May 30, 2006

The Last Letter From Lem

Filed under: Letters From Lem — Twin A @ 10:22 pm


“In the late 70’s and early 80’s the Lower East Side
was a war zone, and I lay on my back in an empty
building with cockroaches crawling over my chest. I
made love to two women in that building, but there was
a third that I wanted more than any, and her name was
Mercury.” Harry Lomax laughed. “You know Mercury,
right? With the wings on the helmet?” I nodded
hesitantly, afraid that he was going to eat my head.
“Ha ha,” he cackled. “I know you know her.”

Red and I sat at the back of the day room, stupefied.
Harry sat back and started mumbling to himself. I
then came up with an excuse to slip by him (something
about cups and snacks) and Red followed. On the way
out, he whispered something to Red. “What was that?”
I asked. “He asked me if you were my husband or my
brother. I told him you were my friend.”

I have to admit, I felt a certain protective fraternal
feeling towards Red, but she’s the kind of girl who
can look out for herself. And after a day where we
had seen Harry Lomax try to leave 20 East by throwing
himself with full force upon one of the grated windows
in the day room, we felt like the Bobsey Twins getting
past him while he was still lucid.

Now we’re both out, Todd. We left at the same time
today, Tuesday 11 a.m. I walked across the yellow
line that patients may not cross, but somehow I feel
like I’m still there. Tonight I am haunted by the
people that still sleep on those shitty little beds,
cursed by a Republican government to live out the rest
of their lives in a contracting welfare system where
the bottom rung is the mentally ill, and the lowest of
the low are the mentally ill substance abusers.

I ended up there because I had a nervous breakdown and
threw myself out a window while high on a couple
things. Those things go on your record, and that
determines where you stay if and when you go to a
psych ward. I went to a dual-diagnosis locked unit–
that is, a unit you can’t leave for at least a week
for mentally ill substance abusers.

I voluntarily committed myself, which cut my stay down
to two weeks. That, and the fact that I played it
cool as ice while I was in there, going with the flow,
telling the doctors no, no, and no in as calm a voice
I could muster, while inside I wanted to go all Girl

That’s the name Red and I gave to the little
20-year-old who freaked out and kicked the walls and
screamed one night when they dragged her in, screamed
and screamed until they put her down with a five-foot
needle. Turns out she was a junkie but that didn’t
console me any.

Anyhow, I’m still in 20 East, thinking about how my
skin color and my social class got me out of that
sooner than my fellow inmates. Let me tell you who
I’m thinking about tonight:

Samuel Baptista, who played the best game of checkers
I had ever seen until I saw him get beaten by a West
African staffer,

Austin, the young guy who tagged along with Shakeer
and talked about how he was going prescribe ‘gnac and
sex all night to all the patients (the ultimate cure
in my opinion),

Vivian, who cleaned up after everyone and taught me
how to play spades,

Nasheeda, or Yvette, who is HIV-positive but still
talked about how she wants some dick loudly, while I
was finishing The Arabian Nights (thanks Twin B),

James, who had been in and out of the system since ‘95
and kept creeping up behind Red and telling her she
smelled good,

Ed Michaels, a vagrant from Detroit who ended up here
because his feet hurt and he wanted to rest in the

Ray, an old bruiser of a man who reminded me of one of
my mother’s lumberjack uncles,

Phil, another well-off suicide (slit wrists for him),

Peter, who claimed he was there by accident and was
ALMOST totally convincing,

Denise, who had a strange lump in her belly but wasn’t
pregnant or cancerous,

Anthony, who walked around like a zombie,

LaFawn, who rapped poorly, had a lazy eye and stuck
his finger in my belly button and asked Red about hers
(turns out he’s a bisexual fetishist),

Miguel, the only sane person left after Red and I
left– the sweetest, most gentle-hearted man you could
meet– full of self-loathing and convinced he was
going to die an alcoholic.

For all of these people, trapped in a downward spiral
in a system that offers no help, I say a prayer
tonight. Because prayer is what you do when you have
no other options left.

Please, God, Universe, whatever– have mercy on them.
Get them through the endless cycle of days and nights
where you are constantly medicated and prodded and
bored and you forget what day of the month it is. And
you snap and then you stay there.

Like I almost did. Tonight, I’m still there. I half
expect that this apartment, which I have been gazing
at from a distance for two weeks, will melt away
during the night and I will be back in that white room
with Felix Felix, plotting how to hoard snacks for the
day. That’s the kind of thing that happens in The
Arabian Nights, you know.

