Notes & Queries by David Herkt

91

Paul

If you ask, Paul will tell you that when he was born he didn’t breathe and it took a long time before he did which is why he has a disability. For a time he seemed to want to tell the story with frequency. It was the beginning of everything. It was what made him different. It was a strange and wondrous event. It needed to be told and repeated.

Paul is intellectually disabled. He doesn’t quite know the detail of the bodily responses that were involved, the death of brain cells from oxygen-deprivation during birth and the effect this has had on his thoughts, emotions, and mobility, but he lives with the consequences: his odd walk which emphasises his right side, his strange stiffness, his learning difficulties, his staring facial expressions, his confusions, and his relative lack of emotional control.

He has short self-cut hair which he dyes black, unwilling in his mid-forties to let the grey streaks show. He has brown eyes. He tans easily. He has had all his teeth out and has refused false teeth. He was rejected by his family and he was raised in homes for the intellectually disabled until he decided on self-sufficiency and repeatedly pestered those concerned until finally it happened.  I would describe Paul as my friend, but it is much deeper now, after fourteen years, than friendship.

I talk to him on a daily basis. We discuss weather, shopping, TV, politics, the news, and his neighbours. I see him every few weeks. We have bitter fights with regularity, which are frequently loud and unpleasant. Paul is also gay, which leads to some commonality of interest and at times a source of drama, for Paul is nothing if not a drama-queen, and his sense of theatre has been honed by endless hours of soap-operas on TV or DVD.

How did I meet him?

It was the budgies that did it. I worked for a while establishing a database for a volunteer gay and lesbian telephone counselling service, and because I had also had counselling training from a long time before, I found myself more involved. Paul was a frequent caller. The manager who ran the service regarded him as someone who couldn’t “progress’ so he got what I regarded as a fairly short shift - his problems weren’t interesting or solvable.

Paul was phoning more out of loneliness than any other issue. I found I liked talking to him, and often did so but he had budgies and the plight of his birds, as he explained it, unable to really move or stretch their wings in their too-small cage, eventually got to me.  

I purchased the largest cage I could afford but I had to ask my partner, John, to deliver it because by the rules of the service I was permitted no ‘real-life’ contact with our callers. Somehow, at the job’s end, when I no longer had to obey the rules, Paul continued on in my life.

Paul lives in a state-provided house in one of Auckland’s most deprived areas, a dumping ground for the unloved, unwanted, the crazy, and the poor. I had to research the suburb for a TV research job once and the statistics are unenviable – number of people on benefits, proximity to liquor outlets, rate of arrest, rate of violent crime. One Guy Fawkes coincided with an inorganic rubbish week and driving through Paul’s suburb, the streets piled with discarded household junk outside unloved houses, was like entering a war-zone: sky-rockets were being fired horizontally across roads, teenagers roamed in gangs, and bunches of crackers sounded like automatic gunfire. It is not somewhere that is going to be a 100% Pure New Zealand advertisement.

At the age of three, Paul had been placed in what would become a series of homes for the intellectually-disabled. Recently we revisited one on his initiative. He wanted to see it again. Now it is partially-abandoned. There were bleak bathrooms, wards with stripped-down beds still in place and crammed together so it was barely possible to move between them, long institutional corridors with lifting carpet, and a dry swimming-pool filled with broken furniture.

Paul was eager to see the place in which he spent his adolescence. The words tumbled out of him. ‘This was my ward. My bed was down there. That was where I was raped. That was where I got punched. I used to sit on that step and eat my lunch. A girl went up into that tower and wanted to jump off. They used to wake us at half past six and we’d have a bath. We were very happy here.’

The disjunct between his descriptions and his state of mind was a revelation.

But when I first met him, Paul was lonely, unhappy, and frustrated, with anger-management problems. He had been arrested and convicted for threatening violence. There were other police visits including the day when a neighbour had complained about him, dressed in woman’s clothing, walking outside their house with a kitchen knife in hand.

He was also being ripped-off financially with frequency by a number of commercial organisations which saw an intellectual-disability as something to be exploited. The worst was a TV rent-to-buy company which was still charging him two years after he had paid them off. There was a woman who sold furniture at rates far beyond its valuation. There was the man who offered to inspect and upgrade household goods who never returned them. There was also the sales-person for a large communications company who upscaled him and sold him an expensive phone-plan and a top-of-the-line mobile phone which he couldn’t afford. They weren’t the only ones.

All of these problems required sorting out, complicated by all sorts of weird ethical decisions about the boundaries of Paul’s freedom to choose versus his exploitation, not to mention the boundaries of my own role in things. Gradually I found myself, for better or worse, enmeshed in Paul’s life.

I also found Paul intellectually engaging. For example, when I first met him he was obsessed and excited by the whole concept of fiction. He initially thought TV dramas were exactly the same as the news, which was not an uninteresting concept. For Paul, an afternoon soapie was real people’s lives. It was real life happening in real time and he wanted to know “what happens when the TV just goes off them, you know, afterwards?”

