By Kieran Loughney
The neon-green down parka was more functional safety gear than fashion statement. Stuffed in my backpack with a Grateful Dead tape, a few changes of clothes, a toothbrush, Buck knife and road atlas, it would serve me on wind-blown highways and alert approaching drivers that I was on the berm, with thumb out, often aching for a ride.
At age 18, in May, 1974, I left my hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania and spent two years hitchhiking in the western United States with a single aim in mind—adventure. I’d earn just enough money to stay fed and keep wandering. I lived on a commune in a redwood forest, with a fisherman’s family on the Oregon Coast, in a lakeside log cabin in the Rockies, in a townhouse in San Francisco, and in a fruit picker’s shack. I worked as a ranch hand, operated a carousel for a travelling carnival, pruned trees, picked fruit.
A yearning to return home never overtook me until December of my second year on the road. In a cabin near the Canadian border in central Washington I stoked a wood-burning stove, my only source of heat. I longed for a Christmas with family. Hitchhiking south, I made it to an on-ramp of the eastbound interstate. Scarce traffic and fierce weather forced a return to my humble abode. It would be spring when I finally stepped onto my family’s porch in Scranton. I had loved living free of responsibility, answering only to my impulses. But I felt a new impulse emerging. And I had returned with more essential items than the neon parka and Buck knife: I returned with insight I’d ultimately use to find my purpose. While I’d felt inspired by the grandeur of the Columbia River Valley, the Arizona desert and Big Sur, what had really spoken to me was the kindness and acceptance of those I met along the way. In northern Idaho I met Michael Bowes, an intrepid wheelchair-bound hitchhiker who nicknamed himself the Rolling Bozo. He showed me the uselessness of self-pity and value of self-deprecation. So many people I met shared a lift, a meal, a place to stay. Perhaps it was now my turn to help others. Taking this new direction, in time I’d find a more profound freedom—and a fulfillment that only comes from being of use to others.
I resolved to seek meaningful work which would provide a modest living. A job was available supervising a group home for men with developmental and psychiatric disabilities. To my surprise, I was hired with no experience. The job required that I live with the men for 20 days each month. This work offered chances for personal growth for the men I served and, with each small success, growth within myself. One resident, Gary, who had been institutionalized and marginalized because of his disability, showed me that there is no place for malice and resentment in any life. As the men gained skills and confidence, I found myself on a similar trajectory.
Next, I applied for a position at a psychiatric facility, a locked unit treating acutely mentally ill patients. From the deeply withdrawn to the floridly delusional, violent, or manic, these people had lost their way. Two patients, Sandy and Marie, young women with post-partum depression, bonded and supported each other throughout their hospitalization. They showed me that suffering often brings empathy. I saw the value in maintaining an inner calm. I learned that we are all just a trauma, a chemical imbalance, or a genetic anomaly away from being mentally ill ourselves.
After several more years I began work with an agency that managed cases of child abuse and neglect. I was entrusted with shepherding children through crises and losses. Their parents, caught in their own troubled circumstances, needed direction and support. Some faced incarceration for their transgressions. Many would lose their right to be parents, but others, with our help, would develop skills and become stable and reliable. The children often faced all these difficulties with courage, hopeful their families would reunite. It took a caring community to rescue and heal them. Nicky, a teenager whose mother brutally abused her as a child, taught me not to judge others too harshly. “She only did it because of her mental illness,” she told me. “How can I ever hate her for that?”
Now, retired from social service work, I have a new direction. Living in the West Village (having moved here from Pennsylvania last year) has given me a fresh perspective and restored my sense of adventure. While aware that my new neighbors were famously diverse and highly creative, I soon found, to my delight, that they are also unpretentious and warm-hearted. Matthew generously shares his fine vinyl collection and access to his liquor cabinet. “If you ever want to relax, you’re welcome to use my place when I’m at work,” he has offered.
I’ve learned that there is an inner landscape. While exploring that terrain, in myself and in others, I have realized that at my core are stories of those I’ve helped and who have helped me.
Historically, the West Village has been at the forefront of progressive thought and action. I’ve resolved that in 2021 I will add my small voice to that legacy. My hope is that the tales I share of the often-overlooked among us will help to illuminate and inspire WestView readers.