The Life You Save May Be Your Own
by Max Reif
I’m sitting in my psychiatrist Dr. Cho’s office in the basement of St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the psych ward is. We’re somewhere near Staten Island harbor. I don’t know exactly what direction it’s in, because I was pretty disoriented when Boris and Martin brought me in here a month ago. I couldn’t speak.
I believe now that that was because I was choked with rage toward Boris. Amazing, to find oneself in such a bizarre state, unable to verbalize a single word! And not due to any physical cause, either.
Dr. Cho is behind his desk, waiting for me to say what it is I want. Our meeting’s a bit unusual. Usually, we patients are at the beck and call of our doctors. That is, if we’re not totally ignored, warehoused to pace the halls, go to OT, and gain weight on the carb-rich meals they serve here, until discharge. Yesterday, however, I requested to see my doctor.
“Yes, Mr. Markley?” says the doctor, his big square, bespectacled face surveying me.
“Dr. Cho, I was wondering whether the hospital makes referrals to halfway houses.” I’ve been lying awake for hours every night, now that my discharge is imminent, scanning my mind for a solution to the problem that I have nowhere to go. I certainly won’t go back to Boris’s, and I know very few other people in New York City. Nor do I feel strong enough, not to mention wealthy enough, to live alone.
“Why yes,” he replies as matter-of-factly as if I’d asked him the capital of Colombia. “The hospital runs two halfway houses. If you like, I can look into them for you.”
I’m dumbstruck. Flabbergasted. “Then why the hell didn’t you tell me?” I want to shout. But I suppress my anger, compose myself and say very simply, “Yes sir, I would like that very much. Please do so, as soon as possible.”
It’s two days later, just after breakfast. I walk out to the hospital van. The January air is frigid, and the shock of this cold contributes to my sense of having been reborn from a closed-in, stuffy womb. It’s my first time outdoors in a month. The view across the harbor to Manhattan is spectacular, but the view in any direction through the sweet outdoor air—sweet even with its admixture of New York smog—is delicious, like seeing for the first time.
We drive about a mile, mostly down streets I don’t know, before the driver pulls up and lets me out in front of a large, blue-grey residence with white shutters. I walk up steep cement steps built into a hilly front yard. On the slab of front porch, a few rocking chairs seem to bask frigidly.
I ring the bell. In a minute, a face that looks like a Groucho Marx mask appears in the little window. The door opens and a flabby man, still looking quite Grouch-ish, greets me. “I’m Harvey, the assistant director,” he says. “You must be Martin. Ronnie, our director, is waiting upstairs to meet you. Follow me, please.”
Harvey leads me up two flights of stairs. Before we get to the second, enclosed one, I glimpse a rather formal living room, full of plastic-covered sofas and “pretty” landscapes on the wall. I can see through an open door to a dining room/kitchen with a couple of long tables. The hums of both the fridge and the heater bring a throbbing life to the house. I also notice the quiet residential corridor on the first floor, and an identical one on the second.
“Everyone here goes to a day program from 9 until 3 on weekdays,” Harvey explains as he walks ahead of me. “That’s why the house is so quiet now. The only ones here are you, me, Ronnie and one resident who is home sick.”
Ronnie is waiting in a little crow’s nest office in the attic whose walls are lined with full bookcases. He rises and comes forward to shake my hand as I appear in the doorway. Harvey, having delivered me safely, returns back down the stairs.
“So why are you interested in living here?” Ronnie asks me after our introductions.
“My family’s in Missouri,” I say. “And the person I was staying with before my breakdown is part of the reason I ended up in the hospital.”
“I see,” he replies. “Well, let me tell you a little about Wendover House. Residents are allowed to stay here at for up to six months, and after that, if they choose, they can move on to a supervised apartment. Everyone here is required to go to a day program on weekdays from 9 to 3.”
“Harvey mentioned that,” I say. “I’m willing.”