White boy, interrupted,


May 29, 2006

Letters From Lem #11

Filed under: Letters From Lem — Twin A @ 12:43 pm


Felix Felix is hanging out with Samuel and one of the new patients in the dining room. They’re taking turns singing sad songs in Spanish that float into my room as I read The Arabian Nights. Behind their singing is music from a boombox, nurses snapping, and patients lazily acting out their impulses in the hallway. Today is the day that I read and nap with glorious weekend sunshine pouring through the safety grating.

There’s been a lot of new admissions to the ward in the past couple of days. I saw an older Polish man with fierce eyebrows and tucked in pajamas looking longingly across the river at Greenpoint so intensely that I thought he might fly across the water to return there. I aslo saw a tiny 20 year old woman tearfully beg her parents not to leave her in this place, and then explode in pain and rage, kicking the walls and reinforced windows, when they turned their backs on her and walked away. Eight nurses wearing purple gloves helped tuck her into bed.

At least four patients are under one to one observation. I can’t keep track of why anymore — one of them is always Harry Lomax and the rest are probably suicide cases. Speaking of which, Red my favorite wall street headcase just told me about everything that happend today while I was hiding in my room. Apparently in a group meeting Harry burst out in a complete rendition of “All you need is Love” (despite the protestations of the group leader.) Also Red went to church this morning. Church was a short-tempered priest lecturing at an altar on wheels butted up against a ping-pong table in a rec room whose walls were covered with patients artwork. (Red has asked that I make it clear to the world that she is not Catholic. Just bored.)

Tody was grooming day and Felix Felix is now sporting a buzz cut. Also, there were banana splits in the afternoon which I missed because I was having visiting hours with my mother.

I’d like to give a shout out to my mom who has been typing my pitiful handwritten letters and sending them to you Todd. She says she doesn’t mind but I wouldn’t have been able to smuggle these messages out of here without her formidable secretarial skills.

Two more days — looking forward to wearing shoelaces again,


May 28, 2006

Letters From Lem #10

Filed under: Letters From Lem — Twin A @ 2:26 pm


The cast came off my arm today, and with every third word I scrawl, my entire forearm twinges with pain. So let me get right to the point — they let me onto the roof today, and I smelled the polluted air and felt the wet, hot sun bake the back of my neck. The rooftop area is completely fenced in, like an enormous batting cage, and paved with the black playground rubber that keeps little children from breaking their limbs. I clutched the chain link and stared at the city skyline, gulping freedom.

To be honest, being out in the open air for the first time in weeks made me a little sad and anxious. I’m worried about what real life is going to be like, and the rooftop smelled like real life. When I descended back into the hospital, though, I noticed for the first time an acrid, metallic tang in the air. Hospital air has a distinct, flat, unpleasant odor and I blocked it out until today. Between the uncertainty of the asphalt and stormclouds, and an antiseptic blanket, I’ll take the rooftop.

The name of the gigantic man who is wrecking havoc in the ward is Harry Lomax. Last night at dinner he flipped over an entire table, dinner trays and all and walked through our midst with a quivering bowl of pea soup in his hand. This morning my door creaked open terribly and slowly. “Where are my shoes?” rasped a hulkiing mass. “Get out of this room!” I replied as authoritatively as possible. Harry Lomax closed the door and I heard his bellowing echo down the hallway as he lumbered toward the nurses’ station — “I want my motherfucking shoes!”

Later, everyone was hanging out in the day room watching a VHS copy of Return of the Jedi, and Harry started pounding his fists on his knees and yelling “Jam Nad Sox!” at the top of his lungs. My roommate Felix Felix (I found out yesterday he has the same first and last names) threw a chair across the floor just to add to the chaos.

My right arm is scrawny and bent like a chicken wing. It will not defend me from the depradation of Harry Lomax. I’m counting on Felix Felix to protect me as I sleep, and common sense to keep me out of trouble during waking hours.

Now, medication time!

Three more crazy days,


May 27, 2006

Letters From Lem #9

Filed under: Letters From Lem — Twin A @ 8:15 pm


Waters, the guy who tried to climb over the railing of the Empire State Building, was finally allowed to leave this morning. When they asked him to share his thoughts in the morning Community Meeting, he grinned and said, “Well, uh, I grew up watching Daffy Duck in Bellevue Hospital and now I’m out of here and y’all are still in the nuthouse.”

