My Week at the Psych Ward

Recently a close friend of mine asked me to write up his week long “experience” at Mount Sinai’s Clark 8 — a cryptic name, right? not at all descriptive — but what most of us would call a psych ward, or perhaps the loony bin. After a couple of talks, I tried to do so as best and faithfully as I could, but, it really didn’t satisfy either one of us. What he most wanted to convey was his feelings about the whole experience, not something that read like a neophyte reporter’s “sociological” account, which, I must admit, is how it first came out.

Psych Ward.jpg

So we made a somewhat weird and counter-intuitive decision: I would write it up in the first person, still (largely) in his own words but as he painstakingly recounted it to me without himself having to put pen to paper. So there is no “he” here — it’s all “me” and “I.” My friend has read this new version and is completely happy with it, although I’m not sure that I am, having heard the whole harrowing (and really pretty funny?) story straight from the horse’s mouth. Consider this, then, a kind of slightly edited — but not embellished — Studs Terkel-type interview, minus the interviewer. OK? (Ed.: Admittedly I added a few editorial asides, in bold italics, which he’s approved, too. It helps, I think, if you know that my friend considers himself a “public intellectual without a public,” as he often says.)

Clark 8, or Welcome to the Hotel California

How I ended up at Clark 8 — what I did to end up there — I don’t think important enough or even relevant to specify. After all, there’re lots of different ways to land in the loony bin, as I’ve now learned. I will only say that I never meant to hurt anyone but myself: Not much of an excuse, I see that now in retrospect, but then you always hurt the ones you love, the ones you shouldn’t hurt at all (courtesy Fats Domino). This is not meant in any way to escape responsibility for my actions.

I know what I did to get there, but couldn’t tell you a thing about getting there. I just woke up the next morning in a hospital bed, drugged up and mostly drugged out. “How do you feel, Mr. Jones?” (Ed.: An unashamedly pedestrian pseudonym.) “Damned if I know, except not so good.” (At least that’s what I intended to say but even I could tell it didn’t come out quite right.) It never occurred to me to ask where I was, and if I had and they had told me “Clark 8” it wouldn’t have meant anything to me, anyway. But I knew this was no ordinary hospital. I’ve been in hospitals several times for different operations and ailments and this was clearly not an ordinary hospital.

I was mostly comatose the whole of that day and, by the evening, when I had regained some clarity, at least enough to talk a bit, my roommate — since he once called himself an Average Joe, let’s call him that — told me i was in the Psych Ward: “Welcome to the Psych Ward!” I asked him what day it was — “Saturday,” he said, “you picked a bad day to get here.” “How come? What’s wrong with Saturday?” “‘Cause, my friend, there are no doctors here on the weekend, you can’t get out without seeing one and you won’t be able to see one until Monday, if you’re lucky then, and no way you’d be be getting out of here on Monday, anyway, ’cause they have to diagnose and then observe you, see how you respond to the treatment. You’ll be on God knows what kind of meds all weekend so you might as well roll over and go back to sleep. The RNs will wake you up every once in a while, take your blood pressure and give you more pills. So just relax and we can talk more tomorrow.”

Average Joe was right, of course, and so there’s no point trying to tell this story day-by-day, since all days in Clark 8, except the aforementioned weekend, when you can’t see a doctor, are exactly the same. The only inevitable and somewhat predictable events are breakfast, lunch, dinner, Visiting hours, and Movie Night (which is every night), and everything else here is either erratic or completely unpredictable (even to the authorities, the docs, RNs, assistants!) So you have this weird combination of a little certainty with massive unpredictability. My first day in Clark 8 was about as uneventful as could be: Pills and blood pressure, just as Joe said. Sunday was only a bit different — I still mostly drifted in and out of sleep but in lucid moments I learned a lot from Joe, particularly that since I had not voluntarily admitted myself — that is to say, that I had been involuntarily committed — I had no say whatsoever about getting out. (To be fair, I had been in no condition to voluntarily admit myself.) “Nobody gets out of here until the doctors and Social Workers say so. Maybe you’ll see them tomorrow [Monday] maybe not, all depends on their workload, I guess. I’ve been here a few days now and I haven’t seen anybody. I have no freaking idea why I’m here. I hope you do.”

By the end of the week, Joe and I were calling the place Hotel California (Ed.: courtesy of the Eagles): “We are all just prisoners here of our own device…. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

So, yeah, I mostly slept, and so did Joe, for that matter, because he was getting sedatives, too. In fact, I assumed he slept more than I did, since most every time I woke up, he was asleep, an easy to make but elementary-stupid deduction. Turned out, as his meds got changed, he had a really difficult time sleeping. One morning I got up to pee and wash off as best as I could: We resorted to a larger version of baby wipes, because we had no shower curtain and, effectively, no shower, just three tiny nozzles spitting out jets of ice cold water. Anyway, that morning I noticed that three of four things opposite our “shower” that were completely inexplicable to us, (some relic of past Psych Ward torture, perhaps) and toilet, little round chrome pieces on the wall that reminded me only of the perfectly round, smallish breasts with aureole and nipple that you sometimes see in Cincquecento Italian paintings. I left them there on the floor and Joe told me later that day that he had awoken sometime in the middle of the night — BTW, there are only a couple of wall clocks at Clark 8 and you’re not allowed a watch of any kind, so you never know on your own what time it is — and had unscrewed them from the wall but would screw them back on later if he could. Pretty fucking crazy, I thought then, but as the days went on I realized, no, not crazy at all: What the fuck else do you have to do in Clark 8 in the miserable middle of the night when you can’t sleep? Why not see if you can disassemble these weird little things that are just stuck there in the wall?

Clark 8 is laid out like a plus sign and it’s not particularly large, so walking for exercise or just to kill time is both weird and ineffective: How many times can you walk down a hallway, turn around, go back, turn right or left, turn around, go back, repeat, repeat, repeat?  There are windows at the end of each hallway but they’re either frosted so you can’t see out or, if they’re clear, just look directly into some other side of the hospital where there’s nothing to see but more frosted windows (or clear windows and, believe me, nothing to see in them, either). At one end of the plus sign is the Day Room, which (of course!) is locked most of the day, except when there are classes underway — more on classes later — or later in the evening for Movie Night (which, again, is every night, although there are only three movies, a Harry Potter, a Star Wars, and some straight-to-cable [and perversely ultra-violent!] crap starring a bunch of B actors). There’s also an Activity Room in which there are no activities of any kind except a television tuned to channel seven (Ed.: the ABC station in New York City). If you ask a nurse or admin to change the channel for something, anything else, the invariable and unanswerable reply is: Well, you’d need to have a remote to do that, wouldn’t you? It’s actually just a spillover room from the Dining Room that’s also kept locked except during and immediately after meals, LIVE with Kelly in the morning and ABC News after dinner. (I never wandered in there after lunch, so I don’t know what plays then.) There’s a Nurses’ Station or Administration Office where you can go to try to shot the shit with anyone on duty who’ll put up with you for a few minutes, or perhaps to ask when you’re getting your next meds, the answer to which is, usually, Soon, don’t worry, we’ll find you. 

Sooner or Later…

For all the reasons mentioned above, time moves verrrrrrry slooowwwwwwly in the loony bin. One morning after I had finished breakfast — it was probably just a couple minutes after 9 then — I sat on my bed and tried to read the Times — I was a lucky one whose wife brought me the paper every day, although by the time I got it and could read it, it was already yesterday’s news. (BTW, the only newspaper available to Psych Ward patients was the Metro, a free and worth-every-penny of it rag you pick up in the subway.) And another BTW, you aren’t allowed any electronic devices, so no phone, no laptop, no Kindle. You’re allowed small paperbacks if your visitors are willing to bring you some, but no hardback books, presumably so you don’t attack a fellow patient with one or try to commit suicide by banging one against your head. I was thinking of asking my wife to bring me a nice fat paperback of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire just to see if they’d let me keep it.

