This country pretends we have no knife,
no guns in the bedroom, no large car for escaping
or crashing over hard hillsides or into houses.
We stuff our faces, blank as pills, with pills.
No one wants to open that book, but it’s a book.
On Saturday afternoon in New York City a sixty year old man named Gary Cabana, a former usher at the Nederlander Theater on West 41st Street who had become homeless after being fired late last year, entered the Museum of Modern Art in an attempt to attend a screening of Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, the screwball comedy classic starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. He was denied admittance by the MOMA staff — he had been notified his membership had been suspended for two prior outbursts — and left.
Moments later, he returned through the revolving door and rushed the front desk with a knife in hand, stabbing at the staffers repeatedly, injuring two who would end up in the hospital.
Cabana ran. And as one does these days when in the midst of a psychotic activity, took to social media to rant about the incident. He was found yesterday after midnight in Philadelphia, sleeping on a park bench near a Greyhound bus terminal, having been identified after setting fire to his hotel room a few blocks away.
Cabana’s social media prior to his latest rants was filled with depictions and reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater, commentary on art and history and movies, and could be interpreted, at least prior to the pandemic, as a relatively stable but lonely man making the most of life in New York City. But the pandemic brought on increased irrationality to his posts, which showed signs of severe mental illness. The idea that his access to the MOMA was cut off seemed to be the last in a series of rejections, each featuring escalating threats of violence:
Cabana sent a series of direct messages to a New York Post employee on Sunday night, in which he claimed he “lost it” on Saturday when the MOMA employees refused to let him into the famed museum to see Van Gogh’s masterpiece “Starry Night.”
He blamed the victims for the attack, saying they conspired with a woman named “Barbara,” whom he claimed lied to get his museum membership revoked.
“The stabbed girls were in on the BACKSTABBING too,” Cabana wrote in his message. “I don’t backstab, I do the frontside only.” …
“I was completely blindsided by the ‘letter’ from security without any meeting or consultation to explain my mental health situation and how important GREAT MOVIES are to my life.”
Cabana said security “just believed Barbara’s lies and booted me.”
On Saturday afternoon, he wrote, “When they said I couldn’t go upstairs to see STARRY STARYY NIGHT EVER AGAIN I lost it.”
In the days after the museum stabbing, friends of Mr. Cabana and residents of the Manhattan building where he was living described him as a longtime cinephile, an amateur reviewer of films and a reclusive neighbor who often kept to himself. But in recent years, some said, he had appeared to be navigating mental health problems.
Those issues seemed to be exacerbated by the widespread isolation that the pandemic brought on and the abrupt halt it caused to the rhythm of the city’s vibrant theater and arts scenes, some friends said. He worked as an usher for the Nederlander Organization, which operates several Broadway theaters, until November.
It was unclear what prompted his departure, though it appeared he left on tense terms. Mr. Cabana will also be charged with aggravated harassment for sending threatening emails to an official at a union that represents ushers, the police said, and with assault for punching an employee at a Broadway theater in January.
On the same day of Cabana’s arrest, another man, Gerald Brevard, was arrested in Washington, D.C. for a murderous rampage targeting multiple homeless people in New York and the District after an anonymous tip helped identify him. Brevard, who is the prime suspect in the killing of two homeless men and the injury of three others, began his killing spree March 3rd, shooting and stabbing a man before leaving him dead in a burning tent near Union Market.
DC Police Department @DCPoliceDept@NYPDnews @ATFHQ We need everyone to take a moment to watch the below video. This suspect is wanted in connection to 2 homicides and at least 3 additional shootings of homeless men in DC & NYC. Community tips help solve cases. Call (202) 727-9099/text 50411 with info. @NYPDnews @ATFWashington https://t.co/2kY3jXomSE
By Saturday, Brevard was in the Big Apple, where a security camera in Soho caught the chilling images of someone shooting a homeless man on King Street around 4:30 a.m., wounding the victim. The victim screamed and the gunman fled, police said.
An hour later, cameras on Lafayette Street captured him kicking a homeless man wrapped in a sleeping bag, before drawing his gun and firing — an execution at point-blank range.
“He looked around. He made sure no one was there. And he intentionally took the life of an innocent person,” Adams said.
The attacks had rattled people living on the streets in Washington, where the shooting spree began, and in New York, where a charged debate about how to address homelessness and mental illness emerged following a series of random attacks in recent months.
In the hours after Mr. Brevard’s arrest, his aunt Sheila Brevard revealed that he had himself been homeless off and on in Washington for years.
