes. “I am angry that the state of Texas doesn’t provide housing and social services to an old man who will never work again because of his criminal record,” he told me. In Ezra’s opinion, the Texas Department of Corrections should be called the Texas Department of Cruel and Unusual Injustice.
What should be done with people like Gary?
He’s one of the system’s “chronic consumers” or, informally, what the police call Frequent Fliers: prisoners who ping-pong from prison to the street, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in public services each year. Well over half of Frequent Fliers have a mental illness; many of them have a drug or alcohol addiction; and almost two-thirds of them are homeless. Gary, like so many others, is living proof that mental illness, addiction, criminality, and homelessness are co-occurring problems. They overlap in all directions.
Harris County’s response has been to treat mental health inmates inside prison walls. The Mental Health Unit in Harris County Jail, the largest prison in Texas, is an award-winning program that functions as a full psychiatric hospital. But treatment is expensive. The average inmate costs taxpayers about $70 a day, whereas the average inmate in need of mental health treatment costs about $300 per day.
Community-based care, on the other hand, is cheap: a whole year at outpatient organizations like Magnificat House costs less than the average jail stay of forty days. But many of these programs lack funding.
In 1982, five years after Gary earned his degree, James Pinedo enrolled at UT-Austin. During his time there his college roommates would often find a huddled lump on their dorm room couch: another homeless person James had taken in for the night. More than thirty years later, his unkempt hair going gray, James was the Executive Director of Magnificat House when I volunteered there. Founded in 1968 by Rosemary Badami, Magnificat owns eleven residences, a soup kitchen, an overnight shelter for women, a woodshop, a resale store, the Bezalel Art Studio, and two Clubhouses.
St. Joseph House has been open since 1972, free of charge to anyone with a mental health diagnosis. No doctors or therapists are there, although almost all of its one thousand members take medication and see psychiatrists elsewhere. And no one lives there, although Magnificat runs a modest network of housing for those who need shelter. About ninety percent of members come from prison or the hospital — institutions where, gradually and unwittingly, they lose the ability to make decisions. The Clubhouse works to restore decision-making skills that could lead to a sense of self-worth, independence, and a stable job.
James is a faithful Catholic whose inspiration comes from Saint Francis of Assisi, the twelfth-century friar who lived a simple life of holy poverty. As an independent charity, Magnificat receives no funding from the Church, the city of Houston, or the state of Texas, and fewer than ten percent of its residents pay rent. A recent generous donation rescued Magnificat from financial crisis. When I asked James what would have happened if there hadn’t been a donation — Would they have been forced to downsize? — he shook his head no: “We would find a way,” James said firmly. “The Lord would find a way.”
Gary was in Bradshaw State Jail for possession of cocaine and heroin when he spotted a Magnificat pamphlet. He was released in 2012, caught a bus to Houston, and stayed at Susannah House, a Magnificat residence in midtown. With the residence at capacity in July 2013, Gary slept along the gravel path that links the Clubhouse to the art studio. A social worker arranged for him to stay at a halfway house in North Houston.
He usually catches the six a.m. bus to midtown and waits for the Clubhouse to open. But Gary took a detour one chilly morning in February 2014 to meet me for breakfast at Natachee’s Supper ‘n Punch.
“I’m glad of my life as it is,” Gary said. “I’m still sad that I’m not a linguistics professor and that I’m so far out of society. But I have a feeling that something really good’s gonna happen from this art. I really do. I’ve got a lot of faith in the future — except when I go in those depressive episodes — but compared to where I was last time, I’m doing a trillion percent better right now. If it goes the same way that it has gone, I’m going to be extremely happy next year. But I’m so frightened that it won’t.”
Dear Ez, I was on the streets. I was sleeping in alleys & woods. It was rough, but I finally quit complaining about things & praised God for His benevolence. Ever since, Things slowly got better. I now live in a nice transitional house. Seven of us live there. It’s clean & way out in North Houston. The owner’s letting me owe her from my probable Supplemental Security Income check. I am on a good bus route. Someone gave me a donated guitar. I’ve also sold two oil paintings for 20$ apiece. love, your Dad.
Stooping in the closet of his halfway house, Gary tosses clothes and books on the bedroom floor, which I stuff into trash bags. “Dementia praecox,” he says, glancing at the title of a psychology textbook. “That’s what they used to call schizophrenia. I think praecox means precocious.”
