by John F. Dillon
The Sun neither rises nor sets on Long Island's Sunrise Highway. The highway is a major east-west thoroughfare connecting the Southern villages of Long Islands Queens, Nassau and Suffolk Counties. An endless succession of traffic lights network numerous businesses and shopping malls. Lateral arteries lead to community centers, airports and hospitals. East of the Nassau-Suffolk County boundary, the highway intersects with Southern State Parkway then joins with Montauk Highway at Great River. Both highways remain as one for a short distance then split Montauk Highway to the south where it tracks the coast to the islands Eastern tip Montauk Point. Sunrise Highway bends slightly north before terminating at the Suffolk County Town Seat Riverhead.
In the latter part of the past century a small, nondescript tavern The Whistle Stop was located just east of Great River. The tavern consisted of a hardwood bar, a pinball machine and a glittering Wurlitzer juke box along the back wall. There was no food and no tables. It was restricted to a maximum occupancy of fifty patrons, a capacity it never filled. Yet, it was quite successful with a steady cliental of regular customers and riders pausing for a quick drink before boarding or exiting the commuter train that stopped at the nearby Long Island Railroad Train Station in Oakdale.
Ross was employed as the evening bartender at The Whistle Stop through Saturday. He was off Sunday and Monday. He normally went fishing with friends on Sundays. But, since his recent divorce and the fact most of his friends worked on Monday, Leon was often alone and lonely. It was not unusual for him to seek relief at The Whistle Stop.
On the last Monday in October he entered the tavern a little before four in the afternoon. Resident drinkers were spaced in small clusters along the L shaped, bar. They sat on badly worn Naugahyde backed stools and spoke in whispers. A single patron, a young electrician with a persistent propensity for alcohol occupied one of the two stools on the short side of the bar. He sat with his head on folded arms...asleep with a half empty glass of lukewarm beer on the stained bar top before him. The glittering reflection of the Wurlitzer on the dusty mirrors behind the bar provided a curious comparison.
After waving to the bartender, Leon slid into an empty stool and greeted the occupant of the seat beside him. "Hey Howie! How's it goin? Gettin' a little chilly out there."
Howie acknowledged the friendly salute and confirmed the observation.
It is not abnormal to experience a chill in October on Long Island. Labor Day unofficially marks the end of summer with decreasing daytime temperatures mixing with the colors of falling leaves. Often the interaction of warm humid air and cooling temperatures result in an early evening chill and pockets of fog that hover as a misty layer four or five feet above the earth. The fog dissipates once the thermostat stabilizes leaving crisp temperatures under a star filled sky.
Leon was describing Sundays catch of Bluefish when Grimes arrived. Grimes, a large middle-aged man with a barrel chest and wide girth was slightly retarded. He had a hearing deficiency and a tendency to yell when he talked which usually resulted with someone screaming: "Tone it down!" Usually, the crowd in The Whistle Stop did not object until Grimes had completed the latest gossip.
"Hear about Ellen?" he bellowed then, before anyone could respond, boomed: "She was picked-up last night for being drunk. The cops took her to Sea-Eye."
Grimes' utterance of the the community accepted abbreviation of Central Islip Psychiatric Hospital aroused the curiosity of the other patrons. Although very few Long Island residents had ever visited the hospital grounds, that didn't prevent a flood of stories...real and imagined.
The hospital's terrifying reputation was not without foundation. In 1896 as an effort to ease overcrowding on Ward Island, the State Legislature mandated that all New York City asylums for the insane be placed under the State Hospital at Central Islip. For many years the Long Island Railroad did a thriving business serving the vast compound via a spur that diverged south from the Main Line. It brought in all the materials used to construct the hospital complexes then later carried the provisions necessary to sustain them and its thousands of patients. There were special cars equipped with restraining seat belts and bars on the windows to transport the demented creatures to be interned. On the weekends, the LIRR ran visitor trains.
"Where'd they pick her up?" Leon asked.