Mr. Brevard had a record of misdemeanors and felonies in Washington and Northern Virginia, including several charges of assault, according to court records. In 2019, he was found mentally incompetent after a court-ordered examination and was temporarily committed to the city-run Saint Elizabeths Hospital.
Mr. Brevard’s father said they kept him for a week, declared him competent to stand trial, and released him, over the elder Brevard’s objections.
“They said he was healthy so they let him out,” said Mr. Brevard’s father, 54. “I knew he wasn’t healthy. I know my son.”
The father’s frustrated attempts to get help for his son recalled the case in New York of a homeless schizophrenic man who was charged with pushing a woman in front of a subway train in January after he had cycled for decades through jails and hospitals. But in Mr. Brevard’s case, the victims were homeless themselves.
When we talk about the crisis of homelessness in America — whether through the lens of their violence directed toward law-abiding citizens and children, or the violence directed toward them — it is often done in a clinical and distant way. We prefer homelessness and the crowded buildings filled with stench and displacement are kept at arm’s length. But there seems little acknowledgement that in the past two years, overwhelmed as our services have been with pandemic challenges, that the crisis of mental illness and homelessness has gotten significantly worse.
The talk of “deaths of despair” does seem to leave something out about the Americans we are referring to — it seems to ignore that this crisis seems so much worse perhaps because we had gotten so good at hiding this despair as a culture. If your Soma was Netflix and video games, the pandemic was a depressing nuisance. If your drug of choice required you to go to a place and see a thing performed by real live people, then it became much harder.
As Walker Percy wrote in The Moviegoer, “people with stimulating hobbies suffer from the most noxious of despairs since they are tranquilized in their despair.” And in the same book: “Hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upsidedown: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.”
“Bipolar is a tough road to hoe,” Cabana wrote on his social media. “Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.” “Someday when all the lies are corrected by the Evil media, the Truth will out and I will be EXONERATED,” he posted on Instagram on the image of a program for a play about wrongful convictions.
He wasn’t always this way, of course. The NYT again:
A woman who said she attended college at Missouri State University with Mr. Cabana and remained friends with him said his behavior seemed to be reflective of deeper recent challenges and that he was not the “monster” some may believe.
The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she wanted to preserve her privacy, recalled visiting New York about six years ago and spending the afternoon at a film institute and in Times Square with Mr. Cabana. She said his compassion, kind spirit and unique sense of humor stood out from their interactions.
She said that she believed the case was illustrative of broader problems in how mental health problems were handled by society, calling Mr. Cabana one of the many people who slip through the cracks of the systems in place.
Ah, there are those cracks again, in those systems that are meant to play catch-all for the denizens of our society deemed too hard to rehabilitate or actually help. As William Voegeli wrote in The Pity Party almost a decade ago:
At the time when St. Francis impulsively gave his fine clothes to a beggar, nobody seems to have been very interested in what happened to the beggar. Was he rehabilitated? Did he open a small business? Or was he to be found the next day, naked again, in an Assisi gutter, having traded the clothes for a flagon of Orvieto?
As a people, we must eventually wrestle with the reality that at a certain point the systems can’t be blamed for the failure of neighborhood. The institutions and organizations that once provided a hedge against such decay are absent, distracted, overwhelmed, understaffed, or gone forever.
A society which allows its lowest rung to drift into the abyss, unknown and unloved, is simply biding time before explosions like the ones of Brevard and Cabana arrive at the doorstep of our most powerful cities — a kind of Gothic recrimination for the sins of the past.
In other areas of life, there is more hope. Schools reopen. Broadway has premieres. Spring is coming. But still, there is a nagging feeling as if the worst is yet to come on this front. The Soma of the pre-pandemic 21st Century covered up a great deal of despair. Now, and the mask is coming off. Dana Gioia’s “Sunday Night in Santa Rosa” comes to mind:
The carnival is over. The high tents,
the palaces of light, are folded flat
and trucked away. A three-time loser yanks
the Wheel of Fortune off the wall. Mice
pick through the garbage by the popcorn stand.
A drunken giant falls asleep beside
the juggler, and the Dog-Faced Boy sneaks off
to join the Serpent Lady for the night.
Wind sweeps ticket stubs along the walk.
The Dead Man loads his coffin on a truck.
Off in a trailer by the parking lot
the radio predicts tomorrow's weather
while a clown stares in a dressing mirror,
takes out a box, and peels away his face.
I hope I am wrong about this.