Mark V: The Opera
A new graphic novel project by Derek Lamson
The Gadarene Demoniac, Autobiography, and Eugene's Whiteaker neighborhood
Today in Eugene, Oregon, my old hometown, people’s sense of community is severely stressed by homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health disabilities, sometimes afflicting ourselves and sometimes our family or neighbors, and all around us. While many of us are employed and do have places to call home, many of us also have very thin margins of financial safety; many are only one or two paychecks away from financial trouble; our credit is expensive and maxed out; and we’re fearful of medical expenses, car trouble, rent hikes, and getting old. We pass the homeless army begging on our sidewalks, so much worse off than we are, and whether we volunteer or not, help or ignore, give or don’t give, many of us see clearly how little real space there is between “us” and “them”.
And this was all 'normal' before the pandemic.
None of this is news to modern Americans, none of this escapes us, none of this is getting fixed anytime soon. And these too are the gnawing anxieties of the main character in my story, a reasonably normal middle-aged man, a school teacher, and currently unemployed.
He’s a substitute teacher, really, and newly moved back to his old home town of Eugene after decades away. In my story, he escapes from his own jobless anxieties into daydreams of producing a grand opera from the New Testament story of the Gadarene demoniac, that classic drama of schizophrenia, homelessness, and redemption. While he has a great imagination, he also knows he has no such operatic capability. Still, he can’t get it out of his head: it seems sometimes he can almost see the lights and hear the music.
As he bikes around Eugene, (visiting his old working-class / hipster Whiteaker neighborhood, checking in with family, registering with the unemployment office), and as his story develops, we begin to see other converging factors in his life contributing to his operatic daydreams: including his fragile recovery from alcoholism and drug abuse; and how for him, Eugene’s current homeless problem evokes his own vivid memories of being poor in Eugene during the Great Recession of 1980, and even selling his own blood plasma then. When a meeting with his sister downtown is utterly disrupted by a brutal encounter with a frenzied and naked schizophrenic, he finds himself escaping off alone to Eugene’s Pioneer Cemetery at midnight, to ask the advice of the ghosts of his ancestors: when hard times came, how did they deal with the poor? How should he? And he does meet the ghosts of his ancestors, and some advise him to grim intolerance: drive them out, they say, drive them away. Others say no, the price of your humanity is what you give to those in need.
In his fantasies he compensates for his jobless anxiety by imagining himself as famous (and rich): the author/librettist of a successful grand opera about the Gadarene demoniac, envisioned by him as a national hit show, and a current touring production at Eugene’s Performing Arts Center; an opera about a desperate schizophrenic outcast, healed and redeemed into health and sanity. Someone a little like him.
In the story, compassion wins in the end, and he begins to help the homeless in his path. He stays sober, and he takes a low-wage gardening job for the summer. His “opera” does finally get produced, though as a simple no-budget community theater piece presented outside in the park, by Eugene’s very own proletarian, and fun, Roving Park Players. The story is autobiographical and fiction, and built on many elements of my own life, including the very rough summer of 1980 in Eugene’s working class, hipster, poor Whiteaker neighborhood.