"They found her on the sidewalk in front of The Cozy's Lounge at about four in the morning. I left after midnight and she was still goin' strong." He snorted a loud half-laugh and hollered: "She really musta had a snort full."
"And they took her to C I?"
"Yeah...I heard they got some kinda program."
Grimes looked started at the question then said, "I don't know. I only heard they got one.
"How long is she gonna be there?"
"I don't know! ...How would I know?"
The patron at the end of the bar stirred. He lifted his head, wiped the spittle from his chin with his shirtsleeve, and said, "Shell be in Unit-H1. That's where they take everybody." He paused, smiled, and with a seeming show of bravado added: "I know from experience..... She'll be back in a week or so. They don't keep ya too long."
Leon nodded and mouthed the words: Thank you, before turning to Howie and whispering with distain: "That fool sounds like he's proud of the fact he was locked up in a nuthouse." Leon then turned his attention to the liquid in the glass before him. he shook his head took and lifted the glass to his lip. As he lowered the glass to the bar top he said, "Hope they don't keep her too long. I heard about that place. Its kinda spooky."
Before Howie could reply, Grimes raised his glass and shouted. "Well! Here's to Ellen! Guess she wont be boozing tonight!"
Leon lifted the remainder of his beer to his mouth. He hesitated seemingly studying the foam that had dissolved into spirals of frothy lather on the glass. "No," he whispered, "She wont be getting drunk tonight," he paused again before tipping the glass and empting the contents. After lowering the empty glass to the bar top, he pursed his lips and mused, "Wonder what its like? She must be scared stiff."
Grimes leaned forward and roared: "Well! Just listen to you! Why don't ya go visit? I'm sure they'll let ya visit." He glanced to the electrician sitting near the corner of the bar. "Won't they?"
"How would I know? the young electrician snorted. "Nobody ever came to visit me. "
One of the men at the bar lifted his head and snarled indigently, "Whatta ya talkin' about? I visited! Even, brought ya a carton of butts!"
The electricians face flushed. "Yeah! Oh Yeah. Sure, I remember. Just kiddin'. Of course they allow visitors! Everyone knows that."
"See!" Grimes told Leon. "If you're so worried about her, why don't ya bring her a carton of Luckies?"
When Leon hesitated, Grimes laughed and cackled: "That's what I thought. All talk!" He shook his head and without lowing his voice sneered: "Ya don't do nothin' that don't benefit you." He shook his head and added, "Forget it!"
"Leon's face reddened in anger. He pushed his empty glass forward and slipped from the stool.
"Where ya goin'?" Howie called after him.
I'm gonna visit Ellen, Leon retorted and moved to the door without looking back.
Leon's car was parked a diagonal to the bar. He got in and left making one stop for a carton of cigarettes at the nearby Stop and Go before proceeding to the hospital.
The Sun had set and darkness was fast approaching when his Volkswagen turned off Sunrise Highway and entered Southern State Parkway. The fog began to settle when he reached exit 43A and turned onto Carleton Avenue. It hovered just above the top of the small car when he entered the grounds of Central Islip State Psychiatric Hospital.
Leon had anticipated a high stone fence and a manned guard shack but found neither. "Can't believe ya can just drive in like this," he said to himself as he passed the Admission Building."
The top of the building was obscured in fog with the upper level windows appearing as glowing orbs. Blurred yellowish lights from the ground floor windows only furthered the mystic illusion. He considered stopping for directions but the surreal specter of the two-story brownstone caused him to reject the idea and he drove on.
The site for admission for the insane was immense. Bounded by the railroads long spur to the south, Carleton Avenue to the west, and the hospitals cemetery to the east, it contained a pond, a baseball field, various storage buildings, an administration complex, a central power plant, a firehouse at Lowell and Cherry, a groundwater recharge basin, and a bandstand. The complex also included numerous identical two-storied, redbrick, institutional buildings to quarter the mentally ill. These were called units and labeled with a letter proceeded by a number.
