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Ask Dr. Salvo

March 29, 1994

Dr. Salvo and Tim

Ask Dr. Salvo

c/o Dr. Salvo:

Dear Dr. Tarfeather,

Thanks so much for the all too brief glimpse you gave us of Dr. Salvo's practice of Brazilian psychiatry during his golden years, in the halls of Mt. Misty.

That was just an appetizer. Some of us, serious students of that arduous discipline, would like to study some more biological fragments of Dr. Salvo. This will no doubt clarify our confusion, which is recurrent. Is there anything in the files that will show us Salvo at home, in his middle age, en famille?

The Elephant Child

Dear E.C.,

I take it your pseudonym refers to your 'satiable curiosity? Well your faithful attention deserves to be rewarded. What we do have are potsherds and palimpsests, perhaps the prototypical silicon chip of history. With the help of devoted students like yourself I have hopes that we will make sense of it all some day. Surely there is no hurry...

The following fragment was authored by Salvo's oldest son, whose pellucid prose and humor deserve a broader circulation.

Sol Ptarmigan


Before we moved to Alabama, my brother and I lived in a small house with our mother and father and a crazy old man upstairs. He was a boarder but we looked on him as a sort of grandfather -- I suppose because he resembled our real grandfather. That is, he was old and had a southern accent. We hadn't seen too much of our real grandfather, just a couple of dimly remembered visits to Mobile at Christmas and Easter, and so we hadn't discovered any important dissimilarities between him and our boarder. I do remember that while my Grandfather would admit his ignorance on some question with a muttered, "Hell, boy, I don't know," the Crazy Old Man's method was to shake his head slowly and say, "Son, doesn't anybody know," with a kind of resignation that seemed to say that he didn't blame you for wondering, maybe once he'd wondered himself about it, but you just had to try to get used to the fact that this one didn't have an answer. That just made him seem more grandfatherly than our real one.

We had no idea that saying if you didn't know it nobody did was liable to get you called crazy. I guess we weren't old enough to know about craziness. But we could hear the indignation in our mother's voice as she told our father what new outrageous thing that Crazy Old Man Upstairs had said or done today. Our father worked in an office all day so he didn't see much of the Crazy Man, and since his job was listening and talking to people who were crazy, or thought they were, what he did see of the old man didn't make much impression on him. Mostly he heard about all this bad craziness from his wife. Sometimes she'd start right in at breakfast, but usually she waited until he got home at night. He'd come in from the office, put a few records on the machine, or rather on one of the several different and equally impressive machines, which sat next to one another on a big shelf too high up for me to reach, and sit down in an armchair with a drink in one hand and a book in the other. A lot of the time it was a thick blue volume with "The Dictionary of American Slang" printed in gold on the cover. He'd sit through two or three records chuckling to himself at words whose meanings I couldn't even guess at as he rolled the strange sounds around in his mouth. "Colly-wobbles," he'd say with a mysterious grin, "Ferri- cadouzer....Bumble-puppy," leafing through in search of a definition worthy of being read aloud. That was how I thought of it, anyway. More likely he just occasionally ran into a definition he couldn't resist sharing. In any case it didn't happen much, so when it did I paid close attention.

"Blind Monkeys," he would declaim, "An imaginary collection at the Zoological Gardens supposed to receive care and attention from persons fitted by nature for such office and little else. An idle or useless person is often told he is only fit to lead the Blind Monkeys to evacuate." I would try to laugh appreciatively, so as to encourage further outbursts of this kind, then run upstairs to look up "evacuate." In a little while I would be back downstairs, silently wondering at a vision of hordes of imaginary sightless primates being led out of a soon-to- be-bombed zoo to safety by a patient crew of loafers. Ostensibly I was doing my homework on the dining room table, but in fact I was eagerly awaiting further developments from the armchair in the living room.

If my mother wasn't in the kitchen making supper, she would be in the living room too, sipping a drink, maybe reading a book, waiting patiently for him to set down that peculiar volume (of which I have never seen another copy) and turn his attention to something less absorbing, perhaps the evening paper, so that she could tell about the crazy man.

"You know what that Crazy Old Man Upstairs did today?" she would begin.

