Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Only No Trespassing Sign Had Been Heavily Redacted

Spring has come to the graveyard in the old Metropolitan State Hospital conservation land. Crocuses are blooming near the low, anonymous headstones, and soon the branches of the big tree in its center will overspread them like the wings of a great green hen.

Just beyond the cemetery a path veers uphill. A month ago I trudged partway up and, discouraged by the still-deep snow, turned back. Today, driven partly by curiosity and partly by the wish to avoid a young couple w/ dog frolicking in the graveyard, I turned right and headed up. My misanthropy peaks in early spring when the pale, stunned-by-winter populace creeps out of hiding, blinking in the brightness -- and immediately cranks up their radios, whips out their frisbees and their beer coolers, dons their blindingly bright and shockingly scant sports clothing complete with snow-white, oddly fetishized athletic shoes the size of SUVs. You see ? Misanthropy vintage 2009, straight out of the bottle. There's more where that came from. A whole cellar full.

What I was headed toward was boarded up brick. What could be more misanthropic ?

It was, of course, one of the old hospital buildings. At least one other had been turned into condominiums, funeral baked meats and marriage tables and all that. This one clearly was still awaiting its fate, eyes, if buildings have eyes, screwed shut.

It was hard to imagine that this was, even in its heyday, a welcoming place. I passed through a patch of staghorn sumac and crossed a small meadow of brown, trampled grass. I had the absolutely wrong lens for this subject -- my 90mm macro -- but it would have to do. I'd simply have to be careful not to back off any cliffs.

Of course, this was no secret garden that I alone had discovered. The tagger and his -- or her ? -- spray can had come before, with their own more aggressive and extroverted brand of misanthropy, the kind that claims public and private surfaces as personal canvases on which anything goes. Other people's paint rankles this misanthropist as much as other people's music. It's never what I want to see or hear. It's like standing in line at the grocery, bombarded with tabloids and magazines hawking gluttony and weight loss with equal fervor, featuring celebrities that are too fat, too thin, too crazy, too reclusive, too well or too badly dressed and undergoing yet another personal public "tragedy." Bombarded with "check out TV" competing with the overhead muzak, tracts of diet tips, Bible verses, crosswords and sudoku, racks of candy bars, and, of course, that ubiquitous icon, TV Guide.

Do you hear me, you self-important, self-righteous, post-modern Graffitist ? You, sir or madam, are a TV Guide equivalent. Put that in your CFC-containing can and spray it !

That being said, I admit that some graffiti is artful -- look how the tawny, wood-grained center of the blue amoeboid form looks like the red paint's been stripped off the window board -- but then the yellow bleeds down over the sill onto the brick. Nice.

And I like the two left palm prints. A humanizing touch.

But, mostly, I like how things speak for themselves. I like the black-maroon-white stippling of this railing, a railing that looks frozen in mid-step.

And this beautiful vine, right at home nestled in the corner of a boarded up doorway.

There was something about the impregnability of the building that was summoning me, issuing a challenge, singing a siren song -- come in ! come in ! It was primitive. I know my cats feel it -- they are drawn like magnets to closed doors. They thrust their paws beneath them, and hurl their bodies against them. Let me in ! Let me in ! But these were doors without handles, windows without glass or latch. Like the old Lithuanian Daina says of the grave, dark the lodging without door or windowpane.

The pavement around the building was littered with the handiwork of vandals: glass, porcelain, whole steel sinks, pieces of unidentifiable, institutional apparatus, smashed, disarticulated, rusting, mingling with weeds and drinks containers.

The porcelain, in particular, stood out. Even broken, it seemed more graceful than the rest of the trash. Its curves echo human curves. The shampoo sink's concavity, for example, is designed to accept a human neck. But so is a guillotine's.

Other curves seem botanical, even abstract, like body's curves photographed close up (or maybe with the wrong lens.)

I stooped to inspect a glittering scatter of pretty blue at the front steps. Wired glass.

If this was now a place of no entrance, I was reminded that it had once been a place of no exit.

