New York City
It’s a day like any other and I am in the subway. Most of the orange seats are empty so I sit down, put my large tapestry bag on the seat next to me and pull out a book. This is how I get from here to there, nose in a book, words distracting me. A woman, emaciated, dirty, extends herself through the subway car, pleading for change. She is hungry, she says. She is pregnant. She has AIDS. She needs help. “Help me,” she says. I keep reading my book, eyes fastened steadily on the page. The words blur. “Help me,” she says again. Time collapses. It is 1973; it is 1968; 1963; 1955. A woman stands in front of a barred window facing a wide expanse of lawn. She rattles the bars. A man stands at the window at the opposite side of the building methodically tearing sheets into strips, littering the grass with bits of white cloth. Someone else tosses bread to the hundreds of pigeons that squat on the grass. I’m walking up to the steps of the building carrying my books. Mary, she has a name, I know her name, is at the barred window. “Help me,” she screams, “help me.” And I continue up the steps, walking the way I’ve been taught to walk, quickly, purposefully, as if nothing at all were happening around me.
On a beautiful June day in the early eighties Barry Strauss and I drive to Binghamton on our way rom Ithaca to New York. Barry is the boyfriend of the moment, the quintessential nice Jewish boy: Ph.D., classics professor, tenure-track Cornell. I am taking him home to meet my mother, to show him where I grew up. Some rapid cuts: we go to my mother’s apartment where the two of them charm one another, trading poems in Greek and Latin while I pour coffee into thin porcelain cups. The oriental rugs glow in the afternoon sunlight. She likes him. I can tell because she starts to tell him the story of her life. These stories are better than anyone’s, her life brighter in the telling than Technicolor, the plot better than the movies.
Another cut. We are back in the car driving now to the east side of town, the wrong side of the tracks. I find the right road and begin curving up the hillside. Soon I begin naming places. Here is the Main Building and there is the Garvin where I was when I was so sick with my ears and Betty Groff brought me books about the west and here was where my mother worked but they’ve torn down the building. I notice that the turrets are gone from the castle-like Main Building. Most of the trees have been cut down.
The place is dead still, gathered in, the way it used to get after a snowstorm. The sidewalks are empty; many of the buildings abandoned but still standing. Some have vanished altogether and where trees and buildings once stood are dull patches of lawn. Where are the lines of people, I think? Where are the shufflers and the stragglers and the people who stood stock-still and wouldn’t move? Past the greenhouses, closed, past the laundry, shut down, past the firehouse, abandoned; finally we are on the road leading to what was once my home. Barry says nothing while I register the landmarks. We stop at last in front of a green lawn that slopes upward towards a vast three-winged, triple-storied building composed of red brick and gray wood. We look up and my eyes move to the black letters over the porch of the central wing. BROADMOOR. The bars are still on the windows, the verandahs still caged. “There it is,” I say to Barry, “there’s where we lived.” I look over at him. Very quietly, gently, and as if on cue, he lets out a small scream.
Shortly after this trip I take up with a Polish man who loves machines more than people, whose parents survived the concentration camps, who lives in a vast loft in Tribeca, his living space camouflaged on one side by machine tools of every description, on the other by large jungle-like plants that block the light. During the two months of our affair I reveal not one important fact about my life.
Lava Hot Springs, Idaho
Today I remember this: that when I was a very small child my mother would bounce me up and down on her lap and chant in her elegant, accented voice “here we go, here we go, here we go to Idaho.” With the final syllable she would bounce me higher or lower me backward almost to the ground so that some exciting thing would happen before her chant resumed. What strikes me about this memory is that it has something to say about her immigrant experience – for her Idaho was an incantation, a magical name that constructed out of a piece of America all that it must have represented to her for so long – something wild, beautiful, uncharted, out of reach. “Away we go.” A place to escape to. No wonder, then, that I fell in love with a man from Idaho and no wonder that my fierce attachment to “American” seems older to me than any of my memories, any of my own desires. America the erotic – the name sounding with the allure of something you want very much but cannot ever imaging having.
