Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital

Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital where Woody Guthrie lived from 1956 to 1961

Where does the work begin and the person end? Which part is the disease, which part is the personality? You spend all your time listening to the sounds in your head. Thinking these lonely thoughts and playing them out for an audience of one million, one thousand. One. And at some point you have to wonder, where does creativity – where does the eccentricity, the base foolishness to believe in your ability to see and do and understand and communicate what others can’t even begin to imagine – where does that end and where does delusion begin? And when do you know?

I am walking the grounds of the old Greystone Hospital. Sixty years ago Woody Guthrie found himself here. In long slangy convoluted letters to his family who was broke and stranded back in Brooklyn, he referred to it as “gravestone”. It is a massive, Addams-family monster of an erection. A nineteenth century monument to the confidence of the mourning-coated medical industry, with towering gables and tremendous blocks of granite that grow out of the ground like great golems darkening the sky. Birds sing softly from a row of stately old trees that line the driveway, and the front lawns are clean and correct like pastures of plenty should be, but the grounds around the buildings themselves are all overgrown. The windows are boarded up. And they’re building a new modern version of the facility further down the road.

Woody wound up here as the disease that would eventually kill him began to tighten its grip. He had lit out from Brooklyn, hopping a bus west – where west, exactly, no one knew. But no one ever knew. That was Woody. He got as far as New Jersey, when the cops picked him up for vagrancy and deposited him here.

A few months later, two friends visited him. They asked the doctor how he was doing. The doctor shuffled through his papers – Guthrie? Guthrie? Guthrie? Oh yes. A very sick man. Very delusional. Delusional?, his friends asked. Yes, the doctor went on – he claims to have written over a thousand songs! He claims he’s written a novel. He claims his work is in the Library of Congress!

When Woody was here, when his descent into the dementia of Huntington’s began to steepen, folk music, his music, America’s music, began to rise. At the same time that he was losing the ability to speak clearly, to write clearly, to feed himself, (he could no longer play the guitar, his arm permanently damaged from a fire in Florida a few years earlier), this great Victorian bulwark was becoming a Mecca for folk singers. From Pete Seeger and the old blacklisted Weavers to a generation of kids who grew up listening, improbably, impossibly, to Woody’s old 78s.

Hey, Hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song.
‘Bout a funny old world that’s a comin’ along
Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn
It looks like it’s dyin’ and it’s hardly been born.

He would not die here, however. He would just deteriorate, as more and more of his nervous system disintegrated, as more and more of him became an impenetrable citadel. Usually forts are designed to keep danger out. But sometimes they also keep danger in, and people function the same way. Every one of us is our own little fortress, which we are constantly building, raising walls, lowering walls – constantly striving to protect ourselves from the slings and arrows on the outside, while at the same time letting enough light in to keep your self from dying on the inside.

But what happens when the walls are suddenly too high? When that talent you have developed over the years for closing out the world in order to focus on what drives you, turns against you, blotting out the sun, silencing the birds, separating you from humanity. What happens when you suddenly feel the immovability of those very stones you had placed yourself? What happened inside that atrophying, drooling, spastic, once beautiful vibrant electric body? Here in New Jersey among the insane, the infirm and the inert. As the motor skills deteriorated, and as the frozen moments during which all movement, sound, spirit suddenly inexplicably ceased – grew longer and longer. Could he tell what was happening in there? Could he tell?

It’s much darker now, and as I prepare to leave, I notice that there is tape on the windows that says ‘no trespassing’. And I am reminded of one of Woody’s songs, the one we learned in grammar school. The one about this land being your land, about this land being my land. But there’s a verse that they didn’t teach us in those classrooms that Arlo told us about later. It goes:

And as I was walking
I saw a sign there, said “no trespassing.”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

The birds have softened their singing long enough for me to hear sirens in the distance. They are coming closer. Perhaps they are ambulances coming to the new facility. Perhaps they are police cars come to pick up another vagrant. And as I roll down the ribbon of driveway, I strain my ears and I swear that I can hear the sound of Woody’s laughter among the sirens and the birds.


~ by martinbihl on August 30, 2010.

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