Rebecca Solnit‘s ruined hospital experience reverberates in Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, which, last week climbed to the 7th spot in the New York Times nonfiction best seller list. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were regular visitors to Coney Island at a time when the side shows were still surviving. They saw Snake Princess Wago and a flea circus at Hubert’s on 42nd St., which closed in 1965. They also visited a small museum with body parts and human embryos in jars. Robert Mapplethorpe became obsessed by the idea and sought to find some of his own specimen. The search lead them to a ruined hospital. The experience seems straight out of a magic realist novel. Patti Smith writes,
“He [Robert Mapplethorpe] asked around where he might find something of that sort, and a friend told him about the ruins of the Old City Hospital on Welfare (later Roosevelt) Island [picture left]. On a Sunday we traveled there with our friends from Pratt. There were two points on the island that we visited. The first was a sprawling nineteenth-century building that had the aura of a madhouse; it was the Smallpox Hospital, the first place in America to receive victims of contagion. Separated only by barbed wire and broken glass, we imagined dying of leprosy and the plague.
“The other ruins were that left of the Old City Hospital, with its forbidding institutional architecture, finally to be demolished in 1994. When we entered it, we were struck by the silence and an odd medicinal smell. We went from room to room and saw shelves of medical specimens in their glass jars. Many were broken, vandalized by visiting rodents. Robert combed each room until he found what he was looking for, an embryo swimming in formaldehyde within a womb of glass.” (p. 68)
On the walk back to their home, “… just as we turned the corner to Hall Street, the glass jar slipped inexplicably from his hands and shattered on the sidewalk, just steps from our door. I saw his face. He was so deflated that neither of us could say anything. The purloined jar had sat on the shelf for decades, undisturbed. It was almost as if he had taken its life. ‘Go upstairs,’ he said. ‘I’ll clean it up.’ We never mentioned it again. There was something about that jar. The shards of heavy glass seemed to foreshadow the deepening of our days; we didn’t speak of it but each of us seemed inflicted with a vague internal restlessness.” (p. 69)