The asylum had been constructed early in the twentieth century and seemingly stood as structures for the dammed. Conditions were horrendous. Therapy consisted of working the inmates to clear the land, build the roads, and farm the soil. Overcrowding was considered a necessary evil and treatment options were limited. The most popular prescription was hard work. For the chronic patient there were dreaded shock treatments and binding contraptions that seem medieval today.
Leon easily found 'H' Block but locating the building 'H1' presented a problem. There were six buildings in H Block...three on each side of the street. Although light glowed from every window of every structure, the only ones with a marker were 'H2', 'H3', and 'H4'. The others were not identified.
Leon had no first hand knowledge of the asylum when he parked in the near vacant parking area and left the security of the Volkswagen, He had heard the chilling tales of conditions of the 1930s and 1940s and his rich imagination provided embellishment until the hospital was indeed a snake pit where unsupervised patients dressed in soiled garments walked aimlessly while talking incoherently and exhibiting all forms of atrocious behavior.
Hiking the collar of the leather jacket, Leon lowered his head to peer below the low-lying mist. He straightened remembering the cigarettes on the passenger seat. After retrieving the carton, he took a deep breath before starting an uneasy walk toward the stone formations. Enveloped in fog, the massive mammoths appeared more menacing with each approaching step. "Its like something out of one of those English movies about a nut house....Bedlam," he muttered aloud.
Leon was unaware the hospital had been undergoing an economize cutback for a number of years. The arrival of anti-psychotic drugs and antidepressants in the late 1950s and early 1960s allowed some patients to remain at home or be treated in small, local facilities. The number of residents also dropped when Medicaid began paying the bill for patients in nursing homes. By the early 1970s, Long Islands mental hospitals had so many empty beds that whole buildings closed. A decision was made in the 1980s to reduce the budget by closing more buildings and releasing large numbers of mentally ill patients into the community.
To Leon's dismay many of the buildings had long lost their engraved identity. When he heard noises emitting from within one of the marked buildings'H4", he briefly considered knocking on the door but had second thoughts and continued across the street to the unidentified building beside the one marked 'H2'.
Consciously suppressing the dread that someone might mistake him for a patient, he rehearsed what to say before pressing the doorbell. He waited a full half minute before pressing the bell again. Again there was no response. He tried pounding on the heavy wooden door without success. He eventually relented and turned to the building marked 'H1' to ask for assistance.
He considered a short cut across the lawn but the idea of leaving a footprint in the frost layer caused him to extend his walk.
The noise grew louder as he approached the building causing him to muse, "Sounds like they're having a party."
There followed another period of ringing the doorbell and pounding the door. When he still did not get a response he concluded he could not be heard above the noise and found himself emitting a sigh of relief. He handled the carton of cigarettes and chuckled: "Well, I tried. Did the best I could." Eager to leave the eerie setting, he stepped back and turned to leave.
A tiny glow grew larger then separated and turned into two hazed beams from the headlights of an approaching automobile. Highlighted in the beam, Leon remained still as the car came to a stop before him. The drivers side window opened and Leon stepped forward. The two young men in white uniforms inside the car were the only persons he had seen since entering the hospital grounds.
Before anyone spoke, Leon felt he had to explain his appearance and volunteered the fact he had come to visit a friend. "I was told that she was brought to building "H1" Incoming?" Remembering the source of his information, he stopped and gestured in the general direction of the building he assumed to be 'H1'.
When neither man confirmed or denied his statement, Leon pointed and said."Its gotta be that one. Its all lit up... And it's right next to "H2". But! No one answers." He continued explaining how he determined the location while both men stepped from the car.
One of the men volunteered that they both worked as attendants in another section of the hospital and were on their way home. "I have a key if you want to go inside," he said, then, noting Leon's puzzled expression, explained, "Its a Master Key that fits all the buildings."
Leon straightened to use the fog to shield his lack of enthusiasm. "How...eh...how do I get out once I get in?"
"Just go to the desk, the front desk. The Duty Attendant will let you out."
