Poets And Madmen - The Story (2001)

Support Savatage in helping Doctors Without Borders.

Poets & Madmen - The Story  

Things that are abandoned by the adult world tend to have a nearly irresistible allure to the young. This is true in youths' often deep attraction for past ideas, books, cars, music and even buildings, especially old gothic buildings. And so it was on a late summer's night, three city kids were driving numerous miles from where they lived to break into one such structure. They had discovered the building in a magazine article describing how many former mental institutions had been closed over the last decade and their patients placed in smaller community programs. The article had numerous pedantic and erudite comments concerning the direction of modern psychiatric care, but the thing that had caught the teens' attention was a picture of one old abandoned institution, and the fact it was located only forty miles from where they were. With nothing else to do on a Saturday night, the three of them piled into an old Dodge car and started driving.

Even knowing where it was located, the building was still hard to find. The bulk of the structure was well hidden behind the ivy and brush, which had overgrown the cast-iron fence that surrounded the once landscaped acres. Suddenly, the driver saw the top of a tower silhouetted against the night's sky. After pulling the car over to the side of the road, they got out, and one following another, scaled the fence. As they landed quietly on the other side, the object of their quest materialized before their eyes.

Built at the turn of the century, the former institution had the Gothic architecture typical of many buildings from that period. It was constructed of solid stone with a black slate roof and ornate lead gutters, whose spouts always ended in some gnome's or gargoyle's grimacing face. Its attraction was enhanced mystically as it glinted beneath the amber light of a full summer moon.

They entered the building through a broken cellar window. Daryl went first, he was the eldest and closest thing they had to a leader. He was followed by Tommy, the youngest of the three, and then, Joey, who propped the window open behind him just in case they needed to make a quick retreat. Together, the teens made their way past mounds of rusting medical machinery, assorted filing cabinets and endless piles of papers. Discovering a staircase, they followed it up only to find the first two floor's exit doors jammed closed, but the third floor exit swung open easily and led them onto a tier, which went all around a large atrium. The room was enormous with a beautiful vaulted ceiling. Through Tiffany glassed windows, the night was casting moon-born shadows. For a moment, the three stood awe-struck at the immense beauty of the building before them. Its distant location from any major population center had protected it from the normal vandalism that seemed to start to destroy these types of buildings from the moment of their abandonment.

The three teens began to make their way around the balcony tier, when Tommy, who was taking the lead, tripped over something in the dark. Unable to see in the dimness what had caused his friend to fall, Daryl searched the pockets of the Levi jacket he had been carrying with him. He quickly removed a new box of Marlboro cigarettes and a bronze Zippo lighter. Placing the jacket and the Marlboros on a table, he took the Zippo, opened the top with an authoritative click and gave the flint wheel a spin. Instantly, a healthy yellow flame sprang to life, illuminating the area with a small circle of light.

Walking over to the spot where Tommy was now standing, Daryl used the light from the Zippo to reveal a fallen bronze statue. After assorted curses, Tommy inquired as to the identity of the statue. Daryl brought the lighter towards its base in an attempt to identify the bronze now lying at their feet. Just as he was about to read the name of some long-forgotten hospital benefactor, he was startled by a nearby sound. All three youths turned to see a small, shadowy figure of a man grabbing Daryl's jacket and running down the hall, where he turned into a side corridor.

At first they were all too afraid to even move, but then Daryl suddenly exclaimed, "He has the car keys!" With Daryl leading the way, they chased the figure down the hall. They turned into the same corridor through which they had seen the stranger disappear, just in time to see a door closing at the very end of the hall. When the three of them reached the room, the door had already been barred from the inside. Within it, they could see the figure of the man they had been chasing, sitting quietly on the windowsill looking out into the night, a single unlit cigarette in his hand.

The door was solid steel and the window, small and barred. They shook and pounded on the door, but neither the door nor the figure sitting at the window budged an inch. The situation was looking fairly hopeless, when Daryl, looking down, noticed that his jacket was neatly folded at the foot of the door, the keys neatly placed on top along with the pack of cigarettes. The only thing amiss was the new pack of cigarettes had been opened and a single cigarette was now missing. Cursing the stranger as some sort of nut, they were about to leave, when for a reason he, himself, could never fully explain, Daryl turned back and slid his Zippo lighter under the door to the lone figure still sitting at the window. For the first time since the trio had gotten there, the man turned. Seeing the lighter on the floor, he hesitated for a moment, then bent down and lit his cigarette before gently sliding the lighter back.

"Why did you do that?" Joey demanded of Daryl.

"He needed a light," Daryl replied while picking up his Zippo, which he used to light a cigarette for each of them.

"Who are you? Mother Teresa?" Joey muttered.

"Who the hell do you think he is?" Tommy interrupted, nodding towards the stranger.

"Probably one of the loons that somehow got left behind," Joey answered.

"Maybe he was released and just returned," Daryl theorized.

Leaning against the wall, Daryl noticed that to the right of the door, attached to the wall, was a small box marked "Patient's Chart", and within the box there was a large folder. He gazed down the hall where he saw a similar box to the right of every door, but this was the only room where the box still contained any paperwork. Taking it out, Daryl opened the folder, which was overflowing with papers, and announced, "It says here that the guy's name is Kevin Carter."

"How do you know it's his file?" Tommy asked while straining to read over Daryl's shoulder.

"Here's his picture," Daryl said, holding up what appeared to be a hospital I.D. photo.

"What's he doing here?" Tommy continued.

"It says here he had a mental breakdown," Daryl answered as he started turning through the pages. "Says he was a world famous photographer."

"Well, I never heard of him. What did he do?" Joey asked.

