By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
John Holtby remembers this about the time he lost all his teeth: "What happened was the dentist in Richfield already had me in the chair when he pulled out a big screwdriver. It was terrible, terrible. Big question mark here about who set all this up, but then he came at me with the screwdriver. I had my mouth wide open and I screamed. Then he was on me yanking at the teeth. All of them, they all came out, nothing for pain killing. One tooth then another tooth, just like that. I jumped up and ran across the office and opened the side door there and my big German shepherd who was demanding to come in and save me ran into the room and at the dentist. My dog was on him in a flash. What a sight!"
When the story reaches this moment, John stops. He's breathing hard. He's looking around, to the side, behind him, making sure no one else can hear this. Then he reaches up and with his index finger draws a long, slow slash across his neck.
"Yep. Dead. I was in jail for 18 hours before the authorities figured out I was innocent. But then they said my dog had rabies, so I never got that dog back. I just went home and that's why I don't have teeth now."
John also remembers the tête-à-tête he had with Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin passed down the cell row of a Dallas jail late one afternoon in November 1963. "I was in that place AWOL from a boys' home there in Texas. That Oswald, oh he was the quiet, spooky type. This was right after JFK got shot. I was just there, being innocent, but they had me in for a couple days for questions anyway. The guard came by with Oswald handcuffed to him, and Oswald stopped by my cell and he leaned in and he looked at me and he said, 'Boy, you'd better get home fast as you can.'"
John remembers when the doctors conspired to speed up time in 1967, and knows that this is the reason we are all exhausted now. He remembers when he stopped breathing forever in 1969, and the doctors declared him medically dead, a condition from which John has never recovered. He remembers tricks the mob used to play in Vegas back in the 1970s, how he had "several serious talks with them about who's really in charge," though it might cause trouble for him now to share any more details. It might, he says, get him in some real hot water.
John asks if he can have a cigarette and, with permission, quickly lights one up. He paces back and forth across the alley a couple times, leans his spine along the doorframe of the cinderblock building where he works most days, and fixes his gaze on the middle distance. Now, at 46, it's been over 30 years since he was first sent away to the boys' home in Austin, Texas. Back then, the diagnoses he was tagged with--mild mental retardation, indicated by an IQ of 66, and paranoid schizophrenia--carried with them a special kind of shame for families. For many kids like him, that first commitment turned into a lifetime as a ward of the state, locked behind bars, strapped in, drugged into stupor, shocked, socked away, forgotten. Such an arrangement was, in the mind of the times, the seemly thing to do--even, as some believed, the kind thing, like a mercy killing. John, too, was on his way to that fate, but then one morning he went AWOL (or, as they say in the social work field, he eloped), he had that little chat with Oswald, and then his mother flew down and brought him back home to Minnesota--and to an existence over the past 30 years that has been managed, both in and out of institutions, by a host of physicians, social workers, psychiatric specialists, and mind-altering drugs.
If you ask John for an explanation of his illness, he'll say that as a boy he was "just too slow for regular time, which is not my fault." He'll say that first trip to an institution wasn't so different from going to a Twins game with his dad--except it took longer to get there, and he went alone. Then, inevitably, he'll begin to clear his name--stressing that he never meant to do anything wrong, that no one explained things to him, as no one has been able to explain to him much of anything that's happened in the three decades since. So, he'll say, with a trace of agitation beginning to stutter his voice, you can see my innocence in all this... just a kid... couldn't stop them. It was during that first exile, he believes, that the doctors slid a steel plate into his head while he was sleeping, catching him off guard in the dark. The metal seems to buzz against his skull on humid days. He has to lie down and stop thinking in order to still the vibrations. They also put a special kind of skin on his feet, so that his soles bleed some mornings and make it impossible for him to walk. It's not John's fault that other people can't see his injuries.