For more than twenty years, the house directly across the street from my south Austin home has been a rental. Over the years the standard-issue two-story tract home of maybe 1800 square has seen many tenants, more than I can recall. Most do nothing to get my attention, and they usually don’t stay for more than a single lease. I see them fleetingly as they come and go, if at all, and then one day they are gone. Every now and again one of them will nod or wave. Most of the time, though, I could not tell you what my neighbors even look like.
The batch a couple years back started out that way, too; just another group of twenty-something guys of no particular note. One of their number was friendlier than the others, though, and so he stood out a bit more. Matt seemed to go out of his way to be noticed, quick to seek an excuse for a conversation, quick to engage. He was a tall, nice-looking chap of maybe 28, likeable enough, had a certain presence. But he was perhaps a little too eager on occasion. There was also a minor hint of off-ness about him. He would try to engage me at odd times, once in the middle of a rainstorm, for example, or very late at night. He also tended to say things that were borderline inappropriate, out of context, or clearly not true.
One day Matt told me that he was a film maker, a claim I found a little hard to believe, given that he didn’t even seem to own a car. But in the neighborly spirit, I played along, and asked him if he produced or directed. Now that’s a pretty simple question, but Matt seemed flummoxed by it. After a moment of indecision he flashed a 1000-Watt smile and said “Hey, I do it all; I’m a charismatic guy.” Another time he told me that he had been a special government operative, a claim that is, for some reason, a popular one among the delusional. Hearing this, I reacted in the customary way, feigning interest before making excuses to leave: Uh-huh, really, that’s interesting, sorry gotta go. But Matt seemed harmless enough, so I was not terribly concerned.
One by one, the original tenants drifted away. Sometimes a new person would take the place of one who had departed, but they never seemed to stay very long. So over time the population dwindled until only Matt was left. I didn’t see him for quite a while. Then, over the span of a few days, a strange collection of items started appearing on the front lawn: plastic odds and ends having no discernible function, broken furniture and appliances, books with covers torn off and half the pages missing, that sort of thing. Every last bit of it useless, worthless, banged up crap that nobody in their right mind would ever want. The yard and driveway became filled with it. Then a sign appeared: Yard Sale this Weekend, followed a couple of days later by high-powered floodlights, which lit up the house and yard like noon, night after night. But the sale never happened and the junk just sat there for weeks, moldering.
Eventually a collection of overturned pots and pans also appeared, haphazardly mounted on pieces of scrap lumber, which Matt used as an impromptu drum set. Day and night he would, at odd intervals, pop outside, perfunctorily bang away for a while, following no identifiable rhythm, and then disappear inside again. Through open blinds, I often saw Matt moving what looked like a brush across the interior walls, as though painting. But he wasn’t painting. Bit by bit, he was covering every available surface, even the ceiling, with great swirling masses of urgent, incoherent scribbling, interrupted here and there by cryptic symbols and diagrams.
One Sunday afternoon in July I was out in the driveway working on one of my cars. It was a brutally hot day, one of many that record-setting summer. Matt came out, lackadaisically played drums for a bit, and then began wandering randomly about, clad only in his underwear, a pair of flip-flops, and a ridiculous faux-fur hat. He was all over the place, in the street, in neighbors’ yards, oblivious, talking a mile a minute the whole time. Mostly he was just mumbling, but every so often he would speak loudly and clearly, if nonsensically, to someone who wasn’t there. In the continuum, right? I know that level. That’s it! All downhill, all downhill. Yes! Hold your position! He wandered over to me with his hand extended, holding something that looked like a tiny pink plastic dinosaur, the sort of gewgaw you might have gotten as a prize in a box of Crackerjacks. He asked me if it was mine, apologizing that he couldn’t remember if he had borrowed it or not. “My memory’s gotten really terrible.” Before I could even answer, he withdrew his hand and wandered off without a word.
At one point a car came up behind him as he shuffled down the middle of the street. It’s driver waited patiently for few seconds and then honked, a quick get-your-attention blip. Matt didn’t seem to notice. So after a few additional seconds without a reaction, the driver honked again, this time more insistent. Matt still didn’t respond. But after maybe half a minute, he began to drift over to one side of the road, and at the earliest opportunity the driver gunned it and sped past him. This seemed to snap Matt out of his trance. He shouted, waved his fists and ran after the car. But after just a few steps, he sort of forgot what he was doing and settled back into his slow meandering.
I remember thinking: Surely somebody else must have noticed. But apparently, nobody had. The streets were deserted. Because of the intense heat, Matt and I were the only people stirring. Everyone else was inside, behind drawn shades, hunkered down, AC blasting, watching telly or some such. You probably could have marched the 5th Army down the street and no one would have noticed.
At one point Matt climbed a tree in his front yard and sat down on a middling limb, perilously balanced, absent-mindedly swinging his limbs to and fro, seconds from a nasty fall. After sitting for a spell, he gathered himself and began climbing again with renewed determination, headed for some objective only he could see. Up up up he went, way beyond the point of prudence, headed for the skinny highest branches that even the squirrels wouldn’t touch. Just short of disaster, Matt stopped and shouted triumphantly: Level Six, Ahooa! Right away, sir! Ahooa!
Somehow, Matt made it back to the ground in one piece. He banged away for a few minutes more on his makeshift drum kit, shouted some more nonsense, and then resumed his shuffling walkabout. Matt repeated this little show, with variations, for maybe a couple of hours. And still no one else noticed.
