It was 1947. Designated as a “poet” two years earlier by my first live-in girlfriend, I was sleeping on the New York City streets, in a burnt out Willys automobile. I went to visit my father and stepmother at Castle Village in Washington Heights wearing an enormous castoff, ratty buffalo fur coat, and a cowboy hat. When I asked the doorman for “Otto Stern, Apartment 96,” stating that I was his son, he said “no way,” but, nevertheless, phoned. Father came down, yelled at the confused uniformed guy, then louder at me: “your appearance is a shande.” He dragged me to the basement garage, drove me to the Bronx to my uncle Sidney’s, the doctor’s office, and, from there, to Uncle Sidney’s psychiatrist colleague who diagnosed me as malnourished. He told me that my father could not afford his fees and advised me to go immediately to the Psychiatric Institute on West 168th St., tell them I was a poet, homeless, desperate, and that I’m contemplating suicide. “They want interesting patients, so with a good story they’ll take you in, your father will sign for you, they’ll feed you. Now, for sure, you can’t tell anyone I told you to do that.” I ignored his admonition and told everyone.
The next morning I went uptown and told the hospital interviewer that I had this compulsion to drive the Willys off the West Side Highway into the Hudson River. They phone my father, he comes there angry and signs, and I’m
admitted to the locked men’s ward of P.I. on an upper floor of this high rise building, part of the Presbyterian Hospital complex.
I’m assigned a bed, one of a row of ten down one side of a big windowed, day-lit space with another row on the opposite side of the long dorm-style room; looks like over half of these are in use with an assortment of occupants scattered around, reading, playing cards, checkers and chess or just staring or dozing, many wearing robes over pajamas but some dressed. There’s a ping pong table with no net between the beds. Most of the men are much
older, some about my age and also teens a bit younger than my nineteen years. There’s a kind of low Muzak-style sound on, punctuated with announcements like “go to dinner,” down the hall with six tables each sitting four. There’s
lots of food—simple, filling, normal stuff, but for sure edible, attended by two nurses, one of them male. Behind a counter, an older woman serves.
I sleep OK in this strange setting and, the next morning, I’m told that Dr. Hambidge, my psychiatrist, is here to see me. He tells me he’ll be seeing me for one hour each week. He’s shorter than me, light-haired, tweedy, maybe Harris, smiles a lot and enunciates word-by-word in perfect American English sentences. He displays my admittance documents and questions how serious I was about driving the car into the Hudson River. I admitted “not very.” He wanted to know how I decided I was a “poet” and I told him that I had written a poem to my university-graduated girlfriend, an English major, who told me “so you’re a poet.” I right away knew that’s who I was, and used the term profusely. I spent that first hour with the doctor explaining about my family, my hard times with my stepmother and angry father, and that I’d moved out of their Washington Heights apartment into a furnished room several years earlier before moving to the Village.
The next afternoon we had a weekly social with the women’s ward and was I ever surprised to find out that my friend E.P., whom I had known from her High School of Music and Art days when I was at Bronx Science, was a patient. Her usual giddy, excited self had retreated behind sadness and apathy. She wasn’t even surprised to find me there, although we had been intimate friends for some years. Every day, our ward spent an hour in the fresh air on a tiled
roof; a screen rose above brick from waist-high level all the way up and across the top, so one’s view of Riverside Drive and sky was broken by the pattern of twisted wire mesh screen.
Some of the time we could listen to the radio. There were efforts to get the patients involved with each other, but most everyone had their own story, eager to tell all but not listening to anyone else. So the interaction was limited and some turned into loud attempts at pointed personal domination. There were victims of paranoid convictions, and quiet ones, mumblers, endless repeaters of well-rehearsed phrases.
A couple of afternoons after my second session with my “shrink,” a word discouraged by the staff but abused by us, I was feeling lonely and bored when the ward door to the floor was unlocked and our young, dumb male nurse, Lane, brought in a heavy horn-rimmed tall and chunky guy all dressed in blue with a big stack of books under each arm. Dark blue shirt and pants, blue suede shoes, he walks up to the only beard in the room, which is me, and gives such a look that I stick out my hand and say “Stern.” With a loud crash, he drops both arms full of books on the floor, sticks out his hand and says, “Solomon!! Define your terms!” I help pick up his books and don’t recognize any of the authors’ names or titles. This blue apparition totally transforms the scene. Quickly, I’m told he has been put here after throwing a container of potato salad at Wallace Markfield, who was lecturing about anarchism at NYU. On a name basis, we became Solomon and Stern, although a lot of the older guys Mistered to each other. Carl explained that he had recently returned from working on a ship from Paris where he bought most of these books, which he offered me to read. He recommended the Celine and the Millers but I also noted, unfamiliar to me, the names Genet and Christopher Smart. Such hard covers, unlike previous experiences with the other patients’ newspaper and magazine habits, were more part of my familiar world. I understood that Carl and I shared, as we told each other, more and various details about whom we thought we were.