Reading anything is difficult here, however: You might be awake but you’re still affected by all the meds — I mean everyone is on some kind of sedative or antidepressant or other kind of drug that, let’s say, slows you down, so it’s a slog to get through even a couple of articles or pages. Plus, one of the screamers is always nearby outside your door — not that a screamer has to be nearby, anyway, in Clark 8 — and the screaming obviously starts to drive you crazy. (I’ll talk more about the screamers later.) And the nurses made clear, by always opening closed doors, that they should never be completely closed: The doors have mirrors on them where you’d expect glass, so that the nurses, etc. can check in on you with the door half open, where it’s supposed to be.

Anyway, that was exactly my situation one morning; I was plodding word-by-word through an article, the screamer was driving me nuts, I couldn’t concentrate, so I got up and walked around, and around, and around… The screamer finally shut himself off for the moment, and I came back to my room, read a few more articles, dozed off for a while, woke up, forced myself through a couple more articles of the Times, and thought, Good, must be real close to lunch by now, which could be anytime after noon; and not that I wanted the food, I just wanted the time to go by. So I walked down to the Nurses’ Station, where there was a wall clock: It was 9:45. I had just killed 45 minutes in what felt like three hours. This never really changed much, even after I got to know quite a few of my fellow inmates, uh, patients, and could manage conversation. (The majority of patients were incapable of communication, either because they refused to, were too drugged out to even try, or wanted to talk but couldn’t manage coherence.)

Most all of us wish to have more time, wish we could somehow buy time — wouldn’t you buy time if you could? Well, you can get a lot of it for free at a Psych Ward, way, way more than you could ever figure out what to do with. The Psych Ward is the epitome of nothing to do, and all the time in the world to do it. You can’t really say the problem is boredom: Boredom is way too wimpy a word to describe “spending” time in a psych ward; despair is more like it. And if you think that’s hyperbole that’s only because you don’t really “spend” your time there at all; you just endure it; you can’t give it away; you beg for something or someone to take it away from you, and nobody or nothing does.
I was supposed to have one doctor assigned to me, but because, I guess, of they themselves being pulled here and there by circumstances beyond their control, I actually had visits from three different docs (four visits in total, none lasting more than a few minutes and none in private, despite the posted Rights of Patients; same with Average Joe: I was present in our room during all or certainly most of his doctor visits. Neither of us had a modicum of privacy). I had learned early on, or just intuitively grasped, that you don’t seriously question your doctor during his rare and inevitably brief visit (or the nurses, either, for that matter): He asks the questions; your job is simply to answer and to do so in your best positive, upbeat, optimistic way — that’s  Rule #5. (Yep, there are Rules and we’ll get to the rest shortly). But during one visit, while, gee, what a surprise, one of the screamers was out in the hallway doing his thing, I did dare to question why there wasn’t some way to either better treat these people or at least, let’s just say, segregate them from those of us who don’t ROUTINELY GO STARK RAVING SCREAMING MAD IN THE HALLWAY FOR HOURS AT A TIME. Doc replies: I can’t really discuss treatment with you since that’s my patient and I have to respect his privacy. (Oh, great, bring up privacy in this completely non-private meeting.) OK, fine, I can understand that, I say — although I can’t understand it at all; he’s personalizing the screamer, not me, and he’s totally evaded the question of relative degrees of craziness (which could be nothing more than odd quirks and/or odd circumstances of behavior) and crazy and profoundly disturbing behavior, such as, say, SCREAMING FOR HOURS in a hallway.
(Sorry for another digression, but speaking of privacy: You have none. Aside from the circumstances just mentioned, consider Visitor Hours: You are guaranteed private visits, according to Rights of Patients, but all visits are are expressly forbidden in your own room and held only in the communal Day Room. Your “private” visit is sitting at a cafeteria-style table next to a bunch of other “private” visits. You can always whisper, I guess, or pass clandestine notes…)
So, I ask the Doc, when can I get out of here? “Oh, well, that depends… Sooner or later.” And both his stern look and tone of voice make it clear that I am not to ask the obvious questions: Depends on what? What’s sooner and what’s later? (Hint: There is really an answer: The Five Rules. (Ed.: He’s coming up to this in just a bit; have a little patience.)
Later that day, or perhaps the day after, I attended one of the “voluntary” classes — I’ll explain later why that’s in quotes — this one on Psychotherapy of all things, and in reply to the question of any particular frustrations we might have, I suggested: Sooner or later; just how evasive and duplicitous can you be? How are we to respond to that as an answer to the rather crucial question of when can I go home?  The Group Leader, or whatever she was to be called, agreed that that was indeed a frustrating kind of thing but offered no solution to the quandary. I am proud to say, however, that I became at that moment the proud author of a Clark 8 meme, which I heard repeated in various tones of irony by my fellow inmates many times later in my short stay.
Hey, some of these people weren’t crazy, and some were crazy smart and talented. There was one young lady, let’s call her Jewel, who was unprepossessing at best, slovenly and stupid-looking at worst. Mostly you knew her as the girl who was perpetually asking you for some sweet she had spied, which you weren’t ever to give her because she’s diabetic. But it turned out that she carried a tablet with her, writing poems throughout the day that while not, say, A. R. Ammons-caliber, were at least as good, most of them better, than those the Times publishes weekly in Metropolitan Diary. She was also an accomplished pianist and has, I’m told, a beautiful voice, though I never got to hear her sing. We also had a self-described physicist and former NASA engineer. Well, at least he said so…

The Five Rules

 I know you’re not supposed to bury the lede (Ed.: for those not conversant with journalistic lingo, burying the lede can be defined as beginning a story with details of secondary importance to the reader while postponing the more essential points or facts), and I apologize for all these digressions, but I promised some detail on screaming, and this seems an appropriate time. Screaming goes on all the time in the Psych Ward; it can happen at any time, day or night, but it happens multiple times every day. But it doesn’t happen like you see it in the movies or on TV shows, where somebody goes nuts for a few seconds and screams, say, Where am I? Where am I? Where am I? OK, that dramatic moment has been established, and now the storytelling goes on. That’s not the way it works in a Psych Ward. In a Psych Ward the Where am I? is more like WHERE AM I? And it goes on and on and on: It’s not WHERE AM I? three times; it’s WHERE AM I? three hundred times.We had one guy screaming this very question the better part of one morning and afternoon, literally hundreds of times. Only later that evening did he switch to WHERE IS  MY FAMILY? — also at least a couple hundred times at full volume. The next day he switched again, this time to WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER? And that continued much of the day and night. (This guy had tremendous stamina; he continued screaming all of the third day as well.)


