Songs from the Black Chair

A thousand men each year sit in the black chair next to my desk. I am a mental health worker at the Bellevue Men’s Shelter. These men are between 18 and 80 years old, usually black or Hispanic, usually with a psychiatric problem 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 medical illness.

At some point during the interview with these men, I get around to these questions: “Are you hearing voices? Have you ever seen things that other people didn’t see? Have you ever tried to hurt yourself?” A few times a month I hear responses like, “I thought about jumping in front of the subway,” 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 with long scars. At that point, I calmly tell my clients in the black chair that I think they need to go to the hospital in order to be safe. Almost always they agree without complaint.

THE STAFF AND I are instructed to classify the men we see into one or more of the following official categories of disability or distress, as promulgated by New York City’s mental health department:

SPMI [severely 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
Physically Disabled

It’s a nice list of nice bureaucratic categories, but 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 the far more descriptive and pertinent categories:

The travelers and wanderers
Guided by voices
Vietnam vets
Waylaid tourists, usually recently robbed
“No English” and no papers
Various persons destroyed by alcohol, crack, heroin, or some 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 all this I keep to myself. I sit at the computer and duly check off the city’s official list.

In truth, 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 found myself in the following exchange:

Brooklyn! That’s all the beds you got tonight! Just Brooklyn! Shit!”

“Yes, that’s the only place that 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.”

“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 $20 and $80 an hour panhandling in a prime location in Midtown. They may be mentally ill, but they’re not crazy: It is Manhattan that the voices tell them to go to, and not, for example, 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 10 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’s 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 are less crappy here 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.”

There is a specific look to these 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 sport dark tans, and hair bleached blond from the sun; in the winter they wear layers of sweaters and their cheeks are rosy pink. 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 wayfarers. 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 medical–and typically psychiatrists’–offices was just 30 feet away.

Last January I was asked by the security staff to go to the entrance of the shelter to assess a problem case, some guy in a wheelchair. Security would not let him into the building because he didn’t have papers to prove that he was medically cleared to enter the shelter system. When I saw the guy in the strangely ornate entry foyer (it has marble floors and a hand-painted ceiling), I knew why. He was in a wheelchair, had no arms and no legs, and wore a loose cotton hospital gown that was open to the waist, revealing a still-oozing stomach wound. He was distressingly thin, had black curly hair, and looked Italian. A teddy bear was in his lap. A sparkly heart-shaped balloon with the words “I love you” printed on it in expansive letters was attached by a string to the back of his wheelchair. “I’m Richie Vecchio,” he said, smiling at me. He appeared to be in no distress.

I wheeled him down the dark hall to the waiting room. The security guards looked at us dubiously–all they knew was that he wasn’t authorized to come in. I looked closely at his hospital bracelet. It indicated that he had been an inpatient at Bellevue for the past four months.

“Which unit?” I said.

“16-North,” Richie said. “I was in an accident,” he added, happily.

I told him that they wouldn’t let him into the shelter unless he got a form from a doctor stating that he was medically stable.

“You better go back to the hospital. Then you can come back here,” I said.

“Oh, I’m not going back there,” he said. “I’ve been there for four months.”

As a legal matter, I said, they weren’t going to let him in.

“Oh, that’s okay,” he said, reassuring me. “I’m just happy to be out of the hospital.”

“Did you sign yourself out?” I asked.

“Yup,” he said with satisfaction.

“But where will you go?”

“Oh, I’ll figure something out,” he said.

I had started in on the legalese I’d been trained with: “It is, of course, your right to leave the hospital, but I strongly urge you . . .” when he interrupted me.

“It’s all right, man, I’m just happy to be free,” Richie said. “But I was wondering, do you think you could let me stay in the building long enough so I could recharge my wheelchair? The batteries don’t last long in the cold.”

He had spotted the electrical outlet in the corner. He pushed his chin down into his chest and engaged a button on a metal plate that lay on his collarbone. The wheelchair whirred forward.

“See the cord in the back? Could you plug it in?” he said. “It takes about 45 minutes to charge up,” he said happily. I plugged in the cord.

“Is your wound okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, looking down at it as if for the first time. “Jeez,” he observed. “I guess it is oozing a little.”

