Out of Characters

"You know," Rochelle goes on, "I just forgot about 'stop, drop, and roll,' since maybe I was in shock, like a weird dream. It was creepy. It was like my brain caught on fire too, and didn't work right."

Josie Rawson, August 30, 1995


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....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...."That Oswald, oh he was the quiet, spooky type.... Oswald stopped by my cell and he looked at me and he said, 'Boy, you better get home fast as you can.'" John remembers when the doctors conspired to speed up time in 1967, and he knows this is the reason we are all exhausted now. He remembers when he stopped breathing forever in 1969, a condition from which John has never recovered. He remembers tricks the Mob used to play in Vegas back in the Seventies, how he had "several serious talks with them about who's really in charge."

"What you've got to understand," John's job coach said the other day as we were studying his file, "is that, like anyone with severe mental illness, John Holtby exists as a creation of the imagination--not only of his own but of the social-work profession's. He's like this strange anthology with dozens of authors. Who knows what's at the core anymore?"

Josie Rawson, January 10, 1996


Many medical professionals believe that the dominant memories in Alzheimer's patients are often the ones that confer a sense of identity. Most of all, Murray Tate remembers the railroad.

Nearly an hour into one of our conversations, I ask him if the disease ever scares him. "No reason to be scared," he says. "I never paid any attention to it. Because when you are working on the railroad, you don't keep up with anything else. It's a one-shot job, more or less."

"Is it hard to remember what I'm saying?" I ask. "Sure it is. You've got three or four diesel engines. You're pulling 200 cars, keeping them in line all over the track."

Occasionally when he's lost, something will shock him back to the present. When I ask whether he has any grandchildren, he says, "No." No grandchildren? I repeat. "Wait a minute. What am I talking about? My boy has got a son and my daughter has got a girl. A lot of that stuff, you just get a glimpse of it and then you don't see it anymore. And I don't know what causes that. I don't know." It is the first and only time I see him angry.

Britt Robson, May 22, 1996

The word around the Bradshaw Family of Funeral Homes is that there are "no stoppers," nothing they can't or won't do. It was Bradshaw who choreographed the funerals, not only for Minneapolis and St. Paul police officers Jerry Haaf and Tim Jones, killed in the line of duty, but also for Jones's dog, Lazer. "Having the dogs at the ceremony, and police dogs lining the steps up to the cathedral, was an expression of who Lazer was," Bradshaw says.

Ann Bauleke, November 27, 1996


Part urban pioneer, part pirate, and part nomad of tar-and-concrete streets, a scrapper views the entire cityscape as an enterprise zone where anything is possible--even if it means defeating the laws of physics by fitting a 300-pound brass slab into a '78 Vega hatchback.

There's nothing safe or predictable about it. I've driven for days and found nothing, but also had the good fortune to chance upon recently demolished gas stations that put hundreds of dollars in my pocket in two hours' time. I've been sprayed in the face with Freon and ammonia gas, sliced up by jagged metal, and come close to being buried alive in several dumpsters.

This is a tough, risky job that can involve toxic chemicals and flying debris. However, the therapeutic value of bashing an old auto bank teller machine with a sledgehammer cannot be denied.

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