First Night on the Ward

by Jim Knipfel

When the nurse wheeled me out of the ICU and down six levels to the locked-door psych ward, deep into the bowels of the Hennepin County Medical Center, I only had two things with me to keep me entertained. I had a little tape player with one tape (Killdozer’s Snakeboy on one side, Tom Waits’ Heartattack and Vine on the other), and one book–Jacques Lacan’s Ecrits. The Lacan wasn’t really all that entertaining, but, what with his being a psychoanalyst and all, I thought it might be appropriate.

The nurse stopped the wheelchair just outside the ominous looking doors. There were no markings, no signs, no indication at all that this was the Bin.

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She told me to get up out of the chair and wait while she got us buzzed in. That was a relief, actually–I’d spent the last two weeks pinned in an ICU bed by various tubes and catheters after OD’ing on sleeping pills and cheap scotch. This was my first chance to stretch my legs.

She picked up a white phone next to the door and announced my arrival. There was a sharp buzz and a click, and she pulled the door open.

First thing I saw, sitting on a little bench just inside the door, maybe waiting for a chance to escape, was an older woman, maybe in her 50’s, maybe older; it was hard to tell. Her thin white hair was a tangled mess, pointing every which way out of her head. She had been allowed to apply her own makeup that morning, so as a result, her face was a smudged and sad mess of mascara and lipstick, spread around only vaguely near where they belonged. I walked past her clutching a small bag with some clothes, my book and tape player, some toiletries. I was still wearing my wrinkled blue and white hospital gown.

There was a big common room, with huge picture windows looking out on an almost-pastoral scene. Well, it was pastoral–with grass and trees and flowers, until you hit the huge white expanse of the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome a few hundred yards away. The room was scattered with tables and chairs. There was a television room off to the right, with comfortable-looking couches and armchairs. Behind me was a long desk–the nurses station apparently–where a few of my fellow inmates were lined up to get their pills or hourly cigarettes (those patients who smoked were allowed one cigarette an hour).

The nurse who had wheeled me down there left, and was replaced by another nurse, an older, matronly type, who led me around a corner into a long hallway, lined on either side with closed doors. She stopped at the third door on the right and opened it.

"This is where you’ll be staying for awhile," she said.

"Uh-huh." I looked around. There were two beds. It was clear that someone already had dibs on the bed closest to the window. Shit.

"Your roommate’s name is Joey," she said after noticing my eyes focusing on the rumpled sheets. "You should be meeting him soon. Now let’s see what you got in the bag."

I emptied it onto a small table, and she started sorting through things, in the end letting me keep everything but the razor.

"This we have to keep behind the desk up front."

"But it’s an electric razor–"

"Our concern is this." She held up the two-foot length of black cord.


"You can go an ask for it whenever you want to shave."

As she continued to sort through things, she started making small talk–what I did for a living, if I smoked, why I was there. And everytime I gave her an answer–a straight and honest answer, too–she smiled weakly and nodded and said "I see." I hated that. Just because I was a patient in a psych ward, everything I said was being taken as some kind of gibberish, some kind of schizophrenic babble, some kind of lie. That pissed me off. I wanted to fucking strangle her until her eyeballs burst from their sockets. So I stopped answering her questions.

She eventually left, and I set to changing into my street clothes. I may have been in a madhouse, but I wasn’t content to play the part. When I sat down on the bed to pull on my pants, I noticed something very interesting about the room. The two beds were about 18 inches apart. About two feet away from the foot of the beds was a long table. The window, which looked out onto a white cement wall, was a strange, unbalanced trapezoid shape. The walls and ceiling were all tilted, and didn’t meet at right angles. The room was set up in such a way that it was impossible to take a full step in any one direction.

This room is obviously designed to keep the insane insane, I thought, much to my horror, as I sat there. At least I had a bathroom with a shower, so I wouldn’t have to worry about any of that communal shit.

The door behind me opened and my roommate charged in. He didn’t look at me, just charged to the far side of his bed and started jamming things into drawers–deodorant and what not–hiding them away. He had obviously just been told he was getting a new roommate.

"Hello there," I said to his back. "My name’s Jim. I guess yours is Joey."


"Okay, well, I guess we’re, uhh, in here together, huh?"


"Okay, then, uhhh...I guess since you obviously had that bed, well, then, I’ll just take this one–"

He flew out the door again. I caught only the briefest glimpse of his face. Red hair, thin little redneck mustache. Small man, probably in his 30’s. Had a blue-collar air about him. Funny how you don’t often expect to find blue collar types in nuthouses.

After getting myself together, I grabbed my book and headed back out to the day room to settle myself in, get a sense of the place.

