INSIDE LOOKING OUT
BY JOELLE ASARO BERMAN
I found myself sitting home on a Tuesday night during the winter break of senior year. Sitting in the chair that faced the window, I stared outside. No cars passed on the street. I had come to expect this after 9:00pm when my town unofficially went to sleep. The only light I saw was from the blank, saturating streetlights reflecting off of windows through which one could see the tired blue vibrations of late-night television.
I was ready for another night of Nintendo tournaments with my younger brother when my phone rang. It was my friend Mike, telling me to be ready in 20 minutes.
“For what?” I asked, my heart rate changing to support my surge of excitement.
“You’ll see. Dress warmly, get a flashlight, and tell your parents that we are going to a diner.”
I hung up the phone and started foraging through my wardrobe for my warmest corduroys and coziest sweatshirt. I was unable to find a flashlight, which would have seemed suspicious to my parents anyway, and so gave up on the idea. Layer after layer I dressed until the loud sounds of Tool and a honking horn filled the space of my driveway.
“Be back at 1, Ma!” I shouted, already halfway out the door.
I jumped into the shotgun seat of his Bronco, ready for anything. He turned the music down.
“We are going to pick up Ian. Then, you have to be my navigator.” He handed me a map to a nearby town, half an hour away. The instructions were obtained via the Internet, and the destination read, “Sanitarium Road.”
“What is this?” I asked.
“It’s an abandoned insane asylum. It closed 30 years ago--used to be the Overbrook Mental Hospital. I found it in Weird New Jersey. Shouldn’t be anyone up there. No cops are gonna expect kids to be there tonight-- it’s 20 degrees out.”
We always ended up in places like this--abandoned houses, old mansions, deserted streets-- and always on the coldest of nights. We found them in Weird New Jersey, an underground magazine published solely for those like us who were bored enough to spend winter vacations exploring old buildings. Yet it was these late-night ventures that became the weekend activities we longed for and the secret getaways that we needed in order to escape our bland suburban teenage lives.
It was cold on this particular night, far less than 20 degrees, it seemed. Mike rounded the next corner and pulled up in front of Ian’s driveway. He was waiting in the dimly lit foyer and bolted through the door at the sound of the horn. He was clad in black; his broad shoulders made his coat look even more bulky. His face was stiff as he fumbled with the batteries of his maglite. Mike triple-checked the film in his camera, adjusting and readjusting the lens. Armed behind our props, we ventured off onto the Parkway, heading north.
I spewed out directions; Mike followed intently. We rounded a few dark corners, and finally came to a roadblock.
“That’s it!” Mike said. He backed up and parked the car three blocks away, so that we would not seem suspicious.
We walked back towards the roadblock. The street leading up to it faced a main road, so we had to be quick. As soon as we were out in the open, we ran, and hopped the roadblock. We kept running until the road curved, no longer conspicuous to neighbors or passersby.
When we stopped running, we looked ahead of us. Our path, lined with dense woods, was covered in fresh powder and seemed to go straight up the mountain. We started walking silently. With each snow-crunching step, I became more aware of how the place might have looked when it was still in operation. I pictured old Chevys chugging up the road with their less-than-stable daughters, ambulances with patients that missed their daily ration of morphine or Valium. It was so quiet.
With Ian’s maglite as our only source of light, we continued up the mountain. Arriving at a plateau, we saw three buildings. They were monoliths, the night sky outlining them as silhouettes. We walked towards one of them and stepped through the empty doorway.
We found ourselves in a giant hollow space, still furnished with the laundry machines that worked once, now rusted over and broken. Our feet cautiously traversed the terrain of broken concrete, dead leaves that had been blown in through the window-spaces, and shattered glass that had once been those windows. Each step was an orchestration of cracks and echoes.
We separated, exploring the dull vacancy of each room. The occasional shutter release of Mike’s camera reminded us that we were not completely alone in the darkness. We eventually found each other again beneath a graffiti drawing of a devil’s head, which, if traced to the floor, led to an underground passageway. About one hour had elapsed, and I was getting numb.
“Guys—that’s it,” I said, hoping they would consent and follow me out.
“No way!” said Ian, forging forward. “We didn’t come here for nothing. Let’s go.”
I looked at Mike. He had half of a roll of film left, and he was not saying anything, but the way he bit his lip and stared down into the passageway told me he was not going anywhere.
“Fine,” I said. “But I am not going down first.”
Ian had already taken care of that—he was already halfway down the rusted metal ladder that led beneath into—into something we were not sure of yet. After he was safely down the eight or nine squeaky steps, I grasped the cold, crackled metal and began my descent underground. Mike followed, camera in hand.
It was colder in the tunnel—our breath still lingered in the air long after we had exhaled. The ceiling was low, and we ducked closer to the ground, only to find the crusted over remains of nature that had seeped through the cracks in the concrete. Pipes ran above and all around us, and we followed them like a lifeline to our next destination.
We came to a fork, took our chances and turned left. Walking slowly, we continued, the flash of Mike’s camera illuminating the tunnel-space for brief seconds, then leaving a quiet afterglow. Another ladder soon appeared, and we climbed above the earth again.
I was then standing in a long and empty hallway. The night light filtered in through the broken windows. Snow falling from the glazed sky found its way inside. I suddenly felt isolated. I knew Mike and Ian were behind me, but something separated me from them—the air, the lost vibrations of voices and running water and mattress springs. It must have been a residence for the patients, now decayed, rotting.
Room to room, furniture left untouched, paper piles windblown across the floor, tiles broken onto the porcelain sinks…cold, dead. Graffiti and written yearnings of hundreds of visitors smothered the walls. Vines and their unruly tendencies had found their ways inside the rooms, forming a growth over the peeling plaster.
In the beginning, we said nothing, except for the occasional “I cannot believe we are doing this.” Most of the time was spent watching, cautiously, as if we were invading the space, as if it were still someone else’s. We were walking in the carcass of a dead house, touching and walking upon the tombs of a poetic graveyard. I returned to that place several times afterwards, always with Mike and Ian. Sometimes we brought along new visitors to what we now felt like was our space. We were always cautious, always quiet, respectful of the voices that we thought we would eventually hear. Now I realize that the voices were our own, and the voices of many others, finding it easiest to talk within that place, where it was so quiet.
During the summer, I came across an article in a local paper announcing the condemnation and scheduled demolition of the buildings. People had apparently abused the space with which we had been so careful. The neighboring communities had become agitated with the throngs of teens that visited during the summer. To them, it was a drug haven. After months of complaining, the local authorities decided it was time to rid the community of the burden, and said action was taken.
I went to college that September, and found myself in a whirlwind city. Now, when I looked outside my window, traffic streamed below, crew teams rowed across the river, and trolley cars rang their bells as students hurried across the tracks. The lights were brighter here, a thousand sparks in the electric night.
Upon my return home from winter break, however, I received a phone call.
“Joelle. I found one. Another one. It was abandoned ten years ago- the hospital is still intact, and there is even a morgue.”
It was one of the voices, a voice from my past, resurfacing, if anything, for nostalgia’s sake.
“I’ll be right over,” I said, grabbed a coat, and ran out the door.