When I was 21 I worked for an insurance company in Washington, D.C. It was a boring job, but made “fun” by one of the characters who worked with our group. Our task was to transfer paper files to microfiche. This was a boring, boring job and I was thankful that “Murph,” as he called himself, was on the team. He was an old guy (56) and we were mostly a young bunch.
Murph was quite a story teller. He regaled us with stories of his current living conditions. It seemed his wife had died the year prior and he now lived with his brother-in-law, George, George’s wife, Renee, and their pet poodle “Poopsie.” His tales were hilarious and he told them even as he performed his “verification” of the images on the microfiche. He was a good hard worker.
One Friday morning, Murph called into the office and let us know he would be late getting in. It was horrible weather, (tropical storm) and he arrived a couple of hours late, but, of course, armed with a tale of his trip in, taken by taxi. It was quite a delightful tale, and it included his “making up a song.” He sang the song for us.
“Everybody calls me mahva, mavha fahahahka..” were some of the words of his song.
That night, as the storm intensified, we lost power in my apartment building. I was hanging out in the dark when the phone rang. I answered and was greeted by a man singing, “Everybody calls me mahva, mavha fahahahka..” “Hi, Murph,” I said, without hesitation. “How did you know it was me?” he asked. I laughed and told him I thought that was pretty obvious. I asked why he was calling and he said he was drinking a gin and tonic and just wanted to see if there was anyone else alive in the world.
It sounded a little odd, but it was Murph, after all. So, I assured him there were others of us alive in the world and I would see him Saturday morning at work.
Saturday morning three of the four of us that were going to put in the extra time showed up. Murph did not. I told the others of the strange call the night before and they were concerned too. It was not like Murph not to show up. We did our work and left late in the afternoon.
On Monday, I arrived at work and again, no Murph. I was really getting concerned as was my buddy Dave. We decided to go up to personnel and ask them for Murph’s address. We thought we’d go check up on him. Well, clearly it was a different world back in 1979, but the personnel lady gave us the information we requested.
At lunchtime, Dave and I set out on foot to Murph’s address in Georgetown. We found the row house and we knocked on the door. No answer. We started asking people on the street if they knew him. Nobody did. We noticed a window in the top story was open and we tried yelling up to him. Still nothing.
So we did what any normal 21 and 22 year old would do. We walked to the police station and asked them to come and break the door down. We were certain Murph was up in his bed having suffered a heart attack or something. The police AGREED to come help us, and we rode back in the back of the police car.
When we got to the house, I noticed a different car was parked at the curb and suggested we knock again before trying forceful entry. Since it was my suggestion, I got to do the knocking. This time, my knock was rewarded with the door being opened by a gentleman, with a mouthful of sandwich and crumbs on his face. It was not Murph.
“Hi,” said I, “you must be George! I work with Murph and he has told us all about you. We are worried about him since he didn’t show up for work…” I stopped my rushed explanation of our purpose when I heard him say, “I’m Renee.” Hmmm, wasn’t expecting that!
Well, The long and short of our discovery that day was the George and Renee were too kindly, elderly gay men who shared their row house with their dog (not a poodle and not named Poopsie.) Murph, was, indeed, a friend, but he did not live there. In fact, Murph lived at the VA hospital….on the “mental ward.”
This was getting weird even for me! But as it turns out, it was the truth. Murph had been working for the four months I had known him, using day passes from the VA hospital to do so. That Friday, the day he arrived late to work, he had been released from the hospital. Nobody had seen him since that afternoon and I was the last to have spoken with him.
So it was that Dave and I set about hunting down this “friend” of ours. We spent our lunch hours walking the streets of DC, looking for Murph. On Thursday, we found him. He was drunk and disoriented and was wearing the same clothes I had seen him in on the previous Friday. He had been “living” on the streets.
Dave and I convinced him to come with us and ride the Metro back to my apartment, where we were preparing for our Friday night party anyway. Murph agreed and once back at the apartment (that I shared with my 16 year old brother, Ted, that summer) we dispatched Murph to the tub and instructed Ted to take Murph’s clothes to the laundry.
Murph ended up staying at my apartment for the next three months. Ted had returned home a couple of days after we found Murph, as it was the end of the summer and the start of his Junior year in high school. Murph took Ted’s room in my apartment. We never discussed his tall tales of his life that were pure fabrication. He returned to work, but not for long. As it turned out, Murph suffered from what they now call bi-polar disease. We knew it as manic-depressive. Eventually, Murph got so bad off, I had to readmit him to the VA hospital (no easy task, I can assure you.) That was the week of Thanksgiving.
I saw Murph twice more after that day. Once, about two weeks later, when I had just come out of recovery from surgery on my eye, I opened my good eye to see him standing in my hospital room. He had brought me a plant. To this day, I have no idea how he knew I’d even had to go into the hospital for this emergency surgery, but he had gotten a day pass and was my first visitor.
The second and last time I saw him, was the following March. As I sat in the break room with my co-workers, Murph appeared in the doorway. He was holding a very large package. From across the room he announced in his loud voice, “Judith, this is for you.” All I could think, as I took the package from him was, “I cannot open this here.” I had no idea what it would be, other than he told me it was a painting he’d done in his “therapy.”
When I got back to my apartment that afternoon, I unwrapped the brown paper from the painting and looked at my gift. On a white, stretched canvas, were straight lines. All lines were “painted” in bold, primary colors. The lines were painted every which way. The lines had been painted using a brush but also using a ruler. It was not an embarrassing painting, as I had feared, but it was a confusing one. I never hung the large painting. I just leaned it up against the wall.
I don’t know what became of the painting, or of Murph. I do know that he taught me a little something about the willingness to believe the “stories” others tell of their lives, past and present. And I do know that he introduced me to the reality that those who suffer from this particular mental disorder, can be witty, intelligent and engaging, even as they themselves are sinking into the mire of their illness.
I still think about my friend, who liked to introduce himself to others, “Jim Murphy, you can call me Murph, Murph the Serf, international jewel thief!”