Day after day, night after night, the desperate men come and sit in the black chair next to Charles Barber’s desk in a basement office at Bellevue and tell of their travails, of prison and AIDS and heroin, of crack and methadone and sexual abuse, and the voices that plague them. In the silence between the stories, amid the peeling paint, musty odor, and flickering fluorescent light, Barber observes that this isn’t really where he is supposed to be.
How this child of privilege, the product of Andover and Harvard and Columbia, came to find himself at home among the homeless of New York City is just one story Barber tells in Songs from the Black Chair. Interlaced with his memoir, and illuminating the nightmare of mental illness that gripped him after his friend’s suicide, are the stories of his confidants at Bellevue and the “mental health” shelters of Manhattan—men so traumatized by the distortions of their lives and minds that only in the chaotic aftermath of 9/11 do they feel in sync with their world. In the intertwined narrative of these troubled lives and his own, Charles Barber brings to shimmering light some of the most disturbing and enduring truths of human nature.
About the Author
Charles Barber is an associate of the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, Yale University School of Medicine.
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Songs from the Black ChairA Memoir of Mental Interiors
By Charles Barber
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2005 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSongs from the Black Chair
Amid the almost uninterrupted prosperous sheen of Midtown Manhattan there are small blemishes-especially the closer you get to the corner of East 30th Street and First Avenue, site of the Bellevue shelter and home of my black chair. Outside the gleaming multiplex theater on East 31st and Second Avenue, for instance, you might see a man speaking to himself. Or you might see another man looking extraordinarily disheveled, who just happens to be doing vigorous and manic pull-ups from the walk signal attached to a telephone pole. And the closer you get to the corner of 30th Street and First Avenue, the greater the incidence of untoward and inappropriate behaviors you encounter. You might see, for instance-as I did on my way to work at the Bellevue shelter one night-a man drinking a beer and pissing at the same time. Or you might have to step over puke on the sidewalk, not once but twice or even three times within the space of one block. Or you might see a relatively sedate and normal-looking person, quietly standing in front of a deli, scream out abruptly and with no apparent provocation, "I wish someone would just shoot me-now!"
The prosperous residents of Murray Hill-those occupants of the handsome brownstones and brand-new high-rises-earnestly join forces and make valiant efforts to ridthemselves of the repeated aesthetic insults that the endless stream of homeless men headed for the Bellevue shelter inflict on their neighborhood. The good citizens create "neighborhood coalitions" and "shelter task forces," and they put signs out on their sidewalks imploring passersby not to "water their plants"-that is, not piss on them. For years such organized opposition to the shelter has been going on, but to no apparent avail. Elaborate plans have been drawn up, and approved by the city government, to ship the whole operation out to Flatbush, Brooklyn, or some other suitably poor and downtrodden part of the city. Maybe the removal of the Bellevue shelter will happen someday, but for now it seems here to stay. The residents of Murray Hill seem unable to rid themselves of the shelter and its wretchedness. The vapors of homelessness seem to be permanently embedded in the landscape. But even if the massive, dark, gothic, ten-story, block-wide shelter were razed at some point in the future, and the site developed into one of those shiny apartment complexes, I think there would still be something not quite right about this place. Desperation will always be drawn to the corner of East 30th and First Avenue, and no amount of money or resolve will extinguish it.
The simple reason the shelter is so hard to extinguish is that it remains a vital and popular destination, at least for a certain type of tourist in New York: the homeless tourist. Twenty thousand men a year come to the shelter, for a night or for a lifetime. And about a thousand of those-those with psychiatric and pressing medical illnesses, the neediest of the needy, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable-are sent to see me and my team of social workers in our cramped back office for "assessment." What that really means is that we talk to them about what they're up to, and see what, if anything, we can do for them. (The men usually leave unhappy, because they don't generally get to stay at the Bellevue shelter but are shipped out to satellite shelters in the outer boroughs.)
A thousand men a year come and sit in the black chair next to my desk. They are between eighteen and eighty years old, usually black or Hispanic, usually with a psychiatric condition and a substance-abuse history (crack, heroin, and alcohol), often with a forensic history (usually released from prison that day), and quite often with a major disease. At some point, I always end up asking: "Are you hearing voices?" "What do the voices say?" "Have you ever seen things that other people didn't see?" "Have you ever tried to hurt yourself?" "Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself now?" A few times a month I hear responses like "I thought for about an hour today about jumping in front of the subway," or "I want to die," or "I can't tell you whether I'm going to hurt myself or not," or I am shown wrists that have recently been cut, or bellies and limbs and necks that have long scars in them. When I hear or see these things, I calmly tell the person in the black chair that I think he needs to go to the hospital in order to be safe. Almost always he agrees without complaint. I call 911 and write a note addressed to the attending psychiatrist, Bellevue Hospital emergency room, detailing my observations and an assessment of their mental status. Fortunately the hospital is only a block away. Within ten minutes, the police and EMTS arrive. "Good luck," I always say to the men as they are taken away. To my amazement, they almost always say, "Thank you."
