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His forearm pressed my jugular. I jammed a hand in between, catching sight of his unsettlingly satisfied grin. I blurted out a few words to him – and to whoever else may have been to listening to my radio show on a sleepy morning in New York City’s Lower East Side.
Somehow he’d found his way into a supposedly locked studio at WNYU, a college station in Greenwich Village in 1971, and gotten behind me. I was running the whole show – engineer, announcer and DJ – by myself. Alone, in a dimly lit quadrant of the student activities center.
Dying suddenly wasn’t something imaginary. He was half again as big as me. As I sucked air, I started spitting words – fast. My microphone was live, but this wasn’t a massive FM audience out there; the closed-circuit station only had the range of several streets. I sure don’t recall what I said, but it bought me time. When he eased his squeezing, my 21-year-old mind locked in on a shared generational topic – I started babbling about sex and romance.
He sucked those topics to Dante-esque levels of depravity. But he also let loose of me, taking a seat in the studio. Suddenly, I’d become a potential broadcasting matchmaker for anyone who might want the sexual company of a madman. After he’d talked himself down and into near tranquility, I nudged him amiably out two sets of doors. Click, click. The 9-1-1 phone system was relatively new back then, and I don’t recall trying to use it.
Truth is, until the sequence of killers with known or presumed mental illness reached its recent apex of tragedy in Oak Creek, Wisc., I’d buried that episode from New York University under layers of happier life experiences. But I’ve also been closely tracking the deterioration of publicly provided behavioral health services for some years. For a while, along with some others, the mordant thought was that until something bad happened to somebody important, nothing would turn the downward curve. But after the 2011 attack in Arizona that including the wounding of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, that previous hopeful premise of change has been supplanted by images from Aurora, Colo., and elsewhere.
Out of that, my nightmare was reborn.
Grappling for something more, I seized this quote from the recent “No Room at the Inn” report on the closing of public psychiatric facilities, by the Treatment Advocacy Center: “The system was originally created to protect both the patients and the public, and its termination is taking place with little regard for the consequences to either group.”
I never figured a college radio station would become a place of life-or-death struggle. Now, decades later, that horrid fate has befallen theaters, summer camps, churches, gurdwaras, schools, streets and hospital EDs. When will we ever learn?