Then and Now, Bellevue Is A State of Mind

I’ve always been afraid of Bellevue. As a child, I pictured it as a crumbling castle full of shadows, secret passageways and catastrophes. Embarrassingly enough, even after living in New York for most of my life, I had no idea where the hell it was. Imagining someplace exotic, such as Staten Island or the Bronx, I was shocked to discover it, recently, on East 29th Street, smack in the psychic center of Manhattan. Bellevue hadn’t been real to me, but mythological. The last thing I’d ever expected was to set foot inside it.

I first heard the word “Bellevue” on the Upper East Side, in my fifth-grade classroom. Our teacher was absent. In time-honored tradition, we were trying to crush the spirit of our substitute teacher. When she turned her back, we hooted like monkeys. One kid pelted a spitball. Another emptied his little cardboard carton of milk on the floor. An eraser sailed through the air, trailing white chalk dust. Suddenly, the classroom door opened. There stood a short, balding guy in full 70’s regalia: tinted aviator glasses, mustache, sideburns, polyester shirt, protruding belly, low-slung pants. To a fifth grader, this man was worthier of respect than the President of the United States. His face was haggard because we worried him continually. He cared about us, and we knew this. He was the assistant principal of P.S. 6.

He spoke from the doorway with solemn authority. “Class,” he said, “I’m very disappointed. I expected more from you.”

We hated dashing his expectations. We hung our heads, ashamed.

Then he administered the coup de grâce . “Watching your behavior just now,” he said, “I couldn’t believe I was in a place of learning. Frankly, I thought I was in Bellevue.”

A chill swept through the classroom. Whatever it was, Bellevue sounded bad. Later, in the cafeteria, we students debated and conferred. None of us had ever been to Bellevue, though one boy claimed that the patients there wore straitjackets. He drew a diagram: a coffin with a lid of nails. The image of confinement lingered. Bellevue gave me nightmares.

One night, my friend Vanessa pointed Bellevue out to me. We lay side by side in our sleeping bags in the back of a station wagon. Her brother and I had been telling ghost stories on the trip back from East Hampton.

“There’s Bellevue, the lunatic asylum,” she whispered. “See the bars on the windows? They keep the psychos in chains. When we drive by, you’ll hear them scream.”

In the light from the street lamp, a dark fortress loomed over Central Park West, radiating a sinister air. I could just make out the barred windows and detect faint screams. This wasn’t Bellevue at all, as my mom clarified later that night. It was the Dakota. Not the stately co-op of today, but the Dakota in its youth, before its façade was cleaned up-the way Roman Polanski shot it for Rosemary’s Baby . Crouched on the corner like a giant bat, black with layers of soot, it was easy to envision schizophrenic Satan worshippers lurking around in there.

I finally went to Bellevue a few weeks ago, 30 years after I dreamed about it. The trip to Bellevue began with a panicked phone call from a dear old friend whom I’ll call Serge. Every New Yorker has a Serge, someone brilliant, crazy and beloved. Boyish though pushing 40, Serge is a charmer. A talented chef, he’s a restless globetrotter, a former banker, model and Parisian gallery owner. He’s also a manic-depressive who had run out of medication, resorting to an infusion of Absolut vodka.

“I can’t stop drinking,” he said. “I’m going through two quarts a day.”

After a round of phone calls, a trusted doctor recommended Bellevue as the only hospital in town that would admit Serge for free. It provides treatment to the unstable, cross-addicted, alcoholic, felonious, uninsured and unemployed. Naturally, our glamorous bad boy fell into every category.

After we’d made arrangements to meet with a psychiatrist there, only one pressing question remained. What to wear? For our visit to Bellevue, my husband and I opted for sweaters and jeans. Serge, however, elected to dress up instead of down. When we picked him up at the studio apartment where he was poisoning himself, he sported Prada, head to toe. The only exception was his eyeglasses. “Chanel,” he noted, dryly. (“Manic. Shopping spree,” he explained.) He was certainly the most elegant of impoverished mental patients. He was also plastered. After he’d poured himself “one last martini” to celebrate his date with detox, we discovered that Serge no longer possessed the ability to walk. Bellevue was only four blocks away, but we arrived in style, hopping a cab. To my surprise, there was no dark tower. We drove up to a perfectly ordinary, modestly attractive modern hospital. What is remarkable about Bellevue is only that it turns no one away. Ask a cab driver, a laid-off dot-commer or an illegal alien from Haiti, and they’ll agree: If you’re sick or injured and short of cash, Bellevue is the place to be.

We soon found ourselves in the belly of the beast-the admissions office of the psychiatric unit. Here, Bellevue began to live up to its scary old reputation. The 400-pound man sitting beside us, accompanied by an armed police escort, was handcuffed to a sturdy metal bar. (We didn’t ask.)

After we’d filled out forms and met some friendly hospital personnel, a cute young doctor appeared and led Serge away. When they returned, several hours later, Prada was out. Serge was wearing standard-issue blue hospital pajamas, shuffling down the hallway in paper slippers. Without his designer threads, he seemed fragile and disheartened. He’d been hospitalized once before, in New England, after attempting suicide as a teenager. The memory pained him. “Before I go up to the mental ward,” he said, now sober, “I need a cigarette.” He looked imploringly from me to my husband to the doctor.

“You can’t smoke inside Bellevue, Serge,” the doctor said, pointing at the “No Smoking” sign.

“My God,” Serge muttered. “Please give me a break. I mean, you took away my cell phone. You took away my clothes!”

I’m not sure what strings the doctor pulled, but the rules were overlooked somehow. Although Serge was a registered patient, confined to the grounds, he was allowed to slip past the security guards. Accompanied by the doctor, we stepped outside Bellevue’s utterly normal, not-Gothic, not-creepy main entrance into the winter night. We stomped our feet in the cold-three pairs of sneakers and one pair of nerdy-chic Prada booties, which had temporarily been returned to Serge, together with his cell phone and his pack of Marlboros. He lit up. Three reformed smokers looked on as smoke encircled his shaved head.

“So, honey, are you going to put me in a straitjacket now?” Serge asked gamely.

The young psychiatrist grinned. The mood lifted. He patted our pal, fondly, on the shoulder. For a moment, we weren’t outside Bellevue, but at a party, laughing and flirting. Crazy or not, Serge’s presence can do that. He passed around his cigarette and, one by one, we took a drag.