Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA/EUREKA – Waving from behind the wheel of his sleek white Lotus Elise, he’s the dapper, dashing young wizard in his powder blue stage tuxedo, headed off to dazzle eight-year-olds at a birthday party.
Ask Shantaram the Magician how he made that coin disappear, turned a handkerchief into a flower, or how he could possibly have known what card you picked, and you get a broad, beaming smile.
“Believe,” says the magic man, a twinkle in his eye.
Not any more. These days, Shantaram Jones lives among scattered homeless camps in the windblown badlands at the foot of Eureka’s T Street, underneath the Samoa Bridge. His ill-fitting clothes are dirty, his beard is long and scraggly and his once-bright eyes are clouded with madness.
The dynamic young man who can still be seen on YouTube performing feats of illusion and amazement now can’t feed himself. Last week he turned up on the “Humboldt Thieves” Facebook page, caught filling his pockets with stolen peanut butter cups for sustenance at a mini-mart.
It’s a hard fall for someone who rose from unimaginably desperate straits to a vibrant career as Arcata’s town magician, only to fall victim victim to adult onset schizophrenia. Today, Shantaram has lost his car, his home, his business, his career and, by his choice, his family – basically, everything.
Shantaram came to America from India via the International Mission of Hope. He was adopted by Terry and Debra Jones, now residents of Bayside. They wanted a large family, but Terry is “a zero population growth kind of guy,” so after having two girls, the couple adopted two boys from opposite sides of India.
Shantaram is from Calcutta, and his brother Niranjan is from Bombay. The Joneses moved from Eureka to a comfortable, tree-ensconced home along Jacoby Creek where they raised their four kids.
“It’s been a blessing and a heartache,” Terry said.
Things were rough for baby Shantaram – “Shan,” as he’s known to family and friends. At six weeks old, he weighed just four-and-a-half pounds. “Failure to thrive” was the diagnosis, owing to his premature birth and the harsh circumstances of his infancy.
But the Joneses love and nurturing would save the boy, and give him back the life he almost lost.
Shantaram’s childhood was as rich in bountiful Bayside as any Jacoby Creek School student’s might be. He was an unremarkable but not bad student. He had hobbies and interests, and did fairly well socially.
“He was popular,” Terry said.
“He was always happy and smiling,” said Debra. “In a geeky, goofy kind of way.”
Young Shan was active in the 4-H Club, and liked chickens so much he was briefly known as “Chicken Boy.”
Technology was to prove a lifelong interest, thanks in part to Terry, a ham radio enthusiast. He helped Shan put together a crystal radio for a JCS science fair, and it was labeled “Talking Rocks.”
At home, Shan was a busy boy. He liked to bake, and busied himself with little jobs around the ’hood – mowing lawns, cleaning houses. Basically, he was a good kid. “He was thoughtful and caring, and did little things for people,” Debra said.
In retrospect, though, his parents recognize the seeds of dysfunction emerging as he entered adolescence. It was an obsession with self, and with a certain image he wanted to project. “He became more and more narcissistic,” Debra said. “Looking back on it, we can see it.”
At Arcata High, he was “high energy, but a little short of focus,” his mother said. He had friends who were girls, but no girlfriends. “He never had a romantic relationship,” Debra said.
Shan attended Humboldt State for a time, majoring in communications. But cognitive impairments, including an auditory issue, stifled his achievement there.
Instead, he found fulfillment in magic. Adept at feats of illusion and great at snappy patter, he became locally popular as Shantaram the Magician.
He parlayed that success into the purchase of Hutchins Grocery in Northtown, and by all appearances was on his way up. He drove a succession of flashy sports cars, getting a new one every year – a Nissan ZX300, a Mazda RX8 and the sexy Lotus.
His father gave him a reliable Nissan Maxima, but it “didn’t fit his image,” Terry said. His dad found out that Shan had sold it, having been taken advantage of by a local car dealership which paid him only $350. Terry went there and demanded that they sell it back to him for the same amount, got the car back, and it remains in use by the family.
“He was impulse driven,” Terry said. “He couldn’t save a penny. He was talking about buying an airplane.”
Shan’s career was at a fork in the road, which might have led him to the lucrative and glamorous career he wanted. “He had aspirations of becoming a professional cruise ship magician,” Terry said. “Maybe get a job in Vegas.”
Image was everything, but behind the façade, Shantaram’s life was beginning to unravel, personally and professionally. The store was mismanaged and failing. Hutchins ran out of merchandise, because Shan had no money for it.
“He thought everything in the cash register was his,” Terry said. “He didn’t think about things like PG&E, or the lease.” The employees were paid though, his father believes.
Terry urged him to take some business classes at College of the Redwoods, but Shan declined for image reasons. “He thought it would make him look stupid,” Terry said.
His dad helped him out by clerking on weekends, but Shantaram limited the assistance. “He didn’t want me in the store,” Terry said.
The decline of Shantaram
One day the Lotus’s oil pressure light came on, but Shan ignored it and kept on driving and the engine burned up. The credit union later reclaimed the vehicle.
Eventually, Shantaram lost the store, too, leaving him with debt he had no ability to repay.
By 2010, Shantaram’s illness was becoming increasingly serious. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and some associated maladies, including Tourette Syndrome. His executive function – the mind’s ability to organize thoughts, reason, problem solve and plan – tested as that of a 13 year old.
“He’s just not able to think things through,” Terry said.
By 2012, Shan was fully in the grip of his illness. He channeled other people, and as is not uncommon among schizophrenics, there was a technological spin to his delusions. He would speak as Nikola Tesla, or Bill Gates, even Adolph Hitler. He said Steve Jobs was his father, and Osama bin Laden his cousin.
“He started pulling away,” Terry said. “Toward the end, he plunged into his illness,” Debra said.