Dementia Praecox and Paraphrenia joins others that won’t make the trip: A Short History of Existentialism. The Gigging Musician. Master the Basics: French. The Bible. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III. Today, on a lovely Saturday afternoon in May, Gary is moving out of the halfway house.
Only a few weeks ago, the first Friday in May, three hundred dollars from Social Security padded his pocket. He had been munching ice cream outside a Valero when a woman called to him from a gray SUV. Hey guy, I like you. Want to get in?
He stepped closer. She was nice looking enough. Early forties, blue eyes, hair dyed burgundy pink. A tad busted, maybe, but that just meant they came from the same world. A pair of wire cutters rested on the back seat.
Hey guy, you like heroin?
Hesitate and lose the opportunity, he thought. Not this time.
“It was a wild trip the whole day,” Gary says to me, his arms waving wildly in the dim sleepy room. “Relapse like crazy — smoking crack, shooting heroin, having sex. It was a crackfiend whoremonger’s dream come true.”
According to the owner of the halfway house, Gary had been a model resident for months. Then he’d grown sullen, missed rent, violated the no-drug policy, and squandered his money on a daylong drug binge. And Gary figured it was better to leave himself than to get kicked out.
As we drive south on Interstate 45, I glance at Gary in the passenger seat. He looks terrible. He’s shedding even more weight and sallow skin hangs from his arms. He takes his stubby, paint-smudged thumb and forefinger and picks at a swollen wound on his arm. “Gary, please. Please don’t do that.” He nods, hangdog and grim, and runs a gnarled hand along his veiny, razor-scarred left forearm. “These things are ulcers, these skin sores,” he says. “They always talk about stomach ulcers being related to stress. This could be the psychosomatic manifestation of anxiety — could be.”
Gary worries about women and money. He worries about his father’s health. He worries that his parole officer will send him back to jail. He worries about losing his Celexa, Prozac, Wellbutrin, and Olanzapine prescriptions. He worries about missing a daily dose of methadone, the synthetic opioid that reduces a reliance on heroin, from the Meth-LAAM clinic in the Third Ward. And he worries about the effects of smoking Kush, a strain of non-synthetic marijuana that reduces anxiety but ruins his appetite.
“I’m trying to come to grips with the Kush thing, man,” Gary says, taking out of pack of Newports, “‘cause it helps me get out of depression. On the other hand, I’m not eating. I don’t know if it’s because of the Kush or not, but it might be. It probably is.”
“You can have that apple if you want,” I say, pointing at the coffee holder.
“Yeah, I’m gonna eat that in a minute. Right after I smoke this cigarette.” He lights up.
“Anyway, I didn’t want to stay at that place, man. That’s the trouble with halfway houses. If they want you to be wrong, you’ll be wrong.” He pauses. “I been in a whole lot better mood since I had sex with that chick.”
“Do you regret any part of that?”
“You don’t regret it? Would you do it again?”
“I told myself I’m never going to hesitate again,” Gary says. “So I didn’t. I knew it was going to be the end of where I was staying. But, like I told you, I was ready to get away from it anyway.” He frowns and faces the window. “I’m glad I got away from it.”
In forty minutes we reach Rosalie Street, a quiet side road near the Clubhouse. “Park in that shaded area there,” Gary says. We lug two garbage bags into an overgrown lot that smells like sawdust and spoiled garbage. Gary’s camp is in the far corner, hidden between two seldom-used parking lots and a decrepit apartment complex. Refuse and resources mingle in the dirt: broken glasses, toothpaste, empty prescription containers, tattered books and magazines, shabby clothes, water jugs. A tarp shelters two sleeping bags. Gary collapses on the ground, grabs a trash bag for a pillow, and pops open a carton of blueberry yogurt.
The camp is the brainchild of Gary’s new roommate, Jeff Fisher, who’s out panhandling in West Houston. “I had never seen a forty-four year old with a 180-year-old body until I met Jeff,” Gary says. “But that man knows his way around the woods.” I ask Gary if we can visit him.
“Sure,” he says. “We’ll go out there sometime.”
Dear Ez, how goes it? I finally got my birth certificate from Kansas. I’ll soon get my Texas I.D. My next obstacle is to get a notarized letter of residence. I thought I was already ready, with the b.c. but, no, I’m not. I should get an SSI check because of bi-polar disorder. I pray I get it again! It’ll be between 450 & 700 dollars a month. That’s not a lot, but it’s a lot better than nothing. If I can get an under-the-table job, it’ll be o.k.