David W. left too, on a bus to New Hampshire carrying his ten trillion dollar blueprints in his pocket. A couple of other people are leaving after the three-day weekend, including me — they’ve finally given me a definite discharge date of Tuesday at 11 AM.

Felix and Shakeer got caught smoking cigarettes (they tried sneaking one in Shakeer’s shower.) We were all confined to the day room while they searched the rooms one by one. I witnessed the humiliating spectacle of Shakeer taking off his pants and standing bare-asses in the day room while the staff truned them inside out looking for smokes. Now Felix is stuck in his room indefinitely. I gave him chocolates from my care package and donuts that I bought from the Friday snack guy. He looked wretched.

The ward is messy, the staff seems tired and unfocused, already half out the door to their Memorial day Holiday. Keys jangle, nurses shake their heads.

Nasheeda is a relative new comer to the ward. “Geth the fuck out of my face, you fucking broke-down motherfucking New Jersey nigger!” she hollers at Carl. (Carl said he would play spades iwth her, then gleefully refused to play. Carl is a little unbalanced.)

There are two new additions to the ward today — both huge men with glazed expressions. One of them jostled me in the snack line, smelling of burnt garbage. The other just looks like he wants to hurt somebody.

Jerry Springer blares on TV. Patients wander in erratic patterns through the day room, into the hallway, with intense expressions on their faces. James, a deranged male patient, edges a seat close to Red. “It’s gonna be a long weekend, dude,” she growls to me under her breath. I grin and nod, knowing that I have just received the wall street forecast.

Sure enough, as soon as I walk out of the room, one of the new heavyset guys lunges for a total stranger, trying to choke him. He is removed. Five burly staffers descend on his room to give him an injection.

Then, lunch is served. For no good reason, Nasheeda starts to serenade us, toothlessly and tunelessly. “They call me Star,” she proclaims to a captive audience.

More to come,


Letters From Lem #8

Filed under: Letters From Lem — Twin A @ 8:14 pm


Today an excort showed up and walked me out of 20 East, down some elevators, through a long bustling corridor and up another set of elevators to Bellevue’s Outpatient Chemical Dependency Clinic.

The clinic is close to ground level, and I could smell dirt and grease and sunshine through the propped-open windows; a three-dimensional odor of Manhattan that I had almost forgotten. I drank some freshly brewed coffee and sat next to Joyce, a gigantic black woman who pointed to a piece of paper and made me run to a relapse group down the hall.

I sat at a huge table and for the first time, listened to a somewhat coherent round-table discussion of various peoples problems with addiction. Sure, some eccentric personalities dominated, but the conversation wasn’t run off the rails by the ravings of a lone wacko the way they so often are on 20 East.

After sitting in on a Patient Government group (where the patients discussed cooking up group meals and maintaining the communal garden), I was surprised to find myself in genuine conversation over a lunch that hadn’t been re-heated. It was served up soup-kitchen style and as Al Green sang “Help me mend this broken man” in the background, I chatted with Charlie and Antolin, the men sitting across and to the right of me. I explained to them that I was on a visitor’s pass from 20 East, the psychiatric ward upstairs. I braced myself for the inevitable flinches.

Charlie smiled, “I was on 18 west.” “I was on 17 west” added Antolin. Just take it easy, go with the flow, don’t fight it, they advised me. Antolin went on to describe the relationship between spirituality and bipolar disorder. His prosed link was persuasive: both topics involve our volatile relationships with our own unconscious minds. Antolin left me with his buisiness card, which described him as “spiritually sensitive.” On the back of the card was printed a small blue circle and the words, “Look at the circle and ask any question. Trust the response you get. keep on asking questions.”

I was escorted back up to 20 East. I looked over a care package I had received from some old friends in Chicago — the nurses had confiscated everything in it except a book two issues of the Onion and some greeting cards, which they had opened and read. Shakeer and Felix snuck out of my room to smoke a cigarette. I kept my eyes on this piece of paper — I gotta keep my nose clean if I’m gonna spring this joint.

More to come,


May 25, 2006

Letters From Lem #7

Filed under: Letters From Lem — Twin A @ 4:38 pm

Shakeer is dancing to the radio in Room 20E47. He’s a big black guy shaking it all up in powder blue pajamas. As I walk by I meet his eyes and smile. The staff lets the patients listen to the radio or watch movies in this room when things are settling down in the evening. Vivian pulls Austin out of the room; it’s his turn to help prepare the evening snack (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as usual).