I continued my slow walk around the building. These sinks had to have come from inside. Maybe the place was not such a fortress after all. At the back there was a fenced in pavement with a rusted basketball hoop at the far end, and a row of swingless swingsets beyond it. The gate had been smashed open, so I walked through. The only object on the broad pavement was a snare drum.

I felt my pulse quicken. Things were getting interesting. My fingers twitched on my camera. I was a child, alone in a visual candy shop. What was all this recreational stuff ? I hardly knew where to begin.

The hoop's scab-red backboard

and solitary, dangling looped strand made it seem more like a gibbet than recreational equipment. Try as I might, I could not imagine play on this playground. It was as if it had been constructed old, rusted, ankylosed, and broken. Keep off. Beware. Nothing good will ever happen here. Every few minutes I had a fleeting worry about being caught. I had seen no "No Trespassing" signs, but "No Trespassing" was deeply implicit even among all the signs of exuberant trespass. But, as far as I could tell, I was alone. I hoped my camera and my gray hair would give me a pass.

I looked up at the backside of the building beyond the rec yard.

Here the taggers had abandoned all pretense of artfulness and had gone straight for the crude and sexual. But what was the white symbol beside the redacted notice. An A on an O ? Alpha and Omega ? The sublime designation of Christ juxtaposed against a sexual referent so confused that it could allude either to the word it replaced -- police -- or the building on which it was written ? Was the graffitist trying to emasculate the police, stripping them of power, or to fetishize the abandoned building as the town's (female) sexual organ ripe for penetration ? Christ frequents these places of brokenness and abandonment, of lostness and confusion, but with a spray can ?

Then I saw it. The smashed window: seventy small, thick panes, about half of which had been broken. I approached. The battering ram, a long, heavy steel pipe,

was still in situ. Alpha and Omega, indeed. These are the dusty, damaged outskirts of the world, places boarded up and breached, places where old and new sins meet, couple in the darkness and reproduce their kind.

I leaned on the sill and looked in. It was dim inside, and the air was cold and smelled of concrete. I jacked up the iso on my camera and took some shots. Inside there was another big window, again with closely gridded panes, and behind it, more glass, reflecting the harsh, intruding light.

And there were more palm prints, this time right & right. This fortress had indeed been been breached. Stainless steel cabinet doors hung open, scrawled over with paint. Bright red medical tanks still hung strapped to the walls. Plaster was smashed out and over written with sexual vulgarities -- one so puerile and offensive (I must say in the spirit of full disclosure of my nondisclosure) that I have photoshopped it out.

Time may not have stood still within these boarded-up walls, but it certainly had curdled. Past woe mingled with current in a nauseous jumble, one inextricable from the other. I stared and shot photo after photo, complicit and fascinated, trespassing and transgressing.

Then I saw it: across a small courtyard was an open door. I pigeons flew in and out, roosting in dangling ductwork.

I watched one shambling along the base of the building, pecking for seeds.

Then I followed him in.

It probably wasn't blood spatter I was seeing, just a graffitist's rendition, but it set the tone. I tiptoed past, definitely anxious now, briefly imagining being locked in, reassuring myself that I had a cell phone, worrying that I hadn't charged it --

but soon curiosity replaced anxiety. Around the corner from the tiled bloodbath was a large, dim room. The walls were covered with primitive murals -- a jungle motif, clearly not the graffitist's, who had added his own coprophagic commentary above water bubbler painted a feculent brown and incorporated into a tree trunk.

A phone book on the floor gave me a time horizon -- 1992 -- and an envelope an identifier: this had been a children's hospital, a kids' asylum. The stark playground and the bright murals began to make sense, sad sense. Gaebler Children's Center. I remembered that Fernald School was a few blocks away, an institution for the profoundly mentally challenged, now in its waning days, but in the 1950's, home to the infamous "Science Club" where corporate scientists -- from Quaker Oats no less -- fed radioactive breakfast cereal to children in purely commercial experiments.

Lock them up, throw away the key, and do what you will with them. These places of darkness and secrets, boarded up even when the windows were still all glass. Home to the least, the lost, the forgotten, the abandoned, the absolutely vulnerable. Had there been kindness here too, and care ? Love ? Compassion ? Of course. The human heart contains these things, too.

