“Leon wanted a world that was oozing with good cheer, a world where there were no conflicts or tensions, and where every day was a nice day, and he couldn’t deal with the fact that there is no such world.”
One morning Leon was the first client to enter the Spanish/Florentine room. He was a strapping, 6’2”, twenty-two-year-old man. Some unbuttoned buttons and a half-tucked-in shirt gave him a disheveled look. Blue jeans accentuated his thick hips, but otherwise he was solid. He had sandy blond hair and wore glasses. Usually his hair was combed down, but some days it sprouted uncontrolled, like weeds atop his head.
“G’morning, Glenn,” he said in that loud voice of his. He was affable and gregarious by nature.
“How are you?”
“Oh, pretty good. How are you doing?”
“Good,” he said. “How was your day yesterday?”
“Yesterday? You mean after work?”
“Yeah, after work, how was it?”
“It was okay, nothing special. I was home all evening.”
“What’d you do? Did you watch TV last night?”
“Yeah, I watched a little. For about an hour, I guess. Mostly just the news.”
“Oh, the news. The news—that’s good, isn’t it?”
“Well, I don’t know if the news is always good. It’s usually interesting, anyway.”
“What’re you gonna do tonight—watch TV again, right?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure.”
“Oh, you don’t know. You don’t know yet, do you?”
“Well, I might go to the Y and do a little running.”
“Oh, running. Running is good exercise, right?”
“Yeah, I like it.”
“What’re you having for lunch today?”
“Just the usual—tuna sandwich.”
“Oh, tuna!” he said. We both laughed. “You always have tuna, don’t you? Tuna’s your favorite, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s easy to fix, anyway. And it’s got a lot of protein.”
“Guess what I’m having. I’m having roast beef sandwich and chocolate cake. Sounds good, huh?”
“Yeah, I might want to swap with you.”
“Roast beef and cake—that’s good, isn’t it? Mmmm, yumm.”
1981, I: One night at Pizza Hut, a counselor from Leon’s semi-independent home told Leon he’d eaten enough, and couldn’t have another piece. Leon went wild, knocking a tooth out of one counselor and giving another a black eye. The police came and had to handcuff Leon to get him under control.
In the Spanish/Florentine room, Leon had everyone’s schedule memorized. For instance, he knew that Ken had a class at 11:30, went to early lunch at 12:00, had another class at 12:30, and came back downstairs at 1:00. Since Leon stayed on the workfloor that whole time, except for lunch from 12:30 to 1:00, he knew that he and Ken wouldn’t cross paths during that period. So every day when Ken headed upstairs at 11:25, Leon would say, “See you at one, Ken.”
Any time I was late sending someone to class, Leon would remind me. God, what a clock-watcher! I’d smile at how predictable he was, and thank him. He’d laugh a little and say you’re welcome.
Leon was obsessed with timepieces. He was constantly checking his watch against the clock, and if he noticed even the tiniest discrepancy, he’d stop whatever he was doing and reset his watch. Naturally, he was very solicitous of it. One morning he said to me, “Hey Glenn, look at my watch. Is it okay?”
“Well, let’s see, I’ve got 10:42 and you’ve got 10:43, so I’d say it’s pretty close.”
“No, no, the time’s right—I know that. But what about this?” He pointed to a rubber gasket protruding slightly from the edge of the watch.
“Oh yeah, I see what you mean.”
“That shouldn’t be like that, should it?” He was genuinely concerned, almost as though we were talking about a sick puppy.
“It looks like it’s kind of pinched in there, doesn’t it?”
“I got it back from the repair shop yesterday. That isn’t supposed to be there, though, is it?”
“No, not really.”
“I should tell my counselor tonight, and maybe have it fixed again—huh, or not?”
“Yeah, that’d be a good idea. Be careful with it the rest of the day, and I’m sure it’ll be all right.”
“Okay, I will. Thank you.”
His preoccupation with time and schedules and upcoming plans extended to even the most mundane matters. Leon didn’t want the future to catch him by surprise; he had to be sure he knew what was coming. Every afternoon I heard a familiar line of questions.
“What time are we cleaning up today, Glenn?”
“Probably not till about 2:45, Leon. The room looks pretty good.”
“Oh, 2:45, okay. Are we changing the papers?” he asked, meaning the newspapers that covered the tables.
“No, I don’t think so. We changed them yesterday.”
He thought about this for a moment, then said, “We’ll change them tomorrow then, right?” He smiled at this tentative solution to a problem that would never have bothered anyone but him.
“Well, either tomorrow or the next day. About every two or three days.”
“Oh, okay. Okay, that’s good.”
1981, II: One night Leon fell asleep watching TV. A counselor woke him up and said he should go to bed. Leon exploded, overturning the TV set and demolishing a door before being restrained.
