Friday, May 16, 2014

Brother, Bird: A Short Story...

Earlier today, my friend Gina Chalfant of White Swan Illuminations posted a link to an article called, "The Mysterious New York City Island You've Never Heard Of".  The post features haunting pictures of the ruined structures on North Brother Island taken by Christopher Payne.  The island is situated between The Bronx and Queens and can be seen speeding by on 278 and from the air flying into and from La Guardia.  I remember seeing it from afar, but not knowing anything about it.

After I read the article and looked at the pictures, I was inspired to put on my creative writing hat and craft a fictional short story. The idea for the story started with the two opening sentences.  I couldn't get them out of my head and they ballooned into a 2,000 word story.  It's still pretty rough and just came off the top of my head after doing a little bit of research.  (I recommend you check stories found HERE, HERE, and HERE.)  I think that it has a fascinating history and is a super interesting place.  The story I created could easily develop into something much larger if I had the time or inclination to do so.  If there are any TV production people out there reading this, I encourage you to take a look at the source material.  It could easily be turned into something that's American Horror Story meets Bates Motel, with a dash of Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King's Rose Red and A Million Little Pieces.  Just sayin'!

Illustration by John James Audubon.

Brother, Bird

I returned to the island fifty years later.  A tree now grows where my bunk once was.  I am an old man now, but I came here as a punk teenager.  My memories of landing on the island are hazy and as broken as the windows are in their rotted out frames.  I had overdosed one too many times for my parents liking and was sent to this now abandoned place to recover.  I had taken a fistful of stolen pills before we left the newly constructed glass and aluminum hospital and was still high as a kite from an earlier fix.  I had a different destination in mind.

That first ferry ride flickers in and out of memory.  I do remember clearly that I had thrown up more than once.  Whether it was the pills, the heroine or the rocking of the boat, I can't say for sure.  Half a century later, I can still smell the river and my own vomit, shortly followed by the burn of pungent antiseptic.  It's the kind of thing that sticks with you.

Before the aptly named Riverside Hospital was a rehab facility, they quarantined Smallpox patients here and then later, TB patients, but really if it was infectious they'd send them here with a oneway ticket.  The kinds of things that went around then make H1N1 look like a runny nose.  The shame of my drug addiction was infectious, at least in my parents' eyes.  They told everyone that I was visiting relatives in Florida, not that I was on a private island dedicated to the sole purpose of straightening out drug addicted youths.  I might as well have been in Florida.  Even though the island was less than 8 miles away from my family's brownstone in the Upper East Side, it might as well been a world away.  You could see the shoreline of the City from one side of the island.  It was just beyond the river.  From the other side of the island, a view of Riker's Island, also just beyond the river.  We hung in the balance, a purgatory between Heaven and Hell, not that the City was all that much of a Heaven, but certainly better than jail time.

The island is different than it once was.  It's covered with invasive vines and the crumbling buildings are all but buried under the thick vegetation.  Porcelain berry, kudzu, and poison ivy cover the place I used to live like a green tarp.  Knotty vines dangle where pendant lights used to hang.  The ceilings in most of the buildings have caved in long ago and been replaced by a canopy of leaves. When I stayed here, the island was a pristine model of manicured lawns and orderly function.  What it has become and its new resident are what brought me back.  Specifically, a bird:  The Black-crowned Night Heron.

Following in the footsteps of ornithological illustrators like Audubon, my purpose for returning is to capture images and document the wildlife that has nested here.  Back in the studio, I'll turn my photographs into paintings for a new book, "Rare Birds of The City and Surrounding Areas".  The originals will be sold off to fundraise for the Parks and Recreation Department.  It's my way to give back.  All the people I would make amends with are now long dead.  Along with the Night Heron, there are egrets and cormorant.  The birds thrive in the wilderness brought on by five decades of abandonment and neglect.  Fledgling drug abusers have been replaced by fledgling birds.

The 134th Street Ferry was long ago decommissioned.  We had to charter a boat to motor us in, almost plowing into the jagged remnants of the wooden dock just below the surface of the water.  The birds are more abundant on the smaller South island, but we're touring the North island, where I stayed so long ago.  I prefer the name of the Dutch West India Company gave the pair: "De Gessellen".  It means, "The Companions".    Somewhere along the lines, they were renamed and turned into brothers.  North Brother and South Brother.  When I arrived for the first time, my brother was the last person that I wanted to think about.

Once I came to, I woke up in a small, empty room with metal grates over the windows.  I was laying on the floor.  Yellow square tiles with a black trim lined the room.  The sheet-metal covered door had a slot in it.  I might as well have been in prison.  From the slot I could see the metal frame of a bed propped against the wall and a mattress drying out.  Clearly I had an accident while I had been incapacitated.  The thin cotton pants were soaked through.  I called for help, but no one came.  I couldn't hear anyone moving around, but I could hear music.  Tchaikovsky's Symphony Number 6 in B Minor, "Pathetique" conducted by Eugene Ormandy, was playing on the record player down the hall.  I didn't know it then, but by the time I left, I had memorized every fluttering trill.  They played that LP repeatedly.