For the records the staff and I are instructed to place the men we see into one or more of the following official categories of disability or distress, as promulgated by the city's health department:
SPMI (seriously and persistently mentally ill)
MICA (mentally ill chemical abuser)
Axis II (personality disordered)
Forensic (released from jail or prison)
Over 60 Years Old
Mentally Retarded/Developmentally Disabled
It's a nice list of bureaucratic categories, and it means nothing, really. I've created my own list. These, I've learned in my two years of sitting next to the black chair, are far more descriptive and pertinent descriptions:
The Travelers and the Wanderers
Guided by Voices
Waylaid Tourists, Usually Recently Robbed
"No English" and No Papers
Various Persons Destroyed by Alcohol, Crack, Heroin, or Other Substance
Alzheimer's Patients and Other Victims of Senility
Manic in America
People Who Choose to Live Underground and in Darkness
The Truly Weird, for Whom We Can Find No Category That Fits
But I keep all this to myself. I sit at the computer and duly check off the city's official list.
Of course, they are all travelers and wanderers. They come from Jamaica, Georgia, Colombia, Kuwait, Poughkeepsie, Italy, Oregon, Taiwan, Wyoming, Poland, Detroit, and Bosnia. And it is Manhattan-not Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx-that they want to come to.
* * *
Countless times I've been caught in the middle of this exchange: "Brooklyn! That's all the beds you got tonight? Just Brooklyn! Shit!!" they say.
"Yes, that's the only place there are beds tonight."
"Shit. I ain't going to no fucking Brooklyn! You sure that's it? Nothing in Midtown, or maybe the Wall Street area?"
"No. That's it. All we have is the shelter in Bedford Stuyvesant," I say.
"Fuck, if that's all you got, I'm leaving. I gotta be in Manhattan, man. Maybe I'll come back tomorrow night."
And they get up and leave, back to the streets or park or wherever.
I've learned that homeless people prefer to be in Manhattan, just like everybody else. At first I was indignant-these people are choosy about where they're going to stay? But I thought about it and realized that the sources of their livelihood, such as they are, are far more lucrative in Manhattan. Panhandling goes much better in Times Square than in Far Rockaway. The men tell me that if you do it respectfully and look decrepit enough-but not so decrepit as to scare people-you can make between twenty and eighty dollars an hour panhandling in a prime location in Midtown. They may be mentally ill, but they're usually not crazy: it's to Manhattan that the voices tell them to go, and not, for example, to Staten Island.
"So, why did you come to New York ... that is, Manhattan?" I almost always ask the people in the black chair.
Some of the answers I've heard over the years:
"Because Jesus told me to."
"Because someone was trying to kill me in Las Vegas."
"Because where I was staying they only let you stay in chairs, and I want a bed."
"Because when I got out of prison in Baltimore I read that Giuliani had brought the crime rate down so I decided to return to New York."
"Because this is where the bus brought me."
"Because I can get better health insurance here than in Puerto Rico."
"Because I can't find my way home. I left my house on Walters Street in the Bronx ten years ago and I can't find my way back."
"Because I'm John the Baptist-a truth serum given to me at Trenton State Hospital in 1969 proves it-and can you get me a bed near the St. John the Divine Cathedral because I have to go there and tell them I've arrived."
"Who said I was in New York?"
"Because when I was working on the chicken farm in Georgia last week, a voice told me to come here."
"Because I always wanted to see the Empire State Building."
"Because the people here are less crappy than they are in Florida."
"To compete in a karate championship."
"Because I want to open a blacksmith shop in Queens."
"Because my so-called best friend stole everything I had."
"Because I always wanted to go where no one would find me."
* * *
But even among the travelers there are the prodigious and ceaseless wanderers, those who are committed to motion as a way of life. Traveling around America-which in this case means visiting one shelter and soup kitchen and church basement and subway station and bus depot and abandoned building after another-is their profession. In the warmer weather, and even in the colder weather, a lot of them camp out, whether it is in Central Park, the woods of upstate New York, or the beaches of California. It doesn't seem to matter really where they are, as long as they can move away from it quickly. A lot of them are actually offered permanent or semipermanent lodging-halfway houses, community residences, and the like-and they invariably turn them down, preferring to move on to the next city. Their destinations are much like those featured in travel advertisements: New Orleans, Las Vegas, L.A., Hawaii, and New York.
