A Breaking Point

by

02/16/2020

Neighborhood: Midtown East

Bellevue was a dark castle in my childhood imagination. In grade school, long before I knew that my own mother had once landed there, my classmates and I spoke of Bellevue in a chilled whisper, as the place you’d end up in if you lost your mind. A straitjacket and a padded cell would be your lot, and you’d live out your days screaming and banging your head against the wall in futility. Somehow, we’d transferred fears of losing ourselves on to the building, a tall, stately system of interconnected brick towers on 30th Street and 1st Avenue, which was set back ominously far from the street and surrounded by a high gate with the words “Bellevue Hospital” inscribed in antique reverse caps in solid iron.

When I first learned that my mom had ended up there, before she married my dad and before my sister and I were born, it seemed incomprehensible. She was neurotic, but Bellevue? Apparently, in a grandiose presentation of her first bipolar episode, she appeared naked on the streets somewhere on the Upper East Side, and the cops had wasted no time in scooping her up and taking her downtown to Bellevue. 

Whenever I imagine my mom in Bellevue, I recall a time in the 1980s when I was on 57th Street, waiting to cross Madison, heading west in the heat of the summer.   

There were crowds, as usual, and it was suffocating. I was in college at the time, and not yet employed that summer, so I was sensibly dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, but all the guys around me were in suits and ties, wearing hard shiny shoes, and carrying briefcases, while the gals were in long dresses and jewelry, sporting carefully done-up hair. 

As we walked, all pressed up close together, perfumes mixing with the humid stink, I had no choice but to keep up with the brisk rhythm of the dance. I couldn’t help but to sense everyone around me, alert in case there was a pickpocket or someone with a weapon, and making damn sure my arms didn’t collide with anyone’s jacket or dress. Of course, I didn’t make any eye contact unless it was absolutely necessary. 

I noticed that a few smart individuals carried newspapers that were perfectly folded to a particular story, and appeared able to read entire articles at scattered red lights in a single lunch hour. They were calm, like waiting sharks, presumably highly aware of their immediate environment but ignoring everything unimportant, eyes darting quickly as needed but keeping their view tightly focused.

At Madison, I had carefully positioned myself out at the very front of the crowd, a few feet from the curb, so I wouldn’t be surrounded on all sides (I was no dummy). There, I could almost feel the cars moving past me, and I got as close to them as I dared, as this allowed me to pull slightly away from the people behind me. Right there in front of us was the battle of cars cutting each other off, horns barking back and forth, sometimes in surprising marching-band chords, but most of the time in grating, bickering sequences. 

We waited there together, the others around me probably feeling versions of what I was feeling. Wedges of pressure pushed down on my eyebrows as the seconds passed, pushing my eyes together. The tension of so many people and so many cars in such a small space was palpable. 

Across the stream of cars were our counterparts on the other side of the Avenue, waiting to cross over to our side, like our own reflection looking back at us. We were here together, in a familiar hell, feeling oppressively “inside” even though we were outside. We could barely breathe, but we were used to it. I glanced up and felt surrounded by windows upon windows, from which air conditioned people could be looking down. I imagined that all of us, in spirit, were looking somewhere up there, thinking “Someday, I’m going to make it.” 

We felt a change of pressure before we knew the cause. I turned to look and bumped slightly into the person next to me, who then moved out of my way to compensate, and watched as a very large, round guy with wild hair pushed forward through the crowd towards where we were standing, flailing his arms around. None of us had any desire to come into the slightest contact with this individual, nor did anyone want to be pushed into the moving traffic, so we pulled away from him and huddled closely together as he approached, applying subway etiquette. 

To our alarm, he pushed right past us and into the street. Drivers in both directions immediately slammed on their brakes, and amazingly he wasn’t hit. He rested his hands on the hood of a cab as its driver, in concert with all the other drivers in the vicinity, leaned on the horn in a furious blast of protest. 

In response, this guy drew himself up to his full height and glared at the cab, and then waved his large arms in the air and yelled at it, as if he were trying to scare it off. He turned in all directions, this larger-than-life guy trying to shoo away the cars as if they were gnats in his face, as if he were surprised and affronted by each individual vehicle in his presence, yelling louder than the horns, “Yaaaaaaah!” making himself bigger than the cars, bigger than the trucks. 

In this way, he made his way slowly across the street towards where our astonished counterparts waited on the other side, openly staring at him and making way as he stepped onto the opposite curb and disappeared down the street. 

On our side of the crosswalk, this was a cue to heave a sigh of relief, and openly share that relief with each other. The gentleman to my right, who had an impeccably tight afro and a perfectly sculpted moustache, turned away from his newspaper and remarked, with a little shrug, “He’s the only one who’s sane.”

***

David Weiss is a writer/editor living in San Francisco’s East Bay. Born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan, you can’t take New York outta this kid. This piece is a reworked excerpt from his book-in-progress that is part truth, part fiction (this part is truth). Read more about this project at www.davidweiss.net/the-kate-story/

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