A Man, A Dog, A Nose

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Jeff was in his late 40s and lived in a group home for Jewish men with mental disabilities. He was the kind of person that everyone tries to diagnose, his weirdness being irresistible, as though just seeing him brought out the amateur psychologist in a person. The scary thing was that everyone came up with the same diagnosis – schizophrenia. If the whole world thinks you’re schizophrenic, or anything for that matter, even if you’re not, well, you might as well be. I know I thought Jeff was schizophrenic. He’d put his right hand over his ear and talk to himself; he was constantly talking, chattering, about nothing that made sense to any of us and probably not to him either. His house staff would catch him sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of the night to make sandwiches. Not to eat, just to make.  They’d send him back to his room. Jeff had a small amount of wispy blonde hair on his otherwise bald head and was the kind of bald man that reminded one of a baby. Thinking back, the best way I can describe him is to say that he looked like a combination of Richard Dreyfuss and a Kewpie doll.

“Tanack!  Tanack!” Jeff would shout, making up noises, pacing the hallway up and down. I met him at the non-profit agency I worked for. I’d never been around people with mental disabilities before, and Jeff frightened me a little bit. Maybe it was all the nonsense sounds he’d make, or the reports in his file about him getting physically aggressive with staff members, or how everyone said he was schizophrenic, or maybe it was the way he would scream at the top of his lungs when he’d get upset.

“Tomorrow is Saturday!” he’d holler.  He’d bite his wrist. “It’s Saturday!”

I tried taking a logical approach. “Jeff,” I’d say, “tomorrow is Thursday. It isn’t Saturday. Relax, buddy.”

“It’s Saturday! Tomorrow’s Saturday!”

My attempts were futile. He was in sheer panic mode and I wasn’t helping. Jeff normally shook with nervous energy, anxious and fidgety, but was generally able to compose himself. About once a week, though, he’d blow his lid. And when he did, he was always upset about tomorrow being Saturday, which was strange, because I thought that was a day everybody looked forward to.

As with all the people in our program, Jeff had a big file in the main office stuffed with papers written by psychiatrists, behavioral therapists, and other care givers. I pulled it off the shelf, sat down with it like I was back in a college lit course or something, and started reading, hoping that there would be some insight or nugget of wisdom. There was.

“Jeff can get upset at times,” it said. “When he does, staff should ask him, ‘Jeff, what color is the dog’s nose?’ This phrase has a calming effect on Jeff, and he will answer, ‘It’s black.’”

What color is the dog’s nose?” I thought, bewildered. I went to the room where my coworker, Billy, was.  Billy worked closely with Jeff and knew him better.

“Yo, Billy,” I said, “what color is the dog’s nose?”

He nodded. “Yeah, that’s what you got to say to Jeff to chill him out.” Then Billy reached over to a shelf and grabbed a magazine with a dog on the cover. “Sometimes, when he’s really worked up, I stick this in his face and have him touch the dog’s nose.”

“That works?”

“It works perfectly,” he said, shrugging.

In the days that followed, I waited for Jeff to get upset again. It was almost like I had my fingers crossed, hoping he would. Eventually he did, walking to the end of a hallway and screaming out the doors at the world outside.

“Tomorrow’s Saturday! Tomorrow’s Saturday!”

I approached him and got his attention. “That’s nice, Jeff,” I said, “but listen, more importantly…what color is the dog’s nose?”

He stopped, as though I’d flipped a switch on his back. He turned and looked me straight in the eye, and with a perfectly neutral voice, he said, “It’s black.”

Then he went back into one of the rooms, sat off in a corner away from the others, and looked out the window, seeming quiet and sad.

Every week, Billy took Jeff to a pound to see the dogs. Jeff was afraid of them and wouldn’t pet them, but he loved to go anyways and always anxiously volunteered to go on the dog trip. I secretly wished that I could take Jeff to see the dogs, just to observe him, to see him full of excitement and fear, watching the animals and still, just as he did with basically every person that tried to talk to him, keeping his distance.

I’d like to think there’s an internal logic to how human beings work. There must’ve been something to Jeff, some explanation. Saturday. There had to be a reason he dreaded it so much. And the dog’s nose. That had to have significance. A memory from when he was a kid, or a phrase some person he cared for used to say to him. Or it could’ve been that he simply liked dogs, and one time a dog touched his hand and he felt its wet nose on his skin. Maybe that was the only time he’d ever been touched by anything.

Then I realized that I could invent a whole life for him. His entire history, written by me in my head. I wondered if that would make me feel better, safer. It was sort of like how people guessed he was schizophrenic. If a visitor were to ask, “What’s wrong with him,” I guess it’s more comforting to make something up than to just say “I don’t know.”

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