"Wow! Look at these magazine articles he did. Here's one about the collapse of some Soviet backed government in Africa. Look, this cuts! It's in Time Magazine!" Daryl read the descriptions beneath the photos aloud. They described not only the collapse of the communist dictatorships, which had been in control in parts of Africa, but also the rise of the criminal class to fill the power vacuum.

"God! Look at these shots from some war in the Sudan!" Daryl exclaimed. The three of them examined a photograph taken by Carter as he and a group of journalists in a jeep raced past a rebel roadblock on a Sudanese road. In the photo they could clearly see the rifle of one of the rebels firing in the direction of the man taking the photo.

"Well, this confirms he's got a mental problem. Who takes pictures of people shooting at them?" Joey observed sarcastically.

As they continued to read, they learned Carter had won the Pulitzer Prize that year for the best photograph. It was the ultimate award in photojournalism.

"Why is this guy here?" Joey said incredulously. "He should be at the Ritz in New York celebrating."

"Wait a minute! I'm looking. I'm looking," Daryl protested, flipping through the pages. "It says here he got hung up on some girl."

"He threw away his career over some girl!" Joey responded in disbelief.

"Says here he got so depressed that he became suicidal," answered Daryl.

"Tried to kill himself over a stupid girl. What an idiot!" Joey snickered.

"God, she must have been gorgeous," Tommy philosophized.

"If that steel door wasn't there, I'd go kick him in the head," Joey continued, peering back into the room.

"Look, here's a picture of some girl," Daryl announced.

"Mmmmm, cute. Cute. But, God, the world is full of good-looking women," Tommy mused while examining the picture.

"Any guy who lets some girl screw up his life deserves to be locked-up!" Joey declared after glancing at the photo.

All this time Daryl had continued to read through the file. "I don't think this girl was the problem. According to these notes, he broke up with her."

Just at that moment a second photograph, which had been stuck to the back of the photo of the first girl, slipped to the floor. Tommy bent down and picked it up. They all froze in silent horror at the picture before them. Daryl discovered the page that went with the photo and explained it all to his two friends. It was the picture that had won Kevin Carter the Pulitzer. The photo was of a small four-year old girl in the Sudan. She and her family had been caught up in a man-made famine caused by the civil war raging within their country. Her father had been killed by government troops despite the fact he had been only a simple farmer. The remaining family had heard about a feeding station approximately thirty miles from their village, and with her mother and her older brother, the girl started walking those thirty miles to the feeding station. Along the way, both her brother and mother died from starvation, leaving the child to struggle the final miles on her own. Just as she had reached the feeding station, and barely able to walk, she was told all the food was already gone. Completely exhausted and more alone than any of us could ever imagine being, she collapsed into a little squatting fetal position. Just at that moment, a vulture landed beside her. The bird sat looking directly at the child, waiting for her to die. Kevin Carter, who was the photographer for Reuters's News Service at the time, snapped a photo of the moment. A short time later, the child died. Months later, he would tell a friend that after he had taken the award-winning photograph, he, "Sat under a tree, cried and chain-smoked cigarettes."

As Tommy and Joey listened, Daryl continued, explaining how according to the doctor's report, unlike many of his fellow journalist, Carter had never been able to separate himself from what he had witnessed in Africa. In his own words, Kevin had said he was, "constantly haunted by the memories killings and corpses, of innocence and evil; of trigger-happy madmen firing at starving and wounded children." The diagnosis stated that the core of Kevin's problem had been he knew it was still going on, day after day, in too many parts of the world. He could not accept that such evil could continue and he was powerless to do anything to stop it. He turned to alcohol and harder and harder drugs to numb his senses, but eventually not even these things could help, for he still had seen what he had seen. After Kevin had been revived from a failed suicide attempt, his friends checked him into this institution.

"Why do you think he is still here?" Joey asked. For the first time during the night, there was a hint of compassion in his voice.

"His friends had checked him in the hospital just as the institution was in the transition of closing down. All the patients were being transferred to those smaller neighborhood community houses." Daryl informed them. "When the doctors insisted he still had to be transferred, he just disappeared. The file ends there."

"What do you think happened?" Tommy queried.

"I think he couldn't handle going back out there to the real world, so he just hid somewhere in the building until everyone else had left," Daryl concluded.

"Should we report him to the police?" Tommy asked.

"What are we going to say? That we found him while breaking and entering. Maybe we should just leave you here," Joey offered. His usual sarcasm had started to reappear in his voice.

"Hilarious," Tommy countered as he turned back towards Daryl. "We could do it anonymously."

"No, I think he's better off here. The world out there hasn't gotten any better since he's left it," Daryl replied while carefully returning the lone folder to its box.

"And is not likely to any time soon," Joey added. "Now that we're all in agreement, let's get the hell out of here!" Joey started back down the hall, followed by Tommy. Daryl hesitated, and decided to slide the stranger a few cigarettes under the door, but quickly realized that between Tommy, Joe and himself, they had smoked the entire pack. He looked once more into the room, then stooped down, slid his Zippo lighter back under the door before hurrying after his friends, who were almost all the way down the hall.

Post Script

Later in the year, the three of them heard on the news that Kevin Carter had committed suicide. Daryl decided to return to the abandoned hospital, the last place where they had seen Kevin alive. He stood outside of the room, said a short prayer, and in a final gesture, placed a new pack of Marlboros outside the door of the room and left. One year later, Daryl returned once again to the hospital and found the Marlboros in the exact place he had left them, but the pack had been opened and only one cigarette had been removed.

Daryl has returned every year since. He always finds the entire building undisturbed, the Marlboros always exactly where he had left them the year before, but the pack is always opened, and always with a single cigarette missing. Daryl then takes the old box and leaves a new one behind, and so the ritual has gone on until this day. Which leads Daryl to wonder if somehow Mister Carter is still alive, and that would be a good thing for in a world of six billion people, there should always be one Kevin Carter.