I saw the secret police downtown today," Lilah says.
"How do you know they were secret police?" I ask.
"A voice from my ghetto blaster told me."
"Wow. Radio Shack must be selling a new kind of boom box. What else did the voice tell you?"
"And there’s a temple in the sky with gazelles and magnolia trees. But you have to be on God’s holy list to go there," she whispers.
I’m sitting on a couch next to Lilah, whom I just met at Fellowship Club, a county-run outpatient center for the social rehabilitation of mentally ill adults. Zach, my therapy dog, and I are on our second visit. Zach’s a gangly sweetheart of a golden retriever who’s a bit long in the back and leggy, but a creature awesomely at home wherever he finds himself—and with whomever.
About 30 people, all low-income and ranging in age from 20 to 80, are sitting on tattered couches or milling around the building’s large front room. There’s little interaction, though a shard of conversation can be heard from time to time. Most just sit staring at the air, looking more bored—or medicated—than demented. One man rests his head on an elbow, eyes closed. Generic rock music blasts from a stereo on a shelf next to a dime store goldfish bowl. A rickety upright piano sits mute against the wall.
Lilah is petting Zach, who sits on the floor between us. She starts at the tip of his nose and methodically works her way up to the top of his head, down to his shoulders, then back to the tip of his nose again. Zach sits placid as a Buddha, reveling in her strokes. Watching them, a line from Whitman flashes through my head, "What is less, or more, than a touch?" I wonder how much touch, if any, the people at Fellowship Club get.
Like many here, Lilah has the look of a street person—a few teeth short of the full complement, clothes more reminiscent of the Salvation Army than Versace. She’s 40ish with long black hair and an aura of bewilderment and apprehension.
"Do you think dogs are in that temple in the sky, too?" I ask.
She looks at Zach. "Oh, definitely. Dogs are better than people with cold hearts. And there’re ponies up there, too," she says, eyes shining.
"It sounds like a terrific place," I say.
There’s a pause in our dialogue. I’m uneasy with small talk in any social situation, but work harder here at Fellowship Club to push past my discomfort. "How do you like this chilly weather?"
"Whatever weather God gives us I like," Lilah answers.
"You’ll live a long life with an attitude like that. Lots of people complain about the weather and the rain, and anything else they can dig up to complain about."
"And I think of the rain as angels crying."
"That’s beautiful. You’re not a poet, are you?"
Am I doing this right, I’m thinking, or am I a dud? Will I be liked, accepted? People who are often viewed as society’s rejects, and treated accordingly, don’t trust easily. I lean my shin against Zach’s back for encouragement. His stillness fortifies me.
"I can tell you’re a good person and an honest person," Lilah says. I’m startled by the compliment, and its timing—just when I was beginning to lapse into self-doubt. I gather myself and say, smiling, "And I can tell you’re an excellent judge of character."
We both break out in a huge laugh. It’s a spontaneous moment of shared exhilaration and grace between two strangers that generates a healing camaraderie and diminishes the distance between us. She’s so expressive that it’s humbling. Her compliment is the kind of gesture that makes you feel buoyant and kindred. It reminds me how important it is to affirm one another, a powerful gift each of us can give each other but that few, including myself, bother to articulate. When we don’t, the other person never knows, and we both miss out.
Ironic that the reminder comes from someone deemed less decorous or genteel than the rest of us. How heedlessly we make assumptions about people, and how costly our arrogance. Maybe because Lilah is unfettered by some of the social constraints that bind most of us, she’s freer to give. And might we not benefit from a reassessment of some of those constraints?
The mentally ill are a population I’m familiar with. As a kid, my favorite of my seven aunts was manic-depressive and on and off spent time in the locked ward of a county mental health facility; and the young cousin to whom I felt closest was schizophrenic. I saw their hearts as well as their pathology.
"Do you tell stories?" Lilah asks.
How does she know that? "Well, I don’t usually tell them out loud, but I do write them down sometimes."
"Oh, tell me a story," she pleads, wide-eyed as a child at bedtime.
Unable to resist her enthusiasm, I do my best despite a greater fluency with the written than the spoken word. Lilah listens intently.
"Are you from New York?" she asks when my story is finished.
I’m taken aback. How could she know this? I lost my Brooklyn brogue 30 years ago, thank God. But her insights are a little spooky. I’m beginning to sense that this woman, whose mental disarray has brought her to a place like this, is in some ways more clear-headed than some of the so-called sane people I see out in the world. How much does she see?
As we continue chatting, I notice how extraordinarily focused on our conversation Lilah is, and what a pleasure it is talking with her—warm, affectionate, reciprocal. She doesn’t have a hint of the gross self-involvement or shuck-and-jive that is pervasive in so many people I meet in day-to-day encounters. Her candor is refreshing, and I’m honored by her sincere interest in who I am—by the gift of her attention. I’ve become so engrossed in our chat myself that I nearly forget there are other guests at Fellowship Club with whom I ought to mingle. Reluctantly, Zach and I excuse ourselves.
Half an hour later, as we’re leaving, we see Lilah again. She’s leaning against a railing outside the front door of the building.
"Where’re you walking?" she asks, ambling over.
"My car’s just up the street."
"Can I walk you to your car?"
Zach jumps into the back seat. Lilah pets his floppy ears. Then, as I unlock the driver’s door and turn to say good-bye, she gives me a hug—a tender, non-clingy, just-right hug.
Cruising up Chapala Street I realize that I’d forgotten all about the anger I had felt over some minor annoyance that was still with me when I arrived at Fellowship Club an hour ago. Now all I feel is that the world is new and kind and jasmine-scented.