The mist did not completely hide the concern on Leon's face and the attendant snickered, "Dont worry. They won't try and make you stay." He chuckled and produced a key ring from his pocket then looked over his shoulder and called to his friend, "Be right back," and started for the building.
"You coming?" he asked when Leon hesitated.
"Yeah... Sure," A reluctant Leon muttered and stepped behind the attendant.
An inserted key, the click of the lock, and one side of the massive door opened.
Leon entered, sheepishly whispered, "Thanks," and gingerly stepped inside. He took a few steps before the sound of massive door closing behind him caused him to pause. Reaching deep within himself he emitted a chilled chuckle. "It's no wonder they couldn't hear me knock," he said attempting to mask his growing fear. "Hell! I could've pounded until my fists were bloody."
The corridor was empty. There were no attendants; no patients; no front desk. The area had been striped clean with the exception of a telephone booth off the passageway.
Leon's poise disappeared as imagined cries from the turbulent souls of yesteryear competed with a heartbeat that began to clamor so loud he couldn't hear the words he impulsively repeated and repeated:"Oh shit! Oh shit!"
Moisture seeped along his spine as past tales ebbed from his mind...overcrowding...`abuse...straight jackets...patients moving without purpose while aimlessly gesturing and talking to apparitions. "Gotta get outta here," he told himself and inadvertently rubbed his hand along his jacket. His fingers felt the coins in his pocket. "I'll.. I'll call for help!" he exclaimed and quick stepped to the accordion door of the telephone booth.
"Oh shit!" he exclaimed when he looked inside.
A small cable dangled from the area where the telephone was once cradled.
"The front door!" he yelled and raced to the entrance.
The door was locked.
"Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit..."
He pushed and pulled the handle hoping to attract the attention of the men in the car although reason told him they had left.
He swallowed past the rising panic and began a search of the ground floor.
Embedded wire mesh made breaking of the windows impossible.
"There's gotta be a way to let someone know... I'm here..."
He considered short-circuiting an electrical outlet but a frantic hunt for a socket proved fruitless. He began to pant, "Oh shit! Oh shit!" He scanned the ceiling only to discover light bulbs in metal cages and thought, "They're just like me. Trapped!
"Upstairs! There's gotta be something! Maybe I can signal someone from one of the windows."
He took the steps of concrete stairwell two at a time. The sight of the half-opened, metal security door on the landing between floors caused him to pause briefly and to the quickening unconsciously cadence of, "Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!"
The second floor was vacant. There was no furniture and no telephone booth. The cadence quickened. "Oh shit! Oh shit!"
He felt trapped in a nightmare as he stared into the emptiness. Depression yielded a barely perceptible sensation of anguished wails escaping from the empty, pale green walls. Muffled screams interacted with the increased pounding of his heart. A feeling of hopelessness interceded and suddenly, with the certainty there was no way out, Leon experienced a strange calm.
"Get hold of yourself," he whimpered and as he did the building yielded still another noise. He strained for the source. It came from below the front door. It was a sound of a key. Someone was inserting a key into the lock on the front door.
Leon sprinted to the steps. He passed the security gate to the lower level and was standing in front of the entrance as one side of the enormous door opened.
"Boy! Am I glad to see you guys!" he screeched at the two men in the white uniforms.
"I bet you are! We were on Southern State Parkway when we realized this was one of the buildings in the Deinstitutionalization Program. It's been emptied and shut for about a month." The attendant grimaced. "I don't know how you would ever get out. There's really no reason for anyone to come inside..." His mouth twisted into a weary grin. "Like the old days. Once you got in, it'll be almost impossible to get out."
Leon took a deep breath and forced a weak smile. It was not a piece of information that gave him any degree of comfort. "I believe it." he whispered as he attempted to mask the fear that had nearly overwhelmed him. He closed his fingers to brush the line of perspiration moving from his forehead to the corners of his eyes.
"Too bad...well... my friend the one I came to see, can't say I didn't try...too bad."
One of the attendant asked, "Did you say they picked her up last night?"
