TRIBUTE TO JACK MICHELINE
Whiskey, Madness, and Bellevue
To be a poet is to be mad. I was a poet. I bit my lips and walked up the stairs. Literary parties are boring affairs. I was tired and hungry and I didn’t give a shit anymore. It was a swanky layout, two flights above the
I grabbed the bourbon and began to drink. I had come from the streets where I had lived and written and pissed and cried. I drank more bourbon and got drunk quickly and ran upstairs where the food was. I was drunk; I had finished a fifth of whiskey. I remembered the cries in the flophouse the winter before, and the years I had wandered through the streets, the long winters of hell in New York, and the fear and hell and cowardice of our twentieth century; the lips of prostitutes and junkies and mad dogs; the streets crowded in summer with sweat and dreams and fights and families and sirens and bars, fights, cribs and cubicles; the narrow, crowded, stinging, smelly city, hard as reality, filled with lost loves and pain misery; the roar of the beaten, hungry, frightened and afraid. I grabbed the salami sandwiches and threw them from the balcony out into the street.
I ran out of the party, drunk and dancing up West Eighth Street, heading for the Cedar Bar. I was flying as I turned into the bar. I goosed a chick and two cops came toward me before I could finish a drink. They grabbed hold of my hands and pushed me out the door into the street. It was early November and the wind was chilly and the air fresh and biting. They knocked me to the ground, trying to handcuff me. I kicked back with my feet, screaming, “Leave me alone you motherfuckers!” The crowd poured out of the bar, surrounding us, looking for a free show. “You dirty yellow belly motherfuckers,” I screamed.
The cops finally handcuffed me and three me in the car heading for St. Vincent’s. The crowd silent with cowardice and fear; the cops, their faces red and swearing. I was drunk and I did not give a shit anymore. I had bitten the cop’s nose in the scuffle.
They took me to the doctor in the emergency ward at St. Vincent’s. The doctor told them I was just a drunk poet; he had heard me read poems at a jazz joint a couple of years before. The cops told him I was wild and crazy. The doctor told them to let me go. They took me out of the hospital and began working me over, intent on revenge and getting their kicks. I bit the cop’s nose again and became violent. They dragged me back into the hospital and put a straight jacket on me, tying me down to a stretcher as they called for a wagon. The wagon came and they put me in it. While I lay in the wagon, gagged and tied, the cop inside told me if I moved my legs one inch he’d break both of them. My legs didn’t move.
The wagon entered Bellevue and they carried me out in the straight jacket where I was admitted and taken in the elevator to the Violent Ward to a doctor whose name was Ginsberg. I tried to tell him I was just a drunk poet but he did not listen. Two guards with white coats removed my clothes. I was given a bathrobe and slippers and two large needles were stuck into me to calm me down. I was placed on a bed in the ward and I fell asleep. When I awoke it was morning.
Ward Nine, Bellevue, was not a happy place. The stale smell of antiseptic prevailed. Everybody was shot up with thorazine. One patient called himself Doc, making the rounds of the other patients in a wheelchair. A tall skinny guy named Moe made believe he was blowing a saxophone, moving his fingers up and down the imaginary horn. The ward was long and narrow. On the side ward there were metal doors securely locked for serious violent cases. There were small windows in the middle of the doors where one could see the violent cold turkeys going through their hells. It was a sad, unbelievable sight to see the torment inside of a mortal man, turning and twisting with anguish and pain. What dark secrets lie in the city? What emotional and mental dark caves lie in the insides of a man? Some patients were there to beat the winter.
A young priest, dressed in black, came Sunday afternoon, his beads wrapped around his neck, his frightened, scared look as he repeated his Latin prayers by heart. What price is paid when men hold fear in their hearts? What good was God, Mohammed or Buddha here in the darkness of a mental hospital?
Half the population of the ward was Negro and some afternoons some Negro nurses in training came and there was dancing in the ward to old records. Their young, frightened faces and bodies attempted to relax and give pleasure to the inmates—the dreamers, the lost, the ones that gave up young, the ones beaten down and tortured by their parents, school, family or friends, slums, and the false values of a decaying society.
There was humor here in the mental hospital. We played Tonk and hearts and occasionally we saw the women’s ward across the corridor; the women in bathrobes and slippers, their sad eyes racing back and forth in their own bodies. The food seemed adequate. The doctors came every morning to the ward. There was one woman doctor assigned to the ward; she looked as if she had never been laid in her life—a frustrated woman who sent men away to hospitals upstate, her eyes and body insensitive as if she was tired of living. She held power over these unfortunate souls—a doctor ill-equipped for her job, a person in a position of power who got there by way of politics and fraud, holding court over other humans.
We laughed and told jokes to each other. When a patient was released there was joy in the ward. One of the patients, called Jud, joked with me and told me I’d make a great pimp up in Harlem. He gave me his address to look him up later. The patient named Doc still roamed the wards. The saxophone player kept blowing his horn. The Priest still repeated his Latin prayers by memory.
The next day I was released after telling the doctors I was just a drunk poet, demanding my sanity. The early winter streets were cold and sunny. I got my clothes and left Bellevue with a sigh, and joy of relief. I walked the streets back down to the East Side, knowing full well that life had meaning as the sun set its beautiful glow in the early evening sky. I spit into the darkness of death and vowed life must encourage more life. I drank, wept and pissed, and created in the darkness of a world which seemed bent on destroying itself through its ignorance, fear, greed and insensitivity and futility of its existence. I sat down on a curb and sang and cried as the first star lit up in the evening sky.Jack Micheline (November 6, 1929 – February 27, 1998), born Harold Martin Silver, was an American painter and poet from the San Francisco Bay Area. His name is synonymous with street artists, underground writers, and "outlaw" poets. One of San Francisco's original Beat poets, he was an innovative artist who was active in the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950s and 1960s.
Whiskey, Madness, and Bellevue appears here by permission from the Jack Micheline Foundation.
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