It’s still amazing to me that someone could go on for so long, and so loudly, screaming the same thing over and over and over again. Indeed, it struck me as a kind of weird talent that psychos can develop. You know the little game of asking someone to repeat the same words over and over again: Every “normal” person will start screwing up, say, eleven o’clock, after at most a couple dozen times; it doesn’t take long for eleven to become, say, eleben. Not the screamers, though; they can manage perfect repetition of their question, demand, or statement at full volume for a good 10 or 15 minutes at a time. Then stop for a couple minutes and pick it up for another 15 minutes. Then stop again for a bit and pick it up for another 15 minutes. It’s enough to drive you crazy in the Psych Ward…

There are also intermittent screamers. We had a couple of these, including one woman, let’s call her Franny, grossly overweight and on a diabetic diet, who would start screaming I’M HUNGRY for minute after minute immediately after finishing her every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That kind of gets on your nerves, sure, but nowhere near as much as her other usual scream, STOP SCREAMING AT ME!, which she might direct at anyone at any time who happened to annoy her for whatever reason.  Imagine this particular screaming on a loop, as the American Military is said to use the sounds of a baby crying on an endless “noise stress” loop tape as an instrument of torture. Then try listening to someone screaming STOP SCREAMING AT ME! a few dozen times in a row a few times a day with, again, perfect articulation, and see how you feel.

One of the odder examples of intermittent screaming came from a middle-aged white male patient, who always introduced himself politely as Samuel, but whom all the nurses, assistant nurses, etc., and fellow patients called Bob. He seemed to have a particular habit of picking out certain people — the one with whom he interacted, or tried to, most assiduously while I was there was a young Chinese student at Columbia named Lin who liked to play the piano as a means of calming her nerves (and did it very well; it was a pleasure, completely unexpected, to listen to her) — yes, we had a piano in the Day Room. One evening there, while Lin was playing away, another patient sat down next to her, and Samuel (Bob) immediately jumped to her side as her protector, screaming, GET AWAY, LEAVE HER ALONE — holy shit, a two-clause scream, a novelty here — which caused enough consternation that our supervising nurse — you can’t be in the Day Room without a supervising nurse — felt compelled to call in some muscle, a couple of Black guys, upon which Samuel (Bob) began screaming at them: NIGGER, NIGGER, NIGGER, NIGGER, NIGGER, on and on, over and over. But when I was expecting a race riot, nobody blinked an eyelash, not the patients, not the muscle guys, nor the (Black) nurse. Apparently the Psych Ward is one place where racial epithets don’t matter, don’t even really register — a truly racially-blind utopia (or dystopia!) I began to fantasize: What if I started screaming CUNT, CUNT, CUNT…? Of course, I’d eventually get hauled away, like SamBob, but would I witness before that all the women, color-blind and in harmony, join together to beat the shit out of me… or would there be the same deaf and dumb acquiescence?

Of course, I also wondered why in the hell they couldn’t efficiently, swiftly, and similarly, take care of the WHERE AM I? WHERE IS  MY FAMILY? WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER? guy in the hallway…

OK, on to the buried lede: There is in fact an answer to Depends on what? What’s sooner and what’s later? It’s the Five Rules. I learned these early on, actually, although not formulated as rules so much as an extended off-the-cuff comment from a young lady whom I had congratulated when she told me she was “leaving” early in the afternoon — a successful escapee!. When I asked what were her secrets of success — I was really being facetious because I didn’t know at that time that there were any such things — she very casually said: “Well, eat your food, take your meds, take at least two classes a day, don’t fight with the other patients, and don’t fuck with the doctors.”

I didn’t really take all this in at the time, certainly not as true Rules. After all, this was a very impromptu conversation with a girl I hardly knew, and had talked to only because previously we had shared “Hi” and “Hello” in the hallway once before — a small but rare evidence of mutual sanity and non-hostility. (Customary reaction to “Hi” in the hallway was complete non-recognition, complete incomprehension, or mumble-mumble-mumble. Most folks in the Psych Ward are incapable of or unwilling to socialize, so I thank the Higher Powers that I had Average Joe as a roommate.) But over time I did codify these off-the-cuff remarks into Five Rules, and here they are:

Rule #1: Eat Your Food. Imagine you’re married to a nutrition and diet expert; s/he prepares you perfectly balanced, nutritious meals: a protein, a vegetable, a starch, appropriate condiments, and everything in just the right amount. This is what you get for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the Psych Ward. Now imagine airline food. Now imagine food that’s twice as bad as airline food —  food so bad that you would not only trade for airline food but beg for it. That’s also what you get in the Psych Ward: Food that has been brilliantly conceptually designed but, by the time you get it, tastes like shit. Yes, it’s cold, and everything you’re eating is meant to be eaten hot or at least warm. But that can’t be the whole explanation: There seems to be a series of disconnects between the nutritionist’s brilliant design and the “food” as it is actually served on a tray and has to be eaten.

First couple days, I simply couldn’t eat this shit. Of course, I was drugged out of my mind, but even in that state I instinctively knew that this should not (could not?) be swallowed. Undoubtedly I earned a few demerits, but eventually I caved: (Oh, and more later about “caving in.) I got hungry, I had to eat something, and this was what there was to eat, so I ate it. Of course, it’s not easy to cut up a turkey cutlet, tasty or not, with a plastic fork and spoon, but then you aren’t allowed a plastic knife. On the theory of… what exactly? Why a plastic knife is potentially more dangerous than a plastic fork is beyond me, except if what you’re trying to accomplish is reduce both the efficiency and dignity of your patients.

A couple other things bothered me: The nurses checked what and, especially, how much, you ate. Not much, not good: Demerit. Cleaned the (plastic) plate?: Gold Star. I became a Gold, or at least a Silver, Star Eater (and at least a Gold Star spoon-meat-cutter): I always brought back a “light tray.” I didn’t enjoy this, but it was Rule #1: Eat your food.

Whatever was on the tray, however, that wasn’t eaten (with the exception of milk and juice and (sometimes) fruit (apple or banana) was trashed. (Joe loved fruit, so I usually saved mine for him.) Evidently hospitals are exempted from NYC recycling laws, so meat, vegetables, potatoes, rice, whatever, was simply dumped with everything else: plastic implements, plastic plate and covers. And so much dumped there was uselessly wasted, especially unopened sugar and salt and pepper and maple syrup and grape or strawberry jelly packets. I saved my maple syrup packets for Frannie, who liked to drink them —I’M HUNGRY! I’M HUNGRY! I’M HUNGRY! — although I did have ethical qualms about giving them to a diabetic: But, hey, then she didn’t scream at me, she left me alone. Once I did use a whole packet to manage to get down a portion of (I’m sure, nutritious) oatmeal, which I hate but, hell, I got it down.

Rule #2: Take Your Meds: You do have a certain degree of freedom of choice when it comes to food — you can “order” the next day’s soup, say, instead of meat, and of course you can choose to eat as much of it as you like (but not too little) — but there is no choice when it comes to your meds. You don’t question, you just tilt the meds cup with its pills into your mouth, take the offered water, and swallow. One evening when I was to be given an unprecedented baker’s dozen of pills, I foolishly revolted and said I wanted to know which each and every pill was. OK, nurse said: “This pink one is EGDSFOFDJGFHKL…; the big blue one is your ZKDHCOFJKFGT…; the white one is ASPDOHDFNTHYI…; the little green one is…” OK, I said, I get it, took the med cup and swallowed them all down. This is a fight you can’t win, can’t even discuss, and can only hope that you are getting appropriate meds in appropriate dosages at appropriate times.

Rule #3: Take at least Two Classes Every Day: Classes are given by very well-meaning outsiders but, boy, are they meaningless (except insofar as they fill up little parts of your day.) I took one class is which we practiced throwing one ball to a fellow patient, working up to six balls going simultaneously around a circle to each designated receiver. In another class I learned how to turn a scarf-like material into a… scarf, and later into a free-form expression of emotion; that was undoubtedly a boost to my mental health.

