Songs From the Black Chair

Ten years of listening to the city's most troubled men

All night long, men lined up outside Charlie Barber's office at the Bellevue shelter, waiting to take their turn in the black metal chair next to his desk.

"Why did you come to Manhattan?" he'd ask.

Some of the answers he received:

"Because Jesus told me to."

"Because someone was trying to kill me in Las Vegas."

"Because when I got out of prison in Baltimore I read that Giuliani had brought the crime rate down so I decided to return to New York."

"Because I can't find my way home. I left my house on Walters Street in the Bronx ten years ago and I can't find my way back."

"Because when I was working on a chicken farm in Georgia last week, a voice told me to come here."

There was no place for Barber to record these words on the shelter's intake form, but earlier this year he included them in his memoir Songs from the Black Chair. Every now and then, an amazing book slips through the cracks, ignored by reviewers; Songs from the Black Chair is one of those books. Published six months ago by the University of Nebraska Press, it received no reviews in major newspapers and has sold only about 1,000 copies. Yet Barber is a gifted writer, and the work he has produced is an important addition to the literature of both mental health and New York City.

Barber worked in the mental health field for a decade. From 1998 to 2001, he was at Bellevue, employed by an organization to evaluate incoming men who were suspected of being mentally ill. Barber is not a psychiatrist or psychologist—just a Harvard grad who's had numerous personal encounters with mental illness. (He's battled obsessive-compulsive disorder for years.) His work in the city shelter system gave him access to a world that's typically hidden from public scrutiny, and he made good use of his time there. Songs from the Black Chair is packed with insights into the lives of some of New York City's most troubled men.

No client haunts Barber more than the man he calls Michael Jasny. The two met when Barber worked at an agency in Manhattan that provides housing for mentally ill adults. An immigrant from Czechoslovakia, Jasny had once had a wife, a Mercedes, a Central Park West address, and a job as a bank vice president. By the time Barber meets him, he is too sick to work. He lives alone in Washington Heights, takes anti-psychotic meds, and talks about his ability to control the presidential election.

In the early 1990s, New York City greatly expanded the amount of housing it provides for mentally ill people, and Barber was told to move Jasny to an apartment building on the Upper East Side. Though Jasny didn't quite admit it, Barber sensed that the change terrified him. Two months after the move, Jasny leaped into the East River.

The police pulled him out, but soon after Governor George Pataki cut funding for community mental health programs. Jasny, who had been working with the same therapist for nearly a decade, would have to go elsewhere—to a clinic where there would be no therapists or doctors. Jasny was informed of these upcoming changes on a Tuesday. By Saturday, he had disappeared.

Barber and his colleagues tried to find him—they called the police, hospitals, the morgue. Everyone worried that Jasny had jumped in the river once again, and this time nobody had rescued him. Barber collected all the papers and diaries Jasny had left behind and combed them for answers. In Jasny's last notebook, he found these words: THE END. I WILL DROWN TODAY. SORRY FOR THE MESS.

It was the sort of tragedy that rarely appears in the media but lives forever in the memories of those involved. "I felt wrenches of horrendous guilt," Barber writes. "I —we—the system—the governor of New York—didn't listen to him. . . . I realized I couldn't have done anything about New York State budget policy, but I could have spoken up for Michael. Reading that diary, I felt that Michael's blood was on my hands. I still feel that way sometimes."

From 1999 to 2001, Barber oversaw a team of mental health workers at the Fort Washington Armory, a shelter on West 168th Street, which he liked to call the Fort. In Songs from the Black Chair, he depicts some of the Fort's most memorable characters, including Robert, an Atlantic City regular, who came back to the shelter after one foray and boasted he'd won $30,000. "Of course I didn't believe him," Barber writes. "You learned not to believe half of what you heard." A few days later, Robert handed him a check and asked him to make a photocopy in case it got lost. The check was for $30,000.

One of Barber's most surprising observations comes near the end of the book, when he writes about the mood of the men at the Fort right after the World Trade Center collapse. While the rest of the city's residents appeared to sink into a state of depression, his clients did not. At a meeting Barber convened, he describes them as "oddly composed, fresh, almost ebullient." In the hopes of clearing up this mystery, he hands out surveys.

Studying the men's responses, he writes, "I realized that on that day only, the world's trauma matched their own. They live out the violence and despair and bloodiness and trauma of 9-11 every day, and it was an enormous relief that for one or two days the world experienced that same level of trauma. They weren't alone anymore, and they felt good and . . . normal. For once everybody else felt like them."

For two years, Barber spent 13 hours a day working in homeless shelters—nine to five at the Fort, then seven to midnight at Bellevue. Now he lives in Connecticut and is working on another book. On a recent visit to Manhattan, he stopped by the diner at East 29th Street and First Avenue, across the street from Bellevue. "It's a place of disorder and disease, but not a place of misery," he says, looking out the window. "I really liked that I never knew who was going to walk in the door. . . . It was my favorite job ever." ?

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