Once there was a Harlem of the mind,
In a New York of green youth and mystery,
Steaming manholes, fevered sleep,
When I was a pilgrim without ambition.
Characters with metal teeth and top hats,
Snake oil and paste-diamond salesmen,
Broadside hawkers from a mythic left,
Selling long dismissed socialist solutions.
Cartoons and old watch shops lined every street.
Bearded purveyors of old country arcana
Beaconed from the storefronts. Craftsmen,
Contrived the shadows they hid in before their attack.
Now I have come to Harlem again—Lexington
And 1-2-5—so many years later, and not for adventure.
I visit the institutional bland brick building looming
Across from the 2-Brothers pizza shop.
It looks like prison, or asylum from another century,
When you could hear the screams of the residents
In the street. Their pain carried far,
Even muffled by the heavy metal doors.
I sign in, then ride the elevator to the 2nd floor:
Rehab for victims of varied tragedy and disease.
There’s some crazy hope given here of returning
To a normal life. The visitors buy into it.
And I’ve been such a visitor for so long,
The wheelchair-bound residents who line the halls
Calling silently for attention, begging for their meds—
They know my name now, and whom I visit:
How is she? Old Charlie asks everyday,
Rolling down the hall. He’s always in good
If medicated spirits, and seems sincere in his question.
She’s fine, I say, knowing she’s not.
I have no words to keep a conversation going.
I walk up to # 211—I could find it in my sleep.
That oil brown door was so overwhelming.
My knock is soft, but she knows I’m coming in.
She’s grown so thin she can no longer walk,
And does not participate in 2nd floor society.
She keeps her door closed—the only patient who does.
And, having shut out the world, she wastes,
Watches TV in the darkness,
Knowing she will never leave this room.