In Class.jpg

In another class, the one on Psychotherapy I mentioned earlier, we were asked to introduce ourselves to the leader and one another: Oddly, each patient introduced him/herself not by name but by diagnosis: I’m Bipolar; I’m a Depressive — Bipolar was most popular for whatever reason — because in the Psych Ward you are not, apparently, you, but your diagnosis. I was next to last to self-introduce and simply followed the others, assuming that this was what was expected: “I’m a Depressive” (I had to guess, since no one had told me what I was.) Average Joe was last and broke the routine with the simple declaration, “Sometimes I think I’m the reincarnation of Christ.” OK, that’s strange, I thought, really, really strange, since I’d had not the slightest hint of anything like religious mania out of Joe. Later I realized this was a sly act of rebellion — and also a reaction to the fact that Joe truly had no idea how or why he had landed in the Psych Ward — oh, and in its humor, a strong sign of mental health! — but humor, sarcastic, ironic, whatever, isn’t appreciated here any more than is questioning your meds or not eating your food. I’m sure Joe got a demerit for that.

Rule #4: Don’t Fight with Other Patients: This would seem to be pretty obvious, but not so to a lot of the patients. There were plenty who could and did unexpectedly fly off the handle at the slightest thing: a look, a word, a movement, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary. This was a easiest rule to obey, at least for me. I wasn’t looking for any kind of confrontation. (Although I sometimes did long to strangle the screamers.) Point is: Fighting could and did break out unpredictably, anywhere, anytime, for any “reason.”

During my stay in Clark 8 the single predictable source of “fighting” — we’re always talking mutual shouting back and forth here, except for a rare instance when a couple blows were thrown — was Roberto’s hogging of one of the two computers in the Day Room as his personal Karaoke machine. “Thirty Minutes Per Person” was the rule that Roberto broke any and every time the Day Room was open. You’d think the computer was not only his personal machine but also one that could play nothing but ’80s and ’90s YouTube videos. Aside from his hogging, what disturbed most of us (all of the ambulatory non-comatose) was Roberto’s “habit” of partially undressing  himself while dancing and prancing around to his (loudly-played) videos. The shirt would come off to be put back on after the supervising nurse’s command, one time after another: pajama legs — oh, did I tell you that most of us were in flimsy hospital pjs most of the time? —  rolled up to show off, I guess his calves and lower thighs — this, too, over and over. Despite the nurses’ stern disapproval, and eventually a petition written and circulated by Lin to shut him down, Roberto’s manic behavior never altered. Maybe he’s happy to be in the Psych Ward, for where else could he indulge himself to his favorite music stripping for a captive audience?

Rule #5: Don’t Fuck with Authority (the Doctors especially but also the Nurses and Social Workers): This, too, pretty much went without saying, or at least became obvious quickly. No matter how perfectly you were following the first four rules, you weren’t going anywhere unless and until the doctor said so (with, presumptively, input from the RNs and Social Workers). But following this rule wasn’t easy, if only because you never knew when or where a doctor might turn up to speak with you. But when one did, whatever else was happening with you then or just prior now became  irrelevant: He speaks, you smile, listen attentively, and when he asks if you’re feeling anxiety — which is, of course, your constant state in Clark 8 — you know to say, No, I’m doing fine, Doc, gee, thanks for asking, I’m taking my meds, eating a bunch, I’m great, doing great. (‘Course he probably doesn’t believe you, psycho.)

The Social Worker is a big deal, too, and she, too, comes and goes as she pleases (at least from your perspective; undoubtedly she’s being pulled and pushed from circumstances beyond your ken). I had one visit from my Social Worker, lasting less than a minute: She could not manage to get out even one complete question or statement to me because our WHERE AM I? screamer was blasting on at full volume and she had already had enough: “I can’t take this” was all she said as she hastily left. Yeah, I thought, I KNOW how you feel…

Anyway, just don’t mess with the Man. It screws you in the long run and provides little comfort in the interim. You can ask the most perfectly logical question, you can make the most perfectly logical suggestion, but it’s to no avail: The doc parrots back PROCEDURE and PROTOCOL (whatever it happens to be in respect to your question or suggestion), and there are no heights, or depths, to his dissembling in “answering” you and re-establishing PROCEDURE and PROTOCOL. If you fight with another patient, you are just the bigger idiot for fighting with the village idiot, but if you “question” your doctor, you are Winston disobeying Big Brother’s law and order and you are destined to take the big pipe.

So, you cave; you cave to eating the inedible food, cave to taking the always mysterious medley of meds, cave to showing up for and “participating” in kindergarten “classes,” cave to virtually isolating yourself lest you inexplicably end up “fighting” with  a fellow patient, and above all you cave to Authority. This may be the most insidious aspect of spending even the most minimal amount of time in the Psych Ward: You can’t get out if you don’t give up.

But it’s actually worse than that: After giving up, giving in, guess what? The food becomes okay, you get it down, you’re not hungry any more. The meds, well, they slow you down, but in doing so you really lose the energy to question them, you just get used to them and you are, indeed, fine with them. The classes? They kill time for you, which is precious because, as I said before, you have nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it, and you even end up having a little “fun” (however imbecilic it may seem).

The Five Rules do work; ceteris paribus, following them will get you out of the Psych Ward: But you begin for the first time to really understand the Stockholm Syndrome, because, guess what, you’re feeling it. You begin to identify with your captors. (And “captors” is not hyperbole: You’re legally in their custody and care, and while your Rights of Patients say you can fight for your release, just try it and see how far you get.)

Hell, stay in Clark 8 long enough and you may not really want to leave: Per, once again, Hotel California, “We are all just prisoners here of our own device…. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”


Posted in New York City, Personal, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Farm on Staten Island — Nonfiction by Robert Iulo

  On their first Easter on Staten Island, my grandmother insisted her brother and his new wife come to Manhattan for dinner. She didn’t want them to be alone for the holiday on what she consid…

Source: The Farm on Staten Island — Nonfiction by Robert Iulo

Posted in Uncategorized

The Caring Internet

Yes!, despite all recent evidence to the contrary, there is a caring Internet, an Internet “more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before,” as John Barlow Perry long ago declared in his, uh, “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” There indeed yet remains an Internet that reminds us more of the promise(s) foretold during those dark days of the mid-90s — yep, they, too, were dark days — by Chris Locke and his collaborators in the Cluetrain Manifesto, than the Internet portrayed, neither inaccurately nor spitefully, by Farhad Manjoo in his recent NYT column:

Wouldn’t it have been kind of a pleasant dream world, in these overheated last few weeks, to have lived free of social media?…. Your social feed has always been loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly, but this year everything has been turned up to 11. The Islamic State’s use of the Internet is perhaps only the most dangerous manifestation of what, this year, became an inescapable fact of online life: The extremists of all stripes are ascendant, and just about everywhere you look, much of the Internet is terrible.

Yeah, so indeed we face the hilarity of Hillary and The Donald suggesting that it might be kind of a good thing if we could just sort of, you know, shut down the Internet, or at least the bad parts of it — neither of course able or even attempting to articulate just how we might intelligently discriminate between the bad and the good parts or exactly how we would go about doing the shutting down.

Well, Farhad, I feel your pain — and your exasperation, at both the real world events — “Terrorism, intractable warfare, mass shootings, a hyperpartisan presidential race, police brutality, institutional racism and the protests over it” — and the Internet’s “escalating, infinite loops of 140-character, knee-jerk insta-reaction.” Yeah, just like reading the NYT every morning, it really does seem lately that “much of the Internet is terrible” and much of the world is fucking terrible.

