Bed Springs Insane Asylum
It was a nurse who took down the plaque—the one commemorating "Bed Springs Insane Asylum" and its historic efforts. Partly because there was no Bed Springs Insane Asylum. (This was, after all, the Julie Kryor Hospital for the Mentally Impaired.) Partly because nothing was allowed to be posted on the walls without administrator consent. (The irony of hanging Van Gogh prints in a mental hospital was lost to everyone.) Partly because Dr. Chaudhuri requested it.
The plaque was made on paper because what was the point of wasting good wood or iron? Nor did anyone have access to the shop. It was drawn in crayon because crayons were special to the patients and they wanted the plaque to represent them as much as it commemorated their neighboring city. And the plaque was created by Ms. Zanna Tully, because the other 'resident artist' had asked for a lifetime supply of cigarettes and Joséphine de Beauharnais's hand in marriage, only smoking was not allowed and Joséphine had been dead for two hundred years. In the end, free, free, free was more appealing.
The removal of the plaque caused enough disturbance that Dr. Chaudhuri had to summon Zanna into the interview room. These disturbances were little ways the patients found to riot, like refusing to take pills, or drawing new plaques on the wall right on the paint, or breaking lamps and chairs. One patient—Mr. Bryan Brightley—ate a handful of crayons and pooped rainbows in the parlor. The truth was that not every patient understood the significance of the plaque, but it made them feel something like an eel in the stomach. A good squirming feeling, I should clarify.
Zanna was a frightened young woman—thin and gray and collapsible. Her record was archetypal: schizophrenia, suicidal tendencies, a litany of medications, allowed acrylics and canvas only under the scrutiny of the head nurse. Now Zanna scrutinized the tall mirrors to her left, thinking she could see the outlines of persons like glimpses of another dimension. Before her was a gray-foam table with safely rounded corners, and beyond that was Dr. Chaudhuri wearing a blue blazer that was still clean even though someone puked on it earlier.
Now the good doctor put the plaque on the table and wondered aloud why Zanna would make a memorial for an "insane asylum city."
The plaque read simply: "Bed Springs Insane Asylum. In the 19th-century, there emerged a need for a place of refuge and treatment for Americans suffering from mental illness. In 1843, the county built the city on an old farm site. The city houses over 2 million patients today." There were no pictures, only blue text on yellow ground.
It took some pleasantries before Dr. Chaudhuri caught some substance on his recorder:
"Someone—I think it was Dr. Glines," said Zanna, hesitating as she gave the mirror a glance. "Someone mentioned that in city hall there's a plaque for our hospital, so we thought we'd do a plaque for the city of Bed Springs. Because we feel bad for Bed Springs. Here we're doing great. We're receiving help. But that city is full of people trapped in disorder and destruction, struggling forever, wearing the straightjacket of the 9 to 5, screaming silently in bedrooms, hearing voices that say 'you'll never be good enough' or 'no one really loves you,' and, well, everyone forgets to appreciate their struggle, too."
"But the city is where we want to send you someday," said Dr. Chaudhuri, adding a pinch of artificial sweetener to his voice. "It's not an asylum. It's real life."
And he went on to describe how there is a natural and healthy rhythm to being human, how spirit and survival dictate society, how a community creates compromise—not crazy. On and on he went, only now that he thought about it, how real was regularity and responsibility, and how awful were clocks? All those tick, tick, ticks like icepicks to the brain telling you when to be awake and when to be asleep and when to eat and when to crap. And many people in Bed Springs took more pills than his patients. And lived in big blocks of cells where they weren't allowed to enter each other's rooms without consent.
But Dr. Chaudhuri could tell Zanna wasn't hearing much of his explanation because her hands were shaking and she was looking fearfully to her left. She was seeing something that disturbed her—probably a visual hallucination. The doctor signaled to aides in the hall, and they quickly took her back to her room. Alone now, he turned off the recorder. The plaque would remain down for nothing should contaminate the asepsis of the hospital—that clinical cleanliness that is not comforting, never comforting, and acts as a platform for despair with uncaring, easily-cleaned uniformity.
Before he left the interview room, the doctor had an odd moment. For a heartbeat (and only a heartbeat) he thought he saw the bald shape of Zanna in the mirror—the suggestion of a silhouete.