Explaining the concept of fiction and acting to him was a revelation. It was intellectually stimulating. It was a philosophical problem: ‘You mean they aren’t what they are?’ It was thrilling. One saw the splendid lure of the Big Lie of Fiction played out in someone’s mind. I suddenly saw the wonder of saying what was not. It was like being present when the first lie was told in history, making a thing that wasn’t. Being there at his discovery was something that I still value. A huge chunk of human culture came home to me in that instant.

But all this fiction and drama has run-on effects. Once Paul had to be put under for a hospital anaesthetic for a minor operation and I accompanied him into the operating theatre. It was like putting down a Tennessee William’s heroine who had been raised on TV dialogue. Paul was Blanche Dubois at the mercy of strangers, straws were clutched, every word he uttered could have been scripted by an Academy Award team (“You can’t just leave me here with these people!”) and he swooned perfectly as the anaesthetic hit home.

He has given me much to consider, including just how innate is gaydom?  Paul is somehow naturally gay. He has never really socialised with gay people, so his personal delicacy, his effeminacy, his preference for purses, the hair-dye, and his sense of ‘gay drama’, have not come from a gay milieu. It seems, in his case, gay came first, before acculturation.

He also has unsuspected talents like an extreme facility with dates. Paul must be the only person I know who remembers the Prime Minister John Key’s birthdate, along with that of the late Paul Holmes, Helen Clark, and his budgies (“It’s my budgie’s four and a half year birthday today”). It has a downside though – Paul likes things organised in time, and weeks, if not months in advance, something hard to live up to if you deal in lesser schedules. Paul is happily organising events for a date months in the future, which he knows will be a Tuesday.

It was an allegedly simply thing, to provide the Differently-Abled with a bit of company and someone to sort out problems for which he didn’t know the answers, but it turned out anything but simple.

There was the $1000 debt to a sex-line company where Paul had utilised his fairly omni-sexual voice to engage in sexual banter with heterosexual callers, who thought they were talking to ‘Pauline’. Unfortunately Paul was being charged by the minute. There was the institution of a toll-bar (which Paul still insists on referring to as a ‘tow-bar’) to prevent further occurrences, which he promptly got around by changing his phone number which meant that all previous service-qualifications were removed. He might be intellectually-disabled but he isn’t stupid. Another $800 debt he had to pay off to a sex-line company from his benefit seemed to finally cure this problem.

There was also the ‘flatmate wanted’ ad which Paul ran in a paper which offered free listings. ‘Flatmate wanted by gay intellectually disabled man’ was an unsuspected source of complications. For Paul it operated as the equivalent of a ‘sex-offered’ ad which I hadn’t realised. It was surprising the number of men who responded and came around to “look at the room”. “It was terrible - he had a baby-seat in the back of the car,” Paul said of one brief sexual encounter with perfect sly delivery.

He was reluctant to stop the ad running, despite the complications which ensued, and who could blame him? The ad provided sex, human contact, and drama. But eventually even he realised the consequences were sometimes not entirely pleasant. There were his emotions, there were the odd requests (his foray into cross-dressing was a direct result of one ad-respondent’s interest), and there was the sheer lack of safety.

Then there is Work & Income New Zealand. Paul is on a benefit due to his medical status. He is also on his third trespass order, preventing him going into his local WINZ office, something which is a relief. The complications that resulted from WINZ losing files, repeatedly mispaying him, failing to institute changes, not communicating, and being generally incompetent are hard enough for the averagely-abled human, but were a source of angered frustration for Paul and he would generally express this by threats.

Paul was generally right about their failures just as he was right about the money owed to him. Still, I relish his being banned and I would almost recommend it as a strategy to any long-term WINZ client. Anyone who has stood on the wrong side of the counter at his local WINZ and watched the swanning staffers on the other would agree that it is an experience that does nothing for mental equilibrium. Being banned means the benefit continues and the computer-flags on the files mean WINZ stays away. Being ignored comes as a great relief.

In addition to these factors there were the more personal ones, primarily Paul falling dramatically and competitively in love with a friend of mine.

I had introduced them both in person. We had all visited. They also spoken on the telephone. But it went much further than that. For Paul, it was love at first sight and for a couple of years I had to deal with jealousies and dramas ramped up way beyond Mills & Boon levels.

But there was more. My friend, who worked in the media, had been himself diagnosed with ADHD and ‘poor impulse control. He had a mobile phone-list of numbers that ranged from Government Ministers to TV personalities and the local garage. Throw in conference line facilities, a prankster’s impulse, Paul’s number, and you get the picture.

The phone would generally ring in the mid-afternoon, when the ADHD kicked in, and I would find myself party to a call where Paul was being patched through to the famous and the unsuspecting. At first I found this ethically-challenging, but the calls didn’t seem to hurt Paul, in fact he was generally stimulated and entertained.