Much of the Internet is terrible, though? How exactly do we quantify this, since we are talking about the Internet, after all, which is figuratively, if not literally, unquantifiable? (Maybe the Internet is literally quantifiable by, say, IBM Watson, at particular microseconds, but who really cares about such an academic exercise?) I maintain there is still very much alive and kicking a Caring Internet, and I give you here its (or her) picture:

Aged Hippie.jpg

Okay, it’s not an official portrait of the Caring Internet, nor even of that (relatively) teeny-tiny 33 million+ member part of the Internet that goes by It’s just a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait/caricature (My Page Billboard) of one of those 33MM+ members and one of the couple hundred or so people that I interact with daily on the Internet on the Care2 site. She’s one of my “friends” or what I choose to call my social friends; we’ll talk later about this admittedly ungainly construction. Let’s call her Roxy, a name I’ve made up just this moment, for the purpose of this post, since I have no right to call her by her real name, if indeed the name she uses on Care2 is her real name at all. Some people don’t use real (people) names at all, and some don’t even bother with an avatar. I, for one, do use my real name on the site, though you can also find me there by my avatar, Spike of Broadway, may he RIP.

I’m not a real sociologist of the Care2 community, nor even a pretend one, but I assure you that Roxy is representative of much of the population I encounter on the site, over which I range rather freely (and, as I’ve said, daily. First, Roxy is female, which seems to be true of all social networks. (A real sociologist told me that.) But Roxy is also let’s say in her 60s and is or was or still somehow strives to be a Sixties’ Hippy. She loves Peace and music and animals.

So Care2 skews female, Boomer, and sorta-kinda lefty. Of course, there are plenty of guys on Care2, and guys and gals in their 20s, 30s, and so on. (A noticeable minority says they are 115 years old, and those who do so invariably identify themselves as female, for what that’s worth.) And while (based on server names) the site seems to have originated and operates in Australia, it also skews North American. Still, I have Care2 friends of all ages from the EU, Nordic countries, the Balkans, South and Central American, South East Asia, etc., etc., too many countries (and even counties) to name. Care2 is as global and stubbornly local as Facebook.

Of course, you don’t need to have “friends”or socialize in any way on Care2. Care2 is a click-to-donate site, transparently and unapologetically “supported” by advertising, lots and lots of relevant and irrelevant advertising: Click to donate to a cause — Rainforest, Big Cats, Animal Rescue, Stop Violence (Against Women), Oceans, Children, etc. — and the identified advertisers promise a micropayment for that click. A cheap easy way to feel good about yourself, to be a no-sweat activist for your cause(s)? Sure, that’s one way to look at it, not exactly inaccurate but, oh, somewhat cynical and decidedly judgmental. Maybe you actually do other things for your causes besides click-to-donate…

Hey, and as you click-to-donate, you earn Butterfly Rewards, or credits, which you can then redeem for: humanely raising animals, planting trees, feeding kittens, saving turtle-hatchlings, all kinds of do-good feel-good things. (A cheap easy way to feel good about yourself, to be a no-sweat activist for your cause[s]? Sure, that’s one way to look at it…) You can also earn Butterfly Rewards by reading articles (“We write over 50 stories a day ranging from animal issues to human rights to healthy living tips and so much more”); sending birthday greetings to your friends on the site (Because “You’ve brightened someone’s day and made the world a better place” — okay, hippy-dippy, but would you say inaccurate?); and of course signing (and creating) Petitions. So you do stuff on the site, which is satisfying in and of itself, and you earn rewards which you can the “turn into meaningful gifts” to the causes you care about. More on this later.

But to me the most interesting, and satisfying, thing about Care2 is the befriending business. I actually came late to this part of the community — for years I just did the click-to-donate and petition-signing, same as with other similar sites, but eventually I began getting “friend” requests — indeed, like Facebook, and I was equally suspicious — but, as with Facebook, I was too much the gentleman to turn them down. And, unlike with Facebook, I didn’t even remotely “know” any of these people, which was actually a big plus. As I accumulated Care2 friends, I also began receiving Green Stars:

What is a Green Star? It’s a simple “Thank You” from a Care2 member. There’s no need to respond. The sender is simply acknowledging that you’ve made a contribution to the community. Green Stars may be sent because you made a good post in a discussion forum, or because you took the time to make your personal profile interesting, or for a thousand other good reasons.

Unlike Butterfly Rewards, you can’t do anything with Green Stars, except just count ’em up, I guess, although the site already does that for you. But I found that once you start getting Green Stars, you want to give them as well, and I now freely, but with discrimination, do. There’s a virtuous reciprocity here that is functionally similar to but emotionally wholly different from the cluster-fuck vituperation that Farhad finds characteristic of our loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly social feed that’s making so much of the Internet terrible. I don’t want to sound like Johnnie Sunshine here, but “much of the Internet” is not terrible. Depending on where you go and what you do and with whom you associate, “the Internet” can indeed be terrible, but it can also be thoughtful and caring and impactful. Care2 is just one small but not inconsequential example of the latter.

But back to the friend thing on Care2. I get “friends” on Facebook; these are people who know you, or once did, in some manner, and whom you know or knew, even if much of the time you might struggle to remember exactly who, what, when, where, or why you knew this now friend-seeking person. It might even be that the only thing you do remember about this person is the single simple fact that you’ve always avoided them. But at least you know that. I don’t know any of my friends on Care2; I might like to, but I don’t ever expect, unless by sheer felicitous accident, to encounter them anywhere or anytime except on Care2.

When you send a friend request on Care2, you’re asked to identify your “primary connection” to this person as either Personal; Professional; Family; Other. Well, Other is a pretty forgiving category so that’s what I always choose, but I feel a little defeated every time I do so. Personal? Not really; I have no truly personal knowledge of this person: She seems like an un-celebrated but equally admirable Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and with a silly sense of humor, but for all I know she’s an ISIS operative awaiting orders to strike. There needs to be another category option here, some more apposite and pleasing version of social (network) friend.

Whatever that may be, and I’m certainly open to suggestions, I will say that while I don’t feel I really know any of these people, they are one hell of a lot more important to me than many of my Facebook friends. (As are, for instance, just to name a few other people I never knew, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, John Lennon.) My Care2 friends are active members of a caring community, which comprises me as well.

And they are active. It’s easy to underestimate such activism, and to condescend to it as armchair activism or Slacktivism. I think this is not only ungenerous but wrong. We can’t all be manning the barricades all the time and even those who do man the barricades are dependent on a network of pitch-in supporters. No, it doesn’t take much to sign a petition online but, when you do, you are sending a message, staking out a position, lending hope, supporting others, you are caring, publicly. And guess what? More often than you’d imagine, the petition actually works, especially the local and hyper-local ones. (Okay, the 20 or so I’ve signed over the years against automatic weapons haven’t made a dent.)

Oh, and as for Twitter — where I actually spend much more time than on Care2 — let me just say that you get there what you deserve. If your Twitter feed is loud, shrill, reflexive and ugly, you have only yourself to blame. You picked these people, you know. (Okay, you didn’t pick the mindless ads.) Unfollow the vituperative cluster-fuck and don’t be vituperative yourself and your Internet won’t be terrible.