“Good,” Ronnie says. He pauses to look at me a moment and then continues. “We have a vacancy. If you still want to move in after I give you the tour, you’re welcome to do so.”
We go downstairs and he shows me the house I passed through a little while ago. He takes me into a bedroom. It has two cushy twin beds, a desk, dressers, more landscapes on the wall. It appears a lot more comfortable than my freshman college dorm room was.
The tour ends in the kitchen.
“Still want to come?”
“Definitely,” I say. “It’s clean here. I feel a sense of order.”
I don’t mention this, but during the past hour I’ve felt the first presentiment in a long time that there may be a way forward for me in life. Since I came to New York a few months back to take a series of “human potential seminars,” which quickly morphed into confrontational nightmares, nothing’s gone right. Fleeing to Boris’s big house on the hill—I should’ve heeded my premonition when I heard someone refer to it as “Toad Hall”—I found my old friend now believed himself some kind of guru and exerted a complex, crazy-making spell on me. To avoid him, I began spending my days in fast food restaurants, shopping centers and libraries in far-flung locations on the island, retreating into a literary world. I attempted to save myself by reading and writing in notebooks, where I could still think my own thoughts.
But this “medicine” hadn’t been enough. On an otherwise indistinguishable, grey day, I’d snapped. Since then I’d felt drowned in a dark whirlpool, until this past hour. This halfway house introduced the possibility of a safe environment. Here, I intuited, I might be able to begin to get my feet back on the ground.
“Well, good,” Ronnie said. “We’ll expect you the day after tomorrow.”
“One minor question,” I say. I’m trying to place your accent.”
“Israeli,” Ronnie says.
The last thing I do before leaving the house is to ask to use the phone to call my mother, collect. There, in that humming kitchen, I share this latest development. She, who’d laid some serious “issues” on me during my childhood, has lately been my phone buddy, standing by me during the whole crisis, and I want her to know the good news.
We’re all at the dinner table at Wendover House. I’ve been here two months now. Barbara, the twenty year old with the little-girl pigtails who could be pretty if she didn’t have the crazy look in her eyes, is down at the end of the table acting out again, babbling loudly enough to make everyone in the room uncomfortable: “He touched me, I said no but he did it anyway, I’ll cut his dick off, I’ll use a kitchen knife, I can do it! This food is shit, tastes like shit, shell pasta again? I love my brother, I need him, I can’t live without him, I want to marry him, then I’ll be safe, I…”
“Barbara!” Marty, the counselor, interrupts her sternly. “You need to stop. Stop now! Or else go to your room.” Barbara lowers her voice to a whisper. I can still hear, but now it's an indistinct murmur, possible to ignore.
On my right, tall, thin Robert, with his thick black bangs and perennial smile, is talking, to me, I think, about Lou Reed, whom he idolizes. Robert has Walkman headphones on his ears, as usual. “You should hear this damn album! This guy is outrageous! He gets the 7th Avenue subway in the song! He actually went in there and recorded it, like the damn thing’s an instrument in his band!” Robert is likeable and good-natured, but his conversation is limited. I get the feeling he may have lost some brain cells during his druggie phase.
Mario, across from me, is wolfing down his pasta quietly. He gets up to get seconds. Or thirds. Another seemingly cheerful guy, he has kind of a grey complexion. Probably medicated. Most of the residents are, I think. Mario’s around 30. I try to guess what’s wrong with him. Like Robert, he seems too simple, too innocent for a person his age in the late 1980s. Whimsically, I picture him as a young man from a mafia family, traumatized by witnessing too many murders.
They never tell you what’s wrong with anybody here. Lots of elephants in the room when we gather. The only one I’ve really heard diagnose himself is Irv, the thin, morose 40 year old with whom I have more common interests than anyone else, even a mutual acquaintance. He’s a very sensitive person, whose terror about what will become of him when his 90-year-old parents die has caused him to withdraw from life.