"No," he would reply truthfully, after a moment, as if he wished he could say he did but upon reflection had to admit that he didn't. Then it was his turn to be patient as she launched into an attack on the latest craziness, pointing out just how crazy it was with a perplexed, frustrated anger that anyone could be so far gone, so wrong in all his ways and still be perfectly content with himself and even oblivious to the opinions of others. I don't know if she was angry that such craziness could get along in the world without getting its come-uppance or if she was simply demanding some kind of confession from the Old Man Upstairs, as if it would be all right for him to be crazy if he would just admit that he was. She should have known that was too much to expect. My father did. He let the Crazy Old Man alone and trusted the Old Man would do the same for him. He expected nothing from him and consequently was never disappointed. Every now and then after hearing some particularly telling shot at "That self-righteous old bastard," he'd look up over the paper to the corner where the walls met the ceiling and say, "Huh!" It was a sound of mild speculative surprise, as though he had reached down on the ground to pick up an interesting-looking rock and it had turned out to be a shadow. Sometimes he'd shake his head once and sigh, "Craaaazy as a Bessiebug."

"Craazy as a Bessiebug!" My father often used to say that about his patients, but it was always with a humorous tone. He had a patient who would hiccup for weeks at a time because his father had died of the hiccups and he thought that when he stopped hiccuping he'd die too. I never knew whether to believe these stories, but that was usually the kind of thing that got somebody classified with the Bessiebug. I'd say, "Well what happened to him? Is he still hiccuping? Maybe he's scared that he will die when he stops. How does he get to sleep? What if..."

And my father would say, "Oh, he's cured of all that now, I haven't seen him in years. I s'pose he would have called me, though, if he ever got cranked up on the hiccup marathon again. 'Course he could have just had a quick case that finished him off. Who knows? Maybe the men in his family are supposed to die of hiccups." I guess he mostly talked about people he'd cured when he was calling somebody crazy. Maybe there was a lingering suspicion in his head that if he couldn't get somebody to change their ways even when they thought they wanted to, maybe they were really onto something after all and would be better off if he let them be. I don't mean he didn't try hard enough or wasn't sorry to fail, but he had to maintain a humility about how much credit he could really take for cures or failures. One time I heard him talking about a kid who had been brought to him by parents who had tried everything else without success and finally figured they might as well try a psychiatrist, if only to be able to say that they'd done everything they knew to do to try to heal their son. He had blinding headaches all the time and his whole body was covered with itching scales -- psoriasis, I think.

"So I had asked him if anybody else in his family had ever had skin problems and he'd said no. But when I went through his family's medical history I found that his mother had had a bad case of dermatitis for several years. The next time I saw him I asked why he'd said nobody in his family had ever had any skin diseases when I knew that his mother had had dermatitis. He squinted his eyes up like a possum and said very coldly, 'That's none of my business.' None of his business! I knew we had some things to talk about when I heard that. Anyway, after I'd been seeing him a while his headaches were all gone and his psoriasis was starting to go and neither one of us knew why. But his parents decided I wasn't doing him any good so they stopped sending him. He sure was a little kook, though." Kind of regretful that he had lost a promising case but not about to get worried over the kid's sanity or what would happen to him. But when he talked about the Crazy Man there was a tone of conviction and finality in his verdict that I never heard when he called old patients crazy.

Once, though, late at night, after I was supposed to be in bed I heard my father defend the Crazy Man. My mother was coming to the end of a long list of accusations, "We never needed a boarder in the first place, let alone some crazy old man who thinks he's the landlord and acts like it. You know what he did this afternoon? He was on his way out to pick up his mail, although who he corresponds with God only knows, George Wallace maybe, and as he was coming by the kitchen he saw me opening an ice tray. So he steps right in, grabs the ice tray, snorts 'Come here! Lemme show you something.' Then he takes it over to the sink and proceeds to instruct me in how to open ice trays -- first you run some cold water over it, then you pull the lever and the ice comes out," she was at a peak of sarcasm, "then he put the ice in the ice bucket, filled up the tray with water and put it back in the freezer and left, telling me it would be ready for me to practice on in a few hours, but that I should wait until it was good and hard all the way through. I say he's good and crazy all the way through and he ought to be put away. No one else has a boarder, we don't need him; let him board at the State Hospital." This statement made a tremendous impression on me. I didn't think much of the ice tray incident because adults were always acting that way with me, and to think that they did it to each other as well would make all those admonitions about the proper way to put on coats, eat spaghetti, whittle with a pocket knife and such much easier to bear; but to discover that no one else had a boarder! This was a blow to my grasp on the world. Having had a boarder in the house for as long as I could remember, I had taken him for granted, assumed everyone had one, like every house had a roof. I never heard my parents talk about him to anyone else and never heard anyone else mention boarders so I never talked about him either. I thought it was sort of like genitals: everyone had them but if you talked about them at all it was only with members of your family. To find that we were the only people around with a boarder suddenly raised him in my estimation. He was unique, precious. I think it was then that I began to take an interest in the Crazy Man apart from my mother's stories. But I didn't have time to dwell on any of this because my father was replying, so I stored it up to think about later.