“What happened to you anyway?” I said.

“Lost my limbs in a motorcycle accident. My fault,” he said. “I’m an addict. Heroin, coke, everything. Now I’m just on methadone, and a ton of medications.” It was as if he were talking about varieties of ice cream.

He directed me to a pouch on the back of his wheelchair. In it was a hospital paper stating he had hepatitis and HIV, along with 15 bottles of medications.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go back to the hospital?”

“No way!” he said almost violently. “Four months is enough. They won’t take me back anyway.”

“Let me see if I can find anything for you,” I said.

There are, in New York City, strange entities called “drop-in centers.” They are intended to work as adjuncts to the city shelter system. They are meant to assist those who aren’t medically cleared or not deemed “appropriate” for the regular system. That is, they serve those poor souls who have been rejected even by the New York City shelter system. The drop-in centers are usually a couple of basement rooms in a church somewhere. Contractually they are not allowed to provide beds. The clients of the drop-in centers sit on chairs all night long.

I called the four drop-in centers in Manhattan. I made my usual mistake, which is to ask if they have beds.

“You mean chairs,” said an annoyed voice at the first drop-in center.

“Yes, chairs,” I said.

“No chairs,” the voice replied, and hung up the phone.

I called the next drop-in center. “Do you have any . . . er . . . slots?”

“You mean chairs,” said the voice. “No, didn’t you notice? It’s cold outside. No chairs.” Click.

No chairs were to be had at the other drop-in centers either.

When I returned to the waiting room there were three more clients waiting. Normally the guys in the waiting room never talk to one another, sitting silently with their heads down, avoiding eye contact at all costs. But these three were all talking to Richie. One was sharing his sandwich with him, and another was reading him a story from the newspaper.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t find anything for you. Do you have any money?” I said.

“One hundred and thirty dollars,” said Richie, precisely.

The Bowery flophouses were the last resort for shelter. They charged $10 a night for a “room” with walls made of chicken wire. I called the Palace, the Rio, the Sunshine; none of them had beds. “It’s cold outside,” the voices on the other end of the line said.

My last call was to the YMCA, 10 blocks away.

“We have a bed, but you gotta get here quick,” said the attendant.

“How much?”

“Sixty-five dollars a night.” In New York, even the Y’s are expensive.

“Oh, that’s fine,” Richie said, after I told him about the Y. “I’ll go there.”

“But you only have enough for two nights.”

“It’s okay. Don’t worry, man. I’ll figure something out.” He depressed his chin, engaged the button, and rolled out of the waiting room. “See you guys later. Thanks a lot,” he said, nodding to his instant friends.

I left the shelter with Richie. Smoke or steam or whatever it is that emanates from the city’s innards was billowing up through an open manhole to the surface of First Avenue. The wind had picked up and it must have been 20 degrees. Richie told me he had a jacket in his pouch. I pulled out the flimsy windbreaker and settled it over his shoulders. All he had on underneath was the cotton hospital gown.

I pointed him in the direction of the McBurney YMCA. “Do you think the wheelchair will make it?”

“We’ll see,” he said, laughing. “It looks like it’s downhill.” He headed out onto the street.

Then he stopped and shouted back to me. “See ya later! Thanks a lot, Charlie, I mean it. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. You’re a great social worker or doctor or whatever you are.”

Richie crossed First Avenue, nearly colliding with the M15 bus. He whirred unsteadily down one side of the avenue, in the precarious slip of pavement between the parked cars and the oncoming traffic. The last I saw of Richie was the back of his wheelchair, the heart-shaped balloon bouncing in the wind, as he cut through a cloud of steam escaping from the city’s netherworld.

All of them, I thought, every single one of the residents of the black chair, possessed songs, songs sung in the midst of despair–songs about mythical places like Cheyenne, or about bobbing red balloons, songs proclaiming there is something much greater out there somewhere, songs hopeful that perhaps somehow, some way, someday . . .

In a moment, I realized how strangely and cruelly exhilarating, how terribly and punishingly great it is to spend my nights listening to songs from the black chair.

Excerpted from Bellevue Literary Review (Spring 2004). Barber’s book, Songs from the Black Chair: A Memoir of Mental Interiors is due out in February from the University of Nebraska Press.

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