Standing in the snack line, Randy and David walk up to me. “How are you feeling, sir?” asks David courteously. I wonder who he thinks I am tonight. Levine is acting up - “My beard is not funny!” He then takes it upon himself to run down the hallway yelling “SNACK TIME!” at the top of his lungs.

We file in. Hushed with awe, we enter the dining room to find that tuna fish sandwiches have been added to the usual pyramid of pb&j. Greedy fingers snatch at wax paper. The nurses’ voices become shrill. In a burst of violence, my roomate Felix and Shakeer (two huge, coiled men) fight over a half a sandwich across the room. The altercation peters out & confusion hangs over my head as I swallow cheap bread.

I’m finishing this with an orange sharpie because someone stole my pen. The orange link is bleeding through on to the dictionary I used to play Scrabble with Red tonight. Red is a commodities trader who tried to kill herself with half a bottle of vodka and seventy sleeping pills. Tomorrow will be her 29th birthday. As our meds kick in, our scrabble game gets less and less competitive, and we start counting made-up words to get rid of our chips. Red ends with “jube,” which we later find out is a real word, meaning “to bid or command.” A double dose of Seroquel jubes me to escape another night at 20 East in dreamless sleep.

More to come,

May 24, 2006

Letters From Lem #6

Filed under: Letters From Lem — Twin A @ 12:14 pm


My psychiatric treatment is going well! Some examples:

#1 I just participated in Music and Imagery Group, where Jason, the staffer, played instrumental pieces on guitar and then piano while a few of us sat around a table with magic markers, paints and colored pencils and made interpretative artwork on 11� by 17� pieces of paper. I’m pretty sure the last piece he played was “Music of the Night� from Phantom of the Opera.

#2 The other night, a doctor with grey hair burst into my room at 2 in the morning and barked my name. “I’m Doctor Such-and-such and I’m going to ask you some questions. Have you had thoughts of hurting yourself?� No. “Have you had thoughts of hurting anyone else?� No. He went through the usual tired roster of questions and somehow ended up grilling me about my previous life as an assistant editor for television shows. “Do you want your own TV show?� he barked. No. “Why not?� It’s too much work. “Too much work — that’s another one,� he muttered to his assistant as he disappeared and I collapsed back onto my pillow.

#3 I met with my “team� this morning, which meant walking into a small room and sitting in front of a group of relative strangers who let me know that:

a) I would probably not be receiving any treatment for my broken knee & elbow while in the psychiatric ward, and
b) I would probably not be discharged from the psychiatric ward until “early next week� (this departure date is by no means certain.)

When I asked my team what I should be trying to get out of my experience at 20 East, they encouraged me to “participate in more groups� (see #1).

Someone just asked me if the letter I’m scratching out on a wooden chessboard is a 72-hour letter. Since I voluntarily committed myself, I have the right to request my own discharge in writing. However, the doctors have 72 hours to review this letter, and during that time, they could make the decision to switch me to involuntary status, ha ha! So, no 72-hour letters for me. I’m going to stick to writing missals to you, Todd.

More to come,

P.S. Good news! I got 30 cents for my sugar packets at dinner! If this keeps up I’ll be able to afford a bag of Fritos from the snack vendor who comes by every Friday at 11 a.m. Wish me luck!

May 23, 2006

Letters From Lem #5

Filed under: Letters From Lem — Twin A @ 7:26 pm


I was walking down the long hallway of 20 East today and one of the nurses admonished Madonna, the overweight black woman who is missing her front bridge and who always asks me for my coffee. “I’ve got my eye on you, Madonna.” said the Nurse. “You can’t be talking like that.” “I was just talking to my nasty Jesus,” protested Madonna. “He was sucking some dog pussy.”

Madonna also does movie commentary. Just now, when Gary S. came on the screen in the TV room, she announced to no one in particular: “That’s a doo-doo man. he wants to smell your butt and eat your shit.” She then drifted off into an ugly scatalogical reverie.

There are a small number of women on the ward, and the ones that are even moderately attractive find themselves under siege from the moment they are checked in. Eliza, the suicidal Polish girl, gets to roll out her conversational skills with mentally unbalanced men roughly once every ten minutes. One of my favorite encounters was when David W. walked up to Eliza one afternoon.

David claims he was built by the U.S. government at a cost of $20 million before an aircraft carrier accident left him with head injuries that resembel schizophrenia. “Do you like Guns and Roses?” he asked. Eliza shrugged. “Well, I invented them when I was a baby.” He went on to explain — “When I was about 12, I asked the Gods and Goddesses on Earth to create the ultimate rock and roll band, and they did, it was the Guns and Roses.” I think I was more impressed than Eliza was.