I pull myself away from the table and go downstairs. We’re supposed to socialize after dinner, down here in the TV room. Socializing: the panacea for every mental illness. Sullen Bill is sitting on the sofa watching a movie on Comedy Central. He glares at me and I can almost smell him burning. Had James Dean not already come and gone, had Holden Caulfield not already been written, Bill could’ve blazed those trails. Something intense happened to him, too, but I don’t dare ask.
I hear more tromping on the stairs. Laura’s thick legs appear; then her face confirms her identity. Laura, the overweight girl whom I can tell has also come through some terrible trauma, yet another one who seems heavily medicated. She always has a smile for me, though. And she’s literate, shows me the poetry she writes.
Following her down, with deliberately heavy clomping, is my roommate Chris, a young man with a red crew cut who’s so late-adolescent he could play Wally in a remake of Leave it to Beaver. He’s still another “nice guy” about whose condition I don’t have a clue.
The others, as they finish eating, join us one or two at a time. Now Mario and Chris and Robert are having a belching contest and arm-wrestling over in a corner. Bill has turned the TV all the way up so he can hear. Barbara’s babbling again, standing up next to the sofa in her T-shirt that shows Mickey Mouse propositioning Minnie with “Yo Baby, Yo Baby, Yo Baby, Yo!” A counselor’s even helping Julia, 85 years old and almost totally preoccupied with just standing, sitting, or walking, to get down the stairs.
I have to get out of here.
The day program has turned out to be, in its own way, as stifling as the house. At first I had hopes about it, too. Bill and I are the only ones from the house who go to this “elite” program for people who supposedly have the intellectual capacity for a full recovery and re-entry into society. The first morning, he was asked to show me the bus route. You have to transfer at Victory Boulevard, so it’s slightly complicated. We were together about half an hour. He just stared straight ahead, though, even when we were waiting for the bus.
The program is in another big grey residence. The whole thing’s a little weird. There are only seven of us, just six until recently when Scott, a 20 year-old who’s quickly gotten kind of thick with Bill, came. We take up all the time of two professional therapists and an art therapist who comes twice a week. Someone’s indeed pouring a lot of resources our way.
I was eager to go at my healing until Nancy, the director, with her short, spiky haircut, cut me off the first time I started talking about a real issue in group. Nancy just stopped me in the middle of a sentence. OK, so I should maybe have known that she’d want to protect the virgin ears of pretty Marilee from my soliloquy about my compulsive masturbation—how it’s always followed by an agonizing period of energy depletion that can last two or three days. Marilee, the only real looker in the house, just a year or two out of high school. The first day, I asked, “Were you a cheerleader?” “No—a Twirlah,” she answered in her thick, New York brogue. Belinda, our other female member, is an African-American about 30, nice but heavily drugged.
Even worse than my interrupted monologue was what happened last week. I’d been feeling incredibly jealous of Bill with Marilee. They’ve become best buds and always disappear together at lunchtime. It’s hurt my male pride. I felt I had to bring that up in group, too, my feeling of exclusion, or day program would become too painful to endure.
Even though Nancy looked like she wanted to kill me when she saw where I was going, and Marilee, asked by Nancy if she minded the topic, answered with an exaggerated smile, “Not if you keep it sho-at and sweet”—and even though nothing really changed as a result of my breaking once more the taboo against discussing things up close and personal, I somehow felt less squelched after getting everything out in the open. But Nancy’s renewed glare sort of snuffed out any remaining hope I’d had of the day program ever being any real help. After that, I took it as a place-holder, the necessary price of the roof over my head.
By the way, the next day back at the house, Bill pulled me aside and, talking to me for once, gave me his lowdown about both our prospects with girls like Marilee: “The reality is,” he said, “Is that these chicks are all gettin’ screwed by cops and businessmen. We don’t have a chance!”