When I was a child I lived with my mother and grandmother in a large Victorian apartment on the second floor of the Broadmoor Building. Broadmoor was one of the oldest buildings of the Binghamton State Hospital, which in the year we moved there, 1954, housed about 4,000 chronically and acutely ill mental patients. I was five when we moved to Broadmoor and twelve when we moved across the street into a small white cottage that had been transported from higher up on the hillside and which had once been the pest house, the place where patients with communicable diseases were kept in isolation.
My mother was a doctor and a refugee. In those years the hospitals were staffed largely by European doctors who came to the United States after the Second World War and found it difficult to enter the mainstream of the American medical profession. The Zajackowskis from Poland lived upstairs and across the street the Bylows from the Ukraine and over on Garden Avenue lived the Weisses from Germany by way of China and others whose names I don’t remember. There were also some Americans, always referred to in that way. Administrators, the Americans ran the place.
My mother was originally from Hungary, but she had traveled to Italy, to Spain, to Paraguay, to Argentina before she landed in the US and eventually in Binghamton. With her a mother and daughter, behind her a failed marriage – my parents separated when I was nine months old– a dead child, two wars, and an abortive revolution. She wanted some respite from history and reprieve from the vicissitudes of her own life. Given a choice between Central Islip. Long Island and Binghamton, she chose upstate New York.
We arrived in Binghamton in late summer, a time of year ripe with impending change. My father and his second wife had left the United States to live and work in Germany, I was about to start kindergarten and my mother was starting a new job. My uncle Tomi, who had a car, drove us from where we had been living in Queens to Binghamton. It was a long trip, through the Catskills on the old Route 17, a winding road that made fast travel impossible. By the time we arrived it was dark. I had been sleeping soundly in the back seat of the car when suddenly the centrifugal force of the car making a wide curving turn pushed me into the right rear door and woke me up. I could feel the wide turn even though I couldn’t see anything. The shift of weight in my body suggested that we were no longer travelling forward, that we had made the sort of definitive gesture announcing arrival. Awake though I was, and alert to the change, I pretended to sleep. The car came to a stop and I continued my imitation of sleep. I knew that if I were sleeping I would be lifted in my uncle’s arms, cradled, and then carried wherever we would go next.
And so my uncle opened the car door and lifted my soon to be five year old, squinting self out of the car and up a set of wide wooden steps into the huge building that was Broadmoor, across a floor covered in black and white hexagonal tiles, up a flight of stairs, through one of two green doors, into a hallway, then into a room where he placed me gently on a bed, where I did, in fact, fall back into a deep sleep, such that I woke up the next morning to weak sunlight and a view of the bars on the windows of one of Broadmoor’s two giant wings.
Binghamton State Hospital was founded in 1858 as an “inebriate asylum.” The setting, high above the river valley, facing tree-covered hills, was exquisite. When presented with the possibility of placing a university on the site, the city fathers, fearful of rowdy college students, balked. So Cornell University was built in Ithaca and Binghamton became the home of the asylum.
In the mid fifties it was possible to find every variety of patient in the hospital. There were the inebriates it had been founded for, drunks who showed up plastered, stayed long enough to dry out, and then left, only to show up same weeks later in the same miserable condition as before. Alcoholism was not fashionable then; drunks were perceived, at least by my mother, as drunks. There were some patients who were institutionalized because nobody wanted them. Families with thirteen children from remote towns such as Cobleskill or Oneonta would hospitalize an unhappy, unmarriageable daughter, who was too great a burden on the family. There were burned out epileptics, mildly retarded people, and the socially displaced. There were also terribly sick people who mutilated themselves or wouldn’t speak or move or who laughed continually or screamed unceasingly or repeated their words or their cries until they exhausted themselves into silence. Those very sick patients were kept in the wards of Broadmoor, hidden from sight, so that almost everyone could forget they existed.
By the time we moved to the hill, the hospital had become a training ground for residents, a place where doctors learned to be psychiatrists and where patients, in many instances, found not merely asylum, but actual relief from suffering. Although many patients had been hospitalized for thirty or forty years, by the 1950s patients came in acutely ill and were able to leave, considerably better, sometimes cured, within a few weeks or months. Some ambitious doctors, those who became quickly assimilated to America, left the hospital as soon as they passed the New York State Board exams. Others, like my mother, found reason or need to stay on. She lived on the hospital grounds for nearly twenty years.