"No government in the world should have the right to put people away as crazy until it can give convincing proof of its own sanity," he thundered. "Which do you think is more dangerous -- the paranoiac who claims he's got a bomb in his belly that can blow up the world, or the equally paranoid government that does have such a bomb?" I wanted to ask my mother if the Crazy Old Man had ever said anything about a bomb in his belly, because if he had I certainly hadn't heard about it, but I knew I wasn't supposed to be awake anyway so I stayed where I was.

Where I was was the top of the stairs, on my belly, with my head hung over the first step, feeling all the blood rush in faster than my parents' conversation. I kept having to miss some of what they were saying in order to keep my head from exploding with all that blood. I would push myself back from the stairs, slithering over the rug with a hiss that seemed sure to betray me. But with the addition of a three-foot distance between me and my parents the sounds of their conversation faded to a murmur; I could let myself breathe normally again. I had slipped over the line into a zone of safety where I could stretch, cough, even repeat bits of conversation. Those three feet had somehow conferred on me the ability to do as I liked with impunity. Perhaps it was the fact that my parents could no longer see me and thus could be trusted to attribute any noises they heard to a trip to the bathroom. Maybe I just didn't think they could hear around corners. In any case I usually didn't fool around much, just stood up to let the blood get back where it belonged, took a few deep breaths; then it was back on the belly for more news. Sometimes my brother would join me on these fact-finding missions, but more often he stayed in bed. It was because he liked to fall asleep to music and the record player usually shut down before the conversation did.

My father had installed a tremendous speaker in the second floor bathroom, directly opposite the toilet and next to the sink. It was an ideal place for a table and the top of the speaker cabinet soon became covered with hairbrushes, toothbrushes, pill bottles, razors, drinking glasses and various ointments. On rare occasions a drunken guest would stagger in and sit down while the record was being changed downstairs, not paying much attention to the large, well- littered bathroom table, waving at himself in the mirror, making faces, all the things drunks do in bathrooms, none of which include inspecting tables very carefully. So there they'd be, midway through whatever they had come to do when all of a sudden the toothbrushes, fingernail clippers, lipstick, glasses, everything would start to dance as the bathroom table gave forth with the "1812 Overture" at a volume chosen to give the listener some idea of the day to day experience of a cannoneer in that war. As it happened, some of them (the listeners, not the cannoneers) like the idea of music to crap* by so much that they would stay through a whole side of a record, enjoying the echoing acoustics of the tiled bathroom and watching the toothbrushes shake it long after they had finished.

Actually none of that ever happened, although I remember wishing it would. My father was not that kind of foolish practical joker. But bathrooms do have good acoustics. That's why people sing in the shower, because it sounds so good to them. And that's why my brother didn't often stay up with me, because his room was next to the bathroom and when he arranged the doors right the sound just poured into his room, all resonant and mellow from the bathroom echo-box, and he fell asleep awash in music...

by Cary S;
observer and boy Thurber

* Far from being a coarse vulgarity, this word has an honorable place in the progress of Western Civilization. The toilet as we know it was invented by a Dr. Crapper (It seems to me it was John Crapper but as I do not want to be accused of embroidering upon the facts I will not commit myself on this question.) Much as people used to say they were going to use the Hoover when they meant the vacuum cleaner (which was invented by a man named Hoover, although I do not wish to contend that his first name was Herbert), they would say, "Well, I'm off to use the Crapper." The transition from this expression to the use of "crap" as a synonym for feces is too obvious to require further explication here. I leave it as an exercise for the duller-witted among my readers. At any rate, with the coming of such banalities as "lavatory," "water closet," "powder room," etc. into common usage, those stalwarts who continue to honor the name of Crapper in their speech and to keep bright the memory of the good Doctor's great gift to Civilization, these loyal fragments who are all that remain of the legions from whose lips the words "crap" and "crapper" once rolled proud and unashamed in sonorous dignity, these fast-dwindling remainders of the Golden Age, I say, are now looked down upon as crass, vulgar, crude, even unintelligent! One might as well call Hosea an ignorant country bumpkin! But even as the teachings of the prophets prevailed on the ungodliness of the people, there is yet hope that these words may return to their proper place in the minds and hearts of the people and in that too-often-flawed mirror of the people's mind and hearts, their language.

-- Alistair Montgomery Fotrose, Editorial Consultant and former philologist- in-residence to the Rann of Kutch.

March 29, 1994

The Harbinger