My whole sense of “path” that had emerged that first day at Wendover House is in danger, after these two months. In fact it’s practically gone, drowned under floods of chaos and sham. I feel pretty much back to square one. Lord knows how far this tailspin may go…if I don’t do something. But what can I do? Like those nights during my hospitalization, ticking the thoughts sleeplessly away at an apparently insoluble problem, I don’t have a clue.
Exploring the island on the bus last Saturday, I passed an art supplies store in a neighborhood I’d never been in before. On a sudden whim I got off at the next stop, walked back there, and came out with a bag full of materials: a thick pad of 18x24” watercolor paper; both watercolor and acrylic paints; an assortment of brushes; and a round metal palette with little cups. It was just a hunch. When I got back to the house, I pushed the bag way under my bed and wondered if I’d ever use it.
Now as I slip away yet again from the noisy basement, the bag of art stuff comes to mind. I ascend the stairs. It’s very quiet up on the main floors of the house. I go up the next flight, down to Chris’ and my room, and enter. Chris is still down doing his nightly belching with Sal and Robert, thank God, and I bathe in the refreshing silence.
I reach under my bed and pull out the bag. In a couple of minutes, I’ve retrieved an old newspaper down in the living room, and put together a little set-up in the middle of our carpeted floor. It looks curiously shrine-like. The big pad is open to the top blank sheet, a blizzard of white. The little palette-cup is filled with primary colors and white and black, the way my old teacher at the university taught me. Brushes and a cup of water sit there too. Now I pull the pillow off my bed and sit down on it with my legs crossed.
What am I supposed to do now? I’m a “recovering mental patient” at one of the low points of my life. I’ve had creative experiences before: in college, I did an independent study, drawing and painting mandalas; I’ve written stories; written and done illustrations for children’s stories; written songs. In fact, wonder, and expressing it, has been my ticket through life since early adulthood. But now is now. I’ve been a basket case for months.
I try to meditate, staring into the white page as if wanting it to tell me something. It doesn’t. I concentrate some more, and I’m not sure if it’s intuitively or merely impulsively that I pick up a medium-sized brush, dip into the red paint, and make a blotch in the center of the page. The mark isn’t big, but it’s exceedingly bright, contrasting with the white expanse.
The red and the white seem to interact, and I feel a force field. Or is it my imagination? I decide to accept the irrational, that the color, the field are indeed “guiding” me, telling me where to put the next blotch. It takes a different shape. Soon, I’m mixing an earthy brown in another palette-cup, dabbing the page with that color. I start making staccato marks, modifying the mix periodically with more yellow or red. I still have no idea where I’m going. I pull myself back for a moment and look at what’s accumulated on the page. Suddenly, I flash: it looks like a map, some kind of abstract map. Needs a boundary. I pick up a calligraphy brush and create a large black circle.
Three hours later, I look down again at what’s emerged. In the center of the page is a stylized, figurative mandala. At its hub is a radiant sun. Inside the black circumference, city buildings face inward, converging upon that sun.
Outside the circle, the abstract pattern still resembles some kind of map…“the suburbs”? Beyond that, towards the four corners of the page, are simple wilderness images: hill, desert, mountain, forest. A brilliant lapis sky unites them.
I’ve been hypnotized by my own creation as it worked its way out from somewhere inside me, until it attained this “objective” existence on a page. As I gaze at it now, I’m pulled in strongly by the center sun. Then I feel myself radiating outward. I marvel at the piece, and at what just happened: my dissolving into a process of creation, which has resulted in this work of art that no one will ever duplicate. The funny thing is, when I come back to myself, I have to think to remember, “I’m a mental patient in a halfway house.” I don’t feel anything wrong inside me! If this experience tonight wasn’t a fluke, then it’s not me that’s off; it’s the surroundings I’ve fallen into, the past six months or so. As I continue to bask in feelings of joy and accomplishment, I begin to plan an immediate future of similar nightly experiments.