Below the hill was the town, nestled in a valley at the junction of two rivers. The streets were neat horizontals lined with wooden houses. Other children had washers and dryers and mothers who did the laundry. Our laundry came and went in large canvas baskets with canvas tops. They were a dirty gray and the letters BSH were stamped on the basket’s cover and sides in fading black ink. The laundry came back flat and crisp, starched to incredible stiffness, the creases so clear they could have been lines on paper.
My mother’s white coats were always on top of the pile of clothes, sheets, and towels. These coats were like the vestments of a priest or the robes of a judge, which she wore over elegant suits. In those coats, with her long delicate neck, high cheekbones, combed back hair and deep set eyes, she looked, I thought, like someone in a movie.
When my mother was a young girl she lived in Castel Gandalfo, an ancient, small town on the outskirts of Rome. It is the site of the Pope’s summer palace, a fountain and church by Bernini, and on the hillside, two houses, one red and one white. The town had a view of Lake Albano made famous in a painting by Corot and may or may not be the location of the legendary Alba Longa. Whatever its aesthetic or historical virtues, the white house, in which my mother and her family lived, had neither heat nor hot water. The family was too poor to buy shoes for the children, so barefooted my mother carried home water from the Bernini fountain and gathered wood from the hillside. To the end of her life my mother resented anyone’s obsession with the picturesque and cherished good shoes. “Never buy cheap shoes,” she’s tell me on one of our Saturday excursions to Walter’s Shoe Store, where she bought half a dozen pair at a time.
Walter’s Shoe Store was on the corner of Front and Main, right over the bridge in downtown Binghamton, a block from where I took ballet lessons. Like my mother, Walter and his wife, Katy, were refugees. They had two sons. As my mother tried on pumps Katy would whisper the latest travails of her family. The boxes accumulated as the stories did. This son had a temper; that one was sweet but slow in school; one fought with his father; the other the father found disappointing.
My mother offered comments, extended sympathy. Katy was immensely grateful, slipping into German when she needed to, reminiscing about things European. I listened. I understood early that people had problems and secrets. When we left the store my mother commented on Katy’s fortitude, her patience, her industriousness. Life, I understood, could be hard. My mother, I concluded, was wise. And we, I came to believe, were lucky, though I could not say why.
On Mondays my mother wore a fresh white coat to work. To the pocket she attached a small blue and white nametag. It read “Vera Polanyi-Danon M.D.” I was proud of that tag, loved my mother in her white coat. Sometimes after school I was permitted to visit her in her office in the castle-like Main Building. There I sat at the hospital switchboard and at Mrs. McNally’s direction pulled and pushed rubber wires, poking one into a hole when a call came in, pulling it out when the call was over. In her office my mother sat behind a great oak desk talking enthusiastically to her secretary or her head nurse. She’d give instructions, issue orders, sign records and prescriptions. She’d laugh unselfconsciously, revealing for an instant the damaged teeth that were her only unattractive feature. Nobody ever called her anything but “Dr. Danon” but nobody ever seemed to mind the formality. When she talked to Annie or Pottsie (always Mrs. Gardiner or Mrs. Potts to me) I could see that she was at the center of the world, that this office was where anything that really mattered was happening.
When it was time to leave she’d hang up the white coat, a bit wrinkled, on the coat tree. She’s shut out the lights and we’d go home to Broadmoor. I see that coat now, glowing in the dark, a beacon marking the end point of a long and arduous journey.
Ruth Danon is the author of Limitless Tiny Boat, (BlazeVOX 2015) and before that, Triangulation From a Known Point (North Star Line), Work in the English Novel (Croom-Helm), and Living with the Fireman (Zeising Brothers). A new book of poems, tentatively titled, Word Has It, is expected from Nirala Press in the spring 2018. Her work is forthcoming in The Florida Review and recently appeared in Isthmus and in the anthology Resist Much, Obey Little, published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2017. Her poetry and prose have appeared in many publications in the US and abroad, including Post Road, Versal, Crayon, The Paris Review, Mead, Fence, and was anthologized in Best American Poetry, 2002, edited by Robert Creeley, She is Clinical Professor of Creative and Expository Writing at the School of Professional Studies at New York University and for 17 years directed the SPS Summer Intensive in Creative Writing that she founded in 1999.