I do want some grandchildren, Ezra. I know you’ll find a soulmate. It’ll be good for you to gain residence, too! By the way, I think it’s great that you teach English-as-a-second-language. Cool! I must go now. Love, Dad. Write soon.
Underneath the Westpark Tollway, a woman in a black hijab stands on the shaded corner of Hillcroft Avenue. Her face is solemn and detached, as though she’s resigned to the message on her cardboard sign:
PLEASE HELP ME
NEED TO PAY MY RENT
HAVE 4 KIDS
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
A few feet away, a man in a floppy sunhat named Danny swigs from a paper-covered bottle, wetting a droopy red mustache, and glares at the female panhandler. “How do you compete with that?” he mutters.
The man’s companion, Jeff, wears a Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, white Jordan hightops, and oversized glasses. A Medical Alert bracelet hangs from his wrist. Jeff doesn’t bother to argue. Everyone has a strategy. The Albanian woman uses her children for sympathy. Danny’s sign says HELP A VETERAN.
Then there’s Gary.
Following Jeff’s gaze, I watch a bedraggled figure march along the opposite median. Wearing a red tank top and gray cross trainers, holding a stubby cigar in one hand and a plastic cup in the other, Gary panhandles for cash in the sun. He shuffles back and forth, lean and scholarly, like a beleaguered Trotsky.
“Does he do all right?” I ask.
Jeff’s words are deliberate, his voice raspy. “Yeah, he does all right. He spends all his money on the fucking Kush, though.”
“Why do you think he smokes so much?”
“I don’t know,” Jeff says. “Trying to find something. Something’s missing.” He glances at the bottle between his Jordan hightops. “I know that’s why I drink.”
Jeff has been drinking for a long time. He entered rehab when he was thirteen and recently relapsed after eighteen months of sobriety. He’s had five heart surgeries in the last year. Jeff is bipolar, but he rarely visits the Clubhouse because it seems to him like adult daycare.
Like Gary, who recently learned that his application for Supplemental Security Income was rejected, Jeff desperately needs money. The best option, as they see it, is the corner.
Jeff looks like he may collapse from exhaustion at any moment, but he worries about his friend.
“Teter needs a little looking after, you know?”
hello, Ez, here are some paintings I did @ the art studio I’m associated with. I’ve even sold some work! write back, love, Dad.
The Clubhouse’s second floor is dusty, old smelling, sleepy. Turn left for the Transitional Employment Office. Head straight to find the computer lab. Turn right for the library, where this summer morning, and every Wednesday at ten, is French class.
Seven middle-aged men sit and stare at Isabelle Perreau, a radiant woman in her fifties who wears a bright orange skirt with matching bracelets. The class has a visitor, Isabelle says in her thick accent, “So you must all introduce yourself — en Français. So who wants to begin?”
Gary’s arm rockets up. “Bonjour, Ben, uh…uh…goll-lee…I can’t believe I can’t do this!” While the tongue-tied linguist sputters, Isabelle smiles and turns to another student, Antonio, who rests head-down on the table.
“Now, wait a minute…” says Gary.
“Je m’appelle…Antonio…je suis…Américain…”
“I froze!” says Gary.
“And it doesn’t mean celibate,” Gary says. “It means single. Like, it doesn’t have a connotation of celibacy.” Gary waits for Antonio to finish and tries again. “I had me llamo stuck in my head and then I freaked out! Oh, well. Anyway. Je m’appelle Gary, je suis Américaine, je vis dans Houston.”
“You are not célibaite, you are divorcée, no?” asks Isabelle.
“Je suis divorcée,” they say together.
Isabelle is Gary’s teacher, his muse, his proprietress. When they met, his art started soaring. Last fall she hosted an art show featuring the members of Bezalel. Isabelle plans to host a second show at the end of summer.
It’s lunchtime. As he shuffles towards the stairs, Gary turns to me abruptly, as though he’s received some sudden insight. He lowers his voice. “Would you help me log onto the computer? I got to make an application for the Toyota Center.”
Ezzzzz, write! did you get my paintings?
When I park outside the Bezalel Art Studio on a blistering afternoon, Gary has been on my mind all day. He hasn’t been the same since I took him to The Breakfast Klub, our favorite midtown café, a few weeks ago. I had bad news for him.
