Lives of Quiet Desperation

By Bruce Goldfarb

Frank S. went home in 1974 and did not leave for 23 years.

When Frank sought refuge in his mother's unassuming East Baltimore rowhouse, Gerald Ford was president. The wounds of Vietnam and Watergate were still fresh. Photographs from the era look distinctive; men with blow-dried helmet hair wearing absurdly wide neckties and lapels. Pong was a state-of-the-art video game, 8-tracks were hot, and disco was sweeping the nation.

The youngest of three boys born to Mary and Charles S., Frank and his brothers grew up in the shade of Patterson Park, their stomping ground ranging from Highlandtown to Fells Point. 

Raised in a devoutly Catholic household, the boys attended parochial schools. Frank's educational trajectory fell shorter than his older brothers, taking him through the 8th grade. John, the middle child, went as far as 9th grade. Charles Jr., the oldest, made it to the 10th.

Frank was a "delicate" child, quiet and introspective. Gentle to a fault despite a gangly frame that towered over other children, his docile disposition made him an easy target for torment. Neighborhood kids taunted, teased, called him a mamma's boy. Always vigilant, John took care of his younger brother, making it his business to keep him safe from bullies.

Whatever cruelties the world inflicted, Frank harbored worse inside his head. He was a fearful child, imagining all sorts of dreadful fates. Some fears were reasonable -- fear of pain, fear of the dark, fear of abandonment -- but others have bizarre flavors bordering on delusion.

With a fluid and occasionally chaotic handwriting, Frank inventoried phobias in a journal begun a few years ago. He remembers believing as a child that a person is born with a natural part in the hair, and that parting it on the other side could result in "head fracture." The most persistent and pervasive anxiety is "the fear that if ifs are true" -- the immutable uncertainty of life. 

"I read that a child is born with two fears, the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises," he wrote. "As a child grows up, more fears are added. I understand all of them."

Frank's fears merged into an all-encompassing cloud of anxiety, the fear of fear itself. At times he felt enveloped in an "invisible fear gas" that electrified his nerves, caused his heart to gallop, blood to pound in his ears. Terror stiffened Frank's gait to an awkward strut. The most peculiar symptom was an impulse to giggle percolating deep inside, threatening to burble to the surface.

Struggling with mental illness through his late teens and early 20s, Frank used alcohol to dull his jangling nerves. He drank beer heavily, spending most of his days and nights in neighborhood bars. At some point during his youth -- the boys have an astonishing facility for dates and numbers except for this episode -- Frank was briefly hospitalized for observation at the Crownsville state mental hospital.

Sometimes the demons were real. In November of 1972, stumbling between bars in upper Fells Point, hoodlums beat Frank within an inch of his life.

In his prime, Frank's six-three frame must have packed a solid 225 pounds. His massive hands could easily have curled into punishing fists. But addled by alcohol and the fog of psychosis, Frank did nothing as the punks circled like jackals, taunting and poking their prey.

The ringleader landed a stunning punch, sending him down hard to the sidewalk. Frank stifled an inexplicable urge to laugh. "A giggle came out of nowhere, and I had to suppress it or he would have really gone to work on me," he recalls. Like a surreal dream, his pummeling was observed with detached calm. "I wasn't in the pain he wanted me to be in. Being beaten wasn't like I thought it would be."

The youths unleashed a flurry of punches and kicks before leaving Frank for dead on the pavement. He ended up in the Johns Hopkins emergency department, unconscious, his face beaten to a pulp.


Adapted from article in Baltimore magazine, May 2001.

© 2001, 2002 Bruce Goldfarb. All rights reserved.