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A few days later the ward door unlocks again to admit another four-eyed, somewhat skinnier, but very energetic and gestural gent, calling himself Allen. When Carl says “Welcome Al,” the newcomer objects. “Allen not ever Al, Allen
Ginsberg, if you must.” The next morning, we find out he was a student at Columbia University and some sort of trouble had his professors send him here. Long years after P.I., I learned that his eminent literary professors Tate and Trilling knew about Ginsberg’s role involving stolen university property and kept him from winding up in jail by sending him to P.I. We quickly formed a trio, confessing to each other that we all wrote poems and lived a somewhat outside-of-normal lifestyle.
I discovered that, on request, a nurse would unlock a closet and give us use of the ping-pong net, paddles, and a ball. We persuaded nurse Lane to join, playing with the three of us, one at a time, as we quickly passed our side
of the table’s paddle to the first of us, then the second, and the third. Allen was deputized to keep score. We had agreed that when our side was winning, Allen would change it to losing and, if Lane was losing, he would make Lane
winning. When Lane realized what was up, he put the ball in his pocket and yelled “NO! NO! NO WAY!!” until he was shushed and led away by the in charge, tougher, lady nurse.
Next, at our daily fresh air recreation on the hospital’s partial roof, we planned another act.
Not long after being led out, the three of us, one at a time, climbed the wire mesh walls to the point where we were each about four feet off the floor and were loudly telling each other what we were seeing, most of it being ridiculous
and completely made up for the benefit of the rest of our fellow patients below. Try imagining a sample! “There’s a naked couple” or “what are those dogs doing to each other?” Very quickly a whistle blew, and we were urgently ordered to descend. If we ever tried to climb again, we were warned we would never be allowed to come out for recreation with the rest of our ward.
Each of us three had our own doctor once a week. Both Carl and Allen told me that theirs had suggested and recommended to them both electric and insulin shock treatments. Carl accepted electric, telling us that it sounded like a thrill. Allen refused both. When I asked Dr. Hambidge what that was all about, he said that it was not indicated for me but didn’t explain why
It was a couple of days before Easter and, on each table at lunch, there was a painted cardboard Easter bunny. When Carl got up to go to the toilet, I noticed the bunny had disappeared. When he came back, Carl carefully took the bunny out of his pocket. When he put it down on the table, a white goo spread around the bunny’s base. Lane noticed the mess and asked, “What’s that?” Carl replied, “I just brought back what I did in the bathroom.”
Lane screamed repeatedly until two other nurses brought a straitjacket, took him out of the room, and we never saw him again.
I was allowed out for the weekends from Saturday morning through Sunday evening if I had a friend to sign me out and sign me back in. Allen and Carl were in a different category and had to stay locked up. I was already a confirmed pot smoker and Carl had smoked but we discovered Allen had never had any. So the two of them convinced me to bring in a joint when I went out for the weekend so Allen could try it. I did bring both a joint and matches, both verboten. We taught Allen how to smoke it, and it seemed to get him high. Both Allen and I had been reading Carl’s books, including the Genet. Genet had turned his criminal accomplices into the French police. So Allen, at Carl’s suggestion, imitated Genet and turned me into his doctor, who reported it to the administration. I was called into the director’s office. What I had done was cause for dismissal, and I was arbitrarily scheduled to leave after my last weekly psychiatric session.
So there I sat opposite Dr. Hambidge who said, “You know that I am a Freudian and we have discussed that you read some Freud and understand that we listen and do not give advice. But since this is the last time we are going to see each other, because of what you did, I decided I am going to violate that ban and tell you that you can’t live both the life that your father wants you to live and the life you told me you want to live. So you need to decide which one you want and that’s a decision you need to make soon.” I immediately understood what he meant, made my decision, and have more or less done my own thing ever since. I have always remembered with gratitude Dr. Hambidge’s departure from Freudian orthodoxy.
Allen first and then Carl were soon also released from P.I. I stayed friends with both of them for better or worse. Carl became an editor for his uncle A. A. Wyn, publisher of Ace Books. That job and his marriage ended when Allen’s
poem “Howl,” asserting Carl’s told but untrue incestuous behavior, institutionalized Carl again for more shocks. Allen with Jack Kerouac visited Carl at Rockland State and persuaded him and his mother not to sue regarding that accusation. About that time, the 1950s, I lived on my barge in Sausalito with my then-wife, another poet, Ann London. Again, Allen got me in trouble when he accused me of destroying, tossing the famous “Joan Anderson” letter or manuscript off my barge. It was not until December of 2014 that I was vindicated when those same pages written by Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac turned up in the effects of a publisher to whom Allen had given them then. You just have to live long enough. And at 94, I’m still the poet, one of the three that this tale is about: Gerd, Carl & Allen.
Gerd Stern is a poet, multimedia artist, and co-founder of USCO, an American media art collective started in the 1960s.
*This article was originally published in DoubleBlind Issue 8.