A gash of light drew my attention.

Beside it, there was more mural: a cheerful, green parrot perched in a tree above an elephant. The graffitist was stuck in his (or her?) coprolalic vein. What is the worst you can write -- shit (or, oddly childish, poop,) and Nazis ? Was the graffitist a former patient, returned to declare You, my custodians, acted like Nazis and treated me like shit, or was he (or she) simply a garden variety nihilist, content to desecrate anything, addressing and negating all sweetness out of some purely private, unassociated hurt.

I liked the parrot. I wanted to see a kind hand in it.

I wanted to see a kind hand in the bulletin board, on which some faded Garfield cartoons were still pinned. But, when you get right down to it, what did I know ? What right did I have to even speculate ? Was speculating a transgression ? Did it disrespect, dishonor what had happened here, what had been endured, what had been inflicted, what had been assuaged ?

I had no idea. Behind me, grinning like a Cheshire cat, was a greenish, strangely marbelized piano.

I stared at the unlikely spinet. It was still relatively intact. I plunked a key: a dusty bass note sounded, and faded away.

So there had been music here. I hoped it had been like George Herbert's Church Music

Sweetest of sweets, I thank you: when displeasure
Did through my body wound my mind,
You took me thence, and in your house of pleasure
A dainty lodging me assigned.

Now I in you without a body move
Rising and falling with your wings.

The piano wasn't talking. But it had survived the vandals' hands. Something about it had elicited restraint, respect.

Or at least some respect.

The keys were worn and stained right where playing fingers would have touched them most. The stains reminded me of the nicotine stains on the fingers of State Hospital patients I'd seen during my training. I remembered the drawing I made of a woman I'd seen lying on the ground, smoking, at Worcester State Hospital in the late 1970's. I called the drawing, "It Tastes So Good To Her."

There was not much music left in the piano. Its stiff, disarticulated keys resembled both stained teeth and stained fingers. The grooves in the felt of the hammers only hinted at the songs of yesteryear. It's hard to read a body, to fathom the text of a scar. Sometimes there's only the reader shedding their disfigurement upon the blank page. Better than spray paint, maybe, but not by much.

I looked up. On the left hand wall there was an open door leading deeper into the building. Maybe if I'd brought a wider lens or a better flash I'd be tempted to go further, emboldened by the objective persona of the documentarian. But I was a weed photographer, out of both my element and focal length. I had trespassed enough. It was dangerous here. Ghosts, resonances, gaps, gashes -- things that lacerate, infiltrate, unsettle -- it was time to leave.

The tagger had left a final word on the inside glass of that door: Help. In bleeding red letters. Legible, were the door shut and locked, as pleH. Joke ? Compassionate comment ? Jokey response to the unsettling, compelling pain of compassion ?


I was tired of trying to read this place. Maybe I'd gotten it wrong. Maybe I should have been listening to its music all along -- the flap of pigeon wings, the crunch of my footsteps on the debris-strewn concrete, the thud of hammer on loosened strings, and, mainly, the silence.

I hurried out, blinking in the sunlight. Two figures stared at me from the playground, two boys, adolescents; I was a double trespasser, then. On the state's turf, and on theirs. I headed back around the building, toward the path to the woods below. It was a clear day and the view was beautiful. I remembered how the State Hospital in the town where my Dad had worked was often called The House on the Hill. This was also, it seemed, a House on a Hill. There was something about asylums and heights, asylums and towers, madwomen in attics, something lofty about lunacy, an affliction of the body's topmost organ, the seat of the soul, an affliction brought on by the touch of moonlight on a sleeper's head. I grew up in an era enamoured of the deep, compassionate, misguided myths of psychoanalysis, into a time of complex chemistries and disembodied brains.

I looked into the distance. There was Boston on the skyline. From the House on the Hill, I was looking east toward the capitol of John Winthop's City on the Hill --

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "may the Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.

I picked my way through the sumac grove toward the trail. A noble vision, fertile soil for a genocide. Sin, repentence, the grace of forgiveness. Not just in history, but in every human encounter.

Weeds are simpler.

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