There is a specific look to the professional travelers, instantly Identifiable-there is almost invariably a certain healthy and woodsy glow about them, no matter how high or drunk or crazy they are. They tend to have long straggly beards and wild eyes and dusty backpacks and sleeping bags. In the summer they wear as little as possible and have dark tans, and their hair gets blond from the sun; in the winter they wear layers of sweaters and have rosy cheeks. They are usually lean. A few of them, self-consciously or not, adopt the romantic trappings of the old hoboes. One night a man plaintively played a harmonica in the waiting room, entertaining his fellow way farers. Once I walked past Central Park and saw a group of hoboes sitting around and roasting marshmallows at a campfire, like something out of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The parallel universe of Central Park West and its fabulously expensive French restaurants, celebrity apartment houses, and endless plush medical-typically psychiatrists'-offices was just thirty feet away.
The shelter staff came to me one night, exasperated, saying there was a white guy somewhere in the building who had been eluding them for hours. The shelter workers had been trying to get his photograph and fingerprints-both required to enter the shelter-but this person, whoever he was, had been stealthily moving from chair to chair and room to room all night long. In other words, he was a traveler even within the confines of the shelter.
"Where is he now?" I asked the security officer.
"In the bathroom-we think," he said, and led me there.
The bathroom was a predictably dingy, rank affair, distinguished only by the curious fact that the dividers between the stalls were made of marble, with beautiful gray swirling patterns in it. On the marble was written, in magic marker and in huge letters, "Bums never have a nice day," and "Suck my homeless dick." The man sitting on the toilet had tousled reddish blond hair-lots of it-and a thick beard. He was rocking back and forth on the toilet, with his pants on. He looked, I thought, like a psychotic Viking.
"Excuse me," I said, "would you mind going to have your photograph taken in the screening room? And when you're done, would you mind coming to my office down the hall?"
"Oh yeah, sure, sure, sure," he replied.
I left there as quickly as possible, thinking that I had done my job for the night and that I would never see him again. But when I turned around a moment later, back in the office, the Viking was sitting quietly in the black chair next to me.
"What's your name?" I said.
"Leif," he said. It sounded Nordic or Danish, confirming my Viking theory. He probably would have been a great Viking, I thought; a few thousand years ago his wildness would have served him well. As I was contemplating this, he began doing a kind of dance in the chair-arms and legs and hands and head bouncing away, all of them flowing to different beats-and embarked on a rushed monologue:
"In case you wanted to know, I'm Norwegian, Ukrainian, Swedish, Danish, Irish," he began. "I've lived in Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, Oklahoma, all over Canada, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, but mainly I grew up in South Jersey. The malls suck there, you know? I slept under a car last night. I was in jail for a rape I didn't commit of my half sister. What else do you need to know?"
"Have you been in the shelter system before?" I asked.
He looked directly at me. "I need help. I need help! No one's helping me ... After I got out of detox," he said, and as he said it I noticed for the first time that his breath stank of liquor, "I didn't have nowhere to go. That's why I'm here. But not for long. Thinking of going back to Cheyenne. That was my favorite place. Happy there. That's where I got convicted of the rape I didn't commit of my half sister"-I noticed he used the exact same phrasing to describe the alleged crime-"and I want to clear my record. Clear my name!"
"Have you been in the hospital recently?" I said.
"I have very bad nerves," he said, not exactly to me but, it seemed, to something beyond me a general statement to or about the world. "VERY BAD NERVES," he added for emphasis. "You know who helped me! The nuns helped me. The nuns were fucking AWESOME!" he shouted to the ceiling, and then smiled broadly.
"Do you take any medications?" I said.
"I brought it all on myself," he said. "Nobody's fault but mine." He stood up and produced from his pockets a series of smudged and torn-up hospital papers. The papers said that he had been in a hospital in Maine and before that a detox in Providence and before that a psychiatric hospital in Kansas and before that a rehab in Oregon, and that he had severe diabetes, a seizure disorder, and bipolar disorder. The medical diagnoses surprised me, in a way: he had that healthy look of the travelers, that unworried and rural look that made it seem that at a moment's notice he could set off on a fifty-mile hike in the woods.
Suddenly he lurched forward in the chair and thirty syringes fell to the floor. They seemed to have fallen out of his red sweatshirt, but from where exactly, I couldn't tell. He picked up the syringes, one after the other, and stuffed them into his pockets and what seemed like a pouch in his sweatshirt. As he picked up the needles, he kept on talking, not stopping for a second, about nuns, disputed rapes, Cheyenne, and bad malls in New Jersey. At one point he took out a thick wad of bills, again from some mysterious place on his person. "See this!" he said, waving the money right up to my face. "It's chump change, and it means nothing," he said, and immediately went back to picking up syringes. Finally he was done, and I got him to sit down again.
Excerpted from Songs from the Black Chair by Charles Barber Copyright © 2005 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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