Posted in Advertising, Social Media | Tagged , , , ,

Walking Up (and Down) (and Up and Down) Amsterdam Avenue

Up from 90th St. to (usually) 116th St. — down from there to 86th, 79th, sometimes 72nd St. — this is a walk I take two or three times every week. Sometimes I’ll head west over to (and then down) Riverside Drive or into the Park itself; sometimes I’ll head east over to (and then down Central Park West); but more often it’s just straight back down Amsterdam. It’s not a lovely avenue — actually, it’s probably the un-loveliest avenue on the Upper West Side of NYC (although parts of Columbus Avenue are even less lovely). But in certain ways it’s my favorite uptown/downtown walking route.

Here’s one: I’m heading downtown at the corner of 101st St. — just picked up some bagels at Absolute Bagels on 107th and Broadway, best bagels by far on the UWS — and I’ve got the light at 101st but I slow down and stop abruptly at the corner because a van is barreling in, having turned off the Avenue and headed straight west — but now he stops on a dime, hitting his brakes to allow a young girl with a baby carriage who’s smack in the middle of the street, frozen there, to finish crossing to 100 (13 steps; I’ve counted; street crossing are always 13 steps, except when they aren’t). So I’m stopped at the corner — he’s looking at me and I’m looking at him — I nod, he nods back and gives me additionally a barely perceptible wave while the girl finishes her crossing, he heads on west, and I proceed across the street.

What happened here is a curious and delicate little demonstration of three-way courtesy that seems to happen to me often on Amsterdam and seldom on other UWS avenues — just because, I’m guessing, or employing Occam’s Razor, they’re all so much busier. (Well, that’s clearly not true of West End Avenue, which has a wholly different and stricter driver/pedestrian etiquette, and of Riverside Drive, which has no driver/pedestrian etiquette of any kind, especially when the driver is a bicycler, which so often, and woefully, it is). He has deliberately halted his hell-bent hurry across town and extended courtesy to the girl, letting her finish her interrupted (and now spooked) crossing; he nods to me to recognize my recognition of that courtesy. He nods, that is, to acknowledge that I have recognized his courtesy and that I will not take advantage of it to cross in front of him, so he can then continue on as he was doing before he noticed the semi-paralyzed girl and her baby carriage in the middle of the street, not to mention the gray-haired old coot (me) waiting to see if he was about to run her over.

I don’t want to make too much of this delicate (and, I think, macho) courtesy — I’ve also witnessed a young woman just two blocks from here get cold-cocked by another guy in another van — she wasn’t paying any attention crossing the street, he wasn’t paying any attention turning the corner, but boy did he jump out quickly once he had flattened her. Phones popped out calling 911 instantaneously, she came to in a minute or so, picked herself up and walked on ignoring all the commotion, hey Chica, Chica, c’mon back, you okay? — undoubtedly on the phone herself with Cellino & Barnes — call 1-800 -888-8888 — as soon as she got home and plotting with them to sue that sucker for all he’s worth, which is approximately zero dinero, although his company probably had some insurance that will pay off.

No, I don’t want to make too much of this, but I do see it as a very Amsterdam Avenue kind of thing. And I guess what I mean by that is that Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side is a really pedestrian kind of place; it’s “sense of place” is lots of pedestrians and lots of pedestrian activity (which includes inactivity):

pe·des·tri·an     pəˈdestrēən    noun 
1. a person walking along a road or in a developed area.
synonyms: walker, person on foot; foot traffic
“accidents involving pedestrians”
2. lacking inspiration or excitement; dull.
“disenchantment with their present, pedestrian lives”
synonyms: dull, boring, tedious, monotonous, uneventful, unremarkable, tiresome, wearisome, uninspired, unimaginative, unexciting, uninteresting, uninvolving

Amsterdam Avenue, uptown at least, is, indeed, “monotonous, unremarkable,” and, yes, at times even “tiresome.” The stretch I’m talking about here is undeniably an “uninspired” collection of: 1) bodegas and pizza joints; 2) hardware stores; 3) cheap chinese/thai/”asian fusion”/mexican/italian restaurants; 4) pawn shops (including “jewelry” shops that are actually “Buy your Gold!” pawn shops); 5) social service agencies; and 6) pharmacies. That’s really about it — there are exceptions and they are exceptions that prove the rule. What is interesting, and wholly characteristic of these blocks, is that with only a handful of exceptions (one Dunkin’ Donuts, one Duane Read, one True Value Hardware), these uninspiring, pedestrian joints are all Mom & Pop shops, remnants of Small Business in the city. And there is indeed, I think, something very inspiring about that.

If there is still something worthy of being called Working Class on the UWS, this would be a good example of it. So you could call it that, but I think what we’re really talking about here is the Working Poor. This is a stretch of street that is simultaneously bustling with activity — lots of workers bringing in or taking out stuff out of the hardware stores, concrete mix, drywall, pegboard and all kinds of tools and mechanical stuff that I have no idea what it is — and neighborhood folks buying stuff from the “pharmacies” and bodegas, stores that sell just tons of stuff that you need for everday living: eyeliner, Robitussin, hair coloring, bananas, brooms, condoms, cigarettes, doggy (poop) bags, cell phone covers, hookahs — there’s one bodega that by its display is first and foremost a hookah store — actual medicine, picture frames, “paintings,” — you can buy velvet Elvis or Jesus “paintings” here — Coke and, uh, Coke — I could go on. You can shop for all kinds of things a block over on Broadway, but on this stretch of Amsterdam I don’t think there’s anything you can’t buy.

I remember a line from one of John O’Hara’s Gibbsville stories about a hardware store — If you can eat it, you can’t buy it here. On Amsterdam Avenue, you can eat it at a hardware store, or buy drywall at a pharmacy

I said “simultaneously” — yeah, there’s lots of activity but there’s lots of indolence as well, people just hanging around the street doing nothing, really, just biding their time (for what?) , shooting the breeze with other folks who’re also doing nothing but shooting the breeze. There’s the lady who seemingly lives on the edge (I mean the literal edge) of the school next to the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus on 96th St., watching over her two carts of possessions and who neither looks at nor talks to anyone; there’re one or two — never more than one or two, in my experience — homeless guys who most of the time don’t even bother panhandling but who customarily greet you as “Chief” (at least if you’re an old white guy like me) — I guess they’ve learned over time that “Sir” is really off-putting but “Chief” earns at least a smile from old white guys; and there are the older and often infirm residents of small housing projects who just want to be outside if the weather is at all bearable and who will take their chances socializing or not with whomever else is outside or walking by.

In sum, lots of hustle and bustle, lots of meh. So, what else? Architecture-wise? Given my ignorance in this respect I suppose I could simply be blind to Wonders before my eyes, but here I don’t think so. There are some nice apartment buildings on Amsterdam, a couple as nice as some on Broadway that are as nice as some on West End and Riverside — a couple, but further down the avenue, not above 96th. What’s of architectural interest are the churches: the afore-mentioned Church of the Holy Name on 96th (as my wife calls it, the red door church), St. Michael’s on 99th (as she says, the blue door church), the West End Presbyterian Church on 105 (rusty red door), the Central Baptist Church on 92 (brown door and home of “Share Jesus Now. Time is Short. Lives are at Stake.”) Best of all might be the Trinity Lutheran Church off the corner at 100th St., largely obscured  in street view by its scaffolding but featuring a weirdly out-of-place Gaudiesque spire. Here’s a view of the spire from across the street and looking from Columbus Ave.

Given the generally, uh, undistinguished nature of the neighborhood’s architecture, these are all quite imposing structures, and they certainly hark back to a time when churches really were integral parts not simply of the aesthetic surroundings but of the lives of people in the neighborhood. Maybe that is the case even today: The services offered by all these churches are as much “social” — alcohol, drug, gambling, and family counseling, and ESL and “career services” — as they are ecclesiastical, and they are alternatives or complementaries to the city’s social services, such as The Bridge or Grosvenor Neighborhood House YMCA, which are also ubiquitous in this neighborhood.