Now I am mostly a live-and-let-live type of guy, and have a pretty high tolerance for eccentricity. You really have to screw up or act out for me to even think about getting the authorities involved. But it had become abundantly clear that Matt was having some kind of serious meltdown. I figured him to be a schizophrenic who had gone off his meds. Whatever the cause, Matt was failing fast, and there was a most excellent likelihood that this would end very badly for him.
Okay, I thought, what’s my role here? I called a couple of friends for advice, but they were not very helpful. Not knowing what else to do, I dialed 311, the city non-emergency number, and asked to talk to an operator. I explained the situation and asked out loud the question I had been pondering: What should I do? After a thoughtful pause, she made the decision to go off-script, and said something like “You don’t have a legal obligation to do anything, but what would you want to happen if this person was someone you cared about?” Well obviously I would want someone to get involved, I replied. “OK,” she said; “there’s your answer.” “But,” she added, “I can’t help you.” This was a 911 matter.
Thus absolved, I dialed the emergency number and outlined, once again, the situation. They said thank you, you were right to get involved, we’ll send an officer over. And sure enough, a very nice officer arrived in maybe 10 minutes, who handled the situation with great delicacy. I watched the entire interaction from my front porch. Matt managed to pull it together enough that they couldn’t take him in on the spot, and so the officer left after just a few minutes. And after a short while, Matt resumed his now-familiar routine. Unbeknownst to me or Matt, though, observers had covertly set up at the end of the block, a couple hundred yards away. Through binoculars, they monitored Matt for several hours until they had more than enough evidence to order an involuntary commitment. Toward sunset a white van bearing an official seal pulled up in front of the house and two orderlies got out, accompanied moments later by a uniformed officer. Matt did not resist, and I got the distinct impression that he had been down that road before.
After the orderlies left with Matt, the officer, a youthful-looking 30-ish fellow, lingered for a few minutes, writing a report. I went over to talk with him, to introduce myself and explain that I had been the one to make the call. There must have been a hint of remorse in my voice because right away he said, gently but firmly, “Don’t apologize; you did the right thing.”
Most cops have a no-nonsense, rather hard-edged persona, but this young man simply radiated goodness, his manner so genuinely serene and compassionate that it stopped me in my tracks. This a cop? His uniform and gun seemed suddenly, wildly, incongruous, like a Buddhist monk carrying a cattle prod, and I wondered half-seriously for a few seconds if these symbols of authority were just props, a bit of gimmickry to help calm agitated minds. “Unfortunately,” he continued, “most people don’t want to get involved in these types of situations,” and so things go from bad to much, much worse.
I had been reluctant to call the authorities for many reasons. Among them I was concerned that Matt might be subject to some rough treatment that he really didn’t deserve. I imagined him set upon and subdued by goons with stun guns, or worse, cops with itchy trigger fingers. I visualized him languishing in a padded cell, straitjacketed 23 out of every 24 hours, forgotten and ignored. But I needn’t have worried; it had been handled very, very well. As I talked to the young officer it dawned on me that there had to be some kind of dedicated, official city mental health unit, a well organized one at that, and that he was a part of it. Somewhere along the line, this city had had the foresight and will to create a competent, compassionate, and humane mental health system for dealing with situations precisely like this one. So in spite of its petty and deeply bureaucratic culture, in spite of its slavish obsession with check-the-box diversity at all costs, in spite of its endless pretentious trendiness, the City of Austin had gotten this one very important thing completely right.
I saw Matt once more, a few weeks later when he stopped by to collect his things. A couple of neighbors happened to be out in their yard. Spotting them, Matt went over to chat. Stiff and wary at first, they relaxed as it became apparent that he was just being friendly, and that he was OK. He looked healthy, relaxed, in control. The meds had done their job. I wanted to talk to Matt, to see how he was, to confess that I had been the one to make the call. But I got distracted by something, and when I came back a few minutes later he was gone. I never saw him again.
I was reminded of this incident in the aftermath of the Navy Yard shootings on September 16. As is typical, within minutes of the shooting the finger-pointing had already begun as the usual interest groups lined up on their respective sides. Once again, the chattering classes dusted off their scripts and pretended to work up a good froth. Once again, the usual suspects were trotted out and given a sound thrashing. Facts were scarce, but no matter; early stories cited a second and maybe even a third shooter, all armed with–gasp–evil AR-15 rifles. In the end, of course, there turned out to be only one man, and his weapon was a garden-variety shotgun.
Filling the information vacuum, early accounts imputed varied motives to the shooter: He was making a political point, he had Islamist sympathies, he was avenging a workplace indignity, he simply snapped. But as details trickled in over the next few days it became very clear that Aaron Alexis had been falling apart for years, and that he had repeatedly sought help in the days and weeks leading up to his final, fatal outburst. This deeply troubled person had realized that he was flying off the rails, and with his remaining presence of mind struggled to do something about it. The man did everything in his power to warn us, but we did not listen.
For all the wringing of hands and rending of garments over this missed clue or that failed checkpoint, it really comes down to just one thing: Aaron Alexis literally begged for help and we did nothing. We looked away, couldn’t be bothered, thought “not my problem.” And so once more we have a trail of dead and ranks of grieving families and friends all asking “why?”