I did explain Paul exactly what was happening because for a while he assumed these were just old-fashioned ‘crossed-lines’, but the knowledge didn’t seem to alter things. And let’s face it, he was just sitting there, locked into a State Beneficiary scenario in a bleak suburb, with just the TV and his budgies for company, in an increasingly uncaring world. Calls like this were an entertainment. In fact they were Entertainment Gold with a cast-list better than most high-quality TV chat shows.

Over the years, I’ve heard Paul in conversation with a range of people: the late Paul Holmes, John Banks, the Prime Minister John Key, various government ministers and press-secretaries, city mayors, Charlotte Dawson, more than a few multi- millionaires, currently-rating radio personalities, Michael Laws, sport-celebs, and many more. Throw in the occasional Indian proprietor of a garage or a young wheelchair-bound blogger as ring-ins and you get the picture. It has continued now for six or seven years, and has been global in its reach. Paul has conversed with many of New Zealand’s rich and famous. He’s talked to the news-makers and the tabloid trash.

It was like some sort of Rorschach Test, where you could judge people on how they handled an unexpected call with Paul (“Actually, it’s Paul here”). John Banks, Paul Holmes and Michael Laws were explicitly crude and obscene in their dealings with their unknown caller. On more than one occasion they had all told him to ‘fuck off’ unpleasantly, with a few other unnecessary epithets (“you cunt”) thrown in. It was interesting because these men were the very few that did so.

Charlotte Dawson nicely took fifteen minutes out of her life while filming a reality TV series on a Pacific island to discuss Paul’s budgies with him. Paul’s phone voice surfaced in a DJ’s mix in a nightclub. One morning I unexpectedly got to hear Paul’s voice being broadcast on bFM. The then Breakfast host Hugh Sundae was playing a voice-mail message left on his unanswered phone which had caught Paul in mid-conversation with someone else and because there was always a tendency for Paul to slip into sex-line mode, Hugh got “I’m going to get candles… and get undressed…and rub you all over with oil...” in his odd gender-unspecific monotone.

Frequently there were a number of people on the line, all somewhat confused by the circumstances and just why it was happening, but silently hanging in there for the content.

Paul himself was resolutely unimpressed with the majority of his callers, even when I re-explained just what was occurring, and named some of the people to whom he was talking, explaining who they were in the scheme of things. He sniffed when I mentioned John Banks. He just thought Holmes was rude. His tendency to vote in opposition to National was confirmed by his contact with party luminaries.

I treat Paul as much as possible like I’d treat anyone. I demand the same care from him as I would demand from anyone else. It isn’t a sensitive new-agey type friendship. I figure a good fight is as valuable a part of a relationship as anything, so we argue often, and as equals. I remind him to care for his budgies properly (“Have you given them some greens?”) and he fibs about whether he has done his cleaning or not.

You do have to be aware of just who Paul is and there is always his frustrations of quite literally being exiled from ordinary life and being alert enough to realise it, and he does not deal with change easily. You can’t alter a plan with Paul without a huge fuss. A time is a time and a scheduled date is a scheduled date. But somehow no matter how annoyed you might get with him (frequently I've had to delete 40-odd nasty voice-mail messages) and how abusive he might have been to you (“You little shit, I’m going to kill you.”) have to pull back a little and see things as they are.

When Paul is abusive, you can almost invariably hear what has been said to him played back. Sometimes it isn’t pleasant to hear the voices of one’s fellow-beings in Paul’s words and locutions.  It is the things that have been done to him that you are getting done to you. It is the words that have been shouted at him, that are being shouted at you.

A couple of weeks ago John and I picked up Paul to go to a beach. En route, Paul, who was in a grumpy mood anyway, decided the Titirangi hills were making him car-sick and had an attack of Blanche Dubois again. He was faint. He was dizzy. He fanned his face. “Can’t you see I’m very, very ill.” We had to abort the planned trip and no amount of logic or stopping the car for a rest would dissuade Paul from this course of action.

I was annoyed but when we neared Paul’s home, John suggested going down to the nearby Mangere Otuatua Stone Field’s beach to eat our picnic lunch instead. “Damn you, you little bastard,” Paul said grumpily, while adding “yes” in a grudging undertone. 

I find that simple hour at a not particularly attractive Manakau Harbour beach a really pleasant memory. The tide over the warm tidal flats was full-in. A few rounded cumulus clouds were suspended in mid-air. The scrubby unprepossessing shore was deserted except for a few Pacific Islanders flounder-fishing at the far end. The sea and the hills across the Manakau looked just like that Colin McCahon painting ‘French Bay, 1956’, layered in fractured horizontals of white and blue. Small fish leapt audibly in the shining water.

I sprawled on a rug while John and Paul paddled in the water. Paul was laughing and chatting, the Titirangi drama forgotten now, John was generally agreeing, and as they waded out of real earshot and the sense of their words was lost, what l really recall is the sense of happy contentment in their voices, the relaxation and trust, the sound of the slight waves, and everyone’s small plain pleasure in a shared human instant.

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