They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha

I was riding high in the afterglow of a weeklong bacchanal as my new chum Martin and I headed down to Fort Lauderdale for one last spring-break hurrah. After a lunatic week of festivities, naturally, we were destined for the Mental Ward.

When we found the place just south of Ernie's Barbeque on Federal Highway, the Ward looked a little seedier than I'd expected — it definitely needed a fresh coat of paint, and the peeps loitering behind the unmarked hip-hop club next door seemed a bit shady. It was more like public health facilities than luxury institutional accommodations.

Inside, the neighborhood bar (formerly Alex's Tavern) was far from bedlam. True, the new owner had gone into loving (or perhaps obsessive-compulsive) devotion with the décor so that the place would live up to its name. Flooded with black lights, the manifestations of a paranoid mind — eyeballs and aliens among them — glowed where they were painted on the walls. Books on phobias I had to look up later (linonophobia, anyone?) hung above the bar around a giant red neon M. Nearby, the black-and-white-striped fans spun hypnotically.

Despite the digs, the place evidently had a mostly outpatient policy. But one obvious wacko, at least, remained — the guy behind the keyboards was playing "Just the Two of Us" with a big grin on his face as he changed the number to accommodate a song about a threesome. This was KJ.

"Tonight is slow," the buxom bartender in the black nurse's outfit shrugged, obviously having already dealt with that issue, finding it acceptable.

She administered a 12-ounce dose of beer to each of us as we reviewed the entertainment lineup, which we discovered was as changeable as a schizophrenic off his meds. Half the events had been nixed. Tonight's "Excommunizierten: a night for dark music — neo folk, military, ethereal, neo-classical, and dark ambient" (which we'd seen advertised on the web) had been 86ed for a night of musical "parodies ripped from the headlines."

"If you listen to Neil Rogers, you know my work," KJ said when he came over to introduce himself.

With hits like "Piano Lamb," a spoof on "Piano Man" in which the entertainer dons a full-head, plastic lamb mask, the 50-something performer definitely fit in. He jittered as if he were walking on an electrified floor, but he grinned like he'd just taken a handful of happy pills. Either way, the happy-go-wacky guy knew me by name, since as a maker of "musical news," he has to be a "news hawk." I didn't dare tell him that Night Rider wasn't exactly news — better to play to his delusions.

Excusing himself to "play all the sick shit that's locked up inside my head," he returned to the keyboards to play a song about "that female astronaut that wears diapers": a reinterpretation of a Sly and the Family Stone's song, which was reworded "Thank you for lettin' me pee myself, Depends."

Maybe he was aiming for shock therapy, but it was therapeutic in another way — a reminder not to take things too seriously.

The couple next to me also seemed to appreciate the utter ridiculousness of it all. And the fact that they looked out of place provided another reminder — that appearances aren't all they're cracked up to be.

"I thought they were here for a drug deal," Martin remarked later of the well-dressed couple.

But the bronzed goddess whose dark tresses danced over the slender straps of her sundress didn't seem to need a mood adjustment. She gave me a friendly laugh and KJ two thumbs up.

"This is hilarious! We've been here for an hour and a half!" she said.

Her boyfriend, a tidy business sort, laughingly interjected, "We were at Blue Martini before this," euphoric about both surroundings. Now there's a personality split for you.

"I saw the sign outside, 'We're all here because we're not all here,' and I had to come," he said. These were Chris and Lauren.

While KJ took a break from parody to sing the Mattress Giant jingle while holding his head inside a prop TV, Lauren wondered about the cookies he was passing around. "I took one bite and was like, 'These are the worst cookies ever. '"

Cookie-pushing KJ was soon thrusting cash from his tip jar at the bartender to buy Martin and me a round. I refused, but it was no use.

"Not to make you feel unspecial, but he buys everybody a drink," the big guy in the glasses said from the end of the bar. "If there's a homeless person outside, he'll bring him in and buy him drinks."

Evidently, this was an open meeting for wackos of all walks, and KJ was providing the refreshments.

"Who says the mentally ill can't contribute to society?" KJ asked rhetorically.

I passed it forward, buying drinks for Lauren and Chris, who, in turn, put money back in the tip jar (demonstrating that those of us who believe in karma aren't loony after all!) to request a song they could dance to. But first, we had to get through the current song, a pro-shiksa knockoff of "If you want to be happy for the rest of your life."

The entertainer asked into the microphone, "Martin, why are you enjoying yourself so much?"

I turned to see what was up. Martin had a goofy grin on his hairy face.

"He said schtup!" my friend said, giggling like a bar-mitzvahed Butt-head, admitting he'd dated enough Jewish girls to relate to the song's advice.

KJ found a way to relate to just about everyone.

"He's an equal-opportunity insulter," the big guy assured us as the piano man took his sombrero off the Ward's black-eyed, mental-patient mannequin to play "Illegal Latino."

Had he finished a few minutes later, things might have really gotten nuts, because not long after the song ended, two Hispanic-looking guys claimed seats at the end of the bar. When Martin asked about it, KJ insisted that he would have performed the song even if they'd been there. Probably because no one wants to mess with a crazy person.

When the insane entertainment ceased, it was so KJ could play the Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra that Lauren and Chris had requested. The couple began to slow-dance while another couple played glow-in-the-dark pool. In the lull, the big guy came over to talk. This was Anthony, the manager.

"The owner would kill me if I didn't tell you what else goes on here," he said, explaining that the Tuesday-night open-mic comedy and karaoke was a real hit.

"So this guy's act fits right in," I concluded.

"I like this guy — he's really funny — but don't call him a comedian; he'll go crazy."

I wondered how that would be different.

Taking us to the back room, Anthony showed us "The Sanitarium," where the walls are "padded" with a painted, pillow pattern and where the usual Friday- and Saturday-night band shows happen, including the usual weekend industrial scene. Did it draw a bunch of disturbed, antisocial types?

"They aren't scary kids — they're my best crowd," Anthony said.

As with Chris and me, Anthony had been attracted to the place by the name alone: "I was like, 'I gotta get in there: My people are there. '"

And as with Chris and me, the name appealed to our desire to belong, a secret need for group therapy — something the crazed KJ was evidently feeling too, since he was back and more excitable than ever.

"I'm blessed by God — I'm so blessed. I've never had to take a straight job," effused KJ, who lives in Wilton Manors with his wife and daughter.

"Are you on medication?" I asked when he launched himself into the air and attempted to swing himself around in a 360, stumbling through the last 20 degrees.

"No, I'm on wine... and marijuana," KJ corrected before bouncing away to pack up his gear.

The Ward seems to have found a prescription that works — the right mixture of meds, music, laughter, and acceptance. Personally, I was lucky enough to have found an on-call specialist, an MD (thanks to his initials) to supervise my week of restorative therapy. Now cleansed of the grit built up from everyday worry, I was ready to return to the real world.

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Marya Summers