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Checkout Time at the Asylum

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The infamy of the old Bellevue reached its apotheosis in December 1980, when the police brought in Mark David Chapman, the man who had just killed John Lennon. Chapman was wearing a bulletproof vest and surrounded by armed officers in flak jackets, who themselves were frightened that someone would penetrate the scrum of reporters and photographers to try a Jack Ruby–style attack.

For a few weeks, according to one senior staffer, Chapman was shuttled between Rikers Island and Bellevue, which wanted him there as little as possible. Police snipers manned the roof of the hospital. Covan found himself on the team in charge of evaluating Chapman’s competency.

“What’s it like being here?” he asked Chapman, who had been put on suicide watch in the prison ward.

“What do you think?” the 25-year-old killer replied, starting to laugh and squirm, alternately giggling and apologizing.

“That was a challenge,” says Covan. “I’ll tell you, we did not like him very much. Most of us were of the generation that loved Lennon. But when you met Chapman, he was so pathetic that it was hard to maintain a sense of anger at him—because he was just not able to withstand the anger that you felt. It wasn’t that I felt sorry for him, it was just … how can you be angry? Just be angry at the situation: Lennon’s dead, and a sick man did it.”

By the time old Bellevue closed in the mid-eighties, the landscape of public-health policy for the mentally ill had changed remarkably. After 54 years, the facility looked and felt outmoded. There were treatment rooms still filled with bathtubs covered with canvas sheets that left just enough room for a patient’s head to stick out; the huge basins, which were once thought to calm the manic, had lain unused for decades, museum relics of a less enlightened time. An improvement in the quality and variety of drugs had transformed patient care. And the widespread deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in the sixties and seventies made the prospect of extended incarceration in a state-run sanatorium much rarer. When once a patient could have spent months wandering between the wards and the dayrooms on the upper floors, by the mid-eighties the average length of a stay was, says Covan, “maybe twelve days. Longer than that, and you had the administrators on your ass trying to get you to get rid of them unless they had good insurance, and even the insurance companies were pushing to get ’em out, get ’em out, get ’em out.”

Over the last couple of decades, Bellevue’s status as the endpoint of an urban nightmare has played a dwindling role in the city’s collective unconscious. The idea of being alone and unattended in a cell, hopelessly insane, lost to the world forever, seems to have less psychic heft in an age when so few people, for any reason, actually do go away and stay away. For younger New Yorkers who were reared on the notion that excessive behavior is, at worst, followed by brief time-outs, “nervous breakdown” is an antique phrase from the Mad Men era, and the spooky concept of a permanent one-way trip to a padded room has been supplanted by a 28-day haul in rehab, an in-and-out scenario much more within imaginative reach. If Bellevue becomes a five-star destination for those who want to escape the cares of the world, sleep all day, and have their rough edges sanded away so they can return to the world refreshed, perhaps its metamorphosis from hell to hotel will just seem like the next step in patient care.

As for the actual rather than the figurative Bellevue, it’s now a more modern hospital, in a different building, in a new era. It seems unlikely that anybody would be sorry to see the words “Psychiatric Hospital” chipped off the northern entrance of its old quarters. And while the EDC’s plan to turn Bellevue into the latest in luxe accommodations has occasioned a certain number of jokes about the Sid Vicious Suite (yes, he’s an alum) and the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Casualty Atrium, those memories aren’t likely to have much traction. After all, nobody is more expert at eradicating swaths of urban history with great dispatch and little sentimentality than a real-estate developer.

We’ll see if the ghosts cooperate. Perhaps to appease them, the future Hotel Bellevue could nod to its storied past. Maybe in an unobtrusive corner—or, more appropriately, over the bar—someone could mount a plaque with these words from Malcolm Lowry, who spent decades trying to make sense of his time inside.

“My God, he thought suddenly, why am I here, in this doleful place?” Lowry wrote. “And without quite knowing how this had come about, he felt that he had voyaged downward to the foul core of his world ... But here too, equally, he thought, looking at the doctor, was perhaps the cure.”


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