I realize that I'll have to patiently put up with all my external circumstances. I’m in no position to even think of anything beyond them, until I know more.
Every night for the past two weeks I’ve slipped to my room, prepared my materials like a ritual magician, and ended up after several hours gazing upon a new world that’s emerged on a page from inside me. Almost more startling, each of these worlds seems distinct. Where do they all come from? One night’s painting expresses nostalgia for childhood. It shows a boy looking into a world of his imagination, depicted as a fancy paddlewheel steamboat sailing down a river like the Mississippi I grew up near. Another night, it’s a pair of huge, outspread hands containing fields, orchards, mountains, sun and sky. Still another night produces an ancient, white-haired man with wisdom in his eyes, overlooking a sleeping youthful figure.
I don’t even fully understand all the images, but I feel their power. This daily experience of being an archetypal “ferryman,” bringing original images from unconscious realms and fixing
them in form—in this case, paint—so that others can share them, is making me a more confident person. The creative reservoir has proven itself not to be fickle. It’s indeed been there whenever
I’ve sought it. Of course, I’m humble and grateful. I literally felt like nothing, very recently. It’s literally redeemed me.
The real challenge continues to be not the “art time,” but rather making it through the uninspired rounds of the day without antagonizing Nancy or Ronnie until, in the night hours I re-enter my inner sanctum and access once again the life-giving magic. But I’ve been doing that passably well, I think.
Tonight, I’ve just finished the daily ritual of preparing the setting with the afore-mentioned priestly sense. I’m sitting on my pillow in that breathless moment, poised to pick up a brush, when there's a knock on the door. Chris wouldn’t knock, so I’m puzzled.
“Just a second,” I call, and rise carefully, walking to the door and opening it a foot. Ronnie is standing there, and now I see the warrior, whom I’ve heard taught weaponry in the Israeli army, in the way his face is set.
“It’s been brought to my attention, Mr. Markley, that you are spending too much time alone,” he begins sternly. “You are isolating from the others. This will not help your recovery. You are required to socialize. I think you know…”
It surges up from so deep inside me there’s no more censoring it than there is censoring a volcano. I positively erupt with righteous anger: “Who, just who, do you think you are?” I open the door wide, moving away from it toward the room’s center. Ronnie comes in and stands a few feet away. “Who do you think you are to presume you know so well what I need?” I demand. He has the power to put me out on the street. But I know if I back down, all is lost.
“I am not isolating,” I continue. “I am painting! Who said that endless socializing and rubbing shoulders with a roomful of disturbed people will produce some miracle of healing?” I pause, then continue. “Do you say that? Drop your damn textbook! You know as well as I do that it will not!”
I can’t help my tone. These words are escaping from me. They’re not an act of will from my personality. They come from some deeper place.
But that’s no guarantee he’ll listen. I like my housemates, but I simply refuse to acquiesce and waste my entire life “mingling.”
I show Ronnie the work from my cardboard portfolio: the child-nostalgia, the symbolic map, the wise old man, the whole array. I know he can assert his authority. One day a few weeks ago, he somehow got the idea that I wanted to have sex with Barbara, and he warned me in no uncertain terms.
But now, suddenly, he looks like a big child. I’ve never seen him this way. The warrior appears completely disarmed. His swords have been beaten into plowshares. His eyes are clear.
“I understand what you’re saying,” he says quietly, after looking again at me and the paintings I’m still holding up. After another brief pause for looking, he adds, “Yes, you know, I think you’re right. Please forgive me for disturbing you.”
“I do,” I say, still in shock from his turnabout.
Ronnie quietly backs his way out of the room, smiles at me, and pulls the door shut in a quiet, respectful way. I breathe deeply for a few minutes. Then I begin to paint.
It’s early July. I’m about to move out of this place next week, to an 11th floor apartment in a high-rise, with a single roommate, the next stage in the system. Frankly, though, I’m starting to think I may have had enough of the system.
