On Henry Darger

Nathan Lerner

I saw Henry Darger every day for about twenty years. A shuffling old man, a recluse who never had visitors except for a rare visit from a priest. He lived in a single, large room that he had rented in 1932. The room was filled from floor to ceiling with the debris of his scavenging. He would take long walks in order to gather his amazing collections, and at great distances from home he could be seen poking through garbage with his cane, looking for his treasures. Crucifixes, broken toys, old magazines, scores of used eyeglasses repaired with tape, dozens of empty bottles of Pepto Bismol, hundreds of balls of twine that he made by tying small pieces together; the list was endless.

Every morning at 7:00 he would come clumping down the stairs on his way to breakfast and early Mass. In the summer he wore old shirts with the sleeves crudely cut off near the shoulders and you could see a long, frayed shoestring tied at one end to a trouser belt-loop and at the other end to a torn wallet in his picket. In the winter, all of this was covered with his World War II army coat that came all the way to his shoe tops. If it was very cold, he would add a kind of fisherman’s cap with long ear flaps. He would rarely speak to anyone, but if spoken to, would respond politely always about the weather.

Little did we know that so much of his internal life was taken up by weather phenomenon of catastrophic proportions. I also recall that he wore eyeglasses held intact with lumps of surgical tape; at times, he would go for weeks wearing a single shattered lens.

It was often hard to believe that Henry was alone in his room. He was remarkable mimic and sometimes there would be an animated quarrel going on between a deep gruff voice, which was supposed to be he, and a querulous high-pitched voice, which was supposed to be his superior, a nun, at the hospital where he worked as a menial. Among his mysteries he claimed to be Brazilian; once, at a birthday party I gave for him, he suddenly sang what he said was a Portuguese children’s marching song, and he marched as he sang. Nobody there knew Portuguese, but we were all convinced. At other times he would sing strange songs, perhaps in Portuguese, inasmuch as he claimed to be Brazilian.

In the years that passed Henry somehow seemed almost a part of the building. He came and went almost unnoticed. He never had any visitors. His strangeness became familiar and accepted. For his neighbors there grew a feeling of affection and protectiveness for this grumpy old man who never smiled. His paranoia for privacy was respected.

For many years after an accident at the hospital, Henry had suffered with a lame knee, and when he finally became too feeble to climb the stairs he asked me to find a place for him to live in a Catholic old people’s home.

This I did. On a freezing cold day, Kiyoko walked Henry on the ice to the Little Sisters of the Poor which was about 3 blocks from our house. After a couple of visits, Henry was accepted. The next day Henry left the room he had lived in for forty years. It touched my heart to watch him as he left the room. He took nothing with him except for his clothes; his long eared cap, his greasy World War 1 army a coat, his shabby shoes. He looked around the chaotic room through his taped glasses with the shattered lens and walked out of what had been his life.

In his childish obscure way, he did sometimes show some feelings of gratitude. On Holidays, he would push a card under the door. It might be a Valentine’s card he had found. He had scratched out the valentine and wrote marry X’mas. Once he gave me some cigars that I smoked with great apprehension.

When I visited Henry in his new unfamiliar alien a clean space with its polished tile floor, television and talking people, Henry would be sitting in a corner alone, motionless, his head on his chest. He would barely glance at me. I asked him ---------

Often, I would visit him amidst the alien, clean, polished tile, the television sets, and the talking people. Henry would sit in a corner alone, motionless, his head on his chest, a shrunken figure completely remote and apparently frightened. He would barely glance at me and after a few visits I don’t know if he even recognized me. Seemingly, he left his life behind in his room, for he died within a few months.

It is a humbling experience now to have to admit that not until I looked under all the debris in his room did I become aware of the incredible world that Henry had created from within himself. It was only in the last days of Henry Darger's life that I came close to knowing who this shuffling old man really was.

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