Other than the churches, however, the only architecture of note here is the old bank building opposite Holy Name, repurposed — as poorly as possible — as a CVS; what a lost opportunity! — and the Victorian Gothic American Youth Hostels between 103rd and 104th sts., formerly the Residence for Respectable, Aged and Indigent Females (I’m not kidding). It’s a gorgeous building, striking no matter how many times you pass by it, and it’s nice to think that, while it may no longer serve respectable/aged/indigent females — the RAI market is apparently dried up — it seems to be doing well by bunches of young kids from around the world and the country who’re seeing the city and maybe the country for the first time.


Other, non-architectural attractions? Yes, there are several, although it may be that they stand out to some degree precisely because they are such obvious exceptions to the sameness and drabness of so much that surrounds them. In fact, the main reason I began taking this particular walk was to pick up the excellent, varied pastries at La Toulousaine (between 106/107): Brioche, croissants, and turnovers as good or better than any on the UWS. The patisserie was shut down for a couple-three weeks this past summer because of a one-day — the day the inspectors came! — weird infestation of fruit flies. This occasioned quite a scandal in the neighborhood, which was shocked by the news and which had happily supported the recherche establishment for years. La Toulousaine quickly cleaned things up and brought the place back to pristine condition, although the complaints about the grumpy and rude proprietress continue to this day. But, as I’ve said to others, she’s not grumpy and she’s not rude; she’s French.

Truth be told, I also started heading uptown this way because of the excellent burger at The Ellington (corner of 106). I’m not a burger fan as such, but I like one every once in awhile, and Ellington’s burger is as good I’ve had anywhere. (Well, okay, it doesn’t exactly approach the burger at Boulud’s db bistro moderne.) Aside from the casual nod to Duke, Ellington’s is basically a well-run, Irish-owned-and-operated bar with better than average Irish bar food.

Chico Julio, between 97th & 98th streets — Yelp pretentiously locates it in “Manhattan Valley,” a designation perhaps meaningful to hopeful real estate agents, but having exactly zero currency in this neighborhood — is a self-styled “Local Pub” and/or “A CASUAL CANTINA-STYLE RESTAURANT SERVING TRADITIONAL SEAFOOD DISHES FROM THE COASTS OF MEXICO.” The other day when I passed by they had a chalkboard A-frame sign outside, with the hand-lettered message:

Forecast Tonight:
Low Standards
Precipitous Decisions

Which I interpreted, not too uncharitably, I think, as “Wanna get laid (by a skank) tonight?”

Further down, on 95th off Amsterdam, is Buceo 95. That’s the official name but you can find it in bright red under the hanging white black-lettered Vin’s Tapas sign. This is the kind of local place that locals, infamously, won’t tell anybody about, because they don’t want it to get any more popular and crowded than it already is. Great tapas, some interesting and scarce (volcanic) Spanish wines, but please don’t let anyone know that I told you about it.

A really nice Italian? Yes, there’s one: Gennaro, between 93rd and 92nd: Another local place that in this case has probably received enough publicity (Zagat: Food: 25; Ambiance: 0) that I won’t be accused of betraying neighborhood secrets. The stinco di agnello is primo in any neighborhood; Daniel Boulud would be proud to serve this.

Buy a tee-shirt at BNC General Merchandise — seriously, do so. BNC is what used to be called a “notions” store — it’s another (tiny) Amsterdam stuff store, previously presided over by Bubacar Camara until he was beaten to death by three no-accounts (now upstate) for cash register money (wild-ass guess? 20 bucks). Bubacar was a guy who mostly hung outside his store, waiting and hoping for customers. We nodded a few times to one another, just because faces eventually begin to recognize one another. Word has it that he gave away as much as he sold, or sold for half whatever he wanted to charge: It’s okay, you pay me next time.

Okay, I guess I have to address the elephant in the room on this route, which gives the lie to the purely personal categorization of (my) upper Amsterdam, little impressive architecture, lots of blah: And then there’s the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It’s the architectural masterpiece of Amsterdam and of the UWS and one of the wonders — I mean this literally, where literally means literally — of NYC. I used to tease my Catholic Long Island friends that you could fit three St. Patrick’s into St. John with room left over for Christmas services and a bunch of characteristically esoteric art exhibits — they knew I was nuts because of course Saint Pats is the biggest cathedral in the world, everybody knows that. I won’t dare discourse on St. John — although you could indeed fit a couple St. Pats inside — except to say that it’s unfinished and will remain so for, like, forever, until, per impossibile, some robber baron like Paulson (or maybe Mayor Mike?) decides to leave it billions.  Until then, however, you can enjoy it as is, and roam the gardens, where you may (in the spring, summer, and fall) encounter either Jim, Harry, or Phil, the church peacocks — Phil is the albino, leucistic, pure white (and major showoff) peacock. He has his own Twitter account, @CathedralPhil, far and away the best of St. John’s Twitter streams.

I’ve hesitated to cross 110th St. because now we’re entering another world from the one I set out to describe — it’s now the world of St. John’s and, a few blocks north, Columbia University and Mount Sinai St. Luke’s — talk about ecclesiastical reconciliation! — and they kind of own everything and everyone around and it’s all very different from 90th to 110. We’re leaving behind the working poor of Amsterdam Avenue (even if St. John may administer to some of them) — a largely brown and black world — and entering a new world of middle class and upper middle class strivers — a largely White (and Asian) world. Cut through the central campus of Columbia where, if you’re of my generation, you can mentally nod to Mark Rudd exhorting the faithful to occupy the campus in ’68, or, if you’re of my educational classicist background, you can marvel at a whole building dedicated to Homer | Herodotus | Sophocles | Plato | Aristotle | Demosthenes | Cicero | Vergil; they probably use it for computer science nowadays, but still…

So walk on, cross Broadway, pass Barnard, enter Riverside Park: two blocks and worlds away from Amsterdam Avenue.

Addendum (but think of it instead as a Bonus!): A few days after first posting this I took another walk up to La Toulousaine — apple turnovers today, I think — and surprised myself by a couple of things I had intended to mention but didn’t. First, Tatz Gourmet Sweetz — well, I can’t blame myself for missing this because, while the Web site lives on, the shop itself is now gone. (In a very Heideggerian fashion, I noticed it by its absence.) But how could I have forgotten Mary’s Garden? On the northwest corner of 100th and Amsterdam, “Mary” has constructed a tiny village from found and no doubt donated objects, kind of like what Joseph Cornell might have made of a “village garden” if he had done gardens rather than boxes. Mary’s Garden brings some frivolousness and liveliness to the Amsterdam Houses, a smallish part of the Frederick Douglass Houses, stretching from 100th to 104th, Amsterdam to Columbus.

On the southwest corner of 100th is another kind of “garden” — a well-manicured but completely fenced-off and barely noticeable plot of grass abutting St. Michael’s Church. It’s remarkable only in the summertime when the grass has just been cut: For what could be more remarkable on a late summer afternoon on Amsterdam Avenue than the smell of freshly-mown grass?

Whatever-it-is-that-you-add-to-an-Addendum, is what this is, as of 1/19/16:

Mary’s Garden is no more, or rather Mary’s ownership of it has been quite literally wiped out: Presumably there is new ownership (as yet unnamed) as the assemblage of objets trouve has been noticeably altered, although it’s just as trouve as under Mary’s reign.