Those first few days were fuzzy.  I slipped in and out of consciousness.  When I was awake, I counted the tiles or hit the tiles until my hands were bloody.  I vaguely recall the nurses coming in, holding me down and force-feeding me.  They'd try to sooth me by saying my name, over and over again like they played that record, as if it were a prayer for serenity.  "Steve... Steve... Steve..."  The worst moments of being awake were at night.  I would lay on the ground, shivering and praying for death.  Half awake, I dreamed of my brother and his battle-scarred face, sunken in.  I dreamed of his shaking hands and the needle in his too-thin arm.  I dreamed of his red-rimmed eyes.  He starred at me... with cold, dead eyes.

I never thought that I would be back here.  When I left after a six month stay, I was convinced that I would never set foot on North Brother again.  Not long after I was released, the facility was shut down and all access to it cut off.  I used to stand on the ferry slip in Port Morris and look out over the waters at the brick chimneys.  One day I stopped going, but those blue tiled hallways were always in the back of my mind.  Coming and going from La Guardia, I would see it from the window seat and think back to a time where I faced my demons and surrounded myself with ghosts.

In those first few weeks, I remember hearing the other boys whisper about how the island was haunted.  Not only had it been a place where New York sent its carriers of infectious diseases to die, but a steamboat had crashed fifty years before we were there and a thousand people died.  Whenever anyone said the name of the boat, all the boys would snigger and whoop.  "General Slocum!"  One boy named Billy, claimed to see the ghost of Typhoid Mary.  He had learned how to sew in one of the occupational therapy classes and made a dress that he would wear.  He'd run through the halls shrieking and screaming, "I'm Mrs. Brown and you can't keep me here!  I'm being held against my will!"  He would cry himself to sleep.  He wasn't the only one.

The guiding idea behind treatment at Riverside was to keep idle hands busy.  They had even built a gym for the patients a few years prior, so that we could blow off steam being athletic, instead of taking it out on each other.  When I was interviewed for an article, they had asked me, "When did you first know that you wanted to be an artist?"  I smiled and said, "Rehab."  It wasn't a lie or meant to sensationalize.  During me stay, we had Occupational Therapy classes where we learned to cook, paint, emboss metal, and sew.  While it may be true that the hospital was rife with corruption and results were mixed, it was the first place that I picked up a paintbrush.  It was the first place that I stood out as exceptional and people didn't shake their heads with disappointment when they said my name.

The night that I overdosed for the first time, we had buried my brother earlier that day.  They were firing off his 21-Gun Salute and all I could think about was getting high.  The war had broken my brother.  It had wrecked his body and ruined his mind.  They have a name for it now.  Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  To cope with his wounds, both internally and externally, he turned to drugs and alcohol.  He gave me my first sip of beer.  He rolled my first joint.  He showed me how to shoot up the first time.

Near the end of my time on the island, I ran into one of my teachers named Ms. Mabry.  She was sitting on the old wooden dock, her black dress fanned out around her.  Her hair, normally pulled back in a severe bun, had come loose and whipped around her face.  Next to her was a piece of driftwood, holding down a stack of papers.  She carefully removed a sheet and started folding the page until she had a paper bird.  When she realized that I was standing behind her, she looked up with a sad smile and handed me the origami bird.  Clearly she had been crying, but it wasn't my place to pry.  She pulled out another sheet and started folding again.  When she finished, she wordlessly held it up and pulled on its tail.  The wings flapped up and down.

As I started to walk back to the dormitory, the wind caught the bird and blew it out of my hands and into the water.  I watched it for awhile, bobbing on the surface of the water before it sunk beneath the waves of the East River.  The City, teeming with life and bustling with people, was in the background, but it felt a million miles away.

I wish that I could say that after the months spent on North Brother I was cured and that I no longer craved the chemically-induced release of drugs, but the truth is that addiction is another one of those things that sticks with you.  It's a constant battle to refrain from backsliding and relapsing.  Even after all this time, I still have to make the conscious decision to not fall into temptation.  While I wasn't magically freed from the cycles of addiction, I did finally get to say goodbye to my brother.  I had seen his casket lowered into the ground, but I was too chemically altered to fully be able to absorb the totality of the events unfolding in front of me.  I'll never know why Ms. Mabry was crying, but I still think of that little paper bird she gave me.  When I saw it slip from the surface and dip below the lapping, iced tea-colored current, my brother's passing somehow felt real.

It had been fifty years since I last saw that little paper bird.  We had carefully traversed the deserted island in search of a different bird.  We had aims of spotting the Black-crowned Night Herons, but came up empty-handed.  Patches of poison ivy choked the old paths and scaled the trees, slowing progress.  Eventually the light started to fade and the sky started to become rosy with the oncoming sunset.  Navigating the island in broad daylight is difficult enough.  At night it would be nearly impossible and highly dangerous.  The maintained paths were a thing of the past.  Slightly disappointed, we began our trip back to the charter boat.  As we almost reached the place we moored the boat, we heard a barking squawk from overhead and saw the outline of two companion birds, steadily flapping their wings, flying into the sunset.

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