“Have a nice day, Glenn,” Leon always said as he was leaving the workfloor to go home.
“You too, Leon.”
Or, if it was a Friday afternoon: “Have a nice weekend, Glenn.”
The night of the client-staff basketball game, he came up to me afterwards, shook hands, and said, “Good game, Glenn.”
“Yeah, Leon, good game.”
“Uh-huh. Thank you.” Then, as he was leaving, he added, “Have a nice sleep tonight, Glenn.”
1981, III: One morning Richard, another resident at his home, told Leon to put the cap on a bottle of syrup. Leon, suddenly enraged, threw the syrup, along with all the dishes he could grab, then gave Richard a black eye, and finally smashed his own radio.
As a child, Leon lived with his family, but when his outbursts became more than they could handle, he was sent to Boulder. He stayed there from ages twelve to eighteen, then went to a group home in Great Falls. For the next four years he attended Special Education. He was proud of the diploma he received, and brought it to work one day to show me. Leon, like Sharon, read at a fifth-grade level, putting them in the top tier of our clients. Leon’s IQ was in the mid-seventies, and his intellectual disability was classified as borderline.
When he was twenty, Special Education obtained two part-time jobs for him. He spent six months as a bottle sorter for Coca-Cola, then one month as a hotel janitor. He was fired from both jobs. His employers commented on his lack of initiative; at the hotel, he even tried hiding to avoid work. In conversations with school counselors, Leon said he wasn’t interested in having a regular job after he graduated. Money wasn’t that important to him, so even though he knew he’d earn a lot less at the Center, he wanted to go there because that’s where his friends were.
He came to the Center in June of 1981. Sometimes during break he’d whip through crossword puzzles with Sharon and Roger. Determined to leave no square unmarked, he would hastily fill in a lot of wrong entries, then make a mess by erasing it all. Neatness was not his strong point.
On the workfloor he was easily distracted. Leon could not talk and work at the same time: he lost himself in conversations. If there was a radio in the area, it claimed his attention.
“‘Good Vibrations,’” he said quietly in grouting one day.
“What’s that, Leon?” I asked.
He looked up. “They’re playing ‘Good Vibrations.’”
“Oh yeah, so they are.”
“Yeah. ‘Good Vibrations,’ by the Beach Boys.”
“The Beach Boys are good, aren’t they? They’re good singers.”
“Yeah, I like listening to them. Say, how’s your glass coming?”
“Oh.” He glanced down, surprised that it was still in his hands. “Okay,” he said, a little sheepishly.
In the fall, Leon was assigned to the Spanish/Florentine room. To make a Spanish-style glass, the assembler squirted glue around the outside of the glass with a caulking gun, then used a popsicle stick to spread the glue in a thin, even coat. Holding the glass from the inside and bottom, he rolled it several times across a tray filled with finely crushed glass. The result was an even layer of crushed, colored glass covering the outside. Finally, he cleaned off any glue or crushed glass that had stuck to the inside or bottom of the glass.
The step that required the most coordination was the rolling, but Leon picked that up right away. In making a Spanish glass, however, the glue had to be spread quickly; but Leon, between talking and daydreaming, often didn’t get to the rolling tray until the glue had already started to dry. That meant he had to use steel wool and a knife to scrape it off; then he’d start all over again. This cleaning operation shot the better part of an hour, but that didn’t bother Leon at all. Since he went through it two or three times a day, most days he completed only a couple of glasses. Whenever he spread the glue quickly, his glass came out fine; but unless I was right beside him, he’d dawdle, resulting in another scraping job. Nothing that I said had any effect; I just could not get him to move.
This went on for about a month, and I had almost resigned myself to Leon’s low production rate when I began thinking about his preoccupation with time. His productivity may not have mattered much to him, but clocks and watches sure did. So one morning I set a stopwatch at his work station.
The moment he entered the room, he zeroed in on it. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Yeah, but… but what’s it for?”
“Well, I thought I’d time you while you’re spreading the glue. That way, we’ll see how fast you can do it.”
“Oh, okay.” He smiled, a little nervous, but also intrigued.
I timed him on his next assembly, and on every one after that for several weeks. Shoving that ticking stopwatch under his nose proved to be a real prod. The hand moved fast, going around once every ten seconds; and as Leon’s eyes darted back and forth between the stopwatch and his glass, his hands began moving just as fast, spreading glue the way a lunch-hour chef at a downtown deli spreads mayonnaise. His spreading time plummeted from ten minutes to four, and the glasses that had to be scraped off and done over were eliminated completely.
A week or two after we started using the stopwatch, Leon came up to me at cleanup time and said, “I did good today, right Glenn?”
“Yeah, you did. Let’s see,” I said, checking the production sheet, “you finished eight glasses today.”
