The theater and lit worlds suffered a great loss this week with the passing, Tuesday, of Elizabeth Swados, 64, a prolific writer and composer of groundbreaking, socially conscious musicals like “Runaways” and a collaboration with Garry Trudeau on a production of “Doonesbury.” She was the author several novels, memoirs and children’s books.
But long before she wrote about her own mental illness, Swados wrote about her brother’s. In an excerpt from her memoir, The Four of Us: The Story of a Family, which appeared in The New York Times Magazine in August 1991, she told the story of her brother, Lincoln, who suffered from schizophrenia, and died homeless in New York City in the late eighties.
Several months before my brother’s housing crisis reached its peak, I was walking down Broadway on my way to a Korean deli. I saw two derelicts seated in the middle of the sidewalk. They were dressed in layers of rags and having a heated argument about Jesus Christ. One of them had paraphernalia spread around him in a semicircle, as if to sell his wares. But none of his rags or rusty pieces of metal or torn papers was a recognizable item. He wore a jaunty cap pulled to one side, and there was tinsel in his filthy hair. His face was smeared black. A few steps farther along, I realized the “derelict” was my brother. I leaned down next to him, softly said his name and waited. He stared at me for several moments and didn’t recognize me at first. When he finally saw that it was me, he let out a cry like a man who’d had a stroke and couldn’t express his joyous thoughts. We embraced for a long, long time. His smell meant nothing to me.