Also, noticed for the first time, just off the corner of 100th, a branch of the one-time New York Free Circulating Library, here in a photo circa 1898: the Bloomingdale branch:


That’s it, except for the fenced-in grass plot belonging to St. Michael’s on the east side and a nondescript apartment building on the other side. The building itself is in remarkably fine condition although what if anything it is being used for at this point is not obvious: There is a little notice to the effect that the library is “on the next block” and you can ring the bell “and wait” — which I will do one day in the spring, not now in the winter.

One more really neat thing: On the wall of the north side of the above-mentioned La Toulousienne, appearing a couple weeks ago, is the very Banksy-like:


Is it in fact a Banksy production unnoted from his previous NYC incursion and hidden until just recently? A nifty recent homage? Is the graffito above the artist’s tag? I don’t know but will add whatever I can find out when I find it out. Either way, it’s a perfectly appropriate upper Amsterdam Avenue kind of thing, just like, in its own way, the Bloomingdale branch of the NYFCL.

Okay, one more nifty thing (obviously been there for a while, don’t know how I could have missed it): Sign over the postage-stamp plot of dirt in front of the Douglass Houses at 102: Positively No Picknicking or Barbecuing Allowed. I think it’s the “Positively” that does it.

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An Afternoon’s UWS Walk

Wrote this back in May in a kind of stream-of-conscious style, okay, stop laughing, and posted on Google + and got exactly what I deserved in that venue, which is to say, crickets. So I’m resurrecting it here, in hopes that some of you might enjoy it — since at least a few of you hardy souls enjoyed the 71st St. thing — and because I really enjoyed writing it (which at least hints at a sort of validation that it’s worth reading):

So, 11 days now past my last birthday — six years older than my grandfather when he collapsed & died less than a year after HIS retirement — and I’m slowly idling up Broadway to one of my French cafes for lunch, yes, discreetly following a nice behind or two, en route to 104th St. I’m a flaneur nowadays, I guess, an unofficial flaneur, though, since I’m sure there must be an official Flaneur group here in NYC that I’m unaware of & of which I am not, therefore, a member.

The diners here are typically atypical for an afternoon in the UWS — typically-atypical being one of the reasons you end up loving the UWS. There’re two groups of three: three “ladies who lunch” but who, unlike their counterparts on the UES, order LARGE meals, all w/ fries, and who eat only the fries, and drink them down with wine, and then dessert, & then more wine, no coffee or espresso, and take their steaks & sandwiches home in doggy bags (for their husbands?). They talk theater & graduations — this is Columbia & Barnard grad time.

The second threesome is two middle-aged ladies & a middle-aged male companion; they actually EAT their appetizer lunches while conversing about MOTHER, who donated to this, & MOTHER who gave money that, & how abysmal the Republican field is turning out to be, how Jeb is just embarrassing, worse in his own flabby way than Dubya, & Marco is beyond the pale. I must admit I kind of admire them –[this is pre-Trump, and I wonder now what they’d be saying about THAT] — old NYC-style Republicans, disparagingly contrasting their alternatives w/ the long-dead Rockefeller, Javits, & Lindsey — & Bloomberg, too, for that matter. But, God love ’em, they will hold their noses & vote for Jeb or Marco or Scott nonetheless, much like the faithful American Communists of the 50s & 60s who held on & continued to canvass despite all the proof that their dream had become a miserable & embarrassing &, worse, irrelevant posture. (Not to mention, dangerous.)

There’s also a very strange bird, a white-haired old Hippie girl — or a Mennonite transported unawares to the UWS? She’s dressed in a flowered blouse tightly tied at the neck, under a light brown sweater buttoned-up just under the blouse-tie, & a long, & I mean long, down to the tips of her LL Bean boots, dark brown leather skirt. After examining her menu for a good 10 minutes or so — not exaggerating, the waitress had to come by at least two or three times before finally getting an order — she ordered a couple of dishes, & sat & stared at them for another few minutes, before ever-so tentatively tasting a few bites of her pate & cornichons & smoked salmon (i think it was?). Staring uncomprehendingly at her food, moving almost robotically, she reminded me of Jeff Bridges, the alien in what was it, Starchild,  Starman? — the confusion, wonder, of life here in the strange new world. I could have watched her for another hour, I think, but I had reached the end of a long chapter in the latest Knausgaard & also the last dregs of my espresso, so it was time for me to go. I wonder if I appear anywhere near as interesting or curious to my companion diners as they are to me, an old white-bearded guy w/ the iconoclastic choice of Merquez & Couscous, sweat-stained Google cap, eyes (mostly) buried in his, what, Kindle, every once in a while a smirk or smile on his face? (With Knausgaard you inevitably smirk and smile, alternatively.) But, no, I’m pretty sure I sat unnoticed, unremarkable, all the while. Which is okay.

Okay, let’s go flaneur-ing, up to 106th & across to the CPW old Cancer Hospital, now an elegant carve-up of apartments for, I’m assuming, I’m guessing, the children of the UES rich who’re too cool to live anywhere on the UES but for whom the UWS — above 100th St.! — & in an old Cancer Hospital, for God’s sake, maybe where Grandma met her Maker, is just cool enough. What an irony: What had once been the last place on earth any old rich Mummy or Dad-Dad wanted to end up is now a collection of unique ritzy apartments for their grandchildren.

Hey, I’d give my eyeteeth to live there.

Or at the truly idiosyncratic Level Club, oh yeah, go 73rd St.

Strolling south, 414 Central Park West, home to all kinds of jazz musicians (Teddy Wilson) & lyricists (Yip Harburg) & proudly advertising that w/ a corner plaque. Then, all of a sudden, it’s black cars all over the place, Chevy Suburbans, Cadillac Escalades, Ford Explorers (I think that’s right, the Ford model, I’m long past up on car makes), yep, it’s 3:15, time for the kids from Columbia Grammar & Prep (or Prep & Grammar), & Dwight, & Trevor Day (formerly Walden, then Walden Lincoln, then the Day School, now the current incarnation, Trevor Day School, my son’s Alma Mater) to be picked up & driven safely home. They didn’t have black cars or Ubers when my kid went to Walden & its several incarnations. Sure, there were rich kids there (at least one Rockefeller) & kids of famous parents (a Harrison Ford kid, for instance, & a niece or nephew or some relation to Julia Roberts) but if there were pick-ups then, when it was one hell of a lot more dicey than it is now, it was much more discreet. (I remember my son explaining to me, one rare morning when I walked him to school, that all these tiny glass things all over the ground were crack vials — Oh. Oh, and see NOTE below.)

But the Columbians & the Dwights & the Trevors have nothing to be afeared-of nowadays, for the dark kids, the African-Americans & Hispanic public school kids, they’re a world away, one & two & three blocks away, over on Columbus & Amsterdam & Broadway, congregating both inside & outside Mickey D’s & a multitude of pizza places, & too engaged w/ junk food & one another to even be aware that their privileged counterparts, just blocks down the street, are being silently motored home.

Well, got to get back home myself, the kids are in fact getting a little bit too noisy & rambunctious & bothersome for me, & puppy Sadie is waiting patiently in her crate — can’t get used to crating a dog even though everyone assures us that the crate is a dog’s home, a safe & homey & happy place (a den!) for her & NOTTATALL (to use an O’Hara-ism, actually a Maryland-ism, too) — rather than the backyard exile of MY childhood remembrance. Yeah, right.

NOTE: My son reminds me that the Day School kids said that Dwight stood for Dumb White Idiots Getting High Together… Such is wit and rivalry among prep school kids.

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