I had stalled and fumbled over words. Finally I shut up and handed him the obituary of a smiling old man with thick glasses — Gary’s father, Oral.
Mr. Teter liked working on his place using his tractor… Like his wife, he was an animal lover and he had a special place in his heart for his dog Odie who died a while ago…Surviving family includes two sons, Gary Teter of Houston and Rex Teter of Pasadena, and a grandson, Ezra Teter of Brazil.
Gary looked at me with large, hurt eyes and said: “Well how come I never knew!” And then: “I’m probably due for an inheritance!”
Now, two weeks later, I’m sweating the moment that I step out of my blue Ford Escort. Someone should outlaw this weather. As I’m tying Max in the shade of a patio table, Gary bursts out of the art studio with a duffel bag and a sweat-soaked shirt that clings to his ribs. He staggers to the table and selects a seat in the sun.
I ask Gary how things are going. He pets Max halfheartedly and groans. “Things are — I don’t know, man. I’ve been living in a Kafka story for the last few months. Parole’s after me; I might get thrown in jail; my dad died; I don’t know if I got money coming or not; I’m sick; I’m not able to gain weight, I may be dying — although I doubt that — Jeff’s dying; Antonio’s going to commit suicide. And all this at once. That’s a lot.”
I suggest that we visit the Clubhouse and rest a bit, but Gary grimaces and shakes his head. “I’d like to socialize and all that, but I got to go make some fucking money — I got to — or I won’t be able to move around anywhere. I got to at least go make myself a dollar.” He lifts a hand to his head, scouring his hair, and takes out a comb with small hard bristles, which he scrapes across his sweaty scalp.
A man in a pink baseball cap peeks out from the studio door. “Say, Gary,” he says softly, “can you still make that dinosaur painting for my lady friend? We’d sure appreciate it.” Gary scowls. “Maybe so. Probably I can.” Laboring under the weight of his bag, he struggles to his feet and broods indecisively in the sun.
“Any water in that bag?” I ask.
“No. It’s so heavy already.”
“What’s in there?”
“There’s some water at the Clubhouse.”
“Yeah, I know I got to stay hydrated. People usually give me water out on the street. I’m just burnt-out tired, exhausted. But everything’s” — Gary clenches his teeth — “everything’s great, man.”
He marches away, turns, strikes himself in the back of the head three times, and whispers to me in a pained voice: “Can you imagine how isolated I feel? Every day I go through a war trying to like myself.”
I pop my Escort’s trunk and slip warm bottled water into Gary’s paint-smudged palms. He chugs it in one long gulp. “Man, I’ll tell you,” Gary says, shaking his head, “I didn’t see my life coming to this kind of disaster that it turned out to be.
“On the other hand, it’s gonna end up being a great life, especially if I get it together. And I’m slowly but surely doing that. I’ve had some hard times recently, but if you’d known me my whole life, you’d see I’m actually — better. You know?”
No. I didn’t know. I think about Gary’s lack of progress since I’ve known him, about his backslides and binges. Getting fired. Leaving the halfway house. Failing to find a job. Ping-ponging from North Houston to downtown, from the Clubhouse to the art studio, from the halfway house to the camp, from the hospital to the clinic, from prison to the street, consuming more resources, repeating the same blunders. Gary’s Groundhog Day.
What I do know is that, for the last year, the Clubhouse and Gary’s art have been his work, his family, and his shelter. They keep him going. Not long after our meeting at The Breakfast Klub, Gary handed me a wrinkled looseleaf and suggested that I use it for his “biography”:
Wistfulness: A Proem by Gary Teter
At this moment, I am bemoaning life’s losses, blind to the fulgent foliage in front of me, seeing prolonged funereal wisps of incense and hearing lamentations of dire reckonings rising from the soil. Anger at my prior incarnations’ strivings and my present state of forlornness are throwing me into the abyss of regret. Yet, I notice the brilliant verdure above on the edge of the overhanging cliff, with the promise of eternal purpose beckoning me.
I thanked Gary for the proem and asked if there was anything else that he wanted me to include in a story. “Just maybe,” he said after a long pause, “Gary wishes he could have made his dad happier. If you feel like putting that.”
I watch Gary hurry down Elgin Street, his frail frame toiling under the duffel bag, looking like a puff of humid air will topple him. “Hey!” I call out. “See you next week?”