"Yeah... The cops found her sitting on the sidewalk in front of a bar....dead drunk."
"They would've taken her to: ICU Incoming."
Leon didn't respond and attempted to ignore the widening moisture that began again soaking the skin on the back of his neck.
"That's 'H4.' the attendant told him.
Leon stuttered, "H...ah...H4?
Yeah... That's where they take the dru...ah...the people they find on the street. That's where they process themICU"
Leon gulped. "Process?"
"Before they put them into the detoxification program."
The attendant turned and started to building "'H4'. Come on. Ill let you in," he said and turned to a side entrance.
I don't...uh....I'm not so.... I think.... I really gotta be...."
"Come on! Nothing to worry about!"
"How do I get out? ...I don't wanna....
The attendant smiled. "Don't worry. They'll let you leave."
The noise from the building grew as they approached. It afforded little comfort as the attendant inserted the key. There was a clicking sound as mechanism released and the door opened.
"Don't worry. Just go to the desk. We'll wait until we know your inside."
Leon considered asking the attendant to go with him then sighed and entered alone.
It took only a few steps before he realized he had not entered a festive gathering. Before him hunched against the wall, were women, many elderly wearing clothing seemingly without color. Some were asleep, lying in their own vomit; other sitting staring blankly; while still others with closed eyes sat moaning; many were talking to themselves. Several were crying, others singing, and still others laughing and yelling at the open space before them.
Leon saw the desk and clutched the carton of cigarettes as he began his approach He looked straight ahead, avoiding the cackling and outstretched bony hands that reached for his trouser cuffs. His heart stopped when he saw the chair behind the desk."
There was no one behind the dest.
Leon stood frozen in place staring at the empty chair.
"May I help you?"
The voice came from someone in a group off to the side. A matronly woman in white broke from the cluster.
Leon fought to regain his composure. He lifted the carton of cigarettes. "I'm...I'm...I'm looking for....ah... Ellen...Ellen Miller! She was taken here last night...actually early in the morning."
The matron smiled and gestured to the group behind her. "Ellen's right over there. She's next to the wall."
Ellen was sitting on the floor talking to a woman beside her. The woman to her right lay coiled on the floor in a fetal position.
Leon turned to the matron. "Ill only take a minute. Just wanna give her."
"Take your time," the matron replied and moved back to the group.
Ellen wasn't aware of his presence until Leon, taking care to avoid groping hand, stood before her and called her name.
Ellen turned and looked up. "Hi Leon," she said obviously surprised to see him. "Whatta you doin' here"
Leon expected more emotion. "I came to see you! I heard you were here and thought...." He stopped and bent forward and extended the carton of cigarettes. "Here! Thought ya could use these...ah...."
Ellen made no effort to stand but simply leaned forward and stretched to accept the carton. "Thanks," she uttered and settled back to the wall.
A confused Leon stood until a groping hand touched the bottom of his trousers. He stepped back and muttered, "Well okay," he then paused then said: "Well, I gotta go." He turned to locate the matron then, more as an afterthought, added, "Take care of yourself."
"You too,"" A listless Ellen replied sardonically before turning to the woman beside her.
The matron was standing beside the desk. She smiled when Leon approached.
Leon responded with a nod. He could not refrain from asking,""Does it always smell this bad?""
The matron grimaced and shook her head.
Once outside, Leon stopped in front of the building and took a deep drag of the moist clean air before going to his car. He didn't calm until he was driving east on Southern State Parkway. The fog had lifted and light from a three-quarter moon provided unlimited visibility as it reflected off the wet road before him. He took another deep breath, shook his head and said aloud: "Don't wanna go there again."
The feelings of tribulation had moved to memory when he approached The Whistle Stop. He began to view the venture with amusement. Wait til I tell everyone I was locked in a nut house, he chuckled.
Leon was true to his word. Although he boasted about being a prisoner in a mental institution, he never returned to the Central Islip State Hospital. CI was permanently closed in 1996.