The previous year the big Geraldo Rivera expose on the sub-human conditions at Willowbrook State Hospital in Staten Island shed a light where none had been before. The Queens version I encountered had locks everywhere, even the elevators, bars on the windows, truly a sad, cold, institutional insular world. The minute I arrived back home after my day at Creedmoor, I’d peel off my clothes and dive into the shower, swearing that they mopped the floors with piss, the place stunk so bad. I helped out in a classroom, and once or twice on a residential unit. I saw kids hit, drugged, ignored, and also occasionally loved up.
My eyes wide to take it all in, my heart both opened and hardened by the loss of innocence. I was entranced by the children, their odd, repetitive behaviors, their refusal to participate in the reality in which most of us function. More than anything I wanted to understand - were they retarded, schizophrenic, psychotic? Maybe none of the labels were the right size.
Billy was about eight years old, an energetic and bewildering kid. I didn’t have a clue how to get to know him, how to reach him. One day, he gave me an unforgettable lesson. I watched him pull his pants part-way down, run bare-butted out of the classroom and around the corner to the bathroom. I thought to myself, “Oh, Billy’s going to the bathroom.” I wish I could remember if I was smart enough to follow him during his second performance of pants down/run around the corner. Or maybe I didn’t catch on until the third. I followed behind and caught him in the act of scarfing down handfuls of candy someone had carelessly thrown into the bathroom garbage can. The fact that this little fellow was bright enough to pull off such a ruse absolutely blew my mind. I knew then that there is something very wrong with a world that cages children.