Billie Boggs used to be a bag lady—although she preferred the term “professional” street person. She slept in front of a vent outside a New York restaurant, ran out into traffic, screamed obscenities at passersby, and defecated in her clothes or on the sidewalk outside the Chemical Bank. She begged for money, then burned it or threw it away; she frequently assaulted her benefactors, especially old people and black men (she herself is black), chasing them with her umbrella and shouting racial epithets. Then, one day late last year, her career was interrupted by city workers (as part of Mayor Koch’s program to get the homeless off the streets) who tried to have her committed and treated for mental illness. Therapy is the liberal solution to everything.

It was not long before the New York Civil Liberties Union was in court demanding that Billie (AKA Joyce Brown—she took her present name from TV talk show host Bill Boggs, whom she idolized) be left free to pursue her “alternative life-style.” Judge Robert Lippman was mightily impressed with her, finding her possessed of “a sense of humor, pride, a fierce independence of spirit, [and] quick mental reflexes.” Indeed, he suggested, we all would do well to take a page from her book; burning money, for instance, “may not satisfy a society increasingly oriented to profit making and bottom line pragmatism, but it is . . . consistent with the independence and pride she vehemently insists on asserting.” The judge allowed that to those of us bound by “conventional standards” she “may seem deranged,” but to the judge, “she may indeed be a professional in her life-style.”

Released from the institution, where she had kept her skills sharp by continuing to chase people and holler at delivery men, Billie has since gone on to the academic life, delivering lectures at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other law schools. It is only a matter of time before she will be transmitting her professional knowledge to a new generation of students and faculty. The judge was right: Billie is too sane to be kept in an asylum; she belongs in the university. (MK)