4. Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital
4. John Franklin Bardin was a nearly forgotten master of intense and imaginative psychological crime fiction. His masterpiece, The Deadly Percheron, published in 1946, features very large horses, ersatz leprechauns, and a harrowing visit to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital at First Avenue and 30th St.
Even reading the words “harrowing visit to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital,” conjures the memory of childhood fears; my mind no longer my own, trapped in a straitjacket, leather straps holding me down in a padded room, forgotten or pitied by my friends and family, being wheeled out for electric shock therapy to try and exorcise the inexplicable demon in my head. Back then I wrongly viewed mental illness as a bright line, or a dark one, that one crosses, never to return.
I grew up in Brooklyn, where Bellevue was the ultimate slang symbol of insanity. My grandmother was obsessed with a show called The Honeymooners. I still remember this clip between bus driver Ralph Kramden and his wife, Alice, who tells him, “I call you killer, because you slay me.”
“And I’m calling Bellevue,” he says, “cause you’re nuts.”
Bellevue is the country’s oldest public hospital (with a history to match), and it doesn’t turn anyone away. It’s known as the hospital for the poor, uninsured and homeless, but the emergency facilities are famed as the city’s best, according to David Oshinsky, who captured the hospital’s fascinating story in his book, Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital.
“Should the pope or the president get sick in New York City,” Oshinsky said, “Bellevue is the place where they would go in an emergency. In that sense, it’s extraordinary.
A couple of months ago, I found out a permanent shelter is opening in my neighborhood, two blocks away in what was a new boutique hotel. Over the summer, an Upper West Side shelter triggered an uproar. People are worried, even those who understand the need to offer shelter. I called the city to find out more. I learned a lot, including that the location of the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital is now a shelter for nearly 800 men.
I walked over to the location, and saw this sign in the window of Bellevue Hospital, where my friend Dr. Mike Natter worked throughout our horrific NYC Covid spike, when the streets were gray and empty, punctuated by sirens transporting patients to the city’s hospitals. I checked on him every day. He was my lifeline during the worst days and nights, and even while struggling to maintain his own health and get enough sleep to save lives, he drew pictures of his colleagues and wrote about their hard work. It was Mike, ARTIST, HUMANIST, DOCTOR, who inspired me to start drawing again.
He wrote a letter to Bellevue to mark three years.
“I’ve been honored to take care of those who came through your doors, regardless of ability to pay or citizenship status,” Mike wrote. “You have taught me so much more than medicine. You taught me humanity. You gave me many firsts. My first blood draw. IV insertion. First 28 hour call. My first chest compressions. My first violent patient. My first bathroom cry. My first patient who thanked me with hugs and tears. You’ve dealt your share of heartbreak. Loss. And death. And with each experience, you gave me lessons learned.”
“Despite all the history and wisdom embedded in your brick and mortar,” he wrote, “what truly makes you Bellevue are the people inside. These individuals are your beating heart from the tall prison doc who would call you up to the prison and insist on you referring to yourself as Dr. Natter, to the discharge pharmacist who would always seem to be yelling at you but would catch all of your mistakes and had your back each time.”
He goes on to describe more characters, the manager with the booming voice who says “good morning, baby,” the program director whose leadership and character he aspires to emulate, the chief of medicine whose presence feels more like a loving parent who has a real penchant for the Mets, his co-residents who supported and carried him through some of the longest nights of his life.
All this, before Covid.
Bellevue was the picture of perfect autumnal peace from beyond the gate. Flaming scarlet and gold trees lit the afternoon.
A sculpture in the center of the walking path contains a quote from peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh.
To be beautiful is to be yourself.
One thing I’ve learned from this project is that the city itself is a book filled with hidden sentences and images for us, waiting to be read.
When I turned to go, I saw a man down in the street, almost invisible from where he lay next to the iron gate around a tree in front of a cafe. People tried to help him but he refused. I learned, when I called to find out more about the shelter going in near me, that people experiencing homelessness need an average of about twelve interventions from the city before they can build a sufficient level of trust to seek shelter. In these moments, the hazy boundaries of what we think is real and the realities experienced by other people blur.
My walk to Bellevue turned into a meander around the city, to Union Square, where tensions between police and protesters escalated in the days before the election and where people are still gathering to demand justice and a safe transition of power.
Just as Bellevue is about the people inside, so is our city, both real and imaginary, filled with one of the most diverse populations in the world but also, with leprechauns and a percheron and a character who thought a man named Joe gave him a flower to wear in his hair. A percheron, by the way, is a horse that provided power to build and feed nations before motorized trucks and tractors were ever invented. They lost their utility in our chaotic world, and there’s a lesson in that for us, too.