In my late teen years, my girlfriend Edy and I were not allowed at each others homes. Make of that what you will. So, we spent most of our time hanging out alongside a jogging path and workout course that wound around one of the urban creeks of Rohnert Park.
Among those we met there were Linda and Joel LaGrou. Joel was 7 or 8 years old and Linda was his 30-something mother. Joel’s mom was a student at Sonoma State University and a single parent. She was studying towards a Psych-Tech certificate of some sort, allowing her to work at Sonoma Developmental Center (Sonoma State Hospital).
Joel was whip-smart. I taught him how to play chess (not that I’m much of a chess player, as I don’t use or believe in en passant). In only a few games he was challenging my skill level and soon forcing stalemate and then beating me.
There were some times we lost touch for a year or two, but Linda did become a Psych-Tech and Joel did well in High School and took up saxophone.
We then lost touch for a few years… phone numbers and addresses changed… and I later re-met JL… when he was panhandling in Old Courthouse Square of downtown Santa Rosa. At that point Joel was going by the name of Smiley. I saw and spoke with Smiley over a few months in the summer of 1998 before he, again, vanished.
I’ve looked for my old friend many times. I’ve watched for him every time I am downtown in Santa Rosa. Frank Moraes, my wife, and the aforementioned Edy Giem have all heard me speak fondly of Joel—with not unfounded concern.
My search continued online. I found no record of his death (only that of his mom, Linda)… even looking for familiar descriptions in John Doe listings.
And, of course, there were attempts on Facebook. I was hoping he finally got SSI and was somehow online.
Today, Joel/Smiley/My old friend, found me…in a Dollar Tree store. I spoke to the odd looking person first. The stranger had an unusual assortment of items and I suggested picking up their new pack of mini screwdrivers, which the shopper found of great interest.
At the checkout, he asked me that thing my wife has grown to dread, “isn’t your name Will?”
He’s going by Joel again. He said the street name thing associates him with gangs, in the eyes of the police… and that police is something he has dealt with quite a bit, these past 15 years. Well, those were the intelligible things that were said. Lots of catch phrases and facial contortions I had known his mother to be plagued with… patterns I am familiar with through the multitude of mental patients I have met in my use of public transit. So, when Mr. LaGrou told me he has a place to stay and I am welcome to come over, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then again, when he led me to his home under a bridge, I was not surprised.
This story has a bi-line of the pending closure of the last of the mental hospitals in California. The facility here in Sonoma County, Sonoma State Hospital, is where Joel’s mother eventually worked and where he has stayed himself, from time to time. Now, those who are not judged dangerous enough to keep locked up (criminally insane) and who don’t qualify for group homes or independent living, may be driven to find their own bridge, gully, hovel, cardboard shanty…
I am not arguing that locking up men, who find themselves as lost in society as they are in their minds, is the answer or even an answer. I don’t think I can provide a weightful opinion in the matter. I just feel that such closures limits the levels and types of support and treatment that can be prescribed.
This writing and photos are included with verbal permission by subject himeself, Joel LaGrou. I love him, miss him and hope someday he is truly found.