Gary whirls around and, mustering what seems to be his last shred of energy, cries out, “You know it, man!” Then he limps out of sight.
ez, i love you. get in touch w/me. luv, dad
Clay Kibler would speak first this morning, before the politicians and the doctors and the academics, as someone with lived experience. Houston health professionals, waiting to learn about the new Mental Health Jail Diversion Program, cluster around banquet tables inside NRG stadium. Everyone is here: The Coalition for the Homeless of Harris County, Star of Hope, The Harris Center for Mental Health, The Men’s Center, The Women’s House, the Houston Police Department’s Mental Health Division, The Menninger Clinic, and — at the front of the meeting room — Magnificat House.
Clay’s story started decades ago, in downtown Fort Worth, when he’d screamed at someone whom no one else could see. In the county hospital, after he was diagnosed as bipolar with psychotic tendencies, the doctor said that he was broken. The only thing to do, the doctor declared, was to go home, take medication, and stay out of trouble.
None of that stuck — except broken. For the next twenty-three years he peddled drugs, forged counterfeit checks, pummeled police into pulp. He cycled through jail over three hundred times. He did things his way. He was, after all, broken.
“Fortunately, when I got out of prison the last time,” Clay says, staring across the room, “I was welcomed to an organization called Magnificat House. About a year ago I was asked to be on staff at the Clubhouse. I live on my own, pay my own bills, pay for my own car, and take care of my personal responsibilities. I’m not bragging, but I feel like I’ve changed several people’s lives at Magnificat. I got them into recovery from mental illness and addiction.”
Senator John Whitmire speaks next. He references the fact that 150,000 inmates are incarcerated in 150 facilities across Texas, which spends three billion dollars annually to house, clothe, and feed them. That those among them with mental illness do not get the help that they need, because of the lack of community mental health services in Texas and the disastrous budget cuts of 2003. And that Senate Bill 1185, the Mental Health Jail Diversion Program, will allow Harris County Jail to connect mentally ill inmates with social, clinical, housing, and welfare services during the first weeks after their release.
James Pinedo, the director of Magnificat, stares at Whitmire’s glistening head. Senate Bill 1485, the 1115 Waiver, Senate Bill 1185 — the legislation numbers jumble in his mind, but not the faces. They stay with him. Including those seven weary women who, not long ago, were turned away because all 164 of Magnificat’s beds were full. How many others, James wondered, might have shared their story today? How many others will never get the chance?
You are someone who has sadly been chewed up by the penitentiary system. Any day that you have left on this planet outside of a cage filled with psychopaths is a gift from the universe. This is true whether you are employed or not. I reiterate: life is a gift. Whenever someone complains of having no shoes you should remind them that there are always people with no feet. So when you feel the cold wind blowing on those naked toes of yours remember that you can stand up and walk somewhere warmer. You are not in a cage 24–7. You are not surrounded by psychopaths, just people down on their luck like you. You have some measure of freedom in your life. Remember that. I hope that your situation or your perspective improves.
The French Alliance, the site of the August 2014 exhibition of the Bezalel Art Studio, is filled with dozens of Clubhouse members and guests. Limping amiably around the room, Gary Teter discusses his art with jubilant agitation. He wears brown glasses, a blue button-down, and dark jeans. His eyes are gleaming.
“This is Infernal Daydream,” Gary tells an older couple. “It’s hung the wrong way. If I turn it upright there’s a dinosaur creature in there.” He leads them to three paintings arranged in succession. “This is New Bethlehem. This is Shock in the Sun-drenched Zone. And this one is…wait one minute” — he whips out an ink-scrawled napkin — “Such Galas Happen Only on Blue Moons. I think that’s what it is.”
The couple scrutinizes the scene. In the sky, across from three floating orbs, blazing light drizzles toward a muddy shed. “The sun is crying,” the man says.
“Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” Gary says. “That one is more melancholy, I think.”
He points to the shed. “I’ve been searching for some kind of shelter for years and years. At one point I was such a dope fiend I slept in vacant houses and things like that. And so I have dreams of labyrinths of vacant houses, I find secrets passageways. Some of it’s real deep. I haven’t completely figured it out.”
“The sun is terrifically bright,” the woman says.
Gary nods proudly. “That’s one of my strivings,” he says. “To see how bright I can get it.”