In this New Year, to counterbalance these most fractious times I thought I’d tell a tale of humanity and caring.
I’ve had the privilege of living in a wide variety of countries and societies. And having not always been entirely sane myself, one way that I judge societies is by how they handle their crazy folks. “Back in the day”, as they say, I lived in a town called Olema, and I was loosely associated with a group of people called the “Diggers“. The Diggers had a communal ranch up the hill from my place, Peter Coyote lived up there. It was a lovely secluded old place, with a constantly changing cast of outrageous characters living and passing through the ranch. Among them was one of the crazy folks, I’ll call him Billy because that wasn’t his name.
Like many crazy people, he cycled into and out of his illness. When he started acting up, people would talk to him about it. When it got bad, he’d retreat to his one-room shack behind the main house where he lived. He’d go into his shack for a while, and wouldn’t come out. People fed him, when the dinner meal was cooked and everyone sat down to eat together, someone would take him a plate, and he’d open the old wood-panel door to the shack, but hardly talk, take the plate and close the door. And when he got really mental, he’d pull the bottom panel out of the door, and people would just put the plate in through the open panel, and take out the dirty dishes. After while, he’d hit bottom, and the first sign of him coming back was he’d put the bottom panel back in the door, and open the door for his food.
Then after a while he’d start to talk to people, a bit at first, and finally, maybe a month after he’d first shut himself up, he’d come back out and join the group for dinner and the like. He’d talk to people about where he had gone, it didn’t make much sense, but people listened and tried to explain things as best they could. No one thought of him as special, he was just crazy Billy.
That was one of the most compassionate acts by a group of people that I had seen, and the memory of it has stuck with me.
I was reminded of the Diggers, and of Crazy Billy, by the recent death of a man whom everyone around here called “Ranger Rick”.
Ranger Rick Kaufman, 1949-2012 SOURCE
I live near a little town in the redwood-covered hills called Occidental. It’s just what’s called a “census designated place”. It’s not a city or a town. It has no mayor and no city government. It’s known for its Italian restaurants and not much else. There’s maybe a dozen or so businesses.
And somehow, over the last quarter century or so, Ranger Rick became the unofficial mayor of Occidental. Or maybe the town greeter. Or perhaps just the street sweeper. He didn’t do much, he didn’t have any official job, and he drank too much, but he was the spirit of the town.
Ranger Rick was nobody’s fool … but he looked at the world from some very different place than you and I. He could be kind and gentle one minute and raging angry the next, but he never hurt a fly. He watched over the town like some benign and slightly demented elf.
A local guy let Rick sleep in an old cabin on his land. Some of the town merchants kicked in a few bucks a month for a stipend. People who had restaurants gave him the odd meal. He walked from his cabin to town every morning. If you drove through town too fast, he’d shout at you. Sometimes he was not entirely coherent. He pruned the town trees. But mostly, he just wandered the town, back and forth, side to side, helping people who looked lost, keeping an eye on the kids getting on and off the school bus, talking to the tourists. He was the public face of the town, the common thread over the years, the often-inebriated town greeter, both cranky and kind, sweeping the streets and muttering to himself.
And finally, sadly, I suppose inevitably, the alcohol caught up with Ranger Rick, and he died peacefully in his sleep.
I bring this up because far too often, and particularly in the last most bizarre year, we are reminded daily of man’s inhumanity to man. I bring it up because I want to commend and celebrate the spirit of the people of the town of Occidental. Any place else, Ranger Rick might just have been despised as the town drunk, but the people of Occidental made room in their town for a strange, lonely, eccentric and somewhat demented man to have a full and meaningful life. And to me, that’s an important measure of any society, what we do with our crazy folks.
My best wishes to all, hug your loves and your folks and your kids, life is far too short, remember Phlebas …
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell And the profit and loss. A current under sea Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell He passed the stages of his age and youth Entering the whirlpool. Gentile or Jew O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.