“Eight glasses—oh, wow! That’s good, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, you were really working fast today.”
“Eight—that’s a lot, isn’t it? That’s good.”
Indeed, his output had climbed from two glasses a day up to eight or nine, and from then on he single-handedly assembled all the Spanish glasses we needed. After a month, I even put the stopwatch back in its drawer; the fast pace had become second nature to him.
Leon wanted a world that was oozing with good cheer, a world where there were no conflicts or tensions, where nobody gave orders or made demands, and where every day was a nice day, full of joy and goodwill; and he couldn’t deal with the fact that there is no such world. Like a cheerleader who exudes positivity and has a perpetual smile, Leon always presented a happy face and never expressed a negative feeling. But if he heard, in someone’s voice, a hint of impatience or a tone of authority, for Leon it meant the collapse of that perfect harmony he tried so hard to sustain. Whenever he saw his utopia disintegrating, he shattered like glass.
One day in August 1981, during a week when I was on vacation, Leon bought two Cokes at the Center and said he was going to take them home that afternoon. Craig told him he’d have to make a twenty-cent deposit if the bottles left the building. Leon didn’t have another twenty cents, but still insisted on taking them home. He was sitting in the lunchroom, and when Craig leaned over the table to say something to him, Leon punched him in the face. After a struggle, staff managed to get Leon down, but even then he kept spitting at Craig. Eventually he stopped, and when he seemed calm, staff let him up. Suddenly he started pushing tables and throwing chairs. He was taken to an empty room in the basement in the hope that he’d settle down, but instead he rammed into the door again and again. It was all that Craig, along with the workfloor manager, the marketing director, and the maintenance man, could do to keep him from breaking it down. Even with four large men pushing against it, Leon bashed a big hole in the middle. Some of the clients, working in the next room, were terrified. Finally an ambulance came and took him to a hospital psychiatric ward.
In the ten months I knew him, that was the only time Leon became violent at the Center. I did see him once in the wake of an attack, however. One morning in late 1981, he beat up the middle-aged man who supervised the semi-independent home. Another counselor brought Leon to work a little later. Leon walked down the hall slowly—unusual for him—and threw furtive glances at every staff member he saw. He was pale and tense. He stood by the coat rack for a long time, then waited outside the Spanish/Florentine room for several minutes before entering. Ken, not knowing what had happened, asked why he was late. Leon looked down, embarrassed, and said nothing.
He had another bad incident at home in January 1982, then three more in early February. At that point he was given heavy doses of medication, and for the next month he walked around like a zombie. He was stiff, barely able to turn his head, and was useless on the workfloor. He would offer weak smiles to people, but rarely spoke.
In March his medications were reduced, and gradually he went back to his usual way of speaking. Sometimes Leon’s relentless positivity could get a little wearisome, but after seeing him so heavily sedated, so lifeless, it was almost reassuring, almost like the first sign of spring, to hear “Have a nice day” and “That’s good, isn’t it?” all over again.
In his day-to-day interactions, Leon was so friendly and so outgoing that it was easy to forget the violence and the hostility that were lurking within him and the terrible damage he could inflict. Like the transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, Leon’s irrepressible sociability could, almost without warning, be supplanted by an equally irrepressible urge to destroy.
Most of the time, however, Leon really did wish people well, despite what he sometimes did to them. I remember how important it was to him to be part of the group that gave the shop supervisor a surprise rendition of “Happy Birthday”; and I remember the many times, on my last day at the Center, that he patted me on the shoulder, offered gentle handshakes, and said, “We’re gonna miss you” and “I’ve enjoyed working with you” and “Have a good time.”
I never saw Leon after I left the Center, but I did hear about the problems he had. In 1982 the violence at home continued. Eventually he was removed from the semi-independent home and placed, not in a regular group home, but in the new, even more structured, Crisis Home. There he lived with clients like Leroy and George and Dave—clients who were nowhere near his intellectual level, and with whom the only thing he had in common was violence. Meanwhile, the incidents at the Center escalated, culminating in one two-month period in which he hit Craig with a hammer and hit two women clients in the face with his fist, sending all three to the emergency room. A court determined that he posed too great a threat to remain in the program. He was sent back to Boulder in 1983.
So after six years in Boulder, then six years away, Leon had gone back. Of all the clients at the Center, Leon and Sharon had among the mildest intellectual disabilities, but ironically they were the ones who subsequently ended up in the state institution for the intellectually disabled.
After thirty days in Boulder, a meeting was held to see how Leon was doing. He seemed content enough, but he loved watching the game show Let’s Make a Deal on TV every day, and he expressed concern that the meeting might cause him to miss part of it. Let’s Make a Deal, with all its wacky costumes, its high-spirited contestants, and prizes that were the answers to their dreams, must have seemed to Leon like the happy land he was looking for.