Off in a corner stood a stationary bike. The same frantic, sweating man who’d been pedaling furiously away when I was first buzzed in was still there, still pedaling, muttering things under his breath. I’d find out over the next few weeks that he spent every day on that bike, 12 hours a day, from 8 to 8, only taking breaks for meals and the occasional cigarette. And when he got off the bike those times, everyone knew instinctively not to try and commandeer it for themselves.

It was all very quiet. No screams, no mad howls of anguish. Except for the lady with the makeup problem, most everyone was pretty well put together. I’d been in worse psych wards in the past. And those had been open; this one was locked. I was surprised. There were two distinguished businessmen types–graying hair, designer glasses, who always stuck together. I never found out why they were there. They were probably the most scary and dangerous of the lot.

Over in the television room, a group of five or six patients started jumping around and hooting. Why they let mental patients watch professional wrestling is beyond me.

That first day was slow and sad. I didn’t talk to anyone–not even the nurses behind the counter. I was on no medications and I only smoked cigars, which they wouldn’t allow me. So I sat there, watched the things around me, and read. Then I went to bed early.

I don’t know what time it was that a noise awakened me. A couple times during the night, every night, someone would come around with a flashlight to make sure that everyone was in place and asleep, so at first I figured that’s all it was. But the light and the shuffling about didn’t go away. I opened my eyes and put on my glasses to find a pair of orderlies swabbing blood up from the bathroom tiles.

I looked over at the other bed and saw that it was empty. It suddenly became very clear exactly what happened. Still–

"What the hell happened?" I asked, not groggy anymore.

"None of your business," one of the orderlies shot back. "Go back to sleep."

"None of my business? Look, two or three synapses over, and he could’ve been cutting me up!"

"Go back to sleep."

I knew I wouldn’t get any more information out of them, and they’d probably beat me with rubber hoses if I kept asking, so I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep until they went away. Then I did fall asleep.

When I woke up the next morning, I took a look around. Any evidence of Joey’s ever having been in that room had been erased. His bed was made, all his drawers had been cleaned out. There was nothing left. Just as well–I didn’t much care for the idea of having a roommate anyway.

I put some clothes on and headed out to the front desk. None of the other patients were up.

"This might be kind of awkward timing," I said to the nurse behind the counter, "but I need a shave–do you suppose I could get my razor?"

"No," she said. She didn’t even blink.

"But it’s an electric razor–what am I gonna do, shave my wrists? This is silly."

She thought about it for a second, then went to the back to talk to the doctor on staff. A few minutes later he came back, holding the shoe box in which they were keeping my razor.

"Okay, you can shave," he said, "but we have to send an orderly in to watch you."

"Well, fine then."

"And we’d like to ask you a few questions."


"How well did you know Joey?"

"Where is he, by the way? Where’d you take him?"

"He’ll be fine. How well did you know him?"

"That doesn’t answer the question. I didn’t know him at all–we never spoke. I tried to, but he wouldn’t say anything. I just got here yesterday. He came into the room last night after I was asleep."

"Did you hear anything last night?"

"Not until the orderlies were cleaning things up. I have no idea what happened, but I think I can make a fair guess."

"You didn’t hear anything at all until that time?"

"I told you, no. I’m a heavy sleeper."

"So, Joey, he didn’t...offer you anything?"

"No, uh-uh. Like I said, he never spoke to me."

"Any other patients offer you anything?"

"Well, no–I mean, like what?–you’re the first person I’ve talked to since I’ve been here–since I was dropped off. I haven’t said a word to anybody, nobody’s said a word to me."

He paused for a long time, staring at me hard, still not handing over my razor. I think he was trying to determine how crazy I was before he went on.

"Okay, this is what’s happening. Someone here–one of the patients we believe–somehow got ahold of a mirror–a little hand-held mirror–and they smashed it. And now they’re apparently going around, trading shards of broken mirror to other patients for cigarettes. That’s what Joey used."

"Wow, that’s pretty clever."

He gave me a stern look. "Joey’s not saying anything. He might be the one who was doing it, for all we know. But we don’t. So please–over the next few days until we can figure this out, just keep your ears open."

I was there less than 24 hours, and I’m already being asked to be a rat. A rat on loons. Maybe it was all some kind of test. Maybe the whole "Joey" thing was a test. Maybe he was just an orderly playing a patient to see what I would do.

I didn’t think about this for very long. I was a suicide case, not a paranoid. A burly blonde kid showed up, I was handed my razor, and he followed me back into my room to watch me shave.

"I can see this is going to be an interesting few months," I told the kid who stood in the doorway, bored.

"Yeah, whatever," he replied.

I never saw Joey again.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Photojournalism by Jim Canfield. All rights reserved.

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