Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Do You Mind If I Sing?

Unhinged, 2010

Act I:

When we first got married, my wife and I worked for the same newspaper company. At first we worked different hours. But later on we both had jobs with the same working hours and rode the bus to work and back together.

In those days, the #2 Patterson/Monument route went right through downtown Richmond on Broad Street, once downtown’s grandest commercial avenue, but by then a pretty woebegone looking strip.

Act 2:

In the mid 1970s, when we were riding this bus daily, Virginia was clearing a lot of people out of state mental hospitals who could, thanks to advances in medication and outpatient treatment, be more inexpensively treated closer to home in outpatient settings. The only problem was that state legislature had not provided adequate funding to the community service boards charged with picking up the slack. So a lot of patients weren’t getting necessary ongoing medication, treatment or case management.

Besides, a lot of communities couldn’t cope with the flood of returning mental patients. As a result, many patients were sent to cities and towns with large supplies of rooming houses. A disproportionate number were placed in rooming houses on Richmond’s West Grace Street.

Act 3:

I mention West Grace Street because it was in those days the major street used by downtown executives and others to get to the upscale western suburbs. Westbound Grace Street also started literally at the gate to the state capitol and, as such, was heavily used by state legislators.

To connect the dots, you might have correctly begun to wonder whether there was a method to the madness of placing all these former mental patients in rooming houses on West Grace Street? The answer to this question would be a resounding “YES!” The idea was that if legislators could see first-hand how unhinged untreated mental patients could become, and what a nuisance they would be in their respective neighborhoods, more funding would be provided for community service boards.

In the meantime, it wasn’t uncommon for untreated mental health patients to wander the streets of downtown Richmond. Most were completely harmless and some were wonderfully colorful.

Act 4:

One snowy winter’s night, my wife and I were on the bus headed home from work. Just before the bus left downtown, an obviously unhinged man wearing a raincoat and clutching several dirty shopping bags stepped onto the bus. At first he took a seat up near the driver. Then he stood up, swept his arms majestically enough to reveal that there was no clothing beneath his raincoat, and addressed the entire bus:


A few people nodded. Others look away. Neither fazed the man. He launched into a boisterous a cappella rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Five verses, though I'm not sure about the last one since it mentioned something about free bus passes.

When he was done, there was a smattering of applause. He rebuttoned his raincoat around him, gathered his bags, pulled the call string and stepped off the bus at the next stop.


  1. I actually remember this story! I did NOT remember that you were - inadvertently? - flashed. It makes me miss riding the bus. Well, almost. P.S. Let me guess. Having the mentally ill reside on Grace St. did not result in increased funding for mental health programs.

  2. Hahaaa! I have had some of the most interesting stories from bus rides. Why is that, now? I worked with disabled folks who were released from institutional settings, during that period, and man, could I share some stories about that.

    This was classic--I could just picture it from your description and build-up.

  3. This is a perfect little vignette of a story.
    I lived there in the late '70's.
    I wonder - where are all those people now????