A short break in New York last week. Arriving mid-evening Wednesday Rich and I were determined to stay up late to nail the time difference. The hotel bar was packed and we ended up in a two person booth with someone waiting for his mate, Phil.
“Hey, sit down!” said booth mate in a booming voice when Phil pitched up. Shaking us from a firmly wedged in, warm, exhausted, sneaky pre-slumber.
“Nah, I’m good. I’m too fat to sit there!” said Phil cheerfully dismissing the 6 inches of seat on offer and ordering a Four Roses bourbon.
A Four Roses bourbon.
It turns out, Phil, an expansive, personable New Yorker, had worked for 30 years at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. Working with people now called ‘developmentally disabled’. So many different labels over the years, he said with feeling, holding his hands up. Reminding me of Joyce Davidson’s ‘More labels than a jam jar’. My exhausted brain puzzled over how we’d landed in John F. Kennedy airport only an hour or so earlier and were now talking to someone intimately immersed in New York learning disability history.
Over a couple more bourbons and with the lightest of prompting, Phil talked about his (working) life. He’d worked his way up from carpenter’s assistant to carpenter to estates director after his parents died in his teens. He was on a countdown to retirement in the next few years with a cracking state pension. His long term aim. He’d stopped making padded cells in the late 80s…
Patients at Creedmoor seemed to be people to Phil. He was concerned about the push toward deinstitutionalisation by New York State because of inadequate community facilities. How can people get their haircut, see the dentist, chiropodist, get healthcare and hang out when they are scattered and isolated? People should be ‘supported to progress’ he said.
What did good look like to Phil? “Managers who are on the phone to me all the time to mend stuff, to sort stuff. They’re the good ones.”
I dunno. The strands, the brutality, the human rights breaches, the glaring and yet apparently fine smashing of rights. I mean rights are right, right?
I’m left wondering about the layers of ‘Phil*’ in these spaces. In ATUs and supported living places in the UK. I don’t know if Phil was who he seemed to be. But he seemed to be a decent guy. How much did Phil do? How much did he ignore? Did he call out brutality? Are there gradients of brutality in practice and if yes, how are these measured? And who decides?
Why are learning disabled people routinely terrorised?
Day One (two)
The next day the sun sliced through the freezing air, bouncing in, off and between buildings. We walked, talked, watched, saw and listened with only a vague plan of what to do and where to go. Late afternoon we fell into the Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village. Where pride began. Happy hour. Over the next hour or so, sitting at the bar we heard first hand accounts about the Stonewall riots, spaces and original places. Tree, the barman, has worked there or thereabouts for more than 40 years.
“I met the queen once in England”, he said, in between serving customers and dishing out happy hour tokens. A mate had invited him along on some London gig back in the 70s. Another customer, an HIV activist, wearing a natty red suit, white shirt and red sparkling tie provided more detail about the riots. He was concerned New York State thinks HIV is sorted now when it isn’t.
Tree came back with his phone. He swiped through to a faded photo of a young queen and a couple of young men.
“That’s me,” he said. Pointing to the back of a tall 70s hair head.
He swiped through a few more photos.
“And here I am in the 80s and, yeah, the 90s”. Extraordinary photos from pre-selfie days.
The Stonewall riots in the late sixties. Fifty years later the bar was heaving, loud and joyful. Phil stopped making padded cells in the late 80s. Why the less than snails pace on change for some people?
When we were leaving, I asked Tree I could take a photo of him. He darted out from behind the bar to be in a (rare) photo with me. He’s about to turn 80.
The next day or so we walked some more. And simply enjoyed. It was a good break.
This isn’t about Phil.