In the present moment, however, while I’m still here at Wendover House, I’m making good use of the place. I’m standing in the under-used living room where 13 of my paintings, matted and framed, are sitting on the floor, leaning against the front wall. In my hands I’m holding the last, bending down the metal clips on the back of the frame. This one is a colorful portrait of a sultry-looking lady I sketched as she dawdled at the ferry terminal one afternoon. Ronnie, who now displays on his office wall a color-Xerox I gave him of Manhattan’s skyline nestled within the petals of a lotus flower, has given his blessing to my using the room as a staging area.
“Hey, I hope I’m not late!” a voice bellows in from the hallway. Scott, from the day program, has volunteered to drive the paintings over to the AMB Gallery in Hoboken, where they’re going to be hung as part of a four-artist show.
“No, Scott, perfect timing,” I reply. “You want to go up and get Bill?” I was stunned when my former antagonist, sullen Bill, was so impressed with the portfolio I showed him a month or so ago that he didn’t have a snide or even a clever retort. He just kept nodding as I pulled up paintings, and when I finished, said only “wow.”
After the initial “miracle painting", which in the show bears the title, “City/Self Mandala,” the finished pieces started to pile up, an average of one a night for more than a month. The pile was getting messy, so one Saturday I took the ferry and subway over to Pearl Art in Chinatown and bought the portfolio to keep them safely in. When that too was getting filled, I called an artist friend to ask if he’d take a look. We met at a pub in the Village and he, too, nodded and nodded. When he’d gone through everything, he said, “You know, James Cox has opened an art gallery over in Hoboken. Ann Weichberger is the manager. I think she might like these enough to show some of them.”
I got permission to go to Hoboken after day program one day, missing dinner at the house—ferry to Manhattan, then a train from the PATH Terminal under the World Trade Towers. Hoboken was in the process of major gentrification. I found the gallery on the main street. Ann too had nodded as she perused my portfolio, and when she’d finished, told me about the group show coming up and invited me to join. She stipulated that everything had to be properly matted and framed, and that it would cost me a couple hundred bucks to do that. I made another trip to Pearl in Chinatown and ended up choosing silver metal frames with mats that would complement the individual pieces. I did all the framing and matting myself, right here.
As I place the last finished picture with the others, I hear running on the stairs. Tall, thin Scott, a little puppy-doggish in a nice way, and behind him Bill, bulldog-like as usual, enter the room. Bill appears entranced when he sees the paintings all dressed up for display. After a long gaze, he says, “Man, you’ve really accomplished something!”
I step back and try to look through his eyes at the array of bold color and playful, imaginative form. That Bill, with his wounded, sensitive temperament, has risen out of his own secret preoccupations to say what he just said leaves me feeling a success even before getting to the gallery. Of course, it was the experience of creating these works from nothing that connected with the living spirit within me and brought me back from the dead. But it helps, it really helps, when others confirm the value I feel in my work. What else is there for a human being to want than such bridges to hearts and minds? I can only wish something similar for Bill.
Whatever happens at the gallery, and wherever I end up living when I leave here, I feel I’m walking now on pretty solid ground. I’ve found my purpose, the thing I’m alive to do. I’ve registered for classes at the New York Art Students League in Manhattan, and will begin the daily commute as soon as I’m free of the restrictions the house imposes. But in a way, that’s secondary. I discovered the gift within. Wherever I exercise it, that’s where it will remain.
Bill and Scott begin lifting and carrying the paintings, cradling them delicately as they would little babies, down to Scott’s old station wagon. I carefully pile up several more and carry them down the steps, joining my two friends. One more trip and the loading is complete.
It’s a sunny day. I look back at Wendover House, remembering the winter day when I first walked up those steps, that day when a fragile path seemed to open. And now, another journey is beginning.
This story is part of TOWARD AN INTERIOR SUN by Max Reif