One day in the kitchen, he told his mother that “Obama wants you dead,” and pushed her down. She struck and injured her back on a granite countertop.
“He was deteriorating really, really rapidly,” Debra said.
He could relate to the parents, but often through the alternate personalities. To communicate with Shan, they had to ask which intermediary was present at the time. “Am I talking to you, or is this Hitler talking?” Terry said. “He’d say, ‘This is Hitler or Bill Gates, telling you what to do for Shantaram’.”
He was getting arrested and “5150’d” – deemed a danger to himself and others. As the disease escalated, he was committed to Eureka’s Sempervirens Psychiatric Health Facility. But that was just a way station, one easy for Shantaram the practiced illusionist to game by bamboozling the psychiatric staff with his well-practiced patter.
“”He can hold it together for 20 minutes, a half-hour,” Terry said. “I don’t know how hard he has to work at it.”
“It’s a revolving door for psychiatrists at Sempervirens,” Debra said.
Soon though, his “mental helpers” – the historical luminaries who populate his mind – take over again.
After a court hearing, Shan was transferred to Bridge House, a halfway house offering supportive living to adults with mental illness. There, he took classes on cooking, shopping and other life skills. He was granted Social Security Disability Insurance, with his father in charge.
“I was still his guardian, and managed his money,” Terry said. “He didn’t like that.” Shan designated the county Public Guardian’s Office as his payee, taking his dad out of the loop.
He was prescribed medication for his problems, but allowed to self-medicate. Not uncommonly, those with mental disabilities stop taking the meds, and slide back into the abyss. His father believes the dirty street cannabis he uses exacerbates his mental distortions.
Terry set his troubled son up in a transitional apartment, but that didn’t go well either. Transients took it over.
“I went to the apartment one time and there were all these meth-heads in there,” Terry said. “I said, ‘Who the hell are you?’ ‘His friends,’ they said. All his stuff had been stolen.”
Consistent with some of his previous dealings, Shan was unable to distinguish between friend and rank exploiter. “He’s so trusting,” Terry said. “Everyone is his friend.”
One Christmas, family members from near and far gathered at the Bayside home, bringing practical gifts of clothing and other items for Shan. He stayed away – probably out of pride – so his father later took the presents down to him at Bridge House. “He gave most of it away,” Terry said.
The cycle of commitment, release, arrest and re-commitment has occurred three times now. Shan’s parents are frustrated.
“The system doesn’t seem to be working as well as it could,” Terry said. “There ought to be a better, more humane way to do this.”
He doesn’t mean to finger point. “I’m not even saying it’s their fault, but something isn’t working right,” he said. “It’s a system problem.”
At the same time, Terry traces the deficient state of the present-day mental health system back to 1967, when then-Governor Reagan made forced institutionalization more difficult. As president, Reagan loosened restrictions on state block grants, effectively slashing federal funding for mental health programs and beginning a long-term trend toward deinstitutionalization.
Unwell people were left to fend for themselves on the streets, and like Shantaram, swelled the ranks of those processed through the criminal justice system.
“Even Reagan said, ‘That was the worst decision I ever made’,” Terry said. But the legacy lives on in today’s system, and in the stigma that hangs over mental illness.
“I think the state needs to revamp their programs,” Debra said. “These are not people who choose to use drugs. These are people who cannot feed, clothe or take medication themselves.”
Terry is dismayed at the shame and blame still associated with mental illness. “I don’t know why we treat that as a bad thing,” he said. “You don’t get down on someone who has chickenpox.”
The Joneses are but one of many families coping with mental illness. “Unfortunately, we are not alone,” Terry said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
The “Humboldt Thieves” post described Shantaram stealing candy, and Terry thinks he knows why. “I suspect he was caught shoplifting because he spent his money on lottery tickets,” he said. That’s how Shantaram plans to relaunch himself – through a big lottery win.
Like many of those who live on the wild waterfront, Shan uses the Humboldt County Library for Internet access and probably as a daytime refuge. He maintains an active online presence, with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. On the Quora website, he posts “Shantaram’s Cryptic Tales,” sci-fi/fantasy fiction which he describes as “a unique blend of stories for all ages.”
Spotted at the library by an old friend last Thursday, Shantaram smiled briefly in recognition, and even extended his hand for a fist bump. But his face suddenly clouded over, and he turned on his heel and walked off, refusing offers of food and appeals for conversation.
“I don’t talk to anyone,” he said as he descended the library steps. “Take it easy.”
Other than in an online rogue’s gallery, Shan’s parents haven’t seen him since June. Driving in Eureka one day, Terry spotted him along the roadside and quickly pulled over and parked. Walking back to greet his son, Shan spotted him and scurried away, refusing contact.
Shantaram won’t let the Public Guardian share information with his parents, who are helpless to give him the aid he desperately needs. “We would help with clothing and feeding him, but we just don’t know where he is,” Debra said.
“I would like my son to sign a release of information so I know where he is,” Terry said. “He has siblings who love him and care about him.”
Terry and Debra wish Shantaram understood that there’s no need to be ashamed, and that they don’t want to control him. Like any parents, they simply yearn to be part his life and help him get by.
“I want to continue to be his father, not his inquisitor,” Terry said.
Given Shantaram’s current condition, the Jones’s friends sometimes wonder if they regret adopting him. “People ask us, did we make a mistake?” Terry said. “No. He did a lot of good.”
They’re not about to give up on their tiny baby, the busy, bright boy who turned into a talented teenager with grand dreams, and who served as Arcata’s own magic man.
While mental illness is as real as a fractured skull, the parents know the voices it generates are as illusory as the tricks that Shantaram the Magician once used to hold children spellbound.
“I realize it’s not my son talking,” Terry said. “There’s a fantastic kid in there.”