With all the controversy about what to do with the “homeless” (the very word implying that they should be in a home – well, of course, everyone needs a home!) I think back to a field trip I took with my high school choir back in the winter of 1965. Every Christmastime, we would go on some sort of charitable trip to share our carols with a less-than-fortunate group that would be cheered by 4-part singing of those beautiful songs. We already had our parts perfected & memorized from the months of rehearsal leading up to our annual Christmas concert. So we were a ready-to-go holiday entertainment wherever we showed up. One thing that has changed since then, from what I hear, Christmas carols are banned because they are religious. I think that is a crying shame in that, to this day, I think they are the most beautiful songs ever written.
That particular year, our trip was to the Ohio State Mental Institution, somewhere in the unknown bowels of Cleveland. It was a dark & stormy night, no, scratch that. It was a dreary grey day, and our school bus left the tree-lined streets of Cleveland Heights and entered into an unknown and bleak part of Cleveland I never had seen before – beyond the steel mills of the industrial flats, into an endless stretch of empty, lifeless blocks of old, decaying buildings that didn’t even have a hint of human activity or habitation. Finally, we parked in front of a tall, brick building that stood out like an obelisk in that barren wasteland. We filed out from our yellow school buses and walked into the dark lobby. From there we boarded elevators and got off on a floor several stories up. What I saw there, although fifty years ago, I’ll never forget:
This mental ward was one, large room, taking up the entire breadth & width of the building, painted vaguely white. It was filled with hundreds of men, all dressed in loose-fitting nightgowns. Except for the walkways around the parameter, the hospital beds were all pushed together, end-on-end, side-to-side. There was no space between hundreds of bed; no aisles at all. Maybe 20 beds across the width of the room, times 20 beds filling out the length, footboard-to-headboard; essentially 400 beds filling the footprint of the building floor. And there were eight floors like that above the lobby. The patients, many of them black men, were climbing across each other’s beds, I assume, to get to theirs.
On the outside perimeter aisle was what I could describe as staff; not nurses nor guards, but uniformed attendants, their arms folded across their chests with grim expressions. It seemed to me that their job was just to watch the ward and its denizens; be ready to restore order or intervene in case someone got out of control. They didn’t look like they were supplying any therapy (or humanity) for these men, who seemed to be in varying states of dementia. Some were compulsively washing their hands in imaginary sinks, over and over, endlessly. Some men started masturbating upon seeing us, and in retrospect, the fact that we brought in ten blonde, fresh-faced teenage girls direct from the suburbs was maybe the first time these men had seen anything like that in years. (We broke our hundred-member choir in groups of twenty to cover all the floors – ten boys and ten girls.) The only other space on the floor was a dreary bathroom with a line of doorless stalls. On each toilet sat a man, sitting with nowhere to go, staring hopelessly into space. Some of them started masturbating as our girls walked by singing Christmas songs.
After our caroling, we came down the elevators to regroup in the lobby. I noticed that it had sculpted ceilings and marble columns; the sort of architecture that was done in the early 20th century on government and institutional buildings to say, “This is an important place.” The facilitator asked if we had any questions, and I was the only one who raised my hand. Just out of curiosity, I asked how many psychiatrists worked in the hospital.