I don’t have a Nasty Jesus or an Earth Goddess to talk to up here. My conversation comes in bits and pieces from twenty-seven unbalanced people who are operating on a sliding scale of functionality. I did catch myself talking to myself the other night, though. I think I was saying something like, “I need to get out of here.”

More to come,


May 22, 2006

Letters From Lem 4

Filed under: Letters From Lem — Twin A @ 1:50 pm

Note: This was sent via cellphone.


I place the palm of my hand on the grating that
protects the windows at the back of Room 20E36. Felix
is singing in Spanish in the day room and I listen to
him and stare across the sparkling green brown water
of the East River at the neighborhood of Greenpoint
flung on a hill around the spire of St. Anthony of
Padua. Somewhere down there is my apartment, and the
life I dimly remember leading outside the Hospital.

Felix is my new roommate — I was moved so that I
could have a handicapped access shower — and he is
depressed. Hes been here for months because a social
worker caught him writing graffiti on the sidewalk
with a brick, and that social worker let the police
know that Felix was already on medication. So off to
Bellevue he went.

Theres a lot of rules here. I shave in the morning
with a single razor and a dixie-cup full of shaving
cream in the hallway bathroom between 7:30 and 8:30
am, being sure to leave the bathroom door ajar the
whole time and return the razor when Im done.

At 9:30 am everyone has to retire to their tiny,
bare-bones rooms for a half hour while a couple of
nurses push a cart down the length of the hallway
dispensing medications. Then everyone wanders around
for a while between meals, depemdimg on how assiduosly
the staff badgers us into participating in one of
their unfocused, chaotic groups. They put us to bed by
10 pm, except on weekends, when its 12 midnight.
(Because everyones so medicated not many people make
it that late.)

This morning. I put my swollen leg up on some pillows
and stared at the blank ceiling. When I leaned my head
back, the sun bloomed through the grating on my upside
down window and I thought about the fresh air and the
bright blue sky that surrounded me over five weeks ago
when I hung out the window, ready to drop.

Rabdy and David are looking out the window now,
talking about the boats on the river and the apartment
complexes that lie alongside us. The guys in the day room
transfixed by the women dancing the Soul
Train– even Babu, the staffer monitoring us, exclaims
Thats my music! A dishevelled weekend psychiatrist
sits down next to me, asks a few perfuntory questions,

Levine shouts angrily about people using the phone too
much. Were all waiting for the Saturday coffee break
that comes at 3:15.

More to come,

Letters From Lem 3

Filed under: Letters From Lem — Twin A @ 1:48 pm


Levine was pissed off today. Levine is a shambling Rasta warrior with bright black eyes and a giant mass of grey unwashed hair that sort of floats and bounces as he shuffles down 20 east’s hallway, ducking into rooms as he goes. Levine’s rampage began at the front window that the staffers hide behind. the front window is like a cashier’s window, only with a cardboard and construction paper display about “COMMONLY USED MEDICATIONS” instead of a price list. He started cussing out everyone in sight, telling one staffer to “go back to Africa.” Later, he dominated the morning Community Meeting, where the doctors and staffers sit in a row and talk down to the patients, yelling that he was going to drag 20 East’s night staff into Criminal Court, Federal Court, Supreme Court, whatever it takes.”

By the time he cried “scavengers! I don’t eat scavengers.” at lunch, most of us had stopped listening. (I guess he was objecting to schrimp and pork, which wasn’t anywhere to be found in our lunch. Just the usual chicken, bland vegetables, individual plastic-wrapped slice of bread, half-full lukewarm styrofoam cup of coffee, and a cup of dessert.

Mealtimes are alive with yelling, anyway - not necessarily angry yelling although this is added to the mix, but a bustling commodities trading floor: “Coffee for cranberry?” “Eggs, who wants eggs?” “Can I get sugar?” “Who wants soup for pudding?” “Sweet and low! Swee and Low!” The one thing no one can get rid of at any price are the tiny plastic cups of cold orzo salad — they’re awful.

Levine’s ability to sustain his anger morning, noon and night is admirable, if ultimately irritating. In the Hollywood adaptation of Bellevue Hospital, 20 East, Levine would be cast as a fold hero, liberating the patients with his passionate monologues. Perhaps that’s how he sees himself. Personally, I’m content to take my depokote, let people throw eggs and cereal packets over